Authors: Jane Mccafferty
First You Try Everything
For Patrick, Rosey, Anna, Josh, and Jordan
With special thanks to Charlotte
he day was
shot through with silver winter light, an almost eerily beautiful light that was
unusual for Pittsburgh. It was a light that sent people rushing outside with
cameras to capture an old, naked tree, or their bundled, red-cheeked child, or a
bike leaning alone against a wall. The small brick houses on Chislett Street in
Morningside were flooded with this light, and inside one of these houses, on the
corner of Chislett and Gael Way, across from a view that looked down upon the
Allegheny River, Evvie Muldoone was listening to music, her dark hair hanging
down in a single braid, her brown eyes happier, calmer than she felt, because
she liked the song she listened to quite a bit. She was the sort of person who
derived consolation from playing the same song over and over again, walking
around the dining room table in a trancelike state her husband had once found
The song was “5 Days in May” and featured an old
couple driving toward the sea. She had the sound turned up, too loud for most
people's taste, at least people who were past the age of twenty. Lately she
needed an auditory shelter from the storm of her own thoughts.
You didn't hear too many songs about old people
like this. Old people were sort of embarrassing and becoming even more so these
days, and Evvie noticed that even people in their late seventies dressed up like
young people on their way to the gym. It was likely a positive sign that people
had stopped capitulating to the tyranny of numbers. But more often than not it
seemed that geriatric youthfulness was dependent on considerable money, so that
only the poor were looking old. Last year, when Evvie Muldoone was in a book
club, all the women but one had said they'd get plastic surgery when the time
“In a heartbeat,” a few had said, emphatically, and
Evvie, feeling herself step onto a soapbox she couldn't resist, captivated the
room with a little speech about the beauty of old faces, how depressing it was
that they were all planning “to erase themselves,” how she didn't care if she
was the last person on earth who looked old, she'd wear her age proudly, like a
medal, and wasn't it really sick, when you thought about it, that people poured
all this money into letting some doctor butcher their faceâthe denial of death
was at the heart of almost everything,
, and wouldn't it be shaming when only the poor looked worn
down, as nature intended? The atmosphere in the room had shifted, not because
her protest was originalâat least a few of them had this argument with
themselves on a regular basisâbut because the passion behind it unsettled
everyone. Evvie had never been good at self-modulation. “Give that girl a
Valium,” good-natured Teresa Moncada finally said, and everyone laughed.
Lighten up, sweetie
, said the hostess.
Evvie was only forty-one, and looked mostly the same as alwaysâsame long dark
hair, same dark eyes, slight overbite, too-pale face with circles under her eyes
that she tried to hide with makeup these daysâthe number jarred her lately when
she recalled her mother at forty-one, a functioning alcoholic in a housedress
and blue Keds, driving to the grocery store with Evvie and her sister and
brother. Evvie could see herself and her sister Louise flashing peace signs in
red plastic sunglasses, rosary beads and scapulars around their necks, the two
of them still close in those days, making too much noise in the back of the car,
her mother turning up the radio on the way to hunt down the Salisbury steak and
iceberg lettuce and electric orange French dressing.
Her mother's life had been full of part-time jobs
and friends who were also raising kids, and they were in and out of one
another's houses all the time. Somehow she'd taken care of Evvie, Louise, and
Cedric, who were her second batch of kidsâthe older three were already launched
Something heroic about the way her mother had
shuttled her kids ten miles to the pool at night for all those swim meets out in
the suburbs, her back so bad she could find no relief, not even when lying down,
not even when she wore a brace. Evvie went to call her, even as she knew the
mother she missed did not exist.
“Well, let's see. I won third place last night at
“What'd you sing?”
“Something you'd hate.”
“Come on, what'd you sing?”
“ âCountry Roads.' Bob Denver.”
“John Denver. Bob Denver was Gilligan.”
“So I was just thinking how you came to our swim
meets in the summer. How you'd stand by the fence and watch us, even though your
back was killing you.”
“I don't remember that.”
“Yes, you do. The suburban pool. Near Uncle Gus and
“I don't remember standing by a fence at a suburban
pool. I remember you kids at the pool across from our house. How's Ben?”
“OK, that's good. And you're fine too?”
What Evvie wanted to sayâand would have had she
known how to bridge the gulfâwas that it was odd to be forty-one and have no
real idea who you were. It had been all right when her husband, Ben, was beside
her, not knowing who he was. But now Ben wore a suit. It no longer looked like a
costume. He had been told he'd soon be promoted into something called
at the medical equipment firm. He
would rise. He was forgetting their years when they'd worked a pushcart in fresh
air, selling Middle Eastern food so they could get home by three and do what
they really wanted to doâmake art, play music. Not get trapped, as they used to
appeared in the dining room doorway, dressed in sweatpants and a T-shirt, his
arms recently gym-sculpted. His dark hair was overgrown the way she liked it. He
had deep-set eyes that were both green and brown, and often when he looked at
her, or at anyone, he'd squint, as if everyone was just a little too much for
him. He hadn't shaved today, and she liked that too.
“I need to use the table to do the bills,” he
One vigilant region of her mind heard a quiet
contempt in the tone of his request; the other willfully deaf part leaped to
battle, squashing any perception that interfered with what had always been the
truth. He loved her, adored her, really, and she adored him too, so all was
basically fine. Despite his exasperated sigh, she left the room without a word
and began to pace back and forth in the so-called family room, which was really
a small storehouse for her animal rights literature and a disarray of icons:
owls, Buddhas, pigs, small marble elephants, a framed picture of Virgil Butler,
the Arkansas chicken rights factory worker turned activist. She'd meant to hang
Virgil Butler up months ago as a reminder that transformation was possible.
“Yeah, Ev, you mean to do a lot of things,” Ben would've said.
(Actually, Ben would say no such thing. This was
Ben had a point, she told herself, regarding this
thing he'd never say that she imagined he would say.
It was true that she was still not a follow-through
person, but rather one of those often befuddled souls who seem paralyzed by the
exorbitant weight of their own good intentions.
Also in the “family room” were hundreds of cans she
had collected in an old red wagon for the homeless. She'd gone door to door with
Freddy, the cute “Hi, I'm Fweddy!” neighbor child, his presence assuring people
she was not crazyâfor what grown woman would walk around pulling a red wagon?
She did this because Ben had suggested she cared more about animals than
She'd gone to the suburbs and gathered up a bunch
of fur coats to send to Afghanistan after the bombing too, through Animal
Amigos. Amazing how many people had handed over their fur coats out in Fox
Ben persisted, unappeased.
“It's interesting,” he'd said a few months ago.
“Animals light up your face these days and people usually leave it in the dark.
Like you don't
anything from people
“That's a horrible thing to say,” she said. “I love
people!” But reddened, feeling accused.
She did love people but didn't see too much of them
these days; her good friends lived far away now, and she'd lost touch with two
of them (out of three), not just because time and distance made everything a bit
strange but also because she often felt it was challenging enough just to handle
the life in front of her.
Besides, to keep in touch was to resurrect old
selves that had their own demands, that collided with new selves who were trying
to live out days that were almost impossible to translate.
That was it! She didn't have stories she could
to people outside of Pittsburgh. The
city was its own universe, somehow. It wrapped around a person's mind,
especially in winter, and Evvie couldn't explain that particular, persistent
gray to a person who didn't live there, who didn't walk the long streets day
after day, or ride the buses, or circle the Highland Park Reservoir on evenings
when snow settled lightly on the dark face of the water. She'd settled into
something routine and perfect with Ben, and while she sometimes missed whoever
she'd been without this delicious structure, this life composed of work at the
Frame Shop and volunteering at the shelter and wildlife center and watching
movies and reading books and sometimes getting together with the Klines, she
feltâthough she was hardly aware of thisâthat most any other life was both
unreachable and somewhat threatening. Her old friend Lorna, a six-footer who
taught ESL and was an avid bird-watcher, was always trying to get Evvie and Ben
to go white-water rafting. She was a white-water rafting freak, had rafted every
river in the East and Midwest. She would handle all the details, she would even
come all the way from Michigan, pick them up, and take them down to West
Virginia in her old black Mazda blaring the Decemberists. They could sing
themselves down to the rapids. And Evvie wanted to go. Badly. But she loved
Lorna too much, and thought with even minimal contact Ben would love her too,
and then Ben and Lorna would get in the raft together and head downstream,
leaving Evvie on the bank saying, “Hey! What about me?” She'd pictured this in
exquisite detail several times and knew it to be a crime against her own
imagination, not to mention a crime against her marriage and against Lorna. She
believed her fear of abandonment was only partly rooted in childhood experience.
It was also, as she'd told Ben, “probably just the way I came in to the
“Yeah,” he'd said, back then. “Me too.”
And so Lorna and Evvie's friendship had been
reduced to a few phone calls a year and a few e-mails. Mattea, from Wisconsin,
e-mailed Evvie about her kids and her job, and Evvie always wrote back, but to
be married with kidsâthat was its own universe, with its own language and
incessant demands, and Mattea said as much. A third friend, Declan Moore, was an
artist in South Carolina, living in a tiny town he'd transformed with murals. He
and Evvie had traveled across the country together when they were eighteen.
They'd made friends with everyone on the Greyhound, they'd slept in fields under
stars, they'd read
Soul on Ice
out loud to each other, under the
North Dakota moon, with flashlights. Now Declan had three kids and a wife whose
real name was Elvine Dishes. She was a singer and a glassblower. Evvie visited
Declan once, but he could hardly talk with all those kids around, and Elvine
Dishes in the bedroom behind a closed door practicing opera in a robe and the
slippers the oldest child had crafted out of felt and duct tape.
In a smaller country, she imagined, life would be
more ingrained, textured, rooted. She could hop on a train every other weekend
to dine with kindergarten friends into their nineties. “Remember that day
eighty-five years ago when we ate paste?” Such seamless continuity would
certainly have been her preference.
Still, sometimes the past could rise up so vividly
in Evvie, the present would disappear. She was affected enough by the sweep of
memory that she'd been prone to things like car accidents (three in one year)
and wearing two different shoes (only once, but very disturbing) or talking to
herself in public (regularly, which was OK, since everyone just imagined she was
talking on one of those headset phones). But still.
knew she wasn't. She knew she was alone in T.J.Maxx with words
streaming out of her mouth without her consent. She'd catch sight of her talking
self in a mirror, soul utterly detached from body, like a strange face peering
over her shoulder.
“Do you talk to yourself in public?” she'd asked
“Sure. You know me. I always talk to myself.”
Just like that. He didn't second-guess himself at
all these days. He was fine with being a guy who talked to himself in public.
dog, Ruth, watched from various corners while Evvie tried to straighten up,
singing “5 Days in May,” picturing the song's white-haired couple pulling the
car up to the edge of the beach and watching the wild waves. The man slings his
weary arm around his wife of forty-odd years, she leans into his wiry frame, and
they're thinking about their grown kids, how they all hardly visited more than
once a year. You raised them and they took off.
Evvie, who'd not been able to conceive a child
despite years of trying (after one drastic late-term miscarriage) and had
finally agreed with Ben to stop trying for adoption, attempted without much
success to protect herself with visions of how dismally the child-rearing story
often turned out these days. And congratulated herself that at least she'd be
doing her part to keep the population down, not to mention saving a brand-new
soul from having to endure the pain of having to be somebody.