Martha Stern stood by the front door of her house and stared out through the small panel windows at the quiet, country back road beside which they had built their modest three-bedroom two-story home a little more than sixteen years ago, one year after Solomon had been born. Joe and she had picked the lot out years before they could afford to build their own home.
She recalled how during their first two years of marriage they often drove down Old Creek Road and stopped by this location. They played a game with their imaginations then. In the springtime, they would get out of the car and walk through their imaginary house, calling out the locations, pretending to do things in different rooms. They even had a picnic lunch in what they dreamed would be their kitchen. The back window would look out to the west, and if the window was big enough, they could sit at the kitchen table and watch the sun set behind the soft, rolling blue-ridge mountains that shaped the horizon.
When it came down to the actual construction, though, the window didn't turn out to be as big as they would have liked. Reality had a way of pinching and squeezing dreams. Costs had to be considered, and in order to meet the limits of their mortgage, a great many of their original plans were modified.
Despite that, those early days lingered in Martha's memory like a beautiful old tune in a fragile music box. Sometimes, for no reasons she could see, it would start playing, and the images, the sounds, the laughter, and the blue skies would flow. She could close her eyes and sit back and be twenty again.
The long silences that often fell between her and Joe now didn't exist then. They were always at each other in little ways, touching, kissing, talking excitedly. Even if there was a silence between them, it was a different kind of silence. They looked at each other with longing and exchanged thoughts with their eyes.
Perhaps the worst part of being without Solomon a little over a year, she thought, was the silences. The emptiness and the void had quickly slipped into the spaces once filled with Solomon's laughter and talk, even his tears. This silence spread like a cancer and infected every aspect of their lives. They caught it as they would catch a cold, and the conversations that had once linked Joe and her together dwindled until they practically disappeared. Monosyllabic words replaced whole sentences. Without Solomon to talk about and ask about, they stared at each other like patients in a mental ward, both bankrupt of thoughts, their minds filled with echoes.
It was no wonder, then, that she looked forward with such eagerness to the arrival of Jonathan. It would be so good to hear another voice in the house, to hear someone else's footsteps besides hers and Joe's, to be concerned with someone else's needs and wants, and to drive the silences away. The decision to take in a child about Solomon's age was not an easy one. They both recognized that there would be pain. She saw that Joe was visibly afraid of it, and she realized he was not just afraid because of her. He was afraid because of himself.
"It's going to be hard, starting again," he said. "I don't know if I can do it. I don't know if I'll be good for such a kid. He's got his own problems to deal with, much less mine, too."
"We'll help each other," she told him. "It won't be easy, I'm not saying it will be easy, but it will be good for us and for him. You'll see. Trust me."
And so they began their search for a foster child. It was her idea that the child be similar in age and appearance to Solomon. Joe wasn't for that. He said it would be too painful because it would stimulate memories.
"And comparisons. You won't be able to help making them, and you could be very disappointed. You might even take out your disappointment on the child."
"I would never do that."
"Sometimes...often, we do things we can't help," he said. Even though he said it with a tone of sadness, it also carried a note of warning.
Nevertheless, she persisted until he gave in, and they went to the agency. Mrs. Posner, the woman in charge, was surprisingly sympathetic and apparently saw nothing unusual in their request, not that she had had any like it before. She made a point of saying that. Joe thought she was sympathetic because she was desperate to find homes for foster children under her care, but Martha thought her sympathy was drawn from a well of common feeling, since she was a wife and mother herself.
It took time before they found Jonathan. They were presented with a number of other boys who were about Solomon's age, but there was always something about those others that made Martha hesitate. Joe didn't understand her reasons for rejecting one or the other, but he didn't pursue it. At this point there was a sameness to all teenagers for him.
But as soon as Martha set eyes on Jonathan, she knew she had found the boy she wanted in her house, the boy she wanted to sleep in Solomon's room and wear Solomon's clothes and use Solomon's things. It was instinctive; she couldn't explain it.
Joe didn't see what she saw -- at least, not at first -- but later he admitted he sensed resemblances. Once again he warned her that this might not be good for any of them, but by this time she was committed to the child.
Now she stood by the doorway and awaited Jonathan's arrival. The agency was delivering him. She was sorry that Joe couldn't be home when Jonathan first arrived, but he couldn't get out of his assignments. He was the chief IBM repairman for an area nearly seventy-five miles across, and today he was needed to service some word processors at an insurance agency forty miles away. There was no way to get out of it.
When she complained, he said, "It isn't the same as being there when you gave birth. I know it would be better if I could be there, but I'll have plenty of time to get to know him, and he'll have plenty of time to get to know me."
She was disappointed that he didn't have the same intensity about the boy as she had, but then, in a strange way she was happy about it. It was almost as if she didn't want to share the pleasure the way she had shared the pleasure of Solomon. Sometimes she resented the fact that Joe loved Solomon as much as she did. Maybe that was just the possessiveness of motherhood, she thought, but in any case, it was there, the feeling existed, and she couldn't help it.
Martha stepped to the side when the agency car drove into their driveway. She was anxious to see Jonathan's expression when he first set eyes on the house, but she didn't want to appear obvious about doing it. She made up her mind she wouldn't be obvious about anything. She remembered Joe's warnings. In no way would she intimidate this child. She could frighten or discourage him if she did, and that would ruin everything.
She pulled a corner of the curtain back and peered out at the car, confident that neither Mr. Frankel nor Jonathan could see her doing so. Jonathan stopped as soon as he emerged from the vehicle. She saw that he carried a small suitcase. It reminded her of the time Solomon insisted on having his own little suitcase when they took that motor trip to Toronto. How cute he looked carting it about...a little man dressed in his sport jacket and slacks. Everyone fell in love with him no matter where they went.
They could fall in love with Jonathan, too, she thought. At fifteen he was already five feet eight inches tall. He had the same thick, light brown hair with a natural wave, and like Solomon, Jonathan had a medium build, but with broad shoulders and a narrow waist. He would grow into a handsome and physically impressive man, just the way Solomon would have if he hadn't -- she couldn't say it, much less think it.
She saw the way Jonathan squinted at the house, scrutinizing it carefully, almost scientifically analyzing, weighing, judging. Solomon had been just as exacting. Unlike most young people his age, he was rarely impulsive. Whenever he was asked a question of any importance, she could practically see his mind working. In school he was the play maker for the junior varsity basketball team. The coach told her Solomon was unique.
"He has a maturity about him. He doesn't lose his cool out there; he holds the others together and forces them to get back into position."
She saw what he meant when she went to the games with Joe and sat quietly in the stands. Other parents were boisterous and active, but she and Joe sat quietly observing and admiring Solomon for his grace and his skill, and yes, his poise. Occasionally, he would look up at her in the stands, and she would nod and smile.
Maybe Jonathan will go out for the team, she thought. He should get involved in the extracurricular activities. It's the fastest way to make friends.
She saw Mr. Frankel come around to Jonathan and offer to take his suitcase or his small carry-on bag. He reached out for one of them, but Jonathan simply glared. Oh, how Solomon could do that, she thought. He could drive people away with a cold, piercing look. He didn't need words.
She opened the door as the two of them came up the walkway.
"You found us," she said. The detailed directions she and Joe had given to Mr. Frankel left him concerned. He had a bad habit of getting lost on back country roads, he told them. He said it was easier for him to find his way around Brooklyn.
"The road signs up here are so small, and some roads have homemade signs painted on slabs of wood," he explained.
"Thanks to Jonathan," he replied, stepping forward to shake her hand, "we found it." Jonathan came forward, expressionless. "I nearly made the wrong turn twice, and twice he stopped me. It was almost as if he had been here before," Frankel said.
Martha smiled. Her gaze met Jonathan's and for a long moment, they simply stared at each other. The silence embarrassed Sam Frankel. It made him feel like an intruder at a dramatic homecoming.
Frankel knew that Martha and Joe Stern had had a very good first meeting with Jonathan. Although Jonathan wasn't an overtly difficult child, there was something about his personality and his manner that made all his previous foster parents nervous and uncomfortable. His most recent pair of parents admitted to locking their bedroom door at night. Obviously, that couldn't go on.
Frankel thought he knew what they meant. He and Jonathan had barely exchanged a dozen words during the entire trip up here, yet he felt a tension the whole time. It wasn't something easily explainable. No adult liked to admit to being afraid of a child, but after spending only a short time with Jonathan, he could understand why the boy's most recent foster parents locked their bedroom door at night.
"Well, you certainly have a nice piece of property out here, Mrs. Stern. Great views."
"I'm surprised other people haven't grabbed up the adjacent property."
"Oh, people have been trying. We bought ten acres on the left a few years ago, and the land to the right is tied up in litigation. Relatives are all arguing with one another as to who owns what portion."
"Very convenient. If you like privacy, that is..."
"Well, you can't get into much trouble out here, Jonathan," Frankel said jokingly. Jonathan didn't laugh. He shrugged and looked off to the right as though he saw something or someone familiar.
"Let's go inside. Would you like something to drink, Mr. Frankel? It has been unusually warm for autumn, don't you think?"
"Yes, it has. Thank you."
She opened the door and stepped back.
"My husband couldn't be here. He's on a major service call that he wasn't able to put off."
"Oh. Very complicated work, nowadays, servicing computers."
"Yes. He's constantly going in for retraining. There's a computer in Sol...in your room, Jonathan."
"I know," he said.
"You know?" Mr. Frankel asked.
"Mr. Stern told me."
"Oh, don't call Joe, Mr. Stern, Jonathan," Martha said. "He'll hate it."
"I won't," he said. His face softened.
"Just put your suitcase down a moment, and we'll all go into the kitchen for a cold drink," she said. Jonathan did so immediately.
"A pretty house," Frankel said. "Looks comfortable, livable," he said, even though he noted how neat and untouched everything looked. The living room off to the left of the alcove was bright with a light blue rug and a thick cushioned couch and settee done in a blue and white cotton fabric. There was a built-in glass-door bookcase to the right of the bay window. The walls were done in a pressed board of even brighter light blue. There was a rocking chair in the far right corner. Beside it was a magazine rack with just the right number of magazines in it. They looked as though they had been placed there more for decoration than for use.
Jonathan had a different way of looking things over. It was almost as though he had a photographic memory and simply snapped images as he went along. His short, quick looks left him with an expression of quiet satisfaction. Frankel thought he looked more like a drill sergeant who had found things as they should be.
Frankel couldn't help studying the boy and looking for his reactions to things. He hadn't been working for the child-care agency that long, but he had grown to expect certain responses when a child was brought to a new home. Some looked frightened, some looked angry, and of course, some looked happy. All of the reactions, whatever they would be, were reactions of children who felt insecure. At this moment Jonathan not only did not appear insecure, he appeared arrogant. It was as though he had expected no less.
The kitchen was just as brightly decorated as the living room. It was done in a radiantly yellow flower pattern and had glistening Formica counters and light pine cabinets. It was even more spick-and-span than the living room; in fact, it looked unused. He imagined that Mrs. Stern had spent the better part of her morning cleaning the house for the new boy. Frankel couldn't help thinking Jonathan didn't deserve such a welcome.
"This is very pretty," he said. He could feel how his wife would envy this kitchen if she were here. She would be justified, he thought sadly, thinking about their far-distant plans to redo their kitchen cabinets. "Good sun exposure."
"We had hoped for a bigger window here, but in the early days, we didn't have the finances. Joe is talking about expanding the window. He wants to tear out the wall, but I just can't stand the thought of all that disruption."
"I know what you mean," Frankel said. It was a good rationalization for his failure to do anything new in his home.
"Sit down," Martha said. She went to the refrigerator and brought out some lemonade. After she poured two glasses, she sat across from them. "I've already contacted the school, so the bus driver has been instructed to stop. Tomorrow we'll get you registered."
"How long is the ride?" Jonathan asked.
"Only twenty minutes. We have a nice school system. Solomon...my son...was always on the superintendent's honor roll. He liked the teachers. Classes aren't too large," she explained to Frankel, "so the children get a lot of attention."
"That's great. My son and daughter go to a bigger system. I'm still trying to get Junior to open a book on his own, but between the television set and the Walkman and the video games..."
"We never had that trouble with Solomon. He was always reading or working on his computer. Do you like to read, Jonathan?"
"You'll find a great many books to choose from...all sorts of subjects. Solomon had varied interests." He sipped the lemonade and nodded.
Frankel knew that the Sterns' only child had committed suicide. He admired the woman's ability to talk about her son so objectively, and yet he sensed something eerie about it as well. It was more like the boy had gone off to college. He imagined this was the mind's way of protecting itself, and he thought in similar circumstances he might very well act the same way.
"Well, Johnny can be a good student if he wants to be," Frankel said, recalling the boy's past records.
"Do you like to be called Johnny?" Martha asked immediately.
"No," Jonathan said emphatically.
"I didn't think you would. Jonathan has so much more strength to it. Don't you think so, Mr. Frankel?"
"Yeah. I guess it does. Jonathan it'll be. So..." he said and gulped down the remainder of the lemonade in his glass, "I'd better be going. You have all the information you need, and you know now to contact us should there be any need."
"There won't be any need," Martha said softly.
Frankel looked at her and then at Jonathan. They were both looking at him now as though he were the one who needed supervision. He got up quickly and pushed his seat in.
"Thanks for the drink," he said. Martha stood up, and Jonathan followed. They walked Frankel back to the front door. When he turned around before stepping out, they were standing side by side, looking at him as though they had been together for years and he had merely paid a visit. "So long, Jonathan," he said. "Good luck."
"Thank you," Jonathan said.
Frankel stepped out, and Martha Stern closed the door behind him. He didn't understand it, but he had broken out in a cold sweat. Feeling ridiculous, he hurried to his car and drove off, looking back through the rearview mirror only once. The house, quiet and sedate, remained in his vision for a few moments after, fading slowly like a frightening memory.
Joe Stern slowed down after he made the turn onto Old Creek Road. There was no way to delay things any longer. He had decided to clean up some loose ends at work even though he could have easily put them off until tomorrow. And when it was clear that there was nothing left for him to do but go home, he drove at least ten-miles-an-hour slower.
Everything he had agreed to do, he had agreed to do for Martha's sake. When she rejected one after another of the foster children Mrs. Posner had presented to them, he felt confident that she would eventually end her search, and the idea of taking in a child would die.
But then she set eyes on Jonathan, and everything changed. Although he didn't want to admit it to himself, he finally had to agree that the boy resembled Solomon in many ways, and not just physical ways, either. He caught a similar look in his eyes and saw the same calculated hesitation before he spoke.
There were many reasons why he and his son hadn't been as close as a father and son should be, he thought, but after all the rationalizations were lifted and all the explanations sorted, the primary reason had to be confronted: He simply didn't understand his own son, and he could never really penetrate the shell to reach the core. Certainly, he hadn't been able to forestall what had happened.
Scanning the past, Joe realized that from the moment Solomon could formulate his own opinions, his son had been disdainful of him. When Solomon was only eight or nine, he would often glare at Joe hatefully. Why? He never hesitated to offer companionship. He took Solomon with him wherever and whenever he could. He bought him most everything he wanted. And yet a real relationship between them never developed.
He never thought there was anything peculiar about Solomon, not in the way some fathers viewed their sons. Solomon was athletic; he had many friends, and he had girlfriends. He watched the television programs other kids his age watched; he had the same film and sports heroes; he was so good with home computers, he could take one apart and piece it together again in an afternoon. He wasn't queer or effeminate. Joe had no reason to be ashamed of him.
And Solomon had no reason to be ashamed of him. Joe had provided well for his family; he was a respected member of the community and had even served two terms as a town councilman. And yet, the wall between them thickened. Toward the end it got so they could barely speak to each other.
Joe thought he should have seen the tragedy coming; he should have done more to prevent it, but it was almost (and God forgive him for this), it was almost as though he no longer cared.
He remembered finding it difficult to cry at the funeral. He was grateful for Martha's hysteria and his need to take care of her. It kept his mind off his own failure to mourn properly. When he finally did break down, it was because he recalled Solomon as a baby. It was almost as if his son had died at age three rather than at age fifteen.
For months afterward he had the feeling that Solomon was still alive, but keeping to himself, locked in his room and glued to that computer screen as usual. He didn't miss the small conversation they had between them. He didn't miss the rejections of his offers to do things together. In short, he wasn't saddened by the loneliness because he had been lonely so long.
What he had done was cling to the belief that somehow, someday, he and Solomon would become close. Solomon would mature into a fine young man and realize how valuable his father was to him and they would eventually do many wonderful things together. Whenever he thought about that, he became mournful. The future had died, and with it had died the potentiality of a fruitful father-and-son relationship.
He didn't want to admit it to Martha, but the real reason he didn't want another child in the house was because he was afraid of failing again. He certainly hadn't changed very much, and if this new boy was anything like Solomon, there was no reason to hope for any success. It was just a personality clash, one of those inexplicable, illogical, mystical events.
But then he thought, how could any new boy be just like Solomon? There had to be essential differences. Maybe he could capitalize on those differences and maybe he could build a meaningful relationship with the boy. He had to try, if only for Martha's sake. This was the first thing that had really brought her back to life.
For months after Solomon's death, she was like the walking dead. Nothing made her laugh; nothing made her smile much. She went through the paces, doing the things that had to be done, working and living like some kind of animated mannequin. It got so they had had little to say to each other. He began to feel he was living with a shadow.
Sex, which had once been a pleasurable and loving thing between them, died away altogether. Even a kiss good-bye had become perfunctory. They rarely touched.
And then, she got the idea to pursue a foster child, to seek one who would drum away the silences and light up the shadows. After he finally agreed to the idea, she was resurrected. There was music and sunlight and, most of all, there was affection, the old affection, the warm and loving affection.
They made love as though for the first time. They took walks in the fields and the woods; they held hands like school-age lovers, and they talked for hours at a time. Of course, her conversation was filled mostly with things she wanted to do for the new boy, but it was still excited conversation. There was laughter and humor. He could stand it.
It was just like...just like the days before Solomon was born. That frightened him a bit. He wasn't sure why, but it was eerie. It was as though they had turned back time, cheated fate, outsmarted destiny. A couple of times she spoke about the potential new child and unknowingly referred to him as Solomon. He didn't want to correct her; he let it pass, but it bothered him.
And then they found Jonathan, and it was as if what Martha had predicted came true. She had found a boy who was close enough to Solomon. What worried him now was how would the boy react to all this? No one likes to have his identity taken from him, not even a child who has had a bad life. He still has a clear self-image; he still has an ego, Joe thought.
What he was sure would happen was Martha would push too hard with her comparisons and her challenges. The boy would resent having to fill Solomon's shoes, and eventually, he would opt to leave.
How would Martha react to that? Would she see it as a second death? Would she go back to the way she was after Solomon's suicide?
His job, as he saw it, would be to temper her efforts. He would have to act as a mediator of sorts and get her to understand that she could have a child who looked something like Solomon, who even had some of Solomon's mannerisms, but who couldn't be Solomon.
Solomon was dead.
His body had swung back and forth under the thick, strong branch of the old maple tree. What could have driven him to it? What was too ugly to face?
He read somewhere that suicide was the biggest cause of death among teenagers. What a paradox. With so much of life before them, in their prime, with strength and beauty, they opt to travel "that undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler has returned." Hamlet was young, and Shakespeare knew the torment and the pressures the young endure. Even in his time, it was difficult to be a teenager.
Joe turned into the driveway and pressed the button on his garage-opener transmitter. The door moved up slowly but obediently. Joe drove in slowly, even more slowly than usual because there was something different about the inside of his garage. There was a change in here, but for the moment, that change eluded him. It wasn't until he entered the house that the change occurred to him. Solomon's twelve-speed bike was no longer hanging on the wall.
Martha greeted him as he entered the kitchen from the rear entrance.
"Oh, Joe," she said. "He's a wonderful boy. It took him only minutes to acclimate himself to this house, and guess what he's doing right this moment," she said, speaking quickly and animatedly.
"Does it have something to do with Solomon's bike?"
"Yes," she said. "You're so observant. He's out back working on it, getting it back into shape. He says he'd rather ride it to school than go on the bus. Just like Solomon," she added.
He grunted and walked past her to look out the patio door. The boy had his sleeves rolled up and the tools placed neatly before him. He was adjusting the gear shift.
"Well, go say hello to him, Joe. Welcome him here, for godsakes."
Joe opened the door and stepped out. Jonathan didn't turn around. He was concentrating fully on his labor. For a moment Joe felt he had fallen back through time. How many times had he come upon Solomon doing something, either in his room or around the house, and waited for Solomon to acknowledge his presence. But Solomon was always too involved in his work, too.
"Hi there," he said. Jonathan turned around quickly.
"Oh, hi." He turned back to the bike.
"That hasn't been used in quite some time," Joe said. He walked around so he could face Jonathan. Even though he had met with him and spoken to him, he had forgotten exactly what he looked like. Whenever he did think about him, he pictured Solomon. He blamed that on Martha and her incessant chatter about giving the boy Solomon's this and Solomon's that.
"Yeah, I know. It wasn't shifting right."
"My son put a lot of miles on that."
Jonathan didn't respond. He checked the wrenches until he found the size he needed and then started to tighten the bolt.
"Need any help with it?"
"Naw, I think I got it now." He put the wrench down and turned the bike right-side up.
"Tires look like they might need air."
"I checked them. They both needed thirty-five pounds."
"Like you said. It wasn't used for a long time."
"Pretty handy, are you?" Joe asked. He intended it to be a compliment, but even he had to admit it came out sounding critical.
"I don't know. I guess."
"I was always like that, too. Diddling in that, diddling in this. I suppose working with computers and typewriters and other business machinery was just natural for me," Joe said. He realized he was concocting conversation, but he felt a need to keep talking.
"That's what Martha said," Jonathan replied. "Well, I guess I'll give it a test ride."
"Sure. Go ahead."
Joe watched him mount the bike and then peddle off around the end of the house and onto the highway. When he turned back to the patio door, he saw Martha standing there, smiling.
"He's fixed it up already?"
"Looks it," Joe said stepping back in. "Looks like you're right -- he's made himself at home pretty fast."
"That's because he's never really had a home," Martha said. "Poor thing. We've got to make it different for him, Joe."
"Well, we'll do the best we can. What's for dinner?"
"I made the turkey. In celebration. Don't you remember me telling you I would? My goodness, Joe. This is an occasion."
"I suppose it is. Well, I'll go wash up."
He went upstairs quickly, not understanding why he felt so tense. This was his house, yet he felt more like the one who had just arrived. He paused at Solomon's room. The door was opened and he saw some of Jonathan's things spread out over the bed. He walked in and looked about for a moment. Usually, he avoided this room. Martha kept it like a sanctuary. He knew she spent a good deal of her time in it, just sitting on Solomon's bed or going through his things. He suggested giving some of it away. He could have easily sold the computer. But that was like doing something blasphemous. Solomon had spent so much time working on it. Now the dark monitor atop the computer looked more like a sort of modern tombstone.
Oh, well, he thought. Maybe now some of this will get some use again. Maybe Jonathan would want to learn. He'd offer lessons. He started out and stopped when something caught his eye. It was the picture of himself and Solomon when Solomon was five and they had gone down to the Neversink Dam and caught three two-foot trout. Solomon was holding all three of them up but looking very unhappy about it. Bob Avery had taken that picture, he recalled.
But he also recalled Solomon taking it off his wall and putting it in his closet under a pile of parlor games. That was less than a year before his suicide. He asked him about it, and Solomon said he had other things to put up. But he never put anything up; he just left the wall bare.
Why would the new boy want something like that up on his wall? he wondered, and then he realized that picture was one of the very few pictures of him and Solomon together doing anything. Maybe this new boy longs for a good father-son relationship, Joe thought.
That encouraged him.
But it also, for reasons he didn't quite understand at the time, made him somewhat uneasy, too.
He went into the bathroom to wash up. While he was over the sink, he looked out the window that faced the front and saw Jonathan riding past the house, his body crouched over and his head down. His feet pumped the pedals with the same kind of vigor and anger that had made Solomon a champion at it. Joe used to think it was as if Solomon were attacking the highway. To him it didn't look as though his boy were having any fun.
This boy had the same serious expression on his face. Whenever Solomon wore it, which was most of the time, Joe would think his son had somehow skipped over the happy-go-lucky nonchalance of childhood, and he would pity him for that. There was time enough to bear down on life.
But it was no use to tell Solomon that. In fact, he acted as though he resented that sort of advice.
Maybe this boy would be different. Why shouldn't he be? Just because he was riding Solomon's bike, that didn't mean he had to ride it as Solomon rode it, did it?
Of course not, he responded to his own question.
But then, why was he riding it as Solomon rode it?
Copyright © 1988 by Andrew Neiderman