I met Pammie one summer evening on the Carson’s grassy lawn. People were standing around holding plastic glasses of wine. The old house rose above the party, its grey heightened to blue in the dusky light. Edward and I had recently moved to the neighborhood. It was a gathering of homes on the bay of a salty inland sea. There was a small marina near a lighthouse that still rang out on foggy pre-dawn mornings. People seemed to know each other well, bringing meals when someone was injured or had a new baby. Our youngest would start kindergarten at the little school behind the marina in just a few weeks.
Pammie was at the party with her husband, Fred. She wore turquoise and he was in off-white muslin. They had the permanent tans of people from a sunnier clime. She apologized for their distressed skin. They had lived in the dry New Mexican air for too many years, she laughed, and needed the moist Northwest climate. She was small, shorter even than me, with frosted hair cut to her shoulders. She waved her hands when she spoke, sweeping away her words as if to show how unimportant they were. It would be years before I realized the strength residing in that small, self-deprecating turquoise woman.
Fred wandered off and I spent close to an hour chatting with Pammie, captivated by the sparkly and fun personality she projected. She was intelligent and engaging, though extremely modest. She talked about her children and New Mexico and their move north. She didn’t mention her work or Fred.
Later in the evening she approached me with an older man. “This is Bob Garrett,” she said. Bob was her father. Small like her, with thin hair and wet eyes, he smiled.
I said, “You are to be congratulated; you have produced a wonderful daughter.”
He said, “In four days it will be the sixtieth anniversary of my marriage to her mother.”
Pam’s mother had died thirty years before. Every year, they still celebrated with a big dinner flowing with champagne and brandy. Pammie remembered having dinner in a famous New York restaurant on her parents’ fiftieth anniversary and not hearing a word anyone said. Someone standing with us at the Carson’s party that night, asked, “But was the food good?”
Pammie laughed, “I don’t know; I couldn’t hear it!”
After the party, while we were undressing for bed, Edward told me he had sat and talked with Bob for quite awhile. They talked about Florida real estate costs and judgeships. Bob was a Federal judge. His chambers looked out on the hole in the ground called Ground Zero, where the planes hit on that September day. He wasn’t there, though. He was in Florida looking at property. I thought about how grateful Pam must be for that chance of fate.
Once school started, I ran into Pammie fairly often. Our children were in the same class and became friends. Whenever I saw her, she smiled with her whole face, eyes crinkling and head nodding. Over the weeks, she told me about her work. She was running an environmental law agency. In New Mexico she had recruited school kids to lobby for legislative protection of toads and lizards in precious, irreplaceable desert lands. Now in the northwestern climate, she was organizing fourth graders to convince the legislature to name a little frog the state amphibian.
Edward and I started seeing her and Fred socially. We invited them over for wine and cheese one night by the fire in our living room. Pammie raved about our home, saying it was just lovely and in such good taste. Fred had a glass of white wine, then said he needed his own coke and rum and left to get it. We sat, waiting for him to drive the blocks to and from their house for his drink. He came in with a plastic grocery bag sagging from the weight of the two liters. Ice clinked in the kitchen and Fred came back into the room, his cheeks flushed from the cold wind outside. The rest of us drank red wine, swirling it in bright glasses like blood.
One night later that year at their home, Fred and I began to talk about the Boy Scouts. I questioned their discrimination against atheists and homosexuals. He was a loyal Eagle Scout and grew enraged. He yelled at me for upwards of forty-five minutes. He demanded I agree they were a great organization. I stayed quiet while he roared. I didn’t know how to respond.
As we said good-bye that evening, Pammie pulled me aside and murmured, “Now you see what I have to put up with.”
That spring we attended a neighborhood party at a local park. Under a wooden shelter, food was spread out on picnic tables. Kids chased each other down a long green field. They played football and frisbee and climbed trees. Our son climbed so high he scared the other adults, but Edward and I were used to it. The men drank beer from bottles and the women held paper cups of wine. Edward and I stood off to one side watching the crowd. Pammie arrived with her children and a cheese platter. She smiled and waved to us and came over to say hello.
“How are you doing, Pam?” asked Edward.
“Oh, I think I broke my back!” she laughed. “It’s so silly, really, but I think it’s cracked or something.”
Edward expressed concern. “Oh, it’s just silly,” she repeated, laughing again. “But, I think I really broke it.”
I didn’t see her or Fred much the rest of that spring and summer except to wave as we drove our kids to and from places. Once I saw them from a distance at the Farmer’s Market. She was eating an ice cream cone, licking the frozen chocolate while he talked to her. She kept eating while he gesticulated broader and broader points. I don’t think he meant to hit her arm, but the ice cream fell in a ball of plop on the hot pavement. She stared down at it. He walked away.
In September I saw Pam’s car parked by the school and went over to say hello. She was bubbly as usual, asking about my children.
“Your kids are so great,” she gushed, “I just love them. Jack is so smart and Karen is just beautiful!”
Then I asked after her. “Oh, I lost my job,” she laughed, “and then I had to fly to West Virginia to rescue my brother.”
“He lives way up on this beautiful mountain. It’s just gorgeous. He lives up there alone with three dogs. That’s part of the problem. It’s too beautiful and he loves those dogs so much he just stays up there and drinks. He only comes down to buy more whiskey! I had to go get him and take him to California for rehab.“
The rehab people told her, “Don’t let him stop drinking before you get here. He might die,” so she traveled with a tote filled with dozens of little airline sized bottles of vodka to keep him pickled.
“Then I wanted to fly back and clean up his house, but he won’t let my dad go near there and he won’t let me go alone. I don’t know why!” she laughed again. “It’s so crazy. My family is just crazy.”
About a month later, I saw Pam’s car again. Her brother was in the car with her. He was unshaven, wearing a paint-spattered sweatshirt. His eyes were red and sad, but he smiled when he said hello.
“Oh, you have to meet my brother,” Pammie called as soon as she saw me. “This is Bobbie.”
Bobbie had spent nine weeks in the rehab center before realizing the counselors were preaching Scientology. Pammie went and brought him to her home. She took him to see the volcano that blew in 1980, Mount Saint Helens. It made his home mountain seem small, a mere bump on the landscape. All the world is small compared to a volcano when you are sober and standing at the edge of its crater.
It was fall and a new school year had started. She and Fred held a little party to celebrate and so, Edward and I went to their home. Pam bustled around serving everyone hors d’oeuvres. Fred held court in the little kitchen. She kept apologizing for having to pass by him to get more crackers and black olives. At one point, Fred turned to me.
“I finally got her where I want her: in the kitchen and cleaning the house,” he laughed.
He was referring to the loss of her job. She grimaced at me as she went by with another tray. Fred got sloppier and sloppier as the evening went on, eventually degrading into sexist jokes and demanding of Edward, “Come on, Ed, laugh! Whose team are you on?”
Pammie glanced at me. Edward didn’t say anything. He told me later he was too angry to talk. “I couldn’t trust myself to speak,” he explained. “I knew I would blow up at him. That guy is such a jerk. He treats Pammie so badly.”
I convinced Edward to invite them over for dinner one night a few months later. I felt the need to normalize relations after that unpleasant evening. “I don’t want to be estranged from a neighbor,” I explained to him.
Pammie called in the afternoon before the dinner, “Fred had to go out of town. Do you want to reschedule?”
“Oh, no. Come over anyway. We’d love to see you.” I was relieved.
“Are you sure? I don’t want to be an inconvenience. We can reschedule, really. It‘s so much trouble to go to for just me. Why don’t we look at our calendars? We could have you guys over here!”
“No, no, really. I want you to come. It’ll be nice and you can get out of the house. I’ve already got dinner started,” I assured her.
Edward built a big fire in the fireplace and we sat near it with glasses of merlot. She began to talk.
“Fred had to go take care of his father. He lives down in Arizona. He had a fall. He was drunk and he fell and cut his head really badly. Fred’s embarrassed to talk about it, but his dad is a real drunk,” she looked down. “I know you guys will understand. I wish he would talk about it.”
“You guys are so great,” she seemed vulnerable. “I just wish he’d talk about it. It would help him so much.”
We sat there for hours that night, talking about our families, sharing stories that were sad and funny. She told a story about seeing her father falling down in the walkway leading up to the house three times before he got to the door while she and her sister watched from behind the curtains and laughed.
“We nearly peed our pants,” she laughed again, remembering. “You can’t understand how funny these things are unless you’ve lived them. We just laughed and laughed.”
It was six months later that I ran into Fred at the grocery store. Spring was turning into summer. I hadn’t seen either of them for a long time. His craggy face seemed cracked with worry. He was hunched forward over a cart filled with frozen burritos and pizza pouches.
“Hey, did you know Pam’s out of town?” he asked. He looked weary. “It’s just me and the kids.”
I stared at him. I didn’t know what to say. I’d never seen him be anything but cocksure.
“Do you need some help? How long has she been away?” I watched his face. Pain moved across the familiar creases the sun had left behind.
“Oh, no, we’re fine.” I watched him move off down the aisle.
A few weeks later, I was surprised to hear her voice on the phone. Usually we communicated by accident, in parking lots or at parties. Except for that one call about the dinner without Fred, I didn’t remember her ever calling me. I asked how she was doing. I mentioned seeing Fred while she was away.
“Yeah. I went to a retreat. I almost left him,” I could her the shrug in her voice. “I needed to get away and think. I went to this place where you meditate all day long and there’s gourmet food at night. There’s no alcohol and everything’s organic. It was so great. I felt so relaxed. You’ve seen how he is. But, he’s so great, too. If you’d seen him when he was younger, so much energy and power. You know, forget it, it’s just the way it is. I’m fine really. Do you want to come to dinner?”