black and white photo of barn in foothills on a partly cloudy day

In Dayton, Ohio, in 1919

Paul married a stenographer. A girl from church with ice-blue eyes and sandy hair braided in the modern way. He was nineteen, assembling pumps for Barney & Smith, the giant rail-car maker. They talked about things over tea. Big things in low voices. They liked the idea of in-laws and children chattering inside a Catholic parentheses. Marie’s shy smile found his thin mustache. They were old enough, they said, to marry, and over time, they were sure, they’d find the key had been left in heaven’s door. Marie was nowhere near pregnant when she stood at the altar and Paul showed up with a briefcase in one hand and a toolbox in the other, ready to join her little family of women: Marie, her handicapped sister, and a widowed mother with deep-tissue memory of orphanage nuns. He didn’t mind crossing that threshold. It didn’t faze him, the only man in their tiny rented house. He had what they didn’t, knew what they lacked. Every day, he took the trolley to his new job downtown: bookkeeper for Lowe Brothers’ Paint. Marie watered hydrangeas with a tin can. She perfected the timing of roast pork, sauerkraut, lemon meringue pie, and coffee. She learned the ballet of him opening doors. And they raised a son together, under the moody portrait of the Risen Savior hanging in the hall. Paul was good with numbers. They rented a house of their own, then bought one, and another for Sister and Mom. There was baseball in Dayton, and competitive bowling and cutting-edge bunting from the Wright Brothers’ parade. Prosperity tore down walls and unlatched latches. It was easy to slip their boy into the orbit of Jesus, umbrella him against the Depression, follow him through D-Day, law school, marriage, and four grandsons. But it took a long time. Marie cleaned her counters with lemon juice. Paul repainted the living room. They expected change as they got older, but never Sherman tanks in the streets of Detroit, slick grass at Kent State, a grandson in Saigon with a drip in one arm and a needle in the other. Talking wore them out, twenty words instead of one. TV took its place. They took it as a sign when Lawrence Welk looked see-through-pasty next to Neil and Buzz. And when the angels finally came, to award them their pensions, they were ready to go, worried if they stayed much longer, their accounts might somehow expire. Paul went first. Then their boy. Then Marie, upon finding herself back where she started. And their grandsons, dazed and unglued, filled in for them as best they could, as long as they could, then scattered, tasked as they were but never given maps, ropes, or tools.

“In Dayton, Ohio, in 1919” first appeared on our website on March 22, 2021. It will subsequently appear in Meridian Issue 45.

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