By Richard Wiley
Followed by Q&A
Lars Larson wasn’t a junior because of a “K” which he sometimes inserted as a middle name. On the sign above the entrance to his company there was no “K” It simply read, “Lars Larson Motors.” On legal documents, however, on his mortgage and his driver’s license, Lars K Larson was in evidence, to avoid any confusion with his father.
One rainy Monday morning in March Lars stood at the top of a ladder cleaning debris from the rain gutters of his house. The milkman hadn’t arrived yet, so Lars was drinking black coffee from one of his Lars Larson Motors bottom-heavy travel mugs. The mug sat near him on the slanted roof, the rough gray shingles keeping it from falling off. Lars didn’t really like his coffee black, but on Monday mornings he drank it that way, since he usually ran out of milk before the milkman came. This is present-day America we’re talking about, but contrary to popular belief milkmen still make deliveries, and Lars was of the opinion that such traditions ought to be supported. So, black coffee or not, he never bought milk at the store.
From the top of his ladder Lars could hear tires on the wet pavement and, as he scooped the muck from his rain gutter into a bucket attached to his ladder, he tried to discern without looking whether or not the tires were those of a milk truck. He had a box on his porch, insulated to keep milk cold when neither he nor his wife, Betty, were at home, but Betty had left him three months earlier, so now it was only Lars that the milk sometimes waited for, and only Lars who waited for the milk.
Lars had to step down to move his ladder every few minutes. As he was doing so now, and emptying his bucket into a large plastic garbage bag, the milk truck pulled up, and when he turned to greet the driver he got a shock greater than he would have had his Lars Larson Motors bottom-heavy travel mug slid off the roof and landed on his head. The driver was his father, the other Lars Larson, the one without the K.
“Dad!” said Lars. “What the heck?”
“Says here you’re down to two half gallons a week since Betty left, Lars,” said his father. He had parked his truck behind a new Mercedes Benz with “dealer” plates.
“Dad,” Lars said again, “does Mom know you’re doing this? These are supposed to be your golden years.”
The appeal of home delivery had lodged itself in Lars’s imagination because that’s what his father had done before he retired, delivered milk. And even now his father wore white pants and a long-sleeved shirt with a blue necktie to match his jacket. Lars lived near his parents but he’d stopped going by to visit them, hadn’t been there, in fact, since the day he went to tell them Betty was moving out. “You want a cup of coffee or something, Dad?” he asked.
His father stepped out of the truck with the two half gallons of non-fat milk. “Coffee? No, I don’t think so,” he said, “I’ve got my route. Unless you could maybe splash a little for me into one of those travel mugs.”
Betty had taken all the bottom-heavy travel mugs with her when she’d left. All, that is, but the one that still sat peeking over at Lars and his father from the roof. Lars looked up at it but his father thought the look meant something else. “It hasn’t stopped raining in a week,” he said. “Your mother wants to move to Arizona. She won’t stop talking about it.”
For some reason that made Lars climb back up the ladder to get the travel mug. “Come on in, Dad,” he said, “there’s coffee in the kitchen. You can spare a minute.”
The front door of Lars’s house led to his living room, which was unused and orderly, but when they got to the kitchen Lars began apologizing. Dishes were piled in the sink, bits of leftover food littered the counters, and an absolute torrent of unread mail was scattered all over the floor. Lars had been out cleaning the gutters for the same reason he wore a shirt and tie to work every day—to keep his external house in order, though he was a crumbling wreck inside.
“I don’t know, Dad,” he said. “It sure doesn’t get any easier.”
He washed out the bottom-heavy travel mug and grabbed the last remaining clean cup in the kitchen—a dainty little tea-service sort of thing with roses on its side—for himself. He filled both with coffee and handed the mug to his father. “Listen, son,” his father said. “You’re in a rut. When Betty was here you were in a rut and now that she’s gone you’re worse. Just look at this place. I’m here to tell you, you can wallow in self-pity if you want to but Betty’s getting on with her life.”
Lars took a drink from his rose covered cup. “You’ve seen Betty?” he asked.
“Seen her, had her over for dinner. She’s a new woman, Lars, like the girl you brought home twenty years ago, while you’ve done nothing but stay the same old man.”
It occurred to Lars that maybe his father had gone back to work for the sole purpose of coming to deliver this awful message. “Did she ask about me?” he asked. “Did she come over by herself or what?”
“She didn’t and she did,” said his father. He opened one of Lars’s new half-gallons, put some milk in the travel mug, and said, “Okay, Lars, you want to talk, we’ll talk, but I can’t ignore my route so we’ll have to do it in the truck. I’ll even let you run the deliveries in, just like when you were a boy.”
Lars hadn’t said he wanted to talk but he followed his father back outside. As a child what Lars had liked best about accompanying his father was that the seats in a milk truck were high up off the ground, the windshield perpendicular to the street.
His father pulled into traffic, but almost immediately slowed again. “The Nixons are next,” he said. “Second floor of the Biltmore Apartments.”
When Lars turned to look into the back of the truck he saw the Nixons’ order moving forward on a conveyor belt. Directly in front of it, against the empty mesh, he saw his own name, Lars K Larson, printed in his father’s neat hand.
“Apartment 212,” said his father. “Just knock and wait. Don’t leave the order on the floor. Neither of the Nixons can bend down to pick it up.”
Lars got out of the truck and ran under the apartment building’s awning. Not only was there no buzzer but the door was propped open by the same kinds of junk mail that littered his kitchen at home. As he bound up the stairs he worried that the Nixons might be wary of him, since he was still wearing his gutter cleaning clothes, but their door was open, too, with both the Nixons standing there waiting for him. Mrs. Nixon’s head had fallen down on her chest.
“Half gallon of whole milk and two pints of strawberry yogurt,” said Lars.
“Sounds good to me,” said Mr. Nixon. “Where do I sign?”
Mrs. Nixon laughed, though she didn’t bring her head up. “Where do I sign?” she said, “Oh, Dick, you kill me every time.”
Mr. Nixon saw Lars blanch at his name and said, “I almost changed it during Watergate, but Pat here wouldn’t let me.”
“Pat!” said Mrs. Nixon. “Oh, Dick, you kill me every time.”
The Nixons were both in their nineties, and it made Lars pause to think that he and Betty would never reach that age together. No chance of that now.
In the truck again his father sat drinking coffee. Lars’s dainty rose-patterned cup was on the seat where he’d left it. His coffee was cold but steam still came from the Lars Larson Motors bottom-heavy travel mug. “One thing this job has taught me,” said his father, “is that you’ve got to be prepared to give people what they want. Take these next folks up here, the Wilcoxes. Three weeks out of three now, ever since I’ve been back, Mrs. Wilcox changes her order when I get there. I take milk, she wants orange juice. I take juice, she wants some other damned thing. Yet she’s down for two half gallons of non-fat, just like you are, Lars.”
Lars looked at his father. Was he saying that he hadn’t given Betty what she wanted? He reached around and brought the Wilcoxes’ order onto his lap, where he could feel the cold bottoms of the milk cartons against his thighs. They drove along that way for five more minutes before they finally arrived at the Wilcox house. It was nicer than Lars’s—on a far less busy street. Lars was startled to remember that he and Betty had looked at this house, had thought about buying it some twelve or thirteen years ago now. Betty had loved the kitchen, he remembered, and had irritated Lars by saying as much in front of the real estate agent. It was because of this house, in fact, that she always claimed to hate the kitchen at their place.
Through the beveled glass beside the front door Lars saw someone walking down a hallway, and that gave him the idea that he wanted to see the kitchen again, in light of the wreckage of his marriage. So instead of knocking he hurried through the side-yard to the back of the house.
The house had a Dutch backdoor, the top half of which was open, never mind the rain and the chill. “Hello?” Lars called. “Anyone home?” He held up the two half gallons of non-fat milk.
A head appeared at the breakfast nook window to his left, and then Mr. Wilcox came to the door. “What are you doing back here?” he asked.
“Milkman,” said Lars. “Knocked out front, guess you didn’t hear.”
Why he had to lie about it, he didn’t know.
“Lorna!” called Mr. Wilcox.
“Two half gallons of non-fat milk,” said Lars. “That’s what you ordered, that’s what you goddamn get.”
Mr. Wilcox looked at him blankly and Mrs. Wilcox came into the kitchen wearing a robe. “Listen,” said Lars, “once a long time ago my wife and I nearly bought this place. She adored the kitchen.” He spoke only to Mrs. Wilcox. “My father’s the real milkman,” he said, “I’m just helping him out.”
“The kitchen’s what sold me on it, too,” said Mrs. Wilcox. “It’s got such great light.” She unlatched the bottom of the Dutch door, swinging it open to meet its top. She asked, “Is your father okay?”
“He’s fine,” said Lars. “He’s waiting in his truck out front, probably having a conniption fit that I’m taking so long.”
It was the first time he had ever said “conniption fit” in his life.
Though there were no more windows here than in Lars’s kitchen at home, the whole room was bathed in the kind of light that Lars had always associated with happiness, with birds and whistling and such. How he could have missed it twelve or thirteen years ago, he didn’t know. The counters were made of gray granite with flecks of gold, and the pale yellow walls seemed to dance like the shimmering skirts on hula girls. Even the Mr. Coffee machine, ordinary by anyone’s standards, perked out the last throws of a new pot of coffee like a chorus of happy frogs.
“You don’t want to sell this place do you?” asked Lars.
“As a matter of fact we do,” said Mr. Wilcox. “I am only home this morning because we’re expecting our realtor. Moving to Portland next month.”
“Speak for yourself, John Alden,” said Lorna Wilcox.
“Cancel the meeting,” Lars heard himself say. “I’ll buy the house.”
Lars Larson Motors was not the kind of business he thought he’d have when he was younger, but it had made him a very good living. “How much are you asking?” he asked. “We could split the difference, maybe, of whatever your real estate agent would charge.”
“Seven percent, if you can believe it,” said Mr. Wilcox. “And the price is four hundred and twenty thousand, so that would be …”
“A savings of twenty nine thousand four hundred dollars,” said Lars. “Fourteen thousand seven for each of us.” He was used to calculating numbers in his head.
“Are you serious?” asked Mr. Wilcox, and Lorna went over to stop the Mr. Coffee in the middle of its climax.
“I’m as serious as a cancer patient,” said Lars.
Mr. Wilcox took his realtor’s card from beneath a refrigerator magnet. “No contingencies, no nothing, just a straight sale, right? Because if I call her and cancel this appointment it won’t be easy to call her back.”
“Four hundred and five thousand three hundred dollars,” said Lars. “Twenty percent down is eighty one thousand and fifty bucks, in a cashier’s check as soon as I can get to the bank.”
His prowess with percentages impressed Mr. Wilcox. “Lorna can show you the rest of the house while I go down to the stationer’s for a real estate contract,” he said.
“I’d better go tell my dad, then,” said Lars.
When they walked toward the front of the house, however, things went downhill fast. There was evidence of water damage on the living room ceiling, plus a hairline crack in the picture window that looked out to the street where the milk truck was parked. “We really do live in that kitchen,” said Lorna Wilcox.
Outside the rain had increased but Lars’s father paced on the parking strip, looking at his watch. “What is it?” he said. “Wrong order again?” when he saw them all come out.
“Dad,” said Lars. “Sorry to keep you waiting, but I’m buying this place.”
“I’m going down to the stationer’s to get the forms,” said Mr. Wilcox.
All three of them were smiling, and now all four of them were wet.
“You’ll have to do the rest of your route alone, Dad,” said Lars.
Behind the milk truck sat a Volvo S80 from 1999, the year that model first came out. Lars had two of them for sale on his lot. He’d gotten one from a guy moving down to a Volkswagen and the other from a woman moving up to a Jag. Volkswagens and Jaguars were what Lars sold. “Master Craftsmanship for Any Pocketbook,” was his slogan. Sometimes he waited behind cars at stoplights and read his slogan on their license-plate holders.
“Well, you all better get on with it if your mind’s made up,” said his father. He seemed upset with this further evidence of Lars’s lifelong impulsiveness, perhaps upset with himself because his own lifelong reticence made him put off telling Lars what he thought.
Mr. Wilcox unlocked the Volvo and Lars’s father stepped back into his truck. Lars reached in and took his Lars Larson Motors bottom-heavy travel mug, leaving the rose patterned china cup. “Don’t do this if you’re thinking about Betty,” said his father, then he put his truck in gear and headed up the road.
“Who’s Betty?” asked Lorna Wilcox.
A wind had come up, whipping them with rain, so Lars didn’t answer until they got back to the house. They would have run, but Lorna Wilcox was wearing slippers and slipped on some sodden leaves, taking Lars’s arm. “Oh the chill of these Tacoma mornings,” she said. “I won’t miss them, I don’t suppose.”
Lars had the thought that Portland’s weather wasn’t much different than Tacoma’s, but he kept it to himself. He’d seen a movie once in which a housewife in a robe and slippers seduced a man who knocked on her door asking directions.
“Betty was my wife,” he said. “She moved out three months ago.”
In the movie the housewife had taken out some maps and leaned against the stranger as he looked them over. Lorna Wilcox was staring at Lars so steadily that he feared she might have read his mind. She was a very pretty woman, prettier than Betty.
“Want to see the bedrooms?” he thought he heard her say.
“What?” asked Lars.
“Do you want to see the bedrooms? And there’s a den upstairs, too.”
“Could I get a little more coffee first?” asked Lars. He held up his mug.
In the movie the stranger had shoved the maps off the coffee table, pushing the woman so firmly down upon it that the table broke. He followed Lorna into the kitchen. Her robe was conservative, utterly circumspect.
“How long have you and Mr. Wilcox been married?” he asked. “I mean, is this your first house, or what?”
Once inside the kitchen she sighed and turned to face him. “Nate’s the one who’s moving to Portland, Lars,” she said. “Just like you and Betty, we’re breaking up.”
“I didn’t mean to pry,” said Lars, but in a great kitchen like this one prying seemed the natural order of things. “I don’t know why I didn’t point this out to Mr. Wilcox,” he said, “but the stationer’s isn’t open yet. And so far as I know he still hasn’t called your realtor.”
“Nate knows what he’s doing,” said Lorna. “And what are you saying? You don’t want to buy the house now?”
Except for the rain against the windows the kitchen had gotten very quiet, and was darker than it had been earlier, too. It shamed Lars deeply that all he could think of was that horrid film.
“Of course I’m going to buy it,” he said. “Do you think I’d go back on my word? You can’t sell very many Jaguars if your word doesn’t stand for something. You can’t sell much of anything, for that matter.”
Lorna poured coffee into his Lars Larson Motors bottom-heavy mug. “There’s work to do in the living room,” she said. “And I should tell you that there’s been talk of a new roof. We even had an estimate. Eighteen thousand dollars.”
“In the automobile business we have what’s called a ‘lemon’ law,” said Lars.
“There should be a lemon law for marriage,” said Lorna Wilcox.
They were sitting at the kitchen table by then, but the sudden lack of light made it hard for Lars to see Lorna’s face. “I don’t mind about the roof,” he said. “I’m handy, can do a lot of the work myself.”
When Lorna smiled at him Lars got the urge to take her hand, which was sitting at the table’s edge. He looked out the windows at some water that was beginning to fall over the lip of the rain gutter. Eighteen thousand dollars. Lars decided he would ask if he could come over and clean the rain gutters even before the deal was closed. He might start tearing off the old roof, too.
Lorna said, “If Nate thinks he’ll be happy in Portland, Oregon…” but just then the phone rang and she reached around behind her to pluck it from the wall.
“This better be an emergency,” she said, before she even said hello.
Lars smiled at that, and put his hand where Lorna’s hand had been. He felt a bit of warmth on the tabletop.
“I know that, Mom,” said Lorna. “Who doesn’t know a thing like that? What do you take me for, Nate’s doormat?”
Lars thought of the comment his father had made just before he drove away, and imagined himself saying, “What do you take me for, Betty’s doormat?”
Lorna shifted the phone from her left hand to her right, and when she turned to sit properly again she saw Lars’s hand where hers had formerly been, his fingers drumming the table top. She rested her hand on his, settling his fingers down. Lars continued looking at the solid sheet of water, pouring over the rain gutter now. He sighed. People were nuts when it came to houses, constantly trying to turn them into homes.
“Yes, Mother, I will,” said Lorna. “But now I’ve got company, and Nate’s not here, so I’ve got to entertain him myself.”
Lars did it then. He moved his free hand over and placed it on top of Lorna’s which was still on top of his other hand at the edge of the table. He closed his eyes and waited for her to pull her hand away, leaving him holding hands with himself. He felt her start to do it, but then, quite miraculously, her hand stayed where it was. The gutters would need replacing, too, if someone didn’t tend to them soon, cleaning them and shoring them up. Lorna’s hand felt familiar. It made him realize that she and Betty were about the same size and also that human warmth, of this most basic kind, at least, was uniform.
When Lars finally looked across the table at her, Lorna was watching him. “You work and work,” she said. “A nice kitchen, a beautiful yard…” She put her other hand on top of his, in a way that reminded him of summer pickup games of baseball.
They sat that way for a while, talking a little but really just waiting for Nate. When the rain let up, however, they went out into the back yard to look at the roof and the gutters, and when Lars saw a ladder leaning along the fence, he lifted it up and propped it against the breakfast nook wall. “Just a quick look,” he said. “Do you have a trowel and bucket? While I’m up there I might as well dig a bit of that stuff out.”
Water was still spilling over the gutters, and as he climbed, careful of his footing, Lorna ran back into the house. He had his travel mug with him so he sat it on the roof and ran a hand down into the gutter to see how bad the damage was, his fingers slowly sinking into the muck. He nodded, then stepped back down the ladder to wait for Lorna in the yard. March was a crueler month than April, and when he looked toward Puget Sound he saw an even darker sky than the one overhead. More rain was coming, another real storm.
When Lorna came back out she was carrying two buckets and two trowels, and she had changed out of her robe, too, into work clothes similar to Lars’s. “Tag-team gutter cleaning,” she said.
Lars let himself go a little then, remembering that the Wilcoxes had the same standing order he did: two half-gallons of non-fat milk. He remembered, also, that they didn’t have an insulated box on their porch so he decided that he would bring them his for the time being, while the house was in escrow, for when neither Lorna nor Mr. Wilcox were at home. He would say it was a gift to seal their bargain, that milk had brought them together and they shouldn’t let it spoil.
He looked at Lorna Wilcox and then at the ladder, and finally at the roof again, where his Lars Larson Motors bottom-heavy travel mug peeked over at him, the rough gray shingles keeping it from falling off.
“Let’s get to work,” he said.
Richard Wiley is author of the novels Soldiers In Hiding (winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award for best American fiction, Fools’ Gold, Festival for Three Thousand Maidens, Indigo, and Ahmed’s Revenge. His most recent novel, Commodore Perry's Minstrel Show, was published by the new Michener Series at the University of Texas Press in 2007. Wiley has been a member of the UNLV English Department faculty since 1989, and is Associate Director of Black Mountain Institute.
Q: What was your inspiration for this piece?
A: I thought it would be interesting to try to (seamlessly) place the same coffee cup on two different roofs in the same story.
Q: Straight road? Or winding road?
A: Oh, extremely winding… I hardly know anyone for whom the road is straight. I am always looking to the turn ahead, which I hope I’ll be able to navigate without crashing.
Q: What's your favorite part of the writing process?
A: First creation is wonderful because of the “drilling down.” What I probably like best, however, is the final six months or so of rewriting (on novels).
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Currently at work on a complex novel tentatively entitled, “The Book of Important Moments.”