PAINTINGS by Rolf Rykken
"Signs," a short story

Home | Background | Statement | When She Was Happy | Old Man and Dog | Washing the Dog | "Signs," a short story | More Works | At the Beach | Next Life | Links

"Happy in Dover" was used as an illustration for the Rykken short story, "Signs," in the 2002-2003 Winter edition of Delmarva Quarterly, a Rehoboth Beach, Del.-based literary magazine.


by Rolf Rykken

My husband, Paul, used to tell me that I seemed oblivious to events around me, that things would come as a surprise after all the signs had been there to see.

The English teacher in me would respond, "What things? Be specific."

For one, he could offer the Taylors Christmas tree.

Every year, a few weeks before Christmas, I could anticipate the sounds of Jack Taylor and his three daughters piling into a borrowed blue pickup (an inappropriate color for the occasion and the season) to inch down the gravel drive to some secret place out in the county, where, without witness, they would cut down a tree.

I imagined the scene as busy, if not jolly: cardinals twirling above the thin trees, the crunching of heavy boots on the cold ground (some snow perhaps? Rarely around here); the decision over the selection (a difficult one; the trees in our tiny state appear thin and quite unhearty, unlike the people who are obese and red-cheeked); the cries by one or two of the girls about the cold; the length of the time the search was taking; and finally, the thick buzz of
the chainsaw on the tree trunk.

Their return I could hear and witness: the truck rattling; the girls, in their teens (boisterously so) laughing and attempting portions of seasonal carols (they seemed unable to complete even one) as they swayed in the back, hugging, holding the tree that bobbed over the gate. Jack, alone, in the cab, smiled.

"It's too big," Cindy,the youngest,yelled as they struggled to stand it upright. "And it's so icky," she said rubbing her hands.

Topper, their irritating terrier, yelped at the rear of their truck.

"You complain every year," admonished Margie,the eldest,as she stepped back to admire the thin, tall pine.

"Let's get this thing in, I'm cold. How long were we gone?" asked Dot, the middle girl, and, I've always felt, the most attractive, if only because she avoided the pudginess that was overcoming her sisters. They got this from Jack. He was rotund, one of those men whom thinness had never touched. Estelle, the mother, who did not participate in these journeys, was slight with the thinnest thighs (she favored shorts even when the temperature was in the low 50s) and bony shoulders.

It was from Estelle that I learned last year these searches had ended.

"We're getting one of those plastic ones. Jack's gone to the K-Mart. They look just like the real thing and there's never the mess to clean, the needles and all."

She offered this in her pinched, almost squeaky voice that made her sound like Woody Allen doing Blanche DuBois and I had to struggle to keep a straight face whenever I heard her speak. I guess I hadn't gotten used to it because we rarely spoke.

I had gone over to ask if one of the girls would be available to feed our cat while we were away for the holiday. The answer, I gathered, was, no.

"It's just us now, and Cindy." She said this rather brusquely. I did not know if this tone was the result of the situation or my request.

"Margie's got her own place, over near the library and Dot's at the university, but she's visiting David's family upstate and Cindy's on a skiing trip."

All I could come up with in response was, Oh. Mostly I was struck with how little I knew about them, surprisingly little for a family who had been our neighbors since Paul and I arrived in Dover, Del., from Washington, D.C., years ago. Were the girls really that old?

I'm not sure Estelle heard my weak response because she was more interested in what was appearing on the small television set on the kitchen table. Women of varying weight and height exercising.

Estelle turned back to me and said, "I'm sorry."

Paul's reaction to all of this when I told him was a crinkled downturn of his mouth that indicated impatience with my powers of observation. This was a facial feature I had not known when we first met. When I remarked on it, he said he was not responsible for his facial expressions. Was this a sign?

"Of the Taylor girls leaving home," he said, "you could have figured that by the absence of cars in the driveway.
Remember how Dot always came home from Burger King at 1 a.m. in that Toyota with the bad muffler? The noise stopped months ago."

By this Christmas, everybody was gone. Except Jack.

He explained this turn of events as Topper sniffed around his feet. We stood on our respective sides of the wire fence erected years ago by Jack to prevent Pauls dog, Arrow (now dead), from entering their yard.

During the lengthy outline he always seemed to stop me for the infrequent updatings at dusk when it was cold and when I was in a hurry to get into the house he bent to pet Topper. Topper had become less bothersome since a van attempted to quiet his incessant barking one morning. In the past, I'd seen Jack take an occasional kick at Topper when Estelle wasn't looking. Topper was Estelle's dog.

"Margie was the first to leave," he said, then turned to spit some chewing tobacco beyond Topper's tail. His teeth had become as tan as the hunting cap that he was rarely without.

I looked to the sky as an alternative to his mouth.

Kent County evenings could be quite beautiful and I couldn't understand Paul's disenchantment with our surroundings. The descending sun was cobalt red,  it was almost directly behind Paul's right shoulder and the moon was as clear as a porch light off in the distance.

Paul chose instead to see Kent County through other images: the decaying houses, the unrelenting boredom of the flat land, the locals with their dull, ignorant country faces, all of this mixed with the incongruity of creeping suburbia: the blandly colored shopping centers and malls, the country club-apartment developments and the fast-food places that offered you a choice (to what? Paul often asked).

"You expect your children to leave, Jack continued. "I mean, Margie has her own job, her own place and Dot is in school, spending most of her time with her boyfriends family, and Cindy stays with me awhile. But it was only until her mother got herself situated in an apartment.
I'm paying for it, of course. She can't afford the whole rent, though Cindy helps out with the money from her part-time job after school. I like to think that she wanted to stay with me, Cindy, I mean, but she probably figured she had to help her mother. God knows she needs help. I mean, I never tried to stop her from doing anything. Those writing courses, the painting, the furniture stripping. At one time she was even talking about flying lessons, she'd seen some woman on TV who'd started her own commuter airline."

He went on and it became colder. They were actually predicting snow for this Christmas and I needed to get prepared.

I was afraid he would ask me about Paul. For an answer, I'd have only the same things that he had been saying: that there were never any signs. To which he could say only, Thank goodness you don't have any children.

I finally got away (you just had to wave him off, almost run off in mid-sentence) and packed for my visit to my parents. And Paul always said I was too slow to get moving.

As I drove out the driveway, I saw Topper jumping and yelping at Jack emerging from the barn.

Jack, with no difficulty, was carrying the plastic tree. It was already assembled. It was green and quite lifelike.

* * * *

When I returned home, Jack's truck was not in the drive; Cindy's Toyota was.

I unloaded my car quickly because of the cold (the sky was clouding up with thick ones that looked as if they would stay forever; the snow predicted for the season was certain to come now) and I wanted to take a small gift over to Jack.

I knocked on the back door and heard no reply. The door was slightly open, so I pushed in, announcing myself.

Cindy appeared. She was carrying a man's pair of slacks, a shirt and a corduroy coat. She looked tired beyond her years and she knew that I had taken it all in.

"He's all right. We're getting him out. I've got to go." She nodded to the door.

I held up my gift, a small, hand-painted Christmas-tree ornament. She looked at the washer and drier and I placed it on the drier.

By dark the snow was coming down with a strength I'd not known for the area.

I was feeling somewhat light-headed. The prospects were good that I would be snowed-in and there would be no school, maybe for days.

I was also feeling cheerful about Jack Taylor.

What I had seen, most people would have been horrified by. Certainly Cindy was mortified by the sheer destruction: the jagged holes in the living room walls and in the kitchen cabinets hand-crafted by two Amish men the previous spring.

I wondered if Jack blasted the plastic Christmas tree with his shotgun as well, or had he simply knocked it over? I had been unable to tell from the vantage point of the kitchen; I had seen only the top lying on the beige carpet that was sprinkled with plaster and empty shotgun shells.

It was all quite clear to me: these were signs of hope.

Jack Taylor could just as easily have blown his brains out.