Colin Fleming

Sugar Huddle Redux

Even though I might not have known my own name at that precise moment, it still made a certain kind of sense to me that the second person I thought of was Corm Cavender, never mind that I really shouldn’t have been thinking about Corm Cavender at all.
       I knew my son, Nate, probably wouldn’t have been there because I had an inkling, as if by some vague reminder, such as one that comes over you right before you fall asleep, that it was autumn, and he would have been at Michigan State for his senior year as offensive line captain of the football team.
       Seeing my wife, Alex, whom I hadn’t called Alexandria in probably twenty years, and the look of relief on her face wasn’t a surprise, but what was was that my daughter, the first person I thought of, wasn’t there at all.
       I remember mumbling something about Nate and how he was doing, I know I told Alex I loved her, but I knew, even in that befogged haze, not to say anything about a daughter I believed to be named Shannon. Shan to me, in my mind.
       The contents of my last memory remained intact, like some well-packaged box waiting to be opened as I scanned the room and beheld the sights of my hospital quarters.
       That’s where your exposition comes from, or part of it, anyway, that first look around your bed which isn’t your normal bed.
       You think, “OK, so something happened that was obviously pretty bad but not bad enough because somehow we got to here; there’s your wife looking all happy; let’s get the gory details as to what went down and what’s coming next.”
       That most recent memory involved me thinking about my favorite smells. I was cutting the lawn of our house in Beaufort, North Carolina, where I had grown up, and returned to in my mid-forties, having decided, in conjunction with Alex, naturally, that we could write our novels together just as easily in a more Southern clime than we could braving the awful winters of Cambridge, Massachusetts, where it sometimes seemed as if the lily-white walls of the nearby Harvard University existed in part to be bulwarked with further walls of packed snow to further deter the rabble come the month of February.
       We never liked that feeling of entitlement that seemed to come with the area, despite a nascent status as a literary power couple whose photo at some Museum of Fine Arts gala might turn up in the About Town section of the Improper Bostonian, with maybe Alex giving a sidebar interview on the latest plot she had labored over in our joint study with her poster boards full of motifs, motives, and character notes that I’d flesh out while she took Nate to his daily post-school rounds of practices, study sessions, and social events.
       We were always earthier, I liked to think, going back to our earliest days dating, when we’d take day trips to hike in the Cape Cod woods, and picnic there, with the inevitable bout of debauch behind some trailside boulder, as birders passed close by, cawing to themselves not unlike the very creatures they sought that, behold, here was the latest pixilated woodpecker, the mentioning of which on one occasion prompted a joke from Alex that had me laughing so hard that I lost my balance and spurted up the back of her LL Bean vest.
       Forevermore our own future woodpecker sightings led to the retelling of that anecdote, with Alex delighting in shocking her very prissy sister one time on an extended family apple-picking adventure, which was so very like Alex, and one of the many reasons I loved her like I did.
       We ranked our favorite smells, and that’s what I was doing in my head, wondering if I should maybe elevate the smell of cut grass, then in my number two spot, over the ranking number one, that being the brine of the sea, in autumn especially.
       I fell fast, I imagine, but in my mind it was a journey of several minutes to the ground. I had one last quote, in my head as I made contact with the lawn, I had let go for too long, and it simultaneously occurred to me that this could well be my expiring remark, my not very brilliant final thought, which ran, essentially, “Oh, shit, this can’t be good.”
       And it wasn’t. Hence, waking up where I woke up.
       Alex practically flew into the bed from her chair next to it, hugging me while she deftly hit the nurses’ call button at the same time, which brought in a doctor instead, and the word that I had had a heart attack at forty-seven, and been in a coma for almost twenty-four hours, though already I was preferring to think of it as unconsciousness instead for less than a full day.
       It wasn’t the next few days in the hospital that most bothered me, nor, even, the contemplation of my own mortality, nor the regular reminders of how I’d have to go on a spate of medicines, cut back on stress, give up alcohol, or Alex’s curious decision not to tell Nate anything until I woke up or croaked because she believed I wouldn’t have wanted him to know when there was nothing he could do about it and had worked so hard to get to where he was, and with a showcase game on national television happening at the same time. All of which was true.
       What bothered me most was that I knew I had a daughter named Shannon, and I knew that she wouldn’t be coming to see me, and I knew that my wife was not aware that she existed, even though I was utterly certain, as certain as I knew I loved my wife as I stared back at her in that bed, that she was ours.
       This is also probably why I was thinking of Corm Cavender, too, like I was.

You go home, you try to get back to your life as seamlessly as possible.
       For me, this meant talking to Nate on the phone about the latest game tape he had sent me—after dispelling, best I could, his fears that my ultimate demise was imminent—and sitting up in my study after Alex had gone to bed, working on a book of my own on early tobacco company baseball cards, a collection of which I’d been building up since I was a boy and my dad shared his with me.
       But I was writing less as I found myself thinking about how I couldn’t stop thinking about memories that I knew belonged to me, that had their place alongside all of my others—Nate’s birth, the first time I saw Alex in this elective class we both took on Charles Ives—of a daughter named Shannon.
       She was a tomboy, and five years younger than Nate, so we spent a lot of time together doing versions of the things Nate and I had done, but with a more female slant.
       That is, she’d hold on to the baseball a few seconds longer before throwing it back when we were playing catch to tell me about how some nefarious boy had done something to one of her friends at school, and how she secretly had a crush on this boy herself, that kind of thing. She was quiet around most people, smarter than I was when I was her age, smarter than anyone I knew was at her age, save my old friend Corm Cavender.
       Corm was practically a genius, in my view. He may have been a legit one. When we were in eighth grade, he formed his own detective company, with me and this other kid named Dean Ronati, whom you might have thought of as a jock—he was a track star and a soccer standout—but whose best attribute was probably just how good he was at being a friend.
       Which, as you get older, you learn that’s a skill that isn’t as commonly found as you’d like to believe. Corm and Dean had been best friends since nursery school, and though we didn’t say “I have your back” back then, suffice it to say, Dean had Corm’s.
       Corm was sort of roly-poly. Not fat but not thin and not, really, average even. If you put him next to a heavy person, you wouldn’t think here were two obese people, but if you put him next to someone of a regular build, you’d think Corm had to drop a few pounds.
       He was just his own sort of deal, I guess. He thought faster than you; he thought faster than all of our teachers. you’d see it in his eyes, which were like controlled electrical storms. Put it this way: you’d do well to figure out what was going on with a given set of events, but Corm would have thought the next point beyond that, and the one after, and several more still, like knowledge didn’t come to him sequentially, but rather in a massive superimposition of facts, truths, and suppositions that were almost invariably correct.
       I was his friend because he had heard I collected old tobacco cards, so he came over to the house one day after school, asking if he could test a theory of his. He knocked on the door, I opened it, and there he was with an Atlanta Braves hat jammed over his head backward.
       “You’re Miles Trullo, right?”
       I nodded.
       “If you don’t mind”—he started a lot of conversations that way when he was going to show you something that would blow your mind—“I’d really like it if you might let me look at your collection. I understand from Mr. Libbery”—the history teacher I sometimes hung out with and talked baseball after school—“that you have a good one. To test a theory.”
       You wanted to play along with Corm, to give him a chance to do what you couldn’t do. Which in this case was telling me, before he’d seen a single card, that the ones that had numbers ending in zero would be the ones in the worst condition. Sure enough they were because those were the cards that ended up most often being at the top of the tobacco cases on account of how printing presses were set up back then.
       “Golly. I had no idea.”
       “Now you do. Do you know Dean Ronati?”
       I didn’t, but I did shortly thereafter, and we formed what our parents all called a club, with our own business card that featured our motto: “A mystery is but a statement put another way.”
       Corm liked to say that if you asked a question, what you were really doing was making a sort of statement. So that no mystery could really be that bleak. When I was in the hospital, for instance, that flashed through my brain when I first thought, “What the hell am I doing here?” which also means, “Well, I’m here. I’m definitely here.”
       We called our firm A Statement Put Another Way, which became shortened to ASPAW. you had a problem, you brought it to ASPAW, whether your pet fish had gone missing despite not having a cat, two Santa Clauses were simultaneously spotted on neighboring roofs the day after Halloween, or when Chad Hanley, ninth-grade lothario, made a claim per what seemed a humanly impossible amount of onanism in a six-hour stretch. This Corm, though no sensualist, replicated complete with timings and what he called the expulsion effect in his ever-present notebook, which proved that Hanley was a liar in this and several other matters that impugned the reputation of various girls in our class.
       When we were out on one of our adventures and we hit some snag, Corm would wave me and Dean over and sometimes a fourth boy. For if we were, say, in the woods or a big house or a mall, looking for some clue, Corm would want us to break off in groups of two, to both cover more ground, and so that no one had to be alone, we’d press one of our other friends into service. But when we came back to the meet-up spot, sans that clue, we’d kind of huddle up. Not with our arms linked around each other but close enough like when a quarterback consults with his offensive linemen before the ball is hiked into play. A sugar huddle, in the parlance. Usually, then, someone would come up with another option to try. And normally it was Corm.
       We hadn’t spoken in years, but each day he was more on my mind as I tried to get back to my life. Because each day I had more memories of a daughter that could not have existed but who also, I felt, could not not have existed.
       I recalled with anguish learning about her difficulties at college. The depression, the early morning drinking, the awful revelations, passed on to me by her mother—in my memories, anyway—of drugs and threesomes and Skyping with guys almost my age for money, and then more depression, my little girl, this tomboy I had bonded with over playing catch.
       I remembered how she stayed home with us rather than go back to school on time for her senior year, curled up in the crook of my right arm on the couch as we watched the late-night talk shows, with her mother sleeping back in our room. And I remember feeling how I could protect her, this child of mine sitting right here with her white socks and pajama bottoms and oversized Beatles T-shirt that I had given her who knows how long ago.
       I read on the web about how physical trauma can lead to kinds of mental trauma, and I wondered if that was happening to me, and as my ignorance only seemed to deepen, so, too, did more and more memories come to me, and eventually these memories, as real as any I knew, changed drastically, such that my little girl wasn’t my little girl, but rather someone I was with. I was with in ways one is not supposed to be with anyone one is related to. But these memories were equally indelible, and they felt like the memories I’d call to mind when Alex and I were first going out, like this girl was from some other romance I’d had. This Shannon wasn’t Shan, my daughter Shannon, but like the great love of my life who had gone missing.
       There was no doctor I wanted to bring this up with. Nor did I want to bring it up with Alex. We’d had a difficult two years before anything happened to me. There was a patch where I was losing it as a writer, and with each book she was doing more and more of the work, such that my name hardly should have been on the cover at all.
       Then I started drinking more and putting on the weight that I now had to lose, and at some awards event in New york, which I couldn’t face and so stayed home in North Carolina, she met up with an old editor of hers and, well, you know. A single night, a single mistake, but even in the best scenarios a lot of couples don’t come back from that. What was so awful, too, is that I knew just how she would have looked and sounded, and when I asked her—because, hell, you do ask questions like this, you just can’t help it—if she orgasmed, and she said yes, I even knew they had finished with her on top.
       But like I said. I wasn’t a man you’d want to be with then. But I had fought to come back, and I felt like I was most of the way back. And now this was happening, with more of these daughter-based memories emerging every day, and now the other ones, which were pretty damn unspeakable.
       So I didn’t tell Alex. But one morning at breakfast, I told her what I had done the night before, which was to call Corm, who was living outside of Atlanta. We hadn’t talked in a long time. I knew from other people that he did a range of jobs, all as a consultant. A consultant for museums, for magazines, for art galleries, like this rent-a-genius who was more perceptive than other people were. Dean I still knew. He was a happily married chemistry teacher in Durham. We’d meet up for beers and a ballgame every few years.
       But I knew exactly the moment I let things drop with Corm, and it doesn’t reflect well on me. There was an item in the local paper about how his pregnant wife was diagnosed with terminal cancer. She was something like seven months into the pregnancy. So it was going to be a race against the clock as to whether she would have their kid in time before, well, you know. In the end a decision was made to operate, which killed her but allowed their daughter, Hope, to be born.
       What a name, I remember thinking. And knowing Corm like I did, I knew what he’d always be thinking. Some people never blame themselves. Other people too often blame themselves. And others still have little business blaming themselves save that they’re unlike other people and if anyone can bring about a different, however unlikely, outcome, that’s them. And that was always Corm.
       “So you’re doing some club reunion, then, before you all sidle off into old age?” Alex asked, that I-just-spotted-a-woodpecker sly smile on her face as she flipped the eggs that morning.
       “I guess you could call it that. It’ll be good to see Corm again. Maybe some mystery will turn up. Get us back on the beat.”
       “Ah, yes, the ASS PAW Boys.”
       “It’s ASPAW.”
       “It’s close, though.”
       “Yeah. Yeah it is.”

Dean and I were waiting, Dunkin’ Donut coffees in hand, with a third waiting back in the kitchen, when Corm arrived. He knocked on the door, I opened it, and he said, verbatim, what he said to me on that first day we met.
       “No, you can’t test your theory, Holmes. Besides, it’s a well-known fact these days how early twentieth-century printing presses work.”
       “It’s good to see you, Miles. It’s been too long. If you don’t mind me saying so.”
       My eyes were so locked on him, and how he looked exactly as I expected he would—still not fat, nor average, nor thin, just Cormlike— that it took me an extra second to notice the woman behind him, a girl of twenty or so who looked exactly like that girl of mine who curled up on the couch next to me or sometimes took form as a very different kind of person I’d hold in a very different kind of way.
       “This is my daughter Hope. She’s taking some time off from school this semester.”
       By this point, Alex had introduced herself, Dean and Corm had shaken hands, and everyone had repaired back to the kitchen. And I felt like getting in the car and driving away and maybe stopping somewhere far-off and safe and calling Corm from there to ask what was going on, did he have some answers, was this all in my head, and what could I do to make it go away. Then I realized that asking if something might go away is the same as saying that maybe it never will. Which is basic ASPAW methodology. As Corm would have said and I knew.

TThey stayed with us three days. A big mystery club reunion, with Dean crashing on the couch, Corm taking a cot in my study, and Hope up in Nate’s room.
       I didn’t have any new memories of a daughter, or a lost love, or anything like that when Corm was there, sitting up with me, the two of us talking into the night, but the ones that had taken root remained.
       Corm’s mind was even faster compared to other adults’ than it had been compared to other kids’ way back when, and he was funnier now, but funny in that way that really sad people can be funny. Hilarious in front of you, making you laugh, making themselves laugh. you get the sense that all of that is coming from something stored up inside that hardly ever gets aired because so much of the rest of the time they’re alone, grappling with aspects of life and themselves that once grappled with can never be ungrappled from, if that makes sense.
       I told him on the second night, after we’d rehashed the glory days of sleuthing on the first, what I had woken up with in that hospital. The memories in my head. I didn’t tell him the particulars of how Shannon looked to me, nor did I tell him about the seedier side of everything, how this same figure, form, whatever you want to call it, I knew as a daughter would take different form as someone I remembered being with in a non-paternal way, but I also knew that Corm would always pick up on things you weren’t saying to him. Especially if you were trying to hide them.
       “And you don’t think it’s the natural result of what happened to you? A serious health trauma, and so little is known about the states of the mind with a coma, or being unconscious for an extended amount of time, as you prefer to call it.”
       “No. I know it’s not that.”
       “But you also know you don’t have a daughter. And you also know that these memories are real. That they feel the same as your memories with your wife. Or your son. Or a childhood friend like Dean. And a thousand other things.”
       “Yeah. And I worry about her, too. As much as I worry about Nate. Which is so fucked up. I might worry about her more. Because I know where he is. I know he’ll be in a game that’s on TV in two weeks. I can phone him right now. Hell, he’s probably awake. And I don’t know where she is. And I’m certain she needs me more.”
       “You should tell Alex.” “I’m not going to tell Alex. I can’t tell her everything, anyway.”
       “You’re not telling me everything.”
       “No, I know.”
       c“Well, it has been a long time. you don’t really figure that the Hardy Boys or whomever really ever met up again in life, as adults.”
       “No, I guess not. Look, more than that, when everything happened with Diane—” When everything happened. That’s a hell of a way to put it. Still, it’s the good friend who doesn’t make the shitty friend, the person who failed him, in whatever capacity they might have offered any counsel, or comfort, or loyalty, not have to articulate the confession.
       “I understand . . . and a lot of people went away, besides. Didn’t know what to say. Can’t blame them, really. Hope looks exactly like her at this point when we met, and of course I’ve never stopped, for a single second, asking myself . . .”
       He felt so heavy then. I don’t mean like he was some fat guy, just like you couldn’t have budged him from that very spot, with everything going on in him, with a thousand bulldozers.
       “And every question is a kind of statement, of course, as you remember from my methods,” he continued, smiling the weakest smile I had ever seen.
       I told him I was going to brush my teeth. It didn’t feel right for me to be in that space with him just then. That I didn’t belong. I brushed my hand against his shoulder as I walked out. And I decided that I’d tell Alex. And that I was a fool that I hadn’t yet.

On the last day or our little reunion, the ASPAW team—with Hope in the fourth investigator role—was to take to the Eschelin Woods to investigate a matter of my wife’s choosing. I wouldn’t call our books outright mysteries, but some of them deal in the weird or fantastic, and it’s not uncommon for her to get an idea for one from an internet site about local legends.
       She’s read that a Beaufort poet named Charles Macklin from the late 1800s had built a house out in those woods, and that while the house—which was more like a small cabin—no longer existed, the foundation did, and Macklin being something of a mystic or a shaman or something like that, cast some incantation that were you to measure the dimensions of that foundation and found a room to correspond to them, some mighty secret or some such would be revealed in that room the next time you entered it.
       Stupid local legend stuff, but I remembered hearing a version of it as a kid. It was an ASPAW credo that there was no such thing as the supernatural, but what was cool about the Macklin legend was that it inspired a lot of people who might otherwise sit on their asses at home to get out in the fresh air of nature. Plenty of people, actually, had found what remained of the place judging by the online comments, and what you had to look for were two giant boulders that came together in such a way that they made this triangle shape.
       So off we went, parked the car, and headed into the woods. Corm said he and Dean would go in one direction—just like we used to do it—and me and Hope would go off in the other, and we’d sugar huddle, if no one found anything, back at the starting spot in a couple hours.
       I didn’t really want to be with Hope. She sounded just like Shannon did in my mind, looked like the person in those memories, and when we talked with each other it was much the same way.
       “Was my dad super smart when he was a kid?” she asked as she hopped over a stream, and I wondered if I’d be able to do the same, seeing as how it was five or six feet across.
       “He was,” I said, as I splashed down. “We were just doing stupid kid stuff, but sometimes things would be more serious, and you knew, too, that if it was adult stuff, he’d still figure out everything faster than you could.”
       “He didn’t figure out what was going on with me at school. When I was, you know, doing things that maybe . . . because I wanted someone to . . .”
       “To know and do something? Without having to say it directly?”
       “Yeah, that.”
       Normally I wouldn’t be so assertive. But I felt like I knew this kid. I also felt that that was a pretty stupid thing to think. I wondered if the same reason she hadn’t gone back to school was for the same reasons that a daughter who existed only in my memories didn’t go back. That seemed both likely and impossible.
       I trudged a few feet behind her, my knees aching, until she stopped.
       “Look, Mr. Trullo!”
       “OK. Miles. Two rocks coming together to make a triangle.”
       And there it was, a portion of a local legend made manifest. She kicked around at the leaves on the ground for a while, with me making a decent effort to do my forty-seven-year-old-man version of zestfully scouring the forest floor. Ten minutes later, she had found Charles Macklin’s stone foundation, measurements had been made and recorded, and she hugged me as we stood atop that sheet of granite. She started to move out of what should have been a very quick, if that, impromptu embrace, but without having a freaking clue what I was about to do, I pulled her toward me, and I kissed her.
       I was about to start apologizing like mad when she pulled back, and then pressed herself into me but harder, more deeply. We stood like that for a while, on that shelf of rock, with me unable to tell if that was saliva or tears or both wetting my neck. She didn’t talk on the way back, but she reached for my hand a few times, like a kid does. I was thinking about what the fuck I was going to tell Alex now, and Corm, too. I tried to tuck my hand into my sleeve when she first reached for it, but she said “please” in a way that made everything feel not wrong, or not so wrong, or something less wrong. She asked me again if her dad was always much smarter than everyone, and I said he was but, most importantly, in the ways that mattered most. And just as she had first taken my hand with a “please,” she let it fall from hers, gently, with a “thank you” right before we came into view of Corm and Dean at the starting point.
       “No luck?” they both asked at the same time.
       “No luck,” Hope said, and we drove back to the house.
       Everyone was leaving that night after dinner. I didn’t know what I was going to say to Corm, but I walked back into my study where he was packing as Alex made the coffee. He’d done some research, he told me, in proper ASPAW-style.
       “Lots of people have found that old foundation, of course, and measured it.”
       “Of course they have. Just a foundation in the woods.”
       “I checked. It’s the same size as this room. ‘The Case of the Corresponding Dimensions.’”
       “Funny. It would be.”
       “Actually, it’s off a few feet, each way, but still, close enough.” I was going to tell him what happened. But I don’t think he wanted me to. In part, anyway, because he wanted to tell me something.
       “All of these years, I’ve lived with, for every single second, the question of whether I did the right thing. Because ultimately, when Diane was out of it, it was my call. We didn’t know for sure that Hope would be saved, or that Diane would die, or that both wouldn’t have lived—Diane for a few more months, anyway—if we operated or didn’t. There was a greater chance Diane would die right then if we operated, but there was a greater chance, too, that Hope would live. Even if you make the right decision, sometimes, it’s not something you come back from. Not fully.”
       “Maybe in some ways you come back more fully? That’s a question. Which is also—”
       “No, I know. I was wondering something the other night when you told me about these memories, if there was something you were supposed to tell me. Like through some . . . agency. Which is stupid. And not how anything works.”
       “I think you can look at it that way. That’s how I’d look at it.”
       I knew, by then, I wasn’t going to tell Alex anything. The memories, or whatever they were, I had experienced in those weeks remained, but no others came to me. Corm sent me an e-mail a couple months later saying Hope was back at school, seemingly flourishing, and would be graduating in the spring.
       “She’s so much like her mother,” he wrote, “that it makes me wonder how many people we might be, in some ways, at once. There’s a mystery for the squad, right? Give my best to Alex. I told you she’d understand.”