I followed her out the back door. The sun was lower in the sky, the backyard had grown more still, and the frostiness icier.
“Isn’t the dirt too frozen to dig through, Al?”
“Don’t worry about it,” she said. “Grab the key from the hook on the wall there.”
I did, and Al opened the garage door and emerged a few seconds later with the—implements of death—a small, pointed hand-shovel and a pick. She carried the mini coffin to the rose-less rosebush, its branches stiff as Larry. On the ground were two large, round rocks sunk into the frosty dirt neatly aligned next to the garage’s outer wall. Andy’s perpendicular influence, I imagined.
She knelt down and, with Larry’s coffin in one hand, began stabbing at the hard dirt with the pick with the other. She hacked away at the frozen ground, then started chopping at it with the shovel, silent tears streaming down her face.
“Want me to help, Al?”
“Yes,” she said, stabbing and digging away with one hand. “Hold Larry.”
“Daniel, will you please just take him?”
I stuck out my hand and Al placed leathery Larry’s matchbox casket into my freezing hand.
“Okay, Daniel,” she said a few minutes later and about four inches down. “Let me have him.”
I handed her the matchbox. She looked up at me with puffy eyelids.
“Hey, are you okay?” she asked.
“Sure,” I said. “Why wouldn’t I be?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “I just get the feeling something’s not right with you.”
“Well, maybe that’s because it’s the worst birthday of my life,” I finally blurted out.
Her eyes got big and she almost dropped Larry into his grave.
“Oh, no! What are you saying, Daniel? Why didn’t you tell me?” Then she smiled.
I was glad to be able to cheer her up with my news of a nightmarish birthday.
“It’s not important,” I said. “There’s just something I have to tell you about.”
“Daniel, what could be more important than your birthday?” She dropped Larry’s casket into his cold grave and stood up a few inches from my nose and faced me.
“Danny, what is it?”
“Well, it’s a long story, Al.”
“What kind of story?”
“Why don’t you finish burying Larry first? Then I’ll tell you.”
“No, tell me now,” she said. “It sounds important.”
“It is important,” I said. “But finish burying Larry. I can wait another few minutes, Alison.”
“Darn it, Daniel.” She turned back to her gruesome task. “Okay. I’ll finish, then tell me.”
“Well, that is why I came over.”
“Oh, sorry, Danny. Guess I sidetracked you. Why didn’t you say something?” Her gloomy mood seemed to lighten as she began to cover poor, stiff Larry in his little sliding-door coffin with frozen, gravelly dirt. When she was satisfied that he was in deep enough to rest in peace, she stood up, brushing the knees of her jeans.
“He needs a headstone,” she said. “To add to Moe’s and Curly’s.”
I was speechless.
“I’ll run and find a rock for him, then we’ll go back to my room, and you can tell me.”
“Why didn’t you tell me you had something to tell me?” she called back from the side of the house.
“You were too sad about Larry.”
“Oh,” she said, back now.
“And then you got sadder and sadder, and crying and everything,” I said.
“I got the feeling you were thinking about your mother, Al.”
“How’d you know?” she asked.
“Because I was, too,” I said.
On her knees, Al finished arranging Larry’s rock with the other Stooges’ tombstones.
“Good-bye, Larry,” she said. “Your friends Moe and Curly are waiting to welcome you to Frog Heaven. And, don’t worry, Chow Mein will, in time, learn to live without you. It won’t be easy for him. Or for me. We’ll miss you.”
I felt like crying, but had already done enough that day.
Al put her hands on my shoulders, her dark eyes still damp.
“Okay, Sweetie,” she said. “Come on and tell me what happened.” She pulled me toward the back door, inside, and back up to her room, where she pushed me down onto her bed and sat next to me, close. I was happy to see she was feeling better.
“Okay, Sweetie, what’s going on?”
Al’s room was cold. Outside her bedroom window, I could see the backyard covered in the sun’s shadow. The warmth of Al’s body next to mine on her soft bed comforted me. I thought about Larry in his matchbox alone in the frozen ground. I thought about my father Frank whom I never knew. I thought about Al’s mother. Al’s tenderness touched me and the tears did start up again. Her face so close to mine, still cool from the outside air, blurred, until the tears spilled over my cheeks and down my chin. I felt like an idiot.
“What’s the matter, Angel,” she asked, and kissed me lightly on my lips, now wet with the tears that had settled in the corners of my mouth. I told her what Frances had done and described the whole mess up to the point when I had to pass the three of them in the kitchen to make my final escape.
“Poor Sweetie,” she said. “That’s terrible.” She squeezed my hands and kissed me again on the cheek.
“Yeah, I was a real mess,” I said, enjoying her softness and sympathy, a side of Al most people never saw. Despite everything, I felt fortunate in that moment.
“Well, Linda never liked you to begin with,” Al said, “and as long as Michael’s not mad at you, that’s all that matters, right?”
“Yeah,” I said. It was true.
“I mean you didn’t really say anything bad, just a bit embarrassing?”
“Yeah,” I said, praying Al would never know she was in my diary, too.
“Well, are you feeling better now?” she asked.
“Just being with you makes me feel better, Al.”
“I have a present for you,” she said.
She smiled. “Here, open it,” she said, and handed me a flat, rectangle gift wrapped in blue, white, and green paper covered in sailboats and seagulls. I tore off the paper. A sketch pad.
“I hope it’s okay,” she said. “Is it the right size?”
“I wasn’t sure if you would like the big one or the small one,” she went on. “I thought a small one would be good because you can take it wherever you go. There’s a pencil in there, too, Daniel, with a special eraser.”
“It’s perfect,” I said.
“Happy birthday, Sweetie,” she said.
We sat on the bed for a few minutes, me fingering my art pad and fancy crystal blue pencil, and Al gazing into the tank with its now solo inhabitant, Chow Mein.
Then, Al said, “Oh, Daniel? I would have told you this sooner, but we got sidetracked with Larry, and your story about that sister of yours, and your birthday present.”
“What?” I knew I didn’t want to hear this.
“Well, it’s just that I’m going away tonight, with my father. Upstate. The Catskills? My grandparent’s house. I’m sorry, Daniel. I know it’s your birthday and everything….”
“Grandma’s not doing well, and Andy decided to go up there, a last minute idea. He’s not sure how long we’ll be staying. He’s worried about Grandma, and even Grandpa, now that my uncle is dead and isn’t there to help out anymore.”
“Right, sure,” I said.
“We’re heading out as soon as Andy gets home from work,” she said. “I’ll call you as soon as we get back, okay?”
“Oh, sure,” I said. “Any idea when that will be?”
“I don’t know yet,” she said. “It’ll depend on how Grandma and Grandpa are doing. I’m sorry, Daniel.”
“Oh, that’s okay,” I said. Up there in the Catskills, Al wouldn’t be just a walk or even a phone call away.
I left Al’s, clutching my new drawing pad under one arm, feeling better than when I had left my apartment, but uneasy about her leaving. I pushed open the wooden gate from Al’s backyard to the sidewalk on 115th Street and stood at the corner, looking both ways. It was late afternoon but already starting to get dark. I was in no hurry to go home.