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Sunday, July 21, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Summer Stories: ‘New Mom’ by Shawn Vestal

Lunch was bologna, Wonder Bread and red Fanta in glass bottles bought at Safeway in Sandpoint and eaten in the car as they rode north with the windows rolled down. When the bottles were empty, their father would lob them, left-handed, at the road signs along the freeway. Bonners Ferry 11. Highway 95 Junction. U.S. Border 7. A couple hits, couple misses.

The air was hot, slapping through the windows. The children were shouting questions about Beverly to their father.

“Does she look like Mom?”

Not exactly. Maybe a little bit.

“Is that why you like her?”

No, I wouldn’t say that.

“Is she prettier?”

Let’s not talk about your mother right now.

“Can we have whatever we want at the restaurant?”

The father had been trying to teach them restaurant manners at home, in preparation for the rehearsal dinner before the wedding, but he wasn’t sure he knew what restaurant manners were himself. Beverly’s parents were paying for everything, and Beverly’s parents were old and wealthy and Mormon – Salt Lake City Mormon, though they had immigrated to Canada.

Beverly had warned him that they were not bothering to hide their disappointment that their lovely youngest daughter, their pride and joy, was marrying a divorced Jack Mormon with three kids from Nowhere, Idaho. Her parents, the father had no doubt, knew the right manners for every restaurant.

The kids had taken to calling her New Mom when their father wasn’t around.

“Do you think New Mom will be nice?”

“How did Dad meet New Mom?”

“She’s a lot younger than Mom” – meaning Old Mom, First Mom – “so I bet she’s pretty nice.”

They didn’t know the answers to any of the questions. Their father just kept telling them they’d meet her soon enough and then they’d know anything they needed to know.

The children didn’t want to wait. They wanted to know now.

Might as well get used to it, their father said. Everybody’s got to wait for everything.

On the radio, between the songs, the announcer was talking about a river that had caught fire in Ohio.

“A river on fire,” their father said, more to himself than them. “Signs and wonders.”

At the Canadian border, a man in a green uniform asked their father questions about why they were going to Canada, and their father answered them happily.

Going to pick up his new wife in Cranbrook. She’s a Canadian citizen, moving with him back to Lewiston. He works at the paper plant there. Yes, they’re all his. Their mother is out of the picture. The children thought about that: out of the picture.

Somewhere, but not in the frame.

Somewhere not visible.

Old Mom, their father always said, had a lot of problems, and none of them were the children’s fault. Before she went away, she would sometimes spend days on end in her bed with the shades drawn and the door shut, and then sometimes she would be gone all night, or gone for days at a time, and if they asked their dad where she was, he would only say she’d be back soon. She was having problems, he would say, but none of them were the children’s fault. And he kept saying that after the time that she never came back at all. Their father emphasized this so much – that they were not to blame for Old Mom’s disappearance – that the children felt sure they actually were to blame.

How long would they be in Canada, the man in the green uniform wanted to know.

Three days, their father said.

In and out, their father said. Quick as can be.

The father could not understand choosing to live in Canada. Choosing to leave America and live there. He worried about Beverly’s parents and about Beverly herself over this choice. He worried there might be things about her, and about them, that he couldn’t see clearly yet, and when those things became apparent, they would have the power to ruin his life.

At the motel, they all stayed in one room. The father and Blake shared one queen bed. Anna and Kendra shared the other. Little Stockholm slept in the fold-up cot. In the morning, the father woke them up and hustled them around, getting them ready to meet Beverly at her family’s house. There was a luncheon first. Not like the dinner they’d have that night at the restaurant, but still a good-manners thing. The father worried that the kids would misbehave, embarrass him in front of Beverly’s parents. He thought the room smelled like the inside of a huge dirty sock, and he worried that Beverly would someday know this smell and recoil at it. Regret her decision. Stockholm and Kendra jumped back and forth between the beds until he shouted at them so loudly that everyone froze in place.

He didn’t hit them very much, but that was what he sounded like when he did.

“Come on now,” the father said, heart galloping in his ears. “Please.”

New Mom’s house looked like a castle. It had spires and cupolas and a large porch. It was painted a deep red and had a foundation of gray stone. New Mom’s dad was a lumber baron, their father had told them.

“What’s a lumber baron?” Kendra had asked.

“Somebody whose dad got rich underpaying guys to cut down trees,” their father said. “Somebody who got rich being born.”

When Beverly came onto the porch, in a bright, fancy, flowery dress, the children thought they’d never seen anyone so lovely. No one back home wore bright, fancy, flowery dresses like that, like something in a movie. New Mom held a hand up to shade the sun as they approached the house. She wore shiny shoes of a pale blue shade the children felt they had never seen before. A whole new color.

When they reached the massive stone porch, New Mom crouched down in her fancy dress to look each of them in the eye, to take them by the shoulders and say hello, to tell them in a sweet voice that she looked forward to making a nice, new, happy family together. Then she embraced each of them in descending order, strange, careful hugs in which the children could smell her sharp perfume and hear the starched rustle of her dress as it pressed lightly against them.

At the restaurant, there was a long table in a back room draped in white cloth, and the kids sat at the very end of the table – Blake and Stockholm on one side, Anna and Kendra on the other. Their dad and Beverly sat in the middle of the long table on one side, across from Beverly’s parents on the other. Various other people filled in the rest. Their father told Anna she was in charge of making sure everyone behaved. He told them what to order.

“I don’t want to have to come down here,” he said.

Stockholm climbed down from his chair and crouched under the table. It was dark and cool under there. Everyone’s feet were down there. Stockholm slapped at his sisters’ shoes. They were shiny black, with straps and buckles. Anna’s head came down, under the tablecloth.

“Get back in your seat,” she whispered.

Stockholm liked it down there. It was strange and dim and unfamiliar.

“Stockholm!” she hissed.

It was like being under water, he thought. All the interesting legs and shoes. All the darkness and safety. He started crawling toward the feet of his father. He saw his father’s shoes down there, the brown leather shoes with patterns of dots, newly polished.

“Young man!” Anna whispered. “I’m not going to tell you again.”

Stockholm crawled over the feet between him and his father. The pumps and the wingtips and the oxfords. A minor commotion above the table followed his motions below. When he reached the large, wide, shining black shoes of Beverly’s father, the lumber baron, the minor commotion turned major. Beverly’s father shouted in surprise and lumbered to his feet, blustering. Their father’s face blanched, and he was failing to keep a smile on his face while he spat out the names of his children, condemning them and imploring them and chastising them all at once. Anna! Stockholm! Blake! Kendra!

It was like he had lost the use of all other words.

Beverly materialized beside them, holding Stockholm by the hand. “Let’s go have a cup of ice cream,” she told them. In her fancy voice in her fancy dress. She swept them from the room, where their father was sitting with his alabaster face, and the other guests were laughing or clucking about what had happened there in the candlelight, where the lumber baron was frowning, no longer exclaiming with an unreadable combination of consternation and amusement that he had thought a raccoon was eating his shoelaces. She swept them into another room in the restaurant, a side room of sorts where one man stood behind a bar and one man sat at the bar, and the television was playing.

“You don’t mind, do you Ralph, if we take refuge back here in the corner for just a moment?” Beverly said, and the man behind the bar said in a friendly, joking way, “I suppose not, Bev. But no drinks for the minors.”

On the television, the river in Ohio was still burning. She got them scoops of ice cream in little silver cups, and said, “Dessert before dinner is the best,” with a conspiratorial smile. Kendra giggled and Stockholm nodded in sober agreement. They looked at the TV while they ate their ice cream, at the fire on the water, and Beverly said, “My word.”

Anna wanted to ask if they were going back to dinner, and she said, “Ma’am?” and Beverly said, “Oh, no, no, no. Please call me Beverly. Or anything else. You could call me … well … you could call me whatever you like. Any old thing,” and Blake said, “New Mom?” and something passed across Beverly’s face, a kink in her manner that made each of them realize it had been a wrong step. They never said those words again in her presence.

But among themselves, in the days to come, they continued to call her New Mom, even as they returned to Lewiston and lived in their white bungalow with a view of the Snake River where it divides the states, a view into Clarkston from their front step, as they grew to like her even more, and then, soon, to love her. Somehow, for some reason, Blake started calling her Newm, just among the other kids, Newm – Noom, Noom. He was nicknaming everybody aggressively then, in his high school years, and Newm had the sound and simplicity of a name, of a sound inseparable from a person.

Later still, after the children were older, away on their own, they told Beverly that this had been their name for her, their secret name, and she told them that she loved it, she asked them to call her that, to call her Newm, because it was between just them, a piece of code. It became her name. Eventually even their father called her Newm. They stayed married the rest of their lives, the family stayed together, happy sometimes and not sometimes, but mostly fine, healthy and lucky and safe, and she was with them when their father died, to help them through, to comfort them, to tell them that it felt sad and hard and unfair because it was sad and hard and unfair, no point in wishing it otherwise.

They all felt wiser for having her in their lives, and they were close, all of them, a family still, for years after, Newm and the children, and then the grandchildren, who also called her Newm, all as close as if they all sprang from the same blood, and the children were with her all the way to her end, too, all four of them at her bedside when she took her final gasping breath.

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