The Fig Tree

by Teresa Tumminello Brader
Though Ben had confirmed their weekly rendezvous, he didn’t show up. First, Dairine was impatient with the wanting of him. Then, becoming bored, she wondered if she should dash inside the silent house to grab her library book. Instead, she paced in front of her mother’s canvases against the shed wall, gazing at the unfinished blue and green figures materializing out of a mist, or maybe it was a body of water. She became filled with dread, worried something had happened to Ben. When she decided she’d waited long enough, she extinguished the flame of the hurricane lamp and went inside. Her slumber was uneasy, crammed with nightmares of being pursued down city streets during a gloomy dusk that quickly transformed into black night. Turning corner after corner, she confronted avenues either eerily empty or occupied by shifty men lurking under streetlights. She finally found shelter in a vacant warehouse, knowing the refuge was temporary.

In the morning, after walking her brother to school, Dairine rummaged in the back of the chiffarobe in the so-called dining room and emerged with her father’s old spectator shoes, dating from the time of her parents’ courtship. She stashed them in her plastic shopping bag and, as not to disturb her sleeping father and bedridden mother, quietly left the house. The blinding sunlight pushed down blankets of heat, causing the pleated cap sleeves and cinched waist of her lightweight clothing to stick to her skin.

Zeller’s Shoe Repair was one block down Dublin and one block up Oak, yet she hadn’t thought to visit Ben there before today. She couldn’t imagine waiting for the end of the school day to see him, their usual routine, as he fetched his son and she collected Sean. Her agitation reminded her of Ben’s on that first Monday night when he’d left his AA meeting early to visit her. A white shade behind the shop window was pulled down, the name of the store emblazoned across the glass. Under the green awning, Dairine straightened her A-line skirt and tugged on the door handle. The brisk jingle of a brass bell greeted her as she stepped across the threshold. Setting the shoes on the counter, she looked across a room of tools and wooden shoe lasts hanging from strips of wall hooks. A white-haired man in a cobbler apron left a machine of attached brushes and buffers and walked toward her. “Is Ben here?”

“Benjamin?” The man squinted over the top of his glasses. “You must be Dara.” She nodded, struck dumb. Only Ben called her that, and only to her in private, or so she’d thought. He patted her hand. “Don’t look so worried, little lady. It’s a great pleasure to meet you.” Swiveling his head toward the back of the room, not removing his rough, big-knuckled hand from atop hers, he shouted, “Son?” Mr. Zeller peered at her again. “That hair and those eyes, just as Benjamin described them.”

From behind the workroom she heard Ben before he appeared, his deep voice resonating through air filled with the smells of leather, glue and rubber. “Yes, Papa?” As she watched Ben striding down the narrow passageway, she felt panicky, her chest tight. His face lit up with the wide smile she knew so well. “Dara? What are you doing here?” She didn’t know how to answer, an emotion different from any other she’d experienced with Ben overtaking her. Last night her impatience had turned to sadness and concern. Here, now, was anger, surging through her as she realized how fruitless it all was.

“What do you think she’s doing here, son? Take her to the office. She can wait while I heel these.” Mr. Zeller grabbed the shoes and deposited them on a worktable. Ben lifted the hinged countertop and escorted her into a tiny office.

On the desk a small electric fan whirred, circulating the warm air. The only window, uncovered, belonged to a door that led to an alleyway. Wooden muntins divided the view of tree branches swaying in the slight breeze into quadrants. Ben led Dairine to the chair behind the desk and, taking her hands in his, perched on its edge. She pulled away. “How did your father know who I was?”

“I told him about you. Those months before I told you how I felt, I needed someone to talk to.”

His composure fermented her growing ire. “Where were you last night? I was worried about you, worried for nothing.”

“I’m sorry, but how could I have let you know? I couldn’t leave home last night. You know I can’t phone you.”

The tightness in her chest rose to her throat, threatening to dissolve and spill out of her eyes. “I can’t do this anymore.” She tried to sound flat, monotone, but choked on the words.

“I wish I could promise it won’t happen again. Tell me why you’re so distressed.” His voice became even calmer. “Is something wrong? Are you pregnant?”

“No. Of course not.” Dairine stood up, pushing the uncomfortable chair away. “Because I’m upset, you think it means that?” She wondered why she hadn’t contemplated the possibility before. “What would you do if I was?” Frozen in fear, she waited for his response.

“I—” He paused, seeming to gather his thoughts. “I don’t know. I haven’t really thought about it.”

His hesitation melted her fear, returning her to a state of inchoate anger. “Maybe you should think about how I have no one to talk to, though you have your father.”

“You have me.”

“I didn’t last night. I don’t when I go to bed. Oh, this is pointless.” Dairine picked up her empty carrier bag and moved from behind the desk, stumbling against a wastebasket.

Ben caught her around the waist. “You would’ve seen me before the bell rang this afternoon.”

“It’s not enough. Let me go.” His hands wilted like her spring tomato plants in a heat wave. She maneuvered through the cramped office to the backdoor and rattled the doorknob. The door didn’t budge. She heard Ben behind her, felt his arm brushing against hers. Her eyes dropped from the segmented limbs in the window to his fingers turning a key in a lock above the black doorknob. She stepped aside and he pulled the door open. “Please tell your father good-bye for me.”

Her eyes brimmed with tears she refused to release as she walked home. In the backyard she dragged a chair toward the fence into the shade of the fig tree. She didn’t have to start dinner yet; unlike the red beans she made on Mondays, panéed pork chops could wait. She thought of Ben sitting in this same chair that first Monday, tasting an early fig she’d proffered to him, blurting out that he loved her. Not knowing what else to say, as confused as if she were back in school trying to prove a geometric proof, she’d told him the feeling might go away and he’d shaken his head, his lips twisting into something not quite a smile and not quite a grimace. Recalling an unexpected dream of Ben from the previous winter, she’d wondered if she’d called his declaration into being.

Flinging her hair off her damp neck and over the back of the chair, she gazed into the dappled sky of leaves. Though there was no privacy in their shotgun house for that kind of indulgence, she yearned to throw herself across her bed and sob uncontrollably; or to cry in her mother’s arms, though her mother wasn’t that kind of mother, not even before her illness.

When Dairine was younger, her mother had told her that Dairine’s father, no longer in Ireland, had wanted to call their baby daughter Colleen, but she’d rejected the name as a common noun meaning girl, whereas the name Dairine, her mother rhapsodized, was that of a legendary princess of Tara. As a child, Dairine had pretended her name was Celeste. She no longer knew why; perhaps she’d heard the name in one of her father’s bedtime stories.

Ben hadn’t said why he couldn’t leave home last night. There wasn’t enough time, her main frustration, for all she wanted to know. His words were what she wanted to recall when they weren’t together, but everything she wanted to ask him ran ceaselessly through her brain instead. Did his wife suspect he wasn’t going to his AA meetings? Had he gone to a bar rather than come see her? Dairine shook her head as if to clear it. She had no reason to believe he’d been drinking; he’d stopped long before he knew her.

She curled up in the chair and daydreamed of Ben appearing at the backdoor, whispering for her: the moon lights up his earnest, excited face as he asks her to come away with him. Opening her eyes, Dairine stretched her legs. Ben wouldn’t leave his son and she wouldn’t abandon her father. The pregnancy resulting in Sean, fifteen years younger than his sister, had been touted as a possible cure to whatever was wrong with their mother, but it hadn’t worked out that way. Her mother would die one day and her brother would grow up; by then Ben might’ve reconciled with his wife, perhaps they’d have another child. An image, unbidden, arose: Ben bounds up the steps outside the church, an infant in his arms, as Dairine, squinting in the sunlight, stands in front of the ornate ebony church door after her mother’s funeral; he approaches her to offer his condolences …

After breading and frying the pork chops, one of which her father would take to his night job, Dairine walked to the school, her footsteps flagging. The sun was punishing; it was hard to breathe. Three more days until school was out for the summer and she wouldn’t have to see Ben for at least three months, a thought both disturbing and comforting. Her heart hurt—there was no other way to describe it. Perhaps it would burst as an overripe fig did, reddish flesh oozing out of bruised skin. The heroines in the historical fiction she read spoke as if they could die of a broken heart; maybe it was true. Scorning herself for such foolishness, Dairine stopped at the corner and listened for the bell. Hearing its peal she resumed walking, slowly, scanning ahead for her brother. Every school day she’d arrived before dismissal in order to spend time with Ben, but today she intended to meet Sean as he tried to tear past her on his way home.

Between the church and the school, she halted. Ben was crouched low to the ground, his son and her brother at either side. She walked over and stood near them, casting a shadow over Ben and Jacob, though neither looked up. Sean was on the far side of her, under the palmetto tree. The boys stared at Ben’s hand, at the cards splayed amongst his fingers. Ben distributed a few cards to each boy and stood up. As he turned toward Dairine, he placed his left hand on her brother’s shoulder and kept it there, as if the boy were a hot-air balloon that might float up and away if he didn’t hold it down.

“Look, a Mel Ott!” Sean said.

Of course, Dairine thought, baseball cards. Ben picked up a bag at his feet and handed it to her. “Your father’s shoes.”

“Thank you. How much do I owe you?”

He shook his head. She’d not seen him look so tired before, so drained, so sad. “Don’t be silly,” he said.

The reproach behind his words stung her. She sought for something to say that sounded apologetic but also neutral. “You remembered how much Sean likes baseball.”

Ben glanced at the two boys, chattering, passing cards back and forth. “I remember everything his sister told me. Always will.”

She took a deep breath. “I want you to know I feel the same, but I can’t say it to you anymore. It’ll make it worse for me.”

“How did one so young get so wise?”

“Oh, please, you’re only five years older than me.” She looked around. Apart from the four of them, the front of the school was empty. “Give Mr. Ben his cards, Sean. We have to get home.”

Dairine suppressed a smile at the disappointed look on Sean’s face. Ben shuffled through the cards, plucked one out and presented it to him. “You can have Zeke Bonura. Take good care of him.”

“Thanks, Mr. Ben.” Sean faced Dairine, carefully holding out the card for her inspection. “Wait until Daddy sees it!”

Clasping Sean’s arm, she turned to Ben. “We can’t accept it if it’s valuable.”

“I have two of them.” He winked at Sean. “Please let him keep it, Dara,” he murmured to her. “I won’t ask you for anything else.”

She nodded at Sean and released him. His grin was as big as his whoop. “Thanks, Mr. Ben! Bye, Jacob.” He marched off, leaving quickly, Dairine knew, in case she changed her mind.

Walking backwards, she edged away from Ben. “The figs will ripen in July. I’ll bring you a jar of preserves when school starts again.” Before he could answer she turned around and followed her brother home.
Teresa Tumminello Brader was born in New Orleans and lives in the area still, not far from a levee that is currently being strengthened. Her short stories are online and in print, most recently in Coming Home: A 2010 Main Street Rag Short Fiction Anthology. Her latest poem appears in All Rights Reserved, but her favorite one is in Halfway Down the Stairs.



© 2011, Teresa Tumminello Brader