Cartoon Romania

by Adina Davis

We're out on the deck clearing the table for birthday cake when the crows, normally raucous at dusk and dawn, fall silent. Even the breeze stills.

"Mom," Laura whispers, "he's here." She holds dirtied paper plates in her hands. This is hardly, I will think later, the way you'd choose to greet the infinite. The setting sun divides the sky in half, the west a drama of golden swirls, the east awash in the cottony pinks and blues you might use to paint a baby's room. It's late summer. The autumnal tang in the evening air makes me ache.

"Inside," I say.

Laura backs through the open slider into the kitchen. I follow, pulling the door shut, locking it for good measure. Ben stands in front of the refrigerator like he's been lined up before a firing squad. "I didn't take anything," he says. Chocolate frosting smears his cheek.

"It's okay," I say, though of course it isn't, nothing is. "Turn out the light and come over here."


"Shut up, turn out the light, and get over here," Laura says.

"You shut up," says Ben.

Laura burrows against me, her thumb in her mouth.

"Ben," I say. "Turn out the light, please. Now."

I'm actually sort of surprised when the room goes dark. Discipline is iffy these days. Ben comes and stands beside me. I've got him on one side, Laura on the other. "What are we looking at?" he asks.

"Are you blind?" Laura says.

"Are you stupid?"

"I'm not."

"Quiet," I say. "Or I'll ship the both of you off to Romania." This phrase of Lee's used to make the twins giggle. He's been gone now nine months, one week, three days, bringing us to today, the twins' ninth birthday. But now, instead of giggling, Laura bursts into tears. I tighten my arm around her. Her body feels impossibly, frighteningly small.

"Finally!" Ben shouts. "The moose is here!"

Just last week, rumors surfaced of some kind of large animal at the outskirts of town. People claimed to hear a strange, hollow bellow, to find stripped tree bark and gnawed, broken branches in their yards. Then came actual moose sightings. When we first heard the news, Ben opened the phone book to its back pages featuring street maps of surrounding towns, including Wharton, our own. With each reported sighting, he plotted the moose's trajectory in blue-inked magic marker. Three miles out, Glen and Delia Riley watched it paddle across their brand new in-ground pool. Two miles, Joyce Perseus spotted it meandering through the Food Master parking lot. Half a mile, a crowd gathered as it lumbered down Main Street, hugging the yellow center line. Six blocks away, Lila Ames called 9-1-1 when she found it munching on the fuchsias hanging from the basket on her front porch. By the time police and Animal Control arrived, the moose had disappeared. Last night, a pack of older boys approached it as it stood in the playground of Ben and Laura's school just three streets away. "I knew it," Ben declared. "He's on his way here." Though it should have known better, the moose seemed to have no fear of humans. It stood still as the boys came close and closer. It nuzzled grass and mushrooms right from their hands.

"He's eeeenormous." Ben pronounces the word the way he did as a toddler, drawing it out, matching sound to concept. Since Lee's been gone, we've all regressed in various ways.

Laura raises her sodden face and studies the moose. Fantastically out of place, it circles the swing set the twins have long outgrown. "He's scary," she says, pressing her face back into my chest.

The moose is all chin and belly, its antlers magnificent, ridiculous. Ben puffs his chest out. "He doesn't scare me."

Wharton, Massachusetts is a dot on the map eight miles outside of Boston, nowhere near Alaska or Canada or Maine. It's not bucolic or sylvan or woodsy. No word you'd use to describe our town would even remotely contain the possibility of such a large piece of wild life in it as a moose. Around our house, we've seen the occasional rabbit and the evidence of raccoons. One night, Lee, putting the garbage out, spotted a possum, a big, ugly creature, he reported. But, aside from the squirrels chasing one another through the birches like they're auditioning for Disney, most animals in our neighborhood tend to be domestic, chocolate labs that walk calmly tethered to strollers, cats that sun themselves on car hoods, then slink home for dinner. We live on the corner of Erin Drive and Brian Road, streets named after the developer's children. Our neighborhood is crowded, small homes built so closely together that you can almost lean out your window and shake hands with your next-door neighbor leaning out his. You can barely have a conversation that someone doesn't overhear.

"Mom," says Ben. "You think he's hungry?"

"Probably not," I say. "People have been feeding it all over town."

"What does he eat?" Laura asks.

"Grass. Flowers. Twigs. Branches. You know," Ben says, sounding like the host of some PBS children's show, "things that are found in nature."

"Twigs and branches?" Laura gazes somberly out the slider. "You mean he eats trees?"

"Well, parts of them. Mostly the bark."

"Pine trees?" asks Laura.

"All kinds," Ben says. "Whatever's around. Pine, oak, birch, maple."

"Look at you." I ruffle his hair, thick and blond like mine. "Our resident moose expert."

"Yeah." He smiles proudly. For an instant Lee's face is replicated in Ben's crescent mouth, the upturn at the corner of his eyes. "I kinda am."

Lee was on a ladder fifteen feet up, stringing Christmas lights on Wharton Common's Scotch pine when he fell, leaving a Lee-sized dent in the hard ground. He seemed okay at first, his co-workers told me, but then he grew breathless and shocky. They called an ambulance. He died in the ER while I was on my way to him, nervous but certain he was okay. Over and over, I dream whole conversations in which I ask him the questions that obsess me: Were you in pain? Did you see a white light? What I want him to answer is no and yes, and that his last thoughts were peaceful ones of the four of us. Instead he grumbles about projects around the house he hadn't finished or never got to, drywall in the laundry room, bookcases for the twins.

Before the accident, I'd been a blithe believer that things always worked out for the best, that when a door shuts behind you, one in front inevitably opens. Now I wonder that the three of us are still here. We're ghosts as much as Lee is, artifacts from some ancient kind of life, here one minute and gone the next with as little ceremony or warning as words erased from a blackboard.

Ben moves toward the handle on the slider door. I throw my arm out the way Lila Ames, the school crossing guard, signals cars to a halt, blocking Ben's path. "You're not going out there."

"He won't hurt me."

"Just because you knew he was coming here," Laura tells him, her voice muffled, "doesn't mean you know everything."

"But I do," he protests. "I researched."

"We can watch it perfectly well from right here," I say.

Laura clings to me, her arms around my waist. "This is exactly my dream," she whispers. For months now she's been having recurring nightmares in which some kind of "thing," not quite a monster, she explains, but more like some weird net, grabs people and makes them disappear.

"Sweetie, we're safe in here. Everything is fine." Even as I say it, I wonder how I can make that promise to my daughter, who knows better.

"I wish Daddy were here," she says. "He'd make him go away."

"Don't say that word," Ben says.

"Daddy," Laura says. "Daddy, daddy, daddy."

Sometimes, hearing a jet engine overhead, Lee would tell the kids stories about the passengers and where they were headed: a bullfight in Madrid, a space station on the moon. If they were acting up, the plane's destination became Romania, our back yard its next stop.

"Oh, Dad." Laura would roll her eyes. "No plane could land here. It's too teensy."

For me, the word Romania conjures up Ceacescu, orphaned first-graders condemned to cribs, adolescent prostitutes roaming the drab Bucharest streets. "Of all places," I'd chide him. But for Lee, Romania was Bela Lugosi with his shoe polish hair, swooning virgins, a hoisted crucifix, the moon brilliant between the brambles of twisted trees. In Lee's cartoon Romania, death was solely a special effect.

The sky has turned a uniform deep blue. Only the very tops of the trees, leafy emerald triangles, are still illuminated. Dusk smudges our yard and its contents: shrubs, tomato garden, bikes and build-a-bears, swing set, moose. The balloons I tied on the deck railing before dinner have lost some air. Sagging, their golden "Happy Birthday" message looks off-kilter, mournful. The moose dwarfs the swings. We stare at it. It stares back. Lee would've found the fact of a moose in our yard delightful. He'd have managed to turn it into a Learning Experience, fun and educational. He would have, I realize, taken pictures.

"Ben, go get the camera."

"No way. What if he leaves while I'm gone? Laura, you go."

Her arms tighten around my waist. "Unh unh."

"Mom," he says. "It's up to you."

"Yeah, right. The minute I left this room, you'd be out the door."

"I wouldn't. I promise. I swear."

"We'll all go." I conjure up an image of the three of us roped together like miners traversing a tunnel, dangerous and underlit.

"No way!" says Ben. "I'm not missing a minute of this."

"And I'm not leaving you here by yourself."

"Maybe we can all just remember really hard," Laura says, and closes her eyes.

Lee and I met at Boston University our junior year. We were dating other people and the four of us often went out together to ball games or rock clubs. When his friend dumped me and my friend dumped him, we got together to commiserate. I'd always thought he was kind of goofy, but one-on-one, he charmed me. I laughed when he pretended to stumble on a crack in the sidewalk, sprawling face down on Comm. Ave., scattering passersby. He'd catch his nose (the large Italian, he called it) between the pages of closing textbooks. Once, walking down Mass. Ave., he held me on a subway grate so that my skirt flared in the wind from the train passing beneath us. "Just like Marilyn Monroe," he grinned. "Only better."

Over the past nine months, I've spied him a hundred times walking down the street or waiting just ahead of me in line at the Food Master. I knew it! I think and my whole body lightens. Then I realize that it's just some stranger who's alive when Lee's not, and I turn heavy and cold.

"He's on the move!" Ben shouts. We watch breathlessly as the moose ambles toward the house. It seems to me that it has, oddly, Lee's knock-kneed gait.

"He's coming inside." Laura's body goes rigid.

"He weighs about a thousand pounds," Ben informs us. "If he wanted to, he could break the door down no problem."

"Make him go away," she pleads.

The moose stops suddenly at the Rose of Sharon by the deck. It runs a slender branch sideways through its mouth, dewlap swinging loosely.

"But he won't hurt us," Ben says. The moose releases the branch.

Laura's voice rises to a shriek. "Make him go away!"

The last time we saw Lee alive was the afternoon he'd gone to help hang the Christmas lights. It was an astoundingly ordinary Saturday, forgettable had it been any other day. The weather was mild for early December, no ice, no snow, no wind. The kids were in the living room playing Sims on the computer. Lee and I were in the narrow foyer. He pulled his parka out of the closet and said he guessed he'd be back around four. I said I'd make lasagna for dinner. He said he'd pick up some garlic bread and a bottle of wine on his way home. He shrugged into his parka and bent to kiss me goodbye. His moustache, bristly and full, tickled my upper lip. He'd had it since we were pregnant with the twins. I think he thought it made him look older. With his round cheeks and creamy skin, his soft brown hair flopping on his forehead, he just looked like a young guy with a big mustache, not a thirty-something husband and father of two. He called to the kids. Absorbed in their game, they barely said goodbye.

I inch toward the phone. Laura is wrapped tightly against my side. I remove the receiver from the hook, press the on button. It beeps.

"Who are you calling?" Ben asks.


"Why? He's not doing anything wrong."

"It doesn't belong here."

"Don't," Ben pleads. "They'll just kill him."

"Sweetie, they'll just make it sleep so they can bring it back to wherever it came from."

"You don't know that. They might not mean to kill him, but they could. Accidents happen all the time."

I stand with the receiver in my hand. He'll get no argument from me there. The moose stands by the bush, munching peacefully.

"Please," Laura whimpers. "Don't let him get me."

"I'm sorry," I tell Ben, and punch in the 9.

That last afternoon, the twins and I were in the kitchen building the lasagna. Laura was smearing ricotta and basil over noodles. Ben grated mozzarella. The phone rang. I answered it. A policeman was on the other end. He said there'd been an accident, that Lee was at the hospital. "Is he all right?" Sure that he was, I waited for confirmation.

"Mrs. Tanzini," he said quietly. "Just get here as quick as you can."

Lee had the car, so I called my dad to pick me up. Then I phoned Joyce Perseus to see if she'd stay with the twins. Ben calls her our butt-end neighbor. Our backyards abut. She came right over.

Dad arrived in record time, peeling into the driveway in his ancient white Cutlass. "Lee's fine," he assured me. "He's young, he's healthy. Them not telling you anything over the phone, it's just procedure." In the car, he kept turning the volume on the tape player down and I kept turning it back up. "He's fine," I agreed. "Just legalese," Dad said. "Doesn't mean anything." I repeated the words like a mantra, he's fine, fine, fine in rhythm with Johnny Cash's burning ring of fire snaking from the speakers loud soft loud soft loud like a bad phone connection.

The doctor met us in the hospital lobby. I should've known when I saw her face. Still, when she told us Lee was dead, I thought it was a joke he put her up to.

"You're totally overreacting." Ben lunges for the door. Laura's weight, however slight, anchors me on the opposite side of the kitchen. He unlocks the glass door and pulls it open. I can't unwrap her. He slides open the screen door and squeezes outside.

Laura starts to scream.

They gave me his belongings in a large, clear plastic bag. His watch, his wallet, his wedding ring. His clothes. Blue and brown and white checked flannel shirt, blue wool sweater, jeans, mismatched socks, one brown, one black. Scuffed black work boots. Green parka. At the hospital, they'd had to tear clothes off him to get to his heart. After Joyce and my dad left, the twins and I huddled on the couch, the parka wrapped around us. Ben ate cereal out of the box. "I'm starving to death," he said. He kept bobbing up for more food: crackers, jello, the remains of a pizza Joyce Perseus had ordered in.

"Ben," I said. "Come sit with us." Laura lay with her head on my lap. I stroked her soft brown hair. Her knees were drawn up to her chest and she sucked her thumb, a habit she'd given up years earlier in anticipation of kindergarten, when she'd decided to be a big girl. Eventually Ben settled, cuddling next to me, his head on my shoulder, my head leaned on his. We spent the night like that, crying on the couch, unwilling to move upstairs, into our separate beds, far from the front door through which, at any minute, Lee might walk. We wanted him to tell us it was a mistake, that he'd been to Romania and it wasn't all it was cracked up to be and man, was he glad to be home.

"Laura, let me go."

But she clings tighter. "Let me go." I try to shake her off. "Laura. Let me go." The panic in my voice slams around the room.

"Mama," Laura sobs. But she loosens her grip.

"Call 9-1-1." Pressing the phone into her moist hand, I slip out, closing the screen door behind me. I hear the phone clatter onto the linoleum floor like a dropped toy. In the yard, Ben lays a hand on the moose's enormous flank. The animal is about six feet, as tall as Lee was.

"Ben," I say softly. "Get away from the moose."

"I told you he wouldn't hurt us."

"Please, Ben. Come back inside." We study one another, the moose and I. In the brown, spongy light, it looks cartoonish, like Ebenezer Scrooge with his tiny nearsighted eyes and bulbous nose. Its antlers resemble satellite dishes with tubes sticking up out of them. The moose vocalizes a quiet urr urr. I wonder what it sees when it looks at us.

"I knew you'd come back," Ben croons, laying his face against the moose's side.

Ben hasn't cried since that night, at least not in my presence. I try to talk to him about his father, but he doesn't want to hear it. Instead, he eats. My once-lithe little boy now has a belly that puffs out over the waistband of his shorts. Every morning I have to walk the twins to school, otherwise Laura refuses to go. If she could, she'd follow me to work, curl up in a fetal position beneath my desk, clutch my ankles. We are floundering. Anger at the deceased, I'm told, is a perfectly normal reaction, but once it passes, you feel silly and small.

Behind me, the screen door opens. I turn. Laura stands in the threshold, looking hopeful. "Mom," she whispers. "I think he came for cake. If we have some, he'll go away."

The moose seems peaceable, even polite. It allows Ben to stroke it as calmly as if it were his pet. "Cake would be awesome," Ben says.

"If you come up onto the deck, I'll go get it," I tell him.

"Mom," he protests.

"I mean it, Ben. On the deck or no cake. And I call 9-1-1."

Shoulders slumped, kicking the risers, Ben climbs the steps.

"Do not move," I say.

I snap the kitchen lights on. Hiding is pointless now. In the refrigerator the cake sits on a white plate. I take it out and bring it to the counter. Through chocolate frosting, I push nine candles and one to grow on. Dig out matches from the junk drawer. Laura gathers clean paper plates, plastic forks, the cake knife that had been a wedding present. I light the candles and lift the cake plate. "He won't hurt me," says Laura.

"No," I tell her. "I don't think it will." Shielding the miniature flames with one hand, I step out onto the deck, Laura behind me. I place the cake on the picnic table. The twins gather round. They incline their heads toward the cake, their faces illuminated and shadowed in the flickering light. Together they blow out the candles, which flare up and out. Smoke trails into the crisp night air. Katydids are in full chorus, jingling like sleigh bells. The moose urrs.

"I wish he'd stay forever," Ben says quietly.

Laura cuts the cake into thick triangles. "It won't come true if you say it out loud."

"It doesn't matter," he says. "He'll have to leave eventually."

"That's the way it works," I say. God, if there is such a creature, is a trickster. You wait for one impossible thing and what you get is another.

Laura tips wedges of cake onto four paper plates. She hands Ben and I ours, pushes another along the table toward the moose. "A toast," Ben says, as Lee would have done. He raises his plate.

"A toast," Laura echoes.

"A toast," I say. "To your birthday."

The moose stands quietly in the darkening night, his eyes a gentle brown. It's easy to believe that he regards us with kindness.

Laura forks a piece of cake, moves it toward her mouth. "He'll be gone any minute."

"At least we have him for now," Ben says.

Adina Davis lives in Belmont, Massachusetts. She is a member of the writing group Bay State Scribblers.