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The Things We Wish Were True
Author:Marybeth Mayhew Whalen

The Things We Wish Were True

Marybeth Mayhew Whalen


Sycamore Glen

Neighborhood Pool

Matthews, North Carolina


Cutter and I were there when they opened the Sycamore Glen pool for the summer. So I actually saw, with my own eyes, the spider web that was woven across the gate, keeping all the people from just walking right on in like they’d done every year. Our new neighbors shuffled their feet and sighed real loud as they waited for the lifeguards to figure out what to do. They held their towels and coolers and floats and bags and stared at the web, as if they could burn it down with their eyes like superheroes.

We all took in the large spider, round and yellow with black stripes, sitting smack-dab in the middle of that web. It seemed to be waiting for us, as if it had a message to deliver before the summer could begin, like that spider in Charlotte’s Web. But no one wanted to hear that spider’s message. All they could think of was how to get it out of the way so they could get on with their fun.

Some of the boys grabbed sticks and tried to poke at the spider, the desire to destroy wound up in their DNA like we’d learned about in science class. They brandished the sticks like swords, content to fence with them when their mothers wouldn’t let them kill the spider.

I could feel Cutter beside me, wanting to join in with them yet knowing he couldn’t. His body was tense, his inner self trying to get over to those boys even as his arms and legs stayed still. I didn’t say a word to him or make a move. I didn’t have to. Cutter knew how it was without my ever having to tell him. Much as he wanted to be, Cutter wasn’t like those boys.

Meanwhile, the girls huddled in fear, clutching at each other with more drama than necessary, shrieking so loudly that one of the lifeguards covered his ears, and the parents rolled their eyes and told the girls to be quiet. I didn’t shriek, of course. I wasn’t like those girls any more than Cutter was like those boys. So I just watched that spider, feeling bad that all its hard work was being knocked down. I hoped that no one would hurt it, that someone would stop those boys from killing the poor thing when the mothers weren’t watching anymore. Cutter and I stood, the two of us, off to the side, apart from the crowd.

One of the lifeguards got a stick and used it to gently move the spider from its web, then let it down into the grass without causing it harm. A couple of the boys pretended to find it and stomp on it after he’d let it go. Then the other lifeguard used another stick to knock down the web, allowing the crowd that had gathered to get into the pool area. The web was quickly forgotten, and they ambled in as if nothing had happened. They slathered on sunscreen, cracked open beers, and pretty much ignored their kids while they caught up on all that had happened in the past nine months. That pool brought this neighborhood together, but only in the summer.

It rained that afternoon, and everyone had to run for their cars in the downpour, grumbling about a day cut short, calling out to each other that this was a bad beginning to the summer season. They ran out the same gate through which they’d entered, forgetting that spider ever existed. Later I would think about that spider, wondering what its message to us might have been and how it might have made a difference if we had all paid attention.


Zell Boyette made her way gingerly down the stairs, gripping the handrail, grateful for it. She used to just fly down those steps, her feet barely lighting on them as she rushed from one activity to the next—book club, church, neighborhood board meetings, lunch dates with friends. John used to scold her, “You’re gonna hurt yourself!” She had hurt herself, but that was not how she’d done it.

She did her best to walk normally as she entered the kitchen, where John was having his coffee at the table and peering at his computer screen, looking confused. He glanced up and saw her there. “Mornin’,” he said.

She poured herself a cup of coffee and joined him at the table, laying her hand on his. “You hungry?” she asked. They’d had some form of this exact conversation for the last thirty years.

He shrugged. “I’ll eat something if you make it.” This was his standard answer.

She hobbled over to the pantry. She could feel his eyes watching her and knew what he wasn’t saying just as surely as if he’d said it out loud. John was worried about her knee, always bugging her to see a doctor. When he’d asked her what she’d done to it after it first happened, she’d told him she’d hurt it running. That was close enough to the truth for it not to be a lie.

She set about making them some granola and yogurt parfaits with blueberries, but a knock on the door interrupted her. The knock was light and hesitant and one she’d become accustomed to hearing at least once a day. She opened the back door to reveal little Alec from the house next door. He looked up at her from under bangs that needed trimming. She should offer her grooming services to his father, tell him how she used to trim her own boys’ hair when they were Alec’s age.

Lance would say no, wave his hands as if he were putting the final flourish on a magic trick that would make it all go away. He would assure her that everything was fine, that he’d been meaning to take Alec and Lilah for haircuts. Then he’d get that anxious look that made her worry for him. The man was going to have a heart attack before age forty.

“Hi, Mrs. Boyette,” Alec said. He attempted in vain to push his bangs from his eyes. “My dad said ta ask you if you had any milk.” The boy shook his head and looked at the ground as if his father’s ineptness was too much to bear. “He forgot to get some at the store again.” Alec had been on her doorstep just yesterday asking for the exact same thing. She’d handed over her remaining milk, which wasn’t much, then limped to the grocery store to fetch more. Part of her wanted to say that she couldn’t keep supplying them with milk and other items. But the other part—the bigger part—knew that of course she would.

“Of course I do, Alec,” she said, giving the boy a smile to put him at ease. She retrieved the milk from the fridge and handed him the full gallon. Alec accepted the milk with a little oof sound, then cradled the gallon like a small child he had to protect with his life, the condensation from the carton wetting the front of his T-shirt, which already had a chocolate syrup stain down the center.

“Enjoy your cereal,” she told him. She knew those children were eating terribly. She didn’t approve of Lance giving them sugary cereals, but he hadn’t asked her opinion, and she suspected that, while he appreciated her help, he couldn’t care less what she thought. But that didn’t stop her from wondering what Debra would think if she could see her children with their unkempt hair and dirty fingernails, their sallow complexions and the little rolls of fat accumulating around their bellies. She fingered the belt on her robe. Not unlike her own stomach. They’d all changed since last fall.

She waved goodbye, but Alec couldn’t return the gesture with his hands full of milk. “Thanks, Mrs. Boyette,” he said instead, then turned to head home.

And then, because she cared about the family next door—perhaps a little too much, if truth be told—and because of something in the way Alec’s little shoulders slumped forward, as if the weight of the world were contained in that gallon of milk, she called after him, halting his steps.

“Will you guys be heading to the pool today for the opening?” She pictured Debra that first year after Alec was born, floating him around in the pool in one of those little baby boats. He’d worn a sun hat with a brim that kept flopping in his eyes, and he’d laughed a delicious baby laugh. Debra had tipped her head back and laughed with him.