I was good friends with a drunken sailor who had a Volkswagen Beetle that he called Hitler’s Revenge.
He appeared at the door with a bucket. I was reading in an old wingback chair. I pretended he wasn’t there. He banged insistently, having the audacity to shout, “I see you. I know you’re in there. Answer the door it’s an emergency.” I sighed and rolled my eyes. I left my favorite threadbare seat and opened the door. “How may I help you?” He needed fresh water. I showed him to the kitchen tap. Although we were yet to be properly introduced, I knew who he was. He lived across the street in the boatyard aboard a gaff rigged Tahiti ketch, Alice Elizabeth, hunter green hull with a buff deck and varnished wood cabin and masts. Once his bucket was full, I turned on my heel, impatient to get back to my book, and headed for the door to show him out. “What are you doing?” “I’m reading.” Oh. Good then you can help me, it won’t take a minute.” “Help you do what exactly?” “It won’t take a minute, c’mon.”
Four hours later we had completed the installation of a seacock. He thanked me, stuck out his somewhat greasy hand and introduced himself, “Ambrose Stewart; call me Stew, everyone does. I shook his hand “Stew is dull, I’ll call you Ambrose. You may call me Lucy, diminutive of Lucinda.” “Very well, Lucy, let’s see if we can hustle up a drink somewhere.” I looked at him. “I’m not accustomed to drinking.” “Why not? Teetotaler? Alcoholic?” “I’m fourteen.” He looked aghast for a moment, giving me a quick once over, “What the hell, you’ll be eighteen someday. Let’s go.”
(The first episode in this series is titled Richard’s Story due to Richard Daybell’s suggestion that an observation I made would be a good sentence to begin a story. As usual, letting the story tell me and hoping for the best.)
He was a beautiful young man. His hair grew in black ringlets down to his collar in the back. He wore gold rimmed spectacles. That’s what he called them, spectacles. He was blind without them. Alice Elizabeth was in the yard, the yard that my family used to own, for all of the years I was in high school. Ambrose worked on her and worked at odd jobs to outfit her for the circumnavigation he intended to make. He’d had an unfortunate mishap in the Azores before he arrived unannounced at the boatyard.
He accepted me as the precocious kid I was. We were good friends. My father accepted Ambrose as part of the family. He was relieved to see me interested in people rather than books. My mother ran off when the money ran out, after we lost the boatyard. My father didn’t know what to do with a girl my age. Any time Ambrose had use for a second pair of hands to install new fittings, he barged right through the back door to our house bellowing for all to hear, “Lucy, Lucy, you have to see the new stainless steal/brass widget that just came for Alice; it’s beautiful, you’re gonna love it!” I didn’t hide from him. He was interesting. He was gracious, the product of mountains of old money. He was unorthodox, genuinely unaffected. Celestial navigation allowed him to see the world from a different angle.
During the winter he gave me rides to school in Hitler’s Revenge. We smoked a lot of free hash back then. The olfactory memory of the oily pine aroma is still with me. Fish prices had bottomed out, leaving fishermen without income to keep them afloat. A fishing boat ran aground on a rocky ledge not far offshore, smashing a gushing, big, hole through the hull. The owners frantically dumped canisters of hash overboard before they called the Coast Guard. Canisters were found along the coast for miles. It was rumored that a wholesale fish buyer sold so much of it that he called the IRS, from a phone booth, to find out how he should claim the cash on his return, to which the IRS told him that where he acquired his product and what it was didn’t concern them as long as income was claimed and taxes were paid. Smuggling was part of the freewheeling world in which we lived.
Ambrose taught me how to sail, giving me the joy of competence. I was happy sailing. When the boat was heeled over, with her rails about to dip into the bay, I soared, high on elemental freedom and free hash. I was at least ten years younger than his friends, who tolerated my presence in the same way that they did Noah’s golden retriever, Numbnuts. Noah was the optimistic owner of an old brigantine hull that he was rebuilding and intended to christen Free Love. His real name was Ed. He’d been to a boatbuilding school and learned fundamental marine carpentry and that was the extent of his knowledge. His dream was to create a floating utopia of unlimited sexual gratification. In the time that I knew him his dream was never realized.
The sailing community was extensive. It was common for people to arrive without notice and to depart under a dark cloud of melodrama. Ambrose was not without female companionship. He was very handsome. There were women who were not very fond of me; typically, prima donnas lounging on deck in their bikinis expecting someone else to do the work. Ambrose was solicitous of them but quickly lost interest when they treated Alice as a prop. Eventually, the unions would disintegrate for want of more conventional living arrangements. There were some adult situations that I didn’t fully understand. A couple of times Ambrose became romantically involved with other men’s wives. The men minded, very much. They sulked and scowled, getting drunk and making nuisances of themselves while they waited for their wives to return from the marital hiatus. There were few things I couldn’t discuss with him. I didn’t discuss those relationships because I wasn’t ready to know what precipitated them. I felt sorry for the husbands.
I was growing up and mismanaging my own affairs of the heart. Ambrose was constant. He met the boys in my life, keeping watch. None of my boyfriends ever thought it strange that I spent an inordinate amount of time with him. They viewed Alice as an extension of my home. Sometimes it felt a little bit like they were more interested in Ambrose than they were in me. He was fascinating. He taught me the I Ching and lent me his Edgar Cayce book on Atlantis. He encouraged political discussion and disruption. He was never unhappy to see me.
Although my family no longer owned the boatyard, my father retained an interest in it. I didn’t understand how we lost the yard and the money; yet, my father crossed the street every day to the yard and acted as though nothing had changed. Ambrose, being knowledgeable, and to the manor born, proved to be an asset to the yard and was offered a position, which included free yard rental for Alice and unrestricted use of shop tools and resources, for as long as he cared to stay.
At the end of August, the wealthy made a mass retreat back to their real lives on Wall Street. I couldn’t wait for September to arrive. I knew when the last of the moneybags had departed by Ambrose’s excited command, “Lucy, Richard, come at once! The sea trails are about to begin.” The sea trials crew consisted of Ambrose, Kindhearted Richard, and me. Kindhearted Richard was the yard engineer. He spent his time working on boat engines, repairing what he described as what was “buggered”. Richard was one of my most favorite people. He indulged me, from the moment my mother left for greener pastures in parts unknown. When it was revealed, in dismal algebra grades, that I did not have a knack for the exact sciences, Richard became my tutor. He took me to the shop and demonstrated the practical uses algebra had for a “girl who loves boats”. Richard was a happy, funny person, never too busy to share a laugh and sprinkle stardust on an otherwise dismal day.
We looked forward to “sea trails”. Sometimes they were legitimate undertakings, when engine repairs were tested, but more commonly they were sailing excursions on world class Cheoy Lees, Morgans, Aldens, and Hinckleys; one last sail before winter haul out. Ambrose would be in the cockpit. Richard manned the lines while I scrambled aboard to his, “All aboard that’s coming aboard. If you can’t get aboard, grab a shingle.” After sea trials concluded, and the last boat was hauled, there was a big party for the yard workers in the sales offices. Furnishings were rearranged and a dance floor was set up in the parking lot, friends and families brought food, a pig was roasted, kegs were tapped and we had ourselves a grand time. I drank beer from the keg just like the rest of the workers and no one said I shouldn’t. I confided to Richard that I’d been asked to the homecoming dance but I had no idea how to manage the footwork. Saying, “We’ll soon rectify that!” he grabbed me by the arm and taught me how to find and keep the beat with a quick little knee maneuver that brings him to mind every time I’m on the dance floor. Next to Ambrose, Kindhearted Richard was significant in forming my perception that life was good.
My father, Ambrose, Richard, and even Noah, watched me load my bags into the back of Frankie’s Coupe DeVille. Frankie was older than the yard. He began his career when my grandfather built the business and stayed when my father took over. Nobody but me called him Frankie. He had to drive to Boston to retrieve parts for a boat repair. The parts had been lost in transit, twice, and Frankie wasn’t taking any chances on a third time. It just so happened that his mission coincided with my scheduled departure to college. I leaned out the window, as far as I could, and waved until we crested the hill and I couldn’t see them anymore. I was sadly excited and relieved to have Frankie’s solid comfort in the driver’s seat beside me.
College was not at all what I had hoped for. I wasn’t as giddy from freedom as the rest of the kids my age. I did not adapt well. The girls were silly and helpless. The boys were wastrel bores who had nothing to teach me. I could drink most of them under the table and work harder than all of them combined. The environment was strange, a landlocked, bucolic little place, with a bunch of stuffy brick buildings interrupted by orderly quads and greens. For a short while, I thought I might learn something useful. I lived for breaks and summer vacation. I couldn’t get my bags packed and my thumb stuck out fast enough to get me home to the yard and the people I cared about.
My father, using Ambrose as a conduit, hoped to establish me in the sales office. I was having no part of it. I spent three quarters of the year trapped inside and I was not going to spend my summers confined to an office. Ambrose told me, “Lucy, you can’t live your life in the yard, there’s no future in it.” It was too late. From their examples, I’d learned to plot my own course. I spent the summer working on the fuel dock in the early mornings and sanding and varnishing brightwork for the remainder of the day. I did not return to college. Instead, I signed on to deliver a pleasure trawler to Marathon Key for the winter season. My plan was to find winter work once I reached the Keys. My father, Ambrose, and Frankie dispensed words of caution. My father found me, the afternoon before I left, sitting in one of the worn Adirondack chairs at the front of our house, looking down past the lawn to the channel beyond. He took a seat in the chair next to mine as he reached out for my hand. “You know, in my wildest dreams this isn’t the life I thought you’d choose. I’m afraid I’ve raised you more like a son than a daughter. You’ve become an amazing young woman, pretty and strong. If you find the world isn’t to your liking, just remember you’re only a phone call and a plane ticket away from home.” Ambrose was concise as we sipped our sunset gin and tonics, “Beware of the emotional parasites, Lucy. Don’t let them suck the life out of you.” Frankie was at the dock for a hug before we left, “Don’t forget where home is, Lucy.”
I loved the Keys. I fell into a job as crew, on a charter fishing boat, when the mate was too drunk to go and the captain was desperate. I helped fat, old, white guys from the mid-west catch and land trophy fish. My abdomen was covered in black and blue polka dots from the strain of the rods as I fought fish so they could have their pictures taken to show their buddies back home. I wasn’t crazy about working on motorboats; I’ve always preferred wind over power, but I took advantage of the opportunity to learn from Buccaneer Billy, the boat owner. Billy’s moniker was bestowed on him for his allegiance to the Tampa Bay football team. It was a double entendre, aptly describing the old pirate’s business acumen for exploiting the dreams of landlocked, office dwelling, men.
I flew home for a few days in June. I worked in the yard for most of my visit, if work can be defined as visiting everyone while they were working. For the first time, the yard seemed small and everyone looked older. It was unsettling.
Meanwhile, in Marathon Key, Buccaneer Billy had hired another deckhand for the short term. Cooper was finishing undergraduate work at the University of West Florida in Pensacola. He came to work for Billy to earn enough money to survive his final year. He was smart and focused. He read, a lot, just like me. He knew things I didn’t. We’d go to Big Pine Key, late at night, and lie on our bellies on a dock he knew about, looking at an astronomy book with a red light, then we’d flip over on our backs to find obscure stars and constellations. I knew a little bit about celestial navigation but relied heavily on electronics. He knew a lot. I saved all my money, called Ambrose for advice, and bought him a quality sextant for his birthday. I fell so hard.
He went back to Pensacola for that final year. I spent all my money going to see him. He was accepted into a graduate program at Woods Hole Oceanographic. I knew how much he wanted it so I wanted it for him. I was afraid he’d get it. I was on my best behavior, hoping he’d ask me to go too. He didn’t. After he got there, he changed his mind when I lied and told him not to call me because I was seeing other guys. During our drunken, late night, telephone marathons Ambrose warned, “Lying for love takes the magic away.” I didn’t listen. Ambrose was kind enough to make a small loan to me so I could get to Massachusetts. I got a job waitressing and cleaned houses in my spare time. We found ourselves a little apartment where I was happy to do whatever was necessary to keep the love alive.
Cooper and I lived on the top floor of an old, two-story, hip roofed, building. When the wind blew hard from the northeast in the winter, snow drifted in on the sills and the windows frosted over on the inside. The cold didn’t bother me. I wore long flannel granny gowns with wool socks and a sweatshirt to bed at night. We were young; after a little while our clothes were off, piled under the pillows until morning or until the cold crept in under the covers. Cooper’s parents drove their BMW up from Westchester County. Normally, we kept the heat turned down and piled clothes on, for Cooper’s parents we cranked the heat. They were subtle cultured people. Both of them seemed to like me. Later Cooper told me his dad had said to him, “You’ll break her heart.” They saw. In the late spring I went with him to spend the weekend sailing on their Pierson 10 meter. They were surprised that I could sail, not impressed, just not expecting ability. The following Thanksgiving I took Cooper home to the boatyard. By that time I was fully assimilated in his family, in my imagination.
I knew I could trust my father, Ambrose, Richard, Frankie, and even Noah to keep my secrets but I wasn’t as certain of other people in town. I’d lived my life independent of convention. It was safe to assume that I was not part of a large membership of young ladies to leave for the prom in a lovely formal with matching shoes and clutch, returning in the wee hours of the morning, clad only in my underthings without the foggiest notion of where I had left my prom dress and accessories. Cooper didn’t have a similar background. He spent the visit listening to my father and all of the boatyard cronies. He was charmed, by Ambrose, especially. At night lying beneath the eaves in my twin bed he’d remark, “It’s like being a character in a novel. I can’t believe you grew up with them.” He was envious of the direct communication all of us had with each other. His family was too polite to say what they thought. Before we left for Massachusetts, Ambrose took me aside, “Lucy he will only hurt you if you let him. Don’t let him.” I hugged Ambrose, a little bit annoyed but appreciative of his meddling concern, “You worry too much.”
I followed Cooper around like a motherless child. He became my dream. The truth of it was I had no dream beyond being paired. His family introduced me to a manner of living that was novel in my experience. His dad wore tweed sport jackets, his mom wore silk blouses and pearls, his siblings were over achievers, all of them had advanced degrees and doctorates. Birthdays did not slip by without celebration. Thought went into choosing surprises that were the recipient’s heart’s desire. They exerted effort to get the hard edges off my square peg so it would fit smoothly into their round hole. I didn’t know why but I could not bring myself to surrender. Cooper’s career kicked into overdrive. Our standard of living improved. I don’t know that I would have lasted as long as I did if I hadn’t been such a reader. I knew a lot about his field. His friends became my friends. We moved to San Diego where he did research at Scripps. He was gone for weeks at a time. Though I didn’t realize it, I was subconsciously resentful of his ambition. There is always a backstory in research, academic jealousy fuels great discovery. Cooper was motivated by money. He began to talk with oil interests. I began to sleep with his colleagues.
I hadn’t been home since I was there with Cooper. I tripped the light fantastic and followed where he led, believing that his way of life would be superior to mine, that my attributes were less than his. Home seemed quaintly parochial. I wrote to my father and he wrote back. I became a prolific card mailer. Ambrose wrote long letters with all the news and comments from anyone else who cared to contribute. I looked forward to those long missives as proof that I was worth quite a lot to the people who really knew who I was. Ambrose and I continued to have telephone cocktails. We got trashed from coast to coast. Once, I passed out with the phone off the hook for hours, Cooper couldn’t contact me and, much to my surprise, he was in a panic when he finally got through. In those days, when I was seducing colleagues from Scripps, and elsewhere, I had a lot to say to Ambrose. The calls often began with a whisper- “Ambrose, it’s me. The most awful thing has happened. Cooper was supposed to be offshore for 3 months except he got home in the middle of the night. No, of course I was happy to see him. Anyhow, today, Scott, the scientist from NOAA I told you about, well, maybe not all about, stopped by to see if I needed anything downtown. Cooper opened the door and Scott asked if I was home. He said I was getting out of the shower so Scott just leaned in around him and called out to me. When Scott finally left Cooper came into the bathroom and asked me if I’d slept with him. What do you mean what did I say, what do you think I said? I looked right up at him and smiled and said No, why would you ever think that?” Ambrose lost patience. He counseled aborting the mission. “Why are you wasting your time punishing someone who isn’t even aware he’s committed a crime? Leave, leave while you still have some dignity to leave with.” Cooper was on the North Sea when I left.
I squandered a proportionate amount of time on Cooper. I had a lot of time ahead of me so I could spare the small donation I made to his endeavors. I won’t lie and pretend it didn’t provoke me to think of the many ways I deluded myself. He had some admirable traits but those were tempered by an unflattering tendency to sabotage others to advance his own agenda. It was hard to let go of the person I had imagined he was. I was too young to comprehend the certainty that my body would eventually fail me and I would lose the strength necessary to pursue the life I loved. Conformity issued repeated invitations that I refused to acknowledge. I followed my heart. My heart was barefoot on a boat somewhere. An accident manifested reality; I fell at the marina where I was working. One of the liveaboards held a management position for Omni Hotels. He offered me a job. I bought stockings and pumps and joined the proletariat trudging to work each day.
Hotels seemed to be a haven for vagabonds. I was surrounded by kindred spirits. The staff was mostly aspiring actors and gay men. Misadventures and drama abounded. My best friend was Geoffrey, a mid-west, Baptist preacher’s son. We matched. He was shunned by his hypocritical father because Geoff was gay and I had been rejected by my mother because she was selfish. He was irreverently funny. I remained prone to bad judgment. He was instrumental in guiding me away from impending doom. I met a former Navy SEAL who slept in a tree in Coronado. He was the wrong man at the right time. Geoff’s talent for detecting lunacy saved me from an unfortunate weekend romance, in the tree or elsewhere. He suggested a cocktail before I was supposed to meet the SEAL. A cocktail in San Diego morphed into a night in Vegas as the loud, proud patrons of a Liberace impersonator. The ride back to San Diego was a hangover induced blur, Geoff observed, “You’re out of the trees, another disaster averted.” Hospitality wasn’t a bad racket. There was opportunity for travel along with medical benefits and 401k. In spite of myself, I learned business applications.
My father, never a telephone conversationalist, called me. His request was brief, “Please come home. We need your help.” My father never asked anything of me, not one time. “I’m on my way.” I bought a ticket and I flew home. Kindhearted Richard and Frankie picked me up at the airport. Frankie was debilitated. He wasn’t driving the old DeVille, Richard was. Frankie used a walker to get around. His back and legs were too weak to drive. I hugged each of them, my heart wept at the sight of Frankie, wishing I had made more frequent trips back to them. They were my people. For the first time, it was stunningly clear that, contrary to the little girl wishes I harbored, they would not be with me forever.
I asked them what was wrong at the yard, why did my father need me? They were stoic, “It’s Noah. And Ambrose. Your dad will tell you.” I couldn’t imagine what was wrong. My mind conceived every configuration, flashes of vixen women and love gone wrong, or felony, or something too horrible to think of but what would that be? An accident that maimed them both, treachery that involved Columbian drug cartels? I had no idea. I had to wait to find out because whatever it was, was so terrible that only my father could tell me.
The sky was autumn gold turning to twilight. The lights in the office cast shadows of the window grilles onto the paved lot. My father’s face was draped in hurt, the kind I’d seen only once before, the day my mother ran off, to wherever it was she went, and left him behind. He held me hard, like he was absorbing every molecule of me. I looked up and in the same scared little girl voice I’d only ever used once before I asked, “Daddy, what’s wrong?” He looked at me, “It’ll wait just a minute until we get over to the house with your bag.” It was the longest short walk I’d ever taken, forty feet from the office door to our back door and it felt like forty miles in slow motion. Once the light was on, and the door was closed, and we were sitting at the kitchen table, he told me.
Noah had an untreatable cystic kidney disease. He’d known for at least three years but he hadn’t told a soul, not even Ambrose. Noah had never finished building Free Love, had never found the women he hoped would crew his floating utopia of unlimited sexual gratification. After Noah was diagnosed with fatal kidney disease he never went back to the doctor. He read enough about it to know, statistically, he had four years left. He spent some part of every day with Ambrose, often the last part, drinking and dreaming. Of course, the drinking part hadn’t been beneficial. Noah’s disease was genetic; he’d suspected all along his future might not be as long as the average future. He was a smart guy. He didn’t want to burden the people he cared for most, in the place he felt most at home. He did his research. Ambrose never questioned his interest in the antique pistol aboard Alice. When Noah asked to take it shooting Ambrose willingly lent it. At low tide Noah went beneath the wharf, tied his body to a piling, stabilized his head and neck, and did the most efficient, considerate, job in ending his life that a man could do. He thought of everything. He made sure he got the job done without disfiguring himself and he did it in such a way that nature would clean the mess. If it hadn’t been for Numbnuts II the loose slipknots he tied may have allowed him to drift off on the next tide. Numbnuts II found him not long after he was gone. Ambrose heard the dog barking and crying and carried Noah up to the yard. It was too late. Ambrose was in drunken anguish. There was no reasoning with him. He’d been drinking steadily since the hearse had taken Noah away. I’d gotten the first available flight after my father called; that had been roughly 17 hours from call to arrival. Noah died at 6 in the morning, counting for elapsed time and the different zones, my father hadn’t called me until about 11 so Ambrose had been drinking steadily for at least 20 hours, maybe more.
It puzzled me that Ambrose hadn’t called. We were close. I counted on him. I thought he would count on me too. I climbed aboard Alice. Ambrose was sitting in the dark, a bottle of 151 in front of him, the ashtray piled high with Bugler butts. I interrupted his reverie with a subdued “Hi.” Ambrose looked up. I sat down. I put my arm around him and his face crumpled like a little boy’s. We cried. We fortified ourselves with 151 and we cried some more. I can’t remember all that Ambrose said but what I remember is his pained eloquence. We toasted Noah’s unrealized renown and notoriety as Captain of what could have been a floating pleasure palace and most certainly would have been recognized as the unparalleled utopia of unlimited sexual gratification. Ambrose told me that Noah was a virgin. In the end, he hadn’t been all that much older than I was. It made me sad to think that what I took for granted was something he never had. We toasted Noah’s splendid drinking career that had resulted in only a few injuries, all of them heroic. We toasted his vision, his propensity for sharing dreams that were willfully misconstrued, in his mind, as truths. We cried some more. We peed. We passed out.
I was close to Ambrose, closer to him than almost anyone. He was accessible. He was handsome. His company was a great relief when I was lonely. I was never lonely for Ambrose, specifically. When loneliness struck I was lonely for what I couldn’t find. I could always find Ambrose. All things being equal, Ambrose wasn’t looking for me when he was lonely either. We’d discussed it. We did not have an urge for one another. No one could compare to our imaginations. We missed someone we hadn’t met. We did not tarnish a satisfying intellectual and emotional bond by displaying our genitals. We were good friends.
We snooped through Noah’s things, like thieves. We found his personal papers. We contacted his family. They didn’t come; they sent for him. It was odd. They had no interest in where he’d been or whom he’d been with. Even Ambrose went back to his wealthy roots from time to time and his family had been to the yard at least once a year, usually more often. Noah’s family remained a mystery. They didn’t want Numbnuts II. Numbnuts went where he pleased. Spoiled when Noah was alive, with Noah gone, and Numbnuts’ status as an orphan dog, there were no rules. He got fat from lunch and table scraps. He took to tipping beers over so he could slurp the suds. Things got way out of hand. Before I went back to California, Ambrose promised me he would impose some restrictions on Numbnuts, put him on a doggy diet and dry him out. It was fine if we drank too much but a farting, ill-mannered, alchy, dog was unseemly. I had to force myself on the plane back to the west coast. I was comfortable with the person I was when I was home. I was a little too edgy for my own good when I was gone.
The hotel routine fostered impartial contemplation. In spite of myself, I excelled at organizational productivity. I worked my way from managing the café, through night audit-an accounting function, right up to a support position in the executive offices where I was proficient without prostituting my integrity. While I was home, my father took me out to trial a new hull design. He asked me about my work. We talked about the financial aspects of running a business, the things the customer doesn’t attach a dollar value to. He told me what happened when he lost the yard and my mother bailed on us. When they married she came from nowhere with nothing. He loved her the way she was. She was happy and pretty. Maybe she was pretty because she was so happy. She laughed a lot, so did he. I remember that.
He was always more of a boatbuilder than he was a businessman. My granddad was the businessman; Frankie managed yard operations. My father was learning the business from the outside in. He’d only been working with Frankie a short while when my granddad died. The business part of the yard died with my granddad. He carried it all in his head. There were ledgers that illustrated the cash position but the crucial thing was my granddad’s knowledge. My father didn’t understand that the yard stayed solvent because it was self-sustaining. My granddad made improvements and hired as he could afford it. He did not borrow from the bank. Frankie never questioned the way the business was run; if there was money available for purchases, fine, if not he waited until there was. My father borrowed money for expansion; the economy dipped, orders dried up. He was heavily leveraged. A private equity firm bought him out for a fraction of what the business was worth. They managed the finances and left him and Frankie in place to manage labor and operations. My mother saw my father transition from a business owner to an employee overnight. She didn’t like seeing herself as a workingman’s wife so she left. My father never relinquished the dream of owning the yard again. I knew it was only a dream and I knew it was his only dream.
I questioned the purpose in my productivity; I wasn’t saving lives or growing cabbages to feed the masses. I was gainfully employed, passing time with piles and stacks of papers. I hadn’t given up entirely on sea dreams or loitering at marinas as close to boats as I could get without stowing away. In the post-Cooper world, there were no men who commanded my interest for longer than a few weeks. They were ordinary. The men who were not ordinary were erratic, creating chaos on the way to ruin. I attracted sailors, fishermen, and the occasional misguided Henry Higgins-doctor/lawyer/dentist, generally much older than I was. Geoff was my savior. He fell in love with Randy a focused, dependable, sweet, naval officer and they set up housekeeping. I spent a lot of time with them, staying out of trouble. Randy got orders to Japan and Geoff, being established in the hospitality industry, found a position at the Mandarin Oriental in Tokyo. I didn’t like to see them go.
Left to my own devices, I became involved with a red-haired, Irishman two decades my senior. It was a bad idea, an emotional disaster. He was self-righteous. Like all of his predecessors, he professed to find me enchanting, precisely the way I was, then commenced a perfidious campaign to change me. He didn’t like it when I swore. I cussed extravagantly. He liked me to read excerpts from Joshua Slocum’s Sailing Alone Around the World to him, which I did once or twice, wishing he would sail around the world alone. In his antiquated view, the naked activity was interpreted as love. I couldn’t manage to shake him. I didn’t have the courage to face the fallout from a direct break. I transferred to Boston, said goodbye before I escaped, intending never to be seen again. Uninvited, he followed me across the country. I was imperious. He was shattered. I was free. It was a relief to breathe the cold, brine scented air of the north Atlantic.
Ambrose was waiting for me when I arrived. “This is serious. Kindhearted Richard has married Gloria Porier. It isn’t funny, Lucy. It’s serious.” “He did NOT!” “Yes, he did.” Gloria 40 Plus, a sequel spouse, married the same guy 5 times, owned a little antigue shop named Quilts and Treasures, euphemistically called Guilts and Pleasures in acknowledgement of Gloria’s affinity for married men, who could not resist skulking around in her company and were, to a man, most remorseful once they were found out. I always thought of Gloria as Gloria 40 Plus, 40 plus another twenty would more closely reflect her chronological age. Gloria 40 Plus thought she was coy when she disclosed her age with a giggle, “40 plus.” She was one of those overdone women, too much fragrance, too much make-up, too much hairspray, too much bosom, everything in excess. I didn’t much care for Gloria. She paid entirely too much attention to my father after my mother left. She used to come to our door and ask for him. When he came to the door she’d try her best to rub up against him, boobs first with her wrinkly, old, cleavage exuding the aromatic essence of eau de Avon. His face would get pink and he’d try politely to get her back out the door where she belonged. She’d reach in her tacky white patent leather purse and root through lipsticked tissues, cigarettes, rubbers, and whatever else she kept in there until she emerged victorious with an old shopworn Snickers bar she’d give to me as a bribe to “run along.” I knew my father better than she did and better than she’d ever have a chance to. I waited a few minutes and made a terrible caterwauling, gagging, calling for my father, saying I was sick. The last thing Gloria 40 Plus wanted was to clean up after a puking kid. Every time she appeared I got sick until I ran her off for good.
According to Ambrose, Richard was tired and lonely. Gloria wore him down. Kindhearted Richard had been married once a long time ago. He swore he’d tried marriage and it wasn’t for him. Kindhearted Richard was about my father’s age. He lived alone in a small house out in the woods. It was easy to see that Gloria could bring comfort to his life. Ambrose said Gloria had a trailer in Gulfport, Mississippi where they’d spend the winters. Kindhearted Richard was going to be a snowbird. They were getting old. Frankie lived in a retirement village, a nursing home in disguise, close to his kids across the state. The yard was getting old too. As people retired, or left, the positions remained unfilled. My childhood was disappearing through attrition.
Once I settled in Boston, I began to experience an inside out déjà vu. Each day I was confronted by a familiar truth that seemed new to me. I found myself wondering why it had taken me so long to discover this or that. I felt as though I learned things I’d always known. My father called me regularly. He was worried about the yard. It was our private concern. He relied on my opinion. When I went home on weekends, we made elaborate strategies pretending not to see the writing on the wall. He received a certified letter in the mail from the offices of Somebody, Somebody, and Somebody Else, attorneys for the private equity firm, advising him an offer had been made on the yard contingent upon approval of the real property. A review of the property had been scheduled for the following week. My father didn’t need to ask, “I’ll be there. We’ll remain calm until we know the facts.”
I arrived the night before. We had a light supper and an early night so we’d be fresh for the morning’s attack. My father looked defeated as he drank his coffee. “You know, the yard has gone from one firm to another over the years but this is the first time an individual has made an offer.” My heart fell to my feet. Owning the yard was my father’s only dream. It was home to our extended family. Kindhearted Richard was still kicking around, waiting for Thanksgiving to arrive so he and Gloria 40 plus could join the blue-haired exodus south for the winter. He planned on returning to the yard in the spring. Ambrose pitched in during the busiest months and for haul out; otherwise, he was occupied with countless projects in various stages of completion. Frankie came for the season-end party in the fall, he usually had a nap in his chair before one of his, AARP member, offspring drove him back to the retirement village. There were a bunch of kids and liveaboards swirling in a whirlpool of melodrama, the way we used to.
I didn’t know who we’d be without the yard. We’d still have the house and the land that went with it. My father retained the right of way. I couldn’t believe the private equity firm had missed that all those years ago. There was nothing to do but wait to see what Somebody, Somebody, and Somebody Else had to say. Promptly at 9 the car arrived. The driver opened the door and out tottered a dried up, little raisin of a woman. Her body was victim to one too many games of tennis at the club; freeze dried tan, on parchment thin skin. Her face had been lifted to resemble a hybrid of Edvard Munch’s The Scream and the Mona Lisa at mach 10. She appeared serene because all expression had been cut out of her face. It became alarmingly clear that the humanity had been cut out of her heart too. I watched and listened as my father led her on a tour. He explained the history of the yard, the generations of sailors who enjoyed the harbor and coves of the larger bay. She inquired about our house and Somebody, Somebody, or Somebody Else quickly interceded, “That’s not part of the commercial parcel.”
She didn’t waste any time making her plans known, after she apprised us of the fact that she was one of the first women, ever, to graduate from Harvard’s MBA program, regaling us with stories of acquisition and development over the course of her visionary career. She told us she’d demo all of the buildings that comprised the boatyard shops and replace them with a condominium tower and entertainment pavilions. I thought my father would drop where he stood in the parking lot. She was oblivious enough to ask if we would reconsider selling the house with the right of way too. Somebody, Somebody, or Somebody Else spoke with us a moment before he left. He wasn’t without empathy. He reminded my father of the repurchase option, contained in the original private equity agreement and surviving each subsequent transfer of the business and its assets.
As they drove off my father said, “I need a drink.” I ran over to the Alice. Ambrose was there taking widgets apart to fasten somewhere or replace with something better. I told him my father had received bad news and thought a drink would be in order. Ambrose rattled around below, emerging with Tia Maria, Drambuie, Kahlua, and Cointreau as well as a pint of vodka. He offered them to me unsure of what the news called for. “You should come with me. I need some help figuring this one out.” He abandoned the widget project without a second thought.
We convened at the kitchen table, sipping and talking. My father told Ambrose the entire story from beginning to end. It was surprising that there were secrets in the yard. It wasn’t a secret as much as it was my father’s private business and people respected his privacy. Ambrose confessed he’d had no idea, had never given the financial situation any thought. He asked to see my father’s copy of the original document. He read it, smoking one Bugler after another, flipping pages back and forth. He passed it back to my father. He expressed disgust at the idea of a condominium tower in place of the utilitarian shops in the yard. He went on to state the obvious, we were getting too old to tolerate the demanding physical labor required in the boatbuilding business. We discussed alternate revenue sources and created a plan for the yard’s future; expanding the dock space was primary, adding to the moorings, stocking a chandlery with boat provisions as well as offering hot showers and laundry facilities. We talked about the roles we would assume. Ambrose would train a crew to work the dock and moorings, my father would run the chandlery and I could manage the business of the business. It was a wonderful dream. We were silent as we absorbed the futility of our plans. I smiled at my father. Ambrose looked at me, “I’m in.” “We’re all in Ambrose and soon The Raisin will build condos and we’ll all be out.” “Lucy, you learn more listening than you do talking. I am in. I will provide the capital for the repurchase.”
Ambrose made my father’s only dream come true. We had a huge celebration before Kindhearted Richard and Gloria 40 Plus migrated for the winter. It was a party to end all parties. We roasted a pig. We danced. We drank. We remembered our friends who’d gone. We laughed. We stumbled. We peed. We passed out.
Texas Kick Ass
Their hands broke her. She couldn’t resist a pair of pretty hands. She preferred callouses, clean fingernails, nice bones, slim wrists and a firm, dry, handshake; substantial, confident hands, if they could two-step so much the better. She hung out at Broncos, a country bar in Gretna, Louisiana. She was from Texas. There was a tattoo on the inside of her thigh, “Texas gals kick ass.” Her ex-husband convinced her to get it one night when they were drinking in Michigan. He used to say that to her after she had her way with him, “Honey, you kicked my ass.” If only she’d known the explaining she’d have to do in the future, after the divorce. His hands were cruel.
She worked Wednesday, Thursday and Friday nights, slinging drinks, at a little dive over on General De Gaulle Drive in Algiers. It would’ve been a real pit to work in if it hadn’t been for the guy who owned it, TK Williams, retired oil field diver extraordinaire. TK was a legend. He’d been, done, and seen. Young hotshots, looking to live the dream, spent the pay they made worshipping at TK’s bar, buying drinks, in the hope of hearing his stories.
Emma Lee could hardly blame them. He was long and tall with pretty, tan hands, a short while past his prime. If he hadn’t been her boss she would have given him something to remember. He walked with a rolling swagger, wearing black Tony Lamas, and jeans that slid on over what, she was sure, remained fit and lean. She knew he had it for her. She went to Bronco’s every Saturday night. TK had an agreement with Diamond Al, who owned the joint, that the band would not play Louisiana Saturday Night until he walked through the door. Wherever she was, he found her and twirled her right out from under the nose of the man she was talking with before he even had a chance to take offense. He two-stepped her right around the floor like it was nobody’s business. It was the same thing every Saturday night. “You get down the fiddle and you get down the bow, kick off your shoes and you throw ’em on the floor, dance in the kitchen till the morning light, Louisiana Saturday Night.” There he was green eyes snapping and gold crowns glinting every time he tipped his head back to laugh.
He offered the boat for sunbathing on Monday. It was his office day. The bar was closed. Emma Lee breathed deep and felt the tingle run the length of her, down to her toes. Damn! She could feel the pull, the searing temptation. She lay on the bow of the Hatteras admiring the dip between her hip bones, the smooth mocha of her tan, the high cut of her black bikini that made her long legs look longer. TK set her up. They both knew it. He was testing her will and she was toying with his restraint. She rolled over and unhooked her top. The pressure of her own weight pushing her body into the deck drove her crazy. The hot delta sun melted into her. Why were they doing this to themselves and each other? It could have been settled on any Saturday night if she’d led with her hips. Once they knew they couldn’t unknow. Not knowing put her in a state. Her imagination took her away.
She woke with a jolt when the ice cube slipped between her shoulder blades. She looked up, all fierce expletives, to see his white teeth and gold crowns laughing in amusement. She collected herself and noted the contrast of his tanned brown bare feet on the spotless white deck. She got up and followed him aft. He put the Allman Brothers Band and Little Feat on while he splashed southern comfort over ice. They went back out to the aft deck with their drinks, lounging on either end of the settee, feet nearly touching. He looked into her eyes assessing his position. She didn’t flinch. They laughed in recognition at the same time. The fire was smoldering. She understood loins and so did he. When she bent her leg, he ran his index finger over her tattoo, exerting the slightest pressure, “What’s this?” “It’s an old drinking injury, that’s all.” She thought she’d slither on out of her skin right then.
They’d dialed it back to simmer, showered and had dinner at the marina restaurant; redfish and oysters. Dixie Chicken did them in. He told her he hired her because the lyrics were the first thing that came to mind when she walked into his bar. They were dancing in the aft deck, pressing against each other, chest to chest, hips to hips. The moon was rising, in the velvety blue darkness, over Lake Ponchartrain.
Emma Lee looked over at TK, asleep with a smile on his face. They’d kissed and hadn’t stopped all through the tornado of white sheets and tan limbs that preceded a deep sleep. It was more than she’d imagined. She looked at him, with a predictable tenderness, as she inched out of bed, careful not to wake him. She dressed quietly, looking one last time over her shoulder before she left the forward cabin. She saw what it would become- bills and laundry, age and aches. Like the hotshots who paid homage to him at the bar, she liked the romance of who he used to be. She wasn’t interested in who he had become.
In 1978, Cora was fed up with work and responsibility. She was sick of the drizzly, grey misery called spring. Inspired by resentment and discontent she decided to do something scandalous. She ditched all of it for a month. Didn’t tell anyone she was going and came back when she was damn good and ready. After they found her.
Cora and James
She’d lived most of her life in her imagination. Reading for pleasure had been discouraged by the church elders. Her parents, dutiful members of the acquiescent flock, hadn’t welcomed frivolity inside their home. Joy, beyond religious fervor, was confused with sin. In Cora’s mind all joy should be attributed to god, if god was believable at all.
Cora’s best friend from high school was the daughter of the volunteer librarian. A township reliant upon a volunteer librarian illustrated the frugal nature of the town fathers. Sadie lent historical romances to Cora. They’d giggled and called them bodice rippers. The heroines consistently found themselves crushed breathlessly against a broad manly chest, swooning in uncontrollable passion, dress bodices torn apart. The rebellious heroines were always prepared with a nice long cape to cover their shameless heaving bosoms as they snuck up the servants’ staircase upon their return to the manor.
Cora had known James since they were small kids. His grandfather was a church elder. He was a quiet boy, not given to needless conversation. James was drafted the summer after high school graduation as part of the 1966 troop increase to Vietnam. He returned home after a few months; wounded, walking tilted to the right, determined to live the life god chose for him.
In 1966 women in rural America didn’t have a voice. They didn’t know they had the right to choose destiny, let alone create one. Cora lived at home with her family. Higher education was never a consideration. She helped out around the house, looked after the younger kids, and worked part-time at a corner market for another church family while she waited for a suitor to find her. Sadie had gone away to live with her aunt. She became a secretary and wrote to Cora about the patients in the doctor’s office where she worked. Sadie had an outrageous sense of humor. Cora missed her. There was no one to trade dreams with.
James came into the store when he had a need for boot laces or a handful of two-penny nails. He was quiet. Cora imagined he was watchful. She felt shy in his company. She wanted to know what he thought, if his leg hurt, what war was like, if he was afraid, but she wouldn’t have asked those questions even if he’d been an expressive person. It would have been rude. Decent people respected privacy.
Cora saw James at church. His family’s bench pew was a few rows in front of her family’s. Church was no hodgepodge gathering; families were seated in accordance to their status in the church, deference was paid to longevity. Cora studied James, from her position in the background, without his knowledge. She detected enigmatic intrigue. He was mysteriously conflicted. She knew there were so many things unsaid inside of him that he must be choking on them.
Cora decided James was in need of a friend. She worked on her mission slowly. She went out of her way to offer a shy smile and a greeting when she happened upon him. At first, he was predictably stoic. As the months wore on, and her unrelenting good nature wore him down, she noticed small changes in his behavior. One day he actually smiled at her as he watched her approach after church.
They did not share confidences. There were no deep conversations. James was a hard nut to crack. Cora was patient. She made casual observations and elaborated on the topics he seemed interested in so he would keep talking to her. They spent increasing time together in the ministry. Eventually, they progressed to keeping company within the approved confines of each other’s family homes. They married in 1968.
Sadie came home for Cora’s quiet celebration. Still the same irreverent Sadie but with new wicked thoughts to share. Cora was worried about her wedding night. Sadie made her laugh with a “lamb to the slaughter” analogy, that wasn’t reassuring in the least, but soothed her nerves with shocked hilarity. Sadie’s well behaved, demure, public persona allowed their friendship to continue. She never refused an invitation to attend church with Cora’s family.
Despite Cora’s worries, her wedding night was not what she’d feared nor was it what she’d hoped. She didn’t understand what the fuss was about. James was a very private person. They’d moved in to her in-laws’ house. It began as a one room house that expanded as children were born. The home was an architectural testimony of family history; square boxes built on to other square boxes, in a row that could never be mistaken for straight, headed toward the field.
The babies came quickly, one right after the other, until Cora forgot where she ended and they began. James treated her more like a mother, and less like a wife. At night, after the children were tucked in, and Cora slipped under the covers with James, she’d try to stay awake, until he was asleep too, so she could have a few minutes to daydream. As she waited for her time, she could feel him rubbing her long hair between his thumb and forefinger until he drifted off. Cora lay quietly, planning for changes she imagined would bring happiness to them all.
They’d lived with James’s family for six years. Six years was a long time to chafe under rules and restrictions that were foreign to her nature. It became apparent that he had planned, with his father instead of her, to build his own box addition to the crooked line of boxes that accommodated the family. Cora’s plans for happiness were threatened. She had to approach a challenge to male dominion very carefully. The knot in her stomach made her begin to realize how desperately she craved freedom to make decisions for her family, without interference.
She transferred her secret wish for independence to her in-laws right to peace and quiet as James’s younger siblings grew up and moved on. They found common ground in building a simple house down in the lower field. Her husband’s thoughts and hopes had remained privately his own. Cora was surprised at his subdued appreciation for her alternate plan. She imagined this small house, that joined them as partners, might be an opportunity for future confidences and shared dreams.
Cora went back to work part time at the market as her kids entered school. The addition of a sandwich counter attracted workers and teenagers alike. She was stimulated by the activity of her midday shift. The world had been changing while she’d been home raising babies. What used to be an ordinary market on the corner of the main road, branching off to the dirt road where she lived, had become a hang out for hungry kids and men waiting for snacks and lunches. The owners were happy to have her back. She was used to feeding a bunch of hungry people at once and wasn’t at all flustered by a line out the door at noon. Cora loved the money. She gave her paycheck to James but she squirreled her tips away for extra things for her family, small luxuries and surprises.
Sadie came home to visit every summer. She brought the world to Cora. They had long conversations about their lives. Sadie’s boyfriends came and went. None seemed just right for her. She’d long since found her own apartment and moved from her aunt’s home. She’d managed to build a career out of nothing at all. The ability to type 80 words per minute in Miss McCormick’s boring, typing class had served her well. Sadie loved Cora’s kids. She’d come careening down the road, a big billowing cloud of dust behind her, bouncing out of the drivers seat of the MGB she drove, calling “Where are my little brown bunnies? Where are you? Come see what Aunt Sadie has for you!” She’d hug each and every child, paying them special attention, as she rooted around in the back of the GT for just the right gift for her borrowed baby. Cora’s kids worshipped Sadie.
Hippies had migrated to the road Cora lived on. When the town was established in the early 1700s, Elias Thurston was one of the corporators. The Thurston family had gradually moved off, never selling the large tract of land that went miles into the woods. The hippie migration began around 1970. One day a man appeared in a Land Rover. He had long hair and a beard. It turned out he was a Thurston descendant. Cora’s father referred to him as Whiskerando Thurston. He built a homestead and bought some llamas. After Whiskerando arrived, the influx of back-to-the-landers continued until the road was spotted with new mailboxes and farms that were more like zoos for exotic animals than traditional farms. Whiskerando sold the family property to friends he’d met from all over the world. The road was like a commune. There were big parties in the summer; beat up Jeeps, Land Rovers, and the occasional misplaced Rolls Royce lined the side of the road. Cora watched the laughing, braless, women with their beautiful babies and handsome men, wondering what their lives must be like to make them so joyful.
James had shared plans and visions of the family’s future in the “House in the Field” as they called it. His eyes lit up with enthusiasm when they discussed changes in their little structure, improvements they hoped to make over time, still he didn’t volunteer intimate personal feelings. Cora knew better than to pry. He withdrew completely from conversation that ventured beyond his boundaries.
She didn’t have time to brood over her marriage. She was busy. The market’s owners had approached James with a sales proposition. They wanted to retire. Cora wasn’t sure James would fit into her work life. She knew she was selfish. Work was the only place she was just Cora; not a mother, or a wife, or a housekeeper, simply a member of the human race. Cora wanted the market. She dared to dream of the changes she’d make. It was a business that would flourish with a couple of changes. Changes forbidden by the church: cigarettes for the men, a pinball machine, maybe two, a jukebox, things to keep the high school kids busy while they waited for their lunches. Cora could hear the quarters piling up in those machines. She knew the teenagers wanted them, they’d asked her to try to convince the Hadleys to put them in. She hadn’t bothered. Listening to rock-n-roll was a sin, the jingling bells and buzzers of a pinball machine would surely precede the Apocalypse.
Cora approached discussion of the market gently. She felt a tenderness for the fragility of this dream that she’d never felt for anything else. James didn’t want to be indebted to the Hadleys. He thought they could make a go of it but he was adamantly against borrowing from friends and neighbors. Cora had saved her tips. She’d kept them in a pretty box Sadie had given her filled with shower gifts for one of the kids. She pulled it out of the closet. She opened it, telling James she’d started saving for a swing set for the kids but the oldest ones were too big to swing once she’d saved enough, so she’d started saving for bikes for all of them but youngest were too small to ride and she didn’t know if she’d ever be able to save enough for all of them…Her voice trailed off as she opened the lid.
James narrowed his eyes when he saw the money. He asked how much was there but she had no idea. When they’d finished counting, the little pile amounted to nearly three thousand dollars. She explained that she’d been throwing tips in the box for two years. She knew he wasn’t pleased, felt she’d been deceitful. She was very careful in choosing her words. “I thought I’d get things for the kids, things that they’d like but wouldn’t take anything away from the family. I never dreamed it would be this much money. I didn’t pay attention. Since we have it, maybe it would be enough for a downpayment at the bank.” Her heart thumped in fear at being denied her most cherished dream.
For reasons she’d never know, James wanted to own that business. He trusted her to run it but he would keep the books and she would bring the money to him. There would be no more hiding cash. Cora could have danced with delight, she could have cried in euphoria but she did not. She gave quiet thanks that her dream had come true.
The market thrived under Cora’s management. She added window boxes with pansies and a few pots of red geraniums on the porch that embellished the front of the building. She made fresh new curtains for the windows. She installed a jukebox and one pinball machine. She didn’t sell cigarettes but she did add a soft serve ice cream machine and a couple of picnic tables for the teenagers to gather at on warm spring and summer afternoons. She hired a couple of high school kids to work after school, through school vacations, and summer breaks. Even James seemed satisfied with the work she’d done. He came in his pick-up, with the youngest kids, at the end of each day to help close up and empty the register.
Her children were never without their mother’s attention. Nearly every day after school she whipped off her apron, hanging it on the hook by the back door, as she rushed off to meet the bus to be sure they started chores and homework. Once they were settled, she raced back to the market to meet the onslaught of high school kids and workers on their way home at the end of the day. In the evenings she took stock of her household, running loads of laundry through her new appliances, making sure James and the kids had what they needed for the coming day before she went to bed.
Cora studied the high school girls. They vocalized their expectations from life. Even the most reserved among them had plans for an independent life of her own. They repudiated the double standard. Break-up tears were rarely on display. They were more likely to move on to a new boy following romantic disappointment. Sex was discussed with candor that made Cora blush. Pregnancy was no longer a threat and birth control pills were taken with casual disregard. She was embarrassed to admit she envied their freedom.
Cora got her hair cut. She couldn’t explain what possessed her to do it. It had been growing all her life. Following church precepts, only the bottom had been trimmed in the spring and fall of each year. Sadie’s hair had been cut, colored and permed in many fashionable styles over the years. She was still the same Sadie underneath no matter what style she wore. Cora admired her feminine daring.
James looked at her, peering intently, as though sight failed him and the truth of it was more than he could accept. Finally he asked “What happened to your hair?” as if she’d left it behind at work or forgotten to put it on in the morning when she’d dressed. He’d asked, expecting a logical reason for its disappearance, expecting an estimated time of its return. He didn’t get mad until she’d twirled around asking “Don’t you like it? It will be so much easier to take care of. Feel it, it feels nice.” He grabbed her, digging his fingers into her shoulder, shouting, “What have you done to your HAIR?” The children cowered, deathly quiet with enormous eyes, the fairy dusting of freckles more noticeable on their noses where fear had drained the color from their faces. James brushed roughly past them as he limped out the door. He didn’t return until well past midnight.
He did not mention her haircut again. Cora was aware of the unspoken criticism emanating in waves from the core of his being. She supposed the reaction originated in the church teachings. She was not the first of the congregation to try something more practical with her hair. Admittedly, her hair was the shortest but she had not made the first cut. They rarely saw one another until the evenings when he came to empty the register. He left the house before she woke. He’d kept on with the hard seasonal work his family had always done. He hadn’t wanted to participate in the market’s daily activity. Oversight of the family finances was all he’d wanted.
She’d made half-hearted efforts to restore what they’d had before but his feelings were silently obvious. He began passing time with his worthless cousin, Douglas. Douglas liked to crow that he was named after General MacCarthur. It was true but MacCarthur wouldn’t have wasted his time spitting on Douglas. When Douglas was drafted for Vietnam, he pretended he was crazy and wet the bed every night he was in boot camp. The code on his discharge papers proved it. He was gutless. She’d never known James to drink; under Douglas’s opportunistic influence she believed he had taken it up. He’d become surreptitiously brutal, squeezing her hand until her eyes watered, violently jabbing at her clavicle as he emphasized her deficiencies in the darkness of their bedroom.
The day James showed up at the market, in the middle of the noon rush, drunk, with Douglas, was the day that did Cora in. He’d been drooling drunk. His face was beet red, from elevated blood pressure that must have been an indication of blood alcohol content nearing 30%. He’d staggered behind the cash register trying to get it open, so drunk he didn’t have the manual dexterity to work the single button that opened the drawer.
Cora’s male patrons bristled at the sight of him. She knew there’d be trouble if she didn’t get him out of there. She opened the drawer for him and took out all of the cash. He and Douglas left, sending a big spray of gravel in their wake. Douglas knew exactly what he was doing. He wasn’t anywhere close to as drunk as James. With no till to work from, Cora treated her customers to lunch. At the end of the rush she looked to see the tip jar stuffed with bills and change. Her heart broke at their generosity.
James spent more time drinking and less time working. He came home early in the morning, sleeping in his truck until after they’d the left the house. Cora continued to manage the household and the market. She laundered James’s clothes, bought the toiletries he’d always used, looking after him from a distance.
When he came to empty the register, in the evenings, she gave him half the take for the day. He never knew the difference; or, if he did, he didn’t mention it.
Cora took good care of her little stash. She went to the bank and made sure their loan was current. She looked through the books to be certain the accounts got caught up. She let James know when she needed grocery money. He always made sure his family was fed. She held on to any spare cash.
At night, after the kids were asleep, while James was out doing whatever it was he did, she lay in bed and ran through all of her responsibilities and virtues. She compared them to his total lack of responsibility. Clenching her jaw, she relished the home movie in her head where she let him have it with the cast iron skillet. She imagined his distress when he realized she was gone and he didn’t know how to run the washing machine. He’d have to go to his good, god-fearing parents’ house to ask his mommy to do his laundry. In the decade they’d been married, Cora had never once put herself before her family. She was indescribably angry that James expected her to shoulder all of the burden that was half his.
She was not going to spend the next 40 or 50 years of her life taking care of a broken-down drunk. She didn’t care about the market, James, the kids, or her family. She cared about her own damn self because it was increasingly obvious that nobody else did.
There was one person in the world who was always on Cora’s side no matter what side that was- Sadie. Cora did something she’d never done before. She called Sadie at work, crying. She cried from pressure, guilt, worry, despair, and exhaustion. Sadie calmed her down. She was a take charge woman. She asked several direct questions, noted the answers and offered an immediate solution. “Tomorrow, not the next day, or the weekend, but tomorrow, you are going to take a vacation. You will make arrangements for your mom to watch the kids after they get out of school. You will not tell anyone that you are leaving. Leave James a note. I will call you in the morning to tell you where to go and how to get there. You have to get out of there before you have yourself a nervous breakdown. You can worry about the future when it gets here.”
On a miserable, late March morning Cora saw her children off to school, left a note in the cash register for James, and cried her heart out as she left town on her way to Pawleys Island, South Carolina. The only person on god’s green earth who knew where she was going was Sadie. Sadie promised it would be all right in the end. She told Cora, “No matter what happens, it will be okay. We’ll make it okay. Right now, you need to rest.”
She couldn’t believe her eyes when she got to the bungalow. It was up on pilings on a sandy beach, the key was on a nail behind the white wicker settee, just like Sadie said it would be. There was a little dock out front. She saw a sifting of sand on the floor as she opened the door. It was a simple, clean, peaceful place. Cora was relieved to be free.
I have gone. The kids are with my mother. The house is clean, the laundry is done, the fridge is full, and the bills are paid. You are the only person who knows I have gone. The directions for the washer and dryer are in the kitchen drawer.
She promised herself on the trip that she would not dwell on her problems, that she’d banish the thoughts each time they crept in. She couldn’t recall a time when she’d felt as light. She found herself smiling for no reason at all. There were no worries. The kids were fine. They had their father, who loved them regardless of his feelings for her. The grandparents would compete for their company. The high school kids at the market spoiled them silly. Her children were not a worry. She didn’t feel obligated to consider anything else. She’d taken care of all that she was responsible for before she’d left. She stretched out in the sleeping bag, on the hammock, strung between the pilings beneath the bungalow and took a nap.
When she wasn’t napping, she wandered around exploring her refuge. There wasn’t a whole lot of commercial activity. She ate breakfast at a small diner serving breakfast Monday-Saturday, lunch Thursday-Saturday and nothing on Sunday. The brief exchange she had with the waitress offered a confirmation of her existence. She spent a day in Myrtle Beach to stock the pantry and buy books. She liked to watch the birds at the creek or the seemingly endless span of the Atlantic. She did only what she wanted to do, nothing at all. She did not write. She did not call. She did not regret.
Midway through her third week on the island, she took her problems out for review. They didn’t put a knot in her stomach, her heart didn’t race, and her breathing remained steady. She put them away for another day.
The waitress gave Cora a message as she poured her coffee, “Your friend Sadie called; she wants you to call her.” Cora called her from the pay phone before her breakfast was served. The kids were fine. James told them Cora was visiting Aunt Sadie. James had been calling Sadie every day since Cora left. He sounded lost without her. Was she ready to talk to him? Cora said she’d call him tomorrow.
James answered before the second ring. He stuttered when he said “Hello.” Cora got right to the point “Sadie said you’ve been calling. What did you want?” He was silent. She had no patience. “James, what is it that you want?” He took a halting breath “I want you to come…” His voice broke on the word, home.
“I think we need some time. Alone. Will you come here? Come on Thursday and we’ll talk.”
“James? Don’t bother coming if we aren’t going to have a conversation.” She hung up.
She hadn’t forgotten the relief scrawled all over James’s face when she picked him up in Myrtle Beach. He held her so tight she thought she’d break. She could feel him shudder as he choked back sobs. When she pulled away, his eyes welled up and tears ran down his face. She watched him lean over to get his bag, saw the nape of his neck that was replicated in her kids, felt a treacherous tug on her heart. His eyes had filled anew as he turned toward her. “James, what’s wrong?” He stopped. He looked down at her, his brows knit in consternation, “I was afraid I’d never see you again.” She reached for him and held him close.
They started a conversation.
She asked “Why?” Why was he mad at her all the time? Why didn’t he trust her?
He wasn’t mad. He didn’t know what to do. He’d always known who she was. When he came back from Vietnam, she was still there, the same as she was when he’d left. She was committed to her religion, when he was only going through the motions of habit, avoiding the conflict of examining where god went when you were so scared you shit yourself, when families were being blown to bits for reasons nobody knew. She hadn’t pestered him about it, she didn’t ask any questions. He felt that she understood who he was inside.
“I wanted to know. I wanted to know what happened. I didn’t ask you because it wasn’t my business. I thought the church was your reason for living. Then why did you get so mad when I cut my hair?”
“It was beautiful and soft and it smelled good. I liked to touch it before I went to sleep because it meant you were right there, with me. Every day, as soon as I got done work, I went home to get the kids to come see you at the market because I couldn’t wait for you to come home. When you cut it, I thought that was the beginning of the end. You were changing. I thought you didn’t love me.”
He said a lot more; private things she hadn’t expected, things he thought she just knew. They’d stayed through the weekend before they drove back home. They’d made it through the intervening years, trudging through some and sailing through others. They had ugly words and sweet words, more words than she’d imagined. In the end, whether she’d chosen her destiny, or they had created it, didn’t matter at all.
She sat in the chair, a cigarette, and bourbon, he thought, in one hand and the phone in the other. She was immersed in a conversation with her aunt. She didn’t hear him come in. After the full effect of her appearance lambasted him he was immobilized. It took a few seconds for her condition to register. “Marion.” When she looked up, he took the receiver out of her hand and hung it up. He saw nothing but skin against the kitchen chair. His parallel mind questioned the comfort of lolling bare-ass naked against the hard spindle back. “Marion, what are you doing?” “Really Henry, what am I doing? What are you doing? You just hung up on Aunt Elizabeth. We were having a conversation. What makes you so goddamned rude?” She got up and wobbled around the room. There was no other way to describe it; she wobbled, oblivious to her contest with gravity and balance. “Marion, where are your clothes?” “I don’t know and frankly, I don’t care. Why do you have to ask so many questions?” Something was alarmingly wrong.
It hadn’t been more than a few years since she’d taken the fall that put her in a coma. He called the ambulance. Marion did not behave the way she was behaving. He was afraid. He threw a sheet from the linen closet over her shoulders while he waited for the ambulance to arrive. She protested. He insisted that she sit down. His parallel mind begged the ambulance to hurry.
She wasn’t herself. His 70 year old wife of 50 years did not drink and smoke cigarettes, naked, in the middle of the afternoon. She’d never smoked in front of him. He knew she was a closet smoker. It was an unspoken truth. For years they’d had a pact. She had one drink and a cigarette before he came home from the office. They each had a drink or two while she prepared dinner and he organized the plans he’d brought from the firm. He didn’t add to the drawings. He reviewed them and made notes for changes. It took months to design the homes his clients wanted. It was an exercise in adaptability as much as a challenge to his ability.
He followed the stretcher into the emergency room. It wasn’t Marion’s first emergency visit to the hospital. The staff knew him as Hank Shaw. People didn’t often refer to to him as Hank unadorned; he was always Hank Shaw of Foster Shaw Building and Design. The only person who had ever called him Henry was his mother. She’d been gone for nearly twenty years. He thought of himself as Henry in the context of his relationship with her or when he was afraid. The public perception of him was of a person one did not contradict. Hank was known for integrity and impatience. People took what he dished out because he was fair, always. He took less than he deserved so that others would have what they needed. He was unmistakable in his uniform: Sperry Topsiders, ragg socks, jeans, chamois shirts in the winter canvas in the summer, and a faded low profile baseball cap squaring the full beard he’d grown after college so people would accept him as a man.
His family had been in town for the entire 250 years of its history. They’d worked in the lumber industry and gone on to become renowned builders and cabinet makers. Hank had been unsure of what he wanted to do with his life. He hadn’t intended to follow in his ancestors’ footsteps. He didn’t want to be spoon-fed and spoiled. It had broken Foster IV’s heart when he’d refused to spend high school summers pounding nails in favor of digging clams and worms on the flats. His mother bridged the ravine between them, noting Henry’s affinity for math and order as well as a determined independence, when she suggested architecture. He spent college breaks and summers pounding nails at Foster Shaw to finance a semester in Finland studying design for his degree. His mother had been a wise woman. He’d gone to work at Foster Shaw and earned the respect of Foster IV and the skilled carpenters on the crew. He did not give up his independence and no one, who watched him work, accused him of being spoon-fed.
Hank put the ER staff through the paces. The initial diagnosis seemed to be that Marion was simply drunk. They’d been directed down the path of least resistance by the medical community before, a path that would have led to certain death if not for Hank’s instinct that there was more to Marion’s illness. She’d been diagnosed with Stage IIIC intestinal cancer, prescribed a bunch of painkillers, and sent home to die. He knew it wasn’t cancer. It wasn’t wishful thinking; it was a fact. Marion had been out of her mind in pain, medicated speechless, and nearly dead when he discovered a fungal infection online that mirrored cancer symptoms. He’d done his own research and called doctors from Boston to Baltimore until he finally found a specialist who heard him and recommended a surgeon at Mayo Rochester who saved her. He’d been as sick as Marion, terrified that he would lose her. They were so close to parting that he couldn’t bear to contemplate the end of them.
He met her when she was just 18, the summer she’d graduated. He was pounding nails in the addition to her family’s bunkhouse camp on the lake. He was 20. She was a sweetheart bombshell, Audrey Hepburn’s face with Brigitte Bardot’s body. He watched her swimming in the lake and sunning on the float while he framed the addition. He volunteered to roof the place so he’d be able to get a better view of her red and white gingham print bikini; the polka dot one piece was no comparison. She worked nights at the White Pines restaurant on the other side of the lake. He spent a couple of Friday nights there and worked on the addition the following Saturday mornings. When she saw he was working alone, she brought him a cup of coffee and a blueberry muffin. “Thanks.” “You’re welcome. I made the muffins.” He looked at her over the rim of the coffee cup. “They’re good. You working tonight?” “Yes.” “I might stop by.” He climbed back up on his ladder to finish what he was doing.
He walked through the door at 11:30. His eyes traveled the room until he saw her. She saw him seeing her. She looked right at him and beamed, stood up straighter, and deliberately swished her skirt from side to side as she walked up to him. She’d had the guts to ask him if he was going to wait for her until closing time. He didn’t have any choice but to say yes. It was hot and humid in the Pines, hot and humid outside. She came out from the back after she counted her tips and cashed up. She handed him a six-pack of Ballantine and asked him if he wanted to go to her secret swimming place.
They followed a path through the woods. The air felt cooler and smelled of pine needles. The path ended on a small cove with ledges shaped like steps. They sat down on the edge of the steps and swung their feet in the bathwater warm lake. Marion looked directly at him. “Let’s stand in the lake, the ledge goes way out before it drops off. We’ll be cooler.” He was astonished, not shocked, disarmed. He’d never met a girl like her. “Alright but we don’t have suits.” “We’ll go in our underwear. I won’t look.” She was a little upstart. He was the one who wasn’t supposed to be looking. It occurred to him that maybe she’d been watching him, watching her, all summer long.
That night stayed with him, the iridescence of the water droplets on her skin in the moonlight, the line of demarcation from her bikini more perfect than a Coppertone ad. It was the first time they’d been skinny dipping and the last time he’d given serious consideration to nakedness with anyone other than her.
He didn’t think he was entitled to anything. His biggest mistake had been expecting reciprocal behavior from the people closest to him. He set the standard at work. It was not uncommon for him to roll up his sleeves and pitch in, on a job site, if the deadline was looming and work had lagged for one reason or another. Ironically, he had perfect plumb and was as happy swinging a hammer as he was drawing. He never imagined he’d walk alongside the old man’s footsteps when he was a kid. He never intended to. More often than not, he’d wanted to take him on when he was a teenager. By the time he was big enough to do it, he’d lost the desire. Foster IV could be a stubborn son-of-a-bitch but he was a good father.
Everyone had called his mother Mimi. Her given name was Madeline. Mimi believed in appearances. She colored her hair platinum when it started to go grey. She always knew the right thing to say, the proper attire, and on which occasions one was required to acknowledge or send flowers. She wasn’t prepared for her adored son to be snatched out from under her nose by “that snippet of a girl.” From the beginning, Mimi didn’t like Marion. Hank had tried to unite the women in his life but Mimi was jealous and Marion was wounded. He’d spoken to his mother, asking her politely to treat Marion like a member of the family she would eventually become. She’d blanched white at the suggestion that Marion would be his wife and replied weakly, as though she were going to faint, “You’ll always have a room under this roof.”
Hank and Marion remained married in spite of Mimi’s prayers. She never knew how much she hurt Marion by refusing to accept her, just as she didn’t realize that she’d diminished in his estimation. He loved his wife like his existence depended on it. She added a dimension to his life that had been invisible until he met her.
She had tears in her eyes, fat drops of saline that threatened to overflow in a river down her cheeks. “I can’t help it. I’m so happy, I’m scared I’ll never be this happy again.” He held on to her and smiled from his inside out. She said the same thing every time she was overwhelmed by the joy in their lives. The way she looked at him when she said it made him feel solely responsible for procuring more happiness just for her.
They’d been married for five years. He’d worked hard with Foster IV, as an architect when they had call for it, swinging a hammer when they didn’t. The old man made no bones about the pecking order when he worked with the carpenters. Foster Shaw was noted for skilled carpentry and fine finish work. Hank was not a supervisor or a foreman, on job sites where he swung a hammer. He was subordinate to the craftsmen and as such was expected to do all the grunt labor. He didn’t mind. He earned the respect of the finish carpenters. He made it plain that he wanted to learn more so he could build a house for Marion, a house where babies might join them.
Marion took classes at community college. She didn’t earn a degree; she couldn’t seem to sit still long enough. Her interests were in the natural world. She didn’t have the patience required to sit in a classroom to learn how to join her love of the outdoors with academic applications. She was happy working in greenhouses, at landscaping, and at one point climbing trees as an aspiring arborist. She used her money to buy things for the apartment they rented and for “someday when we have a house.” She put spare change in a jar that she deposited in her “land account” when it got full. He got a big kick out of that. She wasn’t saving for land for them to build a house on; they already had that. She was saving “the trees and the fields and the birds and butterflies from being turned into subdivisions and sameness.” She was a conservationist before it was popular.
They were lucky. Their friends were in similar financial situations. Over the course of one long winter weekend spent eating spaghetti, playing cards, and drinking beer, they decided in the spring they would all get serious about moving into houses. Some were building from scratch, others were remodeling or, in one case, resurrecting a house that could have been condemned. They resolved to spend weekends on each others’ homes until all of them were moved in. They worked from the first day of spring that year until just shy of spring the following year.
The babies, first Elliot then not much later Addison, arrived just after they turned the key in the lock on their house. Through both pregnancies Marion cried, always scared she’d “never be this happy again.”
Edward Whitney, MD advised Hank it would be best for Marion to stay the night for observation. It was Ned’s opinion (Hank refused to address anyone as Doctor, he preferred a level playing field where the stakes were clear) that Marion was simply intoxicated but he felt given her history that it would be wise to keep her overnight to be sure. Hank stayed until they got her settled in for the night. He leaned over her, kissed her forehead, while he held her small hand in his big one. He went home alone to their bed. He knew he’d just toss and turn in worry. In his parallel mind he began drawings for hospital rooms that could accommodate heartsick husbands as well as their genuinely ill wives.
Ned, still wet behind the ears at 40, had asked Hank to come into his office first thing in the morning, not to worry about an appointment. Ned didn’t seem to think Marion would be discharged before rounds in the morning. Rounds used to mean that doctors stopped at each patient’s bedside for a moment. Hank suspected they all sat ’round a table looking at charts and medical records now, which was an inferior substitute for an actual live patient.
Marion had been graced by good fortune twice. Hank hoped it would happen a third time. When she took that nasty fall in the kitchen, up on that old ladder that he’d told her to stay the hell off of, she’d hit her head hard on the old fashioned enamel sink she’d salvaged from the dump when they’d built the house. He’d had her shipped to University of Pennsylvania Hospital for care in the Neuro ICU. He stayed at her bedside until they made him leave for the day. He was in cahoots with a couple of the staff who’d let him stay as long as he liked. He was afraid she’d die and he wouldn’t be there. He was there when she woke up disoriented and angry because she was confused.
They’d had some wild fights. Marion had a temper. He didn’t like to fight with her but sometimes it couldn’t be helped. Both of them had said things they shouldn’t have, things they’d regretted. They always made up. One person did not blame the other for those vicious disagreements. They said they were sorry, sometimes they both cried, then they lay down and held on tight. If she was drunk out of her mind in the middle of the day, he wouldn’t be impressed but it wasn’t the end of the world and he wasn’t mad. He wished she was home next to him so he could hold on tight.
Open and Closed
He had no one to confide in. Marion was the the keeper of his secrets. He couldn’t very well tell her, about her, and how worried he was. Elliot and Addison were too far away and he didn’t want to trouble them. They decided long ago that their children would not be privy to the adult matters in the lives of their parents. As the boys got older they maintained that boundary. Elliot’s 21st birthday party was held at the shore camp, a little place they bought in the woods, on the ocean, when the boys were young. Marion had prepared salads and a huge cake, she’d strung Japanese lanterns from the trees and floated helium balloons from the porch. They’d welcomed guests and enjoyed the celebratory cacophony of the birthday cookout then after the gifts and the first toast they’d slipped away. It was the official end of Elliot’s childhood and the beginning of their passage to the last phase.
If he’d had to choose the happiest days of his life, he would have chosen the years when they lived as a family under one roof. Marion stayed home with the boys until they went to school. Once they were in school she volunteered in every capacity, in the library, the cafeteria, on the playground after school, and as a driver for the various games and recitals the boys were involved in. The doors were always opening and slamming shut with kids of all ages coming and going at all hours of the day and night. She inadvertently taught them to be involved citizens. She had passion. He never knew what she was going to do. When Tom Briggs’ contract was not renewed, the high school kids were outraged. He’d been an engaging principal and he hadn’t buckled to the politics in education. The kids loved him. They walked out and marched to city hall where they held a press conference. When he flipped on the evening news there was Marion at the top of the granite steps speaking in defense of Tom, in solidarity with the teenagers.
They’d had some challenging years once the testosterone began to surge. They’d spent nights, lying in bed, staring at the ceiling waiting for the boys to return home. They’d cruised the parking lot, looking for them, when they were not where they were supposed to be. She’d rubbed his back while she whispered that it was okay that neither of them wanted to join the business, congratulating him on the fine job he’d done raising independent, confident, sons. She’d done the heavy lifting on that job.
Elliot loved the outdoors as much as they did. He got a degree in recreation at Western Washington University and built a career with the National Park Service. There had been a small hiccough when he told them he’d fallen in love with David. Hank didn’t know how to process that. Elliot brought him home to meet them. David fit right into the family, sharing common interests with everyone. Addison was the only one who “knew”. Even Marion had been unaware.
Addison’s choices had presented more of a dilemma. He was a talented blues and jazz musician. He was very good with his saxophone, though severely lacking in financial pragmatism. He was perpetually broke everywhere, all over the country and in Europe. His education was a patchwork of stops and starts. Marion was enthusiastic when he’d called with the news that he’d married a German girl, Katherine. Both of them were crestfallen when he brought her home. She wasn’t at all what they’d hoped for. Hank referred to her as “that gold-digging strumpet” to Marion after that first visit. Who wore black fishnet stockings with a skirt so short that almost nothing was left to the imagination to their in-laws’? Marion told him how it was going to be. “Addison chose her. He loves her. We will not be carrying Mimi’s tradition forward. We’re going to concentrate on the positive and, unless she does something absolutely heinous, we will say only kind things about her. We may have to close our eyes but we’ll leave our hearts open.”
He didn’t worry about what other people thought. Generally, they were thinking of themselves and when they did think of others it was in an auxiliary capacity. Truly, he didn’t care what they thought of him. Ned was effusive when he greeted Hank, “Come in-come in, have a seat. I reviewed Marion’s records and I see that you have her medical power of attorney.” Hank’s heart leapt to his throat in heightened anxiety. Ned continued, “Hank, I’m going to be direct, there’s no other way to say it, Marion has been abusing prescription narcotics…for several years.” Hank was relieved. At least she wasn’t dying from brain cancer. He had feared the worst. Marion had become dependent on the toxic crap she’d been prescribed. He could cope with that. Seeing the relief on his face, Ned went further, “Marion has a serious problem, Hank. I’m not sure you realize just how serious it is.” Hank reacted. “She couldn’t have a serious problem. I’d know if she had a serious problem, I’ve been living with her longer than you’ve been breathing.” Who the hell did Ned think he was patronizing?
As Ned went on to outline the history of Marion’s addiction, and that’s what it was, an addiction, a little bit higher class than the thieves who robbed drug stores but only because she had better health insurance and more money. His wife was a drug addict. Hank’s world stopped turning. When he asked Ned why no one had called him in to discuss Marion’s problem, Ned explained that, until recently, Hank was not named her medical POA so he had no right to her medical information without her express authorization. It had been in the last year or so that they bit the bullet, admitted their own mortality, and made their wills. Advance directives and medical POAs were part of that process.
Hank left Ned’s office. There was a lot to absorb but he had to see Marion, see that she hadn’t changed with this new revelation, that she still looked like his Marion.
Hank approached his mission logically. He found the charge nurse, a “girl” who’d grown up with Elliot and Addison. When he’d finished talking with her, he was satisfied that Marion’s condition would remain private and confidential. It was a small town; people didn’t often heed the constraints of confidentiality agreements, they talked. Hank didn’t care what people thought of him but he would not tolerate malicious gossip about Marion who’d lived her entire life looking for the good in others.
She looked up at him when he entered and her eyes filled. He sat down on her bed and he hugged her. “I’m sorry, Hank. You must be so mad. I’m so sorry.” Hank remembered the remorseful walk of shame that followed unrestrained inebriation. He held her as tight as he could. He didn’t say anything, there was no need.
Regardless of Marion’s medical history, she’d always been resilient. Hank had been afraid he’d lose her but he’d never been surprised when she’d rallied. She was strong. Over the last few days since she’d been discharged, Hank had seen her with fresh eyes. Marion was frail. In seeing her frailty, he acknowledged his own. She didn’t want him to leave her.
She’d asked him once, about ten years ago, if he’d please retire so they could spend time with each other. They’d just returned from The Grand Tour. They’d flown to Jackson Hole to visit Elliot and David for a week. Marion had been in her element. She’d remarked on how relaxed he’d been, how much she loved his company, on the drive from Jackson Hole to Memphis to see Addison and Katherine. He’d been wrong about Katherine. She’d proved to be a stabilizing influence in Addison’s life, keeping him focused, creating a sanctuary in their home where he could compose and play without disturbance. He finally finished his degree at The Royal Danish Conservatory and taught jazz studies at the University of Memphis. Hank wished they’d had children but Katherine confided in Marion that she didn’t want to change the dynamic of her marriage to include children.
He should have retired completely. Neither of the boys wanted Foster Shaw. They’d discussed its future and agreed that the firm would go to the employees with all of the associated business property including an initial lump sum for operating capital. Hank had done well over the years. The boys would inherit enough money to supplement their own retirements with travel and modest leisure. He assumed they’d sell the family home. The shore camp would go to the Bay Conservancy as part of the Land Trust. Marion had used the money she’d saved to save the land from “subdivisions and sameness” to buy the shore camp. Once she bought it, she wasn’t ready to part with it as quickly as she’d intended.
He’d had no reason not to retire. No reason other than work had become a habit. He’d allowed routine and apprehension to keep him from the person he loved most. Being home with Marion, in her delicate state, had given him incentive.
Hank was a realist. He didn’t want to make Marion wary of his attentions. He kept an alert eye on her for signs of drug induced impairment. He’d noticed that she kept to a religious schedule in taking the recommended dosages on her pill bottles. There weren’t any overt personality or function changes. Hank wondered if Ned’s diagnosis was a matter of transference. Everyone knew Ned had his hands full with the antics of his oldest boy.
Ned was always just a little bit off in his delivery. People thought he believed the myth of his own superiority. Hank wasn’t so sure. When he looked at Ned, he saw an uncertain, snot-nosed, little nerd, who was giving it back to all the kids who’d given him a wedgie after gym class. Ned was the pride and joy of a certain segment of the community. He was a wunderkind in high school, skipping grades and testing off the charts. His SAT scores were perfect. He came from a long line of woodsmen, hardworking people, who asked for nothing from anyone. He’d graduated from med school and come back to his home town to practice. He brought his new bride back with him and they started a family.
None of this obscured the fact that his oldest boy was a juvenile delinquent who would have been somewhere on the inside looking out if not for the concerted efforts of family, Ned’s colleagues, and some very expensive lawyers. People had laughed when Travis Lawson, the lead finish carpenter and project supervisor at Foster Shaw, had called Ned after he discovered that Ned’s kid was smoking pot and having sex with his 14 year old daughter, Angie. He left a message on his cell phone- “Whitney, you quack motherfucker, you keep your psychopath kid away from my daughter or I’ll break every bone in your body! It will take a fucking army of quacks to put your puny ass back together again.” The kicker had been that Ned’s kid sent the message from his father’s cell phone to his own and played it for anyone who cared to listen. Travis wasn’t far off; the kid may not be a psychopath but he was a sociopath in progress. Most recently he’d been stopped for speeding by the state cops who’d discovered pot and boxes of baggies in his car. When the troopers questioned him about the paraphernalia, he’d said “I eat a lot of sandwiches.” The kid had brass.
Hank made an appointment to review Marion’s medical records.
Hank arrived at Medical Records promptly at 8, as soon as they opened. Marion’s records hadn’t been copied so he accepted the offer to review them in a cubicle. He was told that he could copy whatever he wanted at the copying machine. Marion had enjoyed robust health until she contracted the pseudo-cancer fungal infection. Someone with indecipherable handwriting had the good grace to attribute the diagnosis of the fungal infection to him. He allowed himself a triumphant smirk, pushed his ball cap back on his forehead so he could see better, leaned forward and settled in.
He remembered the pain she’d been in and his fear that no one would be able to help her. He’d raised holy hell at the emergency room when her pain increased to the point that she was crying. He had yelled at the ER doctor, “You can help her and YOU WILL, NOW!” They’d scurried around in circles until they’d found the goddamn morphine on a pole. They’d sent her home with a fentanyl patch, convinced she had cancer, and prescriptions for a pile of pills. Seeing her in that much pain scared him. He hadn’t been able to get to the drugstore fast enough to fill those prescriptions. He’d wanted to protect her from suffering. After they’d returned from Mayo and the pills were moved from the kitchen counter to the medicine cabinet, life became familiar once again. He had a vague recollection of her telling him, that even though she’d been cured, she felt that life was slipping out of her. It was nothing she could pinpoint. She was depressed for a while. He figured she was exhausted from the ordeal, that she’d be fine with rest and her normal routine.
Her routine had not returned to normal. It happened so gradually that he hadn’t noticed. She’d withdrawn from friends and activities. Her medical record was stuffed full of appointments he couldn’t recall. He had no idea that she’d been spending so much time at the doctor’s. He was shocked the first time he saw it, “seeking drugs”. In the first act of dishonesty in his adult life, he began removing pages as he read references to drugs or “drug seeking behavior”. For the first time he questioned other events in their lives. He wondered if Marion had fallen off the ladder, resulting in a head injury, because of drug induced impairment. If only he’d paid attention. How could he have missed the monumental changes in her? She’d tried to tell him, he was sure of it. He’d told her on more than one occasion, “Don’t worry, we’re just getting older. At least we’re doing it together, in good company.” Sweet Jesus. He’d missed it.
He was powerless. He loved her so much. He would have forsaken his parents, his kids, his friends, everyone one he knew, for her. All she ever had to do was ask. She didn’t ask, for anything, ever. During her weakest moments she seemed so self-sufficient, as though she were allowing him to take control so he’d feel better about it all. It wouldn’t have surprised him to see her get up out of the hospital bed, moving him gently out of her way, as she made things right in a way that only she could.
Her medical record was full of information that he wasn’t aware of. Marion was no longer healthy. She hadn’t apprised him of her concerns. He supposed she had been worried that he’d realize she’d been after pills in between legitimate appointments. He should have wondered why her prescriptions were recurring without seeing her doctor. He was helpless to change his participation. That was the problem with life, it moved along whether you were a participant, a spectator or asleep at the wheel.
He’d been driving to the shore camp without realizing where he was headed. There was something about the place that was restorative. When the kids were young they hadn’t taken vacations. Shore camp was close enough to town that they stayed there through the summer and he could commute to the firm. As the years went by, more of his time was spent drawing and more of his clients had a level of affluence that allowed them to purchase expansive shore frontage parcels. He’d refused to design McMansions. He did not mince words, “I will not draw something that defaces the natural landscape. I appreciate your time and thank you for coming in but I am not the architect for your project.” He’d managed to approach some of his clients regarding the Land Trust, leaving their parcels in protective stewardship for perpetuity. Marion had hooted with victory when he’d made the suggestion to the Dunfeys and they’d been so keen on it that they’d left several of their properties to Land Trusts all over the country.
They hadn’t changed the footprint for shore camp. They’d repurposed what they could, donated what was salvageable to Habitat for Humanity and designed a clean spare refuge that did not infringe upon the natural environment. It was just over 900 square feet with windows that allowed sight lines from one end of the building to the other and likewise across. There was no wasted space and nothing that was not functional or essential to physical comfort. Marion was especially pleased by the fact that it was barely distinguishable from the trees when viewed from their canoe in the cove. There was no TV, no radio, and no phone. They were entertained by nature and each other.
Shore camp had been unoccupied for a long stretch. It demanded fresh air and a good dusting. Hank set to work from the top down and the inside out. He took the quilts and hung them on the line to air out. He made sure there was enough propane in the tank to run the fridge and the stove, primed the water pump, and split some kindling for the little Jotul in case it got chilly in the mornings and evenings. He sat in the rocker, staring out the window at the sunlight flirting with the ripples in the cove. Gratified by his housework, he went to the market for groceries with a concentration on the foods they enjoyed and complete disregard for the dietary restrictions that accompany one’s seventh decade. Along with ice cream, fresh baked bread, butter, cheese, sturdy slabs of steak, crabmeat, fresh basil, dill, lettuce, and tomatoes, and a few bottles of wine, he bought a couple of cigars and (what the hell) a pack of clove cigarettes. After he’d put the groceries away he rehung the big hammock and pulled the canoe out and down to just above the high water mark. He drove back to town to collect his wife.
He opened the kitchen door, “Marion, I think we should go to the shore and stay a few days; get away from here, and talk about retirement. We need a change. Let’s pack our stuff. Don’t forget your medicine. We’ll have to call the kids and tell them that we’re going.” Once the boys left home it became family practice to call whenever anyone would be away from home for an extended period. It was a good way to avoid undue distress. Marion objected, “No one’s been there for a long time. I hate to think of the cobwebs.” “I spent the morning there. It’s clean and ready to go. I went to the market and wait ’til you see what I bought. I’m sick of the diet we’re on; a few days off it will be good for us. Life is too short to eat a bland diet. Let’s hurry up and get out of here.” They called the kids. David and Elliot were home together. Katherine was home in Memphis but Addison was having office hours, she gave them his direct line saying he’d be disappointed if they didn’t call. Once the calls had been made they headed out.
Marion seemed to relax better on the drive. It was a mild, clear afternoon. They meandered from one topic to the next. He marveled at their good fortune to be able to escape without asking permission from anyone. At camp, they put their clothes and toiletries away and began supper. They turned the radio on to listen to NPR. Public radio was all that was allowed at camp, it was the least unsettling. The accustomed kitchen harmony allowed them to relax completely. They’d spent half a century making meals together. Hank poured wine for them as he tenderized one of the steaks for the grill. Marion mentioned, as she usually did, how odd it seemed that their appetites had decreased to the point that they ate half of what they used to eat. They ate and smiled. There wasn’t a lot that needed saying.
After they’d done the dishes. Hank made coffee and took out a cigar. He pocketed the clove cigarettes and asked Marion to join him on the steps. He lit his cigar and sheepishly drew the cigarettes out of his pocket. “I saw these at the store and I thought you might like to give them a try. Katherine smokes them sometimes; they smell pretty good.” Marion began to speak, “Hank, I…” “Hush. You’re a grown woman. I know you smoke. Try them and see what you think.” They sat smoking on the steps like the two old friends that they were.
It had been a while since Hank had scrutinized his wife in the manner he’d recently adopted. He noticed a rhythm in her addiction. She didn’t wake up happy anymore. She woke up in a foul mood, distant and cantankerous until she’d had her coffee and her morning pills. As the pills took effect she became increasingly loquacious. She didn’t realize the twists and turns her mind took had no pattern or that her conversation lacked focus. She talked to hear herself. Hank walked the shore in the mornings, leaving her in bed asleep, as was his habit after the boys moved out. He gave her a quick kiss before he rose and began his day in solitude.
By the time he returned the narcotics had leveled off in her system. She didn’t eat lunch, saying she’d had breakfast, which she had not. She liked her medicine undiluted. She would take an afternoon nap if she’d overindulged and then the cycle repeated itself. A glass or two of wine in the evening had a calming effect on her. He saw their future. It wasn’t what he’d planned on.
A Perfect Day
She surprised him one morning by rising before he did. She went to the kitchen and brewed coffee before she woke him up. It was a perfect crisp blue sky day. They had a fire in the Jotul to take the chill off. Marion made waffles with vanilla ice cream and maple syrup. They grinned like naughty little kids. He washed the dishes while she showered. They took a walk and held hands. They hadn’t held hands in years. He knew she’d taken her pills because he saw them on her napkin at breakfast. They reminded each other of the funny things the kids had done at camp over the years. They congratulated each other for having the good sense to buy and remodel the place.
He made lunch and she ate it. They took a big fleece throw out to the hammock and had a nap. When they woke up they listened to Fresh Air on NPR. He suggested they paddle out in the canoe to watch the sunset over camp like they used to do. He grabbed the big fleece throw. He saw her pill bottle on the bathroom sink. He took one. He grabbed a bottle of wine, some paper cups, and the cork screw. He situated her in front of the stern seat, wrapped up in the fleece, in charge of the wine. He paddled out on the ebb tide out to just before the undertow. He uncorked the wine. He rubbed her cheek, with his thumb, as she sat between his knees. As the sun dipped behind the roof line of shore camp, he rolled the canoe. He held her tight. The last thing he said was, “I’ve got you Marion, don’t worry. I’ve got you and we’re together.”
Lilly and Fran
“Get off my ass about the damn wedding! The mismanagement of your finances is not my concern. You know I loathe these events. Why is she offering herself at the altar, anyhow? The whole thing just reeks of submission.”
Lilly stared out the window and giggled to herself in recollection of the horrified expression on Fran’s face. Fran was needy, getting herself into one bind after another, then whining incessantly in a subliminal plea for Lilly’s help. Lilly rarely demonstrated her exasperation so when she chose to show it, it was something to see. She allowed herself another little smirk before she turned back to her work.
Lilly and Fran II
What they said was true, Fran spent a disproportionate amount of time with her knees up around her ears. Lilly was pragmatic in her assessment of her cousin. Fran did what she did. There was no preventing the nuclear fallout from her actions. Lilly sighed, looked at the clock, grabbed her wallet, and went to get coffee for her break.
Fran could be best described as a serial spouse. She perceived that other women’s husbands fell desperately in love with her. In fact, she ended up with other women’s cast offs; husbands they were happy to pass on. The most recent had been a bald plumber named Maurice. Who runs off with the plumber? Every time Lilly saw him all she could think was, “Some people call me a space cowboy, yeah. Some call me the gangster of love. Some people call me Maurice, cause I speak of the pompitous of love.”
Before him there’d been an electrician named Wendell, preceded by a, trumpet playing, used car salesman, all of them augmented by the continuing presence of the blind woman’s, alcoholic, husband. It made her head spin to think of the manically revolving door to Fran’s bed, heart, and now her purse. The Gangster of Love had conned her into putting her house in his name and adding him to her credit accounts as an authorized signer.
Fran was broke but hardly naive. The door to divorce court was second, only to her bedroom door, in complete rotations.
Lilly and Fran III
Lilly called Lexie that afternoon to see if she had time to meet after work. The one undeniable accomplishment in Fran’s life was Alexandra. Lilly loved that kid. Fran had made some stupid choices but entering the union that produced Lexie wasn’t one of them; she should have stayed put. Fran was generous to share her with Lilly, allowing her all of the joys of parenthood with none of the blame. In Lilly’s heart, Lexie would always be her little princess. She could hardly believe that she was set to marry her prince.
Lexie arrived, in a burst of fresh air, and rushed over to hug Lilly while simultaneously wriggling out of her coat. “Hi Lilly! What’s up? I talked with Mom and she said you bit her head off over Maurice and the missing money, are you still mad?” Lexie’s speech strung together when she was excited or apprehensive. Often she had to tell her, “Slow down, Lex, so I can process.” Lilly looked over at her, still young and sparkly with dreams and wishes yet to come true “No, I’m not mad or even surprised. Let’s have a drink and we will discuss.”
As they talked, Lexie disclosed that she and Ben had never wanted a big wedding, that they had hoped for something small and romantic. The revelation didn’t surprise Lilly nor did it surprise her that the extravaganza was Fran’s idea. Fran projected her dreams onto Lex, and Lexie, being the devoted daughter that she was, acquiesed to make her mother’s dreams come true. Lexie would be having her day, her way. As they hugged goodbye, Lilly reiterated, “Talk with Ben, you kids choose a destination for your wedding, then call me.”
Lilly and Fran Conclusion
Lilly drew a long suffering sigh as she made her way to Fran’s house. If Fran didn’t rally, soon, someone was going to end up carting her through old age. That someone wasn’t going to be Lilly. She let herself into Fran’s house. It was designed in hard edges and cold colors, Fran’s idea of elegant living. Luckily, Fran was about to lose the place. Maybe with a clean slate to work from she could create an inviting, comfortable, sanctuary for herself. Thankfully, Lexie’s father hadn’t lived to see the mess Fran made of her life.
She found Fran in her bedroom, sitting before her dressing table. She walked over and gave her a quick hug. “Frannie, I’m going to talk and you’re going to listen, then we’re going to get on with it. This is the deal- we’re not girls anymore. I want to be a strong, old woman and that’s what I want for you too. A man at your side does not confirm your existence. You define you and who you’d like to be. There is not a man alive who’ll be able to save you from the hurt in life, not a man who’ll be able to sustain the level of adoration you’re demanding, not one who’ll escape vulnerability from sickness or heartbreak. I don’t know what you’re looking for Fran, but you better give it up because it isn’t there.” Fran started to interrupt, Lilly raised her hand, “No, this is my turn and I’m not done yet. Just sit and listen.”
“You had everything you needed when you had Gregory. He worked himself to exhaustion for you but it wasn’t enough. You wanted a grand life, so you chose style over substance, and you dumped him. That didn’t work out so well, did it? You’ve effectively lost all that Greg worked so hard to provide, a place for you and Lexie to live that was yours free and clear. Jesus Fran, the man worked, while he was dying, to be certain this house was paid off. Then, you signed it over to Maurice the Moron, for what? To keep that slimy liar here at home instead of out chasing 19 year old girls?” Fran had gone from watery eyed self-pity (Lilly knew the cycle) to weeping in earnest.
“You’re not a victim so stop pretending you are. Stop feeling sorry for yourself, like you didn’t beg for exactly what you’ve gotten. Another thing, stop screwing that scumbag Woody Carmichael. Mae Lee might be blind but she isn’t stupid. What do you see in him anyway? You lost your virginity to him close to forty years ago. Still, you feel a need to reenact the crime? He’s a slob with a big, hairy, beer gut peeking out from under a sloppy old sweatshirt and every time the man turns around you see his butt crack smiling at you. You’re doing Mae Lee a favor, keeping that pig from grunting and heaving all over her. You’re not revisiting glory days, you’re just fucking a fat man. Where do you think that tired endeavor is going to take you? That’s the problem Fran, you don’t think. What is it that so scares you that you can’t be alone in your own good company? You’re funny and smart. You’re still pretty. Why can’t you be satisfied with all that you have, instead of chasing what isn’t there?”
Fran’s face was red and she took little gasps of air, as though she were drawing her last breath, the old drama queen. Lilly gave her a tissue and continued. “I’ve bailed you out for the last time, Frannie. I’m paying for Lexie’s wedding. She and Ben will choose a destination and they’ll invite the people they love the most. It will be small and fun, a happy start to their marriage. Lexie is a wonderful young woman, she’s a loving daughter and a loyal friend. You should be proud of yourself for the person you raised her to be.”
Lilly looked at her watch. “I have to go. Think about what I’ve said; call me if you need to review the fine points. Get yourself a lawyer and don’t try to seduce him. Save your energy for rebuilding your life. I love you, Fran.” Lilly hugged her again and she was out the door.
Lilly could be such a venomous bitch! The problem with Maurice and her money was not Fran’s fault. He’d tricked her, saying that her house would be used for collateral to expand his plumbing business. Fran loved him. Of course she transferred the title, that’s what married people did. Not Lilly.
Lilly treated every situation like a damn transaction. It had taken her nearly two decades to start filing married on her tax returns for the love of god! Fran didn’t know how Neil stood her yet he did. It was obvious that he was as smitten now as he was in the beginning. Lilly was a fine one to point fingers about affairs and sex. In her twenties she’d been quite the girl. She was happily married now; however, she’d had more than one ride on that carousel too!
Fran knew who Lilly was. Her family moved back to town after her mother’s marriage failed and her father, the original deadbeat dad, left her mother with all those kids to support, the youngest ones not yet potty trained. Lilly was a misfit. She was awkward. Her bedroom was plain and she didn’t have a single Barbie. Instead, she had books that she lent out like a librarian.
Fran was a Thaxter with all the implied prominence and responsibility. Lilly was her first social cause. Her mother forced Fran to include Lilly in her group. When Fran was prom queen, Fran’s mother insisted that she lobby her friends to include Lilly in her court. Lilly, nerd that she was, refused to be part of it, saying she didn’t want to perpetuate women’s subjugation. She wasn’t interested in being popular. Oddly, Lilly was popular. She was the girl others confided in; the girl most likely to get birth control pills for her friends and the girl who knew how and where to terminate a pregnancy. Lilly took care of things and she didn’t mind doing it. If you told her a secret, she kept it.
Lilly had good points, which gave her no right to lecture Fran, no right at all. How was Fran to know that all men were basically the same? Greg had loved her. He was ordinary, happy to go along to get along. Every day was the same as the day before and the same as the day to come. He got up and had breakfast, the same boring granola with one cup of coffee, every morning. Showered, brushed and flossed, he headed out the door to work at 6:30 each day, no deviation, ever. He returned in the evening, drank a beer and read the paper, talked only of facts and never speculated about anything. He had no dreams beyond his home and family. The predictable domestic routine made Fran want to crawl out of her skin.
Lilly was mean and rude about Woody. As though Fran failed to notice that Woody had let himself go. Fran was not the blind one, after all. Woody understood her. If she hadn’t been so mad at him, that she’d hurled his promise ring off the cliff and into the drink at Sunset Cove, they would have been married and things would have been much different. Mae Lee had no idea who Woody was; she’d never seen his potential. The poor thing didn’t even suspect.
Lilly warned her about Maurice from the beginning. She didn’t trust him. Lilly was right. Fran didn’t know how someone, who was so socially inept, could recognize people for who they were. Lilly was too direct. She refused to waste her precious time on social niceties. If she didn’t like someone she wouldn’t lower her standards, under any conditions. Fran had been mortified the time that Lilly refused to shake the mayor’s hand, in front of the press, at the annual Booby Ball. The ball had been Lilly’s idea and a reaction to Fran’s breast cancer. Lilly was more than just her cousin.
Fran had been between husbands when she found the lump. She’d called Lilly first thing. Lilly hadn’t hesitated for a second. She’d held Frannie’s hand through the whole ordeal. She and Neil had moved into her house so that Lexie’s schedule wouldn’t be disrupted. When her work had been less than supportive, Lilly had quit, on the spot, told them to cram that servile little job. Fran had no health insurance so Lilly took care of all the paperwork for her. She’d stayed many nights at Fran’s hospital bedside when things had been the worst.
Lilly didn’t know that Fran knew the battles she’d fought for her. An unsuspecting nurse had mentioned Fran’s charity care status; Lilly went off like a rocket. She’d dressed that nurse down in a hissing rant in the hall outside Fran’s room. She told her that the hospital would have closed its doors, decades ago, if not for Thaxter money. There would be no nursing jobs, where the staff was clearly not busy enough, if not for the Thaxter legacy. She went on to say that while the hospital was in sound financial condition, it certainly wasn’t Fran’s fault that the estate trustee had robbed the heirs of their inheritance. Fran had heard the whole thing. She’d cried to hear Lilly defend her.
Lilly was a venomous bitch. She was also Frannie’s dearest friend. Fran knew that she had erupted from worry. She forgave her.
He heard her last breath depart. She’d stopped breathing in the same practical manner she’d completed other tasks, “That’s it. All done.” He touched her. She didn’t feel like herself, he could feel the her of her had moved on. Just as he’d used to fear in the early days when they’d argued, she’d left, gone, no amount of remorse would bring her back.
The decades had gone by so fast. One day they were young and carnal and the next they were grey and frail. He’d been convinced that he’d go first or they’d go together. He never considered that she would go before him. He thought she’d always be there. He was accustomed to her.
He purposely rattled around in the early mornings so she’d wake up. Unless she was hanging on to residual anger from the previous day, she’d open her eyes to listen for a moment before she announced, “I love you.” Her declaration was always fresh, an important new discovery. Even when he was annoyed or impatient to get on with the day, it was reassuring. She marked his place in the world.
She’d been so determined about everything. She was emphatic that there should be no “wailing and wringing of hands”. Her bon voyage was for family only, and even then only the family she wanted- invitation only with a velvet rope and a bouncer if necessary. It would have been a lot harder for him if she hadn’t been as organized. She’d researched every detail and left directions. She bypassed a will entirely. Her accounts were payable on death and her tangible assets were distributed while she lived.
She’d never been able to rationalize what her grandfather had done to her father. He’d left him only one dollar from a sizable estate, that provided handsomely for the remaining heirs. It was an old legal tactic accompanied by the cruel words “through no error or inadvertence”. She’d thought it was the epitome of callousness. She’d always said she wanted everyone who mattered to know exactly what she thought. Over the last weeks she’d reminded him, repeatedly, that she’d left instructions in their strong box and documents in their bank safe deposit box. She didn’t want him to worry.
He was worn out from anticipatory grief. He didn’t know what to do with himself. She’d be disappointed if she could see him procrastinating, wanting to put it off. He went out to the garage, to her potting table. He got down on his creaking knees to move the pots on the bottom shelf aside. Her argument, that this was the best place for the strong box, had been as amusing as it was sensible. What “invader”, she’d wanted to know, would think to look through her “pretty” flower pots for a strong box? If the house burned down the box would remain unscathed in the garage. He’d given in to her logic. It hadn’t mattered to him. She was the one who kept track of things and made sense of their life.
He pulled the box out and jiggled his, seldom used, key in the lock. There it was, in a heavy cream colored envelope, the stationary she’d always used exclusively for him, marked “Just in case”. He set it on the potting table while he replaced the box and pots. He walked slowly across the driveway to the screen door, seeing things for the first time as he imagined she’d seen them. The flowers were wildly bright, accompanied by whirligigs and wind chimes. He cried to think of her. He was happy that she’d lived through a final summer. When she’d worked, she always took her vacation in early August “just before summer starts to fade”. Sobs heaved from him as brokenhearted tears rolled down his grey whiskered face.
He heard the screen door bang shut as he entered the kitchen. He drew a glass of well water from the tap as he looked out the window at the bird feeder, then around her kitchen where she had exclaimed many times, “I love home.” He went to the table and he sat down, knowing this would be the last time he heard from her. He opened the envelope and he read.
Please don’t feel guilty, don’t have regrets and do not take up drinking again; you weren’t very good at it the first time around.
I loved you so much in the beginning. We just knew, remember? We knew separately, at the same time, that the other one was THE ONE. It was uncanny. We were connected at the heart and joined at the pelvis, all thrust and grind until we could barely walk then we’d do it some more. No one lived in our world but us. Strangers stopped us on the street to remark on our bubble of happiness. I thought it would last forever.
I was woefully unprepared for the responsibilities you assigned to me. I had no idea how the world worked. I thought my job was to entertain, that you would manage the tediously difficult tasks. I learned, not for myself but because it was important to you. There was so much to keep track of. You changed me but you didn’t change. You were able to continue being true to your inherent person, the man residing within.
There are many things I wish hadn’t happened. I wish I had never tried to have babies. I didn’t know how to do it. I was catatonically afraid. You and that awful OB-GYN forced me to go to the psychiatrist after my body rejected the first baby but before I aborted the second one. You took me there, spoke privately with him, as though I were not a grown adult, and deposited me on his couch without further ado- she’s broken fix her. That’s how I felt, like a possession. It was a defining moment. I knew then that I was less than last. I allowed you to be first.
The psychiatrist was a receptor. He heard me. I suppose, in the beginning, I represented income, describing objectively that I had misplaced myself, tucked away in a safe spot in the attic or a dark, dry corner of one of our closets, lost and sadly missed. I made the choice to abort that second baby. I felt as though my body was sheltering an alien, draining more of me away until there would be nothing left at all. You didn’t understand. You didn’t want to know so I stopped trying to tell you. I accepted my position.
It was a matter of survival really. I knew who I wanted to be. Just like everyone else, I wanted to be special to someone, special to you. I learned through trial and error that I, alone, knew the yearning of my secret heart. You made the suggestion that I ought to go see my “paid pal” again. It was dismissive and derisive all at once. You gave me permission to share part of who I was with someone else.
I wanted you to want to know me, that’s all. Those years of appointments became one long unsatisfying tryst, a coupling lacking in desire, something to fill the time. I hated that I was doing to him what you had done to me. Life demands maturity.
I created a routine that allowed me moments of happiness in little pockets of loveliness. You demanded less of me or I found a way to circumvent those demands. I didn’t leave you because I knew what you wouldn’t admit, you relied on me. I don’t believe dependence is the same as love. I don’t. Maybe for you it is. We’re different.
Since you’re reading this you must know everything is in order. It’s all taken care of. The details are in the strong box and I put a copy in the bank safe deposit box in case the garage burns down.
I loved you with all my heart.
Character Sketch I
Childhood A little boy with imploring, hazel eyes, looks out from the photograph. He’s hurt, not in physical pain, lonesome in his heart.
Later A young man, wearing coveralls, is mopping the floor. He stores his bucket and mop in a closet. He enters a room. A man in a uniform closes the door behind him. Hazel eyes peer out through the bars, an illustration of futility.
Character Sketch II
Childhood A cluster of kids are crying. An older girl comforts a little one whose sobs are ragged. The little girl thinks, “I want my mommy. When is my mommy coming home? When I grow up I’ll never leave my kids alone.”
Later A woman starts to crawl into the back of a hearse. Her sisters tug her gently out. Her eyes are swollen and bloodshot with tears. Sorrow comes at her in unrelenting punches. She cries, “My son, my son. I want my son. I love MY son.”
Character Sketch III
Later A young guy, wearing gold framed granny glasses in front of smiling brown eyes, grabs his crutches. He heads to his tent. He enters and sits. He pulls a belt tight around his bicep and slides a needle in his vein.
Too Late His sister disimpacts him. The odor is vile. His siblings are there. He’s relieved to have them. The love is unyielding. He is their job. As his breath rattles in suffocation, he leaves them with enduring love.
Character Sketch IV
Later Her days are a mix of poverty and apprehension. It’s late and she’s bone weary. She’s on her knees, next to the crib, praying. “Please, please make my baby better. Please let me help her. I’ll be a better person, just please make my little girl healthy.”
Too Late She’s steadfast in her duty as a mother. Money doesn’t matter because there is no cure. The baby is so weak. She lifts her carefully out of the crib and takes her to the bed. Tears pool in her brown eyes as she leans back against the headboard and sings softly until the last breath escapes the tiny body.
Character Sketch V
Childhood A young girl washes a pile of dishes. Her straight, little back does not bend from the burden of panic. She looks out the window into the night worrying, “What will happen to us? What am I going to do?”
Anger emanates from every pore as she thinks, “This is the last time I’ll ever have to do this. It will be over soon and I’ll never have to think of it again.” The doctor speaks to her, telling her she’s going to the OR but she’ll be just fine. Fury shoots from her eyes because, once again, she is alone to take care of things.
Character Sketch VI
Before He moves the ball down the field with controlling confidence. The crowd loves him. He wins the game with a tie breaking goal. His leprechaun grin is euphoric.
Too Late Accelerating through the curve, his nostrils burn a satisfying chemical burn. His brown eyes are nearly black with piggy euphoria. The pole comes way too fast. His head cracks the windshield. He’s done moving.
Character Sketch VII
The Beginning She was born an extrovert. She sang, danced, and laughed the way common people breathed. She walked like a happy ending.
The End She would not acquiesce to fate. Her lip split from his knuckles. His wing tips are imprinted in her ribs. There’s no sport left in the fight so he goes.
My father went to Vidalia, Georgia one time. It was before he met my mother, after a hitch in the army, sometime between Korea and Vietnam. The onions impressed him enough that he decided to commemorate them christening his firstborn, me, Vidalia Mae Minzy.
He was a strict disciplinarian, prone to violent displays of displeasure. My sister, Rachel, ran the wrong way around the kitchen table and tripped over the coffee pot cord. Hot coffee spilled and burned her. She got herself burned and beaten too. That beating may have been a fright beating rather than the standard display of displeasure.
I was a diplomat growing up. I learned, from having to coax my father out of his unhappy moods, that it pays to listen. Regurgitating what has been said to you is the most successful form of flattery. I learned to put a positive spin on things before “spin” became part of the national vernacular.
Once I found him crying at the edge of the woods, just before the path to the river. When I asked him why he was crying, he told me it was for the persecution of Jesus and all the sins of man. He stopped crying and we had a Bible lecture. The Bible lectures were boring to me. It was challenge for me to be attentive for the entire presentation. I knew if I wasn’t, it would hurt my daddy’s feelings and I didn’t like to be mean.
An earlier version of this story appeared in Puckerbrush Review.
Before my parents divorced, my dad, whom I loved for his weakness and vulnerability, held a gun to my mother’s head. This followed the beating during which he’d choked her so hard she’d had to wear a turtleneck in July.
The divorce didn’t trouble the younger kids much, but we three big kids talked about it quite a lot. We couldn’t make sense of it. The beatings were, to us, a normal part of life. I took it for granted that all families had beatings. I thought all daddies threw the Thanksgiving groceries 50 feet up in the air when mommies took too long to return with the car.
My mother packed all of us kids up, in our jammies. She drove all through the night to my grandparents’ house, far away from the life that was familiar to us. We found our own house in a genetically deprived, little town. Our mother went directly to work supporting us.
One morning I got up extra early to see her before the other kids were awake. When I shuffled into the kitchen, my pretty mommy was crying at the table. “Why are you crying, Mommy?” She told me not to worry, she was just a little bit lonely because she missed all our old friends and she didn’t have any new ones. I hugged her. “Don’t worry, I’ll be your friend.”
In time, she became parched by an unquenchable thirst. Inevitably, Gram found out and she initiated an investigation. The investigation concentrated mainly on Rachel and me. She conducted cookie fueled interrogations. Rachel was especially ethical. She had high expectations of parental behavior. She sang like a canary.
I worked as a double agent. In an effort to gain my mother’s confidence and maintain most favored status, I repeated all Gram’s questions to us. My mother became increasingly agitated, chain smoking Tareytons, until she finally erupted and called my grandmother to yell about “pumping little kids for information.”
My father was completely absent during this time. It was during the 70s. He was into EST, along with any other collective movement, where he could be surrounded by people with personality disorders and deficiencies similar to his. Eventually, he remarried and had two new children thereby eliminating his need to think of, or support, us.
Pride was expensive. Mom worked hard, as a school secretary, while she finished her teaching degree. She cleaned rich people’s cottages through summer breaks. The song Harper Valley PTA was popular during that period of our childhood. My stomach was squeezed by anxiety every time I heard it on the radio.
We spent weekends and school breaks with our grandparents. Ostensibly, so our mother could have time to herself to think straight and study. We knew the truth. Our house was occupied by middle-aged drunks on those weekends. I can’t imagine she did a lot of studying, much less straight thinking. Kids would say stuff like, “Your mother’s screwin’ Kenny Johnson’s father.” I’d defend her good taste if not her integrity by responding, “She is not; he’s fat and ugly!” It was a humiliating position to be in. I wondered what the truth was that prompted the attacks on my mother’s virtue. I wanted to believe she wasn’t doing anything bad.
She was smart and beautiful, a threatening combination. There was nothing she couldn’t do. She believed in a fairytale. She chose the wrong prince. She gave up every dream she ever had when she begged refuge from her parents. She was indentured to them, wearing their generosity and reciprocal familial obligation like ballast around her neck. Her entire life was devoted to being a person she never intended to be.
There is so little I understand and so much that defies my understanding.
I sampled the menu at a local Asian restaurant that re-opened in a new location after months of back-breaking renovation. The owners are congenial and amused by the irony of being Chinese serving primarily Japanese food. The family is extensive. All of the youngest generation is energetic, polite and motivated.
I waited for my take-out order, reading the paper, in the company of another patron, who bemoaned the elimination of the 1/2 order menu and lunch buffet. I should have kept reading the paper. SOMEHOW I engaged in conversation with the dissatisfied man. He went on and on about a Chinese restaurant he used to frequent in Montreal, extolling its unrivaled fare and humble ambiance. I should have checked the hockey stats, maybe clipped a few coupons… but NO! I just couldn’t restrain myself. I thought I was being friendly and helpful in defending the family’s decision to move to a fresh, modern space with an updated menu. I was so WRONG.
The hairy, blue-eyed man, sporting a long white braid, did not consider my suggestion that it could be possible that the owners were only trying to appeal to a broader audience. He continued his objectionable harangue, expanding his complaint to include the Americanization of immigrants, who spoiled their efforts by capitulating to commercial American culture. I should have nodded and turned the page to catch up on the going price of pork bellies. Instead, I engaged him further.
He was stridently vocal in the conviction that the best food was served in simple establishments. Initially, I was making conversation then my alter ego began chafing from continued exposure to the odious, old blowhard. In agreement, I responded that some of the best food I’d had, especially Asian food, had come from stalls and street vendors during travels in SE Asia. (Quite a distance from Montreal.) Where did the crossword puzzle get to???
He was off like a rocket. The conversation moved rapidly to include his fluency in NINE languages, extensive travels, loathing of white Americans, oppression of “his” people-apparently, indigenous North American Indians. I smiled the sort of smile that makes my sister want to slither under the closest rock. By this time I had rolled the paper up like a bat, whacking it against my knee in anticipation.
I rose to my full, imposing height, just 8 inches shy of 6 feet and I BEAT the egotistical, old coot over the head. He couldn’t get away from me because I’d wrapped his stupid braid through my fist. I hissed, “Do you whine and complain incessantly in all NINE of those languages? It doesn’t matter how many languages you speak, if no one is listening to your crotchety, old ass! Do you want to know about oppression of the people? MY people have been oppressed since the beginning of time; women– slaves to men and children, less than last, beaten and sold. You don’t hear me bellyaching about my woes, which are ongoing and current. I didn’t know your people, and I damn sure did not exploit them, so shut your pie hole and suck it up!”
My order arrived, I stood to take it, handed the newspaper to the quivering old goat, and strode, smirking, out the door.