I slipped it into the narrow cotton envelope, its heft and shape sagging in my pants pocket, and wove my way through the public gardens. I had my eye on the huge wrought iron gate at walkway’s end and sped up to close the gap between us. Also, Monroe and me–and the stocky security guard who had been watching us. If I could make the gate I’d be free to hop on my powder blue Vespa and speed away. As I held back from running, I imagined myself as seen by the guard–nearing middle age, slim, with curly hair yanked into a messy ponytail, my exercise clothing dark: nondescript. What might he say if calling in his suspicions?
“An older gal moving at a fast clip, and she hid something in her pocket–no, didn’t see her take anything but she talked to this kinda shady guy, then took something small from him and–huh? No, not sure. Well, anyway, going after her.”
How innocuous a thing, a woman meeting a man and exchanging something–might it be drugs, keys, maybe a rose cutting, even a hot diamond necklace? I laughed as I approached the gate but it was more a gasp of barely subdued hysteria.
And then I felt a hand on my forearm.
“Miss, please stop.”
I stopped, waited, breathing harder than desired. He circled me, wide face marked by a crooked half-smile, a friendly accoster, then stood back a few feet as I wasn’t moving. I did consider if I could make a dash for it but he was between me and open space. My pocket was laden with evidence, my jacket barely covering it at hip length.
I looked at him, eyebrows raised in faint surprise. “Yes?”
“Step aside so I can ask you a few questions.”
“I’m sorry, but I’m on my way to an appointment. Is there a good reason you are trying to detain me?” I tried to suppress irritation and fear bubbling beneath my words and started to smile right back but didn’t quite manage it
“Step aside, we’ll see, Miss.”
Miss, is that we get called no matter our age? I wanted to inform him I was old enough to be his great aunt but sniffed and stepped toward deep pink rhododendron bushes.
I knew Monroe was long gone, ordering a coffee and croissant and feeling relieved. He was good at that, here one moment, gone the next–story of our nebulous relationship for twenty years. We were not a couple but we seemed never entirely free of each other. It was like sharing a vast broken web where one or the other of us dangled awhile, then spun odd threads that guaranteed we’d climb back on and cross paths every few years. But what would you expect, we were sort of blood-tied, a family member being his wife once upon a time.
“Would you empty your pockets, please?”
I was incredulous. What would I take from a garden? It made no sense that he’d stop me; he had to be bored, a rookie or plain mean-spirited. I knew what I had but he didn’t, and besides, what true harm was there if he did? I made an impulsive decision to pull it out, slowly, the black cloth covering it wrapped snugly.
“Please slowly hand that to me, Miss,” the security guard said.
But I unwrapped it first, gingerly, so that he could see the ornately carved leather sheath that covered the 7 inch blade, and the leather wrapped steel handle darkened by years and years of being held. The knife was handmade by my father, Val, back in 1982 and that Monroe stole many times. Val’s daughter was its inheritor. Monroe’s ex-wife. My half-sister, Riley.
“Whoa there,” he said, and stepped back.
He picked up his walkie talkie, then studied me. What did he see? My anxiety that it would be taken again? Old memories evoked? I would not break down. But maybe run if he took it. Be done with it all just like that.
“This may need some sort of carry permit, I think, let me look at it,” he said with a grunt and a sigh. He turned the sheathed knife over and over in his hand, studying the intricate leather tooling, its wide loop almost cracked apart that used to slip onto an owner’s belt. Val’s and Davey’s until Davey went into the Army and didn’t return, and then Riley’s, until Monroe got a hold of it.
“What?” I stared at him, hard enough that my eyes were yelling at him. Absurd. But I’d felt Monroe and I meeting meeting in public was not so wise, times being what they unfortunately were, but Monroe is bolder than smart, which accounts for trouble he has generated. It took us all of less than a minute, we didn’t actually chat. I have no excuse other than I don’t trust him, don’t like him anymore, so always meet him in public. We’d talked on the phone–that led to this moment.
The return of the knife.
“It’s family owned and finally returned to me. A genuine Cosenti knife. I’m Lilly Cosenti.” As if that meant anything to this guy with the belly and the sweaty brow, hands belonging to a plumber not a security guard, who was handling my knife with keen interest.
The guard looked at me skeptically, shifted on tired wide feet, weighed the knife in his broad palm as if it was a possible piece of gold. Which it was to some people. One of the first knives fashioned by Valentino Cosenti.
He jutted his lower lip as if impressed, and angled his head at me. “Okay, maybe it’s all good, but it should not be here. Not these days, you know. Your ID.” He looked me up and down, memorizing my ordinariness. The mole above my lip to the left. The sunspots across my chest. My roughened skin from a lifetime of ranch work.
I gave him my driver’s license, wondering who trained this guy. Was he taking my knife and calling cops or just passing time? He had no idea what this was about and I was not about to tell him. I had to get going. My cool Vespa was on loan; I had to return it to the hotel, call a cab, catch a train.
He handed the license back, rubbed his neck contemplatively as he studied my knife once more, then indicated a bench close by.
I moaned, followed him, sat. I had just come over three hours to climb aboard that plane. I eyed the gate once more, but gave up.
“Tell me about it, Miss Cosenti. ”
He said this like it was an order and if I didn’t obey, I’d be sorry. Oh, to be at the mercy of an aimless security guard who had nothing better to do than suspect a woman like me. Who had some fancy, worrisome knife. Weren’t there a few truly lurking about that he could interrogate, then escort out? He watched me as I took off my baseball cap, smoothed stray curls away from my damp face.
“Alright, then, it was like this…”
I settled and so did he, his feet crossed at the ankles as he leaned his bulk way back, ready for my explanation. As much as I’d tell.
“We lived in Wyoming,” I began. “My mother’s family has always had a big ranch, so when my dad married her it also was his. They loved training horses and we had cattle, lots. Anyway, by the time I was ten they were doing better than my grandparents had, more horse breeding and training, but my mother also had a passion for cooking and what I’d call hospitality. She pleaded for the run down cafe in town, and though he told her it wasn’t a good bet and we needed her at the ranch, she won the argument. Named it the Rosewater Cafe. Her name was Rose and she said it’d be a refreshing stop along our lonely road. I often helped out there, though I’d sure rather deal with the horses, work outside. My dad, meanwhile, was getting good at his hobby, turning out more and more knives, then selling some. It was a little extra income and he liked that. All seemed to be working out real good for them–for us.
“Then one day–I was fifteen–this foreign car pulls up in a swirl of dust and out steps a tall, large woman with short white-blonde hair and a girl some older than me. My dad rushed to meet her–Mom was at the cafe–and soon they argued. I waited to see what it was about–he was not an arguing sort of man–or when he’d introduce me. But it didn’t happen. The girl stood with hands on hips as though she was too fancy for the ranch and was disgusted–I distrusted her immediately.
I knew my dad was better than average to look at, and he had a way with people; women liked him more than necessary. So it occurred to me what it might be about, a past that had caught up with him. I went to the stables, saddled my horse and took off, didn’t go back til dark.
“When I returned they were, of course, gone. But not for long. In another week, after my parents chewed on the topic a few times, the girl was brought back. Riley was her name, and she was staying for the last few years of school. Whether or not Mom and I liked it. Dad seemed resigned but encouraged us all to try to be nice.”
I scrunched my shoulders up and looked at my watch. Time was wasting.
“When do you get to the part about the knife?” the guard asked. “And who was that girl?”
I frowned at him and took a deep breath. “Riley was my father’s earlier daughter, due to an error of judgement, he told Mom, and she was a spit fire–that was why her mother brought her there, so he could get her in line, I guess. It was true the ranch taught her good things. But it only half-worked. She learned to ride and groom horses okay. But she could get mouthy; also, distracted. And it was clear to me from the start she was a big deal to boys in town and from the ranches. I have to admit she couldn’t help it; she wasn’t so much gorgeous as she had charm like clover honey, the boys buzzed about her. Some are like that….my dad and she just had it. I was the other kind, the one behind the scenes, the one on the range, free and alone…”
The guard nodded; he was hooked by curiosity. I wanted to give him a shove and go. But my story was true and it turned out I enjoyed telling it–and he’d asked for it.
“Then Monroe came along.”
I recalled him in full technicolor. He had been–still was, of course–a few years older, easy to laugh, brawny, impressed with himself, testosterone like a flare that lit up everything. He moved like a mountain lion, stealth and grace. Another one that baffled. Intrigued me, okay, but I was busy working.
“He and Riley, though, made a match, nothing anyone could do or say would change that. As soon as she graduated that was it, they got hitched despite our dad wanting to run Monroe off. But Riley settled down, so did Monroe, it seemed. The problem was, there were still others who wanted to get close to her…like Monroe never existed. I guess ’cause he was an outsider from Arizona and so didn’t quite count..”
I shrugged in mild sympathy for Monroe, then stretched, raising arms high, twisting side to side. It was getting late. I saw my so-called guard gripping the knife as he waited to hear the punch line. It irked me that he had taken it, that I needed to tell him all this.
“The knife, miss– what about that part?”
I shook my head to clear it, stared beyond the gate. I never could stop a story once started, yet time was slipping by.
“Well, that knife you have that’s mine–it used to be in a wooden case with a glass pane in it so it was just visible, and kept under the counter at Rosewater Cafe. Dad put it there for Mom’s protection–you just never knew, he said. But as his name circulated due to his skills, customers wanted to study it, even made good offers on it. Eventually, though, it was locked and displayed from a high shelf above the coffee bar. It was like free advertising; his knife business got hot.
“Riley and I both worked at Rosewater. By ages twenty and eighteen we had made a truce, had found ways to get along as we got older. Then, one day Monroe was just finishing a three eggs sunny-side up with beef sausage breakfast when this guy walks in and asks for Riley, eyes cloudy with anger and hurt. I won’t bore you with whys and wherefores but just say that Monroe took great offense over it all. There was a bad fight and then Riley got the knife case down and smashed it open with a hammer and…and…I can tell you my mother fell down in a dead faint–it took her a long time to get over things.”
I gulped, heart banging. I had not once told the truth of that morning twenty-four years ago to anyone outside the family.
“Yeah, then what?’ the guard said, leaning heavily toward me, eyes popping. “Someone die…?”
“Of course not.” It occurred to me this was what the guard waited for, some bloody end, the thrill of arresting me. “But the guy got hurt between fists and that knife.He ran out the door but threatened revenge. But there was no next time. Monroe left Riley the next day, went back to Arizona… though he kept in touch–they had that need of each other that never really ended despite remarriages. The wounded lovelorn guy had vanished, had a few scars. And no one called police; it just wasn’t what you did. The stranger shouldn’t have barged in, said his piece….
“Dad kept his proud if deadly creation under lock and key in a secret place until he died. He had willed it to her. I guess he felt Riley was the one who deserved to live with its history or maybe he was saying she was a tough nut and there was her reminder. It was valued at about $5800 then, ten years ago. Yeah, it is that beautiful a thing…”
The uniformed man pulled the knife out of its sheath a little and examined it, the quickly put it away. Just him doing that sort of scared me but I understood his desire to see it. It was so finely wrought it seemed a work of art, more than a weapon. So many had wanted it in their collections. But it had been used for harm.
“Monroe wrenched it from Riley, took it to get rid of evidence–it was meant to be gone forever. But then dad got it back from Monroe with a bribe…stupid, huh, family feud like that. But it was worth so much, too. Riley finally told Monroe, you’ve gotta lay off, it’s a family heirloom, hers when dad died.”
“So how did Monroe get it once more? What a mess.”
“Yeah. He stole it from Riley after she refused to talk to him again, don’t know how. She suspected him, of course, but was sick of the whole thing. I kept out of it. Then all of a sudden last month he decided to tell me he did it and felt guilty, said he was ready to let go, stop the craziness. He’s made a decent living buying and selling antiques and other stuff; I figured he’d finally sold dad’s knife.” I shivered in a gust of wind. “But he didn’t. Now I have it.”
The guard slapped his thighs.”But why didn’t he just give it back to Riley, ask forgiveness and all?”
I scrunched my face in mock horror. “No way. They are sort of sworn enemies, despite still being soul mates. And she likely saved his life with her intervention–I didn’t tell you, the guy had a handgun back of his jeans that was never drawn once she got him, he was hurt pretty bad…But no, they don’t even talk now.” I looked at my hands in my lap. “Besides, it is really part of my dad’s and mom’s legacy–way before Riley had in in her grasp.”
“Oh…so Riley was the one, how about that.”
And he handed it back to me, just like that. Stood up to his full five feet, six inches. He was about to say more when his walkie talkie crackled and a muffled voice was unintelligible so he talked back and brought it close to an ear.
“I gotta get going,” he said, “someone’s messing up the flowers along with their dog.”
“That’s it, I can go now?” I tucked the leather-encased knife into its cloth, shoved it back in my pocket.
He raised a hand. “Thanks for the tall tale–that was interesting–but I have work to do–good luck, Miss Cosenti!”
He ambled off like a slow bear on the run.
I stood slowly, blinked in honeyed sunlight.
From yesteryear to the present moment was a long way to leap. But I strode through the gate, found the pretty blue Vespa, took off, my knife secretly gleaming. Riley would be happy to have it back. If it ever got to her.
It wasn’t what he thought, the return to Two Mountain Valley. It was harder and it was easier. There were amends to make, he accepted that. People to generally deal with–where were there not? He had held onto the hope that Grandpa Kent would let him stay out at his place awhile, until he got his feet planted or freed. So far, so good. No one spit at him, crossed the street to avoid him. Or, at least, he thought they didn’t but it could be hard to tell. The way that town was able to keep the truth hidden had always irked him.
He knew he looked different. Bigger from near constant exercise, marked in ways not so obvious at first: tight lines around his eyes and harder mouth, the way he stood with feet apart, hands clasped before him unless at his sides, eyes forward and alert. Or how he walked, more compact movements made of watchfulness or warning. That way of life had leeched out of the cement walls, from other locked up residents and into him–despite his fighting it.
So there were a few who just nodded at him, eyes widening. Force of habit kept them cool and civil. Only a fool would tangle with Ronnie Morrissey now. Only a new woman in town would consider tossing a flirtatious smile his way. Some of the older men kept their own thoughts to themselves but it was they who said: Hello,you’re back finally, good for you, take it easy.
He’d like to change his name to something like Brad or Jonas or Craig with, say, a last one like Smith or Johns– and then get the heck out of there. “Ronnie” didn’t fit him now. But it took time to do bigger things. Hell, it took time to do things small, even when you tried to rush. Things were what they were and you had to tackle them. Determination but patience. He learned that in prison–there was so much blank time to observe things. To just cope with. But not much was any good except the first lesson of survival of the fittest–or in his case, maybe the smartest. Ronnie could hold his own–that was never a question, not in Two Mountains and not on the inside. But it was his talent for staying a few steps ahead that kept him intact for three years.
Grandpa had driven four hours to pick him up on freedom day. They sat side by side. Only a few paragraphs dropped between them during those miles. But it felt good. He let his eyes rest on the rolling earth, then mountainous landscape, more meadow grasses swaying, birds singing as if all was always well, the sky so stuffed with layered, knitted clouds and that bright blue–he thought he might go blind. Then they came to the Kent family’s small ranch where the old man had raised mostly sheep and goats for four decades. The usual gathering of llamas were eating, wandering a bit, glancing their way as the familiar truck rattled down a long drive. It was such a relief to see them Ronnie felt undone for a second. Those graceful necks, innocent faces and long ears–they were beautiful. They were good guardians of the money–that is, the sheep and goats–but Grandpa kept them for pack animals to rent as he wished, and their good wool.
Ronnie had always loved their lack of malice. Their eyes empty of doubt. He smiled at them as they slowed near the house and they offered their humming responses.
“I can use your help around here while you look for a job in town,” Grandpa Kent stated when they entered the back door. “Feeding, cleaning out the shelters and barn. Bunk upstairs in Nan’s old room. I’ll get some dinner going.”
Grandpa rummaged in the refrigerator and pulled out a casserole of leftover spaghetti with pork sausage. “I’ll heat things up as you settle in. No rush, son.”
He watched his grandson, his eyes then focusing on something unseen after Ronnie had ascended the steps. Nan and the family’s past. His wife, how she’d laugh and gab, bustle about if she was there.
Ronnie took his duffel bag and entered the room his mother had used as a kid and teen, decades ago. It could be anybody’s room now except for her graduation picture on top the scarred bedside table. Dust topped the frame and he blew at it, rubbed the smudged glass with the tail of his shirt, set it back. Just seeing that happy picture of her, a lot younger than he was now–he already didn’t want to stay too long. There was too much to remember. But he had restrictions, a parole office.
She had gotten out of that marriage at last, just took off; she wrote him about it from somewhere in California as fall gave way to winter. He got a cheery card at Christmas, then she wrote a bit in spring about her job as receptionist and the ocean’s pleasures. But never was there an address, just a postmark of Santa Cruz. It might not mean anything, really. He knew it was fear that still made her secretive.
Ronnie lay back on the bed, arms behind his neck. The pillow was soft, the bed was forgiving of his bulk and length. How would he sleep in such luxury? His eyelids drooped as he fought to keep them open. The window by the bed was wide open. That breeze from the countryside pulled in every delicate and heavy scent from the places he had loved so long. The space around him was too vast. He should set out his sparse belongings nice and neat. To mark his own space–like in prison. Nothing out of place, ever.
Everything was so unlike what he had known. This familiarity and comfort had been taken from him the moment his sentence came down. He closed his eyes. What could he do to manage all this? But that terrible night arrived fresh as yesterday, just as he’d feared. It would be worse now, he guessed, at least for awhile. He was back where it all started, more or less.
Ronnie sat up with a jerk, closed the window and curtains, went downstairs.
“Got a smoke?” he asked. The food smelled better than he’d expected. He thought it was likely due to do with being in that kitchen. With Grandpa. Free.
Grandpa Kent gestured to the cupboard where he kept his filterless cigarettes. He still smoked two a day, one with morning coffee, one before bed. Just like he had one shot of whiskey on Saturday nights.
The back yard was the start of acreage that fanned open to fields, hills and trees, then the mountain range. Ronnie filled himself with it. He eyed bruised mountain peaks wearing tall caps and silky shawls of clouds. His grandmother had told him that as a kid. They’d sit on the back porch and she’d talk and he’d ask questions here and there. My smart guy, she said, and winked at him, gave him a side hug. He liked to listen. Her voice was friendly, unlike Grandpa’s which sounded as if it had been raked over a few coals, then left out in the wild to cool and heal. She said it was his smoking; he said it was a reluctance to speak at all. But she made up for it. All the tales she’d told Ronnie–any hurts and haunts seemed less likely to pester him after she was done.
She’d passed away while he was in prison, the end of the first year. He worried he had somehow killed her, or his mother had, just the burden of them. But no, it was her congested heart worsening, then done. He got a day out but shed no tears at the burial; neither did Grandpa or Mom, not then. She’d been freed of it all. Her daughter, Nan, the troubles. If Nan just hadn’t married young, just hadn’t married that sort, he recalled her saying before the trial, rocking and holding herself. Then she’d seen her only grandson incarcerated, a horror. He thought of her every day in there, not his mother.
“Why you done it, I get that!” Grandma Kent said soon after he was arrested. “But didn’t you know it wouldn’t help, Ronnie? Nothing coulda saved her then. She was still unable to change things no matter what we tried to do for her…and now you’ve been brought down!”
“No, Grandma, she didn’t know different by then. He had her in a tight ball of a fist, she forgot what it was to live a real life. He almost got me in that clench, too. But there was something that might have changed it all; I had to do what I did, had to try for her.”
“And you won’t say just what, only that it might help her!”
“Makes no difference now. I don’t even know what all it meant,” he said truthfully and the sadness clocked him hard. Maybe Grandma knowing would make both his grandparents open to Glenn’s attack.
“So you won’t tell even me. Well, what now? How’d we lose her? Now you, too, Ronnie, you, too.”
Grandpa Kent had only sighed and shaken his head. The mournfulness rolled out, anyway, left him empty. As if his strength was drained away. But he’d never asked for anything; he had to keep Grandma going. Look after Nan somehow. Maybe he’d not been there for her enough. Maybe he was too inside himself. He had to find a way to atone for all their sins. They’d had a few loose ends over a few generations. But they’d never had criminals in the family. They’d been hard working ranchers, horse trainers, some lumbermen. They hadn’t asked for that much.
Ronnie inhaled the acrid smoke deep and coughed. He was going to quit one day. If he ever made it to that day. He shook his head to free it of darkening pessimism and wandered over to fenced acreage.
The llamas were humming and clucking their talk, rooting out some bark by a grove of trees. He’d counted eight of them. They hung together, moved together. Ronnie had known a couple of them since he was seven or so. Nearly twenty years had passed. The closest he had gotten to anyone besides his grandmother was likely those creatures munching away on grass and twigs. That was an odd truth but they listened. Heard, he believed. They asked for little in return. Llamas didn’t berate, judge or question him but accepted him day and night, in good or not-good times. They were still his angelic beasts. There was a powerful pull to them.He wanted to get close to them, feel their smart, gentle energy cover him. Guide him again.
“Time to eat!” Grandpa called out from the kitchen. “Got fresh corn and carrots, too. Food good and clean and fresh for you, son.”
It was what Tom Kent could do now, feed the boy. And wait with him. Let the passing of time do its own work.
Ronnie realized he hadn’t heard him say that much at one time in a decade.
“Man, I sure do need it,” he called back and crushed the smoldering butt with his worn out boot. He stretched mightily, reaching to the summer’s ravishing sky. A glimmer of a smile appeared, then vanished.
Ronnie was holed up with Errol back then in their step-above-crappy apartment. They both worked as mechanics at the Ford dealership, Ronnie on trial basis after finishing required courses for computer diagnostics. Everyone thought it was great he had followed Earl’s advice. He had worked at Broken Star ranch four years and decided he wasn’t suited to such a life, dawn to dusk back breaking. Earl had graduated high school a few years ahead of his friend, made a decent living at Butler Ford. And so far Ronnie had done alright. The future looked better than it had in years.
But then one Friday night came a deepening sense of unease, as happened at times like this. His mother had called him twice and it wasn’t even seven o’clock. He was at the bar with Earl, eating a burger, on his second beer. His cell phone buzzed again, and it skittered across the table to his elbow as he tried to ignore it.
“Your mom again? Better pick up.”
“Dang,” he muttered. “Mom, what now? Tell Glenn to get out for the night, sobering up at the drunk tank would be good. That’s all you can do. You’re okay, right?”
Earl watched his friend beneath thick black eyebrows. The younger man’s intelligent brown eyes shuttered as he toyed with leftover fries. He wished Ronnie’s mom had it better off. That Glenn was not a man to make an enemy of–his position made things worse. He was an almighty Deputy Sheriff, after all. And week-end drunk.
After a few more words, he hung up. Earl waited but Ronnie said nothing. He figured it must be alright until Ronnie got up, his chair shoved back angrily.
“Later, I gotta get something for Mom at their house. They’re holed up at Trail’s End Motel for the week-end–he’s calling it a getaway week-end, the idiot!–so it’s now or never.”
“But she’s alright?”
Ronnie started off, then stopped and turned. “You know how this goes. I guess so or she will be, she said, if I take care of this for her. I’ll see you tomorrow at work.”
Earl stared into his beer. He didn’t like the sound of it but it was just more drama. He was glad his own mother hadn’t remarried.
It should have been simple. She kept a duplicate key under the third red geranium planter by the back door. This was put in place years ago when it became apparent Glenn drank too much and then kept Nan in for the week-ends so she could be the recipient of his verbal abuse–no physical stuff she assured him, but he knew how it could go. He had lived there long enough. Sometimes she called him or her dad to come help settle things down.
This time it had to do with some journals, of all things. When did his mother ever write things? She’d been keeping journals a few months, she’d told him quietly on the phone, about things Glenn had done or might do, things he said, stuff he’d want nobody to know. It was an outlet but a safeguard, too.
“Mom, it’s not good to write private things that can be found out, not by him…”
“Right. But I had to, just in case,” she’d said, voice lowering to a hoarse whisper. “Glenn’s taken Rufus out for a short walk. He’s drunk already…but we talked earlier, he suspects I’ve been keeping track of stuff. He saw me writing once or twice. I told him I’m trying poetry–he laughed, of course. Tonight he’s convinced I have a big file on him. Or I’m writing love letters to someone else! He gets so nuts after a few glasses of whiskey, you know how it is, Ronnie…so could you just get them? Three small journals. Take them to Grandpa’s–hide them somewhere. Don’t tell anyone else!”
“Behind the bottom drawer of the chest of drawers in our room. They’ll be lying on the floor–he’s coming, gotta go!”
“Okay, get a grip, Mom. You okay, should I call Grandpa? Say ‘no’ if not okay–and nothing if he comes back in.”
That’s how they did it. She hung up.
So Ronnie had gone over to their neat, white-with-black-trimmed bungalow and slipped around back. It was getting dark. The neighborhood was quiet but for a couple boys playing basketball down the street. The house next door glowed with a couple of lights. He noted the neighbor moving from one room into the next, heard a voice, a yelled response. Ronnie’s pulse quickened as the key’s tiny metal box was retrieved. He inserted its familiar shape into the lock, no problem, turned the handle. Resistance, no entry. He tried a couple more times. Harder. It was the wrong key, had to be. Her mistake? Or Glenn had replaced the good one; Ronnie had wondered when he’d figure it out. He had forbidden his wife to share extra keys.
The air released a warm lavender scent as he felt sweat dampen his neck. How important could these journals be? And why was she so certain Glenn would find them? It would be like him, though, to sniff out the goods, make a big scene, give her a severe tongue lashing. Make her feel worthless. Or worse. Ronnie felt sick, his mind reeling, chest tight as his heart banged. His mom had been so worried about the journals that she’d risked calling him with Glenn near. They must document important information against him. He had to get them, that was all there was to it.
He pushed against the back door, found it rock solid. He crept around the house, stepping over flowers as best he could, looked at each window. Then he felt with fingertips more than saw that a bathroom window, the en suite, had a long crack along the edge of its frame. He stripped off his T-shirt, wrapped it about his hand, pushed hard against the spot. It did not give way. He pushed more, then hit it with moderate force. The glass cracked and broke into shards. Ronnie pulled away bigger pieces, reached up inside for the latch, unlocked it, raised the window and hoisted himself in. Jumped but landed on hands and knees which hurt sharply, then ran into the bedroom, opened the bottom drawer. He felt around for the journals and bingo, there were three, small spiral-bound notebooks held together with string. He grabbed them, rushed into the bathroom, climbed out, landed feet first onto soft ground and hightailed it out of there. He headed for his racing bike hidden in dense bushes along the driveway.
He was immediately blinded by a strong beam of light.
“Hold it, boy! I saw you at the back door, nowhere to run! Glenn just got a new alarm system so you’re like prey in a trap, buddy!” Mr. Jones stepped closer, lowering the flashlight a bit. “That you, Ronnie? What the heck?”
And then the manic wail of police sirens escalated like it was a five alarm fire.
Ronnie felt his life slip away from him that quickly. From his mother, too. Any promising future melting into nothing. He stepped back, pushed the journals deep into the bushes as neighbor Jones rushed down to greet the law like some damned hero. Ronnie looked at his damp hands and knees, saw the blood trickling down his fingers and staining his jeans and he thought: all this for what, Mom? What is it all worth?
It took time, too much, but the verdict Glenn’s lawyer pushed for and got was felony burglary in the second degree. One to three years in state prison.
Ronnie went into town a couple weeks after he got back. That was soon enough. He went over to Pat’s Famous Cafe for coffee and one of her five star giant cinnamon rolls.
“Ronnie Morrissey,” she said and her ruby red lips curved into a smile that seemed true.
“Patricia Ann,” he answered and got his cup of coffee free. He paid for the roll, sank his teeth into its richness.
“I hear you might be going back to work with Earl.”
“Don’t know. Haven’t heard from him the past few months. He still at Butler’s?”
“He is. But he’s married now, you know.” Pat inclined her head so her grey and blond-streaked hair tumbled over a shoulder. She still wore blue eyeliner.
Ronnie nodded assent, when in fact he didn’t even know. He guessed it was Fran, the same girl Earl had long dated. The mouthful went down a little hard.
“Yeah, she’s gonna pop soon, baby number one. You should call him if you haven’t already.”
“Yeah, I should. Got his number? I forgot…”
“Sure, babe. Let me write it down.” She scribbled it on a napkin. “Hey, good your mother got out of this place. That drunk, he got rehabbed after you left but that wasn’t near enough. Well, anyway, know where she got to?”
He considered Pat a moment. A gossip at the least. “Some place far, I hope.” And gave her a nonchalant shrug topped with a generous smile.
“Well, welcome back, you lookin’ real good. Hope it all works out.”
He knew everyone knew he was back. He suspected some didn’t hold anything against him but would never admit it. They knew what sort of man Glenn was. They knew his mom had it bad and Ronnie, well, he was supposed to be the fix-it guy. Until he screwed up.
Ronnie never admitted to just why he broke in and that made things much more complicated. People just assumed it was to create trouble for his stepfather, possibly get some goods for cash on the way out–but it just didn’t work out. It was best that way. He was too scared of what could happen to his mother if Glenn got a hold of the journals. Which he just would. When she visited him alone before he was transferred to prison, Ronnie managed to look her in the eye and silently form the word “bush.” She later told him she destroyed them. He wasn’t so sure of the last. He’d wondered many times if he’d ended up in prison for nothing but he also had broken in, he had conspired to commit burglary. Well, he took something. But it enraged him sometimes as sleep eluded him and in the day when he was so restless he could have jumped the high wall. But he knew she did whatever she did to save herself, to keep them both safe from repercussions of another sort.
Or at least he believed that was so, had to.
After his mid-morning snack at Pat’s and a few brief, uncomfortable exchanges with customers, he wandered down Main Street, hands jammed in his jacket pockets. He peered into store windows, finding much unchanged in some, altogether new in others. It looked shinier than when he’d left it, and guessed the mountains were luring more health nuts. Those seeking rock climbing and hiking as well as those who needed only a solace of beauty. A couple people waved at him from across the way; many passed by as if he was a total stranger. Maybe he was that, now. He felt like a visitor during his hour long reconnaissance. H dreaded who he might see next. When would Glenn appear? He shuddered but told himself nothing could come of a bad attitude. He had done the time, now he had to go forward regardless of enemies. And leave when he was off parole.
The building that most surprised, then upset him was the old community center. He’d had many classes here as a child and youth. He’d taught diving to kids in the chlorine-scented, softly illumined pool when he was a high school senior. It had been a sanctuary. Now it looked as if it had had a fire, gutted. Stark. Trashed and abandoned. His family hadn’t mentioned that. He hoped a new one had been built.
He pushed open a steel door and entered a hallway littered with the detritus of parties and vagrancy.
“Anyone here?” His voice echoed insubstantially. He heard feet scurrying. Rats. Or people into forbidden activities.
A bird flew overhead, diving toward him then altering its course. A cat meowed in complaint from top of a stairwell, another pounced on it and they shot off upstairs. He took steps two at a time, passed the second floor, the third and finally got to the top one.
No windows were intact. He found a wide, blown-open space and a ledge to sit on so he could survey the town. It looked prettier than it did below. He even felt better above it all so pulled out the new cell phone Grandpa Kent had bought him and called the number on the napkin.
The robust voice that answered was upbeat as ever. “Earl at your service!”
Relief flooded Ronnie. “Hey, Earl, it’s me…I’m back, in case you hadn’t heard.”
A hand over the mouthpiece, muffled sounds. “Ronnie! I got the news shortly after you arrived, thought I’d give you some space. Welcome home, man!”
“Thanks!” His childhood friend’s voice made everything right. He let his eyes roam over the top of the town’s buildings. He could almost see Butler Ford from his perch and felt an urge to go see him in person. “I hear you’re about to have a baby! Fran, I guess? Congratulations, that’s great.”
“No, no–” and he laughed sharply, “Emily! A gal who came to work here with us. After you left… you’ll love her, Ronnie, she’s a true sparkler, and the silly woman’s working up to her last day!” Muffled voices again. “Say, how about we meet up sometime, catch up, I mean, lots has happened here in…the time you were gone. How you doing?”
“Getting used to things, I guess. Figuring out what’s next. Emily, huh? Well, I have a lot to learn.”
“True, nothing stays the same. But good to hear from you. I’m afraid I have to go–I’m so busy I hardly have time to turn around. We’ll talk more. I’ll give you a call, come out to your grandpa’s sometime, okay?”
Ronnie could hear someone–was it Jim, the guy they both disliked?–call out in that bombastic voice: Ronnie, that loser? Really, Earl? Be smart–tell him to shove off!
“Oh. never mind, you know how Jim is! Okay, really, gotta run, Ronnie. Best to you and your grandpa. Take it easy!”
He got it loud and clear. Earl didn’t have any interest in getting their friendship back on track. Or he was embarrassed to hear from him while at work. Or both.
His ears burned, mouth went dry. He’d trade anything for some smokes. There were new complications to cope with. He looked at his hands; they shook with aggravation. They’d all told him it wasn’t going to be easy. Ronnie sat on the ledge like a statue, halfway out of his body, out of the present. He flashed on blood hands and glaring flashlight, the clank of steel doors, keys jangling, jeers. Wait, wait, what would he be doing in prison right now? Push-ups, waiting to go outside to the yard to run as many laps as he could, play basketball, avoid trouble, keep his head clear. Right, stay centered in the now.
The distant mountains looked like the best thing out there and he thought that might be his next move. Camping, alone.
Nothing could change that night. He knew what he knew almost four years ago when it all started. He loved his mother, tried to protect her for years; he could not trust, much less ever appreciate, his stepfather, the bully, the controller, the abuser. She had something on him, more than anyone would ever know but maybe it didn’t matter now with her gone. She’d lost her nerve but at least she had left him. That was the good of it and that was that. Ronnie hoped to one day see her, learn the truth. He wished her well, in any case.
But this was how it would be now in Two Mountains. Ronnie Morrissey, apart. They didn’t have one clue what he’d experienced. He didn’t get who they were, either, and didn’t care.
He picked up a piece of broken cement and threw it in a wide arc over the edge, watched it fall, blast the ground. Vertigo seized him and he closed his eyes, held on to the ledge until it passed. His phone rang once, twice, three times and he stared at it. All numbers were unknown to him.
“Ronnie? This is Emily.”
A commanding and pleasant voice reached him and he blinked, stood back from the ledge.
“Who? Oh, right…”
“Earl’s Emily. Listen, you need to come over for dinner, the sooner the better, as I’m due in three weeks. How about this Saturday night? About seven o’clock? We’ll barbecue, eat on the patio, you know where, right? Oh, no, wait, it’s a new place! I’ll text you the address, okay?”
He considered her words. “I don’t know….”
“Ronnie, look. Earl is just…he doesn’t know what on earth to say. It’s okay. He’ll get over himself, no one is perfect. You’ve always been his best friend. How can you not be here as we welcome our first baby? I want to meet you, so say you’ll come.”
Ronnie looked across the streets, over the hills, saw the tiny people moving as if in a dream, the miniature vehicles trundling along. Their valley. That hazy blue mystery of the mountains. He had to start again, somehow.
“Alright, sure. Thanks for… just calling.”
“Good! See you soon.”
The ledge and the wide, unknown distances beyond beckoned a last time, but he turned away. Raced past two kids smoking pot, past a ratty sleeping bag and four broken chairs, past garbage bags left for weeks and rats digging for a feast.
Back to the ranch where he did belong, for now.
Ronnie walked onto the green acreage to find the llamas. He found them grazing, huddling, cozy in small groups. There was an opening between them so he claimed a spot and stood within their warmth, entered their nuzzling, humming, whinnying circle of life. He reached for a long, fuzzy, powerful neck. Put his arms around it. Held fast as he did long ago and was gently, kindly tolerated. Ronnie hugged that beast close. Shut his eyes, hung on.
It’s the start of my first week-end of summer vacation and it’s so hot the hairs on my arms are fried. I can feel them crackling. I wonder if the hair on my head–it’s to the middle of my back, a blonde that looks bleached but isn’t–is doing the same. I go inside to get a hat. On my way back out to the patio again I hear my mother talking on the phone and stop at the sliding glass doors.
“Of course, Dorrie, you know you can count on me in a pinch.” Pause. “Yes, this is definitely more than a pinch it’s a…wound for you, of course. I understand. The week-end will be fine, if you need more days let me know immediately. And I’m so very sorry to hear of this.”
I start again, then circle back to the kitchen and grab a sparkling water flavored with lime from the eight pack in the frig. Head back out.
“She can have the guest bedroom, tell her to bring her own pillow if she doesn’t like firm ones.”
One foot out the door, I stand stock still. Beads of condensation from the aluminum can gather in a tiny pool on the fleshy bridge between thumb and forefinger. I slurp the moisture, open the can with a fizzy pop and drink. Mom is still on the phone. I want to sit by the pool and read my entertainment mag and drink my water but first things first.
Who is Dorrie? Who is taking our guest bedroom to and why? The one where I like to practice pieces on my wooden flutes?
Mom says goodbye, puts down her phone, pivots toward me. She presses her palms into air as if to fend off any questions so I drink some more, waiting. I put my straw hat on. Maybe I heard wrong.
“It’s an emergency,” she says. “I met Dorrie Kane-Kamarinsky at a luncheon awhile back and we’ve become friendly, you know, a fund-raiser, another lunch or two, bridge once.” She runs her fingers through her even blonder short cap of hair and makes a huffing noise. “Well, they moved in six months ago on Trevine Street, a fine and proper colonial, they have the biggest chestnut tree on the side yard. Her husband–Martin–is a hotshot lawyer–he’s as bald as they come but with the brightest blue eyes I’ve ever seen. Dad already knew him from somewhere, I forget. Dorrie is a sweetheart once you get to know her; on the surface she’s frosty, you know, like blue blood runs in her veins, which it does, I think.” Her finely arched, well-plucked eyebrows rise a little. “She has three children, one left at home now.” She stares out to the pool, lips pursed. “I should have run this by your dad.”
Details. My mom loves the endless details more than the point. But she forgets some of the important ones, like asking dad stuff. “Mom, who is coming and why?”
“Oh, right. Serita. Her daughter. She goes to a boarding school somewhere but is out now, too, and she’s only a year older, fifteen. Or sixteen? She’s coming over tonight to stay a bit.” She smiles and as usual it makes her prettiness so sweet you want to immediately trust her.
I sort of shake from head to toe. Mom frowns at me but it’s involuntary, maybe it’s the cold can in my tingling hand or a burst of air conditioning sweeping over the area. It’s just a medium jolt, it happens at times. But come on, this is a stranger coming to our house. That I have to hang out with.
“How can you invite a stranger here? Right down the hall from me. A girl who I’ll have to entertain on the first week-end of my summer vacation? Lin and Travis are coming over, maybe more, tomorrow night. And why does she need to be here?”
“Her grandmother–Dorrie’s mother–had a stroke this morning. She and Martin are flying out tonight. They prefer to leave Serita here since she just got home Wednesday night. Leave her in the neighborhood, that is. She doesn’t know the city or kids since she’s been in school. And you’re just her age!”
She smiles again and nods as if this is serendipity, this is a grand alignment of stars if I’d only see it. Mom tends to think in magical terms.
“Who wouldn’t want to go see their grandmother after a stroke?”
She set her head at an angle and appraised me. “I guess Serita doesn’t feel that way. Not like you. Anyway, please make sure the bed has that sage cotton blanket folded at the foot and check her bathroom for supplies.” She picks up the phone and taps the screen hard. “I’m now informing Dad.”
But I don’t go upstairs to do her bidding. I take myself out to the pool, lie down on a chaise lounge and watch the swan floaties bob about in the pool. It’s so sizzling I last about five minutes, then dive in the deep end and glide along the turquoise and royal blue tiled bottom. My own world. When I come up Mom is standing at the edge above me, still talking on her cell, then moves her mouth away to address me.
“Upstairs, now. She’s due in a couple of hours. Then you both get to swim while I cook. I wonder what she eats? Oh, I have to remind Dorrie to have her pack her suit.” She moves away. “Yes, Dennis, I know. But it’s important to help others out and Dorrie–”
Her voice fades away. I know what dad is saying. Another impulsive, generous act on your part.What do I have to do to get more peace and quiet around here? But he’ll also say he adores her anyway, one of these days he’ll have a sainted wife. He’s what you call an enabler, I guess, of my mother’s schemes.
It sort of makes me want to heave, her eager pleading, his caving in. Plus Serita… Kaminsky, Kamrewska…whatever. Where did such a name come from, the Serita bit? But I climb out and grab my can so Mom won’t note its presence later and remind me to “keep it pristine.” Pristine. As if it ever was.
But Serita doesn’t arrive that I know for sure. I hit the bed around ten. We ate and I helped mom clean up and waited around by the pool, slipping in and out to pass the time, then talking to my best friend, Lin, until she had to get off the phone and still no Serita. Then her mom called mine to say their flight had been delayed until eleven-forty so they were just off to the airport, was that too inconvenient? Yes, I said under my breath and headed to bed. Mom and Dad didn’t hold it against me but advised I be prepared to get up at a “decent” hour, by nine. I later hear an idling car, one door then another door slam, but it never occurs to me that a kid, namely Serita, would take a cab from her home to our place.
“Caroline, up and at ’em!” Dad orders with a rap on the door.
I get myself somewhat together and go downstairs but I hear her voice, louder than what I would say is necessary and the lower side of the vocal register. A big voice so I expect a bigger girl as I enter the breakfast nook, but what I get is a thin, long-legged girl with a wavy mop of shiny ebony hair.
She’s nearly breathless. “I’m trying to wrap my mind around it. Grandmother Kane was a marathon runner until four years ago and now she’s so ill. She must have given it her best shot long ago so is just ready to go.”
“Hmm, a rapid assessment but maybe so, sorry to hear it,” Dad says.
“There you are, Caroline, come meet Serita,” Mom says, wiping her hands on an apron I’ve never seen, like a pert Betty Crocker.
I sit down opposite Serita. “I’m Caro,” I say and she nods at me as I reach for the plate of sausage and scrambled eggs.
“Hello, nice to meet you.” Her eyes are steady, surmise something of me in a fast second.
She is holding her mug full of steaming coffee close to her nose and sniffing it delicately, as it testing its bouquet, its vintage. Then she takes a long drink as if she’s dying of thirst.
Mom and Dad talk about politics and recent headlines which seem to catch Serita’s interest but she puts her mug aside. Stares blankly out the bay window. I imagine she’s thinking of her grandmother and wondering why she isn’t there with her parents. Why she’s here with me and two adults she’s never met.
“Want to swim after breakfast settles a few?” she asks me. “It already appears steaming hot.”
“Sure,” I say. “You have your suit?”
“Do I have a suit?” She whispers. “Wait till you see it!”
She excuses herself as I finish up. Mom asks what I think. I tell her she’s okay and sort of skinny but what do I know? Could be that’s what boarding school does to you so maybe I should try it.
“Very funny, fat chance,” snorts Dad.
“No puns!” I say.
“Go,” says Mom.
When I get outdoors Serita is already at poolside, in the suit that she has indicated was more than just a swimsuit. In fact, there is less to it than I have ever seen up close, a halter design that circles round her neck, then barely drapes over her unimpressive chest and falls over her trunk so her waist is fully exposed on the sides then thankfully covers all else. But the suit is half see-through mesh. And it’s black. Her skin is so white against the suit it glows like moonlight. I’m surprised by all this. I thought she would be tanned, for one thing, as in Mediterranean or Caribbean tan, I guess, being rich. But I also thought she was a sporty type, a runner like her grandmother, maybe, and would wear a comfy tank suit.
“I like your blue two-piece,” she says. “If I had a shape, I’d wear one, too, but no such luck so I have to go for fancier options.” She laughs with her head tossed back, a guttural burst of giddiness. “So tell me about your life. Is it interesting?”
It takes me aback. I ease into the water and walk about, arms afloat by my sides. “Not really. I finished eighth grade so now I get to go to ole high school. My grades were good but I’m relieved it’s summer. I play flute, that’s something, I guess. I have two best friends who are coming over tonight. The greatest part of summer is I can swim every day, something that really matters. I want to be on swim team next year. What about you?”
“I don’t do sports if I can help it–please, the effort strains all my nerves and brain. And I’ve been going to a boarding school the last three years. More or less. Right now I’m glad to be here. I did not want to go see Grandmother Kane. Not right now. She has too many expectations–it’s a family defect– and she’s been disappointed in me. Like, she wants me to run, too. And be a star student. But all I really like is being social and a little outrageous when I can. Mother dear says I have what may be a fatal interest in theater.”
“But don’t you worry about her?”
“I guess, sure. But we haven’t been close for a while. I’ve been gone–and Grandmother lives in Vermont. I used to visit her in summers but… I don’t have the rosy, cozy family you apparently have. Guess I can’t have it all!”
“True, all my grandparents live a hour or two away. I guess I’m lucky.”
She jumps in the pool with a giant splash that crests over me. I splash her back and she gives it back and this goes on until we are drenched in water and sunshine, laughing like idiots who have known each other far longer than a few hours. Mom and Dad poke their heads outside and then retreat, relieved, no doubt, that Serita and I have no problem.
When we settle down and climb out to dry off in the June breeze, she wipes down face, arms and shoulders with my big fluffy towel. Then she says in that low, stout voice of hers, “And guess what? I’m a drug addict.”
Mom bursts outdoors to join us and I endure a good hour of chitchat that Serita manages with surprising ease, then my Dad comes out and takes a swim and invites us in. I keep looking at her and she throws me an oddly amused glance, then says we sure have a nice little pool and lovely swan floats while I just am dying to hear what else she has to say.
Over a bowl of blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, peaches and cream–our impromptu lunch– she talks to me like she hasn’t talked in ages, so she says. I am trying not to stare at her with mouth open but it all sounds crazy. Then less crazy as she goes on. More sad.
“It started with pot at eleven, then alcohol, then it was more or less Oxy–you heard of it? Pain pill, Oxycontin? I broke my ankle playing tennis, took a hard swerve and fell harder. Soon that wasn’t the problem. I liked being high, not feeling much, that’s the benefit. The rest isn’t so great. I ended up in rehab twice. The first time it was an accidental overdose on my prescription. The second time it was just…well, I couldn’t take enough to get high enough, it was just trying to avoid withdrawal, trying to stay well as we call it. But I go sicker than a dog…It was fast, the addiction. It’s the drug. So back to treatment, last time for six weeks and went back to school again. Soon I was called into Headmistress’ office and told I can’t come back next year. This was just last week. So now I have to go to public high school here unless they get me into another boarding school with a big bribe–a nice donation, they call it.”
“Gosh. Holy cow.” I feel confused by her outpouring, shocked. Then bad for her. She seems so smart and funny. But I hardly know her. This openness is intense and I don’t know what to do with it. So much truth sits there like a third person.
She laughs. “That’s the best you can do? Holy cow? I didn’t even know people said that in real life.”
“What can I think of it? I’ve tried beer a few times and I knew of someone who got deep into bad herbal pills from online for weight loss–stupid, if you ask me–but not this kind of thing. My friends have been around my whole life. They’re like me, I guess. I know them so well it’s always the same, not much drama. Their parents know my parents. It’s pretty tame, no one in terrible trouble, nothing worth a headline other than a few things the grown-ups do…” But I am starting to become nervous, like there’s this overload of thoughts and I just need to keep quiet now. I feel, I realize, a little scared.
Serita pushes her bowl far away as if she has eaten too much.”I’m not from this everyday Smallsville, Caro, it’s different for me. I am supposed to have it all, right? My dad’s work as a corporate lawyer has taken us to different countries. I get private tutors to learn at home sometimes. We live in–alright, it’s true–gorgeous houses. I never played flute, though, or even ukulele for that matter, never had slumber parties unless my mother threw fancy parties for my birthday with kids I barely knew. My mother runs an interior design business that caters to big names I don’t even feel like dropping. Neither of them are around. Now I’ve been gone awhile, what do we say to each other?. I’m not sure what it feels like to miss people. Probably it’s messy. It’s sure inconvenient and embarrassing that I’m back home….but I don’t really care.” She nearly glares. “I do not care.”
“Well, you’re drug-free, right? Your parents must be so glad, Relieved.”
“Yep, clean as a whistle, how’s that for a corny saying? You’d have to ask them what they think; they’d rather not talk to me.”
Serita looks across our pool, into the back yard of a house where the twins are playing with a cascade of water from a hose, screeching, running around, their dog barking at their heels. Tim and Heather, the seven-year old twins, make me smile. I babysit for them sometimes.
They annoy her or maybe life annoys her as her eyes narrow and turn darker. Her face seems to age, seems haunted, or maybe it’s just changed by the telling of her story. She runs to the pool, dives in deep. I suspect she could swim well if she wanted to– she has that long lean torso, broad shoulders. I, with a body fuller thus heavier, have to labor to power the muscle and slice and slip through water like the dolphin I once wished to become. But she doesn’t care about swimming. Right now I’m not sure what she cares for but it’s been a weird day. I already know too much to act like I don’t when my friends come over later.
I join her in the pool and we swim around and about each other a few minutes like playful creatures cooling off on a summer’s day. Then I start my laps as she dives again so it seems we’ve moved on when she climbs out and takes off with a small wave. I do five more, then lie back on the swan, close my eyes. Think of my predictable friends and a dance next week at the golf club. Think about my mom and dad, what life will be like this summer. And I wonder if Serita regrets telling me. If she will stick around. If I even would want that.
Travis and Lin each bring other friends, Grant and Maddy, so it’s an even six. This makes playing pool volleyball that much more fun. We go to it as Serita complains she may sink her team and she does, eventually. But she’s in a lighter mood and laughs it off.
“It’s summer!’ Travis shouts and rushes me with his awesome butterfly stroke. We’ve been good friends and a little more than friends but lately it’s friends again.
“What’s she all about? I mean, I know the basics–but is there something more? Like, does she have a boyfriend?”
There’s the barest sting as his words hit me. “Ask her. She is very open.”
“Yeah, don’t be shy, Trav,” Lin agrees and pushes him toward her.
He gets out of the pool to sit near her on the other side. She’s talking up a storm with Grant and Maddy; I try to overhear but they’re acting jokey so all must be well. I decide to shelve the earlier conversation unless Travis decides to fall in love. Lin and I swim underwater and come up under all their feet.
Serita is stunning in that suit, skinny or not. Grant and Trav hang on her words.
“Boyfriend? I have had dozens–just ask my classmates at my old school. Really, quite impossible since I was at an all girls school. I’ll have to make up for lost time. If you want I can start with you–or Grant!”
“Great–how about the golf club dance next week?” Grant offers.
“You guys are trouble. Be forewarned, Serita,” Maddy says.
“Oh, good!” She claps enthusiastically and jumps in, followed by the boys.
The lights around the pool and above the sliding doors come on as the sun lowers swiftly. I can hear the distant staccato sound of voices from the living room overlooking us. It’s early, I think, but it is Friday night. I walk over to the patio area but when I get to the living room, it is quiet, the room empty but heavy with something. I think about going inside and seeing what they’re doing but the boisterous sound of my buddies lures me back. Still, I go in and find a big bowl of chips. I load a few sodas onto a tray, balance it all and start back.
Then it comes.
“Cassandra, stop. We have a whole pool of kids and Caroline will worry, be embarrassed. We have Serita here! Can’t you–”
“Can’t I…what? Can’t I be an even more efficient mother and wife? Can’t I be more hard-working and more generous with time and affection? Can’t I can’t I can’t I…oh come here, handsome…”
I cringe. I hear her stumble and his muffled words, then a door shut. A frisson rushes up my spine. I hold chips and sodas carefully, exit the house.
We’re eating and drinking, talking about our summer plans, the lake cottage that Travis’ family owns but we all visit and how Lin and Grant and I love to camp. How Serita will spend time at her family’s summer house in the Adirondacks “that is, if my Grandmother stays alive, well, I hope she does but she’s seventy-two and this stroke…” but though there is a hint of deeper sadness, she quickly moves on. Then we submerge all together in the cool of silken water again. The darkness around us is a balm.
And my mom is coming in, too.
I hear her calling my name and my dad calling hers before she reaches us. She’s put on her new long coral sun dress but this doesn’t concern her. She runs, stumbles, almost catches herself, leans backwards and I think my dad will get her but then there she goes, forward motion into the inviting water.
“Grab her, honey! Hold her up, Caro!”
I know what this means–it isn’t the first time–so I swim fast to her just as Serita gets there too, and we take a firm hold on her wiggling body and then hold her up by the armpits. Travis and Grant push through the side-lit, glimmering blue water. For some reason, I look up to locate the watchful moon for an instant, then look down to find our legs reflecting the watery depths, see my mother’s dress lift and swirl and tangle about her thighs, a brilliant design of fabric and flesh half-drowned. Her breath stinks of alcohol, likely rum. Her champagne-colored hair is plastered to her head and mascara is streaming down her cheeks. She’s batting us away, laughing at me as if I should know better, this is how she can have some real fun, why can’t we leave her alone?
“I can swim, I taught Caro to swim for goodness’ sake!”
They all help move her to the water’s edge, then get out and assist my dad in pulling her forward and upward, out of the pool and onto dry land and into safety.
“What’re you doing? Can’t you see this is the best night? Summer fun! First night, more to come!”
She twists in my dad’s arms and he holds her very close until she quiets, then slumps against him. He walks her into the house and they disappear.
We get out and sit. No one speaks. My friends know my family, know this story. We don’t name it, don’t process it, don’t comment much, anymore. They could. They could tell me they’re worried and care about us and wish they could do something. Or they are disgusted by a middle-aged woman coming undone. I’d listen and accept it. But they have an aunt or a cousin or a brother-in-law who drinks too much–damn it, Grant has gotten drunk and more often. And what can we do?
In a little while, Lin turns on the radio my dad keeps in the modest pool house, just an oyster white-painted shed. It’s music to dance by, and she and Travis get to it, then so do the others. Except Serita.
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Stop, please. I just met you,” I say, looking away from her intense gaze.
“That’s not why. I told you my truth. But you sat there and said nothing. You acted like you had it all tied up, happy little home life, the prize family. Like you had no insight.”
Tears slide down my face. My long hair is heavy over my shoulders and I want to lie down but I sit tall. Chin up. “It’s kind of a mess, alright? I hoped tonight she would be okay. Some week-ends she is more okay, even good. All week she’s fine, more or less.” I wipe my nose on the back of my hand. “It’s not the same as you.”
Serita takes me by the forearms and pulls me around to face her. “It’s the same, it’s just alcohol but it’s the same only worse. It can be bought at any store, anytime. And she’s your mother. She’s been at it longer than I have. And she is yourmother.” She gave me a little shake.
“I know, I know!” I whisper and put my head down, hair falling forward. I stay there behind the sodden curtain, then fall forward until my head reaches my lap. I feel her hand on my back. It doesn’t pat me reassuringly, doesn’t even move. It stays right between my shoulder blades like a cool rock that holds me in place. Keeps me from falling deeper into the morass.
“Well, we both know some of the reality now, not lies. I’m an addict in recovery, your mother is likely an alcoholic needing recovery.” She sighs as if she must reach deeply to find a breath of air big or fresh enough to keep such talk going. “So how about I stick around?”
I’m not sure what she means. I turn my head and peer through my hair, wiping the tears with a few damp strands. “Can you? A few more days? I’d like that.”
“Yes, Caro. I mean, I get it, right? I’ll be here a long time. And you can be here for me. If that’s alright with you.”
I sit up so straight my backbone aches. “Okay.”
It’s a superior early summer night. There was such promise. It hasn’t vanished, not quite. My friends and I play a last silly game in the pool, keep it easy, light, simple. We’ll all clean up the squashed cans, broken chips, scoop up the towels. We won’t mention my mother’s drinking. They’ll go home; we’ll get together sometime soon again. But when I go to bed and cannot sleep, if the entire mixed up, unhappy truth of it hurtles down upon me–if I lose what’s left of the beauty and I need to scream as the beastliness makes its way into the night, Serita will just be down the hall. I will not be alone with the truth, not anymore.
“We have to be the best we can be!” Pen always said, and she should know. She was the one who brought home all the trophies, going way back to first grade when she was given a blue ribbon for best behaved at recess. She had broken up a fight by hugging an angry boy who started the fuss. After that, there were awards for reading excellence and penmanship, followed by tennis and debate team, then four years on the honors list. Finally, all the commendations garnered a scholarship for the top rated teacher’s college downstate. In 1949, three years after she began her career at North Village Day School, she was voted Teacher of the Year of the entire county, so was being sent to a state education conference in Five Lakes, an idyllic resort town. And that is where her sister, Bree, lived. Perch Lake, the largest body of water, clasped to its shore a rustic though well appointed conference lodge. There were events all year round, including that conference.
Bree was nervous about seeing her. She used to think they had been close siblings, four years apart but thick as thieves as children–“best friends, not thieves!” Pen corrected. They’d stayed in touch the last six years by letter and had seen each other at the homestead, as they called it, for their parents’ Thanksgiving or Christmas gathering. These were arduous for Bree. In fact, she hadn’t gone often the last few years. There were brief phone calls every now and then. Pen filled creamy linen-like pages with rhapsodic descriptions of teaching experiences and little else. Maybe a brief description of a possible suitor, a recipe she’d tried, the undependable weather. Lately, notes about pieces she was trying to learn (“how time consuming, even painful it can be”) on her new (“aged, really, and I suspect out of tune, you should come and report on its condition”) upright piano.
Bree was jolted by this news. It was surprising that Pen would study piano after years of refusing an offer of lessons alongside herself. She’d also demonstrated a lack of natural rhythm when they had dance classes together. Pen could not even, if one was frank, carry an agreeable tune. But she loved music, that much was true. There was always had good music on the radio or record player. Their mother was abashed to admit she idolized opera singers though for her husband popular music called.
Music, in fact, was Bree’s specialty. Her one saving grace in a family where the older sister collected awards as if trinkets. For Bree began singing the moment she registered the robins outside her nursery window. Her mother still noted this as if it was a miracle a baby cooed in response to feathered warblers. But true, she sang without hesitation from the start, mimicking each sound she heard, later absorbing tunes and lyrics. Bree was born with a musical talent that surprised her musically untalented though otherwise capable parents. So they put her in a church children’s choir where she might elevate the congregation. They instructed her to sing when visiting the pharmacist, Mr. Gundell, himself a fine singer who pronounced her a marvel. She was lauded in school music classes. Given vocal lessons early. And at home soon was paraded in front of visitors like a show pony. There was a girls’ quartet in early adolescence, her soprano ringing bright and true. Solo recitals elicited large enthusiastic audiences. She learned how best to bow and smile with appreciation. For she was appreciative–to sing was her life; to hear applause, a lovely bonus.
The “Culture and Lifestyle” section of the newspaper had a loquacious reviewer who noted her vocalizing held “a certain piercing quality for mind, heart and soul” and “the range of a far more seasoned vocalist, according to this impressed reviewer and Solomon Hastings, Professor Emeritus of Music, Arbor-Kessling Conservatory. Breeanna Irving, daughter of Dr. and Mrs. Reynold Irving, is in truth bound for great things.” She began to give recitals around the state a few times a year and participated in singing competitions. And won. Then she was courted by Arbor-Kessling, among others, before she was seventeen.
Bree mused over her sister’s piano and their upbringing while she misted lacy ferns on a side table. Her past. What she’d given others were the fruits of studying voice, the endless practicing, performing, competing. She’d wanted, yes, to attend a top notch music school, to study and perform more and then–if fate allowed–become a full-time concert soprano. To honor the greatest music with the best she could give.
“But get your degree in music education,” her father had advised one evening as they lingered after dinner.
“I don’t want to teach,” Bree insisted. “I’m singing or I’m doing very different.”
Her mother tittered. “What? Please let us in on it.”
Pen piped in. “You do want to be able to provide for yourself, right? I mean, in case you don’t catch a good man. It is, after all, the twentieth century, nearly decade four.”
“Is that why you’re going to college? To be able to pay your way in case you can’t snare the right man?”
“Don’t be sarcastic, Bree, it’s reasonable and I’m glad of her ambition,” mother inserted.
“Well, fine, but I’m going because of my passion for my art.”
Pen spoke with her usual authority. “Of course, and I shall want to teach even if I marry, otherwise it will be a waste.”
“You may decide differently, dear.” Mother was bent over a darning egg, one of dad’s heavy sport socks pulled taut around the wooden shape. Her stitching was so expert we could never feel the repair work.
“So, Bree, you will consider a practical degree to pull your head out of the clouds? It’s a necessary asset, even for one such as yourself. ” Dad smiled at her with a wink to cajole her into it.
“I’m either singing for my supper or going off to the pristine wilderness and living off the land, ” Bree pronounced. “If there isn’t singing I may as well leave civilization. I’ll commune with birds and swim naked. But I will not teach or get married for no good reason.”
Pen shook her burnished auburn head of hair, her hair ribbon awry, and sighed. “Don’t be so terribly dramatic, so–radical!”
Mother and Dad simply ignored Bree. The family was used to such pronouncements. Both parents thought them harmless if oddly idiotic (“eccentricity is a part of musicianship” Mother assured Dad after another odd statement), whereas Pen found them mildly alarming if annoying.
“You two are my good luck girls,” Dad said, not for the first time. “You’ll both do fine work, you’ll make us even prouder. We’ll be fulfilled in old age, to know we raised such capable young women.”
“And you will marry, too, have wonderful grandchildren!” Mother hastened to add, then bit off the thread under the knot and tossed the sock to Dad.
Bree knew she would attend music school, but the back-up plan was just as she said. Leaving behind the city for somewhere beautiful and wild. She only could enjoy cities if she sang in them.
And it was a good thing she had such a thought. In her third year at the music conservatory she contracted infectious tonsillitis and had a tonsillectomy. She did not rebound well or quickly. Her father felt helpless to work miracles but her convalescence finally ended. Then, as she was working on limbering up her voice for the umpteenth time, it became apparent she could no longer replicate those superior tones that drew an audience to their feet. The resonant, shimmering notes that lived in her higher range had vanished; the lower rich and warm ones faltered, sank. Bree could not coax them with skilled commands, not even her talent. Her vocal teacher worried some as weeks and months passed but reassured her it would take time, that was all.
Bree knew differently. Much had changed during feverish days and nights as rawness took over her swollen throat. The scalpel sliced away her tonsils and left her weak, almost empty. It was not the life for her now. It could never be the same after such a moratorium on singing. No amount of persuasive debates from her mentor and teacher or others, no pleading from her parents changed her mind. There was nothing worse than being a pitiable has-been trying to re-establish worthiness. More than that, she was utterly bereft. Bree would rather be that musician who once delivered flawless music full of heart, but then just no longer sang. Soon people would forget what was.
But Pen didn’t. And her parents never quite forgave her.
The sun slipped behind the rim of the earth and Perch Lake was splashed with golden and orange hues. Bree heard the low growl of a car engine, light rattling as it shuddered over the gravel road. It had to be Pen. She was given a raise so bought a good used Buick.
Bree didn’t have a car. There was Hardy’s work truck, and that was it; she drove it well after a time. He liked to see her behind the wheel, enjoyed being driven to town where they loaded up plumbing supplies for the business as well as their pantry. He’d taken a ribbing the first times she’d driven, as if giving her the keys made him a soft-touch or a fool. Soon residents saw Bree MacIntyre as Hardy’s indispensable right hand and a good woman, at that. She helped run Mac’s All Plumb Repair as expertly as she directed the Young Artists program at Five Lakes Retreat and Conference Lodge. The town was delighted to have someone who cared for their children’s artistic side and handed them over for a few classes each year.
Bree swatted at her neck. It was getting warm already; mosquitoes were hatching. She pulled her shoulder length hair back and slipped a rubber band around a neat ponytail. There was no time to change into a dress but her blue blouse was clean as were the tan slacks. She stared out at the lake. Languorous waves slapped against the shoreline a few hundred feet from their front porch; she listened to the water’s depths. Her heart beat harder though her mind told her all was fine, it always was in the end when they met up.
A car could be seen around the last bend now, the blue Buick. Would Hardy make it in time for dinner? It might be better if he did not, but Pen had said she’d be glad to see him. He’d had an emergency call at 5:00 at the lodge, of all places. Pen might have run into him there as she checked in. Bree laughed at the thought of Penelope Irving crossing paths unexpectedly with her husband in soiled work clothes. High heels clacking against the wood floor, her skirt too tight to make fast progress, wavy hair swinging. Then Hardy: high cheek boned face and powerful shoulders, clear but questioning eyes, broad, often dirt-smudged hands. Few words fell from him. She would have dodged his path, yet tried her best to be mannerly. Pen wasn’t fond of his country ways, the animal grace and strength as he moved and reposed. His pithy observances. Neither were her parents the three times they visited after the elopement. Hardy was nowhere close to what they’d wanted for her.
As with her singing, she had made a terrible choice, they’d all agreed.
The Buick honked twice and soon Pen, suit jacket off, shirttail hastily tucked in, was out of the car and up the steps. The sisters embraced.
“I thought I’d never get here! I nearly ran out of gas. How was I to know? Last time I visited I took a taxi from the train station, remember?” She held Bree at arm’s length. “My, you look healthy and gorgeous as ever, you get such sun!” Pen gazed at the lake, then blinked as if trying to break the spell before it interfered with her consciousness. She did not love the outdoors except from a good view indoors, but she did like Bree’s welcoming log house and this lake at sunset. “Lovely.”
“Of course, the sunset is courtesy of nature, just for you! Let’s go on in. Dinner will be ready in about an hour. I hope Hardy can make it. Want a beer?”
“Do you have a little scotch? Mmm, pot roast or beef stew.”
“Stew, I know you enjoy it.”
Bree got herself a cold beer and a scotch on the rocks for Pen. After they settled on the sofa Pen swept her gaze over the room. It had been repainted. New curtains with vines and birds were hung. A rectangular antique mirror gleamed above the sofa. She noticed they had a television on a painted bench in the corner. The business was going well.
Pen slipped off her heels and threw her head back, then spread out her hair along the back. She turned her neck and met her sister’s pensive eyes. “I can’t believe I’m here, Bree. It has been such a year! I never expected that award and now I have to make a speech and talk on that panel. You know I don’t like public speaking. The stage was your venue, not mine.”
Bree took a long drink and licked her lips. “It’s a learned thing. I got better as I got used to it. When do you get the trophy and give your speech? Should I sneak in?”
“It’s at the banquet dinner on Saturday night. It’s not a trophy, it’s a plaque of some sort, not showy. The presentation is tomorrow, too. I attend workshops all day, then the panel, then speak at the end. Exhausting. Success in teaching should be a humbling thing, less fanfare!” She said it lightly, as if she didn’t mean it, then sat up and faced Bree. ” Anything new since we talked a couple months ago?”
Bree knew this was a hint about the possibility of pregnancy but that hadn’t happened. She and Hardy were busy with their business. Bree had an affinity for numbers and organization, as well as outdoor life and her fledgling youth arts program. Not necessarily having children. Hardy was okay with that for now, too.
“I’m finding work satisfying on all fronts. My arts program is getting better monetary support and kids keep joining! Hardy and I are growing the business. We’re done with cross country skiing for now but fish, boat. Soon we’ll water ski, swim, hike. You know all this–how I love it here.” She tucked her lower lip under the upper a moment, then blurted it out. “Nope, no kids for now. I’m tied up with projects, Pen. Mom and Dad will have to wait.”
“Well, I’m not dating since Ted and I broke up.” She looked at the drink in her hands. “I guess they’ll survive.” She took a gulp. “We sure have lived lives other than what they imagined.”
“Not true, Pen. You’re the teacher they hoped–you hoped–to become. You’re more visible with this award. You’ll likely do much better as you pioneer those methods you keep talking about. A real educator. That’s what you want, right?”
Pen’s fine eyebrows rose, then settled. “You know, I do like teaching, implementing my ideas. But I enjoy public notice and want to research modern educational practices. I was to forge ahead! I’m pretty happy so far.”
“Losing Ted was tough. But I know you’re darned good on your own, too. Funny how I turned out to be marriage material, though!”
Bree brushed a dark lock from glowing skin, her eyes radiating pleasure. Pen thought again how extraordinary her sister was, how impressive she would have looked on the nation’s stages, even the world’s. With her face and that voice, what might have come to be? It pained her to think it.
Shifting against a plump pillow, Bree said, “Well, my ambitions took a turn. We all end up with quite curious lives.” She touched her sister’s forearm. “Say, what’s with the piano playing?”
“I adore my piano! It turned out to be one of the best things I’ve done for myself! I got it tuned last week and it sounds good. I think. It brings back good memories…”
Bree was silent. Glancing out the front door, she hoped it was Hardy’s truck she heard as dusk gathered and spread itself over trees, water, cottages and creatures. She thought of the bats swooping and darting by the pole barn, their electric cries. She hoped the barn owl would visit again.
Then she spoke carefully. “I admit I was surprised. Are lessons harder or easier than you expected? What is your goal?”
Pen grinned, her large eyes brightening.”The lessons aren’t so bad, it’s the daily practice that taxes me. I have much to learn as fast as I can. I plan on playing a few things for the parents by Thanksgiving. I can’t wait to see their faces, they’ll love it, won’t they? And I hope you’ll be there.” She took her sister’ s hand and squeezed it.
A charge of cold energy erupted in her spine, traveled to her neck, then spilled over her. Playing piano for their parents like she, herself, did long ago? A family performance. Would they expect her to play, try a song? Like when the girls presented a dance routine or a play. Or when Bree sang the newest tune. That house had a large space that only masqueraded as a family room; it was really a theater for their parents’ and their friends’ entertainment. For their pride to bloom with each new trick the girls learned.
She pulled her hand away, hoping her shudder wasn’t obvious.
“I don’t know. I’m glad you’re enjoying learning how to play.” She felt heat erase the chill as her heart pumped faster. “Are you playing for your own enjoyment? Or to please Mom and Dad? Or trying to rectify things somehow?”
Bree looked into her sister’s face, saw the deep blue irises and the pupils expand as she sank back, frowning.
“Maybe you’re trying to make things perfect, even now. That thing I dared do that hurt them. The disappointment I caused you all. Such a career I might have had, right? Perhaps even fame, likely some fortune, child so-called prodigy makes good and the family is lifted up in the eyes of all beholders. Isn’t it enough that Dad is a fine doctor? No, Mom and Dad had to preen at the supermarket, at church, at concerts.” Bree felt her voice as roiling steam trying to push out of her throat with a screech.
Pen pressed her lips into a taut line. After a slow, steadying breath Bree stood. She didn’t want to be so near her sister, nor look at her. Her eyes welled with forbidden tears. She never cried about this anymore, she rarely even thought of it. It was done with. But there it was, subterranean all this time, now rousing itself from a sleep in dark places where it had lived, now forcing itself into this tender spring light. Bree leaned against the doorjamb as Hardy’s truck pulled in. He sat in the cab, looking down at something. She took a deep breath.
Pen came close but not too close. “Bree, I can barely play right now and it isn’t about that. I knew you were the special one… I was the ordinary girl who worked damned hard to get what I wanted…” She reached out and touched Bree’s back but her sister’s shoulders hunched, recoiling. “Yes, alright, I wanted to do something for them, why not? They do like music, they miss it in the family! I can learn for myself and others, can’t I? I had no idea this would bother you so. I thought it would please you! That we could enjoy a little music with them again…Bree, look at me.”
But Bree didn’t want her sister’s words. She kept her tears at bay by watching cottage lights undulate on the lake, hearing the rhythmic rushing forward and falling back of water in a dance upon good earth. It was not so much Pen playing, it was the reminder of all that was lost. Her parents’ easy appreciation. Her sister’s pleasure and admiration. And that music that owned her, body and soul, oh dear God the feel of that music welling up from mysterious places and entering the atmosphere of the world like a healing thing. Making its primal, ethereal life deep in her blood, her being. It was what she had to offer them, as well as others. It had been almost the whole of her. And then it was gone.
Bree pressed her fingers against hot eyelids as Hardy got out of the truck, willed her heart to lie down and rest, her mind to uncoil. She turned back to Pen, who stood with arms crossed and her brow furrowed in anger.
“I don’t get you, Bree! I come to see you, we’re just talking and you have to pick this time to do this–”
“No time is a good time, is it? It was me who lost something, not you, not Mom and Dad! The one passion of my life. You had so many. I had one, Pen, one, and it carried me, fed me, loved me, transformed me–it shaped my every moment. And then, it was taken. That’s what I have wanted to say all these years. It wasn’t about disappointing any of you or my giving up or casting aspersions on more good fortune we might have had. Not being able to sing as before was…it was like dying. It was a terrible death. And no one came to pay their respects or offer true condolences, because no one really saw it my way. I let others down? The ruin of that passion was what was left me. And I was alone with it.”
Hardy waited on the porch as his wife finished speaking. He heard her but had sensed what it was about as he stepped down from the truck. He felt her pain, caught its signal of grief, and he knew to wait, be still. He clutched a bouquet of daisies in one hand and thermos in the other. When she was quiet he said her name and she opened the door. Bree stepped outside, sank into a rocking chair. Hardy went to her, put the flowers in her lap and his thermos on the floor. Then he knelt down and took her hands and kissed one palm, then the other.
“Hello love. Smells good, dinner,” he said.”Pen staying?”
Pen was passing them, then stopped and raised her hands in the hushed spring evening as if in surrender. “But we lost the real you, Bree. I lost you!”
Bree touched Hardy’s bushy head and he lifted it to see her. “That’s where you’re wrong. I’m still here, sister, just changed.”
But Pen was already in her car. As she backed up the tires spun against rocks and dirt. She turned the Buick around and sped down the country road.
Hardy walked to the top step of the porch, sat as Bree joined him. They put their arms about each other’s waists. Watched the lake change from a deep bruising blue to a swath of silvery black, as if the stars had fallen in love with water, spread themselves over its buoyant surface. And Bree sang a wordless song to the lake, the night, to him.
An imperturbable demeanor comes from perfect patience. Quiet minds cannot be perplexed or frightened, but go on in fortune and misfortune at their own private pace like a clock during a thunderstorm.—Robert Louis Stevenson