First published in the Missouri Review
Finalist for the Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize and the Narrative Story Award
Shortlisted for the Bridport Prize
It wasn’t the guns that bothered her but rather the heat, which was the true killing machine. Guns had always been with her; they figured in her earliest memories. Her father dismantling a revolver on the kitchen table as she picked at her greasy Ulster fry. The RUC boys armed to the teeth outside the greengrocer’s smashed door, outfitted for war in a dank city street. High-powered rifles with sniper scopes laid out in the boot like firewood, or cradled like infants as her uncles stalked through the muddy darkness along the right-of-way. Guns were cityscape. By the age of twelve she could identify make and model from a ten-yard remove and judge ammunition by the results it fetched: peering down from the second floor of the grammar school as boys shot pigeons off ledges, she could guess the calibre by the damage done. When she turned fourteen, her brother Roddy made sure she had her own pistol, a battered Webley, and knew when to use it.
Despite himself, Moore had been impressed with her expertise when they met. It was in the first days after the flood, when men were still sandbagging the riverbank and women tracked red mud from house to house, the rain forest floor roiling with steam. The humidity was absolute.
“Classic Widowmaker there,” she’d said from the adjacent table, a grilled tamuatá untouched before her. An AR-18 was slung over the guest chair opposite him. It was not uncommon for local men to carry hunting rifles, whether to shoot marauding strays or take boar, but an automatic weapon in the possession of a gringo was another matter. “Japanese or American?”
Moore regarded her without emotion, as was his way even with close associates and lovers, his pitted face a perfect mask. He waited for her as if he’d been the one to pose the question. But men no longer intimidated her, and she stared at him with clean concentration, refusing to back down. After a methodical sip of beer he said: “American. ’72.”
“Brilliant. Gas ring holding up?”
She saw a calculation ripple across Moore’s forehead, where you could sometimes read his thoughts. She’d got his attention. Possibly he’d never met a woman who could talk weaponry with such composure and mastery. “Thing is,” she said, “over time that ring’ll fail you and you’ll short-stroke. You won’t get one bloody round off.” She saw him straighten in his cane chair, shift his stocky shoulders awkwardly. He would prefer it if she left, perhaps—or failing that, stepped over to dine with him. “I’m Maeve, by the way. And your own good self?”
By way of reply he turned his chair half away from her, which at the same time left it half facing her.
She knew the evening mosquitoes would soon roam in from the river, moving across the open-air patio in ragged death squads. Tontons Macoutes, she called them, but the joke was lost on everyone. The locals knew almost nothing of Manaus, much less of Haiti. What still shocked her was that the American eco-tourists didn’t follow her, either—her guests might have the wherewithal to travel from Chicago or Kansas City to the Brazilian interior, but they had no more knowledge of history than a back-country indígeno. They knew nothing of the Troubles, nothing of the Duvalier bloodbath—nothing of her world. Disgraceful, but their ignorance protected her.
She could see the lolling river from where she sat, the water brown as shoe leather, foul-smelling and noxious since the rains had washed the shantytown away. The makeshift hovels had been well upstream, far out of town, but day by day one saw more evidence of them as the river continued to lick at the remains. Corpses had been spotted drifting past, the odd sling chair or Styrofoam cooler, bloated dogs and feral pigs, a buoyant crucifix swirling in an eddy as if possessed by the soul of a dervish. Mangrove roots trapped petrol cans, hats, bottles. The carnage had quickly driven the late-season tourists away, starting with the Kapsteins, young New Yorkers who’d been staying in Treetop Lodge 1 with its perfect view of the fetid watercourse. Maeve refunded their money without argument. Two Canadian couples were expected at the weekend; she wondered if they’d heard.
Without tourists the town deflated, its tiny vein of commerce collapsing. She and Moore were the only guests Casa Ribeiro had served in days. She smelled pinga on the proprietor’s breath tonight, and who could blame him? The drenching heat, the fleeing foreigners, the loss of a cousin in the wash-out—it had hit him hard. Relieved of her normal chores, all five treehouse cabanas empty, she’d been eating lunch and dinner at Casa Ribeiro mostly to make sure Paulo Ribeiro didn’t do anything rash. Just now he was drifting toward her table with a worried look, frowning at her fish. “O peixe não tá bom, senhora Kelly?” No, she smiled, the fish is brilliant. Just in no rush here. He’d insisted it was caught and iced before the flood poisoned the river—an antediluvian fish. To reassure him she took up knife and fork and surgically removed the head, setting it aside for a stray. This seemed satisfactory, and he moved on to his other guest with a swaying step.
When Paulo wandered back to the kitchen she expected the sporadic conversation with Moore to continue in some way, but it did not. He made no eye contact, only finishing his beer and quickly dispatching his grilled chicken. When he was done he laid a large bill on the table, took up the Widowmaker, donned his tarp hat and walked out, his white shirt soaked through in the shape of a giant hand. Only when she heard two car doors slam and saw a Land Rover with darkened windows pull away did Maeve realize that someone had been keeping watch over Moore the whole time, and not only over Moore.
She knew who he was, of course; everyone did. He was the gringo who lived in the razor wire compound perched on a red dirt promontory three miles up the private road, the longest paved stretch in the area. The place had been built for a would-be cattle rancher who’d died before a single tree could be felled for pastureland. Three years ago, Moore had appeared out of nowhere, bought the land and house for back taxes and turned it into a fortress, importing workers from a distant charcoal camp disbanded not long before. It was assumed the old man didn’t want locals involved for security reasons—an absurd notion, paranoia imported from another world. Speculation was that he was a Colombian involved at the highest levels of the drug trade, perhaps a cartel banker, but she suspected he was just a rich American eccentric, some software millionaire or stock trader living out a colonial fantasy. In the few words they’d exchanged she hadn’t noticed a particular accent, but that didn’t mean anything in an expat; his name was English, but that meant even less, as one assumed it wasn’t his real one.
The man called Moore was self-sufficient and generally invisible, which made her wonder what he was doing here at Paulo’s, tucking into a plate of chicken like anyone else. The compound had its own weedy airstrip, a holdover from earlier days; Moore received weekly cargo flights said to deliver not just staples but also French wines and city whores, though this last smelled of hopeful fantasy. Nor did the gringo rely on anyone else for electricity, fresh water, medical treatment, security. He had generators, purifiers, a staff doctor, a private militia with evident firepower. And he had uplinks: a bristling array of dishes and antennas connected the place with the greater world, including, some thought, a private satellite stationed overhead. Because he revealed nothing of himself, all wonders seemed possible.
Maeve’s second encounter with Moore—if indirect—came the very morning after meeting him at Casa Ribeiro. As she was fretting over accounts, the Land Rover of the night before deposited two of Moore’s palace guards at the gate. Her stomach turned at the sight of them: as a girl of twelve she’d seen just such a Land Rover disgorge two RUC men who’d then put a rifle butt through her cousin’s skull alongside the Falls Road. She didn’t want this lot on her land. She strode quickly to the gate but didn’t unlock it, waiting for them to state their business.
The driver was mulatto but the other was pure blue-black, a stunning man in a military-looking uniform. Looking past the pressed khaki she guessed he’d come up in some Rio or São Paulo slum, as much an outsider here as she was. “Miss Kelly,” he said.
“I am Xoque,” he said, revealing crude teeth. He pronounced it as in English, Shock—just the sort of blustering gang name they gave themselves in the Rio favelas. “Security chief for Mr. Moore.” It appeared the brief exchange over Moore’s Widowmaker had raised questions.
“What of it?”
Xoque eyed the locked gate; considered his options. He had not expected this reception. At last he said, “Mr. Moore invites you to lunch at your earliest convenience.”
“I’m quite busy.”
Xoque looked past her, saw the empty treehouses thrown open for airing. “As you like. Perhaps you’ll call when you have an opening, Miss Kelly.” With exaggerated courtesy he handed a business card through the gate and they were gone, the driver putting boot to the board up the mud-stained road.
Maeve had lived in her skin long enough to recognize an interesting disturbance in the membrane that linked her to the world, a flex of the integument, and she felt it now. Throughout the long day she considered Moore’s invitation, and that evening she rang the number on Xoque’s card.
The rest of the rainy season passed without the second flood that everyone had so feared. Television warned that such events would be commonplace now, but the swollen months crawled by without incident, with ordinary rain, and slowly the foreigners returned. Maeve was fully booked. She trained a manager to cover for her on the nights she was away at Moore’s; the place quickly found its rhythm, her coffers filling steadily. Seven months of clement weather set the stunned village back on its feet. But then the rains arrived a month too soon, not cooling the forest as usual but bringing an onslaught of crippling heat. The turn of events was strange enough to be carried on the national news—a death blow. Her late-season bookings were mostly middle-class Brazilian families on holiday, well able to sacrifice the small deposit, and the final month was gutted. In scarcely a week the cabanas were empty.
Maeve was not at peace with the unseasonable heat. It fulminated, like a kind of racehorse lather you couldn’t shake off, the sworn enemy of sleep. Even Haiti had rarely been as bad. By municipal edict the electricity was killed an hour after nightfall, whereupon the electric fans spun down and the ponderous cowl descended. This against a childhood in grey Belfast with its damp and penetrating winter chill.
She slept fitfully, dreaming of broken glass and sirens and whip-like gunshots, fever dreams imposed by the heat and her condition. On such nights her sleep was rife with murderers, IRA men mingling with Tontons Macoutes, the lot of them cursing and scheming in a stew of English, Irish and rapid Creole that only she could decipher. Sometimes her Da was there, sometimes Baby Doc himself; or Jean-Michel with his brimming sexual eyes and dark slender trunk and honed machete, his scent of smoky cooking oil. Certain souls had never abandoned her.
As usual she was awakened by bedlam in the green canopy above. For a long while she lay on her sweaty sheets listening to the cacophony of toucans and araras and howler monkeys, rude and relentless as dengue. The night had drained off some of the heat; this was the hour before the sun would become difficult, as if hurrying to scorch the land before the afternoon rains exploded. The cistern was full and she took a long, tepid shower out back, not caring if the local boys were spying on her again. For all she cared they could watch every day, revel in her shifting contours, track the daily changes in belly and breast. It was all new to her, too. They would learn together.
Back inside the cottage, her clothes were damp and smelled faintly of mildew. Nothing ever truly dried. She threw on a gauzy shift and sandals and dissected a papaya at the tiled table out back, not unhappy to be without guests, willing herself not to think about the money. Two of the treehouses needed thatching and she could not pay to do it. Meanwhile the sun dappled through the canopy deceptively. After breakfast she made a cup of coffee and took to one of the hammocks with a travel magazine someone had left behind, immersing herself in photos of Calcutta while the howlers slalomed down to steal the papaya leavings. They had a vocation. Today she did not.
At eleven she set out for the village, wanting company, intending to lunch early and get back before the rains. Paulo and Ana would be ready with soup and sausages, grilled chicken and black beans and salty farofa, slices of orange and pineapple and farmer’s cheese. With the guests gone this early, lunch had become Maeve’s ritual of coalescence, the arranging of sleep’s debris into the semblance of a personality.
But as she rounded the corner she saw a familiar Land Rover parked outside, one of Moore’s new men leaning against the fender smoking a brown cigarette. A snatch of radio traffic tattered from the open window; he leaned in to take up a walkie-talkie, said a few words in patois, dropped it back in the seat. Only then did he notice the pregnant gringa making slow progress toward him in her airy shift, hazel eyes locked on his. At the sight of her he retrieved the walkie-talkie and relayed a quick report, then stepped back to clear the way.
She strode past him into the cool shadow under the thatch, a macaw flitting away, the scent of grilled meat riding the air.
“Maeve,” a basso voice said from within.
She hadn’t seen Xoque in months, not since she’d broken off with Moore. It appeared he’d been upgraded, his powerful body now outfitted in a white golf shirt, immaculate khaki shorts and expensive sandals. He might have been the doorman at a São Paulo country club, were it not for the SIG Sauer strapped to his thigh. “Not long now,” he said, showing his uneven teeth and pointing to her belly.
“Counting on Lieve,” she replied. Though she was no longer seeing Moore, his private doctor had promised to attend the birth. Moore was not so cruel as to stand in the way. “Lieve’s still up there?”
“You’re invited for lunch,” said Xoque, ignoring the question.
She had no desire to see Moore again but needed to see the doctor with her own eyes. At her age she wasn’t about to give birth with a native midwife. A moment later she was sitting in the rear of the Land Rover with Xoque, as the driver sped them past the blockish fountain and out of town, half the village looking on.
As they approached the compound Maeve could see that something was wrong. The covered veranda was populated with valises and trunks; staff were scuttling past with furniture; Dani, the elderly carpenter, was kneeling before Moore’s prized Matisse, measuring it for a crate he would build on the spot. In the gravel turnabout, the gardener was methodically smashing several computers to pieces. On the tennis court raged a bonfire heaped with documents. Moore’s life was being dismantled before her eyes.
“Xoque, what’s this?”
“No longer safe for Mr. Moore.”
Moore had warned her once that this might happen. Someone, whether the Americans or Interpol or some new Brazilian official he hadn’t yet bought off, would find him here and move in to arrest him, to break it up, whatever it was. Moore was fully prepared for that day, as was now evident. It was business.
Once inside the house, Xoque showed her to the air-conditioned dining room with its vast panoramic window overlooking the forest canopy. The room had been cleared of all furniture but the baronial table, a single chair with a silver place setting laid before it, and on the opposite wall one of Moore’s most prized artworks, a Munch lithograph of a tubercular child whose wistful gaze Maeve had always found captivating. Beside her plate sat a large manila envelope fastened with string.
As Xoque turned to go she said, “Is Moore coming?”
“Moore is gone,” said Xoque. “Para sempre. Forever.”
Alone in the room where she’d first dined with the old man, down the long hallway from where she’d slept with him for months, Maeve sat and waited, gazing out the irresistible window. The sun had already disappeared; above the western edge of the forest a slate-grey belly of cloud glowered, gravid with the rains to come. In the course of a few minutes she saw it advance a fair distance toward the already swollen river, dipping lower as it came on, darkening the room. An erotic moment, the pause before release.
The first fit of lightning came as the cook, Neli, wheeled in a bountiful lunch of imported salmon, garden greens, white asparagus grown under lamps of Moore’s own design—a faithful copy of the first meal she’d shared with Moore nearly a year before, in the aftermath of the flood. A moment later Neli returned with a chilled Riesling, filling Maeve’s glass without a word.
“Neli,” Maeve said.
“What’s going on here?”
A look of fright crossed the youthful face. She spoke in a whisper. “Senhor Moore left in a hurry. Last night, by plane.”
“With the pilot and Dr. Lieve. The pilot returned this morning.”
So Lieve was gone. Maeve felt the baby shift inside her.
“You’ll be all right, Neli? He’s provided for you somehow?”
“By the grace of God, senhora.”
“Will you—” But at this moment the storm exploded over the forest with a stunning flash and a cannon shot of thunder. Both women shied from the window, joined in common reflex. Together they watched the sudden assault on the canopy, the highest tier of green buckling under the torrent. The storm rumbled through the thick window pane in a vast, slow-moving detonation, crowding the room, turning the light abruptly violet. Maeve felt the cook stop breathing. They both saw that it was no ordinary storm.
“Neli, you must go to your family. One of the men can drive you down before the roads wash out. Should I tell Xoque?” Neli nodded quickly, plainly afraid, but whether of the storm or Xoque, Maeve couldn’t guess. “Fetch him, Neli. There’s a good girl.”
When an irritable Xoque appeared, Neli cowering behind, Maeve ordered him to get Neli and the rest of the staff to safety.
“I have a thousand details,” he protested. “Mr. Moore—”
“Moore is gone forever. You said so yourself.”
“I’ll send one of the men.” Over his shoulder he said something harsh to Neli, who hurried off. Then, more gently, to Maeve: “You can’t stay here. They’re coming.”
“I know. But not during this.” As if in reply, the storm hurled a long, full-throated complaint against the town below. Her wineglass jittered on the table. To the east, near her own land, she saw lightning fell two palms at a blow. A cowl of mist rose from the forest floor to graze the understorey.
“The pilot will take you to Moore the moment he can fly again,” said Xoque, and left her to her lonely meal.
As Maeve grazed at her salmon she thought back to her first lunch with Moore.
“You intrigue me, Miss Kelly,” he’d said, “because you’ve mastered the art of staying under radar. You went dark years ago and you’ve stayed that way. Impressive.”
“You don’t know anything about me.”
Moore laughed broadly; she hadn’t suspected he was capable of it. To her right, the Dutch doctor studied her plate. “That’s not exactly true, Miss Kelly. My sources are better than most. Though you were a challenge for us, I’ll admit.” He sipped his wine, let this sink in. “By the way, may I call you Miss Flanagan, just for the sake of accuracy?”
Maeve waited to see what else he had.
“All right, then, what do we know? Mary Flanagan, born in Derry two years after her brother Rodney, parents good Catholics. Fled with the family to Belfast after the Bogside riot—perhaps a poor choice. Within a year her father’s in deep with the Provos, a first-class provocateur. An assassin, actually. How am I doing so far?”
For once she was speechless. By whatever means, he’d traced a decades-long trail backward from a Brazilian rainforest to her murderous homeland. She thought of the satellite dishes clustered on the roof, imagined an invisible flow of damning intelligence coursing through them to a screen somewhere in the rambling house. She set her fork down and said nothing, a runnel of sweat wandering down her back despite the air conditioning. Moore went on.
“Next comes a particularly heinous hit—a clergyman in mufti, a noncombatant. A serious error. Mary’s brother Roddy is arrested, but her father escapes to a safe house with two mates. They wait it out. The heat begins to subside—Roddy’s made an example of—and then something odd happens, something I’ll confess I don’t yet understand.”
The Dutch doctor and Moore looked over at Maeve in perfect synchrony. A mute server slipped in to refill her glass, withdrew. The rains would soon trundle in. Even from Moore’s redoubt Maeve could sense the anxiety down in the town, the memory of the flood stirring. There was a world outside the room and she would have liked to escape into it, but Moore’s data held her rapt.
“Perhaps,” said Moore, “you can help me understand how a fugitive IRA hit man turns up in Haiti as adviser to Baby Doc? His teenage daughter in tow?”
It was not for him to know—not yet.
She’d been a girl of sixteen, a virgin with a loaded Webley tucked under her mattress, when her father or brother, it didn’t matter which, shot a Reverend James. She was seventeen when, under cover of darkness, she and her Da shoved off from the Bannock cove, to be intercepted some hours later by a trawler with no running lights, while her Ma stayed behind to pine for Roddy’s acquittal. By unlucky timing she was in the grip of brutal menstrual cramps and then the flu and so would barely recall the rough passage on the cargo freighter, the hold killingly hot as the ship transected the Atlantic and plied southward. The day came when her Da called her onto the blazing deck and they watched the freighter make its ponderous landfall in Haiti, a country she couldn’t have found on a map.
She’d never seen a black man in her life. Now her Da would be working for one—not just any black man, but one anointed President for Life, a blustering connoisseur of killers who’d admired the IRA’s handiwork from afar. None of which she’d fully understand until the evening when she lay half-hidden in the vetiver with Jean-Michel, her very own winsome killer, and teased his rose nipple with the tip of his machete until he told her the truth. By then Da was famous among the Tontons, Irishman nan fou, the crazy Irishman. Her lover was in awe of him. It made her proud. Only later, after a report of Tontons eating the raw heart of a girl exactly her age in Gonaïves, did the grit of it make her flee.
This much she would eventually tell Moore, late one night in his lavish bedroom under the softly watchful eye of a Degas dancer. A bottle of Margaux sped her along, and her lover’s rapt attention as well: she felt his admiration, one canny fugitive’s for another. Day by day she was taming him, this rough, unhandsome American with expensive tastes, and it excited her. She could not deny it. That he would not say what his business was or where his money came from would have troubled a different sort of woman, but she, more than anyone, understood the value of secrets. She stood with him on the veranda and shot monkeys out of the jacarandas with his Widowmaker, all of it coming back to her in an electric surge.
Yet she would not stay with him for more than a night at a time. It was a matter of principle, and she had a business to run, guests to tend to. Rubem, the manager he’d hired for her, panicked easily when problems arose, when an American collapsed with heat stroke or the water supply was obstructed by a dead macaque. And so Xoque and a driver—eventually just Xoque—would spirit her back into town, into her own world, leaving Moore on his red hill to observe her withdrawal through the U-boat gunner’s scope mounted to the balcony railing.
In the empty dining room of Moore’s empty house she abandons her salmon and Riesling, tasting nothing, unable to take her gaze off the worsening storm. The rain is torrential now. The river will soon make a lunge for the town, rushing in through gullies carved by last year’s flood in disastrous and raging flumes. Against this rain the new levee, really just a low wall of leaking sandbags, will be worthless. She imagines Paulo and Ana standing in the swamped ruins of Casa Ribeiro; then the elderly Nogueiras, lame and demented, consumed by the swirling brown waters. Infants will be carried off, swallowed. Maeve pictures her own home lifted off its foundations and sent barging down the riotous estuary. Yet in Moore’s aerie all is calm and abstract. She gazes into the storm like a diver inspecting a vast wall of coral, in no hurry to surface, Munch’s dying girl looking on with her.
Neli doesn’t come to remove her dishes—a sign that, with luck, she’s been driven home by one of the men. Whatever is happening down in the town, she should be with her kin. Maeve pushes her plate away and takes up the manila envelope beside it, unwinding the string from the clasp, wondering who’s still at large in the echoing house.
Moore has left her the briefest of farewell notes, clipped to a printout filled with rows of numbers.
Maeve, I’ve had to leave.
Join me—it may not be safe for you there, given our association. João will fly you out discreetly. I make this offer in earnest.
But knowing you, you’ll refuse. If so, please accept the attached as a parting gift—something to help you get by, and the town too, if you like. The Munch you love is yours for the taking. But I do hope you’ll come. – Moore.
On the printout he’s scrawled, Each of these should be good for 30 days after first use. Clean and untraceable. The accounts clear offshore, then route to yours; they can’t find you.
She puzzles over the thicket of digits for a moment before realizing that they are credit card numbers, dozens of them. It sorts quickly in her mind: the uplink, the computers, the priceless artwork and wines. She stares at the pages, then at the green cataclysm on the other side of the window, then at the pages once again, and slips them back in their envelope.
“Xoque!” she calls down the echoing hallway, and while she’s waiting for him she lifts the Munch from its hook, the envelope tucked under her arm.
From her vantage point in Treetop Lodge 2 she can see it all. The brown, muscular arm of the river sweeping across the waterlogged land, goats and dogs and smashed furniture riding it like flies on a horse’s flank. To the east, her inundated town, a yard of putrid water standing in the Internet café, in the old hotel, in Ribeiro’s restaurant, the ruination general now. The memorial fountain in the square half-submerged but still, with pointless bravery, shooting a streamer of water up through the deluge. Silver piranhas cascading into the small colonial cathedral, the newer graves threatening to leach open in the churchyard. Shirtless men in rowboats navigating new waterways. Produce streaming from the greengrocer’s: passionfruit and collards and bruised papaya carried off by the current. An uprooted palm fanning its panicked fingers as it passes. Even from her perch she can hear the roar of the water.
On the roof of the workers’ quarters behind the hotel, families have rigged tarps and lean-tos, settling in, the women cooking drowned chickens and a monkey on a makeshift brazier.
She’s seen enough. Cradling her belly from below, she crosses to where Xoque sits on the treehouse floor smoking, his yellow eyes half-lidded, his smooth chest shining with perspiration. Maeve lowers herself carefully to the cool bamboo planks and leans back between his raised knees, settling against his body, his cigarette smoke suspended above. Without a word Xoque shapes a broad palm to her huge belly as if to comfort the child within. Eventually Maeve falls into a dreamless sleep, the emptiness blessed and oceanic, while above them the rain sways in curtains tall as the coastal mountains, shimmering in the contrary sunlight, heavy with life.
Copyright (c) 2014, Edward M. Hamlin. All Rights Reserved.
First published in Printers Row Journal
Runner-up for the Nelson Algren Award
Helen spent almost all her evenings with him, just as she had through all the twenty-two years of their married life. After loading the dishwasher and buffing the granite countertop to a pleasing shine she would change into her mauve pajamas, or in summer a nightgown she’d embroidered with tiny tea roses, and slip into the den, knotting a bathrobe loosely around her waist. Denny would be waiting for her there after his obligatory cigarette on the back steps, calmly taking in the mood of the evening, a great stillness surrounding him. Perhaps he was thinking, perhaps not; she could never tell. Often he seemed to be listening for something, as if expecting a faint knock at the door. She did not know what was in his mind and it seemed somehow rude to ask.
The old house had grown quieter and quieter since the children had moved out. She and Denny spurned television, and the Thomases on the other side of the garden wall were elderly and reclusive. And so a kind of solitude had set in. Denny seemed to find great solace in it, and Helen would do anything to defend whatever gave him solace; he deserved no less after decades of relentless work. She would pad in behind him and take her place at the end of the couch, settling in comfortably amid its coppery fleurs-de-lis and waiting for him to break the silence. But there was no guarantee that he would, and eventually she would take up her book club novel and read the evening away, under the gun to finish it before the next meeting.
As she read she never lost awareness of Denny in the closeness of the room, nor of the sound of summer crickets or the hush of December snowfall in the yard outside. Her attention was honed to a fine edge now, as precise as the steel drafting pens and Bézier curves his grandfather had left him when he was still a boy. Though there were evenings when they did not exchange a single word between dinner and their goodnights, she had never felt so close to her husband, and even told her sister June she felt her life was fuller for the quiet that filled the house. It did not separate her from Denny, but connected her to him, as though the silence were the water of an ocean they shared.
Little of this had changed with his death, except that now she dined alone before moving to the den. Denny still waited for her there, gathered into himself; she still read away the evenings, aware of him in every moment. At ten o’clock she would turn off the reading lamp, straighten the throw pillows, and say goodnight to him before heading upstairs. There was a new kind of pang at this moment, of course, a sadness so deep she still couldn’t confess it to others: as she stood before his urn she felt like a woman poised at the edge of a cavern of unknown depth, a cavern that wanted to swallow her alive. Sometimes she would speak to him. Good night, she might say simply, or, once, I miss you so much. On other nights she would take a chamois from the drawer—carefully, as if the tiny movement might disturb his concentration—and gently shine the green porcelain, straightening the urn before she climbed the stairs to bed.
The truth was that she had no idea what to do with his ashes, with this pot of dust that was somehow Denny.
I have to do the right thing, Helen told her sister as they picked over limp salads at the mall. But no one tells you what that is.
They have those little vaults you can lease, said June in a low voice, framing an invisible compartment with her hands. You know, in cemeteries.
No, that’s horrible. He wouldn’t want to be around all those dead people.
The irony of this statement lay on the table before them for a long moment before they caught each other’s eye. June attempted a smile; Helen looked away.
Now you see how hard it is to make sense of, Helen said with unintended sharpness. I don’t know how to think about where he is now. Or what he is.
It’s quite an adjustment. I can only imagine.
It’s good that Paul takes such good care of himself. I hope you never lose him.
This was a sore point between them, though neither would admit it. While it could fairly be said that Denny had smoked and worked himself into an early death, June’s husband was a model of healthy aging, jogging around their gated community at dawn, meditating, heaping his plate with fruit and vegetables. He’ll outlive me by a thousand years, June was fond of saying. He’ll be out there with his fishing pole when the glaciers melt, casting for Alaska salmon. But since Denny’s stroke and the heart attack that had fatally followed it, June no longer said these things to her older sister. She pushed the remains of her salad aside.
How important is it that you and the kids be able to…visit him? she asked gently.
I wish I knew. I don’t like trapping him in a jar just to suit that need.
Scattering his ashes?
You could find a really lovely place, Helen, a place that meant a lot to him.
Helen sighed, exhausted. She looked out into the mall, into the swarm of strangers, and it was the older women who attracted her gaze; how many of them had been through what she was going through? Could she guess which were widows and simply ask for advice?
June watched her sister carefully, plaiting her paper napkin like an origami crane. When it seemed Helen would never look at her again she put the napkin aside and leaned forward.
Have you asked the kids what they think? she said, and held her breath.
At first Helen seemed not to have heard. Her tired eyes continued sizing up a trio of elderly woman who were resting on a banquette outside Nordstrom. But then her back stiffened and she confronted her sister with a stare.
Ask the kids? Are you serious?
They might have opinions.
It’s none of their business.
Helen! Denny was their father. Of course it’s their business.
That’s not what I mean. They’re too young to know anything about death. They still think they’re immortal.
Maybe helping you decide this would help them grow through that.
Do you think Brett would have good advice on what to do with his father’s ashes when he can’t even be bothered to look for a real job? And Brittany—she’s on bed rest! I can’t bother her with this.
You shouldn’t just dismiss them.
And you shouldn’t lecture me on how to parent.
With this Helen stood, laid a twenty dollar bill on the table, and began to walk away as if her sister had left an hour before her.
Jesus, Helen, I’m sorry, alright? June said, falling in beside her sister as she tacked toward the mall entrance. The revolving doors spun like turbines in a waterworks, exchanging one bundle of flotsam for the next. As they neared the car Helen abruptly stopped.
And what about Sonoma? she demanded. I suppose you think she’d have good advice too?
June found herself offended by these words—offended on behalf of her benign, childlike niece with the romantic name. After all these years Helen could not say her step-daughter’s name without a trace of scorn at the absurdity of it, or perhaps at the way it invoked a time in Denny’s life when he lived for pleasures Helen could not comprehend. But in the end it was only a name, and Sonoma was a difficult, irascible forty year-old woman with the mental age of a first-grader, a woman capable of sudden clinging affection and also, in the next moment, screaming anger. She was mercurial but also oddly consistent, because her mind was frozen in time: she had barely changed as Denny ended his first marriage, took on the challenge of caring for her as a single parent, launched his career, courted Helen, fathered a second round of children, and finally made the agonizing decision, with his practically-minded second wife, to place Sonoma in institutional care. Through it all Sonoma had been constant, devoted to anyone who showed her kindness. She did not deserve Helen’s scorn.
Don’t bring Sonoma into this, Helen, said June.
Helen thought for a long mile, hitting all the stoplights wrong, and finally said, You’re right, June. That was uncalled for.
After a time June asked: Does Maya know that Denny’s gone?
At the mention of Denny’s first wife Helen’s color rose: June saw it in the waning light, sorry she’d asked the question. But it was a fair question. After all these years, after raising a family with Denny and finally cradling his head as he died, her sister was still bitter toward a woman who had already passed out of Denny’s life when Bobby Kennedy was killed.
I wouldn’t know, Helen replied. I mailed her the notice but never heard a word back. Typically.
Try again, said June calmly. I know you hate her but she needs to know. And don’t be afraid to ask the kids what to do about Denny. Maybe they can help. It will be good for all of you.
Helen pulled up beside June’s house, her gaze veiled. They said their goodbyes like strangers who had shared a brief train ride, talking of nothing important, the passing landscape more interesting than the fitful conversation.
That evening Helen thought of nothing but her children, wondering what they could possibly know of death.
Each of them had worried her to distraction at times. As a girl of twelve Brittany had been a precocious tease; she was the first in her class to develop womanly curves, the first to sprout breasts, very possibly the first to let a boy touch her. They worried then about her spaghetti-strap tank tops, about the prominent nipples—Helen’s—that no bra could quite conceal. They worried that she would get herself pregnant and abort the baby in some horrible way, or marry the useless teen father and wreck her life before it really began. And so it would be some years before they understood that the real threat to their daughter was not sex, but food. Looking at the girl of twelve, who could have imagined her now, obese in her frilly king-sized bed, her first pregnancy gravely threatened by an addiction to Dr. Pepper and canned onion rings and Kit Kat bars—poisons which her ignorant husband continued to procure for her?
As Helen washed her supper dishes it suddenly struck her that she was certain Brittany would lose the child. She had not doubted it for a moment. Horrible, she said aloud at the sink, but did not know whether the word described the coming miscarriage or herself.
It was like this now: blunt thoughts she’d never have allowed herself while Denny was alive now flowed freely through her mind. Sometimes they escaped the confines of her imagination and went crashing into the world. She had been shocked more than once by some of the things that had leapt from her own mouth.
Only a week before, for example, as she walked home from an awkward coffee with Win Stewart, Denny’s former partner, she turned a corner to find her twenty-two year old son squatting on a skateboard in the sidewalk as if he were only ten. The image struck her sweetly at first: she melted a little at the memory of her shy boy sitting exactly like this on a Saturday afternoon, his Giants cap turned backward as he chatted with Robbie Smits or Justin Trimble, his jeans scuffed with grass. She had loved that little boy to death. In an instant, though, her heart closed. The Brett before her now still wore a backward baseball cap over his bleached hair, but this one said METALLICA in stark letters. This Brett wore Ray-Bans he could ill afford, and talked into a tiny microphone that dangled from a cord plugged into a cell phone, rocking the skateboard back and forth with a rhythm that struck his mother as lascivious. A boy with a skateboard and a grown man with a skateboard are, after all, entirely different creatures.
Brett, she said, standing over him as he continued to talk on the phone. The Ray-Bans inclined slightly upward, unreadable, as his long fingers brought the tiny microphone closer to his mouth. She thought he might swallow it. She might as well have been talking to a praying mantis.
Brett, she said again, nudging him with the toe of her red flat. Grudgingly he ended his call and shambled to his feet. He was a head taller than her but slumped so much that they were eye to eye—or would be, if she could see his eyes.
Take off those sunglasses, said Helen tartly. Right now.
The sun hurts my eyes.
Why should it? That’s not normal. You embarrass yourself wearing sunglasses like those.
Is this really about me, Mom? I don’t think so.
Do you know what, Brett? You’re right. It not about you at all. It’s about how hard I find it to like you lately.
At this she turned on her heel and began to walk away, head high but heart collapsing with anguish. What had she said? She fought the urge to run back to him, to say how sorry she was, to gather her man-child in her arms. None of this would help, she knew, so she kept walking away, careful not to rush. The moment she entered the house she disintegrated into tears, disgusted with herself, as ashamed as a child caught in a hurtful lie.
But it was worse than a lie. It was the truth. She had told him exactly how she felt.
She was sitting on the hallway floor with her knees drawn up when her cell phone buzzed with a text message. Thinking it was Brett, she scrambled to fetch it from her blazer, desperate to apologize, but the message was from Win Stewart. Thanks for today, it said. Dinner Chez Panisse soon?
It was more than she could bear, this confusing attention from Denny’s partner of thirty years. What had begun as kindhearted concern in the wake of Denny’s death now seemed to be careening toward something else entirely. The thought made her frantic precisely because she could so easily picture herself taking up with him. She knew so much of his world—it was Denny’s—and he had taken on a graceful humility since losing his wife to ovarian cancer. But what would Denny think? She couldn’t shake the feeling that her late husband was watching them in alarm as they sipped coffee or reminisced or strolled the de Young, letting the thing ripen gradually between them.
She decided to let the text go, setting the phone on the hard parquet and spinning it idly. Win would be left to wonder. Would he still find her attractive if he knew how she’d treated her son minutes after leaving him?
That evening she found it impossible to sit in the den and instead took her book up to the rocker by the bedroom window, the air of censure thick in the house. She couldn’t concentrate on the novel in her hands. By nine she had abandoned it, brushed her teeth, taken her blood pressure medicine and gone to bed, her thoughts flitting between the horrible encounter with Brett, the text from Win, and her panicked guilt at not having said goodnight to Denny’s ashes. It would be the first time since receiving the urn six months before that she had not done so. At a certain point she got as far as sitting on the edge of the bed and feeling for her slippers on the carpet, but after a conflicted moment she fell back and lay across the bed sideways, unable to go downstairs and face her husband. He would never have spoken to Brett in the way she had, no matter how heartsick he felt at his son’s sideways slide through life.
She slept very late and then could not get out of bed for an hour. At some point her cell phone buzzed: Win again. Hey. You OK? She thought for twenty minutes before clumsily tapping out her reply—OK—and shutting the phone off. The rest of the day went by in a blur; she forgot to eat until nearly three. But that evening she spent many quiet hours with Denny’s ashes, finally curling up on the couch and falling asleep a few yards away from him, hoping against hope that he had forgiven her for Brett, for Win, for all she might have done wrong since his passing.
It did not embarrass her to admit that her late husband had been a better person than she. In fact, it gave her a feeling of pride at having chosen so well. Denny was an inspired architect whose work could be found all over San Francisco and far beyond; in a long career every single one of his designs had actually been built, a record that left his peers in awe. His clients included the Hollywood illuminati, a Google founder, a trio of Singapore Airlines executives, an ex-President, and, much to his gratification, a housing cooperative through which he had designed first homes for a hundred families. Denny worked relentlessly, but never let work intrude on his family time; in the final push of a project he would rise at three-thirty to squeeze more hours from the day, nodding off after dinner but doing so in the company of his wife and children.
She’d met him through June, an accountant with his firm, and was dazzled by his clear green eyes, his reputation and his bohemian aura. He wore peasant-style cardigan vests, jeans and leather boots; he rolled his own cigarettes from a pouch of tobacco. She had never dated anyone like him. When he told her about the mentally retarded daughter who lived with him because her mother couldn’t shake her drug habit—describing with genuine excitement how he’d taken Sonoma to the White House and Paris and Singapore in the course of his business travels, always accompanied by Mrs. Ramirez, the girl’s tireless nanny—Helen was moved to tears. He asked her to marry him six months later. As they spoke their vows at the garden wedding Sonoma burst from her chair, chunky and awkward in her lilac dress, and rushed to give Helen a crushing hug, shouting I do I do I do! Helen was alarmed, but when she saw Mrs. Ramirez beaming at her she reminded herself that she’d known it wouldn’t be easy, and thanked God there was a Mrs. Ramirez.
Nine years later, as she and Denny agonized over a counselor’s recommendation that Sonoma be moved to a group home, Helen relived that first embrace and realized in the privacy of her heart that it no longer moved her as it once had. She saw now that Sonoma’s affection was indiscriminate, a reaction to the moment, not focused on her at all. Only for Denny did Sonoma have an unwavering love. And now Brittany and Brett had begun to exact small cruelties against their demanding step-sister. All of them were exhausted. And so, at her urging, Denny finally abandoned his plan of keeping Sonoma with them for the rest of their lives. As the years went on Helen often wondered whether Denny was at peace with the decision—whether he missed the screaming embraces that had met him when he returned from work, the clumsy love—but he had never revealed a trace of resentment to her, which was, after all, just like him.
The solution to the problem of Denny’s ashes came to her unbidden on a Wednesday night. She was watching a PBS news show just to have some voices in the house; she found the stately diction of the moderator soothing in the manner of a spring thunderstorm too distant to be dangerous. A dull story about Wall Street gave way to a story about some activists who were ramming the boats of pirate whalers, and the screen filled with an ocean vista that seemed deeply familiar. She reached for the remote and turned up the volume. Just before the reporter said the words Bodega Bay she realized that the promontory was one Denny had taken her to see in the early years of their marriage and then at every opportunity thereafter. It was a short drive north of the forlorn little town on the California coast and a quick walk from the stone cottage Denny had shared with his first wife, Maya.
Though he was always careful in speaking of Maya, his passion for their battered pocket of coastline was unabashed. A radiant nostalgia came over him whenever they stood on the sturdy outcrop; he said without apology that it was the finest place he’d ever lived. It seemed not to occur to him that his second wife might wonder what portion of his happiness involved memories of her predecessor. Images of the young bohemians making love on the mossy turf, the rough sea cavorting far below, had been with her for so long that she took them for fact.
Now the reporter was interviewing a weathered salt who looked old enough to have served on the Pequod. Helen tuned him out. Not until the end of the story did the camera return to Denny’s bluff, panning over a Pacific strewn with giant boulders gutted by the surf, the reporter’s hair snapping in the wind. Helen knew exactly where the cameraman was standing, exactly how many steps it was to the precipice, exactly how the wind banked off the rocks and hammered up the cliff. This was Denny’s place of pilgrimage. He had never been able to explain why it captivated him, but she sensed it had to do with youth and manhood and, probably, a companion who understood the power of the place better than she ever could have—a lover who still, somewhat unthinkably, lived in the stone house they’d shared.
Helen clicked the television off and sat very still.
She sat for a long while before having the courage to look across the room to Denny’s urn. It sat ensconced in the warm light of a china lamp, radiating Denny’s persistent silence, seeming to know what she was thinking. She went to it and cupped its rounded shoulder with her hand, at a loss for words, and went up to bed.
In the morning it occurred to her that she should not make the trip alone, and over the next hour, as she packed her things, she gradually realized who her traveling companion should be. She made a call and the arrangements were quickly made. By noon she was at the desk of home’s administrator, filling out paperwork, an old anxiety thumping in her chest. When the door opened and Sonoma came screaming toward her with her unruly joy Helen felt for an instant as if Denny were beside her, the true target, as always, of this strange woman’s love. But it was she who Sonoma embraced. Mommy! she cried, as if it were a challenge. Mommy!
Helen buckled Sonoma into the back seat of the Audi, struggling against her constant rocking. Denny’s urn sat on the passenger side floor, safely ensconced in a heavy flower pot weighted with sand. As they merged onto 101 Helen took a deep breath, wishing for the first time in years that she had a cigarette, and Sonoma brayed out the question she knew was coming: Are we going to see Daddy?
She had not told her daughter of Denny’s death because it seemed a cruelty to do so. Sonoma lived in the moment, everyone said; if so, could she really miss her father? Did she know whether she’d last seen him a day before or a year before?
Daddy’s traveling, baby, she said, avoiding the hungry eyes in the rearview mirror.
As they crossed the bridge Sonoma’s attention was drawn to the shimmering water below and the towering coppery stanchions above, and the car grew quiet. Here we are, Helen thought, the original three of us. As they crossed into Marin Sonoma fell suddenly asleep, mouth open as if to drink in the sun. Helen felt an unexpected contentment slipping over her. She kept to the unpressured right lane until the turnoff toward the coast, then began the easy glide through the little hamlets with redwood needles washed like sea wrack along the shoulder of the narrow road.
As they neared the coast Sonoma started awake abruptly. Had she scented the ocean from the depths of her inscrutable sleep? Helen heard a snort from the back seat and saw her daughter struggle briefly against the shoulder strap, then sought out her brown eyes in the mirror, smiling. Helen surprised herself with that smile: something had shifted during the drive through the redwoods, something had come free in her heart. Sonoma responded with a smile that engaged every muscle of her broad face. Helen nudged the buttons to roll both their windows down, flooding the car with the coastal perfume of verbena and redwood and the faintest tang of the sea.
Soon enough they came to the ragged outskirts of Bodega Bay, the crab shack and convenience store, the fishing squats and urgent care clinic, and Helen slowed down, picking her way along the narrowing curves. The place was not aging gracefully. Her daughter’s large head lolled out the window now, luxuriating in the warm breeze.
Sonoma, honey, be careful. Come back inside the car.
In five minutes they’d broken through to the coast road. The vista of the level grey sea was unbroken now but for the wheeling gulls. There were sometimes whales spouting and breaching in the middle distance, but she couldn’t recall the season: when did they migrate? She imagined showing them to Sonoma through binoculars, felt the simple joy it would bring, but the whales were gone. Then Helen recalled the seals tumbling in the filthy water below the pier—Sonoma would love to see them, would delight in their antics. But there was no time for diversions. Denny sat in his flowerpot beside her, his presence never stronger. While it sounded absurd to say that he might be somehow present in a heap of ashes, she couldn’t deny that she felt him in the car, and had felt him in the living room every evening since his death. He was there in some way she didn’t understand but couldn’t doubt. Did he sense where they were now? That they were approaching the place he had most loved in his abbreviated life?
She wheeled around a last sloping curve and there it was: a gravel road splitting off and heading into the grassy dunes. A mass of blue lupine pointed the way. Helen turned into the side road too quickly and felt the car skid right and then left on the uncertain surface. For a moment she lost control completely. Sonoma screamed in the back seat as she pulled the car to an abrupt halt.
Are you okay, sweetie? Helen asked, leaning back to take her daughter’s hand.
Fun! said Sonoma, her face aglow.
At this Helen laughed and eased back on the brake, letting the car amble into the dunes. A single gull swooped ahead like an unhurried pace car, starkly white against the pink thistle and yellow primrose that mingled with the sporadic grasses. The sea was behind them now, exerting a quiet pressure.
Helen negotiated a narrow bend in the road and there it was, just where she thought it would be: the humble stone cottage where Denny had lived so many years before. Whenever they would visit the promontory he’d point to the rutted access road and describe the way the house lay nestled in flower-filled dunes…the five-minute walk to the bluff…the old stone basin that still sat in the tidy yard. Though they’d never actually turn off and seek out the house, Helen recognized the place as if from her own memory.
She stopped the car in the road and sat for a long minute to take it in. The cottage was well-kept and sweet. She thought she recognized a woman’s touch: windowboxes overflowing with the same flowers that carpeted the dunes, prim white curtains in the kitchen windows. More than half the yard was given over to a large vegetable garden. Again Helen was aware of an unaccustomed peace opening beneath her—the last thing she had expected to feel. Even Sonoma had grown placid. Perhaps it was the spirit of the place that stilled her, or Denny’s deep love for it; or perhaps again it was Denny’s pleasure at being back. Helen looked over at the urn in its flowerpot and reached to lay her hand upon the smooth green lid. She had brought him home. She closed her eyes and slipped down in her seat, feeling time slow around her.
I thought you might show up one day, said a woman’s voice at the open car window.
Helen opened her eyes with a start and there she was: Maya Weatherill, Denny’s first wife.
She’d been gardening; a smudge of soil adorned her face like war paint gone dull. Her green eyes were perfectly clear, her skin weathered like a sailor’s, her hips narrow as a teenager’s in their banged-up overalls. A stretch of lean, tan flank showed where the denim parted. But sixty, Helen thought, sixty if a day.
Maya, she said.
Helen. Have you come to see me, or were you just passing by?
It seemed an absurd question to Helen, an aggressive one; but then she saw that Maya was smiling. Embarrassed, she smiled back.
Not exactly to see you, said Helen. More to invite you along.
Maya inclined her head and at the same moment a commotion broke out in the back seat. Sonoma was struggling with the shoulder belt, fidgeting like a child.
Mommy, she said sourly. I have to pee.
Helen watched Maya’s gaze enter the car and find Sonoma. Maya took a step back from the door, a bright panic in her eyes.
My daughter, said Helen. Our daughter.
Oh, my god. Helen…
May we use your bathroom? It’s best not to wait.
Of course, said Maya, stepping aside as Helen left the car and went back to release Sonoma, who was rocking hard now. Maya wrapped her thin arms around her fallen breasts and watched from a distance. When Sonoma stood before her at last she took a deep breath and held it for a long while.
Hello, Sonoma, she said with feigned cheer.
I have to pee, Sonoma repeated in her sing-song way. Have to pee, have to pee.
And so Maya led the way into the cottage, through the mudroom with its boot scraper and tall yellow Wellingtons, through the bright kitchen with its rough table and open fireplace, past the small peach-colored bedroom with a disorderly pile of books by the bed. In the space of twenty steps Helen knew that Maya was alone in life, a solitary woman growing old in the dunes. Sonoma marched straight into the bathroom—Helen wasn’t aware that she’d learned to use the toilet by herself—and the two women heard the door lock. Maya sent Helen a questioning look; Helen shrugged.
Can I offer you some tea? Maya asked as they waited.
Thank you. I don’t think so.
Maya pulled a rustic chair from the table and motioned for her guest to sit. From the bathroom came a series of groans and then the sound of a flushing toilet, in turn followed by a final and definitive grunt. The two women could not help but smile.
Does she still live with you? Maya asked.
No. It’s a long story, but Denny and I decided that the right thing was to put her in a group home where she could have social contact with other women like her.
Was that a long time ago?
Maya digested this information quietly, looking down at the table with a neutral gaze, but then met Helen’s eyes. There were tears in her own.
Helen, I’m sorry I couldn’t keep her. If you knew—
I think I understand. Denny shared enough with me that I get it. There’s no ill feeling. It was so long ago.
But I was a terrible mother. A non-mother. It’s unforgivable.
No one’s blaming you but you.
At this moment the bathroom door burst open and Sonoma barreled triumphantly into the room. She walked straight to Maya and stood over her like a headmistress.
Who are you?
Well, she said uncertainly, seeking out Helen’s eyes, I’m an old friend of your father’s.
At this Sonoma instantly brightened. Oh! she cried, and gave Maya a powerful hug. Maya bore it for a wordless moment and then twined her arms around her daughter. But Sonoma broke free and stood bolt upright.
Where’s Daddy? she demanded.
Maya threw Helen a pleading look. Honey, said Helen, I don’t know if we’ll get to see Daddy on this trip. Hey—would you two ladies like to go see the ocean?
Sonoma clapped her hands with glee. Maya was out of her chair and holding the door open for them before anyone could speak.
Wait, said Helen as they neared the Audi. I need to get something.
Reaching into the car, she drew Denny’s pottery urn from its protective flower pot and carefully closed the door with her hip. As always she was surprised at how light the urn was, but as she held it it seemed to radiate a comforting warmth. She glanced up to see Maya’s quizzical look, then a dawn of recognition. Denny? Maya mouthed silently. Helen smiled calmly.
C’mon, she said to Sonoma, lead the way. At this Sonoma strode out ahead, looked both ways down the gravel access road, and turned left toward the sea, setting out with great aggressive steps.
Stop before the highway, honey, Helen called. Sonoma thrust a hand in the air to signal that she had heard.
Maya and Helen walked for a long moment in silence, Helen cradling the urn carefully, watching the road. Maya matched her stride, stealing a wary glance at the urn.
You know that Denny loved this place more than any other, don’t you? asked Helen.
No, I didn’t know that at all.
He did. He traveled all over the world but this is where his heart was happiest.
But…he had a whole happy life with you. You had children…he was so successful.
That’s all true, but it doesn’t change the fact that he never stopped dreaming of this place, of what you two had.
I don’t know what to say, Helen.
You don’t need to say anything. The most important thing is that we’re here together. With Denny, and our daughter.
The access road came to an end. Sonoma waited obediently at the edge of the coast road, rolling a yellow primrose in her big hands. Together the three of them crossed the road, Helen bringing up the rear with the urn folded safely in her embrace.
Keep clear of the edge, Sonoma! called Helen. Stay on the grassy part.
They stood on the promontory gazing out at the sea. Down below, the Pacific threw itself against gnarled rocks scattered among the tidal pools, the blue water frothing and fizzing and bursting into the air as the combers barreled in. Gently Helen settled Denny’s urn against a granite boulder overlooking the precipice, then returned to Maya’s side.
Maya? she said uncertainly.
How do you do it? I mean, it seems to me you’ve mastered this thing of living alone.
Maya considered this and smiled tiredly. Mastered it? I’m terrible at it. Despite decades of dedicated practice.
But you’ve made a real home.
A very lonely home. You can’t imagine how still it is at night. How there are no voices. That’s why I keep on living here: at least you hear the surf.
Helen nodded. For me it’s public TV. I play the TV for the voices. Not as dignified as the ocean.
Let’s walk. I’m worried about Sonoma over there. The path needs shoring up.
And so the two women walked along the bluff, the wind picking up. All at once Sonoma turned and ran toward them, full of joy, laughter pealing from her as she flew past.
She’s so happy, said Maya, smiling. Her soul seems wide open.
And so does yours. Shall we sit?
They picked their way down to a patch of wiry grass nestled beneath an overhanging rock, a kind of sheltered retreat high above the water. Maya settled in and drew her long legs up to her chin. The flat horizon of the sea spread before them grandly; below, the same sea harried away at the deadly rocks and the forlorn half-moon of sand. Helen stretched her legs out in the sun.
It took me forever to figure out what to do with his ashes, she said after a long while. I so much wanted to do what he would have wished…but I didn’t know what that was. And then I thought of this place. And then I thought of you.
I can’t believe your generosity. In including me, I mean.
He would have wanted it. I’m sure of it. Maybe he wants it now. I have this feeling that he’s here, aware, with us. But I know what that sounds like.
We don’t know anything. The older I get, the less I know.
At this the two women shared a quiet laugh and fell silent for a long while, until Maya suddenly got to her feet.
It’s too quiet. Where’s Sonoma?
On instinct Helen scanned the rocks below, the breakers, the beach, but there was no sign of trouble. Maya was already climbing back up onto the narrow path, taking the jagged rocks with a sure stride. It was as Helen reached the foot of the path that she saw Maya scramble deftly onto a granite ledge and look away from the sea in the direction Sonoma had run. In the face of her daughter’s joy Helen had not realized that she was running past them toward the coast road. In ten bounding strides she caught up with Maya, who stood on the granite overhang five feet above the path.
Maya! Helen shouted up.
Come, said Maya, crouching to reach a hand down. There was an odd calm about her, a certain distance. Helen scrambled up the incline, Maya’s hand gripping her forearm, and when she reached the ledge she saw tears in the clear green eyes. Together the two women stood and Maya pointed not at the road but farther out along the promontory, past the turnout where the car was parked.
At the very cusp of the precipice, at the very edge of the continent, stood their daughter Sonoma, her face upturned toward a solitary daytime moon they had not noticed until that moment. Helen felt her legs starting to give way and clutched Maya’s hand to steady herself. As they watched, Sonoma closed her eyes and seemed to scent the air, slowing time to a crawl. Her two mothers stopped breathing as one, unable to move or speak. A gull cawed high above, the sound reverberating briefly until the surf rolled in to smother it. It was then that the two women saw their wayward daughter pirouette clumsily on her small rocky stage and, with a great curving swing, sow her father’s ashes out over the Pacific. At first the ashes described a lovely arc, angling gracefully down toward the water. But then an updraft caught the fine powder and lofted it back toward Sonoma, the soft caress of it on her face making her squeal with joy, and reaching down hungrily she scooped another handful from the urn and released it into the wind, inventing a new and thrilling game with the man who had never been too tired to care for her happiness.
Nothing to Declare
First published in Literal Latte, December 2017
Second-place winner in the Literal Latte Fiction Contest
The old farm pond lay just beyond the electric gate with its invisible eye and whispering hydraulics. “Stop,” said Perry from the rear seat, “I need a moment here.”
The limo driver eased the heavy car to a halt and glanced anxiously into the rearview mirror. “We’re running late, Mr. Perry,” he said. “The expressway’s a real mess.”
“Can you just lower the window, please.” The bank of silver buttons in the armrest made no sense to Perry and had not for some time now. Without delay the foggy window began to slide down, opening the car to the evening’s formal scent. There was a restraint, an elegance about the October air that appealed to Perry very much. One could unravel the fragrances one by one as if undoing a woman’s careful braid, none overpowering the others, a certain decorum holding at all times.
Eileen’s roses were gone now, deadheaded away; in their place the service had planted a hundred rust-brown mums, so odorless and static they might as well have been photographs of mums. Eileen would neither know nor care, of course. It had been two autumns since she’d been able to prune a rosebush or dig a bulb in. Getting through the day was enough challenge for her now, and even this she couldn’t manage alone. Absent the attentions of Perry and a part-time aide she’d be all but helpless. At this moment, Perry suspected, Maria would be reminding her that he was leaving on a trip, though he’d said goodbye only moments before. In an hour she’d be bathed and put to bed with a fistful of colorful pills, each chosen to play off the bad habits of another.
Dusk was beginning to accumulate in the willows on the far side of the pond. Perry squinted across the water to be sure of it: yes, there it was, the slow encroachment, the chilly influx. On the other shore a mist was starting to form, playing over the pewter water. In the course of an hour it would swell into a thick cowl, cottony and obscure, like the coming of sleep. At some point the night would steal in through its vagueness. All this he knew well, and loved for its melancholy.
Perry opened the door and got out of the limo and walked to the water’s edge. Dew dampened his canvas shoes, this too familiar and welcome. Only now did he notice a tinge of wood smoke on the air: a nostalgic, early-season fire in some neighbor’s grate, probably Goldman’s — but no, he thought, Goldman is gone, eaten alive by some sort of cancer, or was it Alzheimer’s? After the fact it hardly mattered. Perry stood in the withered bluegrass at the edge of the water and rocked lightly on his heels, testing the turf, hands plunged in his overcoat pockets. In the translucent indigo sky a noisy chevron of geese arrowed past the evening star. Shouldn’t they be heading south? It seemed to him they were heading north, though neither his sense of direction nor his grasp of avian behavior could be trusted at this moment.
“Sir,” pleaded the driver, hurrying around the car in his blockish suit. “If you’re going to make your flight.”
“Thank you, I know.” Only a few months ago he’d swum from here over to the willows, the August heat muddying the air. Lolling amid cattails like a mallard he’d thought carefully about Eileen’s condition and wondered if the time had come when he’d need to decide, for both of them, what to do. He could touch the somber mood of that afternoon easily now, the gravity of that lonely and low-hanging day, but could not remember what conclusions he’d come to. Maria had entered their lives recently — was she a product of those ruminations in the shallows?
Perry was learning to let go of details without the panic he’d once felt. It didn’t matter if he’d forgotten what killed Goldman or which direction geese flew. Maria ran the house, tended Eileen and covered for his little lapses, the soul of discretion. The kids, grown now into barely recognizable adults, expected little of him. His daughter Suzanne minded his money and called to brag about her own children, never asking him a question. Mark called on his birthday from some forward time zone. The world went on, balanced on its well-oiled gimbals, leaving Perry to savor autumn evenings like this one, surrender his watchword.
“We need to get on the road,” badgered the driver. “Now. Sir.”
Perry took a deep breath, filling his lungs with the fragrance of home. Somewhere over the Atlantic, or perhaps it was the Pacific, he’d tap into this ethereal cache, bringing up whiffs like a diver meting out precious air. With luck it would last until he touched down. He imagined that the atmosphere at the other end of his journey would be polluted, hot and fetid and malodorous, but when he tried to guess its particulars he could not. Curry? Bus fumes? Crab fritters fried in vats outside the terminal? He couldn’t be sure, but was convinced it would be unpleasant.
At this moment, in fact, standing at the soft edge of his dusky pond, he couldn’t recall his destination at all. Perry felt for the travel wallet in the inner pocket of his overcoat and fingered the boarding pass as if to read the text through his fingertips, but couldn’t make anything of it. He might have taken the card out and studied it, but this would involve locating his glasses somewhere in his pockets or shoulder bag, who knew where, and he had no wish to appear confused in front of the driver.
South, he thought.
It was enough.
At the airport he signed the driver’s chit and handed his old Samsonite off to the burly black valet. “Woo!” said the man, “been awhile since I seen one a these babies.” Perry had traveled nearly two million miles in his career but had never yielded to the concept of a suitcase with wheels. For short trips he favored a simple canvas bag Eileen had received years ago in some store promotion; it was just large enough for a toilet kit, two boxed shirts, slacks, pajamas, the Times and a few other necessities. If one traveled in one’s suit it was perfectly adequate, so much simpler than hauling a suitcase. For longer trips he took the battered Samsonite with its molded-plastic, snub-nosed edges — Eileen called it The Missile — and had never seen a reason to replace it. It had a look of Cold War technology about it, blast-resistant and aerodynamic like the nose cone of a warhead. Clearly it would outlast them both. This was the bag he now entrusted to the man at the podium.
“Can’t check this here,” the man said in a disappointed tone.
“International. Got to check your bags at check-in. But I can lend you one a these.” The valet wheeled over a luggage cart and humped the Samsonite onto it with a rakish grunt.
“Nice flight,” he said.
“Same to you,” said Perry, and pushed the cart through the revolving doors, big as hydroelectric turbines. It was eight o’clock in the evening but JFK was as busy as a rush-hour subway platform. Perry hitched his shoulder bag higher and entered the fray, the cart nosing forward like the prow of a ship. The ethnic farrago that was New York was all the more stupendous here, with exhausted travelers from Karachi and Odessa and Tanzania dragging their enormous bags and ragged families through the terminal like the last desperate survivors of obliterated tribes. Perry had long noted that their clothes were often inappropriate for the weather they’d soon confront. What did they think, he wondered, that they were going to walk out into the same climate they’d left back home?
Eileen was convinced their clothes were full of lice and virulent microbes, perhaps even the odd scorpion or cockroach — who knew? There was no telling what had stowed away beneath the djellabas and saris and grimy pajamas. Consequently she’d made it her business to know the location of the executive lounges in airports around the world. There was no reason to sit among immigrants and risk catching whatever it was they had when one possessed the means to do otherwise. It might not be fair, but it was sensible, and given the opportunity those weary travelers would have done the same. In better days she’d had her nails done exquisitely in a Kuwaiti lounge, had drunk French champagne in Abu Dhabi and lounged in the Turkish Airlines pool in Istanbul. Perry found it all embarrassing and beneath her, but tolerated it because there was no profit in contradicting her. Of course it was a non-issue now. She’d barely left the house since the surprise trip to Wimbledon two years before. It seemed likely that the British Airways lounge, with its staid frumpish furniture and indigestible hors d’oeuvres, would be her last airport oasis.
Perry soon realized he was lost. He’d flown through JFK countless times across four decades, but now it seemed as foreign as any airport he’d ever wandered through. He might have been in Doha or Mumbai or Athens, flummoxed by the jabber of foreign languages and nonsensical signage. He stopped where he was, causing a woman to collide with him from behind.
“Wash where you going!” the woman snapped.
She was a wheelchair porter, Puerto Rican he thought, her hair bronzed and pasted up into a stiff meringue. Perry stepped aside to let her pass, nodding an apology she never saw. As he began walking again he realized that the wheelchair had done something to his right knee when it clipped him from behind, making it flare each time he took a step. He put a little weight on it; it was bearable, just an annoyance of the sort he’d long since grown accustomed to. Not long ago he might have spoken sharply to the woman, but he was no longer suited to the role. As long as there was no permanent damage done he’d rather just let it go.
A red-jacketed young man stood before him, well enough groomed for his age. “You look a little turned around,” he said. “May I help?”
“Actually,” said Perry, and stopped.
“This is United. Flying with us today?”
“I don’t know.” This was the wrong answer. “When you travel as much as I do — “
The man was unfazed, or trained well enough to hide it. “May I take a quick look at your boarding pass?”
Perry drew the travel wallet from his overcoat and handed it over. The man removed the passport and studied the boarding pass that Maria had tucked inside it. She was nothing if not organized.
“I thought I recognized you, Mr. Perry,” he said. “My mom and I used to watch you over dinner when I was a kid. Kind of grew up with you. I remember you in a flak jacket in Beirut, right in the middle of it, bullets flying, the whole deal. My mom had a crush on you, looking back.”
Perry had learned not to engage this particular line of conversation. As the years went on it seemed by turns embarrassing and alarming to have played such a role in the lives of perfect strangers. By way of reply he studied the meager furnishings of the check-in counter, fingering the canister of luggage tags. The airline man took his point gracefully.
“The good news is, Mr. Perry, you’re in exactly the right place. Let’s get you checked in.” With easy authority he unhitched a cordon and escorted Perry to a podium at the end of a long line of similar podiums, pushing the luggage cart before him. “Mr. Perry is traveling on 205 with us today,” he told the woman behind the computer. “Seat 2D, one bag. I’ll walk him through.”
When the check-in was done the young man took back his documents and offered to carry Perry’s shoulder bag, the Samsonite disappearing on a moving belt. “My name’s Scott, by the way, Mr. Perry. I’m going to concierge you through. It’s something we like to do for our VIP customers.”
True to his word the red-jacketed man handled everything, quickly squiring Perry through the security rigmarole, no less efficient than Maria with her singular ability to navigate bureaucracy. Perry considered getting his number so that if Maria went back to her country he might call and offer him the position. With Eileen out of commission and Perry himself letting go of details it had become clear that they needed a fixer, and would need one from now on. But now the young man was waving goodbye from the other side of the X-ray machine. Perry noted that his shoulder bag was back on his own shoulder, though he was in his stocking feet. “The Club!” the airline man called out from afar, gesturing to the left and then standing by patiently while Perry sat and pulled on his canvas shoes. No doubt his brief encounter with Russell Perry, grandee of the nightly news, would be recounted for years to come. There was nothing Perry could do about this. People made of him what they wished and it couldn’t be his concern.
As Perry shambled off he decided against visiting the airport club. Eileen would have insisted, but Eileen was home in bed, deep into her drugged sleep. While the voluptuous chairs and relative quiet held some appeal, and a scotch would not be amiss, there was always the possibility that he would doze off, or lose track of time and miss the flight, or get lost looking for his gate. Better to find the gate and park himself there.
As the myriad possibilities for disaster flitted through his mind Perry felt a wintry sadness wrap around his bones. How had it found him here, lost in a maze of humanity? To be Russell Perry now, late in this life, was to be a December house whose furnace was gradually failing, a house freezing to death from the inside. Perry sulked in his overcoat, badly in need of simple warmth.
To reach seat 2D Perry had to work past seat 2C, whose occupant was a gaunt man sporting dark sunglasses and nickel-sized bone rings in his distended earlobes. The man seemed to be napping already, fingers laced on the flat belly, his leather-clad legs extended into a formidable barrier. Perry did not want to be the one to wake him. Fortunately a flight attendant saw his dilemma and stepped over to intervene. With the delicacy of a ballerina she touched the sleeper’s shoulder and addressed him in a language Perry didn’t recognize. With an abrupt jerk the man got groggily to his feet, stepping into the aisle so his seatmate could pass. Perry nodded his thanks but the man was remonstrating with the flight attendant in their language, raking his bleached hair with a hand whose every finger was equipped with a dangerous-looking silver ring. Perry settled himself quickly. The prospect of sharing the flight with such a combustible personality was affecting his breathing: once buckled in he willed himself to take deep breaths, to calm down. If only he could manage to sleep on the plane — a skill he’d never mastered — there would be no reason to interact further.
But then the man addressed him. “Sorry, man,” he said in an accent heavy with loose consonants. “The bitch pissed me off.” He held out his hand with its crust of hardware. “Antonio.”
Perry took the hand reluctantly. It was like grasping the business end of a complicated tool. “Russell.”
“What do you do, Russell?”
“Retired,” said Perry, the old deflection. The dark glasses did not react. It occurred to Perry that the foreigner didn’t recognize him, a happy discovery. “From the news business.”
“What do you do, Arturo?”
“I am a musician, Russell.” Antonio beckoned the flight attendant, miming the act of downing a drink. In response she busied herself with a pair of children in the first row who gamboled in their huge seats like children in identical sandboxes. “Puta,” said Perry’s companion, smacking the seat back in front of him. “I am a singer, Russell.”
“No,” said Perry, “I mean what do you do for a living?”
The dark glasses turned on him. “I tell you, Russell. I am a singer.” The consonants stood up briskly now. Perhaps the man was too wealthy for a career, insulted by the very notion of work. With his eyes hidden by the absurd sunglasses it was hard to know. Perry looked out the window to see a fuel truck rolling off. The sooner they were in the air, the better.
With a squeal the PA system snapped on and someone made a garbled announcement about stowing bags. The speaker then switched into the foreign language and repeated herself sotto voce, dropping into an intimate register. Down on the tarmac a trolley of bags sped toward the plane. Perry glanced over his shoulder toward the economy cabin. Passengers kept streaming in, an endless flow of humanity cradling phones, quelling babies, jostling for overhead space. How many was too many? The weight the plane had taken on was concerning.
Perry closed his eyes. The logistics of modern air travel baffled him. For a man who’d once ridden hardened 707s into Saigon and Burma, who’d strapped into Hueys chopping over Da Nang, the scale of it seemed insupportable. The aircraft themselves had kept swelling, like force-fed cattle, until they no longer seemed like aircraft at all. Yet for Perry the planes had only gotten smaller: at the height of his career they’d sent him everywhere on Gulfstreams sleek as bullets. By the time he and Eileen started traveling commercial again it had all changed forever.
At last the gravid plane began to move. As it labored down the runway Perry worried it would never reach takeoff speed. The pilot would be forced to abort, sending them hurtling into the Atlantic. Perry clutched the arms of his seat, steeling himself. But then, by a miracle, they were aloft. Through his tiny porthole the lights of Long Island unreeled below, thinning as the plane passed Montauk and headed out to sea. The red light of a buoy was swallowed by the roaring engines and they were gone, airborne by the grace of God.
A snore went up beside him, his seatmate out like a light. Slowly Perry relaxed his grip on the seat arms, feeling entitled to a drink. He’d skip the dinner and try to sleep too: it was the best way to pass the time. A few years ago he’d have used the dead hours to read, but now reading didn’t interest him. There was no novel in his bag, no fat biography, unless Maria had tucked one in.
Perry noticed a glow in the sky: the moon, gibbous and high, just the sort of undemanding companion he needed. For several calm minutes he gazed out into the burnished black, his mind a blank. But when the pretty flight attendant arrived to take drink orders the man beside him awoke noisily. After Perry ordered his scotch his seatmate snapped out something in his language and the flight attendant marked down his order without a word, moving on to the next row.
“Now,” said his neighbor when the drinks arrived, “the main course.” After rummaging in his leather jacket he retrieved a pill bottle and held it up for Perry. “The only way to travel, man. Want one?”
“No,” said Perry, abashed. The details of other people’s medical conditions were not his business.
“You’ll sleep like a baby, bro.” He pointed to the pharmacy label. “Prescription — my treat.”
“No, thank you,” said Perry, looking away. But as he slowly nursed his scotch, moonlight lapping at the sea below, he began to see it differently. Sleep was what he needed — oblivion, if possible. “Excuse me,” he said, “I think I’d like one of those pills after all. If the offer still stands.”
The sunglasses turned toward him with what Perry imagined to be satisfaction. “Way cool, man.” Two oval pills appeared on his dry palm. “One for now, one for the trip back,” said his seatmate. “See you on the other side.” With a last swallow of scotch Perry took both pills. “Shit, man,” said the singer, “you really got a sweet tooth.” Perry leaned back and waited for sleep to come, the broad seat accepting him gracefully.
When Perry awoke he found himself standing beside a glass booth. Through an opening in the thick window a dark-skinned official was tapping impatiently on the counter. “Passport,” he said, staring at Perry.
Perry discovered the travel wallet in his hand. Inside sat the passport, and inside the passport a blue form. He laid both on the counter. The official scanned the form and shoved it back. “Sign,” he said. Dutifully Perry signed his name. His head was thick with sleep or perhaps some illness, his thoughts intractable as stiffening cement. The hand clutching the pen was barely connected to the rest of him.
“Where you arrive from?” said the official.
This was a larger question than it seemed. Perry couldn’t account for how he’d arrived in his present situation. In alarm he glanced over his shoulder at the serpentine line of souls behind him. Where was he, anyway? What had he signed? Who had filled out the form and slipped it into his passport? The Samsonite lay on a cart behind him like a shell-shocked soldier on a gurney. For a fleeting instant he wondered whether he was dead, or perhaps flat on his back in a hospital somewhere, hallucinating it all. The only time he’d felt so confused was after his hip surgery, when the anesthesia weighed on him like a mountain of sand.
“Sir,” said the official with acid courtesy. “Where you arrive from?”
“New York,” Perry said with a certainty he didn’t feel.
“Business or leisure?”
“Business. And some leisure,” he added prudently.
“What business? Meetings? A congress?”
“Congress? I’m in the news business.”
The official tilted his head skeptically and glanced over Perry’s shoulder.
“Retired,” Perry explained, sensing trouble. Something was packed in behind his eyes, some sort of wadding where grey matter should be. He grasped the side of the booth to steady himself.
“Are you alright, Mr. Perry?” asked the man behind the glass, not a trace of real concern in his voice.
With a last skeptical look the official stamped his passport and slipped it back through the window, waving the next traveler forward.
Perry began to wander off, pushing the Samsonite into the crowd, but someone clutched his arm. Alarmed, he turned to see a woman holding his shoulder bag out to him. “Don’t forget this!” she said.
“Thanks, Maria,” said Perry, and shuffled on, his legs heavy as stone.
Just ahead lay a podium manned by two gossiping policewomen. Perry began moving toward them, thinking to ask for help, perhaps even for a doctor, but a blaring announcement stopped him in his tracks. The foreign language again: a male voice addressed the hangar-like room in a scolding tone, as if they were all guilty of some crime. Perhaps dogs would appear now, jackboots. Perry listened through the fog in his head but none of it made sense. The language sounded vaguely Spanish, but its smooth flow was jarred by harsh, Russian-issue sibilants. When the announcement ended Perry heard a more familiar voice at his side.
“You ready for this shit?” said a man in aviator sunglasses and leather pants. “You want to feel it, man? The love? Follow me.” The man took Perry’s arm and cut through a line of irritable travelers as if on official business, tacking toward a portal with a sign that read NOTHING TO DECLARE. What a relief the words were! This was the door that led to a place where no one would ask Perry to speak, where his opinion was of no interest. Perry pushed the cart harder, hastening toward it.
The door slid open as they approached, and like old friends Perry and the man walked through it to face a solid wall of humanity, much of it in the form of black-clad teenagers straining against a barrier. A dozen camera flashes detonated blindingly, the roar of voices gladiatorial. Somewhere amid the chaos a television camera pivoted like the enormous head of a dinosaur, tracking them like prey.
“It’s your twenty seconds of fame, brother,” said the man at his side, laying one hand on Perry’s luggage cart and waving with the other. The voice was familiar but Perry couldn’t place it. The man was steering him closer to the hopped-up crowd and Perry saw eyes turning toward him now. The fans were beginning to wonder who he was, trying to fit him into the pantheon of the star’s life. He saw a young man with orange-dyed hair point at him, then another. When a boom mike swung out over Perry’s head like a raptor suddenly bearing down, wheeling in from a great height to seize him, his mind filled with a panic so profound he could no longer stand still.
Perry broke away and lugged his heavy legs back toward the double doors, leaving the Samsonite to fend for itself. Just as he approached the doors they opened with a swishing sound, disgorging a family of five who stared at him as he lumbered past and made for the row of glass booths. But before he’d taken ten steps he was accosted by the two female officers at the nearby podium, each pinioning an arm as they hauled him aside.
“Maria!” cried Perry.
One of the guards produced a pair of handcuffs, but the other sought out Perry’s gaze and laid a hand on his shoulder. “You meet someone call Maria?” she asked.
“She you daughter?”
Perry shook his head. The woman frowned. “Family?”
The guard sent a look to her colleague and began to escort him gently toward the double doors. “We go find Maria, okay?” she said. Perry felt tears coming and let himself be led forward, praying that Maria had remembered to come.
“Nice that they escorted you out,” said the driver beside him. “What a scene with Billy Tyro — I can’t believe you met him! He’s like Jagger here. I don’t blame you for turning tail and getting out of there. Craziness.”
Perry found himself in a car flooded with sun. It seemed to be early morning; they wheeled through traffic past a huge stadium surrounded by slums that reminded him of the West Bank, Mogadishu, Hanoi. He wondered if the driver was also to be his translator. It simplified matters at checkpoints, he’d found, and hotels. A truly bilingual driver was a real find.
He wished his head would clear. As they maneuvered through traffic it was as if they were maneuvering through a sunken battleship in fathomless water, the pressure from above gargantuan. He could barely string together a complete thought.
“Think how many photos there will be of you with Billy Tyro,” said a woman from the back seat. “You’ll be in the newspaper!”
“Jesus, no,” said Perry. “I do television.” The driver laughed nervously, drawing laughter from the back seat. In the rearview mirror the brown eyes of an attractive woman were upon him. He was surprised to see a dark-haired boy swing into view: who would bring a child on assignment?
The car fell silent for awhile. From time to time Perry checked the mirror to try to learn more about his situation. In the back seat, he saw, the boy was engrossed in some kind of video game. His mother stared out the window with a melancholy expression, but then caught his eyes in the mirror, studying his expression carefully before flashing an affectionate smile. Perry wondered if she was flirting with him. Mother and son had dusky complexions, possibly Middle Eastern — again he thought of the West Bank, but the road was too good. Beirut? Tehran? The ayatollahs believed in pavement these days.
At length the driver looked over, a shimmering seascape coming into view beyond his window. “Dad,” he said oddly, “how’s Mom? Tell me honestly. It’s hard to know from here.” His eyes went back to the road. “You know Maria and I don’t communicate well. I always think she’s glossing over things. Everything’s always fine.” When Perry didn’t respond he tried again: “You can tell us. It’s one reason we wanted you to come down. To speak more freely.” His eyes swung back toward Perry. “And frankly, we thought you could use a break from it all. I don’t know how you do it. Are you listening, Dad?”
It was really too much. “I’ll thank you not to call me that,” said Perry.
“Call you what?”
“Dad. I’m sure your actual father wouldn’t appreciate it.”
Why did people project their failures onto him? A magazine had once referred to Russell Perry‘s fatherly baritone, as if he’d fathered a nation. Perry looked out his window in disgust.
“How can you say that?” said the driver with a quaver in his voice. “What a thing to say.”
“Your father’s tired, Mark,” said the woman from behind. “Imagine.” She leaned forward and squeezed the driver’s shoulder, continuing in their language. Perry didn’t understand the words but he perfectly understood the meaning. Back off, she was telling him.
“Yeah,” Perry said, “back off.”
The rest of the trip passed in strained silence, the car wheeling along a lapidary coastline. Great papaya-like rocks surged up amid gleaming white buildings, their rugged faces spattered with vegetation. The sea flashed between the towers as the car skirted a wide beach that seemed to wind in and out at random, the coast a maze of bays and jetties. The city seemed familiar to Perry in the way that Hollywood’s version of the Riviera was familiar: a fantasy gold coast, playground of noble thieves — a fabrication. Only the belching buses broke the illusion.
They entered a long curve and a lagoon appeared to their left, a silver platter laid out in the heart of the city. Fleetingly Perry saw shirtless runners making their way around the perimeter, dogs tethered to their waists; a man hacked at a green coconut with his machete, two young women in tenuous sarongs looking on. The early sun grazed at the water with scant appetite. Perry’s head was slowly clearing, though he could not have named the city around him.
After a few blocks the driver veered onto a ramp that led down to a shadowy parking area under an apartment building. With a sudden lurch the journey was concluded. As Perry’s eyes adjusted, the mother and son clambered from the back seat and commandeered a tiny elevator, holding the door open for him. “Welcome back, Dad,” the driver said as he threw the handbrake, “if I can call you that.”
Perry slammed the door behind him and followed the woman into the elevator, annoyed to see his bag slung over her bare shoulder. Something in her zeal provoked him. “Mark’ll bring your bag up behind us,” she said, punching a button. “It’s tight in here.” After a noiseless climb the doors opened directly into an apartment where an aproned black woman stood hugging herself. When she saw Perry she smiled with crooked teeth.
“You remember Suelen, don’t you, Russell?” said the woman. “She remembers you.” The maid smiled her terrible smile and disappeared into the apartment, following the boy, who’d bolted the moment they arrived. “What would we do without her?” asked the woman. “Come in, come in.”
Perry at last felt the world’s hectic spin slowing down. It was time to stop moving and rest. He found a sofa with a view of the lagoon below and settled in, letting them bring him a glass of thin juice and some salty snacks, and before long he found he could no longer keep his eyes open. They’d been talking to him the whole while but it might as well have been a television nattering in another room.
“I think someone could use a little nap,” said the woman kindly.
“Dad,” said the driver, “I’m off to work. I want to hear all about your trip, but you should rest. We’ll catch up tonight.” The man squeezed Perry’s shoulder and Perry didn’t object; let him think what he liked. “If there’s anything you need, just ask Suelen or Ana, okay?” With this he collected a leather briefcase and let himself out the door.
“Suelen is a treasure,” the woman confided, pulling a chair up beside him.
Perry smiled, surprising them both. Despite his exhaustion his head was beginning to clear, the gothic fog lifting. Perhaps the presence of a woman had something to do with it. “It’s Ana, isn’t it?”
She hesitated, frowning. “Don’t you remember me, Rusty?”
This caught Perry up short; how could the woman know a nickname only family members used, and only at home? She sat watching him carefully, the way doctors watched him now. She was waiting for him to answer some question she’d asked, but his mind couldn’t get past the Rusty.
“You’re tired,” she said, smiling, the question forgotten. The maid appeared in the doorway and asked the woman something in the local language, then curtsied and retired into the hallway. “Like I said,” the woman continued, “Suelen is just a treasure. Really a good soul. We’re lucky to have her.”
“This woman we’ve got now is also quite good,” Perry replied. “Never drops a stitch. Couldn’t do without her.”
“Maria — yes. Her cousin and I were neighbors, you know.”
“Goodness, what are the odds?”
“It wasn’t exactly a coincidence, you know. I referred her to you. You wrote a letter for her visa application.”
Perry gazed down at the silver lagoon. “Maria. You’re right. That’s her name.”
Again the woman gave a puzzled look. “Rusty,” she said carefully, “do you sometimes have trouble remembering things?”
Down on the water a pair of sailboats moved in close formation. “I remember sailing with Kennedy,” Perry snapped. “How’s that?”
The woman frowned again, then smiled. “That’s pretty amazing,” she said, and took his hand.
Startled, Perry drew back, but her soft hand would not let go of his. Her eyes were clear and deep. Perry felt his entire body relax as she gazed at him. They sat for a while without speaking, her placid aura settling over him like fine weather. There had been moments like this in the early days with Eileen, when they’d take the train up to the Cloisters to visit the unicorn tapestries and then lie back on the bluff over the Hudson without saying a word, the afternoon passing over them softly, their shared silence glorious. The woman’s silence was like this. When the maid brought coffee she smiled and nodded toward it, but Perry only shook his head. He’d never suspected a destination like this was on his itinerary.
At some point the boy appeared and sat down on the sofa next to Perry, a shiny black tablet in his hands. “Look, Grandpa,” he said, “it’s Grandma.”
“Diego,” said the woman, “your grandfather’s not in the mood.”
“Russ! Goddamn it!” Eileen’s panicked voice burst into the peaceful room, childlike but for the coarse language. Perry looked down and saw that the boy was holding a video screen entirely filled with his wife’s face. It made no sense — was this television? His head blurred again as if he’d been struck from behind. For years Eileen had watched him on the nightly news, eating with the kids as he reported from Saigon or Port-au-Prince or the sound stage in Manhattan, but now she was the one on television, badly off script.
“Eileen?” he asked the screen, feeling foolish.
“Look at the camera there, Mrs. Perry,” said Maria’s voice through the little television.
“Maria!” said Perry with relief. “Are you there?”
Now Maria’s face swung into view, and behind her the familiar environs of Perry’s living room. “Hey, Mr. Perry,” said Maria. “How was the trip? I’ll bet you’re glad just to be there.”
His hostess leaned across and waved at the screen. “Hi, Maria,” she said.
The women talked for a few moments in their language, their voices rising. Finally Maria said, “Is he giving you any trouble, Ana?”
Ana — he’d been listening for the name, having already forgotten it, and here it was.
“Not a bit,” said Ana, smiling at him.
Ana, he repeated to himself. Ana.
“But it’s hard to make a big trip alone, isn’t it, Rusty?” Ana looked at him levelly.
“I tried to warn — ” Maria said, but a crash from off screen interrupted her.
“Russ!” Eileen’s voice wailed. “Are you there?” Now the camera jerked back to her contorted face. Perry could see she wasn’t well. Her eyes roved to and fro frantically, like those of a drowning woman searching for debris to cling to.
“Right here, hon.”
“I thought you retired!”
“Still on television, aren’t I?” Perry glanced over at Ana with a look that said, Poor thing, she‘s confused. “What have you been doing since I left?”
“Hang up!” cried Eileen. “Maria, shut this goddamned thing off!”
Maria came back into view. “I think someone needs her breakfast. But this was a great idea, Diego. Let’s try again when everyone’s feeling better, okay?”
The screen went blank with the sound of a cartoon raindrop striking a pond. Perry was aware of Ana watching him. “At least she seems to remember you,” she said gently.
“Most of the time.”
“Sometimes she doesn’t?”
Perry began to answer but found his throat clenched. His eyes were welling with tears.
“Diego,” Ana said to the boy, then finished the thought in their language.
When the boy sulked off Perry felt his energy drain away suddenly, as if his aorta had been cleanly opened. “I need to lie down,” he told Ana urgently, and followed her into a sunny guestroom where she turned down the bed and knelt to slip his shoes off. Ana, he reminded himself, Ana. The Samsonite stood watch against the far wall like a humorless sentry. “Pajamas,” said Perry, gesturing toward it. But instead of going to the suitcase Ana opened the doors of the wardrobe, where the maid had arranged all his clothes. There hung his striped pajamas, pressed and inviting.
“I’ll leave you to rest,” said Ana, laying a cool palm on his cheek. “At noon I take Diego to volleyball, but I won’t be gone long. Just call if you need anything, Rusty.” With a kiss to his cheek she left him, easing the door closed behind her.
A few moments later, as Perry was dropping off, he rolled onto his side and was startled to see Christ standing on a distant rock, arms spread wide. Startled, Perry shut his eyes tightly, then opened them again. With a more careful look he saw that it was only a statue of Christ, perched atop a peak and gazing across the vast city. The Son’s back was half-turned; Perry was not his concern.
“Go to hell!” said Perry, and turned his back on the trickster with a snort.
He awoke with hot sun on the back of his neck and the squall of a child in his ear. “Christ almighty!” he said, and started to get up, only to realize that he was already standing. Not only standing, in fact, but standing outdoors at the edge of a magnificently shimmering pond. For an instant he thought he was in Central Park, perhaps the north shore of the Lake, but the curve of the shoreline was all wrong. Puzzled, Perry scanned the horizon looking for clues, then realized where he was.
“Jesus,” he said aloud, as if to a careless taxi driver, “where the hell did you think you were going?”
He was almost sure that the body of water before him was the pond next to his own home, but it had taken time for the fact to register. Though the silvery expanse seemed much larger than he remembered, he recognized some of the waterfowl, and the way the sun broke aslant when a fish nipped at the air. Why hadn’t he known it instantly, instinctively? At such moments Perry imagined his own faltering soul trapped inside his ribcage, wrongly imprisoned, its hands gripping two white ribs like iron bars. And now, abruptly, his eyes were filling with tears again — another abasement, another mystery. His body was no friend to him: this much he knew. “Go fuck yourself,” he told it, wiping the tears away with the palm of his hand. Really there was no escape, no way out of this prison but flat on one’s back. He saw it clearly. It was criminal.
With all the violence he could muster, Russell Perry kicked a beer bottle into a fast spin, realizing only when he made contact that he wasn’t wearing any shoes. A spike of pain shot to the base of his skull and stopped there suddenly as if slamming into a concrete wall. Perry gazed down and saw a smear of red on the sidewalk and a gelatinous ooze spreading from his big toe, but it might as well have been another man’s foot. He refused to claim it as his own. Let the body suffer; it had betrayed him. It was as dead to him as his father’s handshake, his mother’s kiss.
Perry scanned the pond, the sun pressing down with a heavy hand. It had been an irrigation overflow back when Westchester County was still countryside, before the Tappan Zee opened a direct vein to the city. He and Eileen had been part of the resulting influx, the occupying army from the south: they’d closed on the old farmhouse and its forty acres on the same day Jack Kennedy took office, spending more than they should have, smitten with the place. He’d long recall that first hard winter, the frigid weekends spent getting the house in shape — the two of them slogging up from the city through blinding snow only to find that a burst pipe had turned the kitchen into an ice rink, the defiant rats at large in the smutty cellar, the rusted woodstove slowly filling the bedroom with smoke as they made love under a mountain of blankets. All this he remembered perfectly despite present lapses, the deep past preserved archivally somewhere within him.
For nearly half a century now the place had been home, renovated and upgraded and made comfortable through the years, its rooms filling with souvenirs of his professional travels. On the coffee table sat a rough yellow brick from Robben Island that Mandela had given him; in an alcove hung a samurai sword with a famous 17th-century blade, gift of a cousin of Hirohito. Gradually, too, the grounds had been converted from pastureland to lawn — Russell could still picture the kids running across it, tearing it up to Eileen’s constant exasperation and his hidden delight — and then allowed to lapse back into grassy fields, following the style of the times. Only the pond had remained unchanged, the landscape morphing around it, making way for it. And so Russell knew the pond as well as he knew Eileen’s face, in all its hours and weathers.
Yet now, oddly, its banks were aswarm with foreigners. Had someone left the gate open? A young mother walked past with a tetchy child on her shoulder, giving him a wide berth. Two girls jogged by laughing, one of them pointing openly at him, a bit of some foreign language gusting by as they passed. A moment later a muscular black man with a Rottweiler on a short lead approached along the path, speaking to the dog firmly — Perry knew somehow that he was speaking of him — and as they passed Perry the animal lunged forward with a raw growl that turned to a yelp when its owner jerked the choke collar. The man walked on as if nothing had gone awry, blotting his shaved head with a striped blue towel slung across his sculpted shoulders.
In a daze Perry limped toward the water, kicking white birds away as he went, the sun tracking him from above. The heat had put him in mind of a swim. It was just what he needed: to ply across the shining surface with a slow backstroke and nestle under the willow fronds, his mind blessedly empty as frogs and fish went about their business among the cattails. How many summers had he made his way across the pond, leaving Eileen in the house to talk endlessly on the phone? He’d dreamed of such peaceful moments in beds all over the world, from Beirut to Paris to Johannesburg, the pull of his pond only strengthening the farther he traveled from it. And now here he was, the familiar grass between his toes.
At the edge of the water Perry unbuttoned his pajama top and flung it to the ground. Stepping down from the bank he felt the coolness close over his feet like careful hands. Perry waded out until the water was knee deep, the smooth stones of home beneath him. He hadn’t felt so well in ages. A complete immersion was called for. Turning his face up into the keen sun, he untied the drawstring of his pajama bottoms and let them sink below the waterline, glad to be rid of them. One of the prerogatives of wealth was the freedom of undress: with enough acreage the world’s proprieties fell away. It was good to feel the sun on his back and the cool water on his bare legs.
As the water reached his thighs Perry felt the stones under his feet give way to the sucking mud he loved. In summer, as now, one sometimes discovered crawdads with one’s toes; afraid to step on them, Perry’s time-tested practice was to drag his feet through the bottom mud like tiny dredges, not lifting them at all, and this he did now. The nap had refreshed him, and the high, lucid sun: he felt very well indeed. In the distance a crew sculled by, knees tucked to their chests, arms sweeping back and forth like synchronized pistons. They didn’t have his permission to use the pond, but Perry granted it now, silently, at peace with the world.
“Rusty!” he heard someone call from behind. “What are you doing out there?”
It was an old challenge. For years Eileen would stand on the bank and beckon him in, worried about slick rocks, fishhooks, even the trout brushing his legs, as if he were venturing into dangerous seas. It was only her love talking, he’d tell himself, her concern for a husband whose work often took him into harm’s way. For a time in the Nineties, when his frequent trips to Sarajevo made her nerves unravel, the pleas had taken on a desperate edge, his normally affectionate wife — his best friend of thirty years standing, his lover and life mate — shunning him when he returned to shore. The shunning, he knew, was only her fear expressed in another way. The idea of any harm coming to Russell Perry in his own pond, after he’d soldiered through hot zones from Vietnam to Afghanistan, was more than she could bear. And so he’d turn back, bidding his quiet waters adieu and slogging through the mud under her frantic gaze, dreading the prospect of a long evening colored by her anxiety. Only in bed would she relent, nestling against his back, sometimes taking him in her soft hand, her shaken heart open to a sweet consummation.
“Rusty!” the voice called again from behind, closer this time and more urgent. “Russell! Stay right there. The water’s polluted. It’s not safe to swim in, honey.”
Now other voices came, but only her words made sense to him. From the corner of his eye he saw someone in a bright green shirt wading toward him laboriously. Out over the water a long-necked bird of pure white swooped past, cruising low over the mirrored surface in a pendular swing and climbing back gracefully toward the heavens, its momentum carrying it up and up.
When Perry turned toward shore he saw Eileen standing knee-deep in the water, holding a blue-striped towel toward him with a supplicating look. She loved him: he saw it plainly. It was only this, and always had been. Behind her on the shore stood the shirtless black man with the Rottweiler, the dog idling at his side, and behind this Moorish guard stood a dozen others, courtiers awaiting their returning liege. Perry straightened on reflex, rising to the role, fifty years of live television having schooled him in what was expected of a conquering hero. With a sort of royal wave he acknowledged the crowd from afar, knowing that each of them, later, would believe he’d waved to her or him alone.
But the one who mattered was Eileen. It was only as Perry began walking back that he realized how much his wife had changed. The woman waiting for him across the water was not the bitter Eileen of his late middle age but a far younger one, the Eileen who’d charmed Jack and Jackie Kennedy over lunch on their Hyannis Port patio and then made love hungrily to her husband in the guest cottage, the Eileen who’d nursed two children through rubella while he sat with Chou En-Lai in a gilded room on the other side of the world, the Eileen who’d be waiting at the gate after every endless flight home, her perfume seducing him, despite his utter exhaustion, all the way back to Westchester. This was the Eileen who stood waiting for him now, framed in sun like a medieval icon, the striped towel in her hands a princely mantle. “Rusty,” she said quietly as she draped his shoulders and kissed his cheek, “you worried me out there. Please don’t wander off like that again.”
Perry kissed her on the lips for the first time in as long as he could remember, pulling her close when she tried to break away, the tawny feminine bundle in his arms a thing of exquisite beauty to him.
“I won’t,” he promised, “I’ll never leave you again.” And taking her hand he led her toward the grassy bank, the sound of applause greeting his arrival as if he’d somehow wrought peace from a decade of war.