All things cease to appe.., p.42
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       All Things Cease to Appear, p.42

           Elizabeth Brundage
 
She lets him in and they wander into the kitchen. The house smells damp, dirty. It’s the same old kitchen. The same buzzing refrigerator. The same crummy cabinets that never stayed shut. He is stirred by a fresh hatred for this place. If she wasn’t here, he might just put a match to it once and for all.

  How’d that woodstove do? Still burning?

  He checks and sees it burned out. Let me get this going again. He sets down the thermos and opens the stove and tosses in some wood and lights it up. There, he says. That ought to do it.

  She’s standing there shivering, pale, very beautiful, it’s almost too hard to look. He takes off his coat and then his sweater and hands it to her. Put that on. She drops the blanket from her shoulders and pulls the sweater over her head and pushes her scrawny arms into the sleeves. It looks good on you, he says. Then he unscrews the thermos and pours some coffee into the little cup. Drink this.

  She does.

  He rinses out her old pickle jar and pours himself some coffee. Long night?

  Yes, very long.

  I had a feeling it might be.

  She drinks the coffee. This is good. Thanks.

  Should we find a place to sit down?

  Let’s go in here.

  They bring their coffee into the living room and sit on the old busted-up couch and she asks about Wade and he tells her about his brother’s injury, IEDs, the VA, the whole story.

  It’s a terrible war, she says. I wish they’d just end it. I’ve seen some of these guys. It’s really sad.

  You work there? University Hospital? I noticed that on your scrubs.

  I’m training to be a surgeon there.

  You mean you’re actually a doctor? Already?

  She nods.

  Man, that’s incredible. You turned out all right, didn’t you?

  For someone whose mother got murdered?

  Yeah, he says, and means it. You were so good at serving tea I was sure you’d be a waitress. You used to make me tea.

  Did I? Was it any good?

  Kind of watery, to be honest.

  What was I like?

  Little. And happy, he says, because he knows she needs to hear it.

  That’s good to know. What about you?

  Me? I’m not sure. Me and my brothers, we had it kind of rough. I lost my mother in this house, too. He gives her a short version of the story. We were just trying to get by.

  That’s so sad. That must have been so hard.

  It was. But working for your mom kind of helped me out.

  They never found out who killed her, she says. It’s still an open case.

  He doesn’t tell her what a creep her father was. How he’d been tricked into helping with Franny that goddamn day. He’d never spent the money Clare had left for him. For some reason it seemed tainted. He’d dug a hole behind his uncle’s house and buried it. It’s probably still there. She doesn’t know they’d never had enough evidence to charge her father, but not for lack of trying. If they had, he’d still be in jail and he guessed her grandparents would have raised her. It just hadn’t worked out like that. He wonders what being raised by Clare must’ve been like. It couldn’t have been good.

  Well, sometimes it’s better not to know, he says.

  She looks at him doubtfully. Oh, it’s always best to know, she says. The truth—it’s all we have.

  —

  THEY DECIDE TO take a walk. Together, silently, as the sun rises full and bright, they go through the field and climb up to the ridge. This was all ours, he tells her, waving his hand like a magician over the land, now cluttered with tract houses lined up around a cul-de-sac. Commuters, he says. Used to be cows.

  They walk through the woods under the whining old trees. An old coyote used to live up here, he tells her. I’ve been here my whole life.

  Back in the house he hands her his scrapbook. I dug this thing out for you from the darkest corners of my closet. A small history of an ordinary American boy.

  There’s nothing ordinary about you, Cole.

  He watches her turn the pages, the colors of her past starting to fill in. Is this you?

  That’s me and my buddy Eugene. We went to Union College together. That there is his grandma. And here’s Wade in his uniform. And this is Eddy, my big brother.

  Where is he now?

  Out in L.A. Plays the trumpet. He’s a studio musician. Does movies and stuff. He’s done real well for himself.

  Is he married?

  No. He was in love with this girl once. Back then. I don’t think he ever got over it. He’s had plenty of girlfriends, but no one like her.

  Maybe one day they’ll get back together.

  Could be. I hope so but wouldn’t bet on it.

  You never know, do you?

  No, you sure don’t. He smiles and she smiles back and his whole body goes warm. Is this weird for you?

  Sort of. But it’s kind of good, too.

  I’m glad, he says. I’m glad it’s good.

  She turns the page and gets quiet and he can see she’s found her mother. In the picture, Catherine is lying in the grass in Bermuda shorts, her blouse tied at the waist. She’s smiling, looking up at the photographer as if daring him to shoot.

  Eddy took that, he says. They had eyes for each other, I think. She was older, though, and married, of course. We all loved your mother. You should know that. She was good to us.

  She’s beautiful, she says softly. He can hear the longing in her voice.

  And so are you. He kisses her then. I couldn’t wait anymore.

  I wanted you to. She starts to cry.

  What’s wrong?

  I don’t know. This is hard, that’s all. And I’m just so lonesome.

  Hey, now. Let’s just put an end to that. He takes her in his arms and holds her close. I’m right here. You don’t have to be lonesome anymore.

  2

  HE DRIVES HER into town for more coffee and tells her about his life in this town, his marriage to a girl he’d grown up with, their daughter. She watches his blue eyes as he talks about his ex-wife and what they had together and she can see the love he still has for the mother of his daughter and it makes her feel a little jealous, a little worried, but she smiles and doesn’t show it. Somewhere in the back of her mind she is thinking about love, what it is, its unyielding patience—and the fact that she’d never come so close to finding it.

  In his truck he drives her around Chosen, showing her his private landmarks—his uncle’s place on Division Street; his old school, where his daughter now goes to kindergarten; the little house where he lived with Patrice.

  Finally, he takes her home. That’s what he calls it, even though he doesn’t live there. At first she sees only acres of pasture, battered fields of corn. He shuts the engine and gets out and comes around to open her door and takes her hand and they walk through the field to where an old house waits.

  It’s not finished yet, obviously, he says. About a year ago, after Patrice and I called it quits, I moved back into my uncle’s place. I bought this piece of land out here a couple years ago, before anybody ever noticed it; it was just too pretty to pass up. The house is kind of small, it’s just an old farmhouse, but I’m working on this addition. It should turn out pretty good.

  He turns and looks at her with those blue eyes, with a faint expression playing over a face that seems both familiar and new. She can see the boy he was, the man he is now.

  It’s beautiful here, Cole, she says as the wind blows her hair around. This wind’s crazy.

  It sweeps right down, doesn’t it?

  They stand there in the middle of it.

  I’m sorry, you’re just so beautiful I can’t take my eyes off you.

  Really?

  Yeah, really.

  He kisses her long and slow and she smiles, laughs, and they linger there a while, laughing over nothing in the crazy wind.

  3

  EVEN AT A DISTANCE and without her glasses, Justine knows it’s her. She’d heard the farm had sold. Over here, she sho
uts from the studio doorway.

  The girl waves. So uncanny, the resemblance. Watching her solemn approach, her long blue-jeaned legs, the gritty blond hair.

  I’m looking for Justine?

  You found her. Hello, Franny.

  The girl won’t smile. She’s on a mission and it’s not a happy one.

  She didn’t have many friends, she says.

  Well, she had me. I’m so sorry about your mother, honey.

  Justine convinces her to come inside her studio for some tea. While the kettle warms, she shows her around. I’ve been working on these wall hangings. Sort of inspired by Louise Bourgeois. Do you know her?

  Of course. My father made me take art history.

  I’ve been experimenting with new dyes.

  The girl runs her hand over the soft tapestry. They’re beautiful.

  The kettle whistles and Justine goes to make the tea. Franny’s looking at a photograph of the twins.

  They’re all grown up now, Justine says, handing her a cup of tea.

  Thank you. Where do they live?

  They’re both in the city. John’s a sculptor, and Jesse’s a writer like his dad.

  I read his book, she says. It was good.

  I’ll let him know. You could tell him yourself, but he’s down in town. He works at the library.

  They sit on the couch by the window. It’s a windy, bright day and the room’s full of sunshine. Justine is glad they’re sitting here together. They both need this, she realizes. They both need to talk about Catherine.

  You know I taught her how to knit. She was making you a sweater and was so proud of it. We used to take these long walks. She was very beautiful, very kind. You two were rarely apart. She adored you. She took you everywhere.

  I don’t remember her, she says.

  She was a fine person.

  The girl shakes her head, angry. Then why is she dead?

  I don’t know. I can’t answer that. Sometimes things just happen.

  But the girl can tell she doesn’t really believe this. I can’t accept that, she says.

  No, I can see that. And you shouldn’t. Nobody should.

  I need to know, she says. I need to know what really happened.

  Perhaps it’s cruel but she can’t resist asking, What did your father tell you?

  He never talks about my mother.

  Why do you think that is?

  She shrugs. They didn’t love each other.

  Maybe so. But that’s not what killed her.

  What did, then?

  Justine shakes her head. I wish I knew. She doesn’t mention the accident, or how she suspected—without ever knowing—that it was Franny’s father who’d driven her off the road. She doesn’t mention the three surgeries it took to get her legs right. She doesn’t ask how George is or how his life turned out, because she simply doesn’t care. And she wonders if Franny thinks that’s strange, impolite. But Franny doesn’t bring him up, either. And perhaps their tacit avoidance of the subject is all she needs to know.

  I live up in Syracuse, Franny says when Justine asks. Basically, I’ve been in school my whole life. And now I’m studying to be a surgeon. She talks about how hard her residency is. How the whole time, all through her training, she’s been trying to prove something.

  That you’re smart? Justine asks.

  No. I always knew I was. She looks at her with her big eyes as she struggles to get the words out. It’s to prove I’m not guilty.

  Because you were there?

  She nods. And now the tears come.

  He wouldn’t let me talk about it. And I wanted to so bad. She cries full-out and Justine feels a renewed hatred for George. I wanted that so bad.

  Justine takes her into her arms. It’s all right, she says. It’s all right. You’ve got nothing to feel guilty about. She holds her for a long time.

  When they finally break apart, Justine tells her, Your mother adored you, Franny. She’d be so proud of you now, of what you’re doing.

  Thank you for saying that, she says, and clearly wants to believe it.

  They both lean back into the cushions, exhausted, resolved.

  You know, Justine says, she’s probably looking down on us right now, happy that we’re here together.

  They both crank their necks, looking up at the ceiling.

  Should we wave?

  Franny smiles for the first time.

  Hi, Catherine! I’m sitting here with your beautiful daughter.

  Hi, Mom, how are things up there in heaven?

  They stay like that, with their heads bent back, looking up for something; looking for nothing. Suddenly the wind seems to whirl through the room. The chandelier tinkles and the dry, leftover leaves outside smack against the windows like the hands of somebody trying to get in.

  The Shadow of Death

  SHE CALLS UP out of the blue. For a few minutes they talk about the house, the progress she’s made cleaning it out.

  The closing’s in two days, she tells him. We’ll be ready.

  That’s good news, Franny. In fact, it’s a great relief.

  I found some letters of Mom’s, she says.

  Did you? He wasn’t aware of any.

  They weren’t very nice. She said things about you.

  Well, that hardly surprises me. Franny, you know your mother had issues with depression.

  Yes, so you’ve told me.

  He sighs. Look, let’s not do this.

  Dad, I want to know.

  Let’s not talk about this over the phone.

  She hated it there.

  I know, he admits.

  In Siberia, she says. That’s what she called it.

  Yes, I suppose it was. Being so isolated was hard. It was hard for us both.

  She wasn’t happy, she blurts. She was miserable with you, Dad.

  He doesn’t respond; he can’t seem to. Then he says, I tried to make her happy, Franny. I tried very hard.

  Well.

  What, you don’t believe me? I tried everything for that woman.

  You never talked about her. Why is that?

  I don’t know. I was afraid.

  Afraid?

  I thought it might make you miss her even more.

  That’s not why, she says.

  Well, then, I guess I don’t have an answer for you.

  Look, she says. I need you to know something. I won’t be calling again.

  What’s that?

  I can’t forgive you. I don’t forgive you.

  Franny, let’s not—

  I don’t forgive you, Dad! Do you understand that?

  He can’t answer. He just can’t. He waits, listening. Vaguely, he can hear the room she’s in, the chirp of birds.

  I’m sorry. I have to go now.

  Franny—

  Goodbye, Dad.

  He holds the receiver in his hand as the dial tone sounds. There are other sounds, too—the squeaking wheels of the mail cart as it approaches, the residents in the main room laughing at something on TV, then someone knocking on his door.

  Come in, he says.

  It’s Rodney, the attendant who brings the mail.

  Hey, Mr. Clare, you got something here. Must be important.

  What is it?

  It’s a certified letter. You have to sign for it.

  Who’s it from?

  Says here it’s the Albany County District Attorney.

  Give it here, he says, grabbing the large envelope and running his fingertips all along the edges. He can faintly make out its brown color. Rodney gives him the pen and he signs the slip, unable to control his shaking hand.

  You sure you don’t want me to read it to you?

  For Christ’s sake, Rodney, I’m not a fucking invalid!

  All right, Mr. Clare. Just tryin’ to be helpful.

  Well, I don’t need any help. Thank you.

  He waits for the attendant to leave the room and push his noisy cart down the corridor, then opens the envelope and slides the letter out.

/>   It’s just a blur of print. He fishes his magnifying glass out of the drawer and moves it around over the letter, ascertaining only bits and pieces—to make you aware…dramatic new evidence…new investigation…the murder of Catherine Clare.

  At the bottom there’s a salutation.

  Yours truly,

  Willis B. Howell, District Attorney

  Willis, he thinks with genuine pity, touched that after all these years he’s still on her mind.

  —

  ON THE FIRST of November they predict freezing rain, high winds. He calls the front desk for a cab and tells the operator he’s seeing his endocrinologist.

  An hour later, they come to get him. Your cab’s here, Mr. Clare.

  Diabetic retinopathy is the official name, but to him it’s just dirty sight. Reading is very difficult and he will soon be blind, the result of abnormal blood vessels, like jellyfish, swarming his eyes. No matter, he thinks, he has his cane, his reliable mate. Despite the weather, he’s wearing summer-weight clothes under an unlined raincoat. His old Top-Siders. On the arm of his nurse, he walks out into the large lobby. He’s been here for almost a year—too long for any sane person to endure. In the beginning his daughter had visited him, but she has her own life to worry about now. She doesn’t need her old man burdening her.

  It hurt that she didn’t call to give him the news, that he had to learn about his daughter’s wedding from the Hartford Courant. It seems incredibly ironic to him, and not a little disturbing, that her name is now Frances Hale. But the truth is, he’d always liked Cole. For the better part of a week he’d sat in his chair trying to think of what to send to her. Something nice, something useful. He went through the catalogues they put out in the main room, pictures of appliances and monogrammed towels and plates and so forth. But it all just felt wrong. In the end, he sent nothing.

  She’d have plenty of money once he’s gone, he figured. She could buy whatever she wanted. The thought brings him a little comfort. They’d tried to be close; they had tried very hard. Ultimately, he’d failed in that department. He had failed miserably.

  The cab is waiting for him in the circle. Lisa, his favorite nurse, helps him out to the car. She’s a pretty girl, engaged to one of the doctors, a gerontologist, and he often thinks of his daughter, the surgeon, involved in such a life—his pride is almost too much to bear.

 
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