A sudden light, p.9
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       A Sudden Light, p.9
 

          

  “I ride my bicycle to the bus stop and then take the bus. Aren’t you the curious one?”

  “Even in the winter?”

  “Winters are quite mild in Seattle, and no one minds a little rain. That’s why God invented fenders for bicycles, to keep ladies like me dry.”

  We ate deliberately and silently. I felt that everything was slipping apart. My parents were no closer to reconciling, and my father was more remote than ever. I was trapped in the world of Serena and Grandpa Samuel. And nobody cared. Even on my birthday.

  “It is not my place to apologize for your father,” Serena began, “but I understand that you must be disappointed that he’s missing your birthday dinner.”

  “Whatever,” I said. Which was a lie. It really did bother me. It bothered me a lot. I thought my father was a jerk for being absent on my birthday. But I didn’t think it would help to tell Serena that.

  “Really? Surely it’s incumbent upon a parent to recognize the birthday of his or her child.”

  “My mom called me this morning,” I said quickly, and I immediately regretted saying it. I had wanted to keep that information from Serena as a secret I shared with my mother. And here I was, pandering for my aunt’s approval.

  “Did she?” Serena asked, looking impressed. “You and your mother must have a very special relationship. I’m sure you love her very much.”

  “Sure,” I said.

  “ ‘Sure.’ ‘Whatever,’ ” Serena mocked. “It’s cute when you speak like a teenager, but I know better, Trevor. I know you have many more feelings and emotions tucked away in that heart of yours, and you have abundant words to describe them. Tell me, how do you feel about this separation of theirs, be it temporary or not?”

  “Why do you keep calling it a separation?” I asked, bristling. “They’re getting back together.”

  “Are they? Perhaps they will, but perhaps not altogether happily. Would you prefer they be together and unhappy, or apart and happy?”

  “Neither.”

  “Umm. You’re holding out for door number three. An idealist!”

  “What’s wrong with being an idealist?” I asked.

  “Nothing at all,” Serena replied. “I suppose my interest in hearing your thoughts is more selfishly motivated than I have revealed. I was eleven when my mother died, and so I know what it’s like to feel lost and confused by the unraveling of a family. I thought perhaps in you I had found a comrade with whom I could commiserate. We are kindred spirits to some degree, aren’t we, Trevor? You and I aren’t afraid to speak our minds, are we?”

  I scowled; I didn’t want to dwell in Serena’s world any longer.

  “Can I ask you a question?”

  “You don’t need my permission to ask a question,” she said.

  “Who was Benjamin Riddell?”

  Grandpa Samuel looked up from his plate; Serena seemed startled by the question. She cleared her throat and put down her fork. She folded her hands together and looked down at the meal laid out on the table. Pork chops and applesauce and iceberg lettuce salad with cherry tomatoes, slices of red onions, and mushrooms, which I picked out because I didn’t like mushrooms. And lemonade. There was always lemonade.

  “Daddy?” Serena said after a few moments. “I believe young Trevor’s question is directed toward you.”

  I noticed her voice was slightly strained, and she didn’t make eye contact when she spoke.

  “Ask him again, Trevor,” she said.

  “I’m wondering about Benjamin Riddell. And Harry.”

  “I don’t know,” Grandpa Samuel replied unsteadily.

  “Yes, you do, Daddy.”

  “I don’t.”

  “Tell Trevor what you know.”

  “The only thing I know is what my father told me,” Grandpa Samuel snapped at Serena. “And he was a liar. He lied about everything! Don’t you see? He lied about it all!”

  “I’m sorry,” I said.

  “Don’t be sorry,” Serena said. “Grandpa Samuel is quite sick. Alzheimer’s disease. They won’t diagnose it when he’s alive, though. They call it senile dementia; that’s the clinical diagnosis. They won’t call it Alzheimer’s until he dies and they perform an autopsy and examine what’s left of his brain, which, of course, we will happily donate to science; they say it will look as if a mouse has chewed holes in it. Terrible.”

  “You think I’m crazy!”

  “No, Daddy, I think you’re demented: that’s an important distinction. Try to remember it.”

  “I’m not crazy,” he whined.

  “No, Daddy, you’re not crazy. You’re demented.” She took a bite of her pork chop. “Go ahead and eat; there are no tendons in this.”

  Grandpa Samuel studied his food; he took up his knife and fork, but he didn’t eat.

  “Ben was my father’s brother,” he said under his breath. “He gave away everything we had. He ruined our lives.”

  “He ruined our lives,” Serena repeated—not to me but to the table. And not loudly, but very clearly. He ruined our lives. “You remember, Daddy. Benjamin Riddell ruined our lives. He convinced his father that to save his soul he had to give everything away. All of his money, all of his land. Even this house. And old Elijah, well, that’s what he said he wanted, isn’t it, Daddy? To give Riddell House to the trees. What a thought! Only someone as demented as you would take such an idea literally. Only you would cling to such a thing.”

  “I don’t want to leave,” Grandpa Samuel whispered.

  “I know, Daddy. We all know. You don’t want to leave, and so we’re stuck.”

  Grandpa Samuel rubbed the stumps of his missing fingers, and I really didn’t know who to believe at all.

  We cut and chewed our food. And we waited for my father to return home.

  * * *

  Grandpa Samuel and I were doing the dishes when my father entered through the back door, looking a little embarrassed. He apologized that his meeting had run late and he’d missed dinner, even though he smelled like alcohol and cigarettes, and I knew he was drunk. It was a pattern that had begun with my parents’ financial troubles in Connecticut—my father going missing for the evening hours and coming home drunk. Maybe I wanted to move to England after all.

  “We were waiting for you,” Serena said.

  She went to the refrigerator and removed a chocolate cake. We took our seats and Serena set out plates and she lit a single candle on the cake. The three of them sang a warbling, tuneless version of the happy birthday song. I wished the whole thing were already over.

  Serena rummaged through a kitchen drawer in search of something.

  “Ack,” she muttered. “I can never find things where I left them. Why is it when I put things back where they belong, they end up someplace else?”

  She slammed the drawer shut and picked up a dinner knife.

  “I’m afraid my cake server seems to have sprouted legs and walked off,” she announced. “So we’ll have to make do.”

  The cake server gone. Another disappearance.

  She sliced the cake with the knife and made an obvious effort out of getting the pieces onto the plates. As she struggled, my father placed two small packages on the table and pushed them toward me.

  “Happy birthday,” he said.

  I thought about not taking them. About rejecting them and saying, “What I’d really like for my birthday is a father who gives a shit.” But I didn’t. I took the gifts and I knew what they were already by the shapes of the boxes, one as long as my hand, narrow and rectangular, and the other broad and flat and the shape of a book. I opened them. Sure enough, a fountain pen, black with gold details. It was pretty, but he didn’t give me any ink, so it was useless. The other was a leather-bound journal.

  “So you can become a famous writer and write about this fucked-up family,” my father said.

  There was no irony to his comment—just self-pity—so I wasn’t moved.

  “Thanks,” I said.

  A strange look swept over Grand
pa Samuel’s face, and he sat upright quickly, cocking his head from side to side.

  “What’s that smell?” he asked loudly.

  “It’s nothing, Daddy,” Serena said.

  “It’s a bad smell,” Grandpa Samuel said. “What is it?”

  “Brother Jones was in a bar,” Serena says. “He smells of cigarettes. The man next to him must have been smoking. Isn’t that right, Brother?”

  “I was smoking,” my father said.

  “Isobel hated cigarettes,” Grandpa Samuel declared.

  “You were with someone who was smoking,” Serena said deliberately. “You picked up the smell in your clothing. You detest cigarette smoking, Brother Jones, you know that. You would never do anything against Mother’s wishes.”

  “That must have been it,” my father grumbled, rising from the table. “I’ll go change.”

  He walked out of the room.

  “You can use your new fountain pen to sign books at your readings,” Serena suggested after he had gone. “Perhaps you will move to Seattle and become inspired by the rain and darkness that typify our oppressive winters.”

  I shrugged.

  “Daddy and I got you a present, too,” she said, handing me a small, thin, book-like package.

  I jokingly held it to my ear and gave it a shake.

  “A book?”

  “Open it,” she said. “Gently.”

  I tore back the tissue paper wrapping.

  “We don’t have the kind of money to buy you designer fountain pens, I’m afraid. This is a book from our library. But I had it appraised by a seller of rare books in Pioneer Square, and he confirmed that it is quite valuable.”

  I held a thin booklet that looked fragile. Daisy Miller: A Study, written by Henry James.

  “It was first published in 1878 in England. Later, James revised it for the American market, but, you know, it’s always best to read the original text of an author—before the forces of marketing and social acceptability gain sway. What you are holding is a first edition, first printing of the original novella.”

  I looked down at the small booklet, which seemed to have grown heavier with this history.

  “It must be worth a lot,” I said.

  “It is,” Serena confirmed. “Elijah was not a big reader, as far as we know. But he liked to collect things. And since cost was not an issue for him—before he began to disassemble his empire—he collected many treasures such as this. You may peruse the library for these gems. And when I say ‘peruse,’ I use it in the true sense of ‘study thoroughly,’ not the common misuse, which is to confuse it with ‘browse.’ ”

  “What will I find?” I asked, piqued.

  “Well, I wouldn’t want to spoil the discovery process, but I’m happy to tease you with the idea that a first edition of a famous book about a white whale and the captain who pursued him graces the shelves of Elijah’s library.”

  I stared at her for a very long time, while she smiled at me smugly. I had never read Moby-Dick, but my mother had, and she’d told me about it, and she revered it. In that moment, I missed my mother terribly. Her love of books. The way her face relaxed into a smile when she stumbled upon me unexpectedly as I read a book on the living room couch or on the porch or standing in the kitchen, book in hand, because I was so compelled by what I was reading that I couldn’t stop even to pour a glass of juice.

  “My mother would love to be here,” I said.

  “Yes,” Serena agreed. “But she isn’t. And so this book is merely a symbol of our gift to you, Trevor. To you. Not to your mother. Your grandfather and I are giving you the collection of Elijah Riddell. The books are yours so you can use them in the way they were meant to be used: to be read. After all, an unread book is nothing more than a colorful doorstop, isn’t it? All of Elijah’s books are now yours. Isn’t that right, Daddy?”

  Grandpa Samuel, who had slouched into his chair during the whole conversation, raised his eyebrows.

  “All of them,” he muttered.

  “You’re giving a valuable collection to your only grandson!” Serena chirped loudly. “I think more enthusiasm is in order.”

  “All of them!” Grandpa Samuel shouted, raising his hands above his head in triumph.

  I was stunned by the gift. Who knew what else might be in the library? Famous books. Rare books. Books of great value.

  And yet my mind buzzed with a question: Why wouldn’t Serena have sold this stuff off over the years? She always complained about money, yet there were incredibly valuable things in the house. It didn’t make sense.

  “Thank you, Aunt Serena,” I said.

  “No kiss?” she asked.

  I hesitated, wondering how serious Serena was about a kiss; I found her very difficult to read sometimes. After a moment, I got up and gave her a kiss on her cheek, and she grabbed me and hugged me tightly for a few seconds before releasing me.

  “You’re practically a man, and I missed all of your childhood,” she said. “I should have been there when you were a baby to give you a bath, to change your diaper, to hold you when you were afraid or upset. Touch is so terribly important to relationships.”

  “Simply Serena!” Grandpa Samuel howled.

  And my opinion of Grandpa Samuel was again influenced by his behavior. Before, I thought he was forgetful but otherwise coherent. Now he seemed difficult and unpredictable. Erratic. Possibly unstable.

  “Yes, Daddy. Simply Serena wanted to hug Clever Trevor because touch is so important to the human experience. Touch heals. Touch conveys love. Without touch, babies would never be made. Why do they call some shamans hands-on healers? Because the connection between one person and another is so important. It can breathe life into the dead.”

  She turned and spoke directly to me.

  “When Mother was dying, your father sat with her for hours, holding her hands or stroking her hair. He wanted her to feel his healing touch.”

  “I remember—” Grandpa Samuel started.

  “You don’t remember anything, Daddy,” Serena cut him off. “You were too drunk. You were a drunkard back then, and you remember nothing of the horrors we were forced to endure.”

  He looked at Serena sadly. He furrowed his brow like he really did remember, like he wanted to tell us what he remembered, but Serena’s glare was cold, so cold, that his attempt was thwarted. He nodded his head.

  “I don’t remember,” he said compliantly.

  “You were too drunk and you forced Brother Jones to take care of Mother and me and you, didn’t you?”

  “Yes, I did.”

  “Brother Jones gave up everything he had. All of his plans. The track team, and his acting. He dropped classes so he could take care of us. We owe him a debt of gratitude. We need to show him that we remember the sacrifices he made for the family. And we need to acknowledge that what you did to him in return was wrong. Don’t forget it, Daddy.”

  “I won’t.”

  “He used to run,” she said rapturously. “His legs were so long and he was so powerful, and he would glide. I would watch him at his track practices after school; I would sit in the bleachers and watch. And I would see the other boys. They plodded and they clumped on the cinders. They were football players and wrestlers looking for something to do in the off-season. They had bunchy muscles and no grace about them at all. But Jones! Long and lean. When he ran, he ran!”

  “I remember,” Grandpa Samuel said.

  “But then Mother got sick. And you kept drinking. You drank even more, so you wouldn’t remember.”

  “I remember.”

  “Not all of it, Daddy. You don’t remember all of it.”

  She stopped talking and we fell into a coma of silence, Grandpa Samuel and I staring dumbly at our plates. She had put us into a trance.

  “Touch is a powerful thing,” she said.

  My father returned to the kitchen wearing clean, odorless clothes. He took his seat.

  “What were you talking about?” he asked.

  “We were
remembering Mother,” Serena replied.

  “She’s here,” Grandpa Samuel added. “She dances for me.”

  Everyone froze in place until Serena pointedly put down her fork. My father squinted at Grandpa Samuel.

  “Is she here?” my father asked. “Is she really here?”

  “She’s here,” Grandpa Samuel repeated.

  “Nonsense,” Serena interjected.

  “Is she really here, Dad?”

  “I’ve heard her, too,” I offered.

  Serena looked incredulously at us all.

  “It’s the rain,” she said. “He only hears the rain. That’s all.”

  “The rain,” Grandpa Samuel echoed.

  But my father was caught up in the emotion. The idea of his dead mother dancing in the ballroom. I could see it on his face. He hadn’t lost his faith, he had just pushed it down and hidden it from view. I saw the glimmer in his eye. He wanted his mother’s ghost to be in Riddell House.

  Serena got up and went to him. She sat next to him on the bench and put her arms around his shoulders, and he folded into her, his head tipped against hers, and she held him and rocked him back and forth, and I saw that my father was crying. She rocked him and stroked his hair and he was sobbing.

  “Shh,” she said, soothing him. “Let me heal you.”

  I saw it all clearly. How my father desperately wanted to see his mother. How Grandpa Samuel held his belief so strongly. How Serena controlled the narrative of the family. Telling Grandpa Samuel what he should remember and what he shouldn’t.

  I saw how she controlled my father, too. How she picked at the scab just enough to get her nail under the edge, enough to lift until she felt it tear and saw a drop of blood form underneath, but then how she pushed down so it didn’t bleed more. I used to do that when I was a kid and I skinned my knee or my elbow. Pick just enough to feel some pain, but then apply pressure. Because my mother used to tell me that if you tear off the scab entirely, you get a scar.

  I thought briefly of telling my father about my mother’s phone call, but I held myself back. I had come to Riddell House with a mission to reunite my parents. My strategy was to fix my father by helping him to fix his broken life. It was a simple plan, because I thought his problems were just about money. But then I saw that it wasn’t as simple as that. Watching Serena hold my father made me realize that my father was a lot more damaged than I’d thought. And until I could get him repaired, it was probably best that he not talk to my mother at all.

 
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