The memory keepers daugh.., p.25
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       The Memory Keeper's Daughter, p.25
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           Kim Edwards

  “Well, there’s that too,” Al said.

  He waited a moment, and then he turned to her.

  “You know, Caroline. Phoebe’s starting to grow up. She’s starting not to be a little girl anymore.”

  “She’s barely thirteen,” Caroline said, thinking of Phoebe with the kitten, how easily she slipped back into the carefree joys of childhood.

  “That’s right. She’s thirteen, Caroline. She’s—well, you know—starting to develop. I feel uncomfortable picking her up like I did tonight.”

  “So don’t,” Caroline said sharply, but she was remembering Phoebe in the pool earlier in the week, swimming away and then returning, grabbing hold of her underwater, the soft rising buds of her breasts pressed against her arm.

  “You don’t have to get mad, Caroline. It’s just that we’ve never once talked about it, have we? What’s going to become of her. What it’ll be like for us when we retire, like Doro and Trace.” He paused, and she had the sense that he was choosing his words carefully. “I’d like to think we might consider traveling. It makes me a little claustrophobic, that’s all, to imagine staying in this house forever. And what about Phoebe? Will she live with us forever?”

  “I don’t know,” Caroline said, weariness around her, dense as night. She had fought so many fights already to make a life for Phoebe in this indifferent world. For the time being she had all the problems solved, and for the last year or so she’d been able to relax. But where Phoebe would work and how she might live when she grew up—all this remained unknown. “Oh Al, I can’t think about all this tonight. Please.”

  The porch swing glided back and forth.

  “We’ll need to think about it sometime.”

  “She’s just a little girl. What are you suggesting?”

  “Caroline. I’m not suggesting anything. You know I love Phoebe. But you or I, we could die tomorrow. We’re not always going to be around to take care of her, that’s all. And there may come a time when she doesn’t want us to. I’m just asking if you’ve thought about this. What you’re saving all that money for. I’m just raising the topic for discussion. I mean, think about it. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could come on the road with me now and again? Just for a weekend?”

  “Yes,” she said softly. “That would be nice.”

  But she wasn’t sure. Caroline tried to imagine Al’s life, a different room every night, a different city, and the road unfurling in the same gray ribbon. His first thought had been a restless one: sell the house, hit the road, roam the world.

  Al nodded, drained his glass, and started to stand up.

  “Don’t go just yet,” she said, putting her hand lightly on his arm. “I have to talk to you about something.”

  “Sounds serious,” he said, settling back into the swing. He gave a nervous laugh. “You’re not leaving me, are you? Now that you’ve come into this inheritance and all?”

  “Of course not; it’s nothing like that.” She sighed. “I got a letter this week,” she said. “It was a strange letter, and I need to talk about it.”

  “A letter from who?”

  “From Phoebe’s father.”

  Al nodded and folded his arms, but he didn’t speak. He knew about the letters, of course. They’d been arriving for years, bearing cash in varying amounts and a note with a single scrawled sentence. Please let me know where you are living. She had not done this, but in the early years she’d told David Henry everything else. Heartfelt confessional letters, as if he were a friend close to her heart, a confidant. As time passed she’d become more efficient, sending photos and a line or two, at best. Her life had become so full and rich and complicated; there was no way to get it all down on paper, so she had simply stopped trying. What a shock it had been, then, to find a fat letter from David Henry, three full pages, written in his tight script, a passionate letter that started with Paul, his talent and his dreams, his rage and his anger.

  I know it was a mistake. What I did, handing you my daughter, I know it was a terrible thing, and I know I can’t undo it. But I would like to meet her, Caroline, I would like to make amends, somehow. I’d like to know something more about Phoebe, and about your lives.

  She was unnerved by the images he’d given her—Paul, a teenager, playing the guitar and dreaming of Juilliard, Norah with her own business, and David, fixed in her mind all these years, as clearly as a photograph in a book, bent over this piece of paper, filled with regret and yearning. She’d slipped the letter into a drawer, as if that might contain it, but the words had hovered in her mind through every moment of this task-filled and emotional week.

  “He wants to meet her,” Caroline said, fingering the fringe of a shawl Doro had tossed over the arm of the swing. “To be a part of her life again somehow.”

  “Nice of him,” Al said. “What a stand-up guy, after all this time.”

  Caroline nodded. “He is her father, though.”

  “Which makes me what, I wonder?”

  “Please,” Caroline said. “You’re the father Phoebe knows and loves. But I didn’t tell you everything, Al, about how I came to have Phoebe. And I think I’d better.”

  He took her hand in his.

  “Caroline. I hung around in Lexington after you left. I talked to that neighbor of yours, and I heard lots of stories. Now, I didn’t get much schooling, but I’m not a stupid man, and I know that Dr. David Henry lost a baby girl about the time you left town. What I’m saying is that whatever happened between the two of you doesn’t matter. Not to me. Not to us. So I don’t need the details.”

  She sat in silence, watching cars rush by on the highway.

  “He didn’t want her,” she said. “He was going to put her in a home—an institution. He asked me to take her there, and I did. But I couldn’t leave her. It was an awful place.”

  Al didn’t speak for a while. “I’ve heard of things like that,” he said at last. “I’ve heard those kinds of stories, on the road. You were brave, Caroline. You did the right thing. It’s hard to think of Phoebe growing up in a place like that.”

  Caroline nodded, tears in her eyes. “I’m so sorry, Al. I should have told you years ago.”

  “Caroline,” he said. “It’s okay. It’s water under the bridge.”

  “What do you think I should do?” she asked. “I mean, about this letter. Should I answer it? Let him meet her? I don’t know, it’s been tearing at me all week. What if he took her away?”

  “I don’t know what to tell you,” he said, slowly. “It’s not for me to decide.”

  She nodded. That was fair, the consequence of having kept this to herself.

  “But I’ll support you,” Al added, pressing her hand. “Whatever you feel is best, I’ll support you and Phoebe one hundred percent.”

  “Thank you. I was so worried.”

  “You worry too much about the wrong things, Caroline.”

  “It doesn’t touch us, then?” she asked. “The fact that I didn’t tell you this before—it doesn’t touch you and me?”

  “Not with a hundred-foot pole,” he said.

  “Okay, then.”

  “Okay.” He stood up, stretching. “Long day. You coming up?”

  “In a minute, yes.”

  The screen door squeaked open, fell shut. The wind moved through the place where he’d been sitting.

  It began to rain, softly against the roof at first, and then a drumming. Caroline locked the house—her house, now. Upstairs, she paused to check on Phoebe. Her skin was warm and damp; she stirred and her mouth worked around unspoken words, and then she settled back into her dreams. Sweet girl, Caroline whispered, and covered her. She stood for a minute in the rain-echoing room, moved by Phoebe’s smallness, by all the ways she would not be able to protect her daughter in the world. Then she went to her own room, slipping between the cool sheets next to Al. She remembered his hands on her skin, the press of his beard against her neck, and her own cries in the darkness. A good husband to her, a good father to Phoebe, a man who would get
up on Monday morning and shower and dress and disappear in his truck for the week, trusting her to do whatever she felt was best about David Henry and his letter. Caroline lay for a long time, listening to the rain, her hand resting on his chest.

  • • •

  She woke at dawn, Al thundering down the stairs to take the rig in early for an oil change. Rain cascaded from the gutters and the downspouts, teemed in puddles, and poured downhill in a stream. Caroline went downstairs and made coffee, so absorbed in her own thoughts, in the strangeness of the silent house, that she didn’t hear Phoebe until she was standing in the doorway behind her.

  “Rain,” Phoebe said. Her bathrobe hung loosely around her. “Cats and dogs.”

  “Yes,” Caroline said. They’d spent hours once, learning this idiom, working with a poster Caroline made of angry clouds, cats and dogs teeming from the sky. It was one of Phoebe’s favorites. “More like giraffes and elephants today.”

  “Cows and pigs,” Phoebe said. “Pigs and goats.”

  “Do you want some toast?”

  “Want a cat,” Phoebe said.

  “What do you want?” Caroline asked. “Use your sentences.”

  “I want a cat, please,” Phoebe said.

  “We can’t have a cat.”

  “Aunt Doro went away,” Phoebe said. “I can have a cat.”

  Caroline’s head ached. What will become of her?

  “Look, Phoebe, here’s your toast. We’ll talk about the cat later, okay?”

  “I want a cat,” Phoebe insisted.

  “Later.”

  “A cat,” Phoebe said.

  “Damn it.” The palm of Caroline’s hand came down flat on the counter, startling them both. “Don’t talk to me anymore about a cat. Do you hear?”

  “Sit on the porch,” Phoebe said, sullen now. “Watch the rain.”

  “What do you want? Use your sentences.”

  “I want to sit on the porch and watch the rain.”

  “You’ll get cold.”

  “I want—”

  “Oh, fine,” Caroline interrupted, waving one hand. “Fine. Go out, sit on the porch. Watch the rain. Whatever.”

  The door opened and swung shut. Caroline looked out to see Phoebe sitting on the porch swing with her umbrella open and her toast on her lap. She was angry with herself for losing her patience. It wasn’t about Phoebe. It was just that Caroline didn’t know how to answer David Henry, and she was afraid.

  She collected the photo albums and the stray pictures she’d been meaning to sort, and sat on the sofa where she could keep an eye on Phoebe, masked by her umbrella, rocking in the porch swing. She spread the recent photos on the coffee table, then took out a piece of paper and wrote to David.

  Phoebe was confirmed yesterday. She was so sweet in her white dress, eyelet fabric with pink ribbons. She sang a solo at the church. I’m sending a picture of the garden party we had later. It’s hard to believe how big she’s gotten, and I’m starting to feel worried about what the future holds. I suppose this was what was on your mind the night you handed her to me. I’ve fought so hard all these years and sometimes I’m terrified of what will happen next, and yet—

  Here she paused, wondering at her impulse to reply. It wasn’t for the money. Every cent of it went into the bank; over the years Caroline had saved nearly $15,000, all of it held in trust for Phoebe. Perhaps it was simply old habit, or to keep their connection alive. Perhaps Caroline had simply wanted him to understand what he was missing. Here, she wanted to say, grabbing David Henry by the collar, here is your daughter: Phoebe, thirteen years old, a smile like the sun on her face.

  She put her pen down, thinking of Phoebe in her white dress, singing with the choir, holding the kitten. How could she tell him all this and then not honor his request to meet his daughter? Yet if he came here, after all these years—what would happen then? She didn’t think she loved him anymore, but maybe she did. Maybe she was still angry with him, too, for the choices he’d made, for never really seeing who she was. It troubled her to discover this hardness in her own heart. What if he’d changed, after all? But what if he hadn’t? He might hurt Phoebe as he’d once hurt her, without even knowing it had happened.

  She pushed the letter aside. Instead, she paid some bills, then stepped outside to slip them in the mailbox. Phoebe was sitting on the front steps, holding her umbrella high against the rain. Caroline watched her for a minute before she let the door fall shut and went to the kitchen to get another cup of coffee. She stood for a long time at the back door, gazing out at the dripping leaves, the wet lawn, the little stream running down the sidewalk. A paper cup was lodged under a bush, a napkin turned to pulp by the garage. In a few hours Al would drive away again. She glimpsed it, for a moment, how that might feel like freedom.

  The rain came harder suddenly, hitting the roof. Something opened up in her heart, some powerful instinct that made Caroline turn and walk into the living room. She knew before she stepped out on the porch that she’d find it empty, the plate set neatly on the concrete floor, the swing still.

  Phoebe gone.

  Gone where? Caroline went to the edge of the porch and searched up and down the street, through the teeming rain. A train sounded in the distance; the road to the left climbed the hill to the tracks. To the right, it ended in the freeway entrance ramp. All right, think. Think! Where would she go?

  Down the street the Swan children were playing barefoot in the puddles. Caroline remembered Phoebe saying, earlier that morning, I want a cat, and Avery standing at the party with the furry bundle in her arms. Remembered Phoebe, fascinated by its smallness, its tiny sounds. And sure enough, when she asked the Swan children about Phoebe, they gestured across the road to the copse of trees. The kitten had run away. Phoebe and Avery had gone to rescue it.

  At the first break in traffic, Caroline darted across the road. The earth was saturated, water pooling in her footprints. She pushed through the brushy copse and broke at last into the clearing. Avery was there, kneeling by the pipe that drained water from the hills into the concrete ditch. Phoebe’s yellow umbrella was discarded, like a flag, beside her.

  “Avery!” She squatted down beside the girl, touched her wet shoulder. “Where’s Phoebe?”

  “She went to get the cat,” Avery said, pointing into the pipe. “It went in there.”

  Caroline swore softly and knelt in the edge of the pipe. Cold water rushed against her knees, her hands. Phoebe! she cried, and her voice echoed in the darkness. It’s Mom, honey, are you here?

  Silence. Caroline inched her way inside. The water was so cold. Already her hands were numb. Phoebe! she shouted, her voice swelling. Phoebe! She listened hard. A sound then, faint. Caroline crawled a few feet farther in, feeling her way through cold invisible rushing water. Then her hand brushed fabric, cold flesh, and Phoebe, trembling, was in her arms. Caroline held her close, remembering the night she’d carried Phoebe in the damp purple bathroom, urging her to breathe.

  “We have to get out of here, honey. We have to get out.”

  But Phoebe wouldn’t move.

  “My cat,” she said, her voice high, determined, and Caroline felt the squirming beneath Phoebe’s shirt, heard the small mewing. “It’s my cat.”

  “Forget the cat,” Caroline shouted. She pulled Phoebe gently in the direction she had come. “Come on, Phoebe. Right now.”

  “My cat,” Phoebe said.

  “Okay,” Caroline said, water rushing higher now, around her knees. “Okay, okay, it’s your cat. Just go!”

  Phoebe began to move, inching slowly toward the circle of light. Finally they emerged, cold water streaming around them in the concrete ditch. Phoebe was soaked, her hair plastered against her face, the kitten wet too. Through the trees Caroline glimpsed her house, solid and warm, like a raft in the dangerous world. She imagined Al, traveling some distant highway, and the familiar comfort of these rooms that were her own.

  “It’s all right.” Caroline put her arm around Phoebe. The kitten t
wisted, thin claws scratching the backs of her hands. The rain fell, dripping off the dark, vivid leaves.

  “There’s the mailman,” Phoebe said.

  “Yes,” Caroline said, watching him climb the porch and slide the bills she’d put out into his leather bag.

  Her letter to David Henry sat unfinished on the table. She had stood at the back door watching the rain, thinking only of Phoebe’s father, while Phoebe wandered into danger. It seemed like an omen suddenly, and she let herself turn the fear she’d felt at Phoebe’s disappearance into anger. She wouldn’t write to David again; he wanted too much from her, and he wanted it too late. The mailman walked back down the steps, his bright umbrella flashing.

  “Yes, honey,” she said, stroking the kitten’s bony head. “Yes. There he is.”

  1982

  April 1982

  I

  CAROLINE STOOD AT THE BUS STOP NEAR THE CORNER OF Forbes and Braddock, watching the kinetic energy of the children on the playground, their happy shouts lifting up over the steady roar of the traffic. Beyond them, on the baseball field, figures in blue and red from competing local taverns moved with silent grace against new grass. It was spring. Evening was gathering. In a few minutes the parents sitting on the benches or standing with their hands in their pockets would start calling the children to go home. The grown-ups’ game would continue to the edge of darkness, and when it ended the players would slap each other on the back and depart too, settling in for drinks at the tavern, their laughter loud and happy. She and Al saw them there when they made it out for an evening. An early show at the Regent, then dinner and—if Al wasn’t on call—a couple of beers.

  Tonight he was gone, however, speeding far away through the gathering night, south from Cleveland to Toledo, then Columbus. Caroline had his routes hung on the refrigerator. Years ago, in those strange days after Doro left, Caroline had hired someone to watch Phoebe while she traveled with Al, hoping to bridge the distance between them. Hours slid away; she slept and woke and lost track of time, the road spinning out beneath them forever, a dark ribbon bisected by the steady flashes of white, seductive and mesmerizing. Finally Al, bleary himself, would pull into a truck stop and take her to a restaurant that didn’t differ appreciably from the one they had left behind in whatever city they’d stayed in the day before. Life on the road seemed like falling through strange holes in the universe, as if you might walk into a restroom in one city in America and then walk out the same door to find yourself somewhere else: the same strip malls and gas stations and fast-food places, the same hum of wheels against the road. Only the names were different, the light, the faces. She’d gone with Al twice, then never again.

 
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