The memory keepers daugh.., p.28
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       The Memory Keeper's Daughter, p.28
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           Kim Edwards

  David Henry she had typed already, correctly.

  But his last name, McCallister, had been lost.

  He had never told anyone. He had gone off to college and registered, and no one ever knew. It was, after all, his true name. Still, David Henry was a different person from David Henry McCallister, that much he knew, and it seemed clear it was as David Henry he was meant to go to college, a person with no history, unburdened by the past. A man with a chance to make himself anew.

  And he had done just that. The name had allowed it; to some extent, the name had demanded it: strong and a bit patrician. There had been Patrick Henry, after all, a statesman and an orator. In the early days, during those conversations where he had felt himself to be at sea, surrounded by people wealthier and better connected than he would ever be, by people utterly at ease in the world he was so desperately trying to join, he would sometimes allude, though never directly, to a distant but important lineage, invoking false ancestors to stand behind him and lend support.

  This was the gift he’d tried to give Paul: a place in the world that no one could question.

  The water between his feet was brown, edged with a sickly white foam. The wind rose, and his skin became as porous as his suit. The wind was in his blood, and the swirling water flashed, drew closer, and then there was acid in his throat and he was on his hands and knees, the stones cold beneath his hands, vomiting into the wild gray river, heaving until nothing more could be expelled. He lay there for a long time, in the darkness. Finally, slowly, he stood, wiped the back of his hand against his mouth, and walked back into the city.

  • • •

  He sat in the Greyhound terminal all night, dozing and jerking awake, and in the morning he caught the first bus to his childhood home in West Virginia, traveling deep into the hills that surrounded him like an embrace. After seven hours, the bus stopped where it always had, on the corner of Main and Vine, and then roared away, leaving David Henry in front of the grocery store. The street was quiet, a newspaper plastered against a telephone pole and weeds growing up through cracks in the sidewalk. He’d worked in this store to earn his room and board above it, the smart kid come down from the hills to study, astonished by the sounds of bells and traffic, the housewives shopping, the schoolchildren clustering to buy sodas at the fountain, the men gathering in the evenings, spitting tobacco and playing cards and passing the time with stories. But that was gone now, all of it. Red and black graffiti covered the plywood-covered windows, bleeding into the grain, unreadable.

  Thirst was a fire in David’s throat. Across the street, two men, middle-aged, one bald, one with thin graying hair to his shoulders, sat playing checkers on the porch. They looked up, curious, suspicious, and for a moment David saw himself as they would, his pants stained and wrinkled, his shirt a day and night old, his tie gone, his hair flattened from his fitful sleep on the bus. He did not belong here, never had. In the narrow room above the store, books spread out on his bed, he’d been so homesick he couldn’t concentrate, and yet when he went back to the mountains, his yearning did not diminish. In the small clapboard house of his parents, set firmly into the hill, the hours stretched and grew, measured out by the tamping of his father’s pipe against the chair, his mother’s sighs, the stirrings of his sister. There was the life below the creek and the life above it, and loneliness opening everywhere, a dark flower.

  He nodded at the men, then turned and started walking, feeling their stares.

  A light rain, delicate as mist, began to fall. He walked, though his legs ached. He thought of his bright office, a lifetime or a dream away. It was late afternoon. Norah would still be at work and Paul would be up in his room, pouring his loneliness and anger into music. They expected him home tonight, but he would not be there. He’d have to call, later, once he knew what he was doing. He could get on another bus and go back to them right now. He knew this, but it also seemed impossible for that life to exist in the same world as this one.

  The sidewalk, uneven, was soon broken up by lawns on the edge of town, a stop-and-start pattern like some sort of Morse code, abandoned for intervals and then gone entirely. Shallow ditches ran along the edges of the narrow road; he remembered them full of daylilies, swelling orange masses like running flames. He slid his hands under his arms to warm them. It was a season earlier here. The lilacs of Pittsburgh and the warm rain were nowhere. Crusts of snow broke under his feet. He kicked the blackened edges into the ditches, where more snow lingered, broken through with weeds, debris.

  He’d reached the local highway. Speeding cars forced him to the grassy shoulder, spraying him with a fine mist of slush. This had once been a quiet road, cars audible for miles before they came into sight, and usually it was a familiar face behind the windshield, the car slowing, stopping, and a door swinging open to let him in. He was known, his family was, and after the small talk—How’s your mama, your daddy; how’s the garden doing this year?—a silence would fall, in which the driver and the other passengers thought carefully about what might be said and what might not to this boy so smart he had a scholarship, to this boy with a sister too sick to go to school. There was in the mountains, and perhaps in the world at large, a theory of compensation that held that for everything given something else was immediately and visibly lost. Well, you’ve got the smarts, even if your cousin did get the looks. Compliments, seductive as flowers, thorny with their opposites: Yes, you may be smart but you sure are ugly; You may look nice but you didn’t get a brain. Compensation; balance in the universe. David heard accusation in each remark about his studies—he’d taken too much, taken everything—and in the cars and trucks silence had swelled until it seemed impossible that a human voice could ever break it.

  The road curved, then curved again: June’s dancing road. The hillsides steepened and streams cascaded down and the houses grew steadily sparser, poorer. Mobile homes appeared, set into the hills like tarnished dime-store jewelry, turquoise and silver and yellow faded to the color of cream. Here was the sycamore, the heart-shaped rock, the curve where three white crosses, decorated with faded flowers and ribbons, had been pounded into the earth. He turned and went up the next stream, his stream. The path was overgrown; almost, but not quite, disappeared.

  It took him nearly an hour to reach the old house, now weather-beaten a soft gray, the roof sagging at the center of the ridgepole and some of the shingles missing. David stopped, taken so powerfully into the past that he expected to see them again: his mother coming down the steps with a galvanized tin tub to collect water for the laundry, his sister sitting on the porch, and the sound of the ax striking logs from where his father chopped firewood, just out of sight. He had left for school and June had died, and his parents had stayed on here as long as they could, reluctant to leave the land. But they had not thrived, and then his father died, too young, and his mother finally went north, traveling to her sister and the promise of work in the auto factories. David had come home from Pittsburgh rarely and never again since his mother died. The place was as familiar as breath but as far from his life now as the moon.

  The wind rose. He walked up the steps. The door hung crookedly on its hinges and would not close. The air inside was chilly, musty. It was a single room, the sleeping loft compromised now by the sagging ridgepole. The walls were water-stained; through chinks, he glimpsed pale sky. He’d helped his father put this roof on, sweat pouring down their faces and sap on their hands, their hammers rising into the sun, into the sharp fragrance of fresh-cut cedar.

  As far as David knew, no one had been here for years. Yet a frying pan sat on the old stove, cold, the grease congealed but not, when he leaned to smell it, rancid. In the corner there was an old iron bed covered with a worn quilt like his grandmother and his mother had made. The cloth was cool, faintly damp, beneath his hand. There was no mattress, only a thick layering of blankets against boards set into the frame. The plank floor was swept clean, and there were three crocuses in a jar in the window.

  Someone was livin
g here. A breeze moved through the room, stirring the paper cutouts that hung everywhere—from the ceiling, from the windows, above the bed. David walked around, examining them with a growing sense of wonder. They were a little like the snowflakes he’d cut out in school, but infinitely more intricate and detailed, showing entire scenes to the last detail: the state fair, a tidy living room before a fire, a picnic with exploding fireworks. Delicate and precise, they gave the old house an air of rustling mystery. He touched the scalloped edge of a hay-wagon scene, the girls wearing lace-trimmed bonnets, the boys with their pants rolled to their knees. Ferris wheels, fluttering carousels, cars traveling down highways: these hung above the bed, moving lightly in the drafts, as fragile as wings.

  Who had made these with such skill and patience? He thought of his own photographs: he tried so hard to catch each moment, pin it in place, make it last, but when the images emerged in the darkroom they were already altered. Hours, days had passed by then; he had become a slightly different person. Yet he had wanted so much to catch the fluttering veil, to capture the world even as it disappeared, once and again and then again.

  He sat on the hard bed. His head still throbbed. He lay down and pulled the damp quilt around him. There was a soft gray light in all the windows. The bare table, and the stove: everything smelled faintly of mildew. The walls were covered with layers of newspaper that had begun to peel. His family had been so poor; everyone they knew had been poor. It wasn’t a crime, but it might as well have been. That’s why things got saved, old engines and tin cans and milk bottles scattered across the lawns and hills: a spell against need, a hedge against want. When David was small, a boy named Daniel Brinkerhoff had climbed into an old refrigerator and suffocated to death. David remembered the hushed voices, and then the body of a boy his own age lying in a cabin much like this one, with candles lit. The mother had wept, which had made no sense to him; he had been too young to understand grief, the magnitude of death. But he remembered what had been said, outside but within his mother’s hearing, by the anguished father who had lost his son: Why my child? He was whole, he was strong. Why not that sickly girl? If it had to be someone, why not her?

  He closed his eyes. It was so quiet. He thought of all the sounds that filled up his life in Lexington: footsteps and voices in the hallways and the phone ringing, shrill in his ear; his pager beeping through the sounds of the radio as he drove; and at home, always, Paul on the guitar and Norah with the phone cord wrapped around one wrist as she talked to clients; and in the middle of the night more calls, he was needed at the hospital, he must come. And, rising in the darkness, the cold, he went.

  Not here. Here there was only the sound of the wind fluttering the old leaves and, distantly, the soft murmuring of water in the stream beneath the ice. A branch tapped on the exterior wall. Cold, he lifted himself up, rising on his heels and the upper part of his back so he could tug the quilt free and pull it more fully over him. The photos in his pocket poked his chest as he turned, pulling the quilt closer. Still, he shivered for a few minutes longer, from the cold and the residue of travel, and when he closed his eyes he thought of the two rivers meeting, converging, and the dark waters swirling. Not to fall but to jump: that was what had hung there in the balance.

  He closed his eyes. Just for a few minutes, to rest. There was, beneath the mustiness and mildew, the scent of something sweet, sugary. His mother had bought sugar in town, and he could almost taste the birthday cake, yellow and dense, so rich and sweet it seemed to explode in his mouth. Neighbors from below, their voices carrying all the way up the hollow, the dresses of the women multicolored and joyous, brushing against the tall grass. The men in their dark trousers and their boots, the children scattering wildly, shouting, across the yard, and later they all gathered and made ice cream, packed in salty brine beneath the porch, freezing hard, until they lifted the icy metal lid and scooped the sweet cold cream high into their bowls.

  Maybe that was after June was born, after her baptism maybe, that day with the ice cream. June was like other babies, her small hands waving in the air, brushing against his face when he leaned down to kiss her. In the heat of that summer day, ice cream cooling under the porch, they celebrated. Fall came, and winter, and June did not sit up and did not, and then it was her first birthday and she was too weak to walk far. Fall came again and a cousin visited with her son, almost the same age, her son not only walking but running through the rooms and starting to talk, and June was still sitting, watching the world so quietly. They knew, then, that something was wrong. He remembered his mother watching the little boy cousin, tears sliding silently down her face for a long time before she took a deep breath and turned back into the room and went on. This was the grief he had carried with him, heavy as a stone in his heart. This was the grief he had tried to spare Norah and Paul, only to create so many others.

  “David,” his mother had said that day, drying her eyes briskly, not wanting him to see her cry, “pick up those papers from the table and go outside for wood and water. Do it right now. Make yourself useful.”

  And he had. And they had all gone on, that day and every day. They had drawn into themselves, not even visiting people except for the rare christening or funeral, until the day Daniel Brinkerhoff had shut himself in the refrigerator. They came home from that wake in the dark, working their way up the streamside path by feel, by memory, June in his father’s arms, and his mother had never left the mountain again, not until the day she moved to Detroit… .

  • • •

  “Don’t suppose you’re anyways useful,” the voice was saying, and David, still half asleep, not sure if he was dreaming or hearing voices in the wind, shifted at the tugging at his wrists, at the muttering voice, and ran his dry tongue against the roof of his mouth. Their lives were hard, the days long and full of work, and there was no time and no patience for grief. You had to move on, that was all you could do, and since talking about her would not bring June back, they had never mentioned her again. David turned and his wrists hurt. Startled, he half woke, his eyes opening and drifting over the room.

  She was standing at the stove, just a few feet away, olive fatigues tight around her slim hips, flaring fuller around her thighs. She wore a sweater the color of rust shot through with luminous strands of orange, and over this a man’s green-and-black plaid flannel shirt. She had cut the fingertips from her gloves, and she moved around the stove with deft efficiency, poking at some eggs in the frying pan. It had grown dark outside—he had slept a long time—and candles were strewn around the room. Yellow light softened everything. The delicate paper scenes stirred softly.

  Grease spattered and the girl’s hand flew up. He lay still for several minutes, watching her, every detail vivid: the black stove handles his mother had scrubbed, and this girl’s bitten nails, and the flicker of candles in the window. She reached to the shelf above the stove for salt and pepper, and he was struck by the way light traveled across her skin, her hair, as she moved in and out of shadow, by the fluid nature of everything she did.

  He had left his camera in the hotel safe.

  He tried to sit up then, but was stopped again by his wrists. Puzzled, he turned his head: a filmy red chiffon scarf tied him to one bedpost; the strings from a mop to the other. She noticed his movement and turned, tapping her palm lightly with a wooden spoon.

  “My boyfriend’s coming back any minute now,” she announced.

  David let his head fall back heavily on the pillow. She was slight, no older and perhaps even younger than Paul, out here in this abandoned house. Shacking up, he thought, wondering about the boyfriend, realizing for the first time that maybe he ought to be afraid.

  “What’s your name?” he asked.

  “Rosemary,” she said, and then looked worried. “You can believe that or not,” she added.

  “Rosemary,” he said, thinking of the piney bush Norah had planted in a sunny spot, its wands of fragrant needles, “I wonder if you would be good enough to untie me.”

  “No.” Her voice was swift and bright. “No way.”

  “I’m thirsty,” he said.

  She looked at him for a moment; her eyes were warm, sherry-tinted brown, wary. Then she went outside, releasing a wedge of cold air into the room, setting all the paper cuttings fluttering. She came back with a metal cup of water from the stream.

  “Thanks,” he said, “but I can’t drink this lying down.”

  She attended to the stove for a minute, turning the sputtering eggs, then rummaged through a drawer, coming up with a plastic straw from some fast-food place, dirty at one end, which she thrust into the metal cup.

  “I suppose you’ll use it,” she said, “if you’re thirsty enough.”

  He turned his head and sipped, too thirsty to do more than note the taste of dust in the water. She slid the eggs onto a blue metal plate speckled with white and sat down at the wooden table. She ate quickly, pushing the eggs onto a plastic fork with the forefinger of her left hand, delicately, without thinking, as if he weren’t in the room at all. In that moment he understood somehow that the boyfriend was fiction. She was living here alone.

  He drank until the straw sputtered dry, water like a dirty river in his throat.

  “My parents used to own this place,” he said, when he finished. “In fact, I still do own it. I have the deed in a safe. Technically, you’re trespassing.”

  She smiled at this and put her fork down carefully in the center of the plate. “You come here to claim it then? Technically?”

  Her hair, her cheeks, caught the flickering light. She was so young, yet there was something fierce and strong about her too, something lonely but determined.

  “No.” He thought of his strange journey from an ordinary morning in Lexington—Paul taking forever in the bathroom and Norah frowning as she balanced the checkbook at the counter, coffee steaming—to the art show, and the river, and now here.

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