The memory keepers daugh.., p.38
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       The Memory Keeper's Daughter, p.38
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           Kim Edwards

  He sighed. “I don’t know. It was such a sunny afternoon. Bright, clear. I was moving right along, singing with the radio. Thinking about how great it would be if you were there, like we talked about. The next thing I knew, the truck was sailing through the guardrails. And after that I don’t remember. Not until I woke up in here. I totaled the truck. The cops said another dozen yards either way down the road, and I’d have been history.”

  Caroline leaned forward and put her arms around him, smelling his familiar smells. His heart beat steadily in his chest. Just days ago, they had moved together on the dance floor, worried about the roof, the gutters. She fingered his hair, grown too long at the base of his neck.

  “Oh, Al.”

  “I know,” he said. “I know, Caroline.”

  Beside them, wide-eyed, Phoebe started to cry, pressing the sobs back into her mouth with her hand. Caroline sat up and put an arm around her. She stroked Phoebe’s hair, felt the sturdy warmth of her body.

  “Phoebe,” Al said. “Look at you here, just getting off work. Did you have a good day, honey? I didn’t get to Cleveland, so I didn’t get those rolls you like so much, sorry to say. Next time, okay?”

  Phoebe nodded, wiping her hands across her cheeks. “Where’s your truck?” she asked, and Caroline remembered the times Al had taken them both for a ride, Phoebe sitting high up in the cab and pulling her fist down when they passed other trucks to make them blow their horns.

  “Honey, it’s broken,” Al said. “I’m sorry, but it’s really smashed up.”

  Al was in the hospital for two days, and then he came home. Caroline’s time passed in a blur of getting Phoebe to work and going to work herself, tending to Al, making meals, trying to make a dent in the laundry. She fell into bed exhausted each night, woke in the morning, and started all over again. It didn’t help that Al was an awful patient, ornery at being so confined, short-tempered and demanding. She was reminded, unhappily, of those early days with Leo in this same house, as if time were not traveling in a straight line but circling around instead.

  A week passed. On Saturday, Caroline, exhausted, put a load in the washer and went into the kitchen to get something made for dinner. She pulled a pound of carrots out of the refrigerator for a salad and rummaged in the freezer, hoping for inspiration. Nothing. Well, Al wouldn’t like it, but maybe she’d order a pizza. It was five o’clock already, and in a few minutes she would have to leave to pick Phoebe up from work. She paused in the peeling, looking past her own faint reflection in the window to the Foodland sign flashing red through the bare branches of the trees, thinking of David Henry. She thought of Norah too, so objectified in his photographs, her flesh rising like hills and her hair filling the frame with unexpected light. The letter from the lawyer was still in the desk drawer. She’d kept the appointment she’d made before Al’s accident, visiting the substantial oak-paneled office and learning the details of David Henry’s bequest. The conversation had been in her mind all week, though she’d had no time to think about it or talk with Al.

  There was a noise outside. Caroline turned, startled. Through the window in the back door she glimpsed Phoebe outside, on the porch. She’d gotten home on her own, somehow; she wasn’t wearing her coat. Caroline dropped the peeler and went to the door, drying her hands on her apron. There she saw what had been hidden from inside: Robert, standing next to Phoebe, his arm around her shoulders.

  “What are you doing here?” she asked sharply, stepping outside.

  “I took the day off,” Phoebe said.

  “You did? What about your job?”

  “Max is there. I’ll work her hours on Monday.”

  Caroline nodded slowly. “But how did you get home? I was about to come and get you.”

  “We took the bus,” Robert said.

  “Yes.” Caroline laughed, but when she spoke her voice was sharp with worry. “Right. Of course. You took the bus. Oh, Phoebe, I told you not to do that. It’s not safe.”

  “Me and Robert are safe,” Phoebe said, her lower lip protruding slightly, as it did when she got angry. “Me and Robert are getting married.”

  “Oh, for heaven’s sake,” Caroline said, pushed to the limit of her patience. “How can you get married? You don’t know the first thing about marriage, either one of you.”

  “We know,” Robert said. “We know about marriage.”

  Caroline sighed. “Look, Robert, you have to go home,” she said. “You took the bus here, so you can take the bus home. I don’t have time to drive you anywhere. It’s too much. You have to go home.”

  To her surprise, Robert smiled. He looked at Phoebe, and then he walked into the shadowy part of the back porch and leaned under the swing. He came back carrying a sheaf of red and white roses, which seemed to glow slightly in the gathering dusk. He handed these to Caroline, the soft petals brushing her skin.

  “Robert?” she said, taken aback, a faint perfume infusing the cold air. “What’s this?”

  “I got them at the grocery store,” he said. “On sale.”

  Caroline shook her head. “I don’t understand.”

  “It’s Saturday,” Phoebe reminded her.

  Saturday—the day Al came home from his trips, always with a present for Phoebe and a bunch of flowers for his wife. Caroline imagined the two of them, Robert and Phoebe, taking the bus to the grocery store where Robert worked as a stocker, studying the prices of the flowers, counting out the exact change. There was a part of her that still wanted to scream, to put Robert back on the bus and out of their lives, a part of her that wanted to say, It’s too much for me. I don’t care.

  Inside, the little bell she’d left with Al rang insistently. Caroline sighed and took a step back, gesturing to the kitchen, the light and warmth.

  “All right,” she said. “Come inside, the two of you. Come in before you freeze.”

  She hurried up the stairs, trying to pull herself together. How much was one woman supposed to do? “You’re supposed to be patient,” she said, walking into their room, where Al was sitting with his leg propped on an ottoman, a book in his lap. “Patient. Where do you think the word comes from, Al? I know it’s exasperating, but healing takes time, for heaven’s sake.”

  “You’re the one who wanted me home more,” Al retorted. “Be careful what you wish for.”

  Caroline shook her head and sat down on the edge of the bed. “I didn’t wish for this.”

  He looked out the window for a few seconds. “You’re right,” he said at last. “I’m sorry.”

  “Are you okay?” she asked. “How’s the pain?”

  “Not so bad.”

  Beyond the glass, wind stirred the last leaves of the sycamore against the violet sky. Bags of tulip bulbs were under the tree, waiting to be planted. Last month she and Phoebe had put in chrysanthemums, bright bursts of orange and cream and dark purple. She had sat back on her heels to admire them, brushing dirt off her hands, remembering times when she had gardened like this with her mother, connected by their tasks though not by words. They had rarely talked about anything personal. There was so much, now, that Caroline wished she had said.

  “I’m not going to do it anymore,” he said, blurting the words out without looking at her “Drive a truck, I mean.”

  “All right,” she said, trying to imagine what this might mean for their lives. She was glad—something in her had just shut down every time she imagined him driving away again—but she was suddenly a little apprehensive too. Not once since they were married had they spent more than a week together.

  “I’ll be getting in your hair all the time,” Al said, as if reading her mind.

  “Will you?” She looked at him intently, taking in his pallor, his serious eyes. “Are you planning to retire completely, then?”

  He shook his head, still studying his hands. “Too young for that. I was thinking I could do something else. Transfer into the office, maybe; I know the system inside out. Drive a city bus. I don’t know—anything, really. But I can’t go out
on the road again.”

  Caroline nodded. She’d driven out to the accident sight, seen the hole torn in the guardrail, the scarred piece of earth where the truck had fallen.

  “I always had a feeling,” Al said, glancing at his hands. He was letting his beard grow in; it stubbled his face. “Like this was bound to happen, one day or another. And now it has.”

  “I didn’t know that,” Caroline said. “You never said you were scared.”

  “Not scared,” Al said. “I just had a feeling. It’s different.”

  “Still. You never said anything.”

  He shrugged. “Wouldn’t have made any difference. It was just a feeling, Caroline.”

  She nodded. Another few yards and Al would have died, the officers had said more than once. All week she’d kept herself from imagining what hadn’t happened. But the truth was, she could be a widow, facing the rest of her life alone.

  “Maybe you should retire,” she said slowly. “I went down to the lawyer, Al. I’d already made the appointment, and I kept it. It’s a lot of money that David Henry left for Phoebe.”

  “Well, it’s not mine,” Al said. “Even if it’s a million dollars, it’s not mine.”

  She remembered, then, how he’d responded when Doro had given them the house: this same reluctance to accept anything he hadn’t earned with his own hands.

  “That’s true,” she said. “The money is for Phoebe. But you and I, we raised her. If she’s taken care of financially, we can worry less. We can have more freedom. Al, we’ve worked hard. Maybe it’s time for us to retire.”

  “What do you mean?” he asked. “You want Phoebe to move?”

  “No. I don’t want that at all. But Phoebe wants it. She and Robert are downstairs now.” Caroline smiled a little, remembering the sheaf of roses she’d left lying on the counter by the pile of half-peeled carrots. “They went to the grocery store together. On the bus. They bought me flowers because it’s Saturday. So, I don’t know, Al. Who am I to say? Maybe they will be okay, more or less, together.”

  He nodded, thinking, and she was struck by how tired he looked, how fragile all their lives were, in the end. All these years she had tried to imagine every possibility, to keep everyone safe, and yet here was Al, grown a little older, with a broken leg—an outcome that had never crossed her mind.

  “I’ll make a pot roast tomorrow,” she said, naming his favorite meal. “Will pizza be okay tonight?”

  “Pizza’s fine,” Al said. “Get it from that place on Braddock, though.”

  She touched his shoulder and started down the stairs to make the call. On the landing she paused, listening to Robert and Phoebe in the kitchen, their low voices punctuated by a burst of laughter. The world was a vast and unpredictable and sometimes frightening place. But right now her daughter was in the kitchen, laughing with her boyfriend, and her husband dozed with a book in his lap, and she didn’t have to cook dinner. She took a deep breath. The air held the distant scent of roses—a clean scent, fresh as snow.

  1989

  July 1, 1989

  THE STUDIO OVER THE GARAGE, WITH ITS HIDDEN DARKroom, had not been opened since David moved out seven years ago, but now that the house was going up for sale Norah had no choice but to face it. David’s work was in favor again, worth quite a lot of money; curators were coming tomorrow to view the collection. So Norah had been sitting on the painted floor since early morning, slicing through boxes with an X-Acto knife, lifting out folders full of photographs and negatives and notes, determined to remain detached, to be ruthless, in this process of selection. It should not have taken long; David had been so meticulous, and everything was neatly labeled. A single day, she’d thought, no more.

  She hadn’t counted on memory, the slow lure of the past. It was early afternoon already, growing hot, and she had made it through only one box. A fan whirred in the window and a fine sweat gathered on her skin; the glossy photos stuck to her fingertips. They seemed at once so near and so impossible, those years of her youth. There she was with a scarf tied gaily in her carefully styled hair, Bree beside her in sweeping earrings, a flowing patchwork skirt. And here was a rare photo of David, so serious, with a crew cut, Paul just an infant in his arms. Memories rushed up, too, filling the room, holding Norah in place: the scents of lilacs and ozone and Paul’s infant skin; David’s touch, the clearing of his throat; the sunlight of a lost afternoon moving in patterns on the wooden floors. What had it meant, Norah asked herself, that they had lived these moments in this particular way? What did it mean that the photos did not fit at all with the woman she remembered being? If she looked closely she could see it, the distance and longing in her gaze, the way she always seemed to be looking just beyond the photo’s edge. But a stranger wouldn’t notice, Paul wouldn’t; from these images alone no one could suspect the intricate mysteries of her heart.

  A wasp roamed and floated near the ceiling. Each year they returned and built a nest somewhere in the eaves. Now that Paul was grown, Norah had given up worrying about them. She stood and stretched and got a Coke from the refrigerator where David had once stored chemicals and slender packages of film. She drank it, gazing out the window at the wild irises and honeysuckle in the backyard. Norah had always meant to make something of it, do more than hang bird feeders from the honeysuckle branches, but in all these years she hadn’t, and now she never would. In two months she would marry Frederic and leave this place forever.

  He had been transferred to France. Twice the transfer had fallen through, and they had talked of moving in together in Lexington, selling both their places and starting fresh: something brand new, a place where no one else had ever lived. Their talk was idle, languorous, conversations that bloomed over their dinners together or while they lay together in the dusk, glasses of wine on the bedside tables, the moon a pale disk in the window above the trees. Lexington, France, Taiwan—it didn’t matter to Norah, who felt she had already discovered another country with Frederic. Sometimes, at night, she closed her eyes and lay awake, listening to his steady breathing, filled with a deep sense of contentment. It pained her to realize how far she and David had drifted away from love. His fault, certainly, but hers too. She had held herself so close and tight, she had been so afraid of everything after Phoebe died. But those years were gone now; they had flowed away, leaving nothing but memory behind.

  So France was fine. When the news came that the posting was just outside of Paris, she was glad. They had already rented a little cottage at the edge of the river in Châteauneuf. Frederic was there at this very moment, putting in a greenhouse for his orchids. Even now it filled Norah’s imagination: the smooth red tiles of the patio, the slight river breeze in the birch tree by the door, and the way the sunlight fell on Frederic’s shoulders, his arms, as he worked to frame the walls of glass. She could walk to the train station and be in Paris in two hours, or she could walk to the village and buy fresh cheese and bread, and dark gleaming bottles of wine, her cloth tote bags growing heavier with each stop. She could sauté onions, pausing to look up at the river moving slowly beyond the fence. On the patio in the evenings she’d spent there, the moonflowers had opened with their lemony fragrance and she and Frederic sat drinking wine and talking. Such simple things, really. Such happiness. Norah glanced at the boxes of photographs, wanting to take that young woman she had been by the arm and shake her gently. Keep going, she wanted to tell her. Don’t give up. Your life will be fine in the end.

  She drained her Coke and went back to work, bypassing the box in which she’d gotten so mired and opening another. Inside this one there were file folders neatly arranged, organized by year. The first held shots of anonymous infants, sleeping in their carriages, sitting on lawns or porches, held in the warm arms of their mothers. The photos were all 8-by-10s, glossy black-and-whites; even Norah could tell that they were David’s early experiments in light. The curators would be pleased. Some were so dark the figures were barely visible; others were washed nearly white. David must have been testing
the range of his camera, keeping the subject the same and varying the focus, the aperture, the available light.

  The second folder was very similar, and the third and the fourth. Photos of girls, not infants anymore but two and three and four years old. Girls in their Easter dresses at church, girls running in the park, girls eating ice cream or clustered outside the school at recess. Girls dancing, throwing balls, laughing, crying. Norah frowned, flipping more quickly through the images. There wasn’t one child she recognized. The photos were arranged carefully by age. When she skipped to the end, she found not girls but young women, walking, shopping, talking to each other. The last was a young woman in the library, her chin resting in her hand as she gazed out the window, a distant expression, familiar to Norah, in her eyes.

  Norah let the folder fall into her lap, spilling photos. What was this? All these girls, young women: it could have been a sexual fixation, yet Norah knew instinctively that it was not. What the photos shared in common was not a darkness but an innocence. Children playing in the park across the street, wind lifting their hair and clothes. Even the older ones, the grown women, had this quality; they turned a distracted gaze on the world, wide-eyed, somehow, and questioning. Loss lingered in the play of lights and shadows; these were photos full of yearning. Of longing, yes, not lust.

  She flipped back the box lid to read the label. SURVEY was all it said.

  Quickly, careless of the disorder she was creating, Norah went through all the other boxes, pulling one off another. In the middle of the room she found another with that bold black word SURVEY. She opened it and pulled the folders out.

  Not girls this time, not strangers, but Paul. Folder after folder of Paul in all his ages, his transformations and his growth, his turning-away rage. His intentness and his stunning gift of music, fingers flying over his guitar.

  For a long time Norah sat very still, agitated, on the edge of knowing. And then suddenly the knowledge was hers, irrevocable, searing: all those years of silence, when he would not speak of their lost daughter, David had been keeping this record of her absence. Paul, and a thousand other girls, all growing.

 
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