The memory keepers daugh.., p.41
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       The Memory Keeper's Daughter, p.41
 

          

  “And what is that?” he asked. “What happens now?”

  “I’ll go to Pittsburgh. I know I have to see her. But after that, I don’t know anything. Should I bring her back here? We’ll be strangers to her. And I have to talk with Frederic; he has to know.” She put her face in her hands for a moment. “Oh, Paul—how can I go to France for two years and leave her behind? I don’t know what to do. It’s too much for me, all at once.”

  A breeze fluttered the photographs scattered across the lawn. Paul sat quietly, struggling with many confused emotions: anger at his father, and surprise, and sadness for what he’d lost. Worry, too; it was terrible to be concerned about this, but what if he had to take care of this sister who couldn’t live on her own? How could he possibly do that? He’d never even met a retarded person, and he found that the images he had were all negative. None of them fit with the sweetly smiling girl in the photograph, and that was disconcerting too.

  “I don’t know either,” Paul said. “Maybe the first thing is to clean this mess up.”

  “Your inheritance,” his mother said.

  “Not just mine,” he said thoughtfully, testing the words. “It’s my sister’s too.”

  They worked through that day and the next, sorting the photos and repacking the boxes, dragging them into the cool depths of the garage. While his mother met with the curators, Paul called Michelle to explain what had happened and to tell her he would not be at her concert after all. He expected her to be angry, but she listened without comment and hung up. When he tried to call back, the machine picked up; that happened all day long. More than once he considered getting in his car and driving like wild home to Cincinnati, but he knew it would do no good. Knew, too, that he didn’t really want to go on this way, always loving Michelle more than she could love him back. So he forced himself to stay. He turned to the physical work of packing up the house, and in the evening he walked downtown to the library to check out books on Down’s syndrome.

  On Tuesday morning, quiet and distracted and full of apprehension, he and his mother got into her car and drove over the river and through the lush late-summer green of Ohio. It was very hot, the leaves of the corn shimmering against the expansive blue sky. They arrived in Pittsburgh amid returning Fourth of July traffic, traveling through the tunnel that opened onto the bridge in a breathtaking view of the two rivers merging. They crawled through downtown traffic and followed the Monongahela, traveling through another long tunnel. At last they pulled up at Caroline Gill’s brick house on a busy tree-lined street.

  She had told them to park in the alley and they did, getting out of the car and stretching. Beyond a strip of grass, steps led down into a narrow lot and the high brick house where his sister had grown up. Paul took the house in, so much like Cincinnati, so different from his own quiet childhood, its suburban ease and comfort. Traffic rushed by on the street, past the little postage-stamp yards, into the city sprawling all around them, hot and dense.

  The gardens all along the alley were thick with flowers, hollyhocks and irises in every color, their white and purple tongues vivid against the grass. In this garden a woman was working, tending a row of lush tomato plants. A hedge of lilac bushes grew up behind her, the leaves flashing their pale green undersides in a breeze that pushed the hot air without cooling it. The woman, wearing dark blue shorts and a white T-shirt and bright flowered cotton gloves, sat up from where she was kneeling and ran the back of her hand across her forehead. The traffic rushed; she hadn’t heard them coming. She broke a leaf off a tomato plant and pressed it to her nose.

  “Is that her?” Paul asked. “Is that the nurse?”

  His mother nodded. She had folded her arms tightly, protectively, across her chest. Her sunglasses masked her eyes, but even so he could see how nervous she was, how pale and tense.

  “Yes. That’s Caroline Gill. Paul, now that it’s come to it, I’m not sure I can do this. Maybe we should just go home.”

  “We’ve driven all this way. And they’re expecting us.”

  She smiled a small tired smile. She’d hardly slept in days; even her lips were pale.

  “They can’t possibly be expecting us,” she said. “Not really.”

  Paul nodded. The back door swung open, but the figure on the porch was hidden in the shadows. Caroline stood, brushing her hands on her shorts.

  “Phoebe,” she called. “There you are.”

  Paul felt his mother grow tense beside him, but he didn’t look at her. He looked instead at the porch. The moment stretched out, extended, and the sun pressed down against them. At last the figure emerged, carrying two glasses of water.

  He stared hard. She was short, much shorter than he was, and her hair was darker, thinner and more flyaway, cut in a simple bowl shape around her face. She was pale, like his mother, and from this distance her features seemed delicate in a broad face, a face that seemed somewhat flattened, as if it had been pressed too long against a wall. Her eyes were slightly upslanted, her limbs short. She was not a girl anymore, as in the photographs, but grown, his own age, with gray in her hair. A few gray hairs flashed his beard too, when he let it grow. She wore flowered shorts and she was stocky, a little plump, her knees brushing together when she walked.

  Oh, his mother said. She had placed one hand on her heart. Her eyes were hidden by the sunglasses, and he was glad; this moment was too private.

  “It’s okay,” he said. “Let’s just stand here for a while.”

  The sun was so hot, and the traffic rushed. Caroline and Phoebe sat side by side on the porch steps, drinking their water.

  “I’m ready,” his mother said at last, and they went down the steps to the narrow patch of lawn between the vegetables and flowers. Caroline Gill saw them first; she shaded her eyes, squinting against the sun, and stood up. Phoebe stood up too, and for a few seconds they looked at one another across the lawn. Then Caroline took Phoebe’s hand in hers. They met by the tomato plants, the heavy fruit already starting to ripen, filling the air with a clean, acrid scent. No one spoke. Phoebe was gazing at Paul, and after a long moment she reached across the space between them and touched his cheek, lightly, gently, as if to see if he was real. Paul nodded without speaking, looking at her gravely; her gesture seemed right to him, somehow. Phoebe wanted to know him, that was all. He wanted to know her too, but he had no idea what to say to her this sudden sister, so intimately connected to him yet such a stranger. He was also terribly self-conscious, afraid of doing the wrong thing. How did you talk to a retarded person? The books he had read over the weekend, all those clinical accounts—none of this had prepared him for the real human being whose hand brushed so lightly against his face.

  It was Phoebe who recovered first.

  “Hello,” she said, extending her hand to him formally. Paul took her hand, feeling how small her fingers were, still unable to say a single word. “I’m Phoebe. Pleased to meet you.” Her speech was thick, hard to understand. Then she turned to his mother and did this again.

  “Hello,” his mother said, taking her hand, then clasping it between her own. Her voice was charged with emotion. “Hello, Phoebe. I’m very glad to meet you too.”

  “It’s so hot,” Caroline said. “Why don’t we go inside? I have the fans on. And Phoebe made iced tea this morning. She’s been excited about your visit, haven’t you, honey?”

  Phoebe smiled and nodded, suddenly shy. They followed her into the coolness of the house. The rooms were small but immaculate, with beautiful woodwork and French doors opening between the living room and dining room. The living room was full of sunlight and shabby, wine-colored furniture. A massive loom sat in the far corner.

  “I’m making a scarf,” Phoebe said.

  “It’s beautiful,” his mother said, crossing the room to finger the yarns, dark pink and cream and yellow and pale green. She’d taken off her sunglasses and she looked up, her eyes watery, her voice still charged with emotion. “Did you choose these colors yourself, Phoebe?”

  “My
favorite colors,” Phoebe said.

  “Mine too,” his mother said. “When I was your age, those were my favorite colors too. My bridesmaids wore dark pink and cream, and they carried yellow roses.”

  Paul was startled to know this; all the photos he had seen were black-and-white.

  “You can have this scarf,” Phoebe said, sitting down at the loom. “I’ll make it for you.”

  “Oh,” his mother said, and closed her eyes briefly. “Phoebe, that’s lovely.”

  Caroline brought iced tea, and the four of them sat uneasily in the living room, talking awkwardly about the weather, about Pittsburgh’s budding renaissance in the wake of the steel industry collapse. Phoebe sat quietly at the loom, moving the shuttle back and forth, looking up now and then when her name was mentioned. Paul kept casting sidelong glances at her. Phoebe’s hands were small and plump. She concentrated on the shuttle, biting at her lower lip. At last his mother drained her tea and spoke.

  “Well,” she said. “Here we are. And I don’t know what happens now.”

  “Phoebe,” Caroline said. “Why don’t you join us?” Quietly, Phoebe came over and sat next to Caroline on the couch.

  His mother began, speaking too quickly, clasping her hands together, nervous. “I don’t know what’s best. There are no maps for this place we’re in, are there? But I want to offer my home to Phoebe. She can come and live with us, if she wants to do that. I’ve thought about it so much, these last days. It would take a whole lifetime to catch up.” Here she paused to take a breath, and then she turned to Phoebe, who was looking at her with wide, wary eyes. “You’re my daughter, Phoebe, do you understand that? This is Paul, your brother.”

  Phoebe took hold of Caroline’s hand. “This is my mother,” she said.

  “Yes.” Norah glanced at Caroline and tried again. “That’s your mother,” she said. “But I’m your mother too. You grew in my body, Phoebe.” She patted her stomach. “You grew right here. But then you were born, and your mother Caroline raised you.”

  “I’m going to marry Robert,” Phoebe said. “I don’t want to live with you.”

  Paul, who had watched his mother struggle all weekend, felt Phoebe’s words physically, as if she’d kicked him. He saw his mother feel them too.

  “It’s okay, Phoebe,” Caroline said. “No one’s going to make you go away.”

  “I didn’t mean—I only wanted to offer—” His mother stopped and took another deep breath. Her eyes were deep green, troubled. She tried again. “Phoebe, Paul and I, we’d like to get to know you. That’s all. Please don’t be scared of us, okay? What I want to say—what I mean—is that my house is open to you. Always. Wherever I go in the world, you can come there too. And I hope you will. I hope you’ll come and visit me someday, that’s all. Would that be okay with you?”

  “Maybe,” Phoebe conceded.

  “Phoebe,” Caroline said, “Why don’t you show Paul around for a while? Give Mrs. Henry and me a chance to talk a little bit. And don’t worry, sweetheart,” she added, resting her hand lightly on Phoebe’s arm. “No one’s going anywhere. Everything’s okay.”

  Phoebe nodded and stood up.

  “Want to see my room?” she asked Paul. “I got a new record player.”

  Paul glanced at his mother and she nodded, watching the two of them as they crossed the room together. Paul followed Phoebe up the stairs.

  “Who’s Robert?” he asked.

  “He’s my boyfriend. We’re getting married. Are you married?”

  Paul, pierced with a memory of Michelle, shook his head. “No.”

  “You have a girlfriend?”

  “No. I used to have a girlfriend, but she went away.”

  Phoebe stopped on the top step and turned. They were eye to eye, so close that Paul felt uncomfortable, his personal space invaded. He glanced away and then looked back, and she was still looking straight at him.

  “It’s not polite to stare at people,” he said.

  “Well, you look sad.”

  “I am sad,” he said. “Actually, I’m very, very sad.”

  She nodded, and for a moment she seemed to have joined him in his sadness, her expression clouding up and then, an instant later, clearing.

  “Come on,” she said, leading him down the hall. “I got some new records, too.”

  They sat on the floor of her room. The walls were pink, with pink and white checked curtains at the windows. It was a little girl’s room, filled with stuffed animals, bright pictures on the walls. Paul thought of Robert and wondered if it was true that Phoebe would get married. Then he felt bad for wondering this; why shouldn’t she get married, or do something else? He thought of the extra bedroom in his parents’ house, where his grandmother stayed occasionally when he was a boy. That would have been Phoebe’s room; she would have filled it with her music and her things. Phoebe put the album on and turned the volume up loud on her little record player, blasting “Love, Love Me Do,” singing along to the music with her eyes half shut. She had a nice voice, Paul realized, turning the volume down a bit, flipping through her other albums. She had a lot of popular music but she had symphonies, too.

  “I like trombones,” she said, pretending to pull a long slide, and when Paul laughed, she laughed too. “I really love trombones.” She sighed.

  “I play the guitar,” he said. “Did you know that?”

  She nodded. “My mom said. Like John Lennon.”

  He smiled. “A little,” he said, surprised to find himself in the middle of a conversation. He’d gotten used to her speech, and the more he talked to Phoebe, the more she was simply herself, impossible to label. “You ever hear of Andrés Segovia?”

  “Uh-uh.”

  “He’s really good. He’s my favorite. Someday I’ll play his music for you, okay?”

  “I like you, Paul. You’re nice.”

  He found himself smiling, charmed and flattered. “Thanks,” he said. “I like you too.”

  “But I don’t want to live with you.”

  “That’s okay. I don’t live with my mother either,” he said. “I live in Cincinnati.”

  Phoebe’s face brightened. “All by yourself?”

  “Yes,” he said, knowing he would go back to find Michelle gone. “All by myself.”

  “Lucky.”

  “I suppose,” he said gravely, knowing suddenly that he was. The things he took for granted in life were the stuff of Phoebe’s dreams. “I’m lucky, yes. It’s true.”

  “I’m lucky too,” she said, surprising him. “Robert has a good job, and so do I.”

  “What’s your job?” Paul asked.

  “I make copies.” She said this with quiet pride. “Lots and lots of copies.”

  “And you like it?”

  She smiled. “Max works there. She’s my friend. We have twenty-three different colors of paper.”

  She hummed a little, content, as she put the first record carefully away and chose another. Her gestures were not fast, but they were efficient and focused. Paul could imagine her at the copy shop, doing her work, joking with her friend, pausing now and then to take pleasure in the rainbow of paper or a finished job. Downstairs he heard the murmur of voices as his mother and Caroline Gill worked out what to do. He realized, with a deep sense of shame, that his pity for Phoebe, like his mother’s assumption of her dependence, had been foolish and unnecessary. Phoebe liked herself and she liked her life; she was happy. All the striving he had done, all the competitions and awards, the long and futile struggle to both please himself and impress his father—placed next to Phoebe’s life, all this seemed a little foolish too.

  “Where’s your father?” he asked.

  “At work. He drives a bus. Do you like Yellow Submarine?”

  “Yes. Yes, I do.”

  Phoebe smiled a wide smile and put the album on.

  September 1, 1989

  NOTES SPILLED FROM THE CHURCH, INTO THE SUNLIT AIR. To Paul, standing just outside the bright red doors, the music seemed almost visible
, moving among the poplar leaves, scattering on the lawn like motes of light. The organist was a friend of his, a woman from Peru named Alejandra, who wore her burgundy hair pulled back tightly in a long ponytail and who, in the bleak days after Michelle left, had appeared at his apartment with soup, iced tea, and admonishments. Get up, she told him briskly, flinging open curtains and windows, sweeping dirty dishes into the sink. Get up. There’s no use mooning around, especially not over a flautist. They’re always flighty, didn’t you know that? I’m surprised she lit down here as long as she did. Two years. Honestly, it must be a record.

  Now Alejandra’s notes cascaded like silver water, followed by a bright crescendo, climbing, hanging suspended for an instant in the sunlight. His mother appeared in the doorway, laughing, one hand resting lightly on Frederic’s arm. They stepped together into the sunlight, into a bright rain of bird seed and petals.

  “Pretty,” Phoebe observed, beside him.

  She was wearing a dress of silvery green, holding the daffodils she’d carried in the wedding loosely in her right hand. She was smiling, her eyes narrowed with pleasure, deep dimples in both plump cheeks. The petals and the seeds arched against the bright sky; Phoebe laughed, delighted, as they fell. Paul looked at her hard: this stranger, his twin. They had walked together down the aisle of this tiny church to where their mother waited with Frederic by the altar. He’d walked slowly, Phoebe attentive and serious beside him, determined to do everything right, her hand cupped around his elbow. There were swallows winging in the rafters during the exchange of vows, but his mother had been sure of this church right from the beginning, just as she’d insisted, during all the strange and unexpected and tearful discussions of Phoebe and her future, that both of her children would stand with her at her wedding.

  Another burst, confetti this time, and a wave of laughter, rippling. His mother and Frederic bent their heads, and Bree brushed bright specks of paper from their shoulders, their hair. Bright confetti scattered everywhere, making the lawn look like terrazzo.

  “You’re right,” he said to Phoebe. “It’s pretty.”

 
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