I.O.U, p.1Nancy Pickard
I. O. U.
Books by Nancy Pickard
Marriage Is Murder
Say No to Murder
Published by POCKET BOOKS
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
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IN NEW ENGLAND, WE GET FOG THAT WOULD HAVE GIVEN Daphne du Maurier the creeps. I don’t mean poetic mists that slink in on little cat’s feet, or those delicate white clouds that hover halfway down Fujiyama on those Japanese prints. I’m talking fog that descends like a blanket—whoomp—and stakes itself down like a tent. Waking to one of those fogs, you want to lift the flap and peer out into the morning, but you can’t because, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein, there’s no “out” out there. There’s only fog, white and impenetrable as bone, hiding your left foot from your right if you dare to leave your home, swirling around your ankles until your feet disappear, hiding child from mother, husband from wife, curb from sidewalk, car from post, earth from sky.
I think we had one of those fogs the day we buried my mother.
I say “think,” because although it was foggy that morning, I may be exaggerating the extent of it. Maybe it was my brain that was thick as clam chowder and my eyes that were cloudy with tears, or maybe I’ve confused it with the fog of pneumonia that filled my mother’s lungs and killed her, but I think it was the weather.
I could ask somebody, I should ask somebody if I want to be accurate about this account, but I think I’d rather let that day remain foggy in my memory. Let the clouds swirl eerily around the casket, let the mist settle like grief on the shoulders of the mourners, let the merciful fog hide us each from the other, and let it drop like a curtain between me and the sight of my mother’s grave.
* * *
“—by the blood of the eternal covenant—”
The rented, nondenominational preacher bowed his head and closed his eyes, signaling the beginning of the end of the graveside service.
Instead of praying, I watched him.
He was a man of indeterminate age, thickly built, with a face that could have been carved onto one of those painted “olde fisherman” statues they sell down at the harbor; he looked like a lobsterman who’d found God. He was dressed conservatively in a brown suit, too tight across the shoulders, with a cheap tan shirt and a skinny yellow and brown tie. He stood, short legs akimbo, as if riding the waves on the deck of a boat, with his shoulders squared and his large, roughened hands folded over his crotch as he prayed. His words seemed to be addressed to the dead grass at my feet.
I hooked the toes of my shoes over the chair rung.
Those words, landing at the toes of my good black funeral pumps, made me feel uneasy. The blood of my mother surely did run through me, there was no denying that. And now with her death I felt a queasy sense of failure, as if there were, indeed, some eternal covenant I had failed to keep with her.
I shifted my weight on the hard, brown metal folding chair on which I sat in front of my mother’s coffin, under a green canvas canopy. It was March, on a rather mild but foggy morning, at the Harbor Lights Memorial Park, on a cliff above the ocean, in Port Frederick, Mass. I had lived in “Poor Fred” all of my thirty-some years. For the last decade or so, I had been employed in town as the director of the Port Frederick Civic Foundation, which dispensed charitable funds to worthy causes. For good or bad, in sickness and in health, for richer or poorer, and probably ’til death us did part, it was my town.
The moist air was thick with the smell of turned earth and that oniony scent of new-mown grass. How the caretakers had managed to find grass to mow in March, I didn’t know. Maybe they had sprayed the smell around, to go with the plastic flowers scattered about on other graves. My sister’s perfume, and my stepmother’s, mixed uneasily and hung in the air, too, along with hints of my husband’s aftershave, and my father’s, as if all of those conflicting fragrances had been captured and bottled within the invisible molecules of humidity that were softening my skin, loosening the wrinkles in my skirt, and straightening the curls that I had heated into my hair that morning at home.
I kept taking sharp breaths, trying to be unobtrusive about it, trying to suck some oxygen in, but managing only to make myself feel as if I were filling my lungs with fragrant water. Could a person drown in fog? I wondered, feeling claustrophobic and a little desperate.
I sneaked a look at my sister, Sherry Guthrie. I guess I wanted her to trade secret glances with me, to acknowledge our mutual pain and loss. But she had her head bowed and her eyes closed. Of course. When did she ever do anything that wasn’t entirely conventional? She looked so much like Mom—tall and blond, just like me—but she was so much tougher than our mother had been. I thought: Why couldn’t you have split the difference between you? If you were softer, nicer, maybe I’d like you better, Sherry. And if Mom had been held together by tougher sinews, like you, maybe she’d be alive…
If, if, if.
My head wouldn’t bow, my eyes wouldn’t close.
“—and that the hour of our death is known only to you—”
Yes, I thought, striving for detachment. I wouldn’t think about breathing, I would think about the preacher’s benediction: The hour of our death is known only to you. Okay, so when did Mom really die? Was it three days previously when her heart and brain stopped? Or was it when she originally entered the psychiatric hospital so many years ago, leaving “real life” behind her? Maybe I’d ask the preacher what he thought about it. It was a decent philosophical question to ask a theologian. Or maybe I didn’t want to hear anything else he had to say, considering how he was already making me squirm. Maybe I particularly didn’t want him quoting Bible verses at me. Those old guys in both Testaments were great ones for making vows they’d rather die than break. But I’d never made a vow to my mother. And what promise had I ever made to her that I hadn’t kept?
None. I sucked in another little breath. None. None.
My brother-in-law coughed. Somebody standing behind us echoed him. My stepmother, Miranda, known appropriately as Randy, sniffed a couple of times. I resented each delicate, sensitive little sniff. She and my dad had bowed their heads and closed their eyes on cue, but I suspected that Randy was praying for my mother’s diamond drop necklace to drop her way. My dad was probably praying the fog would lift so he could get in at least nine holes of golf that afternoon. They had flown in for the funeral from Palm Springs, where they had fled in 1971 after Dad ruined his own reputation by bankrupting our family business. He had then destroyed what was left of our family life by deserting his desperately ill wife to marry Randy. She’d been twenty-two years old at the time, making her a geriatric forty-one now. My dad was sixty-three, and he still wasn’t old enough to know better.
“—God of boundless compassion, our only sure comfort in distress—”
I had behaved very strangely the night she died.
I did odd things, starting with the fact that I didn’t tell anybody—not even my husband—when the Hampshire Psychiatric Hospital called me.
I seemed, even to myself, to take the news calmly.
“Did she?” I said, in a voice that felt as cool and clear as New England town ponds used to be. My heart, however, was beating fast and my arms felt as hot as if I were standing over a stove. “Was she?… Yes, the Harbor Lights Funeral Home… Thank you… Thank you… Thank you.”
I hung up the telephone, grabbed my keys and purse, slipped into a down jacket and walked out of the house. My husband, who was somewhere upstairs, didn’t even cross my mind. When he tapped on our bedroom window, drawing my attention to his face behind the glass, I waved and called up, “I’ll be back.” There wasn’t any way that he could have heard me; I could only assume that he thought I was making a late-night run to the nearest convenience store. And since we lived off the beaten track, about thirty miles off of it, he’d figure it would take me a while to drive there and back.
It was another thirty miles or so, along a winding two-lane black-top highway, to the hospital. I rolled back the sunroof—it was a heartbreakingly clear night—so that I could glance up and see the stars. “First star I see tonight, I wish I may, I wish I might, have the wish I wish tonight…”
I didn’t wish her alive again; I wished her on her way.
I opened the window on my side, admitting the wind, which was bracingly cold. I could feel the planes of my face when the wind stroked it, as if the weather had thrown me into bas-relief against the night. As I drove, it seemed to me as if my car and I were the only things that moved, as if we were driving off the frieze like a sculpture come to life. I felt so alive on that journey.
It was strange, I think I knew that.
But it got stranger, or at least it seems so to me now, looking back on it.
I drove to the hospital and went to her cubicle in the intensive care unit in the medical wing. They’d already dismantled the tubes and oxygen tent and they’d even thoughtfully gathered her belongings for me and packed them in the suitcase I kept in her closet. They had that case—with its pitifully few belongings—out at the nurse’s station where they tried to hand it over to me when I walked past.
“We’re sorry,” they said. So kind, so understanding. They were knowing enough not to say, “We’re sorry she died.” Who could be, after all? Wasn’t it a mercy? They were sorry, that was all, and that was sufficient.
They had meant to be tactful and helpful by clearing out her room. New sheets, even. Empty hangers. Bare walls where photos and bright pictures from magazines had once hung. I flipped on the overhead light and then quickly flipped it off again. I drew the white curtains that shut the nurses off from any view of me. And then I did the strangest thing of all: I lay down on her bed.
I wasn’t so flipped out that I pulled back the covers and got in, but I did lie back on top of them with my hands crossed over my chest and my feet together and my eyes closed.
Dead. My mother was dead. I curled into a fetal position similar to the one in which she had spent the last days of her life. Like a baby.
Baby. Mother. Daughter.
What had she felt, lying here? From that position on my side, I could, if I rolled my eyes a bit, see almost all of the room and a rectangle of the corridor. I could smell the soap the hospital used to wash the sheets, and the disinfectant they used to clean the bathroom. I heard a beeping from a monitor in the room next door. It was soothing and sad; somebody was still alive.
I closed my eyes.
My mother had lain here. I tried to feel her body, to melt into my memory of it, but there was still only me alone in the bed. I hadn’t cried yet. Well, that was true if you counted the minutes since she died. Before that, plenty of tears.
Was I all cried out? Dried up?
I didn’t feel dry, I felt moist and tender inside, as if somebody had turned me inside out and beaten me lightly.
When I heard footsteps approaching, I had the sense to jump down, to smooth my trousers, and to straighten my blouse.
A nurse stood in the doorway, shining white.
“Ms. Cain, is there anything we can do for you?”
“No, thank you.”
“Do let us know if there is anything—”
“I will, thank you.”
Let them know if there was anything they could do to help? Is that what she was going to say? What irony. Such irony. Considering that I had always blamed the American medical establishment. It was their fault, because they didn’t create a miracle, and because they weren’t even smart enough to tell me—finally, absolutely, and without a doubt —what ailed her. Paranoid/schizophrenia, said one doctor. A chemical imbalance that mimicked alcoholism, said another. Blood clots. Strokes. Epilepsy. Even, toward the end, Alzheimer’s. Purely physiological. No, no, strictly emotional. No, no, no, hormonal. Hormones! I remember looking at my mother, after I heard that one, and thinking: If this is menopause, I’m not having any.
I followed the nurse back to the central nursing station where I accepted hugs and grave handshakes. Then I hoisted Mom’s suitcase and walked for the last time down the corridor to the elevator. Sometime I would return, and ride up to the fifth floor to say goodbye to the nurses who had served her for so many years before her final illness caused her to be transferred to ICU. Some other time, not this night.
I drove home to tell Geof and to start calling people. And once again, the stars appeared preternaturally bright and the wind blew against my face like pneuma, the mystical breath of life. On the way back, I wondered, did I sleepwalk through my mother’s illness? Was my mother’s death awakening me?
“—and let perpetual light shine upon her. Amen.”
I certainly wasn’t acting very wide awake at her funeral.
“Jenny?” My police lieutenant husband, Geof Bushfield, leaned toward me. “You okay?”
I stared at him. Okay, compared to what? I wondered. Compared to somebody whose mother is not inside that box? Not trusting myself to speak, I nodded at him. For him. When he turned away, I wasn’t quite sure I recognized him. He certainly was handsome, whoever he was, with that big man’s physique and that strong face and that thick brown hair just starting to turn gray.
The rented preacher, his duty almost done, moved down the line of brown folding chairs, patting the women and children with his rough touch and shaking hands with the men. He was a stranger, recruited at the last minute because the Catholic priest of my mother’s childhood told me he couldn’t bury her in a Protestant plot. I was still fuming over that one. As if he knew that excuse fell on deeply offended ears, Father Francis Gower had added, in a complaining tone that brought to my mind the Yiddish word kvetch, “My old bones couldn’t stand the weather, anyway. Makes me ache.”
And moan, I had added silently, furiously.
So, since my sister’s Episcopal priest wasn’t available, either, we had accepted this stranger brought in by the funeral home.
“The Lord be with you,” he murmured to me, in a hoarse voice that sounded as if it might once have called across the sea from one boat to another. I wondered if, in another life, he had, indeed, been a fisherman, and whether he might even have worked for our old family business, Cain Clams.
I didn’t ask. God knows, if that were true, he probably had turned to religion to save him from poverty, after we went bankrupt, pulling many fishermen and their boats down with us.
Go away, I thought, feeling a familiar guilt as I looked up into his e
He sidestepped down the line to my sister, Sherry.
Poof, I thought as he disappeared from my view, I can do magic.
I stood up then, and was instantly surrounded by all of those well-meaning people who say all of those awful things that people say at the funeral of somebody who’s been sick a long time.
“God works in mysterious ways, Jenny.”
She certainly does, I thought.
“At least your mother’s at peace now, darling.”
Right, I thought, peace was just what she needed after all those years of being a vegetable. My mother, the potato, I had thought when I was younger, and when bitter irreverence was my only defense against tragedy. And: Mom, Mom, you’ve got it all wrong, the princess isn’t supposed to turn into the pea.
“Sweetie, maybe it’s better this way.”
Some choice, I thought.
“God finally took her home, Jenny.”
She already had a home, goddammit!
I turned resentfully away, trying to regain my composure, half afraid that I’d said it out loud and offended the nice preacher. Buffeted by the loving, well-meaning crowd, I was unprepared for a painful tug at my elbow, an urgent whisper at my ear.
“Forgive me!” a voice said.
“What?” I responded. Caught off guard, both physically and emotionally, I tried to turn toward the voice, but I was frustrated by somebody pushing heavily against me. I stumbled, and frantically tried to regain my balance. I thought I heard somebody say, in that same, fierce whisper, “It was an accident. Forgive me.”
Anonymous hands kept me from crashing headfirst into my mother’s coffin. They dusted me off, and helped me to regain my equilibrium. “Jenny, are you all right?” somebody said. “You okay, honey?” “Maybe you’d better sit down, dear.” Nobody seemed to be aware of how close I had come to braining myself against the brass handle on Mom’s casket. Nobody appeared to realize that I’d been pushed. At least, that’s how it had felt to me, like a deliberate shove. And the whisper: It hadn’t sounded as if it were imploring me to “forgive,” but rather, demanding, even threatening. I whirled around to try to glimpse who it might have been, but I was stymied by reaching, grasping, comforting hands and by kindly faces pushed lovingly, infuriatingly into mine. I began to doubt my own perception of the incident. I had been pushed, hadn’t I? That was a shove, wasn’t it? Well, maybe not, I decided. Maybe somebody had been accidentally pushed against me by another person, and maybe I’d stumbled because I was so fatigued I was nearly falling asleep on my feet. That must have been it. Nobody would push me. That was crazy. The day was so strange, the fog was so otherworldly, that I was willing to believe that it hadn’t happened at all. Maybe I’d daydreamed it, or hallucinated it.
I.O.U by Nancy Pickard / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes