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Blameless: A Novel

Blameless: A Novel

by Lisa Reardon

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"The night turned blacker and colder. I switched off the car radio. I had a home to go to. I had locks on my doors. But just outside were dark hungry shapes that had once had names like Hero or Jack. Muzzles that used to nudge someone's hand for a pat now sniffed the air for prey. People walked away from the things they were responsible for, like those things


"The night turned blacker and colder. I switched off the car radio. I had a home to go to. I had locks on my doors. But just outside were dark hungry shapes that had once had names like Hero or Jack. Muzzles that used to nudge someone's hand for a pat now sniffed the air for prey. People walked away from the things they were responsible for, like those things weren't going to come back in the middle of the night and tear your throat open. I rolled up the window against the chill. Lit another cigarette with my head pounding like a kettledrum. The Merc rolled toward home."

Mary Culpepper is a strong woman, fearless and independent to a fault. But when she discovers the body of a child in her small northern Michigan town, she suffers a breakdown that has family and friends treating her like "sulfuric acid about to spatter." In the following months Mary does all she can to keep her mind off the upcoming trial, in which she will have to tell what she did—and did not—witness. It's a time when she most needs her best friend, Amy, whose history of lies and betrayal Mary is not willing to face. As the trial looms closer, and Mary's past catches up to her, not even the heated passion of an illicit affair can fend off the presence of the Night Visitor, a monster of stone and silence who destroys her sleep.

One young girl has already been sacrificed to the Culpepper legacy of willful blindness. Now another girl lies in the path of danger, another girl about to suffer the consequences of someone choosing to shut her eyes and remain blameless. But when Mary attempts to break the chain of betrayal, the resulting explosion could destroy all that she has sought toprotect.

Following Billy Dead, which Alice Munro called a "brave, heart-wrenching debut," Blameless combines the emotional resonance of Sue Miller's The Good Mother with the gripping suspense of Chris Bohjalian's Midwives. A story of tender humor, violent passion, and a fierce exploration of moral accountability, it will pull you in, unable to look away until its last unforgettable page.

Editorial Reviews

Maria Dubuc
Lisa Reardon's prose, like Mary, is aburpt and clying one moment, elegiac the next. The novel is a steady ache, forcing us to concentrate on who among us is Blamelss and who among us could stand to blame less.
USA Today
The New Yorker
Reardon owes something to Faulkner; like him, she can summon up the menace of the past, rustling in the dark.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Again basing her fiction in a small, blue-collar community, the author of the well-received Billy Dead has produced an insightful, empathetic novel about a woman coming to terms with her past. Divorced at 34, Mary Culpepper drives a school bus in a working-class town in northern Michigan and reigns as the leading hitter on the local softball team. She has also recently returned from a short stay in a psychiatric ward after a nervous breakdown she cannot explain to her family and friends, or to herself. A lifetime of repressed grief and anger lies beneath her insouciant attitude, and struggles to find expression. Reardon reveals crucial information about Mary's life in small increments, generating a fine narrative tension. Mary's best friend, Amy, married Carl, Mary's former husband, after a year-long clandestine affair, and Mary, unable to confront either of them, vowed to remain friends, even serving as Amy's bridesmaid. Mary's relationship with her mother and two younger sisters is also filled with secrets and unspoken resentment. She keeps all three at arm's length, unable to face her feelings of failure or to address the memories of her past: as a child she went bar-hopping with her philandering father; later, she was traumatized by a botched abortion. Mary finds a soulmate in one of her school-bus charges, 12-year-old Julianna. But when she meets Julianna's father, John Coleros, she gives in to the powerful force of mutual attraction. Other tensions include the death of a six-year-old girl, whose body Mary discovered on her bus route. Mary's testimony at the ensuing trial, coupled with a tragic accident that decides the outcome of her relationship with John, provides the catalyst she needs to finally address her pain and anger. Her struggle to learn emotional honesty and responsibility makes Mary a compelling heroine, and the many details of small-town life (bread-baking competitions, softball leagues, card games at the neighborhood bar) add texture to the narrative. Agent, Jennifer Rudolph Walsh. 4-city author tour. (May) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Library Journal
The small, blue-collar community of Kassauaga, MI, is home to Mary Culpepper, school bus driver, who discovered the body of a young girl. Mary has to come to terms with that discovery, events from her past, and her current life situation. This insightful, empathic story contains moving dialog, compelling narrative, and believable characters, as well as episodes of adult language and situations. Carrington McDuffie's reading contributes to the emotional resonance and humor of this disturbing but compelling tale. Recommended. Denise A. Garofalo, Mid-Hudson Lib. Syst., Poughkeepsie, NY Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Sandy Asirvatham
Vivid characters, serious ethical and emotional dilemmas and a terse, tragi-comic prose style make this author's second novel a suspenseful read.
Time Out New York
Kirkus Reviews
In rural Michigan, home to the family abuse and emotional distress Reardon captured so vividly in Billy Dead (1998), the specter of a dead child forces a woman to face herself and her demons. At age ten, Mary Culpepper plotted to escape the strictures of her north Michigan hometown, where booze and adultery helped the populace make it though long nights. Instead of falling prey to those same sorrow-filled vices, she grows up to become a school-bus driver whose modus operandi is to absorb life's shocks in stony silence. Her best friend Amy dubs her The Lone Rangerette. Physically impressive and earthy, a star at softball, Mary sleepwalks through life, remaining close to Amy even after she seduces away Mary's husband, Carl. But then the discovery of little Jen Colby's battered body in a closet in the house at the end of her bus route wreaks havoc with Mary's carefully built defenses. Summoned to testify in the explosive case against the child's mother, Mary suffers a breakdown. Her sleep is haunted by an oppressive granite figure she calls The Night Visitor, and her days are filled with fantasies of Number 34, the guy whose forearms catch her eye at the local tavern. The story starts slowly, and its many dangling references cause some early confusion; but effective conceits like that of "Loretta" as a personification of Mary's feelings (her "heart") who nevertheless acts independently of that sad—and mad—protagonist, add direction. While Mary struggles, Loretta, symbolic of Mary's estrangement from herself, always knows what to do. Amid a surfeit of misery, the author shows the love and affection that can bind women togetherdespitethe jealousy and back-biting that grow in the fertile field of small-town life. Large themes of loss, accountability, and redemption in a sometimes too neat package. Author tour

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Random House, Incorporated
Publication date:
Edition description:
1 ED
Product dimensions:
6.47(w) x 9.55(h) x 1.14(d)

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"Oh my God," she cried. "Oh my God," with heaving, gasping, snot-filled sobs.

"It's all right, Sharon." I pulled my visor down low over my face. People up and down the beach were looking at us. "It has a happy ending."

"Oh Jesus!" Two tears raced one another down her cheeks.

"What's the matter with her?" asked a voice by my left shoulder. I lifted my visor and looked up. Julianna stood over me dripping lake water all over my towel and staring at Sharon who continued weeping into her hands.

"Hey Juli-Wuli," I said. "How's it going?"

"Going all right." Julianna's eyes were pale hazel to the point of yellow, and tilted up at the comers. She wore a ragged old fishing hat with a white band around it that she'd found earlier in the summer and hadn't taken off since. She was twelve years old on that Sunday afternoon in August and, like all girls before puberty erupts, she seemed indestructible.

"Is she sick?" she asked, still watching Sharon.

"She's reading," I answered.

"Wow." Julianna turned on her heels in the sand and scuttled back to her grandma twenty feet away. Nana was large and soft with a grandmotherly braid wrapped around the crown of her head. Her swimsuit was modest with a pleated skirt sewn in. Upper arms swayed when she handed Julianna her plastic bottle of Seven-Up. I wanted to be pressed to that bosom, enfolded in the old-woman smell of Jean Nate or Lemon Verbena. I closed my eyes and felt the sun on my arms. Sniffles continued on my right.

"You okay, Sharon?"

"No," she said, trying to catch her breath. "I'm not okay."

I handed her a mini-pack of Kleenex outof my bag. The sun was relentless. My skin was tightening like a baked chicken.

"Come on," I told her. "Let's get in the water."

"Let me finish the chapter," she said, blowing her nose. It was Middlemarch, the scene where Dorothea goes to her rival Mrs. Lydgate and reassures her as to Will's affections. I made a mental note to buy more Kleenex. Sharon had insisted that an afternoon at the beach would be just the thing to cheer me up, take my mind off the upcoming trial. I lay on my stomach, chin in my hand, and gazed at the prickly woods beyond the edge of the beach. The leaves on the trees were nibbled and torn, the squirrels nicked and ragged from playing too rough, flowers had had their nectar sucked dry by the hungry bees. God, I hated these dead August afternoons. When Sharon closed the book we headed for the water.

"You coming in?" I called to Julianna.

"Nah," she hollered back. Now she and her mother were playing badminton while Nana dozed. They played without a net, just hitting the birdie back and forth, counting to see how many volleys they could make before it hit the ground. Her mother was younger than me. She nodded to me the way you do to someone you only know by sight. A tanned little boy ran past, leaving a trail of Cheese Doodles from the Snack Bar farther up the beach. They sold hamburgers, hot dogs, even nachos. When I was a kid they had licorice chains, candy cigarettes, and wax lips in the glass counter at kid-eye level. My favorite was the giant diamond ring made of solid Sweet-Tart. To this day I gnaw on my index knuckle when I'm tired or anxious, almost tasting the sugar that melted pink or blue or green on my numbed tongue.

Sharon and I walked down to the water and waded in. The lake was warm at my ankles, chilly at my knees, freezing at my thighs. I dove into the water, my skin shrieking and gasping with the shock. My head came up and I breathed in the hot sunshine. Sharon bobbed up about ten feet back. She was not a strong swimmer. I took first place at the State Swim Meet in Lansing for the one hundred meter butterfly in Class B, C, and D. Sharon's head appeared, disappeared in the small waves. I stretched out into a leisurely backstroke, letting myself move with the lake. Noise was drowned out by the rhythmic hum of water beating on my eardrums. No laughter or yells from the beach, just peace and oblivion. My body undulated with the waves as if the lake were a rolling crib in which I lay. Sleep crept across the waves and held out its arms to me. I drifted into them longing for rest. In the middle of the afternoon I was safe. It was the nights that were dangerous, nights that had been invaded all summer, my sleep torn up like old dishrags. Other people had dreams that slid in over their windowsill; I had the Night Visitor.

It had been nearly a week gone by with no sign of trouble until last night. I awoke quietly, no thrashing around or crying out. I opened my eyes and there I was in my bed as though something had delivered me there wide awake and alert. I was pinned, arms and legs paralyzed. I could only take small, shallow breaths because he was on my chest pressing my lungs into the mattress. The Night Visitor was a gargoyle made of crumbling gray granite. He crouched on me, gripping my ribs with his cold stone toes. His face was kept hidden in shadow. I saw the knuckles on his granite clawed hands, the scaled elbows, the dull matted texture of his back when he turned this way or that as if I were no more than a ledge upon which he sat, not a living thing; as if I were not there at all.

Frank was at the corner of the bed, stretched out, asleep. His fur was tinged with the moonglow gliding in the window. The cup and saucer were on the nightstand where I'd left them. Familiar shadows clung to each other in the comers of the room. Outside the window the usual trees stood dark and silent. But inside, the Night Visitor shifted his stone weight and breathed slowly. It was pointless to struggle, cry out, beg or threaten. There was nothing to do but lie wide awake in the silence of deep night and wait for him to go away.

I don't know how long he stayed. Time stopped, thought stopped, the beating of my heart stopped, while he continued to crouch with numbing indifference. I waited as weeks and years went by, broken by swift-sharp pictures that flashed and were gone. Like old snapshots they appeared then disappeared, there but not there. A door opening, but then gone before I could discern was that her foot? Yes, the same toe poking out from the same old hole in her sock. And later, a close-up of her face. I lay there, growing old, watching.

Then no more pictures. He was lifting himself off me, slowly, because stone moved at an eternal pace. He dissolved into the shadows outside the window. My sheets were clammy from icicle sweat. I waited for a count of one hundred although he rarely returned the same night. Then I got up, went to the kitchen, and switched on the light that hung over the table. The clock on the stove said 4:52 A.M. I returned to the bedroom for my robe and wool socks to mitigate the harsh reality of the kitchen's tile floor. The threat of impending cold reigned high at that hour. Pockets of October chill were lurking in the dark of an August night. I grabbed a Stroh's out of the fridge to help me back to sleep. Picked up a stack of National Geographics from the couch and dropped them onto the kitchen table. If anything were standing outside the window near the woods, at the dark line where the trees met my yard, they would see a window; and inside the window a warm island of light encompassing the kitchen table, a woman sitting alone with magazines scattered around her. The birds were starting up already, singing a greeting to the day that had not yet arrived. A single car went by out on Route 108. It wouldn't be long until the purple blue crimson pink gold of the sunrise.

Something grabbed my foot and yanked me under the waves. Water closed over my head and rushed up my nose. I kicked myself free and reared up into the sunlight.

"Gotcha," Sharon said.

"You asshole." I blew lake water and snot out of my nose. Tried to breathe with soggy lungs.

"It won't kill you," she said, playfully slapping her palms flat on the water. Crack, crack, crack. I lunged upward and braced my hands on her shoulders, laughing as I pushed her down into the water. She backed out of my grip and bobbed up again several feet away.

"Come on," she said. "Let's head back in."

We were parallel to the buoys marking the edge of the swimming area, the cutoff point that separated swimmers and motorboats. We were out more than fifty yards.

"If I hadn't grabbed your foot, you'd have floated all the way across to the marina." The marina was on the other side of the lake. I looked across the water as a big speed boat jetted by, leaving a wake that bobbed the pontoons like a row of gleaming metal ducks. That's where I'd been headed when Sharon pulled me back. How long had we been in the water?

We both swam for shore: Sharon in a clumsy freestyle, me in a steady breast-stroke. It felt good to stretch out and move, arms and legs reaching, pulling me through the water. Moving like an animal gives the illusion of control, as if you have some say over what you will or will not do, as if it's as simple as killing what you will eat, mating when ready, and dying when something larger, faster, hungrier gets you. The muscles in my thighs pushed against the waves as I strode toward the shore. Sharon was a few feet ahead. She was shorter than me, slimmer. If it were a bare-handed contest then and there, I could have had her in a choke-hold in two seconds flat. I doubt the thought had ever occurred to her. Wondered why it had occurred to me.

By seven o'clock Sharon had packed up and gone home. In the waning hours of the afternoon I opened my book and continued Jacqueline Susann's Yargo for the fifth time. The lake was dark, lifeless. The sun was just about to give up on the day.

Off to my right Julianna's mother was telling her to put on her T-shirt and sandals, time to go. Julianna ran top speed for the lake, bound on getting in one more dip before she left. She was three feet from the water when her mom looped her up in a one-armed hug, twirled her around once, and set her down going in the opposite direction. Julianna kept running like she didn't notice the change in direction. She ran fast toward me and landed like she was sliding into home plate. Sand fantailed all over me.

"You're funny," I said over her laughter, shaking sand out of my book before I swatted her with it.

"The Merc's looking good," she said. My black '65 Mercury was parked behind us, shining and spotless. She'd been over to the cottage that morning, scrubbing the hubcaps while I hosed down the hood.

"Juju, let's go." Her mother had one hand on her hip, one hand shading her eyes, shaking her head at me to say, "Can you believe this kid?" I smiled back and murmured to Julianna, "Better get moving."

She stood up. "See you later, sweet potater."

She walked pigeon-toed back to her blanket, clucking like a chicken, diving down to retrieve an item here and there, flapping her elbows occasionally. I shifted my sunglasses up off my nose, rubbing the bridge where two red welts showed what badfitting sunglasses could do. Closed my eyes, let the book fall off my knees, pages muffling through the sand. I was tired. I dropped the sunglasses into place. Julianna was walking to their car, no longer clucking like a chicken, but singing a song in fake French.

"Ooh ooh, bee bee, ju mu tu pooh. Ooh ooh, bee bee, I love you-ou!"

Julianna waved good-bye as their Cutlass crawled away through the parking lot. The beach was near empty. A few small, spidery children screamed and splashed thirty yards down the lake, too young to mind the first evening chill. They sounded far away, years away. The beach that was so warm earlier, teeming under flip-flops and naked feet, was now damp and chilly. Behind me the tops of the pines caught the sun's last rays. They flamed gold against the cooling blue sky like silent candles blowing over the black and bottomless water.

I was expected at Mom's house for dinner. I picked up Yargo, dog-eared the left page and, snapping it shut, shoved it into a ragged old beach bag made of unbleached canvas. It was nubby and speckled with a faded red, white, and blue design of the Statue of Liberty: "1776-1976 United States Bicentennial" it said. I rubbed my feet back and forth on my towel to scrape off the sand, and slipped on my Keds. They didn't slip on like good old Keds ought to. They were still new and I hated them. Yanked on my cutoffs, grabbed my green pullover windbreaker. This time of year in northern Michigan, it cooled off a lot after sunset. I snapped the towel hard a few times and threw it over one shoulder, the Bicentennial Bag over the other. I walked up across the sandy weeds until I hit firm blacktop. Checked all four tires on the car, hard as nuts.

The Merc knew the way to Mom's house. I relinquished control over the steering and shifted back against the seat, letting the car stretch out and run. Tomford Road was bounded on either side by shallow sand ditches and a wall of fir trees that were tall, dark, annoyed by the road snaking through their midst. Once in a while, in a storm or on a wild August night, one would tear its roots up out of the sand and fling itself down across the road. Brown trucks came with snarling saws to dismember the fallen one and cart it off to God knows where.

I rode silent and steady along the asphalt. The sun had gone under for the night, taking with it the long, blue shadows. There were hundreds of deer in the trees. I could feel their eyes on me, velvet, long-lashed, and blinking. A handful of crows kicked up a cold caw-caw and flapped out of the trees as the Merc rolled by. No other noise, just the hum-hiss of car tires on the pavement, the occasional pop of a pebble shooting out from under the rubber. In the distance the cars on Route 108 did a whish and fade, whish and fade. It was that time of day.

The Merc slowed down when we came within view of Mom's yard, and coasted past the cast-iron squirrel sitting on top of the Brickham's mailbox. Mr. Brickham next door had three fingers missing off his right hand. Used to scare me and Amy to death to peek over the ragged fence and watch him raking leaves. Dad had warned us they had a rabid dog locked in the basement that had bitten Mr. Brickham's fingers Off, so we'd better stay the hell out of their yard or else. I snapped off the headlights as the Merc crept into the driveway. Got out and stood watching fireflies in the backyard. It was still light if you were there outside. If you were in the kitchen with the light on and you were looking out, then it was already dark. A subjective time. A couple of bats frenzied past, swooping down in a jerky arc to snag a mouthful of mosquitoes. I remembered when Dad hung mousetraps in the trees one summer, thinking it'd kill the bats. Carl laughed until he cried when he saw the old maple full of traps set with dead flies.

Standing outside the garage, watching the bats swifting and darting, both Carl and Dad were far away. Dad died seventeen years ago come January. Lungs and liver gave out simultaneously. And Carl was remarried seven years ago in early June. Amy had worn silk apple blossoms in her hair. And all of us bridesmaids, we each carried an armful of the same. All lined up like taffeta ducks in a shooting gallery, Sharon said at the time. What a day that had been.

I could see Mom in the window, in the warm yellow light of the kitchen; tall and raw-boned with breeder's hips. Dad had called her his Homestead Bride, for no reason we could discover. Even after he died, Mom would only say, "You know your father." She was fixing dinner, chopping something and talking to Sharon over her shoulder. Boy, she was talking up a storm. Halted chopping every once in a while to wave the knife sharply in the air, stabbing a point. Behind her I caught a flash of dark blond; Sharon reaching into the cupboard, taking down plates for the table. Mom looked at her watch and frowned, looked out the window into the dark. She hadn't heard me pull up, couldn't see me standing there. I wished I could stay out there all night watching my life from a distance, but it was too chilly and I was hungry. The kitchen was bright and dry and wann, and supper was almost on the table.

I stepped through the side door into the mud room. Pulled off my Keds, bracing heel against toe, heel against toe. There was an open archway from the mud room to the kitchen. I could hear everything in there.

"Hello," I announced my arrival.

"About time, Mary," said Mom. "Starting to worry." She went on, not waiting for an answer. "Stacy and Ruther are coming tonight."


"They're bringing back the linens," she said. Linen tablecloths from Stacy's baby shower.

"Okay," I said, tossing the Bicentennial Bag in the corner.

"I can hear you," said Mom, appearing in the archway with a large metal spoon in her hand. "It won't kill you to be nice."

"I'm always nice." I pulled the pullover up and over.

"It's the way you're nice," she said.

Stacy was twenty-seven, Sharon twenty-eight. I was creeping up on thirty-five in the fall. Once Stacy's kid arrived I would be the crazy old maiden aunt.

"Bitter is not a pretty quality," Mom continued.

"I agree," I told her.

"It's not as if you didn't have your chance," she added--.and blew it echoed silently over our heads.

I stepped to the window above the sink. Like the night before, I tried to imagine anyone out there looking in, seeing me framed in the yellow square of light. Did I look safe? Sharon handed me some silverware, which I carried over to the table.

"All newlyweds are a little complacent," Mom went on. "You have to forebear a little. She'll grow out of it."

"Well, she's certainly growing," Sharon said, folding napkins and tucking them crookedly under my carefully laid forks. "No doubt about that."

"She's your sister. Don't forget that," Mom said.

"How could we?" I replied.

"Why don't the two of you be quiet?" Mom had that edge to her voice. We shut up. Sunday supper was mashed potatoes with hamburger gravy and Brussels sprouts on the side. Sharon talked about work up to the Sleazebag Inn. It was really the Sleepy Bluff Inn, part of some cut-rate discount chain. Business was booming now at the height of the season. After Labor Day Sharon would be on unemployment until the Christmas rush over at North Country Crafts.

"Are you playing this week?" she asked me. Women's fastpitch softball. I was a left-handed first baseman.

"No, saving myself for the tournament," I answered.

"If they'll let you come back," Sharon said carelessly.

"How's your shoulder?" Mom asked. I'd broken my collarbone last February. I rotated my arm at the table, shrugged my shoulders a few times.

"It'll be all right," I told her.

Over coffee and leftover angel food cake Sharon talked about the skirt and jacket she was sewing. "It's from an old pattern, from the fifties. I have to go up two sizes, things were cut so small then." She drained her coffee mug and looked at me. "So for the moment, I'm a size twelve like you."

I bit back a reply, reminding myself that Marilyn Monroe was a size fourteen. Sharon sewed like a maniac. She'd made a dozen sleepers and rompers for Stacy's baby. She'd handstitched the trim, and I had embroidered a series of baby animals on the front of each one. Baby monkeys, elephants, lion cubs. Between the two of us, we worked for months on those things. Gave them to Stacy for the shower.

"These are homemade?" she said, holding them at the tips of her fingers as if she were i

What People are Saying About This

Alice Munro
A brave, heart-wrenching debut. I couldn't look away.

Meet the Author

Lisa Reardon is the author of a half dozen plays and one novel, Billy Dead. She received her M.F.A. from the Yale School of Drama. Reardon conducts a writing group for adolescents at St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital in New York City, where she lives with her husband, actor Mick Weber.

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