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June 3, 2004
Back in January, I got the phone call from Alex that brought me home from California. The next week, I took my mother grocery shopping up at Lees. She got stuck only once, in the produce section, picking through the pears, unable to decide which ones she should buy. “So many choices these days,” she murmured to me, apologetic and with a touch of sadness, like she could feel the glitch in her but was unable to correct it, so I decided for her. In the checkout line, I had that feeling you get sometimes when someone’s eyes are on you, and I turned and saw Ray three aisles away and, for a moment, I couldn’t place him, then all at once I did. His face looked thin, much thinner than it should have—a look in his eyes like they’d been scraped. Then the girl at the register was asking whether I wanted plastic or paper, and Ray was still looking at me, that look in his eyes replaced by something different that gave me a little jump, electric-like, and I stared back. Just stared.
“There’s Ray,” my mother said. I snapped out of it and gave him a wave like I should have in the first place, he smiled and waved back, and everything was natural, normal, like it should be. And after he’d made it through checkout, he stopped to say hello, and asked when I’d gotten back from California. By then, our groceries were bagged and loaded into the cart, and he walked outside with us, and the winter sunlight hit me hard as we stepped through the automatic door, untenable and bright, everything caught up short in the unexpected.
He was getting a divorce, my brother Alex told me. Of course, over the next couple of months, I’d run into him here and there. Or he’d drop by the house, looking for Alex. But whenever Ray’s around, I can’t seem to find two words to rub together, a tense kind of rustle moves through me—the wrong kind of feeling, I know, for someone so off-limits.
Two strikes up front: He’s my brother’s best friend, and Ada Varick’s son. Ada’s wreaked her share of havoc in our family. She was the irresistibly beautiful reason my grandfather Luce Weld was killed, back in 1957—murdered, so it’s said, for loving her too much. Not that Ada’s hold has been any lighter on the rest of us—look at my mother, still trekking over to the Council on Aging every Friday, still in thrall to her Ada and their games.
It’s hard to imagine sometimes—it’s a thing I’ve never quite gotten my mind around—how my mother, Luce Weld’s only daughter, came to be friends with Ada Varick in the first place. Ada was twenty years older, a different ilk. I asked my mother once how it started, how she came to be invited into that knot of four or five women who met every Friday for Scrabble.
“Vivi Butler called me up one day out of the blue and asked me,” she answered, simply.
“And you went?”
“Why wouldn’t I?”
She seemed surprised that I would wonder, even shy.
I never knew my grandfather Luce. I wouldn’t know if I tripped on his shade in the street. But I’ve heard the story:
Luce Weld—rakish no-good—bootlegger turned poultry thief. Ran booze back in the twenties, made money to beat hell, but wore trouble, couldn’t keep that shit off his shoe. He did time for man'slaughter and, when he got out, managed to land a smart, pretty girl, my grandmother Emily. They had only one child, my mother, Jane. But Luce was no stay-at-home. He set his sight on Ada Varick, and it got stuck there. Ada, from what I have heard, was quite a stunner back then.
Luce went missing the fall of ’57. His skiff was found staked to the marsh near the creek below the gravel pit off Drift Road. Talk was someone caught him stealing one too many times and dealt him what for. Ran him out of town or flung him off the flat edge of the world for good. Maybe. However it happened, it was all just talk until the state came down, took land, and started laying in the new highway. Early sixties, they dug fill for the new bridge from the gravel pit upriver on the Drift Road side. As one load of gravel got dumped, a skull rolled out, a bullet hole in it, neat as neat. Anyone putting two and two together wagered that skull was the last scant trace of Luce Weld.
It’s early June, and I am not looking where I’m going as I step out the storm door, or rather, I am looking down at the book in my hand, and I trip over the foot of a ladder, not realizing exactly what I have done until I hear the smash of metal on wood and a shout from above, the book has flown out of my hand, and the ladder is falling away from the house. I look up and see the flash of a boot disappear just in time over the edge of the roof, a bucket of paint set on a rung above knocked off—
A splash of whiteness, vaguely coherent, spills past my face, patterning my shirt; it lands with an echoing clang as the ladder strikes the ground.
“You alright down there?” I hear Ray’s voice call down from the roof. I glance up and his face appears. “Oh hey, Marne”—looking down from his gorgeous benevolent heaven at the idiocy that is me. My brother comes around the side of the house and takes it all in.
“How’d you manage that?” he growls. Yeah, Alex—like breaking Ray’s neck was at the top of my to-do list. Picking up the ladder, he sets it back against the gutter above the door, and Ray climbs down. “I am so sorry,” I mumble, unable to look at him.
“Paint missed your book,” he says lightly. The book’s lying open on the steps below me, pages askew. Ray scoops it up and hands it to me. “It’s no big deal.” His voice with that gentle hook in it I’ve begun to hear lately when he talks to me.
There’s a sizable white pool of paint on the ground. Alex has started kicking dirt onto it, to soak it up. He’s ticked. “Give me a hand, Ray.”
“Here, let me help,” I say.
“You’ve done your part,” Alex sighs. “Get out of here.”
I feel my face flush, and slip back inside. My mother’s just coming up from downcellar. At first she doesn’t seem to see me, she’s got that distracted look, I can tell by how she moves, like her body’s in glass, and for once I am grateful. But then she notices me as I head toward the stairs. Her eyes focus.
“What happened?” she says.
“Nothing.” I set the book down.
“Is everyone alright, Marne? I heard a crash. What happened?”
“That shirt’s ruined.”
“It’s really just fine.”
“Use some warm water. Here, sweetheart, take it off. I’ll do it.”
“No, thanks, Mom. Really. I can do it.”
She follows me into the kitchen anyway, and we get into a bit of a scrap at the sink, about water temperature, should it be hot or cold for latex, soap or vinegar. This is her province, I know, I should let her call the shots, but my composure has slid off the map, and I just want to be left alone. “It really makes no difference, Mom,” I say sharply.
“The stain’ll set.”
“It’s not like it’s Kool-Aid or blood.”
She’s pulling out bottles from the lazy susan. “It’ll set if you don’t get it out.”
“It’s an old shirt.”
“It’s a nice shirt.”
“Lay off, Mom.”
“You should try to save it.”
“I don’t need to save it!”
She stops, looks at me. “Warmer water,” she says, “that’s a bit cold.”
She twists the faucet, I resist the urge to push away her hand and twist it back. Pretty soon everything’s soaked through, the wet shirt sticking to my skin, and she’s telling me I should just take it off, she’ll get that stain out, but I have no interest in being caught at the sink window in my bra. My mother is still standing beside me, she’s got her bottle of vinegar out, uncapped, some salt, a kitchen rag, and that calm and awful patience she will get sometimes when she knows she is right and it is only a matter of time before I come around to see it her way. And it occurs to me Alex was wrong. This is not working out. I should have stayed in California.
I hear a truck pass by, someone leaning down hard on the horn, I glance up in time to see Ray’s brother Huck in his cherry-red F150, his hand out the window, casting his signature flick-off wave to Ray and Alex who are still out front in the yard, kicking dirt over the mess I made. They wave back, laughing. As the truck veers away, I can just make out the two bumper stickers he’s had on there for years. One that reads: for a small town this one sure has a lot of assholes. The other: proud to be american. If there is one person walking the earth I can’t fucking stand, that person is Huck.
Redneck throwback. Verge of cretinoid. He went after my best friend, Elise, when he was thirty-something and we were in high school, robbed her cradle, then dumped her for some slutty girl. Pushing sixty now, Huck can’t seem to understand why the world hasn’t shit gold coins on his head. He’s still got that dazed sort of juvenile swagger, like he just stepped out of a Bruce Springsteen song run amok.
Ray’s older brother, I remind myself wryly. Strike three. You Are Out.
I strip my shirt off, thrust it at my mom, and go upstairs to get the paint off my face and hands.
When I come back down, it’s just noon. Alex and Ray are sitting at the kitchen table, drinking lemonade. My mother has fixed them sandwiches, cut on the diagonal like she’s forgotten they’re not ten years old. Ray gives me a quick smile. I pour a cup of coffee. Alex is skimming the newspaper, the obituaries. That’s all he’ll read—he’s like our father that way. What else is news?
As I sit down with my coffee, my mother asks, “Can I get you something, Marne?” The rote question.
I shake my head. “I’m good.”
“Mom, can’t you just—” I see my brother’s mouth tighten. “Well, okay,” I say. “Sure.”
A beat of silence. Ray gets up, walks out into the hall. I hear the bathroom door close.
I pick up my book, an old library book of my mother’s I found last night in the shelf at the top of the stairs on my way up to bed. Wrapped in taped plastic, the call number 1174c stamped cockeyed onto the white sticker at the base of the spine. Through the sheer of the plastic, the black boards, squared binding, the letters of the title in stylized gilt. It was the title that drew me. The Secret of Light. But then I opened it and saw it was all marked up, scribbled notes in the margins, my mother’s—I could tell by the handwriting, though it’s childish. It surprised me when I found it. So unlike her, not to return a book due, and this one so long overdue, the last date on the manila pocket: 1957. She would have been around twelve. The year her father, Luce, disappeared.
I glance at her. She has pulled out two slices of bread for my toast and put them in the toaster. She turns the knob halfway around. They will come out too light. She comes over to the table with the bag of Wavy Lays and dishes out another round of chips onto my brother’s plate. Alex is, has always been, a quintessential momma’s boy. Forty-two years old, he still lets her cut the seeds out of his tangerines.