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THE OBJECT OF LOVE
By SHARON CULLARS
BRAVA BOOKSCopyright © 2007 Sharon Cullars
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThrough her haze, Lacey barely heard the minister's prayer. Instead, she scanned the bowed heads, still surprised at the number of friends Calvin had made in his twenty-one years. That small consolation did little to ease the ache tearing her apart. All of the platitudes, the well-wishes, even her faith rang hollow at her loss.
She couldn't find it inside herself to pray. She was angry-at God, at life, hell, even at Calvin, who had tempted fate one too many times and now lay enclosed in the ebony coffin half lowered in the crypt. She didn't think she would be able to survive hearing the motorized whirring as the coffin travelled the last distance, or the sound of the dirt thrown on the burnished wood. That was her baby in there. It shouldn't be over, not this soon. Not this way.
Tears blinded her as a tremor shook her body. She fought hard against a total meltdown; Calvin never liked it when she made a scene.
"Ah, c'mon, Ma, you're not gonna start with the tears again," she could hear him saying in her mind.
"No, baby," Lacey whispered to him. "I'm not going to make a scene."
She felt her mother's hand tighten around her own, although the older woman's head was still bowed. Her sister Estelle sat on her other side, tears trailing down her cheeks. Shelifted a wadded tissue to wipe them away, but they were quickly replaced with a newer downpour. Calvin's godmother as well as his aunt, Estelle had unofficially adopted Calvin as her own, long ago conceding her own childlessness. Now two mothers sat, feeling barren.
Lacey heard the muffled "Amens," saw heads go up. Distraught faces mirrored one another in various colors and tones, some etched with the wear of age, others still in the smoothness of youth. She saw Ellen, her neighbor, standing across from Calvin's grave, her eyes and nose reddened by grief as well as the unseasonably cold temperature. The climate seemed to be taking issue with Calvin's death, the thermometer having dropped into the forties well into late spring. The cold spell had started almost simultaneously with the first word of Calvin's car crash and still had not broken.
Through her fog, Lacey realized everyone was waiting for her to complete the ceremony. The red rose in her hand was starting to wilt along the edges, but its beauty still held. She stood slowly, walked the long minute to her son's coffin. Refusing to look into the chasm that would forever close her away from her son, she tossed in the flower. The action was duplicated by her mother, her sister, then a line of people forming behind them.
Her first steps were steady as she turned her back on the grave, seeking escape to her car. Her mother and Estelle on either side, she almost made it. Almost. Then, out of nowhere, a sudden deluge hit her. A torrent welled up from within, rushing so fast she had no time to put up barriers to stem the onslaught. The anguish ran through her brain, her heart, threatened to suffocate her lungs. "Oh, Godddd," she moaned loudly as her knees buckled. She had almost made it. Almost. Calvin would be so disappointed.
Her mother, almost sixty-five and partially arthritic, was hardly capable of holding up a grown woman whose body had given out. Estelle tried to grasp her, but Lacey's strength had silently seeped away during the ceremony, and she collapsed to the ground like a rag doll, sitting on a patch of grass that edged the pathway to the parking lot. She could see the people gathered around her, could hear their voices calling to her.
"Lacey! Lacey!" Her mother's voice barely penetrated her fog. Lacey didn't care now. Didn't care what the others thought of a grown woman sitting on the ground, bawling like a baby. Didn't care that she was making a grand, embarrassing production of her son's funeral, something she had sworn to herself and Calvin's spirit she wouldn't do. She imagined Calvin looking down, shaking his head in mortification as his mother made a fool of herself in front of his friends. But even that image couldn't motivate her to get off her behind, wipe the grass and sodden dirt from her black dress, and grab hold of whatever shred of dignity she had left.
A hand clasped her upper arm, helped lift her, sturdily but gently. She found herself looking into a familiar face, although much older, harder.
"Sean, what are ...?" she started, then bit off the rest of the question. Of course Sean would be here. Death had a way of putting pettiness aside. No matter what had happened, Sean would have found a way to be here. If only he and Calvin had reconciled before this, before death.
"Mrs. Burnham, just hold on to me," Sean instructed, his arm going around her shoulder to steady her. For a moment, it felt as though Calvin was there beside her, helping her along. Unconsciously, she leaned into the sturdy body, let his arm lead her.
"Which one's your car?"
He scanned the vehicles as though he would be able to pick hers from among the many clustered along the pathway leading to the cemetery gates. As though he expected to see the old blue Pontiac she used to chauffeur him and Calvin around in to their Little League games. But she had gotten rid of the Pontiac a long time ago. A lifetime ago.
"It's over there," she nodded her head in the direction of her gray Lexus. Although the funeral home had offered limousine services, she had declined the depressing ride. She had escorted both her mother and sister; they were steps behind her and Sean at the moment.
Most of the mourners were heading toward their cars. Some were already pulling off. Still, a few people were standing together in collective angst, talking or just waiting for the crowd to thin. A couple of Calvin's college friends stopped her to give their condolences. One of his former girlfriends, Angie, unceremoniously hugged her, muddy tears streaming down her face. Lacey hugged Angie back tightly, although she barely remembered the girl. She had exchanged many hugs today, accepted kisses from people she barely knew or was only meeting for the first time. They approached her cautiously, wary of her grief, then paused as they searched for appropriate words, settling on safe expressions: "I knew Calvin from the team," or "We used to hang out together." The words she heard the most today were, "He was a really good guy," or variations of the same sentiment.
Some of Calvin's friends from Columbia had flown in to Chicago from New York just to be here. She appreciated these young people. Appreciated the obvious affection they had for her son. Beneath her grief, Lacey felt a small ripple of pride that she had raised a decent young man.
She blinked as Sean recaptured the arm he had let go as people began vying for her attention. She wanted to tell him she was all right, but his expression was insistent. She was feeling foolish now. She didn't know why she had broken down just then. She hadn't cried that hard since the night the police called about Calvin.
When they reached the Lexus, he held the door for her, then for her mother and Estelle. He hovered near her window, barely peering in.
"It's OK, Sean, I'm fine now. I just want to thank you so much for being here."
He stood there hesitating, suddenly shy, a gust blowing a blond lock across his brow. "OK, then," he said before walking away. She barely had time to notice that he stopped at a motorcycle before she started the car and pulled off. People would already be waiting to gather at her house. She finally prayed for the strength to get through the evening.
Chapter Two"Where do you want this, sweetie?" Mrs. Hampton asked, standing in the kitchen doorway holding a steaming tureen of her special gumbo in both hands. Lacey smelled the trace of cinnamon and heavy peppers that joined a medley of other smells emanating from containers, plates, pots of donated food sitting on the kitchen counter and table.
Estelle got up from her chair and took the tureen from Mrs. Hampton, one of their mother's oldest friends. "We got a little space right here." She nudged aside the covered plate of knishes that Ellen had brought over before the funeral. Calvin used to love how Ellen flavored the beef with garlic. She pictured the sauce dribbling down his cheek as he sloppily bit into one. Lacey shook the image away.
She knew she was hiding here in the kitchen, that she should make the rounds of mourners in the living room, but right now she didn't have the strength.
Mrs. Hampton beelined around the table, bent to gather Lacey's shoulders in a hug, placed a dry kiss on her cheek. "You hang in there, all right? God's going to see you through this."
Lacey smiled, touched the hand on her shoulder. "I know He will."
She knew no such thing. Didn't know how she was going to get through the next few hours, let alone the next days, months. The intense emotions that had overwhelmed her at the funeral were ebbing back to a small trickle, but she was constantly aware of the pain.
Her mother was in the living room, playing hostess, giving Lacey a reprieve. But it was time to get on with the business of living. She stood up.
Mrs. Hampton and Estelle watched her carefully as she headed out of the kitchen. Both had witnessed her breakdown, and were treating her with more care than she could deal with. She stopped at the foyer, keeping to the shadows as she spied into the living room. Her feet refused to move and she didn't feel impelled to make a grand entrance as the grieving mother. The crowd was thinner than it had been a half-hour ago. Mostly neighbors and friends sitting or standing in groups. Calvin's friends had left to catch flights or clear out of hotels. She watched the guests eating their food, sipping their soda, some talking animatedly. There were even a few smiles. It seemed strange that life was indeed going on, while her son was only a few hours in his grave, cold and alone. Her sadness seemed an intrusion to this parody of a party.
A lone figure caught her eye. Her uncle Joe had parked himself in the big leather chair in front of the television. He had it turned to the news, and seemed engrossed with whatever report was being broadcast. Yet she knew the TV was only a distraction. His weathered expression mirrored her own pain. He seemed shrunken somehow, as though someone had lopped off several feet from his usually six-foot-three frame. Joe had been Calvin's father figure since Darryl died nearly ten years before, leaving her a widow with an eleven-year-old child.
She spotted her mother standing near the window next to Ellen and Sol. Both women were nodding at something Sol was saying. His hands gesticulated as he stressed a point, a habit Lacey always found annoying. Feeling stronger, she stepped further into the room. Immediately, a hand touched her forearm, and she turned to see another neighbor, Raymond, standing alone at the fireplace. The mantel was lined with pictures of Calvin, Darryl, and her. She avoided looking at them directly.
"How're you holding up?" he asked. "Was a little worried about you at the cemetery."
"I'm really sorry about that, Ray. I didn't mean to carry on so. It's just everything caught up with me at that moment and I caved. I should've been stronger."
Raymond shook his head. Tight gray curls peppered his otherwise black hair and moustache, yet his smooth, dark skin belied his fifty-plus years.
"There's nothing to be apologizing about. You're allowed to cry, to scream-hell, to fall out if you need to. Nobody's judging you on that. I just want you to know that I'm next door anytime you need to talk. Don't matter whether it's day or night. Feel free to call me." He took her hand, held it in his.
Lacey nodded with a stiff smile, withdrew her hand tentatively. Although she appreciated the sentiment, she half suspected that beneath his solace was a tacit offer for something more. Since Ray's wife June died a couple of years ago, he had turned his attention on Lacey, which often manifested in a variety of gifts: fresh catfish from his fishing trips; turnips, collards and carrots from his garden; fat, pungent strawberries that he planted every spring. She accepted the gifts with wary appreciation, not wanting to hurt his feelings and yet not wanting to encourage him.
"I think I'll go check on Mama. This whole thing has been really hard on her."
Lacey walked over to her mother, now talking to a woman Lacey recognized as one of her mother's friends. Contrary to what she had told Ray, her mother was holding up quite well. Despite an attack of arthritis that had laid her up recently, Mrs. Dolores Coleman stood her full height. At nearly six feet, she was not a shrinking violet. Although her hair was gray, it gleamed with a sleek metallic sheen that highlighted still-luminous skin. The height was courtesy of Ibo ancestors brought to the South Carolina islands. The cheekbones spoke of Cree and Apache patriarchs who had taken up with a couple of runaway slave women; the slightly slanted eyes came from a particularly industrious Chinese immigrant brought over to work on the continental railroad, who later married a great-great-grandmother and established a business of his own. These traits were from strong genes that never got muted no matter whose line they married into. Calvin's eyes had been similar to his grandmother's; her own were less so. Still, she had the height and bones.
Her mother smiled as she approached. "You feeling better?"
"Wish everyone would stop asking me that," she said softly, knowing she sounded bitter, and totally unconcerned about her mother's friend still within earshot.
"We're going to worry whether you want us to or not. Don't forget, I lost a grandbaby, Estelle a nephew, Joe a great-nephew. We're hurting, too, and we can imagine, if only a little bit, what's going on with you."
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to sound so ..." Lacey stopped.
"Angry?" her mother offered, taking her arm, guiding her to an unoccupied corner. Once there, her mother reached out a finger and touched her cheek. "That's normal, Lacey. Still, maybe you should talk to somebody, someone other than family."
"You mean a psychiatrist?"
"Or at least a grief counselor. And don't pooh-pooh the idea before you've had a chance to think it through. This isn't going to go away just by going through the motions. Lace, you need to speak with someone about the whole grief process, not only what you're going through today, but how you'll be feeling a month from now. And I suspect anger is only a small part of it. As much as I loved Calvin, he was your son. I've never lost a child, can't even begin to imagine it." Her mother's eyes welled up. "Oh, my sweet baby." She grabbed Lacey into a tight hug.
The air seemed stagnant, stifling all of a sudden. Despite the chill outside, the room felt as though someone had turned up the thermostat past eighty. She needed to get away from this room with everybody fawning over her like a child. An irrepressible need to scream was growing in her belly, threatening to erupt. She was scared she was going to lose it again. If she did, her mother wouldn't just be recommending a psychiatrist, but an actual stay in a mental facility.
"I'm going to step out back, get some air," she announced unceremoniously as she freed herself from her mother's arms and strode away. She cut through the living room, ignoring the curious looks. The kitchen was empty; she didn't know where Estelle and Mrs. Hampton had gone. There were so many rooms in this house where people could disappear to. She and Darryl had bought it over twenty years ago with the hope they would fill every room with children. That hadn't happened.
Lacey opened and closed the back door behind her, immediately regretting not grabbing her coat. Still, the biting air chilled the hysteria that had been about to overtake her again. She stood there on the wraparound porch, breathing in cold air, grateful for a moment of solitude. The wooden gate along the large yard's perimeter provided some privacy. She gazed at her daylilies, planted just a few weeks ago along the foot of the gate. They were starting to wilt with the cold snap.
She took in another deep breath and realized she smelled a whiff of nicotine. She turned in the direction of the odor. Around the corner of the porch, a white trail of smoke drifted above one of her rose bushes.
"Hello?" she called out.
Excerpted from THE OBJECT OF LOVE by SHARON CULLARS Copyright © 2007 by Sharon Cullars. Excerpted by permission.
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