Long-festering secrets erupt with devastating consequences to Connecticut's moneyed Carteret clan in Lewis's second novel (after Speak Softly, She Can Hear), a literate page-turner. When 24-year-old Pony, the family's daredevil golden girl, drowns while skinny-dipping at their Vermont lake house, her death leaves her year-old son, Andrew, an orphan-as well as a hornet's nest of troubling questions. Why had Pony begged big brother William to meet her in Vermont that day? Did someone else show up after they quarreled and William stormed off? Who is Andrew's father? And was Pony's death really an accident? Widowed patriarch Jasper Carteret III and bossy eldest daughter Tinker seem less interested in answers than damage control. But William, heartsick at whatever role his departure might have played in the tragedy, starts digging. Before long, some of his startling discoveries challenge his core beliefs about the people he thought he knew well. Lewis skillfully lures the reader through her narrative maze with plenty of plot twists-most of them credible until an over-the-top climax-without compromising a masterful portrait of a quirky New England family in crisis. (Apr.)Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Perfect Family: A Novelby Pam Lewis
From the acclaimed author of Speak Softly, She Can Hear, a literary page-turner about a proper New England family and the dark secrets that undo them.
Pony Carteret -- the lovely headstrong youngest member of the Carteret family -- has always been a strong swimmer. So when she is discovered drowned at the family's summer home on Lake Aral, Vermont,/i>… See more details below
From the acclaimed author of Speak Softly, She Can Hear, a literary page-turner about a proper New England family and the dark secrets that undo them.
Pony Carteret -- the lovely headstrong youngest member of the Carteret family -- has always been a strong swimmer. So when she is discovered drowned at the family's summer home on Lake Aral, Vermont, her red hair tangled in an anchor chain and her baby abandoned on shore, her family is stunned by disbelief.
As the police conduct their investigation, Jasper Carteret, the patriarch, calls an urgent family meeting. Had any of her siblings known that Pony would be at the house that day? Was she having personal problems, was she depressed? Had she ever revealed the true identity of her baby's father? Neither sister -- Tinker, the family caretaker, nor Mira, the moody, thoughtful one -- has any information, and ultimately the police rule the drowning an accident.
But William Carteret, Pony's older brother, can't accept the explanation that his favorite sister's death was an accident. Determined to uncover the truth, he eventually learns the disturbing fact that a stranger had been present at the house the evening Pony died. Who was this man, what was he doing at the house, and why hasn't he stepped forward? As William digs deeper, his investigations quickly lead him to a new and more daunting series of questions, not only about the mysteries in Pony's life but also about the shadowy details of his deceased mother's past and even his own. Before long, he has opened a Pandora's box of family secrets, including one dangerous fact his mother has kept hidden for a generation.
Pam Lewis's Perfect Family is a masterful, atmospheric tale about the ways in which family secrets, no matter how long they're buried, can wield their tremendous power.
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Meet the Author
Pam Lewis lives in rural Connecticut with her husband, Rob Funk. Since 1991, she has worked as a freelance writer of business and marketing communications. She is the author of the novels Perfect Family and Speak Softly, She Can Hear and her short fiction has appeared in The New Yorker and various literary magazines.
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Fond du Lac, Lake Aral, Vermont
At exactly three-thirty William Carteret parked beside his sister Pony's car at the lake house. He'd been driving since two, and now the sun was falling behind the mountain, and everything -- the house, the lawn, the shore, and half the lake -- was in shadow. A stiff wind was kicking up whitecaps on the water. A handful of sailboats scudded quickly, their small white sails crowded together as they headed for the last race buoy.
William stretched and walked down to the water, as he always did first thing. Someone was still on the beach on the opposite shore, where they had the afternoon sun. He envied them over there, the Nicelys, the Garners, the Wrights, and their neighbors, for the long slow afternoons filled with late light and the lazy wane of day. Here on the Carteret side, they had the early-morning sun, and if you asked William's father, Jasper Carteret III, he'd say they were better off because of it, that being on the western shore meant being early risers; it meant being industrious, disciplined, and, although this was not spoken, superior.
William turned and headed toward the house, a big old gray dowager of a place, three stories tall. The house looked tired. It needed a new roof, a thought that depressed him because it would mean an assessment from his father. He and his sisters -- Pony, Tinker, and Mira -- would all have to pitch in to help pay for it. Pony wouldn't be able to come up with her share, so he and his other two sisters would have to carry her again. Maybe he'd bring it up with her while he was up here, or maybe not. Probably not. There was no getting blood from a stone.
Something in one of the upper windows caught his attention, an orange shape moving to one side of the pane. "Pony?" he shouted, and immediately she was plainly in view, waving to him. Had she been there all along? Watching him? Something was going on. She'd called him that morning and told him in that rapid-fire way she had that he needed to come up to the lake, and it had to be today. She had the place all to herself. Well, she and her son, Andrew, who was only a baby. But the point was, no Daddy, no Tinker, no Mira. Pony had just come up and let herself in, and they didn't even know about it. "So there!" she'd said, meaning she'd blown off the whole sign-up sheet, the careful summer schedule that Tinker had come up with after their mother died.
She vanished from the window. A moment later, the screen door flew open, banged against the side of the house, and slammed shut. Pony came at a run, a blur of bright orange T-shirt and white shorts across the lawn, her long dark red hair streaming behind.
"Oh, Jesus, William," she said, wrapping her arms around his neck. "You came."
She was the youngest of his three sisters, his hands-down favorite. She was lean and tall, and she had the kind of energy that made her light as air. She hugged him, freed herself, hugged him again. She had a broad face, high cheekbones, and a perfectly straight and slightly prominent nose; it was the kind of nose, their father said, that came from generations of breeding. Her eyes, though, those were the main thing about Pony. Big hazel eyes always alert, always taking everything in, eyes that darted quickly and constantly.
"Wouldn't not." He glanced about, looking for evidence of someone else, but saw nothing.
She took a step back, taking him in, grinning. "Come inside. Andrew's taking a nap." She dragged him by the hand across the lawn to the porch and into the cavernous living room with its three big faded blue couches arranged around a massive stone fireplace where the last coals of a fire still burned. The baby's toys were scattered across the floor. William recognized the orange Tonka truck that had once been his, and Matchbox cars, also his from childhood. Even some of the girls' dolls were in evidence. Andrew's clothes and diapers were stacked in piles on the furniture; the room held the dismal smell of baby and sour milk.
"Looks like a tornado came through," he said.
"Voice down." Pony pointed to a crib in the corner, where the baby was sound asleep.
"I'll put my stuff upstairs," William said in a whisper.
The upstairs was like the downstairs: Pony's hair dryer lay in the sink, still plugged into the wall. Andrew's rubber toys were piled in the tub, and towels lay on the floor. William checked among the items on the vanity to see if there was a guy's razor or aftershave. He was 90 percent sure this was about a new boyfriend. But there was nothing belonging to an adult male on the whole second floor. He could hear Pony singing downstairs. An Elvis Costello tune, "Alison."
When he went back down, she was banging things around in the kitchen. She switched to whistling. The baby was awake now in his crib, looking blankly up at William, his face creased and moist from sleeping on his blanket. He was a cheerful little guy with very blond hair. When he saw William, he opened his mouth and wailed.
"What should I do?" William called out.
"Nothing. He's just hungry." Pony hoisted the baby out of the crib and went back into the kitchen, where she gave him a bottle, then blitzed around, the baby on one hip, making sandwiches with her free hand.
"So what's the deal?" William said. "Why am I up here?"
She stopped what she was doing and turned to look at him, cocking her head as if she saw something surprising in him. "All in good time," she said.
William went to the porch. A wind was blowing up the lake from the south. Overhead, the trees rustled, and from the lake came the hollow clank of the barrels under the raft as they were lifted and dropped.
A shout from next door caused William to look over at the Bells' place, partly visible through the trees. William's father still resented Dennis Bell (Dennis père, Jasper called him snidely) for buying the land from him eight years earlier and for the house Bell put up. William's father had sold only seventeen feet of water frontage, which was intended to force the Bells into building farther back, where the lot widened and where the house would be hidden among the trees. But Bell had put up an A-frame tight to the shore. It was a big triangle of a house with kelly-green trim, the only one of its kind on the lake, its cedar shake roof sloping all the way to the ground.
Every spring the Bells talked to William's father about blacktopping the right-of-way they shared, and every year William's father said no. The year before, a crew of guys had shown up and paved the private section of road that forked off the right-of-way to the Bells' house. William's family had contempt for the pristine condition in which the Bells kept their driveway, as if their own eroded two-track were a cut above.
Two shiny SUVs, a silver and a red, were visible through the trees. The Bell kids had Daisy rifles, and William thought he saw Denny, the youngest (Dennis fils), in the woods between the two houses. He was probably shooting squirrels. When Andrew got older, that would be a problem. Just as when William had been a kid up here, Andrew would have too much time on his hands by the time he hit eleven or twelve, and if the Bell kids or grandkids were shooting, Andrew would want to shoot, too. But that would be later. Nothing to worry about now. If William's mother were still alive, she'd be over there right now talking to Mrs. Bell, asking politely if she would please keep the boy from shooting off his gun. And then she'd come back to the house, distressed because Anita Bell would have said something like "Oh, what's the harm?" That was how the Bells were, casual about important things. William's father had called the police on them once, which had done no good. It wasn't against the law to shoot off a Daisy rifle on your own land.
The door creaked behind William, and Pony was there with Andrew still slung on one jutted hip. She lowered him to the floor in front of William. "Watch him for a sec, will you?"
Driving up from Connecticut, he had felt sanguine. That was the only word for it. The day was clear. The road was empty. He'd done eighty, sometimes ninety, all the way up 91 and not a single cop, not even north of Greenfield, where there were almost always speed traps. He'd had this idea that he would sit on the porch at Fond du Lac and work, something he'd seen in The New York Times Magazine once, an ad for booze showing a guy with bare feet propped on a railing looking out at the ocean, laptop open, rum drink at the ready. William eyed the baby, who sat on the floor like a lump, staring up at him. He was apparently easy as kids went, or so Tinker, the eldest of William's three sisters, always said. Tinker said Andrew would sit wherever he was put and stare at something until something else -- his toes or a piece of lint on the floor -- got his attention, and then he'd stare at that for the next half hour. She always followed that up by talking about how her own daughter, Isabel, who was eight now, had been lithe and quick at Andrew's age, the implication being that a restless child was brighter. It was another way for Tinker to cut Pony down to size. Tinker needed to step on Pony just to feel even.
William had been six when Tinker was born. Mira had come a year later and Pony a year after that. Three damp little animals. Their mother was always attending to them -- feeding them, burping them, changing their diapers. The house smelled all the time. He stopped having his friends over because of the blast of steamy baby smell that always hit him when he opened the front door. As his sisters grew older, Tinker, an officious, chubby little girl, rode herd on the others, parroting their mother about what they were allowed to do or not do. Their rooms were down the hall from his, and he could always hear her bullying her little sisters.
But then Pony had broken off and sought out William's company. She used to hang out in his room and lie on his bed while he struggled through his homework. She had questions for him. Lots of questions. Are God and Santa Claus the same person? Yes. Is our family poor because we don't have a dishwasher? No. What's on the other side of the stars? Not a clue. In their very careful family she was the one he admired. She once jumped from the garage roof. When their mother wasn't there, she did the forbidden: she swam across the lake without a boat. Once, when their mother had had a bunch of women to the house, Pony had taken small bills from each of the purses left in their parents' bedroom and spent it on candy.
Pony came back to the porch with a beer for William in one hand and a real drink in the other, something amber-colored with ice, letting the screen door slam behind her; the ghost of their mother's voice echoed in William's ears: Do not let the screen door slam. It didn't seem like a good idea to be drinking with the baby right there. If Pony got lit, and she could, William would be stuck with Andrew. She read him. "Don't worry," she said, putting the drinks on the table between them. "I'll be fine."
"I thought you quit." There'd been a time, before she had Andrew, when the family had worried about her.
"I did," she said, taking a long swallow.
The phone rang in the living room. Pony grabbed her glass and went inside to answer it. "Hello. Hi. Yes. Uh-huh. Shit," she said, and then "Yeah, well, not much you can do about that, I guess." After a few moments, the door banged again and she was back. She sank into the chair opposite. "I thought you'd be here later."
"Is that a problem?"
She shrugged. She handed him a blistered strip of four photographs, taken in one of those old-fashioned photo booths, of a girl and boy in perhaps their late teens. The girl was blond and wore a feathered headdress. Her long hair hung like curtains on either side of her face. The boy was partly hidden behind her. He had dark hair swept back like Nixon's. It took a moment for William to understand the girl was their mother. "Where did this come from?" he asked. He turned the strip over. The words Livvy, 1968 were written on the back. "Nobody ever called her Livvy."
"I know. Isn't that a riot? Daddy always called her Olivia."
"But where did you get this thing?" he asked again. The family albums were full of pictures, but none of their mother as a girl. "Lost," their mother always said vaguely when William asked, and she would allude to a flooded basement in which photos were destroyed or to a move in which they were lost. It was always one incomplete explanation or the other.
"Cool your jets," Pony said.
"Who's the boy?"
"Not now, okay? Later."
Andrew let out a wail. Pony put her drink on the rail, and William noticed it was fuller than before; she must have added to it. She dragged Andrew's playpen from the corner of the porch, and bumped it down the stairs to the lawn. It was a big expandable circle she could put down anywhere, and it kept Andrew in pretty much the same place for a while. She pulled it open as far as it would go. Then she lowered Andrew into it.
William's good mood from driving up earlier was shot. He felt uneasy; anxious, even. Pony was up. She was down. In and out of the house. He wished she'd just sit still and tell him what was up. He looked out at the water. The surface was still alive with tiny whitecaps. The cold water would calm him down. It would suck the annoyance right out of him.
"I'm taking a refresher lifesaving course at the town beach. I figured I'd better, what with Andrew," Pony said.
He was so glad to hear this. Everybody would be glad to hear it. Pony was a great mother, if you asked him, but anything that made her more conventional as a mother was going to make the rest of the family happy. "That's just great," he said.
"I haven't forgotten much."
"Like riding a bicycle," he said. All the Carteret kids had taken the lifesaving and water-safety-instructor courses over at the town beach the summer they were old enough. Their mother had insisted on it because she herself hadn't learned to swim until she was an adult, and she was a very nervous swimmer. She didn't care if they ever used it, if they ever got lifesaving jobs or saved anybody. No, she just wanted them to know how. The town beach lessons were famous for something called the drowning game. It should be illegal, William thought, but it was part of the Lake Aral program. The way it worked? Everybody swam into deep water at once, the whole class of twenty or thirty kids. They'd tread water for a minute or so, adrenaline going, and at the signal, each of them was to attack someone else, get the person into a hold, and swim him to shallow water. The object was to drag as many people to shore as you could. If somebody dragged you in, you lost and had to get out of the water. The last one in the water was the winner. William won it his year. He'd been fifteen, and he'd spent the winter building his upper body with weights, standing before his mirror. He'd put on twenty-three pounds that year, all muscle. Pony had won the drowning game her year, too. His sister Mira had allowed herself to be rescued right away so she could sit the whole thing out. Tinker had tried, but she had been one of the early ones to be pulled out.
"I'll go change," he said.
While he was up in his room, pulling on his trunks, he saw Pony down on the beach, toeing the sand, her head bowed. She'd stuffed her hair into her shirt, and it gave her back a kind of hump. She paced. She chewed a fingernail. She walked up the lawn, stepped into the baby's playpen, and sat down cross-legged in front of him. William heard the baby laugh. They were alike that way, Pony and Andrew. Their first reaction to each other was always laughter, no matter what. She kissed him, and he giggled again. She put a little yellow jacket on him and a hat because of the breeze.
"I need to tell you something," she had said over the telephone two years earlier. They'd met in Elizabeth Park in Hartford and taken a walk. It had been a mild November day. They'd walked through the dormant rose garden and sat on a bench. "I'm pregnant," Pony had said. He'd accepted the news quietly and waited for her to say more. "It's perfect, actually," she'd said. "The father won't ever know. He's long gone. A one-night stand, if memory serves." She'd smiled almost radiantly. "You're the only one I'm telling who the father is. Let them go crazy guessing. Tinker especially."
"People will think it was Seth," William said, referring to Pony's on-again-off-again boyfriend.
"Let them. He got married last year and moved to Canada."
When the family found out, things had fallen apart. Their father sank into one of his weekend-in-the-chair depressions. Tinker set up conference calls with Mira and William. Pony needed to be married to whomever the father was, she said. Or someone needed to approach Pony on the subject of an abortion, and she thought William was the one; Pony might listen to him. William had stopped taking Tinker's calls until Pony was safely into her second trimester. And then Andrew was born and the family laid down arms for a period. He was the first grandson, and what could anybody do? But Andrew was a year old now, and Pony had a job in an art supply store that paid nothing. They'd all have to pitch in, which raised yet another problem, in Tinker's view -- how Pony would handle any money they gave her. She wasn't exactly a financial genius, and if the family ponied up -- excuse the expression -- some money for Andrew's care, how could they be sure Pony wouldn't spend it on art supplies or give it away to charity? Mira didn't see what was the matter with Pony buying art supplies. "She is an artist, Tinker," she said.
There had been some more e-mails about that lately, which William hadn't answered. He gave Pony money whenever he had it, but he didn't want to be part of the organized charity that Tinker was trying to set up. He didn't want to be bound to Tinker, didn't want to be ordered around. What was more, the others still believed the baby had a regular father someplace, a real guy who'd come out of hiding and take responsibility or, worst-case scenario, Pony would have somebody to sue for child support if things got bad. Nobody in the family but William knew how on her own Pony was with this one.
She stepped back over Andrew's playpen and went down to the water's edge, where she pulled off her shirt and stepped out of her shorts and then her underwear. William watched her, feeling lousy about it but watching anyway. She stood on the shore, hands on her hips, looking out at the water. Instinctively, he went to the other window to see if anybody was watching over at the Bells', but no. Nobody was outside over there now, as far as he could see.
He was annoyed that she would skinny-dip in the daytime. They didn't do that. Only at night. But then a lot had changed. Their mother's death had been the opening salvo, and ever since, the family had been caving in. Pony would not have had Andrew if their mother were still alive. William was sure of it. She would not have come up here without asking, and neither would he. Mira would have gone to graduate school. Their father would have had Fond du Lac painted. He would have contracted out the new roof. And William would still be working a nine-to-five at Aetna, a job he hated, because it was one thing to disappoint his mother but another to disappoint his father, who had, when you came down to it, pulled the rug out from under William in the first place.
Ever since childhood, William had assumed he would follow in his father's footsteps. He'd had the summer jobs at Carteret Ball Bearings -- working the mail room, the advertising department, and -- his best summer because it had kept him out-of-doors -- working with the grounds crew. He'd gone to Trinity College in Hartford, the alma mater of all the Carterets, and studied history and economics, as they had. Unlike them, however, William had been a disappointing C student in everything but English.
But when William was in his junior year, his father sold the company. It had happened without warning, only an explanation after the fact. Advancement in manufacture and technology had made labor almost obsolete. Ball bearings could be produced by machine twenty-four hours a day: manufactured, assembled, packaged, shipped, and distributed without ever being touched by a human hand. The competition was revving up; upgrades needed to be made. The sale had gone quickly. The whole plant was knocked down and shipped to Finland, where it was reconstructed and producing within the month. The buildings were sold to a community college.
And so just out of college, William had gone to work at Aetna in a public relations job. It involved sitting in a cubicle most days and making incremental steps up the corporate ladder every year at performance-review time. When his mother died, he'd quit and started his own freelance business. The work suited him brilliantly, and he was good at it. When he worked, he earned money. When he didn't, he could go hiking. He would never be the chief executive officer of anything.
He caught sight of his reflection in the full-length mirror and leaned in to see his dark eyes and the long black lashes he'd cut down to the root in eighth grade after Amber Alexander had said she envied him. He turned sideways to see the musculature of his chest. Leonine, his girlfriend, Ruth, called him. He moved like a lion, she said; it was in his build, long in the torso and narrow through the hips and with the smooth gait of a cat. And his skin was olive, unlike that of his sisters, who all had fair, easily freckled skin and fine pale hairs on their arms and cheeks. William ran a hand over his hair, which was dark and cut very short. He had a high forehead and wide-set eyes, and he had the same strong nose as Pony.
She was in the water when he came back outside, swimming out toward the raft, doing the six-beat crawl he'd taught her, three kicks to each arm for power and endurance. She still liked to swim across the lake in midsummer, and if he was around, he'd row the safety boat for her, synchronizing his oars to the rhythm of her stroke. Now she paused and did a surface dive, her bare ass rising white and glistening before disappearing.
He and Pony often skinny-dipped during long family parties. The game was to make sure Tinker knew -- a dropped shoe, a slammed door, something to alert their uptight sister that they were headed outside to the lake, to make her charge down to the water and stand there waving her flashlight and calling in a stage whisper to them: This is so inappropriate. Pony said that if Tinker were happy with her body, she'd be in there with them every time.
William entered the lake quickly, feeling the cold against his shins and thighs, the sudden shock to his groin. He did a quick immersion. He swam underwater, his eyes open to the black haze, and took a few strokes to get warm, then surfaced. He looked about for Pony. The choppy water everywhere made it difficult to see. He listened over the wind for a splash.
Something brushed his feet, coming up from a deeper place. He tucked on instinct, but her hands clamped fast around his ankles and pulled him down. He tried to buck, to kick her away, but she had him tight. She gripped his lower legs with both arms from behind. She shinnied up his body, arm over arm, to his knees and his thighs, pulling him down as she moved deeper underwater. He thrashed and tried to pry himself free, but of all the holds, this was the surest, the safest, for the rescuer. She was solidly behind, out of his reach and in control.
But he was ripped. Worse than ripped. He was scared. There hadn't been time to take in a breath. Use your head, he told himself. There was no breaking that hold. The only option was to stop fighting. He forced himself to let go, to surrender and feel immediately the soft warmth of her body along the length of him. On instinct, he tried to twist away again, but she was too strong. Jesus, Pony. They broke the surface, and he hauled in a deep breath, then another. "What the fuck!" he shouted.
She kept him in her grip. "Like riding a bicycle," she said, and laughed. "You said so yourself. I've still got it."
"Let go." He could hardly breathe. He was hyperventilating, forcing himself to slow down, take in the breaths deep and slow. Nausea was setting in.
"Not on your life," she said. "You'll get me back. I know you will."
"God Almighty, I'm not going to do anything. Cut this out!"
But she kept sidestroking, her upper leg pulling up, thrusting away, lurching the two of them toward shore. "I didn't forget any of this stuff," she said. "We have the drowning game coming up in class. I plan to win. If I can take you, I can take anybody."
He couldn't speak. He had to think about breathing. The warmth of her body against his back unnerved him. He made a vain attempt to twist away again. They were in shallow water, and she loosened her grip. He crouched, swam away from her. She plopped down on the sand at the water's edge, totally at ease with her nakedness. Behind her, Andrew shook his pen with his fists.
"Put some clothes on," William said.
"Nobody's even up here now," she said. "Except a couple of Bells, and they don't count." Her skin was a weave of gooseflesh.
"I'm up here." He felt too shaky to stand. He dove underwater and swam the distance to the raft, as if it were possible to cleanse himself. He pulled himself up on the raft. The wind chilled him quickly, a new discomfort. He focused on the water and on the opposite shore. He forced himself to resist shivering. He'd panicked. She'd taken him by surprise, and he'd panicked.
He lay down to get out of the wind, pressing his chest against the warmer boards of the raft. She was at the water's edge, playing peekaboo with Andrew as if nothing had happened. William stared down through the slats below, a thin-line glimpse at the dark water under the raft, aware of exactly what had happened physiologically in his body. In the instant Pony had attacked him, his nervous system had kicked his heart into overdrive and sent blood to his limbs, where it was needed. Now came the aftermath. He felt dizzy and light-headed. His hands trembled. He pressed his cheek against the raft. He was furious at himself. He felt nauseated. He felt ashamed.
There was a trip on the Yucatan Peninsula he'd heard about. A week in a jungle so dense a person could advance only a mile a day toward Mayan ruins that might be there and might not. The ruins had never been found. The point of the expedition was the journey. Every step had to be taken slowly, calculated. A snake in that jungle had a bite that disintegrated the vascular system and caused a person to bleed to death from his pores. There were venomous spiders and no way out. Sometimes William thought about that: what it would be like to be so trapped, forced to overcome panic or surely die.
That was the whole thing about panic. You had to use your head, not your instinct. As soon as the body got its way, you were in trouble. He sat up and watched Pony. She waved and smiled at him. She was still buck-naked. He lowered himself into the water and swam to shore. She was lying on her back on the sand, resting on her elbows, her breasts sloping to either side.
"What the fuck was that about?" he asked her. Without waiting for an answer, he headed up the lawn toward the house. Andrew stared as if William were an alien creature. William stared back. Andrew was the alien creature. Cute, but hey. William went upstairs, toweled off, and, as he changed into his clothes, watched Pony from the window. She stood at water's edge, stretching, arms over her head, leaning one way, then the other. He couldn't take his eyes off her, and she probably knew it. He felt the flutter of fear, the residual fear of a near-miss, a dangerous swerve on the highway, a stumble while hiking a knife-edge. It was lousy, the heavy sensation and feeling ashamed. She was his sister.
Years earlier, when Pony was about nine or ten, William had been in the bathroom of the West Hartford house, shaving. It was afternoon, and it was winter. The mirror on the medicine cabinet was spotted where the tin had eaten through, so shaving was a pain. Pony had banged on the door, demanding to be let in. William wrapped a towel around himself and opened the door a crack, but his little sister barged in and sat down on the commode, crossing her arms over her chest in fury. He went back to shaving. "So what's the problem?" he said.
"Mom," she said. "I'm coming out of my room, and she says, 'Pony, dear, I need to tell you about the birds and the bees.' " She looked at William and crossed her eyes. "Birds and bees? What planet is she on, anyway?"
"I'll bet she showed you that book," he said. "The one she keeps in the closet."
"It is so lame. She said that I am not allowed ever ever ever to let a boy put his hands below my waist." Pony grinned up at William. "I said, 'Maybe no boy will ever ever ever try.' She said, 'Oh, yes, they will.' She said it happens to every single girl in every city and every country and that it will happen to me, and the minute it does, I need to remember what she said."
William went on shaving.
"Is it true?"
William nodded. "Yup," he said. "It's true."
"You think it'll even happen to Tinker?"
"So I can be famous."
"How's that?" he asked.
"I'll be the only girl it doesn't happen to. I'll be on talk shows. I'll be on Oprah."
"You'll make us all so proud," William said.
"Here's what I don't get," Pony said. "I've seen your penis, right? And Daddy's and this kid Eddie's in my class, and what I want to know is how is one of those ever going to poke itself into a woman like Mom says? Like hello?"
"Ask Mom," William said. "Ask Tinker. Jeez, Pony."
"I'm asking you," Pony said. "Because you've got one."
"Under certain circumstances, it gets hard, " William said, trying for equilibrium. She deserved an answer.
"Can I see?"
"No," he said. But he felt it start to happen. Back then, just talking about it could make it happen. He turned back to the mirror to hide it from her. "Let me finish shaving," he said. "Get out of here."
"Why can't you show me? What's the big deal?"
He leaned against the cool sink to stop it from happening. "Scram."
"Why does everybody always have to get so mad about this stuff? Honestly!" she said, and left the room, slamming the door.
He kept watching her. She was back in the water, breaststroking in circles. The wind rippled across the water. She looked so white, frog-kicking, her black-looking hair fanning out, obscuring her shoulders. She surface-dove, emerged closer to shore, and said something to Andrew. Those two were the team now. Pony and Andrew. William felt like an intruder coming in today, stumbling over Andrew's toys, smelling his baby smells. The same lousy plug of loneliness in his gut as when the girls started being born.
Pony climbed the ladder to the raft and lay down on her back. William turned away. He gathered up his things, repacked, and made up his mind to head up to Phoenicia in the Catskills, maybe do North Dome. He couldn't remember if Ruth had done that one. They were doing the Catskill 3500s -- thirty-five peaks, all over thirty-five hundred feet high; the task was to climb them all once in the good months and four of them again in the winter. William wanted the freedom of the mountains, the strain on his body, the exhaustion of a day climbing. The even exchange of effort and payoff.
Downstairs, he checked to see if he'd left anything, first the living room and then the kitchen. The two sandwiches Pony had made for their dinner were still sitting on a plate on the kitchen table. He took one for the drive home and laid a dish towel over the other. In the living room, he picked up the picture of their mother again. She was about seventeen in it, he guessed. He considered taking it but decided not to. It was Pony's. Her half-full glass of bourbon or whatever was on the porch rail, and he tossed the contents. He went back down to the water holding his duffel. The minute she saw him, she understood. "Oh, for God's sake, William," she shouted. She dove in and began to swim to shore.
"Adios," he shouted.
"You can't leave," she shouted to him.
What was he even doing here? Whatever she wanted to tell him would have to wait. He wasn't going to be a pawn in any of her stuff again. He threw his duffel into the backseat of his car. Pony was out of the water, coming up the sand. She picked up the orange shirt and covered herself.
"Look, I'm sorry, okay?" she said.
"Tell me what's going on."
"Can't. I promised."
She shook her head. "Just stay, William."
"What the hell is with you?" He gestured toward the house, toward Andrew, the lake, the whole thing. Then he got into his car. He backed onto the drive and stopped to look one more time. In the rearview mirror, he saw her turn away, throw the shirt back onto the grass, and head back toward the water. The baby, in his pen on the lawn, reached for her, but she must not have noticed. She walked past him and back into Lake Aral.
Copyright © 2008 by Pamela Lewis
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