Read an Excerpt
From Chapter One
As a minister I rarely found the entirety of a Sunday service depressing. But some mornings disease and despair seemed to permeate the congregation like ﬂoodwaters in sandbags, and the only people who stood during the moment when we shared our joys and concerns were those souls who were intimately acquainted with nursing homes, ICUs, and the nearby hospice. Concerns invariably outnumbered joys, but there were some Sundays that were absolute routs, and it would seem that the only people rising up in their pews to speak needed Prozac considerably more than they needed prayer. Or yes, than they needed me.
On those sorts of Sundays, whenever someone would stand and ask for prayers for something relatively minor—a promotion, traveling mercies, a broken leg that surely would mend—I would ﬁnd myself thinking as I stood in the pulpit, Get a spine, you bloody ingrate! Buck up! That lady behind you is about to lose her husband to pancreatic cancer, and you’re whining about your difﬁcult boss? Oh, please! I never said that sort of thing aloud, but I think that’s only because I’m from a particularly mannered suburb of New York City, and so my family has to be drunk to be cutting. I did love my congregation, but I also knew that I had an inordinate number of whiners.
The Sunday service that preceded Alice Hayward’s baptism and death was especially rich in genuine human tragedy, it was just jam-packed with the real McCoy—one long ballad of ceaseless lamentation and pain. Moreover, as a result of that morning’s children’s message and a choir member’s solo, it was also unusually moving. The whiners knew that they couldn’t compete with the legitimate, no- holds- barred sort of torment that was besieging much of the congregation, and so they kept their fannies in their seats and their prayer requests to themselves.
That day we heard from a thirty- four- year- old lawyer who had already endured twelve weeks of radiation for a brain tumor and was now in his second week of chemotherapy. He was on steroids, and so on top of everything else he had to endure the indignity of a sudden physical resemblance to a human blowﬁsh. He gave the children’s message that Sunday, and he told the children—toddlers and girls and boys as old as ten and eleven—who surrounded him at the front of the church how he’d learned in the last three months that while some angels might really have halos and wings, he’d met a great many more who looked an awful lot like regular people. When he started to describe the angels he’d seen—describing, in essence, the members of the church Women’s Circle who drove him back and forth to the hospital, or the folks who ﬁlled his family’s refrigerator with fresh vegetables and homemade carrot juice, or the people who barely knew him yet sent cards and letters—I saw eyes in the congregation grow dewy. And, of course, I knew how badly some of those half- blind old ladies in the Women’s Circle drove, which seemed to me a further indication that there may indeed be angels among us.
Then, after the older children had returned to the pews where their parents were sitting while the younger ones had been escorted to the playroom in the church’s addition so they would be spared the second half of the service (including my sermon), a fellow in the choir with a lush, robust tenor sang “It is well with my soul,” and he sang it without the accompaniment of our organist. Spafford wrote that hymn after his four daughters had drowned when their ship, the Ville de Havre, collided with another vessel and sank. When the tenor’s voice rose for the refrain for the last time, his hands before him and his long ﬁngers steepling together before his chest, the congregation spontaneously joined him. There was a pause when they ﬁnished, followed by a great forward whoosh from the pews as the members of the church as one exhaled in wonder, “Amen....”
And so when it came time for our moment together of caring and sharing (an expression I use without irony, though I admit it sounds vaguely like doggerel and more than a little New Age), the people were primed to pour out their hearts. And they did. I’ve looked back at the notes I scribbled from the pulpit that morning—the names of the people for whom we were supposed to pray and exactly what ailed them—and by any objective measure there really was a lot of horror that day. Cancer and cystic ﬁbrosis and a disease that would cost a newborn her right eye. A car accident. A house ﬁre. A truck bomb in a land far away. We prayed for people dying at home, in area hospitals, at the hospice in the next town. We prayed for healing, we prayed for death (though we used that great euphemism relief ), we prayed for peace. We prayed for peace in souls that were turbulent and for peace in a corner of the world that was in the midst of a civil war.
By the time I began my sermon, I could have been as inspiring as a tax attorney and people would neither have noticed nor cared. I could have been awful—though the truth is, I wasn’t; my words at the very least transcended hollow that morning—and still they would have been moved. They were craving inspiration the way I crave sunlight in January.
Nevertheless, that Sunday service offered a litany of the ways we can die and the catastrophes that can assail us. Who knew that the worst was yet to come? (In theory, I know the answer to that, but we won’t go there. At least not yet.) The particular tragedy that would give our little village its grisly notoriety was still almost a dozen hours away and wouldn’t begin to unfold until the warm front had arrived in the late afternoon and early evening and we had all begun to swelter over our dinners. There was so much still in between: the potluck, the baptism, the word.
Not the word, though I do see it as both the beginning and the end: In the beginning was the Word....
There. That was the word in this case. There.
“There,” Alice Hayward said to me after I had baptized her in the pond that Sunday, a smile on her face that I can only call grim. There.
The baptism immediately followed the Sunday service, a good old- fashioned, once- a- year Baptist dunking in the Brookners’ pond. Behind me I heard the congregation clapping for Alice, including the members of the Women’s Circle, at least one of whom, like me, was aware of what sometimes went on in the house the Haywards had built together on the ridge.
None of them, I know now, had heard what she’d said. But even if they had, I doubt they would have heard in that one word exactly what I did, because that single syllable hadn’t been meant for them. It had been meant only for me.
“There,” I said to Alice in response. Nodding. Agreeing. Af ﬁrming her faith. A single syllable uttered from my own lips. It was the word that gave Alice Hayward all the reassurance she needed to go forward into the death that her husband may have been envisioning for her—perhaps even for the two of them—for years.
From Chapter Seven
My husband is a great guy. It doesn’t take a dirtball like George Hayward or Stephen Drew for me to see that. I think those two have a lot more in common than the reverend ever would be willing to admit.
But that’s the thing about men like that. Total denial. Everyone talks about how a battered woman has a complete unwillingness to admit to herself what’s really going on in her life, and I can tell you that the river Denial is indeed pretty freaking wide in the minds of a lot of those victims. The worst, for me, are those cases where some boyfriend or stepfather is abusing the woman’s daughters, and when we ﬁnally charge the bastard—when the daughter ﬁnally comes for-ward—the woman defends the guy! Takes his side! Insists her own kid must be making this up or exaggerating. Trust me: No twelve- year- old girl exaggerates when Mom’s boyfriend makes her do things to him with her mouth.
And, clearly, Alice Hayward was no stranger to denial herself. When I returned to my ofﬁce that Monday after viewing the mess up in Haverill, I learned that Alice had gotten a temporary relief- from- abuse
order that winter. Had managed to kick her husband’s ornery ass out of the house and—somehow—gotten him to go live for a couple of months at their place on Lake Bomoseen. And then, like so many battered women, had taken him back. Hadn’t even shown up for the hearing a week after the papers were served.
But the men’s rationalizations are even worse. They’ll curl your hair.
Now, Stephen Drew wasn’t using some poor woman’s face as a ﬂoor sander, and he wasn’t inﬂicting himself on some defenseless middle- school girl. (Note I am not being catty and adding “as far as we know.” Because, in my opinion, we do know: He wasn’t.) But he certainly abused his place and his power, and he sure as hell took advantage of women in his congregation. For a minister, the guy had ice in his veins. Lived completely alone, didn’t even have a dog or a cat. He really creeped me out once when he went off on this riff about the Cruciﬁxion as a form of execution. Very scholarly, but later it was clear that even his lawyer had wished he’d dialed down the serial- killer vibe.
And he was, like a lot of the real wife beaters, a great self- deluder.
And, perhaps, a great actor.
That morning I met him, he told me how he’d baptized Alice Hayward the day before and how he should have seen this coming from something she’d said when she came out of the water. I couldn’t decide whether he was overintellectualizing the fact that there was a dead woman in her nightgown on the ﬂoor and a dead guy with half a face on the couch, or whether he was so completely in shock that he was ﬁnding reasons to feel guilty himself. It wasn’t like he had strangled the woman. It wasn’t like he had shot the creep on the sofa.
Shows you what I know.
It was one of my associates, David Dennison, who ﬁrst questioned what really had occurred at the Haywards’ the night they both died. David is the medical examiner. He’s tall and scholarly- looking, and his hair is almost translucently white. His eyes are sunken, a little sad even, but he’s a very funny guy. I’ve worked with three pathologists in two states, and I’ve learned that most MEs are pretty witty. I think if you’re going to do that for a living, you have to appreciate black humor. He’s also an excellent witness, and as a prosecutor I need that in an ME. Cop shows on TV have ruined me: I don’t dare put a dull guy on the stand if I want to keep a jury awake.
In addition, David is a total control freak, and I want that, too. I have seen him go up to a person at a crime scene who is clearly there for the ﬁrst time and politely take their hands and put their ﬁngers together as if they’re praying. The last thing he wants—the last thing any of us want—is for someone to accidentally screw up a key piece of evidence by touching it.
From Chapter Twelve
"Hit me again, you drunken fool! Hit me again!”
Of all the things my parents hissed and screamed and snarled at each other over the years, it is the way my mother sneered those words at my father one Christmas Eve when Amanda and I were in elementary school that comes back to haunt me most often and compels me to pray to my angel for solace and peace. I was ten and Amanda was twelve, and neither of us believed any longer in Santa Claus. The four of us had been with friends of my parents’ for Christmas Eve, an annual gathering of four distant families that always involved massive amounts of drinking among the parents and desperately awkward silences among the children because we all went to different schools. Shortly after midnight my family left, and we were, as usual, the last to leave. In hindsight I have come to realize, my parents were always the last to leave because they were terriﬁed of being alone together in that rambling house and especially in the conﬁned space of the bedroom they were compelled to share.
Our drive home took about an hour, which was how long it would have taken if my father had traveled the two- lane roads at a steady, reasonable speed. Instead, however, as inevitably occurred when he was far too drunk to drive, he would creep along perhaps ten or ﬁfteen miles below the posted speed limit and then accelerate wildly when my mother would say—her breath a nauseating and perhaps ﬂammable blowtorch of Johnnie Walker scotch and Eve cigarettes—that he drove like a granny. A ninny. Or she would goad him on by telling him that she had to pee. And so he would accelerate. He would show her. He would drive like a wild man for the next three or four miles, the car careening across the double yellow line in the center of the black pavement or swerving off the shoulder so the side panels or the roof of the car would be brushed (or scratched) by the leaﬂess tree branches. He would race at sixty and seventy miles an hour on those tortuous roads, decelerating abruptly only when he had narrowly avoided a collision with an oncoming car or he had navigated a turn with only the barest of clearances. That Christmas Eve we lost a hubcap from the right rear tire when he grazed a farmer’s old stone wall a good ten feet off the road—our white Cutlass Supreme traversing in a blink the frozen ground with its patches of rock- hard ice and snow—and I think only Amanda and I understood how close the call had been. (The next day it would be my grandmother, a guest at our house for Christmas, who would inform my parents that the hubcap was gone when she innocently asked them where it was. They were, as they were most Christ mas days, enduring such excruciating hangovers that they didn’t even bother to venture outside to the driveway to take a look.) All the while Amanda prayed beside me in the backseat, her eyes squeezed shut and her lips silently moving. It has crossed my mind numerous times over the years that the only reason we survived that night was my sister’s terriﬁed entreaties to either an angel or God.
When we got home, I presumed that the worst was over. Given my parents’ relationship, there was absolutely no reason to make that assumption. But I did. Amanda went directly to her room, and I went to the den to see if there was anything at all on television other than the Yule log: essentially a televised ﬁreplace with Christmas carols in the background. My mother sat down with me on the couch and tried to wrap her arm around my shoulders, but that night I was resistant to her embraces. She tried to win me over with a remark about how only a year or two earlier I might have been putting out cookies for Santa and then racing upstairs to bed so I would be asleep when he arrived with his reindeer. But I was in no mood to try to add a patina to what had always been a childhood of Christmas Eves marked by my parents’ verbal and, on occasion, physical brawls. Quickly my mother sensed my frame of mind, and even though she was still very drunk, she left. She kissed me on the forehead and stumbled to her feet on shaky legs. She had kicked off her boots as soon as she had walked in the door, but even in her stocking feet she was having trouble negotiating the plush living- room carpet. And then, all alone, I clicked back and forth among the four or ﬁve television stations we had.
It was perhaps ﬁfteen minutes later that my parents began to argue. I will never know precisely what triggered that one, but it really doesn’t matter. What matters is that soon after they started, I heard the sound of a great amount of glass shattering, and I knew it was the beveled mirror that was suspended by two oak arms above my mother’s dresser—a Victorian piece that I know now was well over one hundred years old. Then my father emerged from the bedroom and stomped toward the top of the stairs, where he paused for a moment at the balcony that ran perhaps ﬁfteen feet along the corridor, his hands in ﬁsts at his sides as he surveyed the ﬁrst ﬂoor. I gazed up at him, but our eyes never met and I wasn’t altogether sure that he had registered I was there on the living- room couch. He was still in the clothes he had worn that evening, though his shirt was untucked and the top three or four buttons were open. His T-shirt was the color of a peach. His wonderful, creosote- black hair, which had been slicked back at the party, looked now as if he had teased it with spaghetti tongs.
My mother appeared behind him in only her panties and blouse, barefoot, and her own hair—a great ﬂaxen mane—was also in disarray. Her lipstick was smeared like a clown’s, and her mascara was dripping in rivulets down the right side of her face. (It’s possible, I imagine, that it was running from her left eye as well, but I recall noticing at the time that for some reason only her right cheek was streaked with makeup.) She was sobbing and she was furious and she threw herself at him, pounding her ﬁsts into his back and shoulders with such force that it looked for a split second as if he would hurtle over the side of the balustrade and fall either one ﬂight into the living room or— worse—a full two ﬂights if he tumbled over the section of balcony that was above the stairs that linked the living room with the ﬁnished basement.
“Stop it!” he yelled, grabbing her ﬁsts in his hands. “Settle the fuck down! You nearly fucking killed me!”
“You stop it, just stop everything!” she screamed back, a demand that, as unreasonable as it was, might have accomplished its intent if she hadn’t added, “You are pathetic. You are just the most pathetic loser.”
“Pathetic? I’m not so fucking drunk I—”
“‘Fucking’? Why don’t you swear some more in front of your children? Why don’t you tell them what you just called me? Heather, do you want to know what your father just called me?” I hadn’t any idea how to respond to this appeal, and so I murmured—not loud enough for them to hear over the din of the television and their own verbal pyrotechnics—“Don’t ﬁght. Please. Don’t ﬁght.” In my mind I see myself curled up on the couch in the red Christmas skirt from Saks Fifth Avenue and the turtleneck dotted with silver snowﬂakes I had worn that evening, a throw pillow clutched in my arms as if it were a stuffed animal. I’m sure I was crying, too.
“You’re a drunk, you know that?” my father told her, and he released her ﬁngers as if they were a ﬁsh he was tossing with two hands into a lake, his arms upraised when the movement was done. “You’re a fucking drunk and the poorest fucking excuse for a mother I’ve ever seen. You’re a shrew and—”
He never ﬁnished the sentence, because my mother, her hands newly freed, slapped him, and the stinging thwap was so loud that his ears must have been ringing. He brought his palm to his cheek and held it there for a moment. And then he slapped her back, so hard that she toppled backward and landed on the carpet near the top step of the stairway, one of her legs beneath her and the other splayed out as if she were a dancer trying and failing to perform a split. Her panties, I saw, were soaked through with her blood, and for a second I was terriﬁed she was badly hurt. But then I remembered: My older sister had just started menstruating and our mother had hoped to demystify the notion of a monthly cycle for both of her girls by telling us that she, too, was in the midst of her period. That night she was so profoundly inebriated that when she had removed her tampon when we’d gotten home, she had forgotten to put in a fresh one.
“You’re drunk,” my father scolded her.
“You’re drunk!” she shouted back. “And you’re a drunk, too! You’re a wretched and feeble excuse for a man! Your own father knows it, your mother knows it, your daughters know it. They know. They know.”
She pushed off against the wall and stood to face him. “They know,” she mocked him one more time, and she glanced down at me for the merest of seconds. And so my father smacked her again, but this time she was prepared for the blow and remained on her feet, though her body fell hard against the wall, her head bouncing like a basketball off the Sheetrock and causing the small framed print of a rosebush near her to quiver.
“They know their mother’s a shrew!” he yelled. “That’s what they know! She’s a fucking, bleeding, harpy shrew who can’t even keep her goddamn underwear clean!”
She dropped her hands to her sides in a posture of absolute submissiveness and hissed, “Hit me again, you drunken fool! Hit me again.”
And so he did.
From Chapter Sixteen
The social workers and the therapists all wanted to know if Dad ever hit me. The short answer is yes. But it’s complicated. I mean, no kid deserves to be hit, but a smart one doesn’t get in the middle of some of the crap that I did. When your mom and dad are in the midst of an electriﬁed- cage match, you steer clear if you want to keep your teeth. (That’s an exaggeration. A: I have never seen a real cage match, just videos of them on YouTube. And B: I have all my teeth. My father never punched me in the mouth.) Twice I made the mistake of thinking I could save my mom alone, and both times I got swatted like one of those gross, slow- moving cluster ﬂies we had in the attic. In all fairness, the ﬁrst time Dad walloped me was a mistake on his part. He hadn’t meant to. He was in one of his moods, and I don’t even remember anymore what set him off, and my mom was crying pathetically. They were both in their bathroom, and I could hear them through the walls, and I was at my wit’s end and totally furious with him. Maybe even furious with both of them for living the same rerun over and over and over. And so I went in to yell at my dad. I was a big-deal thirteen, and I think I was going to tell him to grow up. The scene I walked in on was really weird, because it was after dinner and he was, like, shaving. I knew he was worried that the toy store wasn’t making enough money—even I knew that a shop that sold mostly marionettes and wooden puzzles in an age when everyone wanted a PlayStation or Wii was a pretty lame idea—which meant that he was a little stressed. Still, I have no idea why he was shaving. He was also pretty hammered. I’m amazed he could ﬁgure out which side of the Bic he was supposed to use on his skin. Anyway, I went in with all this determination, and my timing was just perfect. Totally perfect. He was winding up to whack Mom, who was actually on her knees and pleading with him about who knows what, and I walked straight into his knuckles as he swung them back, taking it right on the ear. And I can tell you that ears have a ton of nerves. I guess hearing cells don’t. But the outer ear?
Trust me, it hurt like crazy, and my ears rang for hours. I fell against the frame of the door and then, I’m not sure how, wound up on the ﬂoor, half in the bedroom and half in the bathroom. Dad didn’t even realize what he’d walloped at ﬁrst. I think he thought my head was, like, the door. But my mom knew, and she just threw herself at him, leaping to her feet like a missile, which of course caused him to throw her down onto the ﬂoor beside me. And that’s when my dad looked at me like, “Hello? What are you doing here?”
The other time he did hit me on purpose. It was a year later, and we had begun to ﬁgure out just how much we hated each other: I hated him for what he did to Mom, and he hated me for knowing he was a jerk and mean and pathetic. And that’s the thing—I knew he was pathetic. I don’t care how successful his restaurant or his stores were. My mom wasn’t the loser: He was. And so he probably despised me. But, in all fairness, it was only that one time that he meant to hit me. Just like that evening he nailed me by accident in the bathroom, he hadn’t hit Mom yet. But I could see where it was going. It was a Friday morning, and the bank was experimenting with casual dress on Friday, so the bankers didn’t have to look as formal as usual. Mom was wearing a pair of black jeans. Nice jeans—not mom jeans. They were tight, and she looked very pretty and very young in them. My dad didn’t know she owned them. Anyway, he had left early to play golf that morning, and so my mom had ﬁgured she could wear them to work. Unfortunately, my dad forgot his golf shoes, and so he came back for them and saw what Mom was wearing. His voice got that creepy, sarcastic, I’m- your- daddy tone to it. He almost sounded British when he got like that. And that was always the overture. The warm- up. You knew what was coming next. Mom and I were in the kitchen when he returned, and I was eating a Pop-Tart or something at the counter and making sure I had wedged every binder I would need that day at school into my backpack. (My backpack is always a total wreck.) Mom immediately dropped the lipstick she’d been holding in her ﬁngers into her purse when he started leaning into her. His golf shoes had these pointy metal studs on the soles, and he grabbed one by the top and was holding it like a knife. He ordered her upstairs to the bedroom, where he told her that she was going to put on clothes that didn’t embarrass her or him or his daughter.
And so I told him that Mom’s jeans sure didn’t embarrass me. I said I liked them and thought she looked great. He turned to me and hissed something about how this was none of my business and to get ready for school. I shrugged and held up my backpack with both hands. (And it really did take both hands, because it always seemed to weigh as much as a case of beer, which, just for the record, I only know weighs a ton because I carried them in from the supermarket when I would help Mom with the grocery shopping. In the months after my dad killed my mom, I smoked a lot of dope, but I was never into beer. Too fattening. And it reminded me too much of Dad.) I told him I was all ready for school. And so he said in that case I should go. And Mom said I should, too, and she was practically begging me to get out of the house. But I didn’t want to leave her like this. To leave her to him. So I told my dad that Mom’s jeans were ﬁne and to let it go. I said he didn’t want to miss his tee time. Mom was, like, babbling about how she was going right upstairs to change, she was, and she scooted around Dad so she was between the kitchen and the stairs, and she yelled back at me in a voice that was bizarrely cheerful considering what was going on that I didn’t want to miss the school bus. And I thought, fuck the school bus, this has gone too far. And, in fact, I may even have said that. I can’t recall for sure. All I remember for certain is my dad glaring at me and his eyes getting narrow: Think of a newt. And then, out of the blue, he rammed the toe of the golf shoe into my stomach. It didn’t hurt that much, and it didn’t knock the wind out of me, but it did cause me to drop my backpack and coil up like a spring. My mom screamed at him to stop, but she didn’t need to worry. He was totally shocked at what he’d done. He was stunned. Then he shook his head in disgust and said I was every bit the slut my mom was and walked out of the house with his golf shoes.
That was the only other time he hit me. And it led to the longest cold war my parents ever had. It took him longer than usual to get all syrupy and apologize, maybe because he’d never had the chance that morning to vent the full fury that was always smoldering just underneath his skin. Also, he needed to apologize to me, too, this time. Which he did. I wound up with a new iPod and a hundred bucks on iTunes. I believe it would be months before he would hit Mom again. Not till the autumn, I think. But when he started up again, things would spiral quickly through the holidays. I’m amazed it took Mom until February to ﬁnd the backbone to get the restraining order and kick him out of the house. It wasn’t just that he was becoming so unbearable to be around and so weirdly scary. It was that by then she had Stephen Drew in her life.