Every Last Cuckoo

Every Last Cuckoo

by Kate Maloy

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Overview


Sarah Lucas imagined the rest of her days would be spent living peacefully in her rural Vermont home in the steadfast company of her husband. But now, with Charles's sudden passing, seventy-five-year-old Sarah is left inconsolably alone.

As grief settles in, Sarah's mind lingers on her past: her imperfect but devoted fifty-year marriage to Charles; the years they spent raising their three very different children; and her childhood during the Great Depression, when her parents opened their home to countless relatives and neighbors. So, when a variety of wayward souls come seeking shelter in Sarah's own big, empty home, her past comes full circle. As this unruly flock forms a family of sorts, they—with Sarah—nurture and protect one another, all the while discovering their unsuspected strengths and courage.

In the tradition of Jane Smiley and Sue Miller, Kate Maloy has crafted a wise and gratifying novel about a woman who gracefully accepts a surprising new role just when she though her best years were behind her.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781565126756
Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
Publication date: 05/12/2009
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author


Kate Maloy is the author of the memoir A Stone Bridge North: Reflections in a New Life. Her work has been published online in Literary Mama and VerbSap and in the Readerville Journal, the Kenyon Review, and the anthologies For Keeps and Choice. She lives with her husband on the central coast of Oregon. Author Web site: www.katemaloy.com.


Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

That fall and winter Sarah felt events conspiring toward some menacing end. She told herself this was baseless, nothing more than a symptom of the seasonal plunge into cold and lengthening dark, but her anxiety persisted.

Her dread first began to surge during an illness that came over her on a midnight in November. She left her bed at the first roiling and moved to the window seat across the room, not wanting to wake Charles. Cold air flowed down from the stars, up from the river, and through the open casement beside her. She gulped it like an antidote, though it turned the fever sweat to icy pinheads in her pores. She was alarmed by her racing heart, too aware of her skin — how touchy it was with the onset of illness, how furnace-dry beneath the moist sheen.

Sarah held herself perfectly still, trying to quell the swelling nausea by force of will, as she had done since childhood, hating the stink and sound of the body's gross defenses. She preferred drawn-out suffering to the quick but horrible relief. Hot and cold, she set herself adrift, hoping to sleep again and fool whatever virus or toxin had invaded her. Soon she entered a suspended awareness in which she was conscious yet assailed by images her conscious mind did not produce. Where had she seen that piece of road, that sweet rise and bend that now un-spooled behind her eyes? The ocean, or perhaps a lake, lay to the right of it, a fringe of trees and a tucked cottage to the left. Up ahead, around a curve, a causeway crossed the wide water, but from where to where? Sarah tried to remember, but it was like snatching at milkweed fluff in the air. The very attempt sent it out of reach.

This kind of thing happened more with age. Sarah was seventy-five. She had lived many thousands of days, so it was not surprising that scenes from an hour here or a moment there should surface at random. Her memories were beads jumbled loose in a box, unstrung. Everything — people, events, conversations — came and went so fast that only a fraction of the beads were ever stored at all. Few were whole, many cracked; most rolled away beneath pressing, present moments and were gone forever. What was the point?

Still, Sarah felt she should remember that road. Something about it.

Fully awake now, she slipped from the window seat and stumbled urgently across the hallway to the bathroom. On her way she heard Charles utter an inflected snort that meant, What's happening? Where are you?

She closed the bathroom door and fell to her knees, thankful that she had scrubbed the toilet just that day. The porcelain was clean enough that she cooled her cheek on it between eviscerating heaves.

Charles knocked softly after a decent interval. He would never just come in, not while she was on the floor, clammy and trembling. "Just a minute," she called, flushing the toilet. She rose and glimpsed her face, gone ashy, in the mirror. She rinsed her mouth, brushed her teeth, rinsed again, and went out of the bathroom into Charles's embrace.

"Why didn't you wake me?" he asked, looking down at her, his white hair standing in tufts, his eyes naked without glasses.

"So you could do what?" Sarah answered, filled with relief, welcoming the pale euphoria that always rose in her when illness faded.

"Well, how about now? Want tea?"

"No, thanks. Just put me back to bed."

Charles, still lanky and straight at eighty, still courtly at moments like this one, held Sarah's arm and steered her to their room and her side of their bed. He lifted her legs and feet onto the mattress, smoothed the covers over her, and felt her forehead. "Hot," he said. "I'll get the thermometer."

"No need," Sarah replied, exhausted. "Fever's going down."

Charles touched her cheek. He might be the doctor in the family, but the palm of Sarah's own hand was accurate within a degree of fever. All those years of mothering.

"What brought this on?" he asked. "You feeling better?"

"Mmm. Just a bug." Talking was an effort, but Sarah added, "Don't you catch it."

"Not this iron man," said Charles, bending to kiss her cheek.

Sarah slept until nine the next morning, three hours later than usual. When Vermont's dilute autumn sun finally woke her, she could tell the hour from the position of its diffuse glow through the honeycomb shades. Her body luxuriated in surcease from illness, but her mind dwelt on mortality. This time a fly-by-night virus. Next time — what?

Sarah was rarely ill. Even as a child she had weathered the odd bout of sickness with a calm born of utter trust in her body. She had submitted patiently to everything from colds to menstrual cramps, believing that to be in the best of health she had to be ill sometimes. She had to let her body use its defenses the way an army practices maneuvers during peacetime. Colds kept her immune system fit. Cramps confirmed her clocklike fertility, announced the readiness of her body for babies, familiarized her with the tugging sensation that would so wildly intensify during labor. No matter what the ailment, her health always returned.

Last night, though, Sarah had feared the body-shaking thud of her heart, the weakness in her joints. Her half-awake dreaming had brought unusual images, scenes in which her molecules came unbound and drifted like motes in a beam of light, or her limbs turned to rivers that ran away into sand. She tried to fight panic along with the nausea, but neither had receded until victorious. Vomiting drained away the poisons, but the fear crept back, peripherally.

The telephone rang downstairs. Charles answered. He must have turned off the bedside phone. Sarah heard the rumble and inflections of his voice but couldn't distinguish his words, only that he was friendly, not grumpy. The grumpy Charles emerged more often than he used to, but, then, so did the grumpy Sarah. So, for that matter, did a broader spirit in each of them, a ferocious joy. There was more to being old than she had ever expected.

With that, Sarah dressed and headed downstairs, stepping through early November sunshine on the landing, pale light made watery by the wavy, century-old glass in the southeast window. As she turned to finish her descent, she felt briefly unsteady and grasped the banister. Sylvie and Ruckus surged up to meet her, a canine tide. She extended her free hand, received their kisses, and fondled their ears. Content, they preceded her down the last stairs and flanked her on her way to the kitchen, tails moving like metronomes, toenails rattling time on hardwood and tile.

Charles was still on the phone, holding the receiver to his ear with his shoulder while pouring coffee. He saw Sarah and held the pot up inquiringly.

No, thought Sarah, her stomach contracting. She grimaced at Charles and went to the pantry for tea.

Charles said into the phone, "She's up. Let me see if she's up to talking." He covered the receiver. "It's Lottie."

"Ask if I can call her back," said Sarah, filling the kettle.

Charles did so, laughed, and hung up. "No, she's never speaking to you again." He surveyed her face and looked her tall self up and down. "You don't look sick," he said. "In fact you look better than you ought to and too young for an old fart like me."

"Eye of the beholder," said Sarah. "What did Lottie want?"

"You, of course."

"She say why?"

"No, but I'd guess the usual," Charles said. "Her parents."

"You mean her mother," said Sarah wryly. "Don't be so judicious. It's only me."

Lottie, their granddaughter, belonged to their firstborn, Charlotte, and was named for her. She'd been given her nickname to avoid confusion, but it suited the girl's light, free-spirited nature. Lately her rising hormones had brought stronger moods, many of them dark. At fifteen Lottie was volatile and given to melodrama. Charlotte, high-strung herself, had no idea what to do with the adolescent changeling in her house, so Sarah was a drawbridge, separating mother and daughter until the traffic on their troubled waters could pass.

The teakettle whistled, and Sarah poured boiling water into a heavy mug, over a pouch of ginger tea. She sat down opposite Charles at the table inside the kitchen's broad bay window. "Thanksgiving's less than two weeks off," she said. "I need to plan, though the thought of all that food's a bit much this morning."

"You going to call Lottie first? She was heading out soon."

Sarah tried, but Lottie had already left on some Saturday jaunt. Charlotte, after a brief and stiffly cheerful conversation, said she would tell Lottie that Sarah had called.

Sarah hung up, disheartened. She gathered cookbooks but then sank into her chair and stared out at the late fall garden, trying, as she had countless times, to remember when she and Charlotte had first lost track of each other. As she often did amid thoughts of her oldest child, she wished her other two, Stephie and David, lived nearby. She felt no tension with them.

Sarah shifted her gaze to Charles, engrossed in a book.

"Remember the first time it was just the two of us?" she asked wistfully. "Before the kids?"

He glanced up, preoccupied. "Anything in particular?"

"All that sweaty sex." She smiled and got up to fix some toast.

"Who, us?"

"Us. Don't you ever think about those days? They come back to me all the time lately. Sometimes I think I remember every minute; other times I think I made it all up. Or I can't tell the difference."

Charles looked up at her, considering. "I prefer the present." With that he closed his book, planted a kiss on the crown of Sarah's head, and started back to his office over the barn. As a young man he had meant to study history, before medicine proved a stronger calling. Now he was writing a Lucas genealogy, conducting his research on the Internet. Since his retirement a dozen years earlier, he had written a social history of their village, Rockhill, and had self-published the diary his mother had kept as a World War I nurse. Charles was disciplined and happy. Sarah often envied his routines — mornings at his desk, errands in town, lunch with friends or meetings with environmentalists, then afternoon chores or rambles with the dogs in good weather. She joined him on those long walks when she could, but her days refused to conform to anything like a schedule. She had her own kind of discipline, which kept their lives and house in order, but she didn't have Charles's long attention span, and she wasn't creative.

Sarah made more tea and began riffling through the cookbooks. She sat planning the holidays until almost noon. The sun circled past her right shoulder. Now and then some high, fast-moving clouds cast brief shadows on her lengthening list of tasks. Before Thanksgiving was over, she would feel Christmas bearing down — the last one of the century and the old millennium.

CHAPTER 2

Charles and Sarah's youngest, David, arrived early from Massachusetts on the day before the holiday. Sylvie and Ruckus reached the door first, barking excitedly. David bent to greet them as Sarah rounded the corner from the hall to the foyer. She meant to embrace her son but stopped suddenly, surprised to see a small child — bright-haired, wearing red — back up a step at the sight of the dogs, her eyes frozen wide, chubby hands in the air. Then she flung herself at Sylvie's neck, accepting wet kisses with glee.

"David!" Sarah cried, delighted. "I didn't expect you for hours. Who's this?" She went down on one knee to meet her unexpected guest. "Hello, sweetheart. I'm Sarah. What's your name?" The little girl backed away, as she'd done before the dogs. Her dark blue eyes turned solemn.

David hugged his mother as she rose in some embarrassment. His leather jacket was stiff from the cold, his neat beard coarse and springy against her cheek. Sarah looked up at him and saw the young Charles, tall and handsome. David said, "This is Hannah, Mom. Hannah's three and a half. And this," he added, drawing a slender young woman indoors, "is Hannah's mother, Theresa McDermott. Better known as Tess."

Sarah smiled and held out her hand. "Forgive me! I was so taken with your daughter."

Tess's hand was warm, her grip firm but not hard on Sarah's joints. "It's good to meet you in person, Mrs. Lucas. I've seen photos of everyone in the family — David has prepped me well." She threw him a teasing glance. She was tall, with the same pale blond hair as her daughter, the same clear eyes and skin. A certain asymmetry in her face saved it from being just another pretty one. Overall, she had an inquisitive, intelligent look.

Hannah tugged shyly at Sarah's sleeve. "What's his name?" she asked, patting Sylvie's broad, glossy head.

"He's a she, honey. Her name is Sylvie. And this curly guy is Ruckus."

"Hi, Sylvie," Hannah crooned. "Hi, Ruckus," she added, extending her hand to the smaller dog, who obligingly licked it and wagged his stumpy tail. "Ruckus is a funny name," she announced, and giggled.

"Well, he's a funny dog," said Sarah. "Go on into the kitchen, all of you. I have a feeling someone there will be very happy to see you." She'd heard Charles come in through the mudroom, returning from errands. Driving into the barn from the village road, a rutted dirt byway through the woods, he wouldn't have seen David's car in front. Sarah suddenly wondered why David had come in that way, through the door on the wide porch. Family usually entered from the barn and mudroom, shedding boots and jackets on the way.

Sarah sent David and his guests ahead of her and took their coats to the hall closet. She longed for Stephie and Jake to come, too, bringing the whole family together at one time. But northern Minnesota was too far away for a short holiday trip.

Sarah overheard introductions as David and Tess encountered Charles. Hannah entered the spirit of things by telling him, "This black dog is Sylvie. That curly guy is Ruckus."

Charles pretended surprise. "You don't say. And did they come with you in the car, all the way from Cambridge?"

Hannah's laugh rang down the hallway, a wholehearted burst. "No! They live here!"

Sarah entered the kitchen in time to see Charles scratch his head, looking confused. "Never saw them before. Now ain't that the darnedest thing?"

An hour or so later, after a light lunch, Hannah explored the backyard with the dogs and came back exhausted and out of sorts. Tess took her upstairs for a nap, while David and Charles toured the property together. Sarah watched them. They adopted identical male postures, legs apart, hands in pockets or pointing at a tree limb that needed pruning, a piece of roof in need of repair, a gate hinge hanging loose. They had confined themselves to practicalities ever since David's adolescent rage against his father had finally faded to politeness. This saddened Charles the way her distance from Charlotte saddened Sarah. They had never dreamed that love would not be enough.

Charles, for reasons of temperament and constraint, would never glean from David the information Sarah wanted. Who was Tess? Where was Hannah's father, and did he share custody? Did Tess see staying power in David? No other woman had inspired more than passing infatuation since David's shattering divorce a dozen years ago. He was forty now. Tess was younger, probably only thirty or so.

Perhaps she was the reason David had come in through the porch door. It could be his way of announcing that they should take her seriously. He had told Sarah only days ago that he and Tess were living together, a revelation that automatically elevated her above David's many other loves. But he'd said nothing about Hannah.

Sarah had been moved by Hannah's instinctive courage, her willingness to forge past her wariness of dogs and new places. She wanted to feel Hannah's weight in her lap, to smell her hair. Her keenness for the child surprised her. She had taken her grandchildren's sequential arrivals in stride — she'd expected their entrance into her life as she expected the seasons to change. But Hannah drew Sarah's eye and ear; she was strong-willed, talkative, and filled with color and light. A butterfly next to an old bat like me, thought Sarah, chagrined and wry.

At dinner David said he had met Tess at a Quaker meeting, the last place Charles or Sarah would have guessed. Tess had been raised among the Friends but hadn't practiced as an adult until Hannah was a year old. She explained that she wanted Hannah to grow up among people who lived simply and worked for peace and social justice. She seemed reluctant to discuss the matter further, though she did add that Quakers believe each person carries a particle of the divine inside. That was the basis for everything they stood for.

(Continues…)


Excerpted from "Every Last Cuckoo"
by .
Copyright © 2008 Kate Maloy.
Excerpted by permission of ALGONQUIN BOOKS OF CHAPEL HILL.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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