"Nobody walks the knife-edge of hilarity and heartbreak more confidently than Pelletier."—Richard Russo
In her exquisite new novel, acclaimed author Cathie Pelletier presents a witty and refreshingly candid portrait of grief, intergenerational conflict, and the impact one person can have on those he loved.
Bixley, Maine. One year after Henry Munroe's fatal heart attack at age forty-one, his doting parents, prudish wife, rebellious son, and wayward brother are still reeling. So is Evie Cooper, a bartender, self-proclaimed "spiritual portraitist," and Henry's former mistress. While his widow, Jeanie, struggles with the betrayal, Henry's overbearing mother is making plans to hold a memorial service. As the date of the tribute draws closer and these worlds threaten to collide, the Munroes grapple with the frailty of their own lives and the knowledge that love is all that matters.
With her trademark wry wit and wisdom, Cathie Pelletier has crafted an elegant and surprisingly uplifiting portrait of the many strange and inspiring forms that grief can take in its journey toward healing.
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Henry had been gone a year now, but Jeanie would never forget the moment he died, how the bed became lighter, his soul floating upward like a white balloon. She felt it, as though someone's hand had pressed down on the mattress, indenting, then releasing it again. A guardian angel, maybe. But Henry didn't believe in such stuff. "I believe in the IRS," he liked to say. "And I believe in staying one foot ahead of the bastards." Jeanie knew now that death was faster than the IRS because Henry Munroe had disappeared from the breakfast table, the supper table, the leather recliner, the bathroom, the workshop in the garage. He had disappeared forever.
But that morning he died, maybe the very second it happened, Jeanie had felt a tremor of movement in their bed, a quick shudder. Henry's heart! was her first thought. Henry having a heart attack had been a worry for months, ever since the doctor told him his cholesterol was dangerously high. But Henry had refused to change his diet of fast-food burgers and greasy fries. Jeanie could monitor what he ate at home, but each time he walked out the door Henry was a free man, responsible for his own behavior. And this had been his handicap.
They'd been married for twenty-three years, and that was Jeanie's next thought. Twenty-three years. She opened her eyes then and saw the thread of dawn uncurling along the windowsill. Without looking, her own heart fluttering, she reached a hand over and touched the side of Henry's face. It was cool, damp almost, and beneath the skin there was a stiffness, as though boards were there holding up the frame of his body, the shell of his life. A fresh stubble of beard had grown during the night, his body still trying in its primitive way to protect his face from the elements. But his body itself had been the enemy, or at least it had turned into the enemy, storing all that cholesterol in its arteries. "Henry?" Jeanie had asked. "You okay?" When he didn't answer, didn't move, didn't even breathe, she had reached for the lamp on her nightstand and snapped it on. Then she picked up the phone and quickly dialed 911. "My husband's had a heart attack," Jeanie told the distant voice who answered the call.
And that's when the truth washed over her, her eyes filling quickly with tears. All the time she gave directions to the house, gave her name and then Henry's, she didn't look at him once, there on his side of the bed, as if he might be sleeping in late as he often did on lazy Sundays. Jeanie thought that if she looked at Henry, especially when she said the words, "I think he's dead," that this would make it true. It would seal his fate. And she didn't want to do that if there was still a chance. They could work miracles these days with all that fancy technology. That's what she kept reminding herself as she waited for the ambulance, as she listened to the kind voice on the other end of the line telling her, They'll be there soon, Mrs. Munroe. Stay on the phone with me. Try to be calm now. They could even bring people back from long, winding tunnels, folks who had clinically died. And Henry was young, not yet forty. Maybe they could still save him.
Jeanie had lain back on the bed, phone still to her ear, and put her head on Henry's stiff arm. This was the way they used to sleep in those first, sexy years of marriage. It occurred to her that this might be the last time she would be able to do so. In those minutes before they took Henry Munroe away, she wanted to get all of him that she could. She wanted to imagine that their lives were just beginning, that those seconds left between them were little lifetimes. She tried to think of what Henry would say about this scene, if he could see it, if he were hovering up at the ceiling somewhere, looking down. Just the notion of it would make him laugh: Jeanie, of all people, being appointed by fate to find her dead husband first. Jeanie, who was afraid of spiders, and the dark, and of any suggestion to stray even slightly from the missionary style of lovemaking in all those years of their marriage.
It would take time, Jeanie knew, that morning she lay next to her dead husband, tears running down the sides of her face and onto Henry's cold arm. It would take time. She had given answers to all the questions she was being asked about her husband, questions that seemed so distant from the man himself-no pulse, no heartbeat-questions she answered without checking his cold wrist, without putting her ear to the silent drum of his heart. She knew the answers. And as much as she tried to stay there in the present, she couldn't stop her mind from rushing ahead, from giving her a glimpse into the rest of her life. Yes, it would take time to get used to certain words and phrases: My husband died last month. Widow. My husband has been dead for five years. Beneficiary. But that's how it was when they'd gotten married, back in 1980, the same year Ronald Reagan became the fortieth president of the United States, and Jimmy Carter took Rosalyn and went back to Georgia. Jeanie had said the new words and phrases then, learning them easily as the years unfolded: We've been married just a month. Husband. We're celebrating our fifth anniversary. Wife. The words and phrases of change. And that's when it occurred to her that she would have to break the news to the kids. Lisa now lived down in Portland with her new husband. And Chad, poor Chad, was still only fifteen and worshipping every move Henry made.
Jeanie had wanted to tell the woman on the phone other things about Henry Munroe, that morning he died. "He doesn't have a heartbeat, but he's got a sense of humor that won't quit. His favorite food is spaghetti and meatballs. He stills listens to the Beatles, and he loves the Red Sox almost as much as he used to love me." Those were the things you should know about a person before they leave the earth for good, at least as Jeanie saw it. You should know the important things about them, to prepare them for their journey, the way Egyptians put the items a king loved in his pyramid so that he could still enjoy them. If Henry had been an Egyptian king, he probably would've wanted Evie Cooper in his pyramid. That way, the two of them could row down the Milky Way for all eternity.
It was only after she had heard the wail of the siren in the distance, imagined the ambulance careening past the shade tree on Elm Street, imagined it cutting the corner on Webb Drive, its red light splashing around and around inside the glass dome, as if someone were shaking a jar full of blood, that Jeanie put the phone back on its cradle. She turned her head so she could look once more at her husband's face. Already his skin had begun to turn a grayish blue, and his eyes seemed to be searching for something on the ceiling. They were open and unmoving, the way he stared at baseball players during the World Series, or hockey players in those last seconds of overtime. It was probably how he stared at Evie Cooper's breasts that first night he saw her at Murphy's Tavern, back when the affair started. Jeanie had found the receipt from the Days Inn, room 9, which Henry had forgotten to destroy. Habit did him in, for Henry always kept his receipts for tax purposes. I believe in the IRS, and I believe in staying one foot ahead of the bastards. Jeanie had cried then, too, a full week of pans being banged about in the kitchen sink. But all Henry had said was, "Is it that time of the month already?" And for too many nights to count, she sat in front of the TV for an old movie, falling asleep on the sofa rather than next to Henry in their warm bed. But Henry, being a man, had taken the gesture at face value. "You fall asleep again watching movies?" was all he had said the next morning. That's when Jeanie decided not to tell him what she had found, not yet. She would gather her evidence for divorce court, would do her homework, prepare her case. And for weeks, she had done that. She had stockpiled the receipts, even those from the local IGA for bottles of wine and bouquets of precut flowers. She had smelled the perfume in his shirts, had noted the way he always put on clean underwear just to go to Murphy's and watch baseball with Larry. And then, when she was finally ready to lay the deceit at Henry's feet, she had opened her eyes to what would be the last day of her life with him.
It had been twelve long months, and yet it seemed only yesterday that she heard the ambulance shriek into the driveway, excited voices filling the yard. That was when Jeanie Munroe leaned over and kissed her husband's cold lips for the last time, at least in their marriage bed. She wanted to say important things, the things a person hopes to say in times of crisis, she wanted to say, Sweetie, go to the light. Go to that bright tunnel. Do you see your grandmother waiting for you? Take her hand, Henry honey, it'll be okay. But that's not what Jeanie had said to her dead husband. When she heard the medics thumping on the front door, anxious to get inside with their marvelous technology, anxious to bring another stray soul back from a warm tunnel of peace and tranquillity, Jeanie had looked over at Henry's blue face and blue lips, his wide-open baby-blue eyes, and she had whispered, "Why did you do it, Henry?" That was when Jeanie Munroe finally admitted the truth, her stomach muscles cramping with tension, her breasts aching, her heart hurting her more than she had ever imagined. Henry's dead! And that's when she knew that what she had felt on the mattress, pushing it down gently so that Henry could fly up, up, and away, was guilt, that barnacle that had attached itself to Henry Munroe the very first time he ever opened the door of a motel room and then stood back so that a woman other than his wife could sashay past him.
But now Henry Munroe was free. Guilt had springboarded him into eternity.
All night long Larry Munroe lay on the bottom bunk with his eyes open, in his parents' house on Hancock Street, in the same room where he and his brother, Henry, had spent their growing-up years. Their mother had bought the bunk beds at Selman's Hardware, back in the summer of 1967, the Summer of Love. Five-year-old Henry, being the younger boy and used to getting his way, had claimed the top bed that day. Other than some nicks and scars embedded in the wood, the bunks had held up well, considering the Munroe brothers were known to be rough-and-tumble boys. Now Larry lay on his old bunk and listened as wind woven with rain tore at a shingle on the roof.
It was the shingle's welfare that kept him awake, and not the violence of the storm. The shingle and the memory of how Henry had been afraid of storms and lightning. And that's when Larry wondered if Jonathan was safe, in his new home in Portland, with Larry's ex-wife and her boyfriend. He decided it was best not to think of Jonathan. And so, with the tunnel of his left eardrum pointed upward to the ceiling, listening, Larry had taken the side of the shingle. This also helped to keep his mind off his father, Bixley's current postmaster. And the knowledge that his mother would be beating upon his locked door by eight o'clock, demanding that he open it, his father standing behind her with a doomed look on a face born to a legacy of worry. And Larry had not thought about his dead grandfather, Bixley's previous postmaster, a stern man with a sterner upper lip. Or his great-grandfather, Bixley's first postmaster, a man Larry knew only from the portrait that still hung in the Bixley Post Office, just above the counter where customers addressed letters, licked stamps, and tried to steal the postal pens from off their rickety chains when no one was looking. Larry Munroe came from a long line of mail carriers, men who saw the enemy in hail shaped like golf balls, in sleet twenty feet wide and laced with ice, in snow that crippled plows and capsized towns, in torrents of rain that swept terrified cows and pigs downstream. These were ancestral men who knew well that their reputation lay in a single, haphazard hurricane. Larry Munroe came from a generational army of mailmen, one that stretched from the turn of the previous century until now, to the turn in Larry Munroe's own life. A long line, and yet he would be the first to bring disgrace to the honorable profession.
As the storm intensified, and no matter how hard he tried, Larry couldn't keep his thoughts away from his younger brother, one of Bixley's former mailmen. At times, when lightning turned the sky and yard a dazzling white, he thought he saw the mattress above him move, as it did in those childhood days when Henry would wake in the midst of the storm. A small foot would dangle over the edge of the upper bunk until it found the ladder. A leg clad in cotton pajamas would be followed by another leg. And then the boy would appear, Henry, climbing down to walk the perimeter of the bedroom, to comfort himself until the cracks of lightning and the booms of thunder had subsided. Sometimes, he would abandon his pride and ask, "Hey, Larry. Can I sleep with you?"
But there was no more Henry. He was dead, a year now.
It was just before daybreak that the shingle lifted loose, free as a raven, and flew away on the wings of the storm. Only then, with pale streaks of dawn on the horizon, did Larry Munroe roll onto his other side, close his eyes, and try to sleep.
At seven thirty, Larry was already awake, before his mother would begin knocking on his locked door, asking if he was ill, if he had taken a sleeping pill too many, if he had forgotten to wind the clock, if he had forgotten to set the clock, if he had forgotten to plug in the clock, if he had forgotten the damn clock altogether. And then, when she had exhausted her supply of possibilities, she would turn to his father, throwing her hands up before her face as though they were doves, the necks broken, useless white things attached to her arms. She would step aside and let the one with the long, worried face give it a try.
Before the knocking would begin, Larry had reached a hand down and felt about on the floor for his mailbag. There it was, the brown leather pouch lying by his bed like a crumpled deer. He lifted the flap and grabbed several letters at random. He placed them carefully on his chest, stacking them in a neat pile before he selected the first one. An electric bill for Tom Peterson, on Mayflower Avenue. Larry tossed it onto the floor and picked up the next. The Howard F. Honig College of Nebraska was replying to Andy Southby's application for admission. Larry smiled at the notion of any sensible establishment accepting Andy into its midst. This must have been the fiftieth letter of application that Andy had mailed out since February, the first ones being addressed to universities that Larry had actually heard of. By June, Andy had begun petitioning any college he could, including the Nashville Diesel Mechanic School. But even they had denied his presence, for Larry had seen the thin-lettered and prompt reply they had sent back. Besides, if Andy had been accepted, Larry and the rest of the regulars at Murphy's Tavern would have heard all about it. Now it looked as if the revered Howard F. Honig College-whatever the hell that was-was rejecting the boy as well. At least the letter felt like a one-pager, and one-pagers were all that was needed to say Dear Sir, Thank you for your interest, sorry to inform you, fuck off.
Larry threw Andy's letter onto the floor. He wished the Howard F. Honig College would accept the pimply-faced youth, get him the hell out of Bixley. He was driving Larry crazy, sitting on a bar stool at Murphy's nightly and talking about his future education when the rest of the regulars were trying to sip their beers and watch their beloved Red Sox on the tiny television set over the bar. With every home run, every base hit, every well-placed pitch, Larry ached for his little brother. But Henry would never again hear a Boston bat crack to deliver a home run. He would never see a well-hit line drive whap! itself into a Red Sox glove to deliver the last out of the game. He would never know that his and Jeanie's only son, Chad, was drinking too much beer and driving Henry's old motorbike so fast around the curved roads of Bixley that it was unlikely the boy would see his eighteenth birthday. Henry would never know that Jeanie was now going to a psychologist, too warped with grief to carry on by herself. Henry would never know, nor would he believe, that Larry had taken up the mail sack for him, that Larry Munroe was now delivering letters all over Bixley in Henry's stead, Larry, who was to have been a happily married schoolteacher and father for all his earthly days. Larry, who was now a single mailman living again with his parents, while his child lived in another house, in another city. And Henry would never know that Evie-ah, Evie with those magnificent breasts-had decided to let his brother, Larry, know what those breasts felt like in his hands. Henry would never know.
Ever since she was a child, Evie Cooper has seen the faces of those who have passed on to the other side. Mostly, she watches them filter by in a steady stream, like the line that inches forward at a movie theater. But every now and then, one of those restless souls will stop and turn to look at Evie. They lean forward, as if they're staring into a mirror at their own reflections. Sometimes, they seem confused, as if their eyes are searching through a trunk for an item they've left behind. These are the special people. These are the faces of the dead that Evie Cooper can study well enough to draw. She makes part of her living expenses from spirit noses, and eyes, and mouths shaped like small bows. Evie Cooper makes dollars and cents from sketching angel hair.
Until she was seven years old, Evie thought everyone saw the faces of the dead. It was not until Rosemary Ann that she learned the truth. Rosemary had come to her one afternoon when Evie was sitting in the backseat of her father's car. He was driving and her mother sat in the passenger seat. Spring had just arrived in Temple City, Pennsylvania, and all the streets were lined with budding trees. Kids were wheeling about on bicycles and old men sat stiffly on park benches, talking up their pasts. Rosemary Ann must have loved spring, too, the way the hazelnut bushes cascade out over riverbanks, the nesting birds, the hazy clouds drifting across the sky. That's probably why Rosemary Ann visited Evie in the springtime, in her father's Kaiser Manhattan, with the automatic buttons and the plush green seats. But then, the faces of the dead often come to Evie when she's driving. It's as if speed can take her to them, can enable her to catch up to their vaporous heels. Rosemary Ann came to Evie while she and her parents were driving past the Temple City Movie Theater. The movie was The Alamo, starring John Wayne as Davy Crockett, a man who fought to his death in the famous Texan battle. There was a poster in the window of the actor, wearing a coonskin cap and holding a rifle over his shoulder. The movie had won the Academy Award because Davy Crockett had really wanted to live. Maybe Rosemary Ann wanted to live, too. Maybe that's why Evie saw her sitting between her parents in the front seat, acting as if she were their only little girl, as if life were something you could put back on once you take it off. As if life might be an old coat.
What Evie felt then was jealousy rising up in her like a hot liquid, bubbling to get out. Yes, it was jealousy that rescued Evie Cooper from her ignorance. Jealousy set her free, loosed the artist that was hiding in her soul. She sometimes wondered what she would have become in life had it not been for that afternoon, had it not been spring, with life bursting the seams on Temple City. It was such a beautiful day, with brownish dogs floating above the green grass in the park and vendors selling ice cream and newspapers. The sidewalk shops had spilled out into the streets, with sales on towels and dresses and woven baskets. What would have happened to Evie Cooper if they hadn't driven past the theater on that glorious day? Would Rosemary Ann have bothered to come? "What is that little girl doing here?" Evie had asked. When her mother turned to look, Evie knew instantly this was something important. She could see it in her mother's eyes. Even as a child, Evie relied heavily upon the human eye and what it speaks. What little girl? What little girl? What little girl? the eyes were asking. "There's a little girl sitting between you and Daddy," Evie said. "Right there." And that's when Rosemary Ann had turned around and looked at Evie. On the contrary, what are you doing here? That's what Rosemary Ann's eyes wanted to know. "Make her go away," Evie said. "I don't want her to sit there."
Evie's mother said nothing for a time, but as the Kaiser turned the street at Crescent Drugstore, she leaned across the girl she couldn't see and grabbed the steering wheel. "For Christ's sake, Helen," Evie's father said. "Do you want to kill us all?" Angry, he pulled the Kaiser up to the curb in front of the drugstore. "This isn't going to start again, is it?" But Evie's mother wasn't listening. Instead, she fumbled for her purse and then opened the door. "You can't go in," Evie said. Rosemary Ann had seemed about to follow, one small leg already out of the car. "I don't want you with my mummy." That was when Evie's father swung around in his seat, his eyes glaring like black ice. "Stop it!" he said. "You don't even realize what you're doing." Rosemary Ann, her long brown ringlets trickling down her back, had mimicked him. You don't even realize what you're doing. "Shut up!" Evie shouted. Jealousy was on fire inside her heart. Jealousy was eating her alive. "What did you say?" her father asked. And before Evie could explain, he slapped a hand across her mouth. She had never been slapped by anyone in her whole seven years of life. Her eyes filled with tears, but she was too embarrassed to cry, especially in front of such a pretty girl.
And then Evie's mother was back, a notepad in one hand, a pencil in the other. She didn't even notice that Evie was on the verge of tears. And Evie wanted her to notice. Evie wanted her to say, Evelyn, my darling, this day, this invisible girl, this slap across your lovely mouth will not change your life at all. You will remain safe, always. You will never lose the gift of innocence. Evie wanted her mother to say these things because she could feel safety being wrenched away from her. She could feel it being taken from her possession, as though it were a doll, or a dress. She would soon know some things about life and death that most people never know. And that's how quickly it happened. Her mother put the notepad on Evie's lap. She fit the pencil into Evie's trembling hand. "Draw her," she whispered, her voice lit with pain and excitement. "Draw the little girl you see sitting between Daddy and me."
And that's how Evie learned that not everyone can see the dead, and not everyone can draw a decent picture. But she could. She wasn't a Leonardo da Vinci. Or a Rembrandt. But Evie Cooper learned over the years how to capture the true character of eyes, and lips, and noses. She learned to draw a curl so real it looked as if a comb had just passed through it. And maybe that's why those souls who are restless and wandering seek her out. Her hand trembling that day, in the backseat of her parents' car, Evie began to draw. First she sketched Rosemary Ann's oval face and the tightly wound ringlets. She drew the bow-shaped mouth, the eyebrows that curved like thin rainbows over the dark eyes. She even drew the cross Rosemary Ann was wearing around her neck. Then Evie passed the notepad to her mother. Her father was staring out his window, the noise of spring floating through his side glass. He was staring at the life of Temple City, as it buzzed up and down the streets.
Evie's mother took the pad but didn't look right away at what Evie had drawn. "Don't do this to yourself," Evie heard her father say. He was watching Mr. Hanley, the town cop, as he went from parking meter to parking meter. Don't do this to yourself, Rosemary Ann mimicked, and then she giggled. Evie's mother lifted the pad and peered down. She said nothing at first. Then, "I'd forgotten about Rosemary Ann's necklace," she whispered. And that's how Evie came to know that the girl's name was Rosemary Ann. Her mother let the pad rest on her lap, carefully, as though it were a masterpiece she held there. And in a way, it was. It was Evie Cooper's first picture. Crude though it was, it was her first sketch of the faces of the dead that would come to follow her through life. Evie's father started the car and they drove home. Just before they turned the corner of Henderson Street, Evie looked up to see that Rosemary Ann was gone.
When Evie was sixteen, her mother showed her a large framed portrait that was still dusty from being kept in storage in the attic. It was of the little girl with the bow mouth, the girl Evie had drawn that day, the girl sitting with such confidence on the plush seat of the Kaiser. It was a portrait of Rosemary Ann Cooper. Her ringlets were tightly wound and framing the oval face. Her eyebrows were curved like thin rainbows over the dark eyes, which peered up at Evie in defiance, still mimicking. "She was your sister," Evie's mother said. "She died of a ruptured appendix, long before you were born. We put her between us in the car, Daddy and I. We were trying to get her to the hospital, but we didn't make it. It was on Main Street, in front of the movie theater."
After her parents died, Evie Cooper tried to leave the faces of the dead behind her. There was too much sadness in the eyes that appeared on her sketch pads, too much pain on the faces. So she moved from Pennsylvania to the bustle of New York City, hoping to find a certain peace. But the dead followed her. The dead aren't bothered by distance, or road signs, or mountain ranges, or boundaries on maps. The dead pick up and travel. By the time Evie left the city and settled in Bixley, Maine, by the time she met Henry Munroe, she was making good money in tips at Murphy's Tavern as a bartender. But she couldn't live on that income alone. So, she eventually put a sign up on her front lawn: Evie Cooper, Spiritual Portraitist. By then, it seemed that she was finally settled down. She was getting her life in shape. She had even told Henry Munroe that their affair was over. It had been a mistake, and was moving on. And she had held to that decision.
It had been twelve long months since the morning Evie heard the news, when Andy Southby stopped by the tavern and announced it to the regular customers, as if it were nothing more than the results of a ball game. Henry Munroe, dead of a heart attack. This is gonna kill Larry, that's what Evie thought. And then, the sadness hit her, right in the solar plexus, that spot that picks up the dead so sharp and so fast. Evie assumed Henry would stay close by, turning up behind Larry's shoulder every time his brother came into the bar. But in the twelve months that he'd been gone, Henry never once bothered to peer at Evie through the veil that separates Bixley, Maine, from the other side. Not once. And Evie Cooper knew why. Henry was still mad at her.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Not something you discuss at a book club. Small, lifeless charcters with poor morals, casual drinking and marijuana use. Thankfully only 194 pages.
The multi chapters one for each character voice is too much a plain narrative would have been better when its panned by a main line review believe it
This book draws you in at first in a very Anne Tylerish way,but just does not deliver. I ended up not liking any of the characters. Beginning each chapter with a different person is very over-used and Pelletier's use is meaningless. This book irritated me because I wanted to like it better.
As I widow, I could relate to this book.
The story of Henry is complex and it brings the reader into the lives of the characters. Although the character is not sympathetic , the narrator makes the story interesting. It follows the stages of grief from an original point of view. I definitely recommend this book and will be reading more from this author.
Again this wek