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Mortal Memory

Thomas H. Cook


  Mortal Memory

  Thomas H. Cook


  Open Road Integrated Media ebook


  Maria Eugeina Caballero, David Delgado,

  Carlo and Rachel Malka and

  Pablo Martinez-Calleja in Madrid


  Charles Radanovich and

  Antonio Perez-Melero in New York.


  THIS MUCH I REMEMBERED from the beginning: the floral curtains in their second-floor bedroom pulled tightly together; Jamie’s new basketball at the edge of the yard, glistening in the rain; Laura’s plain white bra lying haphazardly in the grass behind the house, the rest of our clothes, drenched and motionless as they hung from the line above it.

  And I remembered this: two men in a car, both in the front seat; the one behind the wheel younger, smaller, bareheaded; the other wearing a gray hat, breathing hard, smoking. It was the older one who first spoke, drawing his wire-rimmed glasses from his eyes, then wiping them with a white handkerchief as he shifted around to face me. Before Rebecca, I’d never been able to remember what he’d said to me, although, over the years, I’d imagined many different things, lines no doubt picked up from television or movies, but which had never struck me as exactly right.

  Before Rebecca, I hadn’t even been able to recall how long I’d actually stayed in the back seat of the car, although I’d always sensed that the light had altered during the time I’d remained there, a change which could have only come about slowly, as evening fell. I remembered a thickening gray as it gathered around the bare, autumnal trees. I even remembered shadows lengthening and growing darker as the hours passed, but given the thick cloud cover of that late afternoon, it couldn’t have been real. Still, this false impression of shadows lengthening and growing dark lingered through the years, stubbornly remaining while other, vastly more important things, began to blur and fade.

  More than anything, I remembered the rain. It had fallen steadily all that day, puddles growing larger and larger, streams tumbling like tiny mountain rapids along the slanting gutters of the suburban streets. It was a fall rain, cold and heavy, the sort that sinks into the bones, making them feel thick and soggy. All day, while I’d sat at my desk in school, I’d listened as it spattered against my classroom windows. Outside, it fell in great gray veils across the playground and the schoolyard, finally gathering in dark pools beneath the swings, the seesaws, the dripping monkey bars. It kept me in when I wanted to be let out, and I remember glancing longingly at the sodden softball field, the thick clouds that hung above it, the slender, wiry rain. Now, when I think of it, it strikes me that almost every impression I retained of that day had something to do with confinement.

  That day: November 19, 1959.

  The car I sat in as evening fell was dark blue and had a faintly sweet, yet dusty smell, probably caused by the cigarette and cigar smoke the upholstery had collected over the years. There was a chrome ornament on the hood, a bird with its wings spread, a common design in those days. I remember the bird because I focused on it from time to time, watching it rather than the men who sat silently in the front seat. It was very beautiful, or at least it seemed so at the time, a point of gleaming silver in the gloomy air, a vision of release, a creature taking flight. It seemed odd that it should be attached to anything, least of all to the flat metal hood of the car in which I sat while the rain thudded down upon it, throwing large drops of water onto the bird’s uplifted, but unmoving wings.

  The car itself rested in the driveway of my house. I don’t know what kind of car it was, but I’ve always imagined it as a Ford or a Chevy. It had blackwall tires, and its interior was dark blue. Instead of the usual radio with small chrome dials, it had a strange metal box with a black microphone that dangled above the floorboard. I could sometimes hear static coming from the box, but I don’t remember hearing a voice. As far as I recall, neither of the men in the front seat ever picked up the microphone. Instead, they seemed to sit rigidly in place, silent, heavy, like carved figures.

  I sat mutely behind them, my short legs drawn up beneath me in the back seat of the car. Through the space between the garage and the eastern corner of the house, I could glimpse a small patch of the backyard. I could see the wooden fence my father had erected before I was born, and a portion of the metal swing set, which my brother and sister had outgrown, but which I still used at certain idle moments to entertain myself. Beyond it was the clothesline, sagging heavily with its burden of soggy clothes, and beneath them the white tangle of my sister’s bra.

  The house was made of plain red brick. It had a faintly Tudor design, two-storied, with a gabled roof and dark-green exterior shutters that were purely ornamental. A straight cement walkway led to the front door. Two front doors, actually. One of glass with an aluminum frame, the other of wood, painted white with a brass knocker shaped in the figure of a hand holding a small metal sphere. I remember how gently the long fingers appeared to hold on to the ball, as if about to release it.

  There were other ornate touches. Flowers, for example, which my mother had planted not only all around the house, but in two circular gardens on either side of the cement walkway. She grew roses, tulips, and azaleas of various colors, and I remember her stooped over them awkwardly, almost in a squat, dressed in a loose-fitting red housedress, poking at the ground with a small spade. She was thirty-seven, but in pictures she appeared considerably older. She was thin and blonde, and her face had many sharp angles. I remember her as being tall, but she was actually five foot four. Before Rebecca, I didn’t remember the sound of her voice, except that it was rather high, or the touch of her hand, except that it seemed vague and hesitant, or anything at all of the heart that had beaten beneath the red housedress, not even the fact that, according to the coroner’s report, it had weighed nearly fifteen hundred grams.

  And so, through all the years that followed her death, my mother remained an insubstantial presence, a figure carved from beach sand, tentative and impermanent.

  Her sister Edna was another story, and it was she who finally came to retrieve me from the car, the two men handing me over to her casually, without ever asking her to produce a single article of identification.

  She would have had the proper identification, of course. She was a cautious, correct woman, and knowing what would be expected of her that day, she would have brought a driver’s license or a library card along with her. But neither of the two men who sat in the front seat of the car bothered to ask her who she was. The young one simply said, “You must be the sister,” then nodded toward me and added, “Okay, you can take him then.”

  And so it was my aunt who came to me that day. My father had always called her “the maiden aunt” or “the spinster,” though I doubt that he meant anything cruel in using such phrases. She was forty-two years old and unmarried. It was as simple as that. Others might have felt differently, using the same words to point out that my aunt had failed in her central mission to attract and keep a man. But my father admired her solitude, I think, along with her capacity to endure a certain subtle scorn.

  She was dressed in a thick cloth coat that day, her dark hair pulled back in a bun which seemed to hang like a swollen berry from beneath the curve of her broad-brimmed black rain hat.

  The back door of the car swung open and I slid out of the seat and into her care. She didn’t pull me into her arms, but took my hand instead, and then strode swiftly across the rain-soaked yard to her waiting car, jerking me along hastily, so that I nearly stumbled as I trotted along beside her.

  Her car was an old green Packard, and as she hustled me into its front seat, I glanced toward my house, Jamie’s basketball suddenly floating into my view like a tiny or
ange planet. As the car pulled away, I got up on my knees in the seat and turned to look out the rain-streaked window toward the house in which I’d lived all my life. There it stood, in all its forlorn and broken gloom. I suppose by then I knew more or less everything that had happened within its various rooms during the last few hours. But all that had gone before it, the long march we had all made to that day in November, remained beyond my scope.

  “Face forward, Stevie,” Aunt Edna commanded sternly. “Don’t look back.”

  Before Rebecca, I never had.

  But now, I think that memory is the consolation prize we get for each day’s death, the place we go to edit and rewrite our lives, to give ourselves another chance. Perhaps, in the end, that was all any of us ever wanted, just another chance. My father, my mother, Laura, Jamie, all of us locked up together in that house on McDonald Drive. From the street, it didn’t look like a prison, but I know now that it was one, and that although I didn’t hear them at the time, the sounds of my childhood were sliding bars and clanging doors.

  Perhaps Aunt Edna had already sensed all that, and fearing the worst, warned me never to look back.

  She was a middle-aged woman the day she rushed me across the yard to her waiting car, but she seemed ancient to me. Once at her house, she fed me a light dinner of chicken and white rice. I sat at the table, nibbling at the food, stunned into silence by what I already knew. I remember that she looked at me for a long time, as if trying to find the right words. Then she gave up, and simply muttered, “I’ll figure something out.”

  But she never did, and I think part of the reason for her failure ever to “figure something out” with regard to me was that in some way I scared her. Without doubt, there were occasions during the short two months that I lived with her when she would gaze at me distantly, with an unmistakable apprehension, and I think that at those moments she was searching for the dark seed she thought must one day bloom in me, the ember that hadn’t been entirely consumed in the burning ruin of my family, but which still floated in the smoky atmosphere, dense, acrid, waiting to ignite.

  Once, late at night, I wandered downstairs and into the kitchen, took the long carving knife from its drawer and headed across the room to the bowl of apples that sat beside the old tin sink. I had only moved a few steps when I saw Aunt Edna step out of the darkness of the adjoining room. Her eyes were on the knife, rather than my face, and I could tell she was fighting a terrible impulse to snatch it from my hand.

  “Put that back,” she commanded.

  “I was going to have an apple,” I told her.

  “It’s too late to eat something,” she said evenly. “It’s bad for your stomach.”

  For a tense, trembling instant, we stared at each other, the long knife still held tightly in my fist, her eyes now shifting from its blade to my face.

  “Put it back, Stevie,” she repeated.

  I obeyed immediately, of course, but I never forgot the look in Aunt Edna’s eyes, the way she seemed to sniff some poisonous vapor in the air around me.

  Years later, when I told my wife the story, she said only, “How macabre,” and went back to her work. I know now that instead of such a light dismissal, she should have stopped me dead, stared at me and asked, “Was she right, Steven? Is it in you, too? What can we do to root it out?”

  For years I believed that my mother should have demanded the same answers from my father, as if that one frank exchange might have saved us all.

  My mother, Dorothy Coleman Farris, age thirty-seven.

  During the brief time that I lived with Aunt Edna, she rarely mentioned my mother. When she did, she always referred to her as “poor Dottie,” as if “poor” and “Dottie” were melded together in her mind, impossible to separate. There were even times when I suspected that Aunt Edna finally blamed my mother for everything that happened that day in 1959.

  That was something my Uncle Quentin, the tall man in work clothes who picked me up at Aunt Edna’s only two months after I arrived there, never did. Instead, he spoke fondly, and even a little comically, of my mother. And so, over the years, as his memories of her surfaced in one story or another, my mother began to emerge as a gentle and somewhat gullible person who, as a child, had always fallen for Quentin’s tricks, believed his outrageous lies, and generally served as the butt of his harmless jokes. “Dottie always looked on the bright side,” he told me once. Then added with a helpless shrug: “That was her downfall, you might say.”

  What did he mean by that?

  He never said, and so I was left with only the vision of my mother as a person so ordinary she seemed featureless, bland, a bubble in a sea of bubbles.

  Her school reports, which Aunt Edna had, and which were passed on to me when she died, revealed a similar figure to the one Quentin painted. There was a pattern of C’s dotted from time to time with a B or a B – , but nothing higher. Her fifth-grade teacher summed her up: “Dorothy is a very nice child, always kind and friendly. Her work is adequate, and she is always punctual. It is pleasant to teach her.”

  Nice. Pleasant. Punctual. Even at their best, these are not the towering virtues. They leave out courage and adventurousness. But more than anything, they leave out passion. There is nothing to suggest that anything ever moved my mother with great force. Perhaps, in the end, that’s what Aunt Edna always meant by calling her “poor Dottie,” that she was poor in spirit, that she had no inner will, that perhaps even on that November day, she’d gone to her death like a slave to her quarters, head bowed, arms hung, eyes scarcely noting the black tail of the lash.

  But could any life have really been so spiritless and void? After all, at one point, this same “poor Dottie” met a boy named Billy Farris, tall with jet-black hair, and when he asked her on a date, she accepted. Perhaps, on those evenings during the bright Indian summer of 1940, when they’d walked down to the old movie house on Timmons Street, or along the edges of the little stream that ran through the town’s carefully tended park, perhaps on those quiet, humid nights, she’d found herself momentarily aglow with something strong, new, irresistible. Isn’t it possible that there were moments early on, in the first blush of infatuation, when she had loved my father with the kind of love depicted in those little books they found beside her bed, tales of high romance in exotic places, Fiji, Paris, Istanbul? When his hand first brushed her breast, or drew slowly up her thigh, isn’t it possible that even “poor Dottie” lost her breath?

  Without Rebecca, I never would have known.

  Even so, however, I would have known a little. I would have known that she married Billy Farris and later bore three children. And yet, despite such knowledge, I find that I still can’t imagine her on those nights of conception, when Jamie and Laura and I were, in effect, born. I can’t imagine her naked beneath a man, or over him, or beside him, as they move together on the bed.

  She was on a bed that day, too, lying where he put her, her arms folded neatly over her chest, eyes closed, feet side by side, her stack of romance novels arranged neatly beside the bed, as if at any moment, she might roll over, pluck one from the floor, and immediately lose herself in the soap opera glamour of a beach romance.

  It was Aunt Edna who identified her. From the back seat of the detective’s plain, unmarked car, I saw two men in black rain slicks lead her down the walkway and into the house. A few minutes later I heard a hollow, wrenching sound come from inside the house. It wasn’t so much a scream as a low, painful wail. It was then that the older detective turned and spoke to me, although, until recently, I could not remember what he said.

  Aunt Edna was at the blue car a few minutes later, her jaw set, her lips so tightly closed that when the young detective asked if she was “the sister,” she could only nod silently in response.

  It would be many years before I saw what Aunt Edna saw that afternoon, my eyes lingering hypnotically on the body of my mother, how it was so carefully and respectfully laid out with perfect formality.

  Other pictures showed that the
same care had not been taken with my brother.

  Jamie Edward Farris, age seventeen.

  He was tall and lanky, with glistening black hair. In pictures, he appears rather thin, with a pale face and large, dark, nearly clownish lips. His eyes were a milky brown, like his mother’s, with thin eyebrows, and short dark lashes. Like hers, Jamie’s face gave the sense of having been composed of various parts selected from other faces, the eyes too dull and faded to go with the glossy black hair, the nose too flat to fit in with the high cheekbones and narrow forehead.

  Jamie and I were typical “older” and “kid” brothers. We shared the same room, the same bunk beds. We often annoyed and frustrated each other. In the evening, we listened to music together, always records selected by Jamie, and sometimes played Chinese checkers on a bright tin board. From time to time, he would try to teach me things, the guitar on one occasion, and how to use a cue stick on another.

  But despite all that, we were never really close. There was a sullenness in him, a sense of subdued explosion which kept me at arm’s length. Wanting a room of his own, resentful that Laura had always had one, Jamie often made me feel unwelcome in his presence, as if I were an unwanted intrusion.

  But even more than he resented me, Jamie resented my sister. “Laura gets her own room because she’s a girl,” he often sneered at those times when she would return home with some small school triumph. It was a maliciousness and envy of my sister which I didn’t share and probably despised. In any event, I don’t recall missing him a great deal after his death, certainly not in the way I missed Laura, longed for her and called her name at night.

  Still, I do remember Jamie quite well. I remember that he often seemed listless, drowsy, the heavy lids drooping slowly as he sat at his desk, the head following not long after that, nodding almost all the way down to the open textbook before it bobbed up suddenly, and he began to study once again. More than anything, he seems to have been one of those people who feel estranged from their own existence. There were even times when he appeared to dangle above his own life, unable to touch ground, find direction, move in a way that he’d willed himself. Had he lived, I doubt that much would have come of him, for even as a boy, he seemed to have inherited that lethargy and lack of spirit that was so visible in the woman in the red housedress.