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Mortal Memory, Page 2

Thomas H. Cook

  Even so, as I must add in a final qualification, he was not entirely inanimate. There were things that truly interested Jamie. He could spend long hours practicing his guitar, despite the fact that there was never any noticeable improvement in his ability to play it. He liked to fish, and he, Laura, and I would sometimes walk to the pond a half-mile or so from our house, cast our bait into the water and wait—usually for hours—before finally returning home with nothing. Even before Rebecca urged me back, I remembered those little fishing trips surprisingly well, the shade of the trees, the small boats that skirted across the nearly motionless water, the bell on the ice cream truck that made three rounds per afternoon, even when the driver knew that on this particular stop, there’d be no customers but the Farris kids.

  What else of Jamie?

  Only a few scattered items. I remember him rushing to hide something in his desk as I came unexpectedly into the room we shared. I remember him breaking a guitar string and cursing, then, his anger quickly spent, meticulously stringing another.

  And finally, there is this, which I remember more vividly than anything else, perhaps because it occurred only two days before he died. I was riding my bike down the block toward home when I saw him standing by the mailbox at the edge of our yard. I waved as I sped by, but he did not wave back. Instead, he continued staring, a little anxiously, up the street. He was clearly waiting for the postman to arrive, but I never learned what he was expecting in the mail. Perhaps it was a letter from a sweetheart we never knew about, or some item from a mail-order house that came three days later. Perhaps it was no more than a signed photograph from a movie star.

  Whatever it was, Jamie was waiting for it nervously, and it was there that my mind had chosen to leave him, a figure waiting, tall and gangly, his black hair tangled and unwashed, his languid, nearly lightless eyes fixed expectantly on the road ahead. Better there, than sprawled across the floor of our little room, his face a bubbly mass of shattered flesh, the side of his head blown away, and hanging in a red, glistening flap over his hunched shoulder.

  And finally, there was Laura.

  As the years passed, I continued to remember her best of all. I remembered her with every sense impression. I remembered the sweet smell of her hair, how soft her hands were when they touched my face, the taste of her skin when I kissed her. I remembered the edginess and restlessness that sometimes came into her voice, rebellion building in her like a wave.

  Laura was sixteen. She had my father’s black hair, as I do, but with features that were absolutely her own. Her eyes were dark brown, almost black when she walked beneath the shade, and her skin was a glowing white. Her lips were full and when she was cold, or when she cried, as she often did suddenly and explosively, for reasons I could not have fathomed, they turned a soft violet.

  Even as a child, I recognized that there were powerful emotions in Laura. Something in her soul was always trembling. She seemed to stand on a ledge, looking down, at times with fear, at times with longing. Had she lived, I have sometimes thought, she might have ended up a teenage suicide. A great-aunt on her mother’s side, Quentin later told me, had shot herself in a small cottage in Maine, and when he pulled a dusty family album from its ancestral shelf and pointed the woman out, the resemblance between the lost aunt and my sister was astonishingly deep. There was the same nervous tension in her eyes, the corners of the mouth drawn down along the same narrow lines, a certain stiffness and rigidity in the stance, as if rigor mortis were already setting in.

  Remembering Laura now, the melancholy that at times consumed her, it’s easy to see the ebb and flow of chemistry, to blame everything on the time of life she shared with my brother, he nearing the end of adolescence, she at its scorching core. But I believe that Laura suffered from more than a stage of development. There was something deeply wrong, askew, unbalanced. At night, she would often walk about the house, ghostly and forlorn, like some distraught maiden out of one of my mother’s romance novels. To Jamie, it was an annoyance, and often, when he heard her footsteps in the hallway, he would yell at her harshly, demanding that she return to her room, then lean over the edge of his upper bunk, glance down at me, and rotate his index finger at the side of his head, whispering vehemently: “She’s nuts.”

  Nuts, perhaps, to Jamie, but to me she was the most mysterious person in the world. The nightly rambling that irritated him, enchanted me. I sensed that there were secret regions in her, lost rooms, labyrinthine caverns. I know now that I was in love with my sister, and that the feelings I had for her, and even the way her memory still from time to time overwhelms me, that all of this was part of an early romantic attachment, a longing that I experienced as a natural adoration, something that all boys felt for their older sisters. I have since learned that it was no such thing, that the excitement which I felt in her presence, the way my breath stopped when I heard her pass my closed door, the way I stole glances even at her shadow on the wall, that all of this had its roots in the first inchoate gropings of desire.

  I once said as much to Quentin. “I loved my sister,” I told him. “Yes, of course you did,” he said. “No, Uncle Quentin,” I added pointedly, “I loved my sister.” He waved his hand and laughed. “You were only nine years old, Steve,” he said, then stood up and headed for the bathroom, something he always did when the conversation suddenly took a turn he didn’t like.

  But he knew.

  I think he always knew that our house, the one with the dark green shutters and neat Tudor roof, held within its prim walls the most primitive and violent hopes, needs, and fears. And so he pulled me away from it, as if it were a whirling saw or an exposed electrical wire, snatched me away, and brought me north to the idyllic sterility of coastal Maine, to a landscape that seemed frozen in a rigid self-control. “You have to keep a tight grip on everything,” he once told me. “Remember what happens when you don’t.”

  Remember, in other words, my father.

  William Patrick Farris, age forty-four.

  What I could never fathom was how much Laura loved him, how powerfully she was drawn to him, how much she craved his admiration. Often, in her nightly wanderings, she would move down the stairs to the small solarium which led off from the living room. My mother had placed a few plants there, mostly indistinguishable green vines, along with two white wicker chairs and a glass-topped table. I remember seeing the two of them together in that room, sitting silently opposite each other in the early hours, light gathering outside, while their eyes remained steady, their faces nearly motionless, as if after hours of struggle, they’d finally come to a grave understanding. At those moments, they seemed to share a peculiar exhaustion, their eyes glassy from lost sleep, their skin pale, muscles limp from too much strain.

  Even as a young boy, watching them secretively from my place at the top of the stairs, I had felt a mysterious connection between them. Their voices at such moments were always soft, and when they touched each other, it was with an eerie grace.

  Later, I imagined that it was at these dawn meetings that she must have revealed herself to him, told him all those secrets she would never have told me.

  And so, even before I came to hate my father for what he did to my family, I had envied his relationship with Laura, the whispery conclave the two of them shared, a society that excluded and infuriated me. I wanted to know exactly what kind of power he had over her, break the code by which they spoke to each other, usurp his place in her esteem.

  A few weeks before she died, I saw them together in the solarium for the last time. Laura was sitting on the floor, her back pressed against my father’s long, thin legs, her hands resting loosely in her lap while he sat above her in the white wicker chair, gazing out into the early morning light. For once, she looked rested, almost serene, her eyes opening and closing slowly as if she were about to fall asleep.

  As for the way my father looked at that moment, I can only say that I’d never seen a man who looked more troubled. It was as if the very thing that had brought Lau
ra such peace that morning had filled my father with an all but unbearable anguish.

  Perhaps, even then, he had sensed how she would end.

  This way: lying on her back, faceup, her white arms stretched over her head, splattered with blood, two fingers and half the palm of the right hand blown away, as if she’d thrust it toward him at the moment he had fired.

  Her legs spread wide apart as if in a vulgar pose, her white bathrobe pulled upward from her soiled bare feet, revealing her thighs and a thin line of white cotton panties.

  Her chest blown open, ribs shattered like bits of porcelain, her flesh torn and mangled as if a bomb had gone off behind her heart.

  Her mouth flung open, red and gaping, giving her face an attitude of grave surprise, one corner of the white towel she’d wrapped around her wet hair hanging limply, almost clownishly, over a single, blue, wide-open eye.

  Along with Jamie and my mother, Laura died at approximately four in the afternoon. It was almost two hours later that Mrs. Hamilton, a neighbor from across the street, saw my father walk out of the house, climb into the Ford station wagon, and drive away. He was wearing a black raincoat and an old floppy hat. He was not carrying anything, not so much as a small overnight bag.

  During those long two hours in which he remained in the house, my father washed my mother’s body, changed her into a pair of blue pajamas, and arranged her neatly on the bed. After that, he made a ham sandwich and ate it at the small table in the kitchen. I know it was his sandwich, because in the police photographs, there was a ring of raw onion on the side of the plate. No one but my father ate raw onion. He drank a cup of coffee, leaving both the plate and the cup in the sink as he always did, as if expecting them to be washed later, as normally they would have been.

  He didn’t pack anything, because he left with nothing; not so much as a pair of socks was missing from his closet.

  He didn’t reenter either Laura or Jamie’s rooms. He made no attempt to clean up the frightful mess that had been made of them.

  And yet, for no apparent reason, he remained in the house for a full two hours, alone, silent, surrounded by nothing but the bodies of his murdered wife and children.

  What had he been waiting for?

  When I became old enough to ponder that question seriously—I was probably around Laura’s age, sixteen—I came up with a great many possibilities. He was waiting for some mysterious phone call. Or he was waiting to go to the airport at just the right time to catch some flight he’d booked weeks in advance. He was waiting to be picked up by gangsters, foreign agents, Communists. My own theory changed each time I considered the question.

  Then, rather suddenly, on a spring day as I sat on a rock watching the waves, I arrived at the answer that had no doubt come to the police and Aunt Edna and Uncle Quentin long before, but which they’d kept to themselves, perhaps hoping that the question would never actually occur to me, that I would never seek its answer. But I did seek it, and it did come: He was waiting for me.

  Once it had occurred to me, the answer was entirely obvious. Under ordinary circumstances, I would have been home from school by three-fifteen in the afternoon, just as Jamie and Laura would. But I’d gone to Bobby Fields’s house instead, a play date my mother had known about all week, but of which my father knew nothing.

  And so for nearly two hours my father had waited for me.

  It’s possible that he might have waited as long as necessary had not Mrs. Fields made two phone calls to the house on McDonald Drive. According to the statement she later gave police, she made the first call at around 5:30 P.M. When no one answered, she called again twenty minutes later. There was still no answer.

  Five minutes or so after that last call, Mrs. Hamilton from across the street saw my father walk through the rain to the Ford station wagon, get in, and drive away.

  A half hour later, Mrs. Fields decided, after a good deal of protest from Bobby and me, that she couldn’t take me to the movies without getting parental permission first. She then drove directly to my house, and while Bobby and I remained in the back seat, she got out of the car and walked to the side entrance, which was nearest to the driveway, the one that led directly into the kitchen. She knocked at the door, glancing in as she did so, and saw a plate with a curl of raw onion and an empty coffee cup in the kitchen sink. Glancing idly to the left, she also saw a shotgun laid lengthwise across the small cutting board my mother kept in the corner beside the basement door.

  I remember seeing her raise her hand to knock a second time, then stop, the hand motionless in the air, and turn back toward the car.

  Before Rebecca, I remembered nothing else about that day except for the other car, the one with the two policemen in it, the older one turning toward me, drawing his glasses from his face, wiping the rain from the lenses with a white handkerchief, his lips parting to make a statement which, before Rebecca, time or shock had swept away.


  EVEN NOW, WHEN I return to my dead family, it’s always by way of my father. It’s as if he stands at the gate of my memory, the border guard of a dark frontier.

  It was a border I rarely approached during the years that followed the murders, a frontier I almost never entered. It was the “terra incognito” of the medieval maps, the place where “there be dragons,” as the ancient cartographers declared.

  And so, over the years, I had not looked back. Because of that, everything had faded—Jamie, my mother, even Laura to some degree. Only my father had remained in stark relief, grim and unfathomable, the ultimate engima.

  Of all the questions Rebecca later asked about him, she never asked the easiest one, the one for which my life had provided two different answers: What did your father do?

  Until I was nine, the answer came quickly, without that momentary twinge of dread or embarrassment that later accompanied it. I simply replied that my father owned a hardware store.

  I could remember the store very well. It was on Sycamore Street, and it had two large windows, which my father stuffed with anything that came to hand: hammers, saws, lengths of rope. In general, he stacked smaller items in the window to the right of the door, and larger ones, like enormous red toolboxes or shiny aluminum ladders, in the one to the left. He took no pains to make the windows attractive, or to display the goods in any particular way. He simply lumbered absently from the back of the store, his arms filled with anything he’d found in reach, and deposited it all neatly, but randomly, in the front windows. As far as I recall, the only regard he ever paid was to the seasons. From time to time he would shove a wheelbarrow into the fall window, the perfect tool for gathering leaves. In winter he would replace it with the snow blower that would remain in the window for the next four months. Beyond that, he seems to have had no theme in mind, no organizing principle.

  Inside the store, the usual implements and materials hung from the walls, such things as rakes, shovels, and axes. Smaller items were gathered in wooden bins, nails, bolts, lengths of coiled wire and the like. The only thing I ever noticed in the store that seemed out of place was the single Rodger and Windsor racing bicycle which my father kept in the left rear corner of the shop, cordoned off”from everything else, as if it were only for display. It was a fancy touring bicycle, imported from England, and each time the latest model was sold, my father would replace it, tediously assembling it himself in the basement of our house, then transporting it to the store in the back of his small brown delivery van.

  The Rodger and Windsor was the only kind of bike my father ever stocked. It was always red, and it never appeared to matter that he sold no more than three or four of them during the entire year. The fact is, he seemed to love it, or at least to feel for it some kind of strange devotion.

  More than anything, I think now, he loved the process of putting it together. It was a difficult and painstaking labor, and he worked at it for many hours without stopping. It was strange to see him alone in the basement, stooped over a disconnected wheel, meticulously tightening each spoke, then
turning the wheel, and methodically tightening each of them again. As a working style, it was completely different from his usual habit, which was hasty and sloppy and impulsive, the way he arranged the windows of the store or tossed different-sized nails into a common bin, everything done offhandedly, without a thought.

  The look on his face was different, too. Normally, it was rather expressionless, but when he worked on the Rodger and Windsor, it took on a wonderful intensity and concentration, as if he found something rapturous in the process of assembly. Perhaps in this, as in everything else, it was the building rather than the completion which attracted and sustained him.

  In any event, I remember seeing him at work toward the end of October. The latest bike had arrived a week before, but he’d been occupied in trying to straighten out some entanglement with the Internal Revenue Service. The woman who’d done the store’s books for several years had left a few weeks earlier, and without her, he’d been entirely at sea as he’d labored to give the IRS the information it had suddenly demanded. Normally, he would have set to work on the new Rodger and Windsor immediately, but because of the government paperwork, he’d been prevented from unpacking the bike for almost two weeks.

  When he finally got to it, however, he went at it with the same persistence that he always applied to this task, working many hours at a time, always at night, with nothing but the single, naked bulb which hung above to help him make his hundreds of minute adjustments. I remember seeing him hunched over a length of bicycle chain, tapping at it with a small hammer, while his other hand caressed it with an eerie gentleness and affection. He was wearing his customary gray flannel shirt and trousers, and he had thrown the black sweater he often wore over the bike’s chrome handlebars. It hung there like a dried animal skin while my father continued at his tapping, unaware that I stood not far away, poised, as he would be three weeks later, on the third step from the bottom.