ACCIDENTAL BIRDS OF THE CAROLINAS
by Marjorie Hudson
Col. Randolph Jefferson Lee, retired Army, prepares for his daily run, which he’s lied about for months, telling Anne he will stay in the neighborhood, he will call her on the cell if he gets in trouble, and he will keep it down to a stroll, a slow walk, no running.
The cardiologist insisted on daily walks. Slow walks. But by god, if a man can’t run up a hill, what the hell good is he? So over the months he’s slipped away from the curling asphalt paths of Stonehaven Downs Retirement Village to a place where he won’t be spied on.
Now he is finally running again. A halting, gimpy jog, maybe, but you could call it running.
Rand glances guiltily at Anne sitting at the kitchen table, her fluffy, just-washed white-blonde hair, her head tilted that funny way of hers, peering through her fancy multicolor reading glasses at the paper. The lovebirds chatter in their cage next to the window. Anne’s deep into her morning routine. Good.
She’s finally stopped fussing over his every move when he goes out. What she doesn’t know won’t hurt her. But thank God for the Gooley Ridge, that patch of enormous pines across the highway that nobody seems to own. Once he crosses over the old railroad bridge none of the Stonehaven gossips can see him and report back that he is overdoing it again.
He slurps coffee, steals another look at her. Is she snubbing him, after their dustup last night? She asked him to come with her to some crazy Spring Gala where all the ladies are supposed to wear sundresses and the men are supposed to wear straw hats. Croquet is involved, she said, or cricket, she wasn’t sure which, and vodka-spiked lemonade, and it is all supposed to celebrate the first day of the Stonehaven Farmers’ Market.
“What does farming have to do with croquet?” he’d asked her. “It’s the dumbest thing I ever heard.” He is sure any respectable farmer would laugh up his sleeve at such doings. Why in God’s name does this place inspire such silliness in his wife, who’s been a sensible, intelligent woman for all their forty years together, the kind of woman who makes wry cracks under her breath to make him smile.
The social program here seems modeled after a summer camp for Southern debutantes. Tea and crumpets. Balls and juleps. My god, last April—when they were still new here, before he’d figured out their game—they’d bussed the newcomers down to some coastal plantation for a party with hoop skirts and a Rhett Butler lookalike. Rand stood, cringing, in a corner, getting drunk as fast as possible.
Anne ate it up. Laughing, asking to see the elaborate pantaloons under those skirts, even dancing with the Rhett character, who was paunchy and fortyish up close and, from what Rand could tell, knew only one dance step. The man led Anne in an endless backward circle till they were both dizzy and had to sit down.
Rand avoided dancing. But he remembers a ridiculous twinge of jealousy about that Rhett character spending so much time touching his wife. Anne seemed to be enjoying that a little too much.
To be fair, Anne had agreed later that having the black serving staff sing “Dixie” for them had been in terrible taste. “Maybe they were being ironic,” she said, with her wry grin. “God, I hope so.”
Since then, Rand has picked and chosen his social events carefully. These days Anne goes to most of them alone or with her new friends Reese and George.
Rand finishes his ration of half a cup of black coffee, turns to the kitchen window, where he can just see the crowns of the Gooley pines across the highway, lit by the early slanting light. Strange gurgling sounds emerge from his gut. He ignores them, glugs bottled water at the counter, stretches his calves, aware that his once taut body is not taking punishment well these days, not well at all.
Anne comes up behind him, rests her fingertips on his biceps and peers out the window, over his shoulder, her small breasts brushing against his back. All is forgiven. Her hair tickles his neck. It smells faintly sugary, like strawberries, with a sharper scent underneath, some new perfume. He feels a stirring in his groin, which quickly fades. Old soldiers never die, they just get soft.
“Look at that light!” she exclaims. “It’s positively —” she searches for the right word —“positively Roman,” she decides. “That lovely slant and glimmer. Well, I guess Michelangelo could have painted those trees, they’re old enough. What a painting he would have made!”
“I don’t think he made it here in his travels,” Rand says, “and if he had, the ones you see now would have been knee-high. Do the math, dear.” He hears the sharp tone in his voice, but he can’t help it. Anne is always getting her facts wrong. The life span of a white pine is only about 400 years. The oldest one in Virginia is 450. These can’t possibly be any older.
He feels Anne’s fingertips withdraw and smells her faint coffee breath as she turns away. There is no reproach, just a separation between them descending like a thin glass panel. “I’m just remembering Rome,” she says, a little sadly.
“Ah, Roma,” he says. They had both been entranced by Rome. He’s the one who’d made sure they flew via Rome and paused a few days there whenever they had home leave. That was a long time ago. Since then they’d raised kids, moved stateside, sold the house on Long Island, and just two years ago retired South, to this place that Anne loves and he—after giving it chance after chance —truly despises.
Only the running is keeping him sane now. That, and coming up with new ways to avoid Anne’s nutty social plans. Other entertainments have faded.
Now she’s opened the birdcage, has one of them in her hand, stroking it, humming a little song, peering at it over her glasses while it pecks seed from her palm. Still a damn good-looking woman after all these years. Strangely, lately she seems to be getting younger.
She catches him looking at her. “Going for your walk, dear?” she says. “Right.” “I’m off to tennis.” So. She is skipping the Spring Gala after all. Good. The Cutest Farmers Market in the World can start without them. “Okay.” Rand pulls his watch cap over his bristly military cut. “Be safe,” she calls after him. “And listen to the birds!” “I will,” he says. Anne’s lips curl in the slightest of wry grins from behind her coffee mug. Forgiven again.
Anne keeps lovebirds in the breakfast nook and a pair of cockatiels in the den, presents to him for some anniversary or another over the years. They’ve had them for ages. She’s fond of them, she feeds them and cares for them, but she keeps them mostly for him. He is, as she is wont to say, a bird fanatic.
She knows he misses his jungle birds, his Asiatic migrations, his forays to look for Birds of Paradise, those extraordinary tufted, decorated, strange-plumed fowl of the tropics. He lets the cockatiels out sometimes when she’s not around. Lets them walk up his outstretched arms and peck his hair. Lets them fly around the room. Like a damn kid, being bad. He always wipes off the furniture, as needed, before she gets back, and she’s never said a word about it, although by glances and lifted eyebrows he knows she knows.
He leans in to kiss her good-bye, an old habit that still suffices to warm him. She turns her head slightly. “Lipstick,” she says. She knows he hates the feel of it on his lips. He gives her a peck on the cheek. That cheek his whole life has been soft, powdered, and gardenia-scented, confined as she was, by protocol and safety concerns, behind the compound walls of overseas military housing. In those days Anne dressed in modest clothing, covered up in all public places, hatted and scarved against the harsh tropic sun and the harsher judgments of the natives. Now her cheek is lean and brown and salty, like a tomboy’s, playing all that tennis through the mild winter. And under that fruity shampoo, there’s that new scent, a whiff of lemon, again.
Rand opens the door, steps outside, and lets the fine April day enter his lungs. It is, after all, the one beautiful time of year around here. He might see that Pileated woodpecker, find its roost. He looks up, sees the pines glowing on the ridge like a promise, and sets off down the asphalt path, watching his feet, one of which drags a little when he tries to go faster.
* * *
As his blood begins to warm and move into his arms and legs, discomfiting thoughts crowd his brain, the facts of his new life in this strange little Southern town. It is a toy village, plotted and planned on a looping swirl of roads over the abandoned tobacco fields of what had been a large plantation in the nineteenth century, long since grown over in pines. Now the woods sport faux-Anglo street names and half-timber architecture, as if Queen Elizabeth has begun colonizing anew.
Rand turns down Sir Walter Raleigh Lane, feels the ache in his calves and that one place in his left knee that catches and makes a clicking sound. He is “run walking” now, pumping his arms, letting his hips slide side to side in that peculiar-looking way. It gets the heart rate up. But none of Anne’s spies will mistake it for running. He slips his hand surreptitiously into his pocket, turns off his phone. There are many spots in this new neighborhood where coverage fades out. That’s what he tells Anne anyway. What he really hates is the feel of something alive and demanding on his person, tracking his every move. He doesn’t like the hard bounce of it in his pocket, either, and he’s thought about “losing” it in a pile of pine straw in the woods, but she would just get him another.
He puts one foot after the other, taking his mind elsewhere, letting the pain in his hips, knees, and thighs float a few layers beneath conscious thought. By the time he’s done, the body’s aches will have floated away. Running is as good as morphine. God, he loves it–when it’s over.
* * *
His first year here he simply pretended it wasn’t happening again, all the signs floating below consciousness like some watery checklist for drowning: shortness of breath, the lead weight in his legs when he tried to run, worse every morning instead of better. Finally, the sweating collapse six months ago on the pale blue living room carpet. Anne had been lunching with her new friend Reese. He’d managed to call 911 himself, crush some aspirin between his molars, and hang on. The EMTs arrived in due time, brought him back. But what the doctor told him, and he hasn’t told Anne, is that if he doesn’t go into an expensive rehab program, chances are he won’t last more than a year or two, and even then rehab won’t make much difference. Surgery won’t help. VA won’t pay.
“It’s in the genes, I’m afraid, Colonel,” the doctor said, cheerfully, as if he were pleased to be exonerated from responsibility for Rand’s health troubles. “Not a good candidate for transplant, I don’t think, but we can send you home with a defrib pack. Let’s get your wife in here and we’ll show her how to use it.”
Rand put it in the trunk of his car and left it there. Anne has been living with the possibility of a recurrence since the first heart attack in Singapore twelve years ago. Now she’s restricted his diet to Grape Nuts and skinless chicken and salmon without sauce. No need to scare her further.
Since the market tanked they can’t afford any damn private rehab, and so this is his rehab. He’ll either get better or he’ll die trying. Meanwhile, he is getting his papers in order, checking off the duty roster—will signed and notarized, stock portfolio rebalanced, pension papers in files, life insurance on auto-pay —aware that somehow fate has decreed that his last days will be spent in a place he loathes. He gets his papers together and watches as Anne falls in love —blatantly, shamelessly, besottedly in love--with Stonehaven Downs.
She is in love with the commons--gated and picketed to keep in some rare and exceptionally cute form of sheep, cropping away, as tourists snap their photos. She is in love with the expensive little shops in the village square, the ladies-for-lunch café, the cappuccino wagon--the first, no doubt, in this dusty, hazy, forgotten scrap of the rural South, and one that attracts more flies than clientele on August afternoons. Anne is even in love with the flock of Pilgrim geese, herded by the property manager’s not-quite-bright little daughter-- more often than not, they herd the girl, until she gets wise, or gets tired, and whangs at them with her stick. On their brief visit to the new house last Christmas, the kids, Carrie and Jeff, who never used to agree on anything, looked around, looked at each other, and gave their approval to the move. Carrie, squinting through her fashionable L.A. catwoman glasses at the furniture, the sheep, the neighbors, saw the sense of the move. Jeff, sitting unshaven at the kitchen table in a ripped sweatshirt from the University of New Mexico Archeology Department, dicing celery for the stuffing, saw that his mother was happy. Still, neither one of them could figure out why anyone would want to live in the South.
“It’s weird here,” Carrie said, twirling her wispy hair around a pencil. “I mean, at the gas station these guys were picking the filters off their Winstons and smoking up the whole room, talking about NASCAR and chewing on Slim Jims and drinking RC Cola. It’s like that old TV show on Nickelodeon, what is it? Where the sheriff goes fishing with Opie?”
“Andy Griffith,” Jeff said. He lined his celery up and eased the blade through the ribs in straight lines. Then made careful cuts crosswise.
“Yeah. It’s like that. A time warp, nineteen-fifties Southern Cracker Land. ”
“The South will rise again,” Jeff says, his lip curled in a half-grin, half-challenge. “Isn’t that what they say?”
“This isn’t the South,” Rand told them. “This is Stonehaven Downs, a world unto itself.”
Anne gave him a look. “We love it here,” she said, turning to smile brightly at the kids. “It’s perfect.”
* * *
Ran turns down Queen of Scots Way. Now he remembers. No wonder she was happy this morning. He finally gave in last night and promised her a dinner party next week, for sixteen. She will at long last get to use her mother’s ancient dining room table with matching chairs in mahogany and chintz, plus silver settings and individual crystal salt bowls with tiny individual salt spoons. She’s been wanting to do that ever since she got here.
He has not yet figured out a way to get out of it. Maybe he’ll get the flu or have another heart attack. Dinner with seven self-satisfied Connecticut couples, all strangers, is his idea of hell.
The inane chatter, the sloppy drinking, the inevitable social climbing and one-up-manship. Civilians are just as bad as mid-rank military. They like to brag, while pretending not to. Here they brag about their kids and grandkids, their furniture and collections, their former lives. She can do that kind of thing without him all she wants soon enough.
* * *
After the heart attack, all her new cronies took Anne aside and instructed her on how to manage a bearish retired husband. It was just after Kip Larsen went to the hospital, and the Stonehaven ladies were already on high alert.
The first rule: get him on a schedule. Well, he is on a schedule now. The second rule: get him out of the house. Well, he was out of the house. Third rule: watch his every move. When he came home from his walks the first few weeks, she made sure she was there to the hail the conquering hero, Gatorade or iced tea in hand, looking him over carefully, surreptitiously, for signs of wear.
One day when he breezed into the kitchen, having experimented with a new route home, he found her on the phone, looking worried, then guilty. She hung up quickly, saying, “There you are!” That happened often enough that it became clear she had some lady spies along his route, calling in reports of his progress or lack thereof. She gave him a GPS phone and made him promise to use it. Now, after six months, she’s finally lost that vigilant look of wives who watch their husbands for signs of artery blockage. She's taken on a few more tennis lessons and let him go his way.
For his part, when he got home from the doctor he had been terrified for the first time in his life—not about death, old friend, but that Anne might find him when the next one came. He who had faced off with four-star generals and Asian dictators and Korean battalions couldn’t stand the idea of her finding him helpless on the floor. And what would happen after.
She would call 911, they would bring him back, and he would live as a vegetable, lingering for months, years, unable to move. She has signed the DNR order he placed before her, but he knows she won’t, can’t follow through when the time comes. Her heart is too soft. Hard cheek, muscled lean arms, brown legs, snapping blue eyes, she will cave in the instant she sees him face down in the pale blue pile. She will call.
It happened this way to Kip, who now lives an underwater life of breathing machines and slow drip feeding, his face floating and bloated in the blue light of his nursing home room, the whoosh of oxygen into his lungs sounding just like Darth Vader’s labored breathing. Kip, the most cheerful soldier/sailor Rand has ever known. Look at him now.
Kip’s wife Adelle lost the house. She is lucky some other coma-widow with more resources has taken her in. He sees her from time to time, hunted and pale, fingering the budget bin steaks at the grocery store. No, not that way for Anne.
They went to see Kip, sat beside him for an hour, watching the machine shove air through his hollow lungs. Saw the nose pinched with prolonged death agony, eyes sunken and dry under tissue-thin lids. He turned to Anne. “Promise me —” he said.
“Who says you’re going first?” she said, her blue eyes sharp, cheek flushed.
In that moment he saw it clear: He would not allow this to happen to them, to him, to her. He began to make a plan to be far away from rescue when he dropped. Never again the dusty chemical smell, the prickly feel of recently vacuumed carpet on his cheek while he lay gutshot, a ball of pain radiating out from his core, the taste of raw aspirin and bile in the back of his throat. Never again the carefully orchestrated rescue, an entire battalion just to save one wounded soldier.
Never that again. He has a plan.
Every day he goes off the asphalt onto a path that is a faint track in pine needles, a path that leads to an abandoned train trestle that crosses the highway and ends on the high ridge, in the midst of the great towering Gooley pines. There is one other person who goes into those woods at 0900, with clockwork regularity. He has planned it so that he goes an hour before, with the GPS as backup so she’ll know where to find him.
* * *
Rand crosses Lady Jane Gray Way, breath coming a bit ragged now. Now he passes a gaggle of garden ladies, all done up in grass hats and latex-dipped gloves, planting petunias. They wave. He nods, knowing they’ll report any sign of weakness to Anne. He knows he looks more fit than their husbands, which makes him suck in his gut, which throws off his stride, and before he knows it he trips on a chunk of asphalt —the new roads in this place are already dissolving —twists his knee, stumbles, bounces off the heel of one hand and recovers.
The ladies call out, " Oh, Colonel, are you okay, Colonel? " They are coming this way. Crap. A new, hot nerve shoots pain from knee to ankle. He waves the ladies away, keeps going, waits till they are out of view to stop and pick the asphalt out of his palm.
All the women here seem to be gardeners. All the men talk investments and real estate and golf. No question this place is a great investment. The houses here cost less than half the price of the one he and Anne owned for years on Long Island. Here, three universities and major hospitals lie within an hour’s drive, yet virtually no traffic passes on the main highway, save an occasional tractor or chicken truck. The local grocery store is big on pimento cheese and wilted iceberg lettuce, but the Southern Foods truck delivers steaks and such to individual homes in Stonehaven Downs, everything you might need, frozen. Stonehaven has not yet been discovered by the rest of the world, but it will be soon. After they put in the new bridge to Chapel Hill, property values will soar.
Rand turns down Dover Beach Road, elbows pumping, breathing hard. Almost there.
Three new houses for sale on this block. He pauses to check a house description and price in the Realtor's tube: 2 bedrooms, office, den, $325,000. Still cheap as hell, but rising.
"Extra one for investment, Colonel?" He looks up. Some friend of Anne’s.
"Sure," he wheezes, "why not?" Keeps going.
Two years ago Rand and Anne found, made an offer, and closed on a house in less than ten days, then put Anne’s mother’s rambling old Long Island house up for sale, made rather a killing on it. It had been a sound business decision. Living here would keep them from starving on his early retirement military pension and leave Anne with a nice nest egg when he was gone. He could live out his days without worrying about the neighbor’s loud rap music or the call to some sticky foreign clime, or what would happen to Anne after his heart, old ticker, gave out. Time had spied on his plans, caught up with him, forced a change in strategy. But he still has his morning run, his Times on Sunday, his birds, his routine. Until last winter, he’d had runs and chess games with the Navy man down the block. Poor Kip.
Unlike Kip, he has a plan. He can do his short time.
* * *
On the far edge of the Downs, the World’s Cutest Sheep huddle and baa for some visiting relatives with young kids in tow. The big thing around here is to come see the sheep when the grandkids visit. He has to admit the lambs are funny. Leaping straight into the air sometimes, as if someone pinched them. Once in a while some idle grandparent lets a six-year-old get too close to the electric wire carefully concealed behind the quaint pickets, and loud crying ensues.
Today the young rams are trying out their new toys. Two of them keep hunching the backsides of their sister ewes, who respond by kicking them. Take it easy, fellas, he wants to tell them, it takes practice. The real ram here is a magnificent old stud with shaggy black fleece and curling horns and a baleful eye. He’s not on display today. They’ve got him shut up someplace. Too bad. Kip loved that ram. Ever since they paused here one day on their run, watched him copulating with one ewe after the other. Kip said, “So that’s the secret. A harem. Have to try that. Bet it keeps the juices flowing.”
“Think you could keep up with that, old man? Anyway, I hear in the Navy it’s all rams, no ewes.” Rand liked to devil a Navy man. It was a kind of routine with them.
“You heard wrong, Colonel. The way I heard it, the one-stars in the Army like to screw a roomful of full-bird colonels.”
God he misses Kip. Man had it right about the one-stars. Kip liked to talk, but he knew how to shut up and run too, and when Rand put on the speed, he always rallied to keep up. He was an adequate chess player. A good man, for a Navy man. Truth to tell, if there was going to be only one other retired military in this damn place, he’d been glad it wasn’t an Army man. He is tired of Army talk, Army rank, Army orders. He got tired of that a long time ago. Kip liked to talk about his grandkids. That was the closest thing he came to one-up-manship. A sprint always shut him up if he rattled on too long. Well, he’s shut up now, hasn’t he? Kip’s face, flaccid and pale in the hospital lights, a crust of drool at the edge of his mouth. Nobody there to wipe it clean. Machines pushing air into dead lungs. Damn, don’t think about that.
Rand notices he’s almost stopped, he’s walking so slow. Breath coming in ragged rasps. Time to get moving. That’s the way. One foot in front of the other.
* * *
Rand wonders why his own children haven’t made any cute grandkids for Anne. Neither one has married. They are certainly old enough—Jeff must be a couple of years past thirty. And Carrie is —twenty-nine? Yes. Her next birthday will be what she calls the big three-oh. The children of his middle age. He and Anne had put off children, so many other things to worry about overseas. These days, Anne certainly talks about it enough, to him. “We shouldn’t have waited so long,” she says. “I hate waiting for grandkids.” She’s never dared bring it up to Jeff or Carrie. "I wouldn't presume," she always says.
The familiar hitch in his side starts now, just under his arm and down the ribs to the gut. It makes him gasp for breath; it makes him want to stop.
He keeps going.
* * *
There’s some kind of warbler in the woods ahead. Fifty, maybe a hundred, from the sound of them. Getting closer, now, to the Gooley pines. It’s late in the migration season for warblers, maybe these got lost. In February, Yellow warblers, Brewster’s, and Pine warblers all came fluttering through the neighborhood at once, hidden in the thickets. He identified them by standing under a holly tree, completely still, for twenty minutes, while they gobbled berries and shouted above him. He stood there memorizing their marks, then went straight home to look them up.
When they first moved here, Anne set up feeders in the back yard and called out the names of all the new birds she saw—plus the familiars. Cardinals, jays, sparrows. She set up a pair of Adirondack chairs so they could watch together, but they never did. He hated sitting still, getting bit by mosquitoes. But he did watch from the kitchen window. That’s where he sighted his first accidental.
After a fierce rainstorm, there’d been a harvest of pinecones in the yard and a tiny bird alighted in the midst of them, brilliantly colored as a circus wagon. Bright blue head. Green back —not just any green —parrot green. Vermillion chest. When Anne got him the glasses, he could see bright red circles around its black eyes. Anne paged frantically in her Peterson’s. “Could be a pet store bird, you know, an escapee.” She paused. “Well, we are in the Carolinas —” There was a note of wonder in her voice “ —could it be? I never heard of —oh. Extinct. Jesus. Rand, give me those glasses.”
He handed them over, looked at the page. “It’s not a Carolina parakeet,” he said. “Is that what you thought?”
“No,” she said. “Hoped. But it sure is . . . colorful.” She was paging again. “Here, after the warblers, yes. A Painted Bunting.” She handed Rand the guide. "Proof."
“Okay,” he said. It seemed to be the one. Such a tropical-looking bird, more like what they’d seen in Malaysia or the Philippines. “Do they live here year-round?” he asked.
“Let’s check the map. No, no. This one is out of its range, which is more along the coast. Maybe the storm last night blew it here. They call it an ‘accidental.’ Why, Rand, it’s just a wayfaring stranger, like you.”
She grinned. She called him that, from time to time, especially on their foreign travels —it was a tribute to his Appalachian roots, and a kind of statement about the blues he would get in the first weeks at a new post. She would even sing the old gospel tune sometimes in her quavering contralto, when he needed cheering. I am a poooooor wayfaring strangerrrrrr, wanderin’ throoooough this world of wooooe.
“I’ve never seen one of these before,” she said, excited, staring at the bunting. “I’ll have to add it to the Life List.”
He started his own sublist then. Accidental Birds of the Carolinas. First accidental: Painted bunting. A bird that didn’t belong here.
It’s funny, Anne’s the one who got him interested in birds in the first place. She’d thought she could convert him into one of those doddering birders who travel in a pack, doing their Christmas counts and Audubon surveys. He tried that once or twice and hated it. Now he’s the one who heads out alone and spies on birds, part of his “walking therapy,” and she tromps out with a cast of thousands, scaring them all off.
“You make everything into a party,” he once said to her, complaining. “And you pick the solitary sports,” she’d said. “Running, for instance.” That was not true, of course. He ran with Kip Larsen for two years and enjoyed the company thoroughly. She was always a people person, but now she’s such a social butterfly, doing her volunteer work at that special school, lunching with ladies, hosting a tea for the library. She’s become more confident. He finds it attractive, but unsettling, and a little lonely, as if he’s suddenly bunking with an unpredictable younger woman. He once saw in her something of his own adaptability, his own cheerful fortitude as they forayed to one station after another overseas. Korea, Cairo, Philippines, Singapore. All that was over. She, who spent her whole life making one temporary nest after another, is now making a home. The fierce joy with which she commandeers the plumbers, tile-setters, painters, and bricklayers, it frightens him a little. Where had that joy been hidden all these years? In the East, her attitude had been more like grim determination.
Now she seems so happy that he is sure, on some level, that she will be fine without him. He feels a twinge near his heart. The thought of her carrying on, feeding the lovebirds, having dinner parties, dancing with strange men, floods his belly with sorrow, weights his legs, makes him veer toward the edge of the asphalt.
He rights himself, keeps going.
* * *
Rand takes a furtive look around, no gardeners out in their yards, no passing cars. He ducks down the dirt path that leads across the abandoned railroad bridge. He crosses, steps carefully off the ties, and looks up. The crowns of the Gooley pines blaze with light. He has timed it perfectly. If a heart attack does take him, it will take him there, in the sharp-scented woods, birds calling overhead, cheek resting on clean pine needles. If it happens there, he will make sure it’s fast. Running can be a trigger. Running uphill ... well, that could finish things quite nicely. After fifteen minutes without oxygen, the brain has virtually no chance of working again. After an hour, the blood begins to cool. After two hours rigor mortis sets in. No EMT in the world will attempt resuscitation.
There is a section of this path where he can get up speed, run full tilt for 50 yards.
Sometimes Rand sprints so hard, he throws up the pint of water he swallowed in the kitchen. The sprints will do it, if not today, someday soon. Those sprints, and the sausage-and-egg biscuits he sneaks afterwards at the Sunrise Market and Gas down the road, a place no self-respecting Stonehaven man ever goes—except Kip, he remembers with a guilty twinge. They used to sneak there together.
Now he leans against one of those sharp-scented pine trunks, gasping, coughing, resting for the sprint.
He will practice it till he gets it right.
She can kiss his cheek goodbye after it is cool, she won’t even see him until after the death certificate has been signed. That’s the way it worked for their neighbor Horace, who keeled over in the backyard while no one else was home, and that will be the way it works for him. There will be no enormous medical bills. No fuss. No regrets.
Now he finds the pine needle path, faint among the enormous trees, and sucks in breath for the run to the top. One Mississippi, two Mississippi, go.
* * *
Rand is breathing hard, forehead pressed against the bark of a behemoth pine, pulse pounding in his ears, when he hears the sirens winding down Route 177 from Quarryville, faintly at first, then whooping faster and closer as they round the bend and cross the Cedar River Bridge. His heart skips a few beats. For an instant he thinks they are coming for him. He has imagined it so many times. He listens with dread, till he hears the ambulance turn in at Stonehaven, mute its sirens, and go about its business. It is not coming up the ridge to the Gooley pines. He is not having a heart attack. He is not dead.
Ten minutes later, on his walk down the hill toward home, he sees it heading north,
toward the hospital, no siren, no big hurry. Another man bites the dust, Rand thinks. Not me. Not yet. He has to admit that he is greatly relieved.
* * *
When Rand gets home, their neighbor George is sitting on the kitchen stoop, head resting on his crossed arms, arms around his knees. Napping? Or drunk on gin and tonic, more likely, even at this hour. George is a party man from Connecticut. He drinks gin and scotch interchangeably, it seems, without seeming to care which, but it’s always the good stuff, none of that Army-issue in plastic gallon jugs. His wife Reese is Anne’s best friend, her most loyal tennis partner and lunch companion. Maybe George is going to invite him to lunch again, or for a round of bad golf. He thought George had finally given up on him. He had hoped.
Rand approaches, wheezing a bit, trying to control his breath, mute it. Anybody could tell he hasn’t been just walking.
George looks up. It is the strangest thing. His face is red and splotched. His eyes are bloodshot. His shoulders shake. There is no mistaking it. He isn’t drunk. He’s crying.
That siren. That slow-moving ambulance. “What happened, man?" Rand calls out, breaking into a jog. "Is it Reese?” George shakes his head, miserable. Rand watches him try to stand. Watches George’s hand reach out, a trembling, old man’s hand. Feels George’s fingers grip his arm. His chest goes numb.
There is only one other person it could be.
After the first jolt, like an electric shock to the heart, Rand pushes George away, charges into the house, and shouts her name, expecting to find her on the floor. When he doesn’t find her, he charges back into the kitchen and demands to know where she is. George swallows his drink, sets down his glass, tells him the facts. “It was on the tennis court, old man. She just went down. She’s at the hospital now. Reese is there. Waiting for us. Buddy, there was nothing they could do.”
Rand picks up the phone. “What hospital?” His voice is hoarse.
“Quarryville. I’ve got the number. We should go. But before we do— ” he hands Rand a glass filled to the brim with Scotch. Rand drinks it down. He stares at George with loathing. Then he dials the number. A voice mail system answers, “Thank you for calling Quarryville Hospital. If this is an Emergency, please hang up and dial 911. If you wish to speak with someone, please stay on the line and listen for your choice of options....Press One for the Emergency Room, Two for Visitor Services ...” Rand almost throws the phone across the room.
He gets in George’s car, phone glued to his ear, until the river bridge, where the signal dies out. He redials, no answer. Redials, no answer. He shouts at George to drive faster, though George is already speeding and weaving all over the road.
There has to be something they can do. There is always something they can do.
* * *
It turns out Anne registered her own DNR order with all the local hospitals. When she didn’t respond to twenty minutes of a tennis court geezer’s rickety CPR, when it took the ambulance another 40 minutes to get there, the EMTs declared her DOA. It is incomprehensible. Everyone knows EMTs always hook you up and resuscitate you even if you’ve been dead for an hour. At the hospital, they took her straight to the morgue.
Someone takes him to her. Someone lifts the cover on her body.
Anne is not Anne. Here is a stranger with waxy skin, sagging mouth, a crust of spittle. He reaches out to wipe it away. His beautiful Anne. Her blue eyes sealed under pale freckled lids. A whiff of lemon under the hospital disinfectant and the faint sweet scent of spoiling flesh.
Death squeezes Rand’s heart till he cannot breathe, then settles around his shoulders like a numbing shroud.
Someone puts a hand on his arm, guides him away. Someone fills out forms, hands him a pen. Someone sits him down with a Styrofoam cup of coffee, but he waves it away. Someone drives him home. Someone makes him a cup of tea with lemon. He hates lemon, but he drinks it dutifully like a refugee in a camp. He knows he is in shock. Sustenance shall not be refused. Your duty is to survive.
Someone makes phone calls in the background. The thought of her in the hospital, cold, fills him with dread, then rage. Reese’s hand floats into his line of vision, takes his teacup, fills it with some steamy brew that smells of oranges. He turns to her, croaks, “I’ll sue the bastards. I want to call my lawyer.” Reese fends him off, tells him they need to keep the lines clear, waiting for callbacks from his kids. The kids. Christ, the kids. Rand completely loses his courage at the thought of telling them. Someone else will tell them.
* * *
Someone finds him asleep in the recliner in the den and takes off his shoes, covers him with a blanket. He wakes in the dark with a jerk. What is he doing here? Another spat with Anne? Makes it halfway down the hall to the bedroom before he remembers. No Anne there. No Anne at all. He turns and goes to the kitchen and pours himself a bourbon. Wishes he had a cigarette. Thinks there might be one in a drawer somewhere, though it’s been twelve years since he quit. Why is the phone ringing at this hour? He can’t stand it. He yanks the cord out of the wall. In the morning, Reese finds him asleep at the kitchen table, his head resting on one arm, all the drawers in the kitchen pulled out and their contents scattered.
Reese makes coffee and pours him some, pulls him to the sofa to sit for a while, explains that the kids have been trying to reach him. She has plugged the phone back in. More people come and go, handing him phones, making phone calls, putting him into cars, driving him places, giving him more forms to sign, putting food out and pouring coffee. He has a dim sense of George hovering in corners, exuding a ginny smell, and Reese constantly at his elbow.
He doesn’t remember eating. He won’t sleep in that bed. Again he wakes up in his office chair, wanders into the kitchen, sees the light is on and there are familiar kitchen noises. Anne? Not Anne. Reese is setting up filter, coffee, and water, and swearing at the button that sets the auto switch for morning. “What are you doing here?” he says, befuddled. “Oh, Rand,” Reese says, her face collapsing in a puddle of tears.
Somehow Carrie and Jeff are notified, picked up at airports, and brought to the front door. Somehow he endures their stricken faces, Carrie’s desperate hug, Jeff’s awkward clutch- and-pat. Carrie makes sure all Anne’s relations are notified. She gets his dress uniform quick-cleaned for the funeral, sets out a dark suit for the wake. All is arranged. The women do it all.
* * *
The wake is brutal. Anne’s face horribly alive in the casket, the mortician’s tricks at work. Was it some kind of tasteless Southern tradition? They have dressed her in a blue flounced party dress, tan shoulders exposed, hair frosted and sprayed, gardenia on her breast, eyes closed with a dusting of blue shadow, as if she were taking a short nap before heading out—alone--to a fancy ball. Reese must have handled it. Damn her. What was she thinking?
And the flowers. Someone has sent lilies, reeking of death, and an arrangement of roses shaped like an enormous halter, as if Anne had just won a horse race, but the worst are the spring flowers. People somehow knew which ones were her all-time favorites: white daisies and blue larkspur. They are everywhere.
He had forgotten her love for these particular flowers until he overhears a complete stranger whispering to another: There was a field behind her childhood home —on Long Island—and when she was a girl, she told me she used to run through the flowers, blue larkspur, white daisies, lying down on them, smelling them, deciding they were proof there was a God.
All those people, telling stories about Anne, people who have known her for six months or a year at most, acting as if they knew her more intimately than he did. It is like being at the funeral of a stranger. People whispering, “Massive stroke. On the tennis court. Poor thing. So unexpected.” Strangers regard him with an unsavory combination of sympathy and curiosity. His own children, Jeff and Carrie, standing beside him, glance at him from time to time with the same furtive expression: How is he making out? Is he falling apart? And if not, why the hell not?
People from home come, droves of them. People he barely remembers from their ten years in Huntington and from scattered months of home leave there. People Anne has known since childhood. People from all over Ambler County, Quarryville, Green Hope, Springfield. All his paperwork, all his plans for his own orderly death, have not prepared him. He stands there, stunned, listening to people tell each other how sorry they are, watching people cry for the loss of beautiful Anne, watching them embrace her sister Celia, her new best friend Reese, then finally approach him with hesitant eyes, reach out for his hand, muttering, "I'm so sorry for your
He hadn’t known his wife’s friends. He hadn’t known his wife. Not very well at all lately. It eats the liver out of him.
* * *
On Saturday, all Rand has to do is dress for the funeral. Someone brings him a plate of scrambled eggs, too wet, he likes his dry, and buttered toast. He sets the plate uneaten on the dresser. His collar is giving him trouble – neck gets thicker in old age—and Carrie helps with the closure.
Jeff’s face seems different this morning, shiny and pink, and it takes Rand a minute to figure out that his son has shaved off his mustache and his fashionable stubble. His suit is borrowed, too short in the sleeves. The boy looks young, vulnerable as a rookie recruit.
At the funeral, Rand listens to the words but spends most of his energy trying to stand up straight. His body seems to keep wanting to sag to one side, as if it is looking for a tree to lean against. Carrie stands beside him, gripping his arm. Then it is over.
* * *
When they get home from the funeral, there is a moment when Carrie and Jeff have gone off somewhere and Rand is standing alone on the kitchen stoop, trying to see the world clearly, trying to see the world as Anne saw it. And failing miserably. At that moment he hears a crack, and an enormous tree limb falls out of the sky, bounces off the gutter and lands at his feet. Birds explode from the feeder, escaping in all directions, bursts of red, gray, yellow, and blue, Cardinals, juncos, goldfinches, jays. Years ago, in Long Island, Anne taught him their names and colors. The common birds, she called them.
God, he misses her. But it is more than that. Something twists in his heart, thinking of her voice, calling to birds. Her strong hand, filling the feeder. Her blue eyes, searing, accusing. Rand retreats inside, pours himself a bourbon over a single cube of ice. Gulps it down. Pours another.
He sees it now. Anne made a net of safety and friendship around them —and even love —that kept them alive and kept her happy. She flirted with plumbers, pleaded with grown kids to finish college, found jobs for friends’ children, tutored illiterates, cajoled caterers, inspired artists, and cooked his favorite chicken curry, all in the same life, probably all in the same day, and he has known only the plushness of the sauce in his mouth, the whiff of her lemony perfume as she served him, the perfect mouthful of green peas, celery, chicken and almonds, like a sacrifice worthy of a lesser god —and the mess she left in the kitchen. He has known only the dust-free valences of a clean house, the immaculate mini-blinds filtering light, the fresh salt smell of a seasoned woman next to him in bed.
He begins to remember that he has not held back on his complaints about their new life. He hears his own voice needling, dismissing, complaining. He thought he was preparing her to live without him. Instead, he sees now that she was already living without him.
Every room is a reminder. The new house and everything in it were her idea. The Williamsburg prints, the Audubon watercolors, the deep soft sofa and the high-backed wing chairs. “No pink” was his sole contribution to the building of their last nest together. “No Chinese red.” This last a snide reference to her one decorating disaster back on Long Island —a varnished and textured Chinese red accent wall that softened and dripped in the heat of summer and gave off fumes in the dead of winter, and which he had been certain would one day ignite and burn the house down.
So, there was no pink, no Chinese red, but instead a kind of warm mauve undertone to the whole scheme that fueled —like arterial blood under the surface of the skin —a lively glow along wainscoting, cushion piping, tassels and various complicated arrangements of fabric around windows. For forty years, Anne had kept a kind of elaborate hope chest of her mother’s furniture in the old Long Island house while they were posted overseas —a dining room table that sat sixteen with all its leaves in, matching Chippendale chairs, a pair of wingbacks, a sideboard, a mahogany cupboard he could use for his gun collection, sixteen settings of family silver with ornate crests on the handles. After months of reupholstering, repairs, and polish, it was all very elegant —what she must have thought he expected —but it was also welcoming, clean, and bright. It was what she had wanted their life to be when they moved here. Welcoming. Clean. Bright.
“Rand,” she’d said, across the dinner table one night back in Long Island, just after they decided to move to Stonehaven. “I want our life there to be different. I want a house big enough and nice enough for dinner parties. I need a social life. So do you.”
“Anne, whatever you want,” he said. But he had lied.
Once the house was built and the furniture brought out of storage and placed with care, he balked. The autumn after they moved, there was a series of newcomers’ parties at various homes and posh locations around the Downs. There were a lot of them. It was almost like being rushed for a sorority, she bubbled. So many clubs to choose from, so many breakfasts and luncheons and cocktail parties. For a season, Anne barely had to cook dinner. They ate party leftovers, pressed upon them by new friends, complete with plastic forks and colored toothpicks. Thanksgiving and Christmas and New Year's went by in a whirl, all requiring new social rituals.
All that first year Anne would head out exploring then come home and bubble about her latest conquest —a funny little health food market in Quarryville, a book club that read her favorite mysteries, a working artist’s studio behind the shops, a tennis tournament, a tour of historic homes. He listened with half an ear, alert for news of party dates or obligations that might require his presence, letting the rest slide past in a partly irritating, partly comforting patter that was the familiar sound of Anne’s life intersecting with his.
It had been late May before he heard her say it: “It’s time. We have some social obligations. I want to get to know some people better. Let’s have a dinner.” Her eyes shone with anticipation. It surprised him how long it had taken, and he realized he had hoped she’d decided dinner parties weren’t the thing here.
It was easy to deflect. There had been no malice in it, it was simply that he loathed dinner parties or any hubbub in his own house. He had put up with such as an obligation of Army service overseas. He was retired from obligations, dammit. All it took was a burst of temper, a flushed face. The threat of stress. His heart.
“Anne, my god, we’re just settling in here. Let us for Christ’s sake have some time alone after all those infernal parties.”
Her face darkened. “If we don’t do it now, we’ll never do it,” she said. “Fine by me,” he countered. “If I had my way...” “You DO have your way!” she shrieked at him. “It’s like you’re already dead! Do you know what that makes me? ALONE. Lonely. No family. No home to enjoy. I might as well be a bag lady, living on the streets of Bangkok!” She slammed the kitchen door and went out for a ride in the car.
He was shocked. He had always counted on Anne’s consideration. She was nothing if not a considerate person. But something changed between them after that night. Through that first summer, and into the fall, and the rest of the past year Anne had seemed resolved to go her own way, and to treat him with kindness, even gratitude at times, that he was around, and useful to her, and remembered to leave the New Yorker and the Times folded to stories of interest.
She went to church more. Got out of Stonehaven every day, into Quarryville, Green Hope, and Springfield, even got a posse of ladies together to get sodas at a “quaint little store” in a bombed-out mill town called Providence. Made a wider circle of friends. Worked four days a week at one thing or another —shelter, food bank, school —was simply not home those days except to make the morning coffee, send him off on his walk, then rush out for tennis or work, not returning till afternoon, and then sometimes just long enough to make a plate for him, place it in the oven to warm, and go off to some party without him. He never saw her on Fridays.
After a time there was no longer any expectation of a new social life together. No expectation of more than the occasional courtly escort to one of the larger benefits held in what was known as The Livery, a reference to a horse barn that had once been here, now replaced by a new post-and-beam ballroom with heartwood pine floors and tongue and groove walls and ceilings —so much tightly fitted wood, it reminded him of a yacht. She had given up on him. But with quiet and steely resolve, she let him know he would not stop her. He could have the house, as his preserve, old growly bear. She, the bird, would fly through the open window.
Anne began to go to parties with girlfriends and other couples. There was a crew of old gals who ironically, and unofficially, called themselves the Stonehaven Widows —some of them really were widows, but the rest of them were golf widows or wives who were simply practicing cheerful, independent lives from their grumpy retired husbands. Only a month ago, at one of the couples’ events organized by these ladies, Reese’s husband George joked to Anne over his martini, “That man is giving you the eye. He thinks you’re one of the Stonehaven widows.” Anne had gone into the hosts’ bathroom and wept. When she came out, disheveled, makeup smeared, eyes bright, Reese asked her where in the world she had been. “Kissing a strange man in a back room,” she said. She came home and told Rand the story.
He knew what she was saying. “Doesn’t sound like my kind of party,” he said. “No,” Anne had said, evenly. Randolph Lee liked his quiet. Well, he has it now, doesn’t he?
Rand gazes at the long, six-leaved mahogany table, now covered in piles of food brought by neighbors, remembers how it lay shining and empty all these months, with a dried flower arrangement like a memorial in the center. Anne’s dinner party, the one he had finally agreed to, tastes like dust on his tongue. She had been so happy that morning, effusive in the old way, and now he realizes she must have been hatching her plan—gathering recipes, guest lists, visions of table settings fizzing in her brain until that moment on the tennis court when it all exploded. She’d been cheated out of doing something she would have loved, and it was all his doing. Now the dried flowers are gone, and the mahogany carefully covered with a pad and a linen cloth, on top of which lies such a litter of casseroles, pies, brownies, baked chickens, deli chickens, green beans, baked beans, pound cake, even a baked ham.
There had been plenty to eat at Reese’s house after the funeral. Strangers had crammed her kitchen and parlor, spilling over to her deck and the tiny courtyard behind. Reese hadn’t had any leftovers except a box of chicken wings that came late, which she gave to Jeff, who sat outside in the dark on the deck steps after everyone left and ate them all. Ran had stepped out for air, saw him tearing the flesh off the tiny bones, flinging the bones into the yard. The fury in the boy had frightened him. He’d quietly stepped back into the house.
All the food on Anne’s table now is a fresh load, delivered with efficient promptness over the last twenty-four hours, and it is just for him. Unopened. Wrapped in plastic. Some of it still warm, like the whole wheat cinnamon rolls Reese somehow found time to throw together.
Cakes and casseroles have clearly been pulled from freezers where Anne told him ladies kept half a dozen such recipes at the ready for the inevitable demand, the ghoulish obligation of those who live among the old. These are all marked “thaw for two hours” or “ready to cook” with instructions taped on the plastic wrap on oven temp, minutes, and covering with foil to keep from over-browning.
There are plates of fresh made sandwiches and entire meals tucked into blue plastic boxes, one with a cluster of matching plastic forks and napkins, as if the giver expected him to set out on a picnic.
There are baskets of fruit. There is a case of grapefruit. They must have been thinking of Anne when they sent that. Rand’s medications all react with grapefruit.
All this food just for him.
It is an enormous picnic--a mountain of food, really--for so few ants. He has run off just about everybody but Jeff and Carrie.
Carrie is camped out upstairs in the guest room with her camcorder, her mother’s letters and journals and photo albums, and her I-Phone to keep her connected to her paralegal job in L.A., from which she has taken a two-week leave. Jeff is staying on Reese’s couch rather than his father’s. “It’ll be less mess for you, Dad,” Jeff said, cautiously, testing the waters. His father agreed. Jeff had clearly been relieved. Rand and Jeff have not gotten along well in recent years.
Let’s face it, Jeff is kind of a bum. Never happy with his job. Always looking for a way out. Never bothering to marry any of his short-term girlfriends. Calling Anne late at night, getting her up at all hours. Rand would find her sitting in her bathrobe in the kitchen with reheated coffee, talking out his latest failure, bad breakup, lost job. Who is he going to complain to now?
Maybe Reese. Not him.
Rand has no idea who to call to deal with all this food. Surely someone will come and take it. He has no room for it in the refrigerator. If he calls Reese, she will be offended, she arranged it all. She doesn’t know that Carrie, thin as a rail, eats only desserts and Diet Coke and wheatgrass shakes. Jeff eats only meat and spaghetti, as far as Rand can tell, and though his son can really pack it in, there is no way in hell he can eat a whole ham before he leaves Monday, which is tomorrow. Nobody else will come over. To the few who asked when they could visit, Rand has said, “Maybe in a couple of weeks.” He can see Reese is exhausted. She will definitely take a day off before she comes over to check on him.
George is zonked. Turns out his heart is broken. He confided this after the wake, over his fourth martini. “I hate this,” he said simply. “She had so much life in her. It’s going to kill Reese. Everybody. We were all in love with her.” Rand looked at him, incredulous. What about me? he wanted to shout. George saw his look. “You’ll be fine, old man,” he said. “The Stonehaven widows will keep you fat, just don’t fall into their trap.”
Rand almost hit him. George edged away, raised his martini glass in salute, and fled. George would not be coming around to nibble on chicken wings anytime soon. Thinking about it, Rand's heart pounds with rage, then twinges with guilt, then sags with sorrow.
Rand rummages in a drawer for the Stonehaven Downs Community Resource Directory and starts flipping through. Food Bank. That’s one of Anne’s things, isn’t it? They take food, don’t they? “Hello,” he says, surprised someone is there to answer the phone. “I have some food....well, some of it’s frozen. I don’t really know what it is. It’s from . . . a party. Casseroles and things. You can’t? Oh. Oh, I see.” He hangs up the phone. Those damn people think he’s out to poison them. Nothing homemade. No pies or casseroles. No chicken curry. It is amazing that he cannot get rid of all this food.
It reminds him of what the pastor said in his eulogy —young man that he hadn’t ever met, but who somehow had known Anne well. He’d said, “What if Jesus made a meal and nobody came? What if he had created the miracle of the loaves and fishes, and there was nobody there to share it?
“The miracle of Anne’s life —” the boy had gotten a little choked up here, his collar constricting his bobbing Adam's apple —“was that everybody shared it. We all sat at the table with Anne. She was a gift for us from God, and some of us have feasted with her long years, others invited late to the table. But, oh, the comfort of that meal together. It shall not leave us.”
Rand picks up two pies, a pound cake, and the baked ham and finds places for them in the refrigerator. Then he unrolls a yard waste bag from the box, snaps it open, and begins to scrape the food from Anne’s feast into the garbage. The dishes must be washed and returned. He will lie and tell people he enjoyed their contribution. No, no, he can’t face that. He will look up their addresses in the Stonehaven directory and return their casserole dishes, shining and clean, on their doorstoops when they are not at home. He will enclose a note: Thanks so much. Rand and Anne.
* * *
“Dad, what are you doing?” Carrie rubs her eyes and stares at the open bag of garbage. He starts guiltily. Then holds his ground. “Just cleaning up,” he says. “But Dad —” Carrie looks at him quizzically. “It’s perfectly good food. It’s for us to eat. You know, so we won’t have to cook for a while.” “I saved some of it. All this will go bad. It may already have gone bad, I have no idea how long it’s been sitting here.”
“Dad,” Carrie said, getting an expression just like her mother’s when Anne was about to decide to take over something. “I was just going to freeze it for you. Why don’t you let me do it? There’s plenty of room in the box freezer.” She peered into the trash bag. “Don’t like curried chicken any more?” she said.
“I like your mother’s curried chicken,” Rand said. “The rest can go to the dogs.” “Oh, Dad,” Carrie has tears in her eyes. “I miss her too.” She didn’t even give him the chance to say it. He misses Anne. God, he misses her like an arm or a leg —no you could lose one of those and get by. He misses her like a set of lungs. He misses her like fresh air. He has been drowning in this cheesy Southern thickened air, this false camaraderie, and she has been his only source of oxygen for months.
The phone rings. He hands Carrie the trash bag and picks up the phone. “Yes?” he answers. “Okay. Yes it was. Yes, thank you. Good-bye.” He looks at Carrie. Carrie is sorting casseroles by size and shape.
“I don’t even know who that was,” he says. “It’s going to be like that for weeks.” Rand holds the receiver in his hand, bumfuzzled. “She was crying.”
Carrie stops sorting. “Dad?” she says. “Will you make a deal?” This is their old signal for serious talk. When she wanted to go to Berkeley and he wanted her closer at Swarthmore, she came to make a deal. When she wanted a strapless outfit for the prom and Anne wanted her shoulders covered, Carrie made a deal. When Jeff was winning at Monopoly, but she had Boardwalk, she could always make a deal. Carrie the dealmaker. She usually made a good deal, where everybody felt like they got something of what they wanted. She would make a terrible lawyer. She thinks about others too much.
“What’s the deal,” he says.
“The deal is, I’ll answer the phone while I’m here. I’ll be here two weeks. You don’t even have to think about it. And if I’m not here, you agree to screen calls with the answering machine and only talk to people you want to talk to.”
“Okay,” he says. “You win.” Carrie knows he does not suffer fools or undue sentiment gladly. Thank god for Carrie.
* * *
Two hours later, once the casseroles are sorted into What We Will Eat This Week and What We Will Eat Next Week and What We Will Never Eat in a Million Years But Jeff Might, Carrie sits at the kitchen table sneaking a coffee loaded with cream and sugar toxins, not on her vegan diet. Rand is napping in the study. Jeff is at Reese’s. She answers the phone to what seems like a crank call.
“Hello, Lee residence, Carrie speaking,” she says. “Tahk tah Miss Ahn?” a childish voice says. “Who is speaking, please?” Could this be a friend’s grandchild, some special protégé? “Miss Ahn, Miss Ahn!” the voice rises to a squeak. “I’m sorry, I need to know your name,” Carrie says. She’s heard of burglars calling houses of the dead on the day after the funeral, hoping the family is away. “I am Bobo,” the voice says. “Sorry you ah dead.” Carrie hangs up. The cruelty of some people. She is glad Dad didn’t have to handle that one.
Monday morning Rand wakes with plans to go for a run but ends up standing there in the clothes closet, touching Anne’s camel’s hair coat, her silk dresses, her suit jackets, clutching them to his breast and choking on the scent of her new cologne, which he’d never known the name of till now. He’d found the spritzer on her dresser and choked up at the smell, then at the label.
It was called “Happy.”
Her clothes are faintly lemony with it, it clings like smoke clings to the clean clothes of a part-time smoker who’s hidden her habit for years.
Now his body slumps to one side and he slides to the floor, dragging a pile of clothes with him. When Carrie pokes her head in the bedroom door, she finds him huddled on the floor of the closet, his face buried in the tumble of cloth. “Dad? Dad! What’s wrong!”
Rand pushes the clothes away. “Looking for some shoes,” he mumbles. “Where the hell are my Nikes? Got to clean out this damn closet.”
“Dad,” Carrie informs him, “nobody cleans out a closet this soon. Anyway, I’ll take care of it. I might want some of her things to wear.”
He looks doubtfully at his daughter, who has never seemed to know conventional wisdom about anything, much less closet cleaning and death. And she has never shared her mother’s taste for tennis togs and double-knits. Carrie’s always been strictly a thrift store fashionista—her taste running to plastic purses, zigzag patterns, and micro mini dresses. For a moment he imagines Carrie in one of Anne’s outfits. There’s . . . a resemblance. Delicate nostrils, tilted eyes, and faint brocade of freckles. He can’t breathe, looking at her. He needs to get out, exhale a little bit of the soupy Southern spring air, inhale the hot incense of the Gooley pine grove. It reminds him, just a little, of the sea breeze at Montauk. Rand scoops his Nikes out of the closet, tells Carrie, “Time to get back to the routine. Doctor’s orders, you know.” Carrie looks at him suspiciously, opens her mouth as if to protest, but then closes it and lets him go his way.
* * *
Rand heads down the road, not even stopping for stretches, for fear that a passing car will stop, a neighbor look out at him, someone he’s never seen before, and express sympathy, tell a story about Anne that he’s never heard, some intimate moment of her life, make him feel even more a stranger in his own marriage. He ducks across the railroad overpass, having escaped public scrutiny.
By the time he gets to the base of the Gooley ridge, he has a cramp. He walks it out, leans against a tree, does the requisite stretches, finally sits down and massages the knot in his calf. A mockingbird flits by, lands on the pine needles at his feet. Turns and looks at him, squawks, and flies off.
“That’s right,” Rand says. “I’m sorry too.”
Mockingbirds were Anne’s favorite. She liked the way they open their wings in a one-two count, throwing shadows on the ground, flushing the bugs from their hiding places. She liked their two-tone wings that flash white when they fly. She liked to quote Whitman’s mockingbird poem, written when he lived on Long Island, “down from the shower’d halo, up from the mystic shadows —” But what she really loved is the call.
Back at her mother’s house, summer after summer, confused by the lights of the suburbs or drunk with love, a male called all night long, from the top of the low hill on which they lived. When they moved here, another mockingbird sang “praises,” as Anne called it, from the top of the telephone pole at the end of the drive. Anne hatched an experiment last spring around this time. She planned to play The Barber of Seville over and over on the stereo whenever she saw the bird in the yard.
“Will he pick it up?” she said. “Bet fifty cents.”
“It sounds to me like he already knows it,” Rand answered. It irritated her so much, because for once he had listened, and he was right. The bird had a call that sounded just like “Figaro, Figaro, Figaro.”
“Maybe,” Rand said, “he was training you.”
* * *
Rand shakes his head and looks up. The Gooley pines have caught a breeze and their needles shimmer down at him, greenly. He hears a sound like laughter. Is it behind him? Above? He gets up. Leg okay. Enough reminiscing. He finds his trail, and begins to run steadily, slowly, straight up the hill. If someone catches him here, it will be sweating, working out, too busy to talk, not mooning about the past with his hands over his eyes. If someone finds him here, he will somehow still be moving.
Marjorie Hudson was born in rural Illinois, grew up in Washington, D.C., and now lives in Chatham County, North Carolina. She is the author of Accidental Birds of the Carolinas, forthcoming in May, a collection of stories about people who move South, and Searching For Virginia Dare, a creative nonfiction exploration of the fate of America’s first English child. Hudson’s fiction and essays have been published in many magazines and journals, as well the recent anthologies, Topograph: New Writing from the Carolinas and the Landscape Beyond; Birthed from Scorched Hearts: Women Respond to War; What Doesn’t Kill You…; and Making Notes: Music of the Carolinas. Her honors include two Pushcart Special Mentions, residencies at Headlands Center for the Arts and Hedgebrook, the Blumenthal Readers and Writers Award, and NCAAE Artist Educator of the Year 2000.
This story was originally published in Issue 2 of The Literarian.