Have you ever lost someone who meant more to you than your own soul?
I did. I lost my wife Pat.
It took six long, tortured months for her to die.
I had to stand by and watch my beautiful, perfect wife waste away until there was nothing left. It didn’t matter that I have money and success. It didn’t matter that I’m called an “important” writer. It didn’t matter that Pat and I had finally started building our dream house, an engineering miracle that hung onto a cliff wall and would allow us to sit quietly and look out across the Pacific.
Nothing at all mattered from the moment Pat came home and interrupted me while I was writing — something she never did — to tell me that she had cancer, and that it was in an advanced stage. I thought it was one of her jokes. Pat had a quirky sense of humor; she said I was too serious, too morose, too doom-and-gloom, and too afraid of everything on earth. From the first, she’d made me laugh.
We met at college. Two more different people would be hard to find, and even Pat’s family was completely alien to me. I’d seen families like hers on television, but it never occurred to me that they actually existed.
She lived in a pretty little house with a front porch and — I swear this is true — a white picket fence. On summer evenings her parents — Martha and Edwin — would sit on the front porch and wave at the neighbors as they passed by. Her mother would wear an apron and snap green beans or shell peas while she waved and chatted. “How is Tommy today?” she’d ask some passerby. “Is his cold better?”
Pat’s father sat just a few feet away from his wife at a wrought iron table, an old floor lamp nearby, and a box of gleaming German tools, all precisely arranged, at his feet. He was — again, I swear this is true — known as Mr. Fix-It around the neighborhood and he repaired broken things for his own family and his neighbors. Free of charge. He said he liked to help people and a smile was enough payment for him.
When I went to Pat’s house to pick her up for a date, I’d go early just so I could sit and watch her parents. To me, it was like watching a science fiction movie. As soon as I arrived, Pat’s mother — “call me Martha, everyone does” — would get up and get me something to eat and drink. “I know that growing boys need their nourishment,” she’d say, then disappear inside her spotlessly clean house.
I’d sit there in silence, watching Pat’s father as he worked on a toaster or maybe a broken toy. That big oak box of tools at his feet used to fascinate me. They were all perfectly clean, perfectly matched. And I knew they had to have cost a fortune. One time I was in the city — that ubiquitous “city” that seems to lie within fifty miles of all college towns — and I saw a hardware store across the street. Since hardware stores had only bad memories for me, it took courage on my part to cross the street, open the door, and go inside. But since I’d met Pat, I’d found that I’d become braver. Even way back then her laughter was beginning to echo in my ears, laughter that encouraged me to try things I never would have before, simply because of the painful emotions they stirred up.
As soon as I walked into the store, the air seemed to move from my lungs, up my throat, past the back of my neck, and into my head to form a wide, thick bar between my ears. There was a man in front of me and he was saying something, but that block of air inside my head kept me from hearing him.
After a while he quit talking and gave me one of those looks I’d seen so many times from my uncles and cousins. It was a look that divided men from Men. It usually preceded a fatal pronouncement like: “He don’t know which end of a chain saw to use.” But then, I’d always played the brain to my relatives’ brawn.
After the clerk sized me up, he walked away with a little smile that only moved the left side of his thin lips. Just like my cousins and uncles, he recognized me for what I was: a person who thought about things, who read books without pictures, and liked movies that had no car chases.
I wanted to leave the hardware store. I didn’t belong there and it held too many old fears for me. But I could hear Pat’s laughter and it gave me courage.
“I want to buy a gift for someone,” I said loudly and knew right away that I’d made a mistake. “Gift” was not a word my uncles and cousins would have used. They would have said, “I need a set a socket wrenches for my brother-in-law. What’d’ya got?” But the clerk turned and smiled at me. After all, “gift” meant money. “So what kind of gift?” he asked.
Pat’s father’s tools had a German name on them that I said to the man — properly pronounced, of course (there are some advantages to an education). I was pleased to see his eyebrows elevate slightly and I felt smug: I’d impressed him.
He went behind a counter that was scarred from years of router blades and drill bits having been dropped on it, and reached below to pull out a catalog. “We don’t carry those in the store but we can order whatever you want.” I nodded in what I hoped was a truly manly way, trying to imply that I knew exactly what I wanted, and flipped through the catalog. The photos were full color; the paper was expensive. And no wonder since the prices were astronomical.
“Precision,” the man said, summing up everything in that one word. I pressed my lower lip against the bottom of my upper teeth in a way I’d seen my uncles do a thousand times, and nodded as though I knew the difference between a “precision” screwdriver and one out of a kid’s Home Depot kit. “I wouldn’t have anything else,” I said in that tight-lipped way my uncles spoke of all things mechanical. The glory of the words “two stroke engine” made them clamp their back teeth together so that the words were almost unintelligible.
“You can take that catalog,” the man said, and my face unclenched for a moment. I almost said gleefully, “Yeah? That’s kind of you.” But I remembered in time to do the bottom lip gesture and mumble “much obliged” from somewhere in the back of my throat. I wished I’d had on a dirty baseball cap with the name of some sports team so I could tug at the brim in a Man’s goodbye as I left the store.
When I got back to my tiny, gray apartment off campus later that night, I looked up some of Pat’s father’s tools in the catalog. Those tools of his were worth thousands. Not hundreds. Thousands.
But he left that oak box out on the porch every night. Unlocked. Unguarded.
The next day when I saw Pat between classes — she was studying chemistry and I was English lit — I mentioned the tools to her as casually as possible. She wasn’t fooled; she knew this was important to me. “Why do you always fear the worst?” she asked, smiling. “Possessions don’t matter, only people do.” “You should tell that to my uncle Reg,” I said, trying to make a joke. The smile left her pretty face. “I’d love to,” she said.
Pat wasn’t afraid of anything. But because I didn’t want her to look at me differently, I wouldn’t introduce her to my relatives. Instead, I let myself pretend that I was part of her family, the one that had big Thanksgiving dinners, and Christmases with eggnog and gifts under the tree. “Is it me or my family you love?” Pat once asked, smiling, but her eyes were serious. “Is it me or my rotten childhood you love?” I shot back, and we smiled at each other. Then my big toe went up her pants leg and the next moment we were on top of one another.
Pat and I were exotic to each other. Her sweet, loving, trusting family never failed to fascinate me. I was sitting in their living room one day waiting for Pat when her mother came home with her arms pulled down by the weight of four shopping bags. Back then I didn’t know that I should have jumped up and helped her with them. Instead, I just stared at her.
“Ford,” she said (my father’s eldest brother thought he was bestowing a blessing on me when he named me after his favorite pickup), “I didn’t see you sitting there. But I’m glad you’re here because you’re just the person I wanted to see.”
What she was saying was ordinary to her. Pat and her parents easily and casually said things to make other people feel good. “That’s just your color,” Pat’s mother would say to an ugly woman. “You should wear that color every day. And who does your hair?” From someone else, the words would have been facetious. But any compliment Pat’s mother — I could never call her “Martha” or “Mrs. Pendergast” — gave came out sincere-sounding because it was sincere.
She put the shopping bags down by the coffee table, removed the pretty arrangement of fresh flowers she’d cut from her backyard garden, and began pulling little squares of cloth out of the bags. I’d never seen anything like them before and had no idea what they were. But then Pat’s parents were always introducing me to new and wondrous things.
When Pat’s mother had spread all the pieces of cloth out on the glass-topped coffee table (my cousins would have considered it a matter of pride to break that glass, and my uncles would have dropped their work boot-clad feet on it with malicious little smiles) she looked up at me and said, “Which do you like?”
I wanted to ask why she cared what I thought, but back then I was constantly trying to make Pat’s parents believe that I’d grown up in a world like theirs. I looked at the fabric pieces and saw that each one was different. There were pieces with big flowers on them, and some with little flowers. There were stripes, solids, and some with blue line drawings.
When I looked up at Pat’s mother, I could see she was expecting me to say something. But what? Was it a trick? If I chose the wrong one would she tell me to leave the house and never see Pat again? It was what I feared every minute I was with them. I was fascinated by their sheer niceness, but at the same time they scared me. What would they do if they found out that inside I was no more like their daughter than a scorpion was like a ladybug?
Pat saved me. When she came into the living room, her hands pulling her thick blonde hair up into a ponytail, she saw me looking at her mother, my eyes wild with the fear of being found out. “Oh, Mother,” Pat said. “Ford doesn’t know anything about upholstery fabrics. He can recite Chaucer in the original English, so what does he need to know about chintz and toile?”
“Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote,” I murmured, smiling at Pat. Two weeks before I’d found out that if I whispered Chaucer while I was biting on her earlobe, it made her wild for sex. Like her father, an accountant, she had a mathematician’s brain, and anything poetic excited her.
I looked back at the fabrics. Ah. Upholstery. I made a mental note to look up the words “chintz” and “toile.” And later I’d have to ask Pat why being able to recite medieval poetry should exclude knowledge of upholstery fabrics. “What do you plan to upholster?” I asked Pat’s mother, hoping I sounded familiar with the subject.
“The whole room,” Pat said in exasperation. “She redoes the entire living room every four years. New slipcovers, new curtains, everything. And she sews all of it herself.”
“Ah,” I said, looking about the room. Every piece of furniture and all the windows were covered in shades of pink and green — or rose and moss as Pat later told me.
“I think I’ll go Mediterranean,” Pat’s mother said. “Terra cotta and brick. I was thinking of trying my hand at leather upholstery with all those little nails around the edge. What do you think of that idea, Ford? Would that look nice?”
I could only blink at her. In the many houses I had lived in, new furniture was bought only when there were holes in the old, and price was the only consideration for purchase. One of my aunts had a whole set of furniture covered in three-inch-long purple acrylic. Everyone thought it was wonderful because all three pieces had cost only twenty-five dollars. Only I minded having to remove long purple fibers from my food.
“Mediterranean is nice,” I said, feeling as proud of myself as though I’d just penned the Declaration of Independence.
“There,” Pat’s mother said to her daughter. “He does know about upholstery.”
Pulling the little hair tie out of her mouth, Pat deftly wrapped it around her ponytail, and rolled her eyes. Three weekends before, her parents had visited a sick relative so Pat and I’d spent two nights alone in their house. We’d played at being married, at being our own little family, and that that perfect house was ours. We’d sat at the kitchen table and shucked corn, then we’d eaten dinner at the mahogany dining table — just like grown-ups. I’d told Pat a lot about my childhood, but I’d only told her the deep angst part, the part that was likely to get me sympathy and sex. I’d not told her the mundane, day-to-day things, such as rarely eating meals not in front of a TV, never having used a cloth napkin, and only using candles when the electric bill hadn’t been paid. It was odd, but telling her that my father was in prison and that my mother had used me to punish my father’s brothers made me seem heroic, while asking her what the hell an artichoke was made me feel like the village idiot.
The second night we spent together in her parents’ house, I lit a fire in the fireplace, Pat sat on the floor between my legs, and I brushed her beautiful hair.
So, later, when she looked at me over her mother’s head, I knew she was remembering the night we’d made love on the carpet in front of the fire. And from the looks she was giving me, I knew that if we didn’t get out of there soon I’d be throwing her down on top of her mother’s fabric samples. “You’re so alive,” Pat had said to me. “So primitive. So real.” I didn’t like the “primitive” part but if it turned her on…
“You two go on,” Pat’s mother said, smiling and seeming to intuit what Pat and I were feeling. And, as always, she was unselfish and thinking of others before herself. When the drunk teenager who killed her a few years later was pulled from his car, he said, “What’s the big deal? She was just an old woman.”
Pat and I were married for twenty-one years before she was taken from me. Twenty-one years sounds like a long time, but it was only minutes. Right after we graduated from college, one of the teaching jobs she was offered paid exceptionally well, but it was in an inner city school. “Hazard pay,” the man on the phone who was begging her to take the job said. “It’s a rough school, and last year one of our teachers was knifed. She recovered but she wears a colostomy bag now.” He waited for this to sink in, waited for Pat to slam down the phone.
But he didn’t know my wife, didn’t know what her boundless optimism could take on. I wanted to try my hand at a novel, she wanted to give me the chance to write, and the money was excellent so she took the job.
It was difficult for me to understand such selfless love as hers, and I was always trying to figure out the why of it. Sometimes it would run through my head that Pat loved me because of my childhood, not in spite of it. If I were the same man but had grown up in an orderly house like hers, she wouldn’t have been interested in me. When I told her that, she’d laughed. “Maybe so. If I’d wanted a clone of myself I’d have married Jimmie Wilkins and spent my life hearing him tell me I was half a woman because I couldn’t have kids.”
For all that Pat and her family looked like they lived an ideal life, the truth was, there were several tragedies in their past. In my father’s family — my mother was an orphan and I was glad of it as my father’s eleven brothers were all the family I could handle — a tragedy was a reason to stop life. One of my uncle Clyde’s sons drowned when he was twelve. After that Uncle Clyde hit the bottle and stopped going to his night security job. He and his wife and their six other kids ended up living on what she made at McDonald’s, and one by one their kids dropped out of school, or ended up in jail or on welfare, or they just wandered away. Everyone in my family seemed to think that this is what should have happened after Ronny’s death. Forever after, they talked about Uncle Clyde’s great grief over his son’s tragic death in mournful whispers.
I was seven when my cousin Ronny drowned and I wasn’t sad because I knew that Cousin Ronny had been a brute. He’d drowned while terrorizing a four-year-old girl. He’d grabbed her doll, run into the pond, and proceeded to dismember it, throwing the body parts into the murky water, all while the little girl stood on the bank, crying and begging. But as Cousin Ronny ran into the deep water, he disturbed a snapping turtle that bit his big toe, and he and what was left of the doll went under, where he hit his head on a rock and knocked himself unconscious. By the time anybody realized he wasn’t pretending to be dead (Cousin Ronny was a great one for crying wolf) he actually was dead.
When I was told that Cousin Ronny had died — which meant that he’d no longer be around to bully me and the other little kids — all I felt was relief. And I was sure that Uncle Clyde would be glad, too, because he was always yelling at Ronny that he was the worst kid in the world and that he, Uncle Clyde, should have “cut it off” before he’d made such an evil son.
But after Ronny died, Uncle Clyde went into a state of bereavement that lasted the rest of his life. And he wasn’t the only full-time mourner in my family. I had three aunts, two uncles, and four cousins who were also in lifelong mourning. A miscarriage, a chopped-off limb, a broken engagement, whatever, were all reason enough to put life on hold forever.
I grew up praying hard that nothing truly bad ever happened to me. I didn’t want to have to spend decades drinking and crying about the tragedy that had blighted my existence.
When I met Pat’s extended family and saw that they were all laughing and happy, I shook my head at the irony of it all. So many tragedies had been thrust on my family, yet here were people who had been blessed — without tragedy — for generations. Was it their church-going ways that had made their lives so free of catastrophe? No, my uncle Horace had gone to church for years, but after his second wife ran off with a deacon, he’d never entered a church again.
About the third time Pat and I were in bed together, back when I still felt superior, as though my hard childhood had taught me more about life than her soft one had taught her, I mentioned this phenomenon, that her family had experienced no tragedies.
“What do you mean?” she asked, so I told her about Uncle Clyde and Cousin Ronny who had drowned. I left out the parts about the doll, the turtle, and Uncle Clyde’s drinking. Instead, I used my natural-born gift for storytelling to make him sound like a man who loved deeply.
But Pat said, “What about his other children? Didn’t he love them ‘deeply’?”
I sighed. “Sure he did, but his love for Cousin Ronny overrode everything else.” This last bit was difficult for me. I’m cursed with a clear memory and I could almost hear again the ugly fights that used to rage between Uncle Clyde and his bully of a son. Truthfully, before the boy drowned I never saw any love between Uncle Clyde and Cousin Ronny.
But to Pat I put on my best I’m-older-than-you look (by three months) and I’ve-seen-more-of-the-world-than-you (by the time Pat was eighteen she’d been to forty-two states on long driving vacations with her parents, while I had been out of my home state only twice) and told her that she and her family couldn’t understand my uncle Clyde’s feelings because they’d never experienced true tragedy.
That’s when she told me she couldn’t have children. When she was eight she’d been riding her bike near a construction site and had fallen. A piece of rebar, embedded in concrete, had pierced her lower abdomen and gone through her tiny prepubescent uterus.
She went on to tell me how her mother had lost her first husband and infant son in a train accident. “She and her husband were sitting together and she’d just handed him the baby when a runaway truck hit them,” Pat said. “My mother wasn’t touched but her husband and baby son were killed instantly. Her husband was decapitated.” She looked at me. “His head fell onto her lap.”
We lay there in bed, both of us naked, and looked at each other. I was young and in bed with a girl I was in love with, but I didn’t see her beautiful bare breasts or the soft, perfect curve of her hip. Her words had shocked me to the core. I felt like a medieval man hearing for the first time that the earth wasn’t flat.
I couldn’t reconcile that sweet woman who was Pat’s mother with the woman who’d had a severed head drop onto her lap. And Pat. If one of my female cousins had had a hysterectomy at eight years old her life would have stopped then and there. Every family gathering would have had everyone clucking in sympathy. “Pooooorrr Pat,” they would have called her.
I’d known Pat and her family for months, and I’d met three grandparents, four aunts, two uncles, and an uncountable number of cousins. No one had mentioned Pat’s tragedy or her mother’s.
“My mother had five miscarriages before she had me and they removed her uterus an hour after I was born,” Pat said.
“Why?” I asked, blinking, still in shock.
“I was breech so I was Caesarean and the doctor had been called from a party so…so his hand wasn’t steady. Her uterus was accidently cut and they couldn’t stop the bleeding.” Pat got out of bed, picked up my T-shirt off the floor, and pulled it on over her head, where it reached to her knees.
The irony of this matter of uteruses and families flooded my brain. In my family girls got pregnant early and often. So why were my uncles able to reproduce themselves lavishly, but Pat’s parents had only one child and no hope of grandchildren?
As I watched Pat dress, I knew there was something else in what she’d just told me about her birth. “A party? Are you saying that the doctor who delivered you was drunk?” People like Pat’s family didn’t have drunken doctors who “accidently” destroyed a woman’s uterus.
Pat nodded in answer to my question.
“What about your father?” I whispered, meaning, Did he have any tragedy attached to him?
“Macular degeneration. He’ll be blind in a few more years.”
At that I saw tears form in her eyes. To hide them, she went into the bathroom and closed the door.
That was the turning point. After that day, I changed my attitude toward life. I stopped being smug. I stopped feeling that only my family had experienced “true life.” And I relinquished my biggest fear: that if something truly awful happened to me, I’d have to stop living and retreat into myself. You go on, I told myself. No matter what, you go on.
And I thought I’d managed to do that. After that kid ran his car into Pat’s mother and killed her, I tried to be an adult. Right after it happened, I thought that maybe if I heard the details of her death I’d feel better, so I went to a young policeman standing by the wreckage and asked him what happened. Maybe he didn’t know I was related to the deceased by marriage, or maybe he was just callous. He told me what the kid who’d killed her had said. “She was just an old woman,” he’d said, as though Pat’s mother had been insignificant.
There was a funeral, a nice Presbyterian funeral, where people politely wept, where Pat leaned on me, and where her father aged by the minute.
Three weeks after the funeral, we all seemed to be back to normal. Pat returned to teaching in her inner city school, I went back to the night school where I taught English to people trying to get their green card, and back to my day job of writing what I hoped would become a great work of literature and give me immortality — and a top slot on the New York Times Bestseller List. Pat’s father hired a full-time housekeeper and spent his evenings on the porch repairing his neighbor’s appliances, something he planned to do as long as his eyesight held out. A year after the funeral, everyone seemed to have accepted the loss of Pat’s mother as “God’s will.” True, there was an empty place that her absence left behind, and she was spoken of often, but her passing was accepted.
I thought it was accepted. But I also thought I was the only one who felt old-fashioned, white-hot rage at the loss of someone so good. I seemed to see things that no one else did. There was a little hole on the arm of the couch where the stitching had come apart. It wasn’t more than a half inch long, but I saw it and thought how Pat’s mother would have hated that little hole.
At Christmas, everyone except me was jolly and laughing and exclaiming in delight over their gifts. It had been over a year since Pat’s mother’s needless death and I was still holding the anger inside me. I hadn’t told Pat but I hadn’t written a word in that year. Not that what I’d written in the previous years had been worth anything, but at least I’d been making an effort. I’d had three agents but none of them could get a publishing house to buy what I wrote. “Beautifully written,” I heard over and over. “But not for us.”
But “beautiful” or not, my writing wasn’t good enough in the eyes of New York editors to be published — and it wasn’t good enough in the eyes of my wife. “Not bad,” she’d say. “Actually, it’s not bad at all.” Then she’d ask what I wanted for dinner. She never spoke a word of criticism, but I knew I wasn’t reaching her.
That Christmas, the second one after Pat’s mother’s death, I was sitting on the sofa in front of the fire and running my fingertips over the little hole in the seam. To my left I could hear the women in the kitchen, all of them chattering and quietly laughing. Behind me in the den the TV was blaring and the males were watching some sporting contest. The kids were on the closed-in porch at the back of the house, counting their loot and eating too much candy.
I was worried that I was becoming like my father’s relatives. What was wrong with me that I couldn’t get over the death of my mother-in-law? Couldn’t get over the waste of it? The injustice? The kid who’d killed her turned out to be the son of a rich man; a battalion of lawyers had freed him on a technicality.
I got up and put a log on the fire and while I squatted there, Pat’s father came into the room. He didn’t see me because his eyesight had deteriorated until he was only able to see in a direct line in front of him.
He was holding a little pink basket with a hinged lid. As he sat down on the end of the couch, just where I’d been sitting, he opened it. It was a sewing basket, the back of the lid padded to make a pincushion that held several pre-threaded needles. I watched him remove a needle, his old hands running down the long thread to check for a knot at the end. His hands were shaking a bit.
He set the sewing basket beside him, and then, using what eyesight he still had and his left hand, he searched along the arm of the couch.
I knew what he was looking for: that little hole in the couch cover that Pat’s mother had made.
But he couldn’t find the hole. There were tears blocking his limited vision and his hands were shaking too badly to feel anything. On my knees, I went to the other side of the arm and put my hands over his. He didn’t express any surprise when I touched him, and he offered no explanation for what he was doing.
Together, slowly, for my hands were trembling and my eyes, too, were blurred, he and I sewed up the hole. A two-minute job took fifteen minutes, and during that time neither of us spoke. We could hear the other people in the rooms around us, but it was as though they were far away.
When at last the hole was closed, I put my finger on the thread and, bending, Pat’s father cut the thread with his teeth. For a second his lips touched my fingertip.
Maybe it was that touch. Or maybe it was what we’d just done together. Or maybe it was just my desperate need for a man in my life who didn’t love his truck more than he loved any human. Still on my knees, I dropped my head onto Pat’s father’s lap, and I began to cry. As he stroked my hair, I felt his silent tears fall onto the side of my face.
I don’t know how long we stayed like that. If any of the Pendergasts saw us, no one ever mentioned it to me, not even Pat — but then they were a very polite family.
After a while, my tears began to slow and, as all those women’s magazines said, I felt “better.” Not good, but there was a knot in my chest that had been loosened. Maybe now it could go away, I thought.
“I’d like to kill that bastard kid,” Pat’s father said and I don’t know how to explain this, but what he said made me laugh. I’d been surrounded for over a year by polite, nonviolent grief, but I couldn’t feel that way. Twice, I’d come close to calling one of my uncles. He’d know someone who would “take out” that kid for a fee. I was tempted, but I knew that a revenge killing wouldn’t bring Pat’s mother back.
“Me, too,” I whispered as I got up, wiping my face on the sleeve of my new Christmas shirt. He and I were alone in the room. When a log in the fire burned through and fell, I turned toward it. But then, on impulse, I put my hand on his shoulder, bent, and kissed his forehead. For a moment he held my wrist with both his hands, and I thought his tears were going to start again, but they didn’t. Instead, he smiled. “I’m glad my daughter married you,” he said, and no praise before or since has ever meant as much to me as those words. They broke something inside of me, something hard and suffocating that had taken up residence in my chest.
An hour later, I was the life of the party. I was Mr. Entertainment. I was laughing and joking and telling stories that had everyone howling. No one, not even Pat, had ever seen me that way. I’d told her that I’d learned to “sing for my supper” when I was a kid, but I hadn’t elaborated. The full story was that my mother said that since my father’s eleven brothers had been the ones to get her husband thrown into prison, they could take turns being a father to me. For my entire childhood I was moved every three months from one uncle to the next. “Here comes Punishment,” my cousins would shout when my mother drove me from one house or trailer to the next. She’d push me toward a door, my one suitcase with all my worldly possessions at my feet, and give my shoulder a little squeeze, the only sign of affection she ever showed me. I’d not see her again until the three months were up and she delivered me to the next uncle. Even if they lived next door to each other, my mother made a point of driving me.
Over the years I’d learned that I couldn’t compete with my cousins’ fighting skills or their native ability to operate all large machinery that was painted either yellow or green, but I had a talent they didn’t have: storytelling. Lord only knows where I got it, although an ancient great-aunt told me that my grandfather was the best liar she’d ever met, so maybe it came from him. In fact, I was so different, one of my uncles said that if I didn’t look like a Newcombe he’d swear I wasn’t kin to them at all.
Out of necessity, I’d learned to entertain. When tempers got too frayed, someone would poke me and say, “Tell us a story, Ford.”
So I learned to tell stories that made people laugh, that scared them, or just enthralled them. The evening after I cried with my head on Pat’s father’s lap, I turned on like I hadn’t done since I’d walked out of my uncle’s house, bound for college on a partial scholarship and a student loan.
The next day, in the car, as we started the long drive home from her father’s house, Pat said, “Wow. What happened to you last night?”
I didn’t say much in answer to her question. Actually, I didn’t say much on the whole trip back because I was thinking about what Pat’s father had said, that he’d like to kill that kid. How could a man who couldn’t see well enough to thread a needle kill someone? One thing for sure was that if he could pull it off, no one would suspect him.
And what kind of punishment would a kid like that deserve? Just sneaking up behind him and shooting him wouldn’t be enough. He’d need to suffer like the people who’d loved Pat’s mother suffered. He’d have to have what he loved most on earth taken away from him. But what did a kid like that love? Booze? His dad who got him off?
And what about Pat’s mother? I thought. What about her spirit? Did her spirit, the essence of her, have to be taken off the earth just because her body was gone? What if her husband or daughter needed help? Would she be there? And what was the spirit world like anyway? Was her decapitated first husband there? Her infant son? What about the spirits of the babies she’d miscarried?
Hey! What about the drunken doctor who “accidently” cut up her uterus? Could her bodiless spirit do anything about him?
By the time we got home that night, Pat was looking at me strangely, but then she’d often said that the harder I thought the quieter I got. After I’d had a sandwich and brushed my teeth, I thought I just might go to my typewriter and put a few of my ideas on paper.
Not that I — a real writer — would ever, in a million years actually write a crime-slash-ghost-slash-revenge novel. But, still, maybe I could someday use the ideas in one of my good stories. You know, the great literary masterpiece that was going to win me a National Book Award and a Pulitzer. And spend multiple weeks on all the bestseller lists.
When I got to my typewriter, set up in an alcove off the living room, I was startled to see that I’d left it on. I wasn’t usually forgetful. There was a note on the keys. “I put three sandwiches in the ‘frig. Don’t drink the beer; it’ll make you sleepy. If you’re still at it by four tomorrow afternoon, I’ll call you in sick.”
Normally, I might have cried in gratitude to have a wife who understood me so well, but I was all cried out. She’d put clean paper in the machine and all I had to do was start punching in letters.
What’s the big deal? She was just an old woman were the first words I typed, and after that, they just seemed to pour out of me. The first time I had the ghost of the murdered woman enter the story, I thought, I can’t do this. This isn’t literature. But then I remembered something I’d heard a best-selling writer say in a speech. “You can’t choose what you write. No one comes down to you, sitting on a pink cloud, and says, ‘I’m going to give you the ability to write. So which talent do you want? The Jane Austin model that lives forever, or the kind that makes you lots of money while you’re alive but dies when you do?’ No one gives you that choice. You just take whatever talent you’re given and thank God four times a day for giving you any talent at all.”
I had to remind myself of those words several times during the next months. I even typed them on a piece of paper and hung them on the wall above the typewriter. At some point, Pat wrote “Amen!” at the bottom.
I never went back to my classroom full of non-English-speaking students. At first Pat called in sick for me, and for a week she took over the class, but after the third student asked her to marry him so he could stay in the U.S., she quit. And she told them that I quit, too.
The book took me six months to write, and during that time I didn’t come up for air. I saw Pat but I didn’t see her. As far as I remember, we had no conversations. I didn’t think about how she was managing to pay the bills without my income, but I imagine her father helped. I really don’t know. My book was all the life I had.
When it was done, I turned to Pat where she was curled up on the end of the couch reading, and said, “I finished it.” While I was writing, she’d never asked to read a word of the book and I’d never offered to show it to her. Now, shyly, feeling sheepish, I said, “Would you like to read it?”
Instantly, she said, “No,” and I nearly collapsed on the floor. What had I done? Did she hate me? In the seconds before she spoke again, I imagined at least a dozen reasons why she didn’t want to read my book — all of them bad.
“Early tomorrow we’re driving to Dad’s house and you’re going to read the whole book aloud to both of us,” she said.
I stared at her for a few silent moments. It was one thing to bare my soul to her but to her father?! I searched for some excuse that would get me out of it. “But what about your job? You can’t miss school. Those kids need you.”
“It’s summer. School’s out,” she said, without a trace of humor in her voice.
It was a six-hour drive to her father’s house, and I was so nervous that after I ran into the left lane the second time, Pat took over driving. By the time we got there, all the blood had left my face, my hands and my feet.
Pat’s father was waiting for us with fat turkey sandwiches, but I knew that if I took a bite, I’d choke. Pat seemed to understand. She put her father on the sofa, and me in a chair, then she dropped the first half of my manuscript on my lap. Without a word, she settled herself on the sofa beside her father, full plates on their laps.
“Read,” she said as she took a bite.
That manuscript needed a lot of work. It was full of dangling participles, and contained thousands of ambiguous antecedents. I’d been writing so fast that I forgot to put in “he said” and “she said,” so sometimes it was difficult to figure out who was talking. And my dates were all mixed up. I had people being born after they were married. I would have a character named John and twenty pages later I’d call him George. And I don’t even want to think about the misspellings and typos.
But for all the errors, the book had something that all my previous work hadn’t. At the sixth chapter I looked up and saw that Pat’s father had tears running down his cheeks. The book had heart. My heart. And in writing about what was inside me, I had at last broken up that huge, hard structure that had been living inside my chest. I had put the ugly thing, molecule by molecule, onto paper.
Night came, Pat put a glass of iced tea by my hand and I kept on reading, and when my voice gave out, she took the pages from me and began to read out loud herself. When the sun came up, I took over again while Pat scrambled eggs and toasted half a loaf of bread. When anyone went to the bathroom, we all went down the hall together and stood outside the door, never breaking in the rhythm of reading.
The housekeeper came at nine A.M., but Pat’s father told her to go home and we kept on reading. When Pat finished the book at a little after four that afternoon, she leaned back in the chair and waited for our verdicts as though she were the writer and we the jury.
“Brilliant,” Pat’s father whispered. “Martha has been avenged.”
His opinion was important to me, but it was the opinion of the love of my life, Pat, that I wanted to hear. But she didn’t say a word. Instead, she set the pages on the floor, got up and walked out the front door, taking the car keys and her handbag off the foyer table as she left.
Her behavior was so odd that I wasn’t even hurt by it. The book had been about her mother so maybe Pat was upset, I thought. Or maybe —
“Women!” Pat’s father said, and that seemed to sum it up.
“Yeah. Women,” I said.
“What’d’ya say we get drunk?” my father-in-law asked and I’d never heard a more pleasing suggestion in my life.
By the time Pat returned an hour and a half later, he and I were downing shots of bourbon at an alarming pace, and he was telling me that he thought my book was the best one ever written. “Second only to the Bible,” he said.
“You mean it?” I asked, my arm around him. “You really, really mean it?”
When Pat walked into the kitchen carrying two big bags with Office Max printed on them, she took one look at us and told us we were disgusting.
“But you didn’t like my book,” I wailed, the booze having dissolved my manly charade.
“Nonsense!” Pat said, taking the bottle and glasses off the table and placing a huge pizza box before us. She opened it to reveal a giant pizza covered with hot sausage and three colors of peppers — my favorite.
It wasn’t until later, after I’d thrown up and shared the pizza with Pat’s father, who then went straight to bed to sleep it off, that I realized Pat had taken her other bags and disappeared. I found her in the dining room, the table covered with pens, papers, and my manuscript.
My head ached and my stomach was queasy, and I was beginning to worry because she still hadn’t made even one comment about my book. “What are you doing?” I asked, trying to sound everyday and as though I didn’t want to jump up and down and scream, “Tell me! Tell me! Tell me!”
“I’m editing,” she said, looking up at me. “Ford, it’s the best book I’ve ever read, but even I could hear the errors in it. You and I are going over it sentence by sentence and correct it, and when it’s done we’re sending it to a publishing house.”
“To my agent,” I murmured. Best book, she’d said. Best book.
“That pompous little windbag?”
I had no idea she didn’t like the man.
“No,” Pat said. “I am going to be your agent.”
“You?” I said, and, unfortunately, it came out sounding like I didn’t believe that she, a high school chemistry teacher, could, overnight, become a literary agent.
She narrowed her eyes at me. “If you can become a writer, I can become an agent.”
“Sure, honey,” I said, reaching out to take her hand. I’d call my agent first thing in the morning.
Removing her hand from my grasp, she looked back at the manuscript. “Patronize me all you want, but while you’ve been writing I’ve been thinking and I know I can do it. All I ask is that you give me the chance.” When she turned to me, her eyes were fierce, determined, almost scary. “I have no talent,” she said in a hard tone I’d never heard her use before. “And I’ll never have children. I have nothing but you and your talent to thank God for four times a day.” She put her hand on the tall two-box stack of typed pages. “You don’t know it yet but this is brilliant. And I know that right now, this minute, is my one chance in life. I can step back and become the writer’s wife and be stuck at the end of the table with all the other stars’ spouses — or I can become your partner. Maybe I can’t write, but I’m better with numbers and money than you are, and I can organize anything. You write and I’ll take care of the rest of it. I’ll take care of contracts and promotion and defined benefit plans and royalties and — ”
She stopped talking and looked at me. “Do we have a deal?” she asked softly, but her voice was full of steel. She wanted this as much as I wanted to write.
“Yes,” I said, but when she put out her hand to shake mine, I kissed her palm, then her wrist, then I ran my lips all the way up her arm. We ended up making love on her mother’s dining room table on top of the manuscript, which slid out of the boxes and spread itself out under us. For the six weeks that it took us to edit and rewrite the book, whenever we came to stuck-together pages, we looked at each other and smiled warmly.
There’s no way to describe the twelve years between the publication of my first book and Pat’s death.
After we’d edited the book, had it professionally typed, and made six photocopies of it, Pat made appointments with editors in New York and we went there for two days. She went to the meetings alone because she said that I’d turn into a whining baby when people started putting a dollar value to my “blood on a page.” I protested that I was never a “whining baby,” but I knew she was right. That book was about Pat’s mother’s life so how could that be worth less than billions?
In the end, I spent the days wandering around Central Park worrying so much that I lost four pounds. “If I’m not around you don’t even eat,” Pat said, disgusted, but I could tell that she was as nervous as I was. We never talked about the “what if” but it hung in the air. What if she wasn’t suited for agenting? What if she couldn’t sell the book? And, the worst, what if no one liked the book enough to want to buy it?
At the end of the two days we went home to wait. The people she’d given the book to had to have time to read it. They had to discuss money with their bosses, and they had to — Who knew what they had to do?
I tried to tell myself that this was business, but part of my mind said that if they turned down the book it was as though they were rejecting Pat’s mother — which is what I had titled the book: Pat’s Mother.
Pat pretended she was cool and calm, laughing smugly whenever I jumped at some noise and looked at the telephone. But I got her back. I arranged with a guy I used to work with to call our number, then I hid the two telephones in our house. Pat had forbidden me to answer the phone, so when it rang I remained sitting at the table, the newspaper hiding my face. When the phone rang, Pat went running, and when she couldn’t find the phone, she started throwing things around until the house was a jumble.
When she finally got to it and answered, out of breath, the caller hung up.
I kept the newspaper over my face to hide the fact that I was laughing so hard. I thought I’d pulled one over on her until a minute later she refilled my coffee cup. When I took a drink, I sputtered. She’d put dishwashing detergent in it.
As I was hanging over the sink washing out my mouth, Pat gave me a little smile that told me not to mess with her again.
When the phone rang again, I was still at the sink, Pat was rummaging in the refrigerator, and I could see she had no intention of answering it. I grimaced. It was probably Charley asking if he’d done all right.
Slowly, I walked over to the phone, now in plain sight, and when I picked it up I was told to hold for someone at Simon & Schuster publishing house.
I couldn’t speak. Holding the phone away from my ear, I looked at the back of Pat. By some sixth sense, she turned, saw my white face, and nearly leaped over the couch to take the phone from me. Sitting down at the table, I took a deep drink of my coffee, and listened. Pat mostly said, “Yes. Yes. I understand,” then she hung up and looked at me.
The first thing she did was to take away my cup and pour out the soap-laden coffee. I’d drunk nearly half of it and hadn’t noticed. As she handed me a paper towel to wipe out the inside of my mouth, she said, “They’re going to auction the book.”
I had no idea what that meant but I knew it was bad. Auctions were for used furniture. If someone died, their furniture was auctioned off.
Seeing that I didn’t understand, Pat sat down at the table beside me and took my hand in hers. “Three publishing houses want to buy the book, so they’re going to bid on it. Highest bidder gets your book. The auction will go on all day today.”
What I didn’t know until later was that Pat and I had done everything wrong. We should have presented the book to one publishing house at a time. But she had given the book to three houses and she’d told each house who else was looking at it. Because all three houses liked the book, and because they didn’t want to offend the wife of the author, the publishing houses had done the agent’s job and arranged the auction themselves.
But on that long ago day, in our innocence, neither Pat nor I knew of anything “wrong.” We just settled back and did the only thing we could do: wait. The phone rang every hour as the houses presented their bids to us and asked us about the other bids.
After each call, we called Pat’s father to keep him abreast of every bid increment and every development.
It was an exciting, frightening, exhausting day. Pat and I didn’t eat a thing and I suspect that her father didn’t either. We wouldn’t move inches away from the phone for fear we’d miss something.
At five P.M. it was over and I was told I was to receive a cool million from Simon & Schuster.
How do you celebrate something like that? It was more than we could comprehend. Champagne wasn’t enough. This was a life change, and it was too big for either of us to grasp.
We sat at the breakfast table in silence, not sure what to do, and having nothing to say. Pat clasped her hands in front of her, then started examining her fingernails. I picked up a pen from the table and began to color in the o’s on the front page of the newspaper.
After several minutes of silence, I looked at Pat and she looked at me. I could hear her thoughts as clearly as if she were saying them aloud. “You call your dad,” I said, “and I’ll…Uh…” My mind was so blank I couldn’t think of what I should do.
“Wait in the car,” Pat said, as she called her father to tell him of the deal and that we were on our way to celebrate with him. The thoughts that Pat and I had shared were that there were three of us in this, not just two, and any celebration we had we had to share with him.
When we got to his house, it was nearly midnight, and we had to park three blocks away because there were so many cars parked on the streets.
“What idiot gives a party on a Tuesday night?” Pat asked, annoyed that we had to walk so far.
We were almost there before we realized that the party was in her dad’s house and it was for us. Neither Pat nor I could figure out how he’d done it, but in just six hours Edwin Pendergast had put together a party that will live in history. All the doors of his house were open, but so were the doors of the two houses flanking his, and guests and waiters and caterers were swarming all over the three lots and three houses.
What a party it was! In the wide area created by the three front lawns was a live band playing Big Band-era music, the music Pat’s parents loved best.
In front of the band were half a dozen professional dancers dressed in forties costumes swinging to a horn player who had to have been a blood relative of Harry James. Neighbors and people I’d never seen before, aged from eight to eighty, were dancing right along with the professionals. They all shouted hellos and congratulations when they saw Pat and me, but they were having too good a time to stop dancing.
As Pat and I got close to the front door, we heard other music coming from the back. I grabbed Pat’s hand and we ran down the path at the side of the house and there, just behind Pat’s mother’s rose garden, was another band, this one playing modern rock and roll, and more people were dancing on the combined lawns of two houses.
The backyard of the house on the left of Pat’s father’s house was enclosed by a high fence. They had a pool, and when we heard laughter coming from the other side of the fence, Pat shouted, “Give me a boost up.” I cupped my hands, she put her foot in them, and looked over the top of the fence.
“What’s going on?” I shouted above the music. I saw her eyes widen in shock, but she didn’t say anything until she was back on the ground.
“Swimming party,” she shouted into my ear.
I looked at her in question, silently asking why a swimming party was cause for her look of shock.
“No suits,” she shouted up at me. But when I looked about for something to climb on to look over the fence, she grabbed my hand to pull me into her father’s house.
It was chaos inside. There were two live bands outside, one in front and one in the back, and with all the windows and doors open on that hot summer night, it was cacophony.
But it worked. The truth was, the clashing bands were just how I felt. I had hungered after being published for as long as I could remember. I used to write comic books when I was a kid. One time when I was staying with a church-going uncle, I wrote a new book to the Bible. All I’d ever wanted all my life was to write stories and have them published — and now it was going to happen.
But I was also scared to death. Maybe this book was a fluke. A onetime accomplishment. It had been based on the needless death of a woman I had come to love. So what was I to write about for the second book?
My wife punched me in the ribs.
“What are you worried about now?” she shouted up at me, obviously disgusted that I couldn’t stop even for one night.
“Book two,” I yelled back at her. “What do I write about next?”
She knew what I was saying. My success had happened because I’d written about a personal experience. No, I had exposed my personal experience. What else did I have to expose?
Shaking her head at me, Pat took my hand, led me into the downstairs bathroom and locked the door. It was quieter in there and I could hear her. “Ford Newcombe, you are an idiot,” she said. “You have a mother who used you as a weapon for punishment. You have a father who’s in prison, and you have eleven uncles who are, each one, vile and despicable. You’ve had enough bad in your life to supply you with a thousand books.”
“Yeah,” I said, beginning to smile. Maybe I could write about Uncle Simon and his seven daughters, I thought. Or about my sweet Cousin Miranda who died young, but for whom no one had ever mourned. Why was it that only the bad ones were missed? Was there a nonfiction book in this?
I was brought out of my thoughts by Pat unzipping my pants. “And what are you doing?” I asked, smiling.
“Going down on a millionaire,” she said.
“Oh,” was all I could say before I closed my eyes and gave myself to her hands and lips.
It was quite a while later that we left the bathroom, and I was ready to party. No more worries. I’d thought of half a dozen personal experiences that I could write about.
We found Pat’s father next door in the master bedroom of the house with the swimming pool, and he was dancing so down and dirty that I stood in the doorway and gaped.
“You should have seen him and Mom together,” Pat shouted as she slipped under my arm and went to her father. He stopped dancing, exchanged some sentences, ear to mouth, with his daughter, waved at me, then resumed dancing. She returned to me, smiling. “We’re spending the night.”
Since it was already nearly two A.M., that seemed redundant information, but I nodded, then let Pat pull me out of the bedroom and back downstairs to the neighbor’s living room. All the kitchens of the three houses were full of catering people who were filling the dining rooms and backyards with enormous trays full of food. Since neither Pat nor I had eaten much for days, we made up for lost time. I was on my second plate when she told me she was going to say hello to some people. Nodding, I motioned that I was perfectly content to sit quietly in a corner and eat and drink.
The second I saw her skirt disappear around the corner I was up the stairs in a flash. A suitless swimming party! I was pretty sure there was a guest bedroom upstairs where I could look down on the pool. Sure enough, there were about a dozen young adults in the backyard, all beautifully naked, jumping off the diving board and swimming in the clear blue water.
“Amazing, isn’t it?” said a voice behind me. I had my foot propped on a window seat, food in hand, and was looking out a wide window down onto the pool.
It was Pat’s father and he’d shut the bedroom door behind him so we were in relative quiet.
“What’s amazing?” I asked.
“Teenagers today. See the one on the diving board? That’s little Janie Hughes. She’s only fourteen.”
I raised my eyebrows. “Didn’t I see her on a tricycle last week?”
He chuckled. “She makes me understand why old men marry young girls. And the boys of the same age make me understand why the girls are attracted to older men.”
He had a point. Even though several of the girls had removed their clothes, only one of the boys had. For the most part, the boys were skinny, with bad skin, and they looked scared to death of the girls, so they kept their big, baggy swim trunks on. The one boy who was naked had such a beautiful body, I figured he was probably captain of some local high school sports team. He reminded me of one of my cousins who’d been killed in a car wreck the night of the high school prom. Later, I’d thought that it was as though my cousin had known he was going to die early, because by seventeen he’d been a man, not a gangly boy, but a full-grown man.
“He’ll probably die before the year’s out,” I said, nodding toward the nude Adonis standing at the edge of the pool. I looked at my father-in-law. “I thought you were blind, or nearly so.”
He smiled. “I have an excellent memory.”
Since the day I’d cried on his lap, there’d been a closeness between us. I’d never felt close to a man before and what I felt for Pat’s father made me understand “male bonding.”
“I’m leaving Pat the house,” he said.
I put the food down and turned away. Please don’t talk of death today, I thought. Not today. Maybe if I said nothing, he’d stop talking.
But he didn’t stop. “I haven’t said anything to Pat and I don’t want you to, but I know I’m finished here on earth. Did you know that I tried to end my life about a month after she died?”
“No,” I said, my head turned away, my eyes squeezed shut. And in my vanity I’d thought I was the only one who was truly and deeply grieving for Pat’s mother.
“But Martha wouldn’t let me die. I think she knew you were to write your book about her and she wanted that. She wanted it for you, and for Pat, and for herself, too. I think she wanted her life to mean something.”
I wanted to say all the usual things, that her life had meant something, but hadn’t I written a quarter of a million words saying just that? All I could do was nod, still unable to look him in the eyes.
“I know I don’t need to tell you this, but I want you to take care of Pat. She pretends that not being able to have kids isn’t important to her, but it is. When she was eight, after she got out of the hospital, she gave away all her dolls — and she had a roomful of them — and today she won’t so much as touch one.”
A lump formed in my throat, a lump of guilt. I hadn’t noticed that about my wife. The truth was I hadn’t spent much time thinking about the accident that took away Pat’s fertility. Since I had Pat, it never mattered to me whether or not we had kids. And I’d never thought to ask her how she felt about it.
“Let her help you in this writing thing,” he said. “Don’t shut her out. Don’t ever think you’ve become such a big success that you need to get some glitzy agent with a big name. Understand me?”
I still couldn’t look at him. Pat and I had been married for years. Why hadn’t I noticed the doll-thing? Was I that unobservant? Or had she been hiding it from me? Did she have other secrets?
Pat’s father didn’t say any more, just put his hand on my shoulder for a moment, then quietly left the room, closing the door behind him. Minutes later a woman came out of the house downstairs by the pool and I recognized Janie Hughes’s mother. She shouted at her daughter so loudly I could hear her over two live bands and what had to be five hundred people partying.
Dutifully, Janie wrapped a towel around her beautiful young body, but I saw her glance over her shoulder at the naked athlete as he stepped into his swim trunks.
When the excitement was over, I sat down on the window seat. The plate beside me was still full but I couldn’t eat anymore. In essence, a man I loved had just told me he was about to die.
There was a Raggedy Ann doll stuck in the corner of the window seat and I picked it up, looking at the ridiculous face. No matter how much money I made, how much success I had, there were some things — things I really wanted — that I’d never be able to obtain. Never again would I sit at a table with Pat and her parents. Shaking my head, I remembered how I used to think that they were Chosen People who never had bad things happen to them.
When the bedroom door opened, I looked up. “There you are,” Pat said. “I’ve been looking everywhere for you. This party is for you, you know.”
“Can I have little Janie Hughes for my take-home gift?”
“I’ll tell her mother you said that.”
I put the rag doll in front of my face as though for protection. “No, no, anything but that.”
She walked across the room to me. “Come downstairs. People are asking for your autograph.”
“Yeah?” I said, pleased and astonished at the same time. I started to put the rag doll back where I found it, but on impulse, I put it against Pat’s chest, meaning for her to take it.
Pat jumped back, not touching the doll, and looked as though she might be ill.
Part of me wanted to ask questions, to make her confess. But to confess what? What I already knew? When she walked to the door, she stood there with her back to me, her shoulders heaving as though she’d been running.
I picked the doll up off the floor, put the poor thing back in its corner, walked to my wife, and slid my arm around her shoulders. “What we need is some champagne, and you haven’t told me what you want to buy with all the money we are going to get.” I put a slight emphasis on the “we.”
“A house,” she said without hesitation. “Near the sea. Something high up, with a wall of glass so I can look out and see the waves and watch storms at sea.”
I drew in my breath. Years of marriage and I’d learned two secrets about my wife in one night.
“Storms at sea, it is,” I said, opening the door, my arm still around her.
“And what about you?” she asked. “Other than Jail Bait Janie, that is.”
“If I went to jail, I might get to see Dad.” I tightened my grip on her shoulders. “I want book number two,” I said honestly.
“Don’t worry, I’ll help you and so will Dad. Now that Mom’s gone, your books will give him something to live for.”
I was glad when a blast of music hit us in the face and prevented my making a reply to that, for I was now feeling like this huge, noisy party was not for me but was, instead, a farewell to my father-in-law.
And I was right, for seven weeks later, Pat’s father died in his sleep. As I stood in the funeral home looking at his slightly smiling corpse, I thought how he’d done just what my melodramatic relatives did and given away his life in grief.
When Pat’s mother died, I was the one who was full of anger, but Pat had held me together. When her father died, she was so full of grief and anger that our doctor wanted her to be hospitalized. There was no room for me to give way, too, so I held us both together. The only time I weakened was when the will was read and I was told that Pat’s father had left me his set of German tools.
Pat sold her parents’ house and all the contents. If it had been my decision, I would have moved in there, as that house had held some of the best times of my life. But Pat kept only the photos — which she put in a safe-deposit box and never looked at — and sold everything else. The only thing we kept was the box of tools.
For the next dozen years, I wrote and Pat wheeled and dealed. As she said, we were a partnership. I wrote and we edited, then she sold. And she was my first reader. She always told me what she thought of the content of my books, at times being almost brutal. It wasn’t easy swallowing my ego, and sometimes we had blazing fights. “Try it my way and see which is better,” she once shouted at me. In anger, to show her she was wrong, I rewrote the end of a book to her specification. And she’d been right. Her way was better. After that, I listened more, trusted more.
We didn’t buy her house by the sea. For one thing Pat couldn’t decide which sea she wanted to live by. And, too, she was fascinated by the idea that as a writer, I could live anywhere in the world, so “we” decided to try out a few places. We ended up moving around a lot.
In all the twelve years, we visited my uncles and where I’d grown up only once. The day before we arrived, I was sick with nerves. Pat tried to laugh me out of it but she couldn’t. I was eaten up with wondering how it would be to see all of them again.
“Afraid you’ll have to stay?” Pat asked me the night before, and all I could do was gasp, “Yes!”
But I needn’t have worried. All my relatives treated me like a celebrity. They showed up with dog-eared copies of my books and asked me for my autograph. And what was really strange was that they collectively seemed to believe that the moment my first book was accepted for publication, a cloud of amnesia had settled on me. Each and every one of them seemed to believe that I didn’t remember anything about my childhood.
Years earlier, I’d visited them. It was after I’d graduated from college, but before I was published, and that time no one had acted as though I remembered nothing. They didn’t introduce me to relatives who I’d lived with as a kid. They didn’t describe places I’d been to a hundred times. And absolutely no one said, “You won’t remember this, but…”
But after I was published, they did. My cousin Noble talked to me as though he’d just met me that morning, and after a couple of hours, I began to wish he’d call me “Buick” as he did when we were kids.
He introduced me to Uncle Clyde as though I’d never met the man. I gave Noble a look he ignored, then made an exaggerated little speech about how I most certainly did remember Uncle Clyde. “Imagine that,” the old man said. “Imagine somebody famous like you rememberin’ me.” I smiled, but I wanted to say, “I have a scar on the back of my calf from where you hit me with your belt buckle so I’m not likely to forget you.” But I didn’t say that.
Noble put his arm around my shoulders and led me away. “You have to forgive Uncle Clyde,” he said quietly. “He lost one of his children a few years back and he ain’t been the same since.”
Again I looked at Noble as if he were crazy. After Cousin Ronny drowned, Noble and I and four other cousins lit a bonfire in celebration. Noble said he’d had black eyes since he was four years old, all given to him by Cousin Ronny. I—the creative one—had made a big turtle out of rocks, mud, and sticks, and we’d all pretended to worship it in thanks for taking Cousin Ronny out of our lives.
So when Noble told me about Uncle Clyde’s great grief as though it were news, I was sure he was joking.“And we’ve got the turtle god to thank for that,” I said under my breath.
Noble looked at me as though he didn’t know what I was talking about.
“The turtle god,” I said.“Remember? We gave thanks for that turtle that bit Cousin Ronny and—”
Dropping his arm from around my shoulders, Noble straightened his back. “I don’t know anything about that.”
It was like that all day. By late afternoon, after I’d heard that phrase,
“You won’t remember this, but—” for the thousandth time, I was pretty fed up. “Why the hell wouldn’t I remember it?” I snapped at Uncle Reg. “It happened to me. I lived here, remember? I was the Punishment. Me, Ford. Or Chrysler. Or John Deere. Me!”
Pat took my arm and pulled me away from them, and for a while she and I stood under a shade tree so I could calm down. I was grateful that she didn’t try to tell me they were just simple country folk who didn’t understand. Truthfully, I felt it was yet another attempt to exclude me, to make me feel that I didn’t belong. I’d been different when I was a kid and now I was even more of an outsider.
But even more than that I felt they were casting me in a role of their making.“He grew up here but he don’t remember us,” they’d tell people. “He got to be a big star and plumb forgot us.” I wanted people to say, “Even though he made it to the top, he never forgot the little people.” Or something like that. But in spite of the facts, I was being told that now that I was a “celebrity” I’d become a snob.
Pat stood beside me while I tried to get my temper under control, then she said,“Too bad you were such a Goody Two-shoes that you never learned to give any of it back to them.”
“I wasn’t—” I began. “And I didn’t—” It took me a full minute of sputtering to understand what she was really saying. I kissed her forehead and we walked back to where everyone was waiting—and looking concerned about my inexplicable explosion of bad temper. But I guess that’s how celebrities are, their eyes seemed to say.
After my talk with Pat, I was in such a good mood, that I started three fistfights. I knew where the sore spots were in my relatives so I dug at them. I asked Noble whatever happened to that old Pontiac he had and ten minutes later he and another cousin (who’d stolen the car but denied it) were into it.
I asked Uncle Clyde about his beloved son who’d drowned, then I asked him to tell me wonderful stories about the boy, about what good deeds he’d performed, and, by the way, what exactly had Cousin Ronny been doing in the pond that day?
At one point Pat narrowed her eyes at me, telling me I was going too far. But I was enjoying myself too much to stop.
When Pat loudly announced that we had to leave, not one of them suggested that we “come again.” Noble walked me out to the car. “You ain’t changed none, have you?” he said, his eyes angry as he spit a glob that landed a quarter inch to the left of my shoe.
“Neither have you,” I said, smiling broadly. The day before I left for college, Noble and three of his drinking buddies had ridiculed me until I was caught between homicidal rage and tears. I’d stalked off into the woods to escape them. When I went back, just before dark,
I found that they’d run the tractor over my suitcase full of clean, ironed (by me) new (purchased with money I’d earned boxing groceries) clothes.
Uncle Cal had lightly smacked Noble across the back of the head for the “prank,” but he’d made it clear he didn’t think what his son had done was so bad. “Just a little goin’ away present,” he said, smiling. No one had offered to help me rewash and iron my clothes, so I’d had to stay up all night to do it, finishing just in time to catch the bus the next morning—the bus that took me away from the lot of them.
“It was nice seeing all of you again,” I said to Noble, actually meaning it. I’m not sure that getting my first book published had made me feel as good as the second half of that day had.“Listen, Noble,” I said in a friendly way, “if any of the kids want to go to college, let me know and I’ll help with the expenses.”
With that I got into the car and Pat peeled away like she was competing at the local dirt track speedway. When I looked back at Noble, I saw that he was puzzling over my offer. Was I trying to rub it in that he’d told me that only fairy boys went to college? Or was I saying that I was the only one smart enough to get there?
I chuckled on and off for three hours at the consternation on his face. But he must have figured out that I’d been sincere because over the years I sent several of the next generation of my relatives to college. One of them was Noble’s oldest daughter, Vanessa, who ended up teaching at the college level.
“One of your ancestors had a brain,” Pat said. “That’s why intelligence pops out every now and then.”
“Real recessive,” she said, and we laughed together.
All that ended, all the good times ended, when Pat died. I had grown up without a family, found one, and lost it.
Once again, I was alone in the world.