The first step of the most important journey of your life
can seem innocuous, insignificant, ordinary --
the simple act of putting one foot in front of the other.
But this step, when joined with another, and another,
is revealed to be the beginning.
When viewed from a great height,
from the perspective of gods,
this first step starts on a path
from who you are today,
to who your destiny calls you to be.
The resulting zigzag path,
through obstacles, pain, loss,
mourning, redemption and joy,
is really the straightest line imaginable.
But it only looks that way, after all, to the gods.
From a distance, it looked to Grace like any other of the older clapboard houses she'd seen, white but needing paint, nestled in long-growing trees that held it like cupped hands. As she drove closer down the gravel road, however, it became apparent that the trees were more strangling than holding the house, and they were clearly winning the battle. It looked to her almost as if the white siding and roof were being slowly swallowed up by the curling branches, being smothered in their leaves.
As she squinted, the house almost disappeared, and Grace had a vision of how the landscape had looked before the house was built. She could see that nature had been in the process of reclaiming its space by inches for many years, and in a few more, it might not be possible to see the house at all from the driveway along Point San Pedro Road. A few years after that, she thought, and the grove of trees, the vines, tendrils, wildflowers, and weeds would have claimed their final victory.
Who knew, she thought, that this was here? Just three minutes down the road was the freeway, with thousands of commuters rushing past, making their way from the suburbs of Marin County to and from San Francisco, oblivious to this piece of land, this house, and this woman inside it.
Grace herself had been near here often, riding bikes on the path in China Camp State Park with her son Alex. She’d even attended a raucous birthday party in the camping area just up the road, where she’d played volleyball with friends, laughing and drinking beer until the sun went behind the hills and the cold crept in.
So much of her work involved driving obscure neighborhoods and searching for houses, she was surprised she’d never seen this one before. This is a place you could get lost, she thought. She’d almost missed the driveway, and she was looking for it.
Slowing the van near the house, Grace looked closer, and was astonished to see that not only were the trees enveloping the house, there were branches actually growing into the windows, reaching leafy fingers into cracks and pushing through, splintering the wood and disappearing into the house.
It reminded her of Roald Dahl stories she had read as a child, and she could almost see the vines tickling their way around the siding, searching for microscopic cracks and fissures. Or maybe like Disneyland, Grace thought, amazed, as she leaned out of the driver's side window and stared up in wide-eyed wonder. Like the Swiss Family Robinson tree house, with its oversized leaves, artificial and primitively natural at the same time.
This would never fly in Idaho, she thought, recalling the cold winters as she was growing up, the wind would be whistling through the walls. But today the clear late-May sunshine dappled the trees cheerfully and warmed her face.
Grace slowed the van to a stop, turned the key off in the ignition, and just sat, getting a feel for her surroundings. Her years of visits to those in need of home care had given her a sophisticated set of alarms about people's living conditions. Right now, the alarms were beginning to sound. This once was a charming house, she thought. She tried to imagine it new, with the white wire garden dividers shiny and unbent, the flowers tended, the bricks unbroken.
Grace stepped out of the van and stooped to survey herself in the side mirror, as she always did before meeting with a new client. She didn't usually spend a lot of time in front of the mirror, even at home, just long enough for the basics.
“Not too pretty, not too plain,” her mother had said. She thought her hazel eyes were her best feature, large and expressive, with just the hint of laugh lines around them. They tended to change color depending on her emotional state, deep blue when she was feeling gloomy, or a lighter aqua, almost green in passion or in high spirits, but hazel was the neutral color she usually saw in the mirror. She had strong cheekbones and full lips from her father's side of the family, and a round face that seemed to make people comfortable, like they had met her somewhere before. Grace smiled at her reflection, relatively content.
Grace blinked up at the sunshine, taking a deep breath, thinking about the woman she was about to meet, her ritual of opening up her heart. Enjoying the warmth, she leaned back against the van and closed her eyes, turning the black behind her eyelids to yellow-gold. Who really can know another human being? Really know them? Grace knew she was a good person, but she also knew that no one imagined the war that waged inside her. She had once read that if we had a friend who talked to us the way we talk to ourselves, that person would not be a friend for long.
An inner voice spoke to her, cautioning, criticizing, correcting. And all day long, she spoke back, softening, mitigating, reasoning. As she grew older, she had gained the upper hand, but staying positive in the face of a voice that asked so much of her took concentration and vigilance. When she listened carefully, she knew the critical voice was her mother’s, always asking her to be a better person, to have higher ideals, to look prettier. The worst part was that this voice knew who she really was, giving it unfair ammunition.
To the world around her, Grace seemed a very giving, compassionate and loving woman, and she would also define herself in part that way. In part. It was the other part that denied her the full pleasure of people’s compliments, because she knew that there were deep and hidden reasons behind all those outward qualities.
When she searched unflinchingly inside, she realized that when she gave to others, it fed a neediness, some deep well in her that was empty and wanted filling. Her compassion was real and true, but she didn’t direct it to everyone, and she felt somehow if it were genuine, it should be more universal. Her love was also real, but when that love wasn’t mutual, fault needed to be found with its object, so she felt as if she gave her love only on the condition that it was returned.
In short, Grace was moving through the world the best she could, but there was always the worry that she was a bit of a fraud. She had never had the courage to show her full inner self to anyone but her brother Jamie. He understood, and more importantly, he acknowledged that he heard the same voice. He confirmed that it was, in fact, their mother’s voice.
One of the reasons Grace had been so drawn to working with elderly and ill people was her sense that many of them no longer listened to that critical voice inside them because, quite simply, they didn’t have the time. She saw them all as her teachers, and tried by osmosis to gain their sense of the preciousness of each day and the wonder of simply being alive.
Bending again to look in the mirror, her hair was, as always, out of control, with brown and auburn curls moving in all directions. Lately Grace had decided that it was a style of sorts. Windblown, maybe even kind of sensual, like those models you see with their curls flying, as if they were on a tropical beach somewhere, with a bronzed man gazing longingly from just off camera.
I'll have to work on the man part, Grace thought, pushing an escaping tendril of hair off her forehead. She'd been on her own since she'd broken it off with Greg over a year ago. Grace didn't regret it now, although at first she had grieved bitterly at being alone. They'd been together for nearly three years, and in the end they fought about the same things that had been issues at the beginning. Grace loved being in love, but it was a relationship that was destined for failure. Nobody's fault really, just complicated. Better to cut it off and open the door for something new. One of Grace's favorite movies was The Sound of Music, and she often heard Julie Andrews in her sweet, high voice with that killer accent, "Reverend Mother always says when a door closes, a window opens."
Well, Grace thought, as she tried to organize her curls a bit with her fingers, the door is closed, where the hell is the window? It had been a busy year, but she had to admit she was still lonely sometimes. Not willing to settle, but lonely. She did miss the feel of a man's arms around her, but after going out a couple of times on set-up dates, she had opted out. She looked with envy at friends that had married and stayed married. Theirs seemed an uncomplicated life. No introductions of children from a former marriage, no issues with former spouses, no intricate calendars meshing the schedules of Greg’s two children with hers and her son’s. Grace still struggled with the notion that she was a divorced woman. That hadn’t been in her plans at all.
I'm still young. Thirty-three, with a terrific son who would be 15 in three weeks, a thriving business, not half bad to look at, a good personality and great ankles, Grace thought, composing another joke personal ad in her head. Nope, can't do the Singles page. Either it'll happen or it won't, but it'll happen naturally.
Grace touched up her lips with a light rose gloss, straightened her scarf, and smoothed her polo down over her hips. No, not half bad to look at, she told the critical voice even as it pointed out the slight rise of her belly. She walked around to the back of the van, and stopped briefly to straighten the magnetic sign stuck to the side: "Angel's Grace Home Care," a name still too cute by far for her taste, the obvious play on her name created by Greg, whom she wished at the time to please by cooing over how clever it was. The name had outlasted the relationship, and now, "Angel's Grace" was happily ensconced in Yellow Pages ads, letterhead, give-away pens and business cards. Not to mention it now had a brand recognition that made it nearly impossible to change. Still, Grace always thought she would find a new name someday, and wouldn't ruin the van by painting it on.
Grace opened the hatchback, turned and sat on the carpeted interior. She pushed aside Alex's baseball gear, and found what she lovingly called her "nasty bag." This held shoes she would never wear again, and a large man's white work shirt that looked somewhat professional, but actually protected the clothes she wore.
These were items she bought any time she was at a thrift store. There were some houses that required practical dress, and this looked to be one. If the inside of this house looked anything like the outside said it would, when she left after interviewing the occupant she would gingerly place the shoes, the shirt, and her latex gloves into one of the plastic grocery bags that she also kept in the back of her car. On the way in to her own house, Grace would throw the bag into the trash.
Grace didn't think these thoughts with any particular opinion or judgment for those who lived in houses like this. When people are ill, their situations change in tiny increments. The stack of papers or books, the leftover dirty plates, used Kleenex; day by day, things become part of the landscape of the house, and aren't seen anymore by the person living there.
Add to that the fact that people who live alone often have pets that are as elderly as the humans, and they grow incontinent too. With fewer walks available, dogs, especially, find corners of the house as favorites, and the smell of their waste can almost knock you over when you step through the front door. Olfactory nerves being what they are, the person who lives there no longer smells the aromas that have grown by inches around them. As time goes on, without help, the stacks of clutter get larger, until soon the house seems a living, breathing thing.
Grace had visited an elderly gentleman once who actually had great difficulty moving from bedroom to bathroom to kitchen because every spare inch of floor was covered with the accumulation of a long life. Boxes, books, papers, trophies, framed photos, magazines, clothing, typewriters, all stacked in such a way that there was only a narrow path through which he walked, all day, every day. He had seen it for a moment through Grace's eyes, stopped, waved a trembling hand, and said, "I'll go through this someday, it just needs organizing.
Grace truly loved the work she did. She treasured the wisdom of experience that older people had, and most of them wanted to be engaged in conversation. Grace would talk with her clients for hours, learning about their lives, their children and grandchildren, all the places they’d lived, all the jobs they had performed. Many of them had been very successful business owners, executives, and professionals, men and women who were pioneers in their fields. Some spent their lives quietly working in the background, supporting others. They had raised children, buried parents, cared for brothers and sisters. Now they were old, and often felt useless and unseen. The world was passing them by at great speed, and they were alone. Grace saw them, and heard them, and cared for them. This fed her heart. And the critical voice spoke the truth in her head, that she was putting the hours in the bank, in hopes that someone would do the same for her when she needed it.
As she pulled the used white running shoes on, she glanced over at the crumbling house.People wait too long to get help at home. Usually it's a combination of money and pride, with disrepair of home, body and soul escalating until it is beyond the power of home health to fix. Those who were lucky enough to have family pooled their resources, finances and time, keeping the thin veil of decency around those who are ill or demented or both. But, because the person's decline has already begun, degeneration of the whole care system of busy people follows, until the last of the family members throw up their hands and say, "I can't do this anymore" and Grace's phone rings.
This particular call had come from one Elizabeth Preston in Washington, D.C., who asked Grace to visit and see what she could do. "My mother won't listen to me, and she's not likely to listen to you, but I have to ask you to try."
Latex gloves near at hand in the pocket of her slacks, Grace stepped gingerly onto the dilapidated steps leading up to the porch, which at some distant time was cheerfully whitewashed. The cracked pots of long dead plants sat askew among fallen tree pods that left neat outlines on the old wood. Dirt had piled in mounds from wind and rain, and a line of ants moved in orderly single file from one dirt mound to the other side of the porch. Grace saw countless gossamer webs tremble in the breeze, lit by the stripes of sunlight that fell across them.
The screen door was torn at the top left corner, and hung, caked with rust and filth in a long V down almost to the bottom of the door jamb, exposing a suspiciously discolored, but formerly brass, handle on the door. Grace's finely tuned nose searched for the usual vile smells that accompanied visits to houses that looked this way: urine, feces, vomit, rotting food, not to mention the inherent smell of old and unkempt walls and floors teeming with mold and mildew.
It's a glamorous job, but somebody's got to do it, she thought with a crooked smile, reaching for the chain attached to what looked to be an old ship's bell next to the door. Seeing more rust, and something slightly green and mossy on the chain, she thought better of it, and put her hand instead into her pocket for the gloves. She never visited a house without them, but usually she didn't feel a need to put them on quite this soon.
Surprisingly, as she put her hand into the cool, powdery slickness of the glove, she didn't smell anything but the mustiness of the porch, dirt, weathered wood, and the sweetness of the flowers that bloomed voluptuously through missing boards above her head. Reaching for the chain with a now-gloved hand, Grace started at a movement and a rustle from her left, behind the tattered, grimy, blue-striped cushion that leaned up against what used to be a porch swing.
Oh god, not rats. Please not rats. Grace moved quickly to the other side of the porch, ready to bolt to the van at the first sight of whiskers or tail. Looking closely, she did see whiskers peeking around the cushion, but their owner had a very pink triangular nose.
Cat, she thought, relieved.
Grace was amazed, as she spent more and more years doing this kind of work, how true the stereotype was of elderly, ill women with cats all over the house. She supposed the fact that felines are relatively self-sufficient, easy to keep fed, and prolific in their reproduction accounted for the number of them she'd seen populating home sickrooms and surrounding deathbeds. Last year, she had actually watched an ancient woman slip from life petting her cat, and Grace had known that she need not even keep track of the woman's pulse, because the hand on the cat told her all she needed to know. As the woman faded toward death, her clawed and transparent hand moved more and more slowly through the cat's sleek fur, until her movements were infinitesimally small, and when she stopped, the cat got up, walked to the old woman's face, and sniffed at her nose. Looking for breath, Grace supposed. Not finding any, the cat stretched luxuriously, then gave one rub across her companion's sunken, still, pale cheek to say goodbye, and hopped off of the bed.
Grace thought it a lovely goodbye, much less noisy and complicated than many she had seen.
Tentatively, Grace moved back across the porch toward the swing. Much can be learned from family members about the state of health of the patient, she heard herself saying to her aides. Well, she didn't see any other family members around, and the cat might give her a clue of what she would see inside.
Grace expected that the cat would be as ragged and mangy as the house itself, and kept her gloves on. She knew that cats can carry a surprising number of diseases, and although the latex gloves wouldn't really protect her from a scratch, they made her feel a little better about holding something that lived in this house. Making a soft clicking sound with her tongue, Grace pursed her lips with the traditional Here, kitty, kitty. Expecting fearful reluctance, she almost jumped when the cat walked out like a princess, wound itself around her ankle and rubbed her calf, purring. To her amazement, this cat was extraordinarily beautiful.
Sensing no danger, Grace pulled off the latex glove and let it smell her hand. The cat was sleek, mostly shiny deep black, with a ruff of pure white at the neck, the ears, the belly, and half of her Abyssinian face. She looked up at Grace with Egyptian amber eyes, the color and clarity of topaz. The cat seemed almost to bat her eyelashes.
Pleasantly surprised, Grace scooped the cat up and scratched her gently behind the ears. As she looked for a collar or tag and found neither, the cat began to purr loudly. Laughing softly, Grace purred back aloud in wonder, "Well, aren't you a pampered pussycat?"
Abby Delaney looked at the streaks of sun spiking across the wooden floor of the bedroom, and wondered what time it was. The question barely had time to register when another pain hit, and it didn't matter what time it was, or what day it was, or who she was. All that mattered was that she was a tiny speck inside the constellation of this pain in her belly.
She let out a wail that brought son and husband running, asking her again, "What can we do, Ab?" Jamie's worried 4-year-old eyes asking, "Mama, are you dying?"
Abby's reply, through clenched teeth, "No, baby, I'm just making you a brother or a sister."
And to her husband, "Ben, I think it's time to go, can we go?"
Four hours later, give or take, Grace Jean Delaney came into the world. She was born in the Kootenai County Hospital in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, but her home was down the winding road that followed Lake Coeur d'Alene to St. Maries, population 1,800, also give or take.
Grace's first name was in honor of her mother's political heroine, Gracie Bowers Pfost (“Post, like the Post Office" Abby would say), the first woman U.S. Representative from Idaho, a feisty Democrat who fought for the rights of the people, and, who, for all of her five years in office, wrote personal congratulatory notes to each high school graduate in her district, and sent a childcare book to all new parents.
Grace's mother, Abby, a Democrat and a passionate political activist in St. Maries, had been one of the awed recipients of that book when Grace's brother had been born, and had worshipped Pfost ever since. She always said that if she had a little girl, she would name her Grace, so it was a foregone conclusion when the doctor caught the plump, pink, howling baby that this was Grace coming into the world.
Her middle name was an homage to Jean Arthur who, Abby would tell anyone who would listen, was Jimmy Stewart's girlfriend in "Mr. Smith Goes To Washington," the elegant, high-pitched, and very beautiful blonde, "with a brain," Abby would say, who was the woman behind the man who changed politics back to how they should be. At least in the movies.
So Grace had something to live up to, from her very first minute, but "Not," she was fond of saying, "as much as my brother, James Stewart Delaney."
Her father, Ben, would have liked to name her Edith Louise Delaney after his mother and his aunt, but unless they ran for office, he knew that was unlikely to happen. Ben didn't win many of the fights in the household, and there were plenty of them. By the time Grace made her appearance, he had all but given up.
She loved to curl in his lap like a cat, with her nose deeply buried in his flannel shirt, making the smell of pipe tobacco her life's breath. He secretly called her "Edie," their private joke they kept from her mother. It made Grace feel special and grown up to have a secret like that, and they would laugh behind their hands and steal glances at each other when Abby wasn't looking.
She loved her mother in the way small children love their mothers, but her mother had the Library Council, and the Fund For The River, and her "Circle," the ladies with hats who would come for lunch and talk about something called the Plan Of The Cosmos. Even when she was very young, Grace felt that her mother was too complicated to have children. So complicated and so busy that it was nearly impossible to bond with her. Later in life, Grace and Jamie talked about the strength of the force field Abby kept about her, and how little it conducted warmth.
In great contrast, Grace’s father liked to laugh. Grace could always make him laugh, and that made her happy because it made her feel useful and necessary to the household. Ben painted signs for a living, and he had converted what had been an old slat-walled garage into a studio of sorts. The light was good in the morning, so he and Grace would start their day early in a cloud of smoke from his pipe, with the reek of turpentine and oil paints as phrases like "Village Restaurant, Next Left," "Double Stamps on Saturdays," and other literary masterpieces came to life under his brush.
Grace couldn't believe how steady his hand was. The lines he painted looked like they had been snapped with a chalk line, not drawn freehand. Her childish hand wavered and zigzagged the paint on her brush as she tried painstakingly to copy him on the small easel he had made for her to stand next to his.
"Jamie hasn't the patience," Ben would say, but "you, Edie, you're a real artist." He would look down at the scrawls she made on the scraps of plywood left over from his signs and say "You keep at it, you'll be another Van Gogh." Edie Van Gogh, he called her, then their secret laugh, shushing each other as Abby called them to the house for lunch.
Her father loved to make terrible puns. Once when they were doing the dishes together and she was drying a fork, he whispered in her ear, "I saw what the Lone Ranger had on, but what did silverware?" Grace would stop, and think, and then her funny bone would be tickled, and she would burst into a fit of giggles.
He had the longest arms she could imagine, she thought if he reached one up it could touch the ceiling, and the other down, it would graze the floor. She would ask him to, and he'd laugh that deep bellows laugh and scoop her up on his shoulder. This could be a dangerous proposition, as he was 6'6" and had to duck through doorways in their old house as it was, but he always kept her safe. She believed he always would.
Grace held the cat gently in the crook of her arm while she reached out to knock on Mrs. Preston's door.
"Well, no time like the present, Princess, let's see if anyone's home."
She rapped firmly with her right hand on the peeling wood. Listen, purr, rap again, this time, louder. Nothing.
"Mrs. Preston? It's Grace Delaney from the Agency. Elizabeth asked me to stop by and visit you." Still nothing. In the silence that followed, she noticed now that the trees above her were alive with the sounds of birds, which led her thoughts eerily to the Hitchcock movie.
Grace had the fleeting vision that the woman was dead inside, puffing up peacefully, with another twenty cats curiously circling her body, nipping at fingers. No, Grace, she thought, pushing the picture out of her mind, Just a horrible story I read once, about cats that fed on their dead owner until someone finally came looking. Despite the warmth on the porch, Grace shivered.
This place kind of gives me the creeps. Not death, because death was a natural part of life in the home care business. Grace had seen so many people die in her 33 short years, all ages, all states of mind. Some raged, some went gently, mindfully, making plans, some heartbreakingly alone, some with family all around. Each met death in an individual way, and each left an imprint on Grace. It was a privilege that she didn't take lightly. It was particularly hard with children, in part because they were usually so accepting of it, and so sweet. Adults see the death of children as a tragedy, because there's so much they will never see and do. But children don't know all they're missing, they only know now, today.
To Grace, every child lost made her appreciate again her strong Alex. Each time she experienced a client’s death, she was thankful for the health of her wonderful, tall, robust son. After hard days, Grace would sometimes hold him tightly as he walked in from school, and he would know why, hugging her back with a wisdom and understanding that astounded her.
No, the creepiness here was not death. Grace had a sixth sense about the presence of death. She stood, eyes closed, trying to feel what was wrong, but couldn't. Nothing seemed obviously wrong here, no "disturbance in the Force," as Alex would say.
When she opened her eyes, though, her wariness returned, and she found herself examining the canopy of leaves around her, feeling vaguely watched. She set the cat down on the one miraculously clean spot just to the right of the door. Grace knocked again, then waited a beat. No sound. Elizabeth's mother was probably asleep, or playing possum.
Well, I have some paperwork to do anyway, maybe I can outwait her. Grace moved back to the van, sat in the passenger seat, pushed the seat all the way back, and used her briefcase as a desk. She had just come from taking another case history, and had some notes to make before she forgot them. Turning the key in the ignition, Grace leaned over and pushed the button to raise the side windows. She told herself the breeze blowing through the windows was a little chilly, but the truth was that she felt strangely safer.
Get a grip, Grace, she thought, pen paused in mid-air, listening. Nothing but buzzing and rustling and the slow creak of a loose board in the breeze. The van was cooling now, and the click-click-click of contracting metal was the only artificial sound she could hear, not even a noise from the road, although China Camp was bustling with hikers and bicycles at this hour on a Friday. Grace closed her eyes again, feeling a little more at peace.
Probably playing possum. It wouldn't be the first time, nor the last.
Most older people resented the need for help, having cared for themselves for significantly longer than Grace had been alive, thank you very much. Any home health worker with more than a few jobs under their belt knew this, and if it was effusive gratitude they wanted, they were in the wrong place.
To many patients, this stranger comes into their house, touches their things, makes their schedules for them, tells them when to use the bathroom for God's sake, cooks food they don't like, and never, ever, leaves them alone. People get cranky, Grace thought, understandably so. They don't feel well, and now they don't even seem to own their lives anymore.
The best of Grace's people were those who could find goodness even under these circumstances, and whose compassion for their "ladies" and "gentlemen" was ingrained and forgiving. After all, if a patient were really easy to deal with, family members could usually take turns and save the money.
Grace made another page of notes in her extravagant round hand. She stretched long legs all the way to the front of the van floor, and looked at her watch. 2:20. Alex had a baseball game at 3:00 in Mill Valley, twenty minutes away, and she had his equipment in the back. Just wasn't meant to be, she thought. She decided to knock again, and if no one answered, she'd take one quick turn around the house, and go. Stepping carefully back up to the porch, she knocked loudly on the door.
"Mrs. Preston? It's Grace Delaney from Angel's Grace." She waited a beat, then sighing, turned to go. She almost stepped on the princess, and had to catch her balance by grabbing a weathered post by the stair.
"Shit! Ouch!" Grace held the wounded hand out. She could see at least four separate splinters that had made their way under the skin, and was grateful again for her regular tetanus shots.
"Hasn't anyone ever told you it's not nice to sneak up on people?" she said crossly, looking down. Obviously not, Grace thought, as the cat resumed its purring, moving back and forth across her white slacks. Tempted to suck on her splintered and throbbing fingers, Grace resisted. I'll wait until I'm at the game and can disinfect and tweeze. Blowing cool air on them instead, she peered around the porch.
What if she's around back? I'm being silly. Trying to shake off her earlier trepidation, Grace walked cautiously down the stairs and into the jungle, moving around as closely as she could to the house. Should have brought my machete, Grace thought. Then, coming face to face with a particularly nasty vine, Or the chainsaw. Maybe this wasn't such a good idea. Grace’s toes began to sink into the ground under her feet. No crackling of leaves, just soft and spongy, decomposed, musky and smelling of rich, moist earth.
Grace moved slowly around the side of the house. The windows were boarded up with weathered two-by-fours in Xs across two sets of greasy panes that were at least intact over indescribably filthy and leaf-covered sills. No visible lights, not that she would be able to see any through what looked like thick, dark orange curtains inside. The sun is cheerfully shining everywhere but here, she thought. Here it feels like being in a leafy, sodden cave. The temperature under the canopy of trees was significantly lower than it had been on the porch.
The cat had followed her, clearly enjoying the company, but Grace had just a touch of claustrophobia. Fueled by a very good imagination, and too many scary movies watched breathlessly with Alex, she felt the creeping vines starting to close in on her. The feeling of dread returned, prickling down her spine. Suddenly, a cold drip from the tree above slithered down the back of her neck, and Grace wheeled around.
"That's it. Done my duty. I'm outta here, Princess," she said firmly and quite out loud.
Moving swiftly back around to the front of the house, Grace made her way straight to the van. She would have liked to take off the shoes that had brought long-dead leaves and God-knows-what-else on them, but she didn't seem able to stop long enough to make the switch. All she could think about was getting out to the road. Grace felt that she had stepped back in time somehow, as if she might get out to the end of the driveway and find that the road, and the freeway, and the world, no longer existed.
In fact, she found herself peering anxiously as she neared the end of the drive and emerged from the trees growing there. As a car whizzed past, she felt an intense, illogical gratitude for the familiar sight. Grace pulled out on to Point San Pedro Road, and suddenly realized that she had been holding her breath for quite some time.
His eyes were all that could be seen of him from his hiding place in the trees. The trees were his home, much more than walls and a floor could be. He had painted his face for the other war, and now he painted his face for this war, this holy war.
He heard the van's engine as it moved closer. He could wait forever. He was born to wait. He could crouch here in the shadows of the trees and wait until the perfect time.
He looked down at the stub of pencil and the small spiral pad he had taken out of his camouflage shirt pocket. He'd been able to write half of the words from the side of the van as it drove down to the house. Now he wrote the rest. Home Care. Angel’s Grace Home Care.
Who were these people, that thought they could do God's work? He was astounded they weren't vaporized on the spot.
He was aware that his thoughts sometimes strayed from perfection, but he knew where he could always find the answers, the words written for just that reason, for help in the hard times.
He watched as the van drove up the gravel toward the road. Another one. Another who will listen to the stories and believe. Another one that must be saved.
He'd wait and see, though. He was waiting for one of them to strike her down. That would be best, for one of her own to strike her down. He could do it so easily, just move his hands like this, so strong. He could see the veins bulge on the backs of his hands as he closed his eyes, he could see the strength in his hands as he wrapped them around her neck, and twisted.
Simple, really. He'd already done it many times.
But that would be wrong. It needed to be one of her own.
"Jamie, it's 7:40! If you don't get moving, we'll miss the bus!"
Grace finished her toast and grabbed her book bag to stand at the door and wait for her brother. Always the little mother, she was definitely the organized one.
At 13, Jamie was at best called "creative" and at worst, well, she wasn't quite sure about all the things she heard. According to her mother, St. Maries was a small town, and "if people don't know your business, they know someone who does."
When she asked Abby a question, the answer would always be, "Use your brain, get a dictionary, go to the library, be empirical!" She had wanted to ask what “empirical” meant, but felt that might start one of those circular Abby arguments that only ended with her mother saying, "I don't want to live in a world where children can't think for themselves."
So she had dutifully gone to the school library at lunch and looked up “empirical.” "Derived from or guided by experience or experiment," she read. Which means, 'find out for yourself,' she sighed. Grace had learned to do just that and not ask many questions of adults.
Asking her father a question, any question, tended to make him pull thoughtfully on his ubiquitous pipe as he stared off in space contemplating the universe, finally expelling a huge burst of air and smoke like a balloon deflating, and emitting some variation of "have you asked your mother?"
The more she thought about it, her father did remind her of a balloon with a small leak. Actually at his size, she supposed with a sigh, it would be more like a blimp. There was no longer a lap to curl into, so she contented herself to sit at his feet, her chin cupped in her hands on his great soft knee.
His red leather chair seemed to have gotten smaller and smaller as she had grown older, and now she could hardly see the neat row of metal buttons along the arm, and the small burn holes around where he used to keep his ashtray before his bulk pushed it to the side table. She loved him so much, and she worried. She thought if he kept blowing up and leaking, soon she would come in to his study and find nothing but the stretched-out remains of him, empty and limp like a week-old birthday balloon.
Ben loved to say, "My ship's coming in, over the horizon. I can see the smoke from the stacks!" Grace loved these stories, because her father became animated, hopeful, excited. Inevitably, though, after weeks or months of an idea had run its course, Ben would heave a sigh, deflating, "Well, Edie, that smoke I saw on the horizon was my ship alright, but it's burning and sinking into the sea." He smiled when he said it, but each time, Grace thought she saw a piece of him break off and float away.
There was always something that was going to make the Delaneys their millions. This week, it was a new gadget they had seen at the County Fair for strengthening stomach muscles. It looked like a lawn chair gone bad, and he had Grace get on it, holding tight to the top bar and bending inward, then outward in the middle. Grace had to admit it felt kind of good, but she didn't feel any stronger, really.
Ben hadn't been able to let it go, though. The man in the booth had given her father a large pile of papers, and Ben said they just had to get the "seed money" together, and they could do what he was doing, making lots and lots of money selling the contraptions. Grace had mentioned that they had been there for hours, and no one had bought one, but Ben waved that away, "You gotta have faith, Edie. Spend money to make money!"
Grace had heard her mother and father fight for years, but this new idea brought on some whoppers. Little by little, the furor died down, until Ben only talked to Grace about his ideas. "Our little secret, Edie. We'll make the money, and then maybe we'll give some to your mother."
He still painted, and she still joined him at her ever-taller easel, but some part of him was disappearing day by day, and she couldn't seem to bring it back for him. She could still make him laugh, but it was a distant chuckle, almost as if he laughed from memory instead of at the thing she said now.
What made Grace angry was that she thought Abby was the one taking the pieces of him. She felt her mother's sharpness was chipping away at her father, and as he grew larger in body, he seemed to grow smaller in spirit. What will happen, Grace thought, when he's gone completely? She wanted to protect him from her mother somehow, but felt small and inadequate, like the gray mouse she saw scurrying through the barn. Sometimes she would actually try to stand between her father and her mother when the fights were really bad, as if she could absorb or reflect some of the pain that passed between them.
Grace looked at her watch. 7:46. She yelled up the stairs again for Jamie, "We're going to be late!" According to everything she had read, it was supposed to be the ladies who take the longest getting ready, How come I'm always the one waiting for him while he looks in the mirror?
Grace heard Jamie upstairs, singing "Ooooh, nooooone knows what goes on behind closed doors," along with Charlie Rich. She leaned against the inside of the front door and studied the uneven shine of her scuffed black shoes, frowning. Jaynee Campbell had given her something on Tuesday that she had gotten from her brother. After school Jaynee had thrust a magazine roughly under Grace's arm as she walked home making a zigzag path, concentrating to avoid cracks. Grace had started, frightened, and looked up to see Jaynee, eyes narrowed and wild, her face flushed.
"Read that, Miss Smarty, that will tell you all about your perfect brother!" Grace knew that Jaynee had an unrequited crush on Jamie, but Grace thought Jaynee just liked how their names sounded together. Truth was, it used to be simply "Jane" Campbell, but suddenly this year the "y" and the "ee" appeared, and along with the new letters and pronunciation, a meanness of spirit that Grace liked less and less.
Without looking at it, Grace had scowled and poked the magazine into the pocket of her book bag. She had known from instinct that this was something you shouldn't look at on the street in front of God and everybody, so she walked calmly home as if nothing were different, walked slowly up the stairs, locked the door to her room, and then breathlessly threw herself on her bed with the magazine. The cover told her all she needed to know. It had bold thunderbolts hovering dangerously above the words "Motorcycle Boys."
Two young men, older than Jamie, but muscular and beautiful in the same way as Jamie, with sleeveless shirts ragged as if they had been ripped, their skin the identical tanned brown, shiny with oil or sweat, entwined, oblivious to the camera or to her wide, moist eyes, with their lips just touching, barely a whisper of a kiss, but so much power in their bodies, like rubber bands ready to release…
She had heard the crunch of the gravel below then, and shoved the magazine between mattress and box spring, suddenly panting and sweating as if she had run a very long way. She lay curled on her bed, hearing the sound of her mother starting dinner with the familiar clang of pots and pans.
I knew it already, she thought. Jamie is special, different. She didn't even need to ask him. And instead of hurt or anger, disillusionment or disgust, she felt proud in a way. He's brave enough to be different, and I'm just an ordinary mouse.
Grace had uncurled then, and rolled over with her hands behind her head. In between stains on the ceiling, she could imagine Jamie in the picture on the front of the magazine. She saw him strong and invincible, like a knight on a horse, or a motorcycle, and knew that she would stand by him for as long as she lived. She could feel special next to his specialness, because, after all, he only had one sister, and it was her.
This wasn’t the first time she’d heard it. There were whispers around St. Maries, and there was little enough to talk about as it was. Jaynee had been particularly snide in her intimations. Lying there, her cheeks flushed, Grace tried to imagine her beloved Jamie doing the things that Jaynee said he did. What does Jaynee know? She said that our parents do it too, and how could my father even do that? My mother wouldn't let him, for God's sake.
The thunder of her brother coming down the stairs pulled her back to the task at hand, making the bus. 7:50. She lifted her wrist right up under his nose so that he could see the dial on her pink Pretty Pony watch. She gave him her best "Humph" look.
"Come on Graciela, we'll be late!" he teased, enveloping her in his arms dramatically, and pulling her out the door. As he adjusted the scratchy wool scarf around his neck, he stopped to turn and look at her.
"You're such a little worrier," Jamie said, more seriously. "It's all going to be OK, you know, one way or another." She tilted her head and looked skeptically at her wonderful big brother.
"One way or the other, Graciela, one way or the other."
Grace wound along Point San Pedro Road with the sparkling San Francisco Bay on her left. She could see the Richmond Bridge clearly from here, swooping close to the water, and then rising up to allow boats to pass under, its surface dotted with the rapid movement of cars and trucks. She had decided to take the longer way to the baseball game in Mill Valley, to clear her head.
She would make Alex's game with about ten minutes to spare. She could already hear him, and already regretted how it would make her feel. "Mom, you've got my stuff, how was I supposed to get warmed up? It sucks that you always have to work." But she needed the time, and it was just a few minutes longer than the freeway. As she negotiated the curves on the narrow road caught between hills and water, she tried to put her finger on what she was really feeling. Why did I get so spooked by that house?
Someone walking on my grave. Silly phrase. Abby used to say that when she got a shiver down her spine. She always added the "silly phrase," at the end, to show anyone listening that she didn't really believe what she was saying, but Grace knew a part of Abby felt it.
Right now, as she often did, Grace tried to imagine her mother in the seat next to her, encountering life with her, chatting, open, compassionate. She smiled at the empty passenger seat and struggled to conjure a mother like that. What would she say, what would she think, how would she react? Grace was aware of how little she knew of her mother’s feelings. Opinions, she definitely knew. Feelings were harder to invoke.
But as Grace rescued a stray curl from the wind of the open window and tucked it safely behind her ear, she remembered the frequent questions from Abby when she was a child. A question in response to a question. Her mother’s view that it was the best way to solve problems for children, because it forced them to expand their minds. What would Abby say? What are you most afraid of? What’s the worst that could happen? Grace’s mother could apply these questions to any situation, from whether to read Hemingway or Fitzgerald for a book report, straight through to the contemplation of death. In Abby’s world, nearly everything had an underlying fear to conquer, and the measure of a person rested on how firmly they stood up to it and how little they complained.
Grace reached over to turn on the radio, but after methodically punching in her six saved stations, switched it off again, unsatisfied. She had to admit she had been feeling a restlessness lately, an amorphous buzzing like the impatience she felt in her muscles after too-strong coffee. She recognized the feeling. As she traced it down through her life, she knew that each time it foretold a bend in the path, a change in circumstances. Not always good, not always bad, but different. She knew she could meet the changes in an attitude of struggle or resignation, but they would nonetheless come.
And what was it now? What had the house and its unseen occupant stirred in her? What are you most afraid of? Grace breathed deeply of the sea air moving through the Bay, and into her mind came a single word. Disconnectedness. Worry, perhaps, that she was seeing her own future, with an only child successful and far away, a phone call made to a stranger, the motionless pretense inside as the knock on the door is heard. Not death, but what was infinitely worse than death. Empty life.
Abby's mother, Ethelyn, was a very distant memory for Grace, because she died when Grace was only 9, but she had always called Grace "a sweet soul." Grace had asked everyone she could think of what a "soul" was, but everyone's answer was different. Later, at her empirical best, she had looked it up in Webster's, and there were 14 definitions, so even Webster seemed confused.
The one she liked best was, "the emotional part of human nature; the seat of the feelings or sentiments." The other end of the spectrum, and well into the eerie was "the disembodied spirit of a deceased person, as in: He feared the soul of the deceased would haunt him." How a word could mean such diametrically opposite things as human life and disembodied death was a mystery to Grace, and she had let it go without a full understanding. She took comfort in the fact that her grandmother had named her a "sweet" soul.
When Grace was older, Abby had told her that Ethelyn belonged to the Science of Mind church, and was a Family Counselor. "Way ahead of her time," Abby had said. Grace looked up "Science of Mind," and found out that some of it was inspired by the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson.
She had gone on a jag in high school, reading everything Emerson had written. How everything is made of the same thing, with no "outside me" and "inside me," including the soul. If you change your thoughts, you can change your life. These were powerful ideas, soothing to the angst of a teenager. Grace felt less like a mouse, and created a patchwork of the beliefs that resonated.
As she drove, Grace thought about her grandmother. A minister. How compelling must a faith be to devote your life to it? To receive the call? Grace thought. Faith and religion were sensitive subjects in Grace's work. Because people wanted more and more to die at home, she was often asked to perform tasks and have discussions that tested her ability to remain neutral.
Grace loved nature, and felt that her own church was there. She saw God in everything around her, the intricacy of a spider web, the veins in a leaf, the power of the ocean, the smell of fresh sap, the songs of birds, the taste of a pine nut right from the cone. She had seen God when she looked into Alex's eyes for the first time on the day he was born. She had no question that there was a higher power. The way Grace could best describe her faith and her feelings about organized religion was "live and let live." She supported whatever beliefs people had, as long as it didn't hurt anyone.
She started having strong opinions when others felt the need to convert her to their beliefs, and she had been asked more times than she could count if she had been "saved" by well-meaning Christians, born again and bound to share it. There was the passion in their eyes, to be sure, but underlying was a combination of pity for the fiery end that awaited Grace if she failed to see the light, and the often unapologetic air of superiority of the wise leading the ignorant.
She was caught once with her guard down, opening the door to two earnest, blonde young proselytizers in ties, starched white shirts and brown shoes with the soles worn down with crusading. In the middle of fixing dinner after a challenging day, she felt assaulted by the familiar, “Ma’am, have you accepted Jesus as your personal Savior?” She tried her usual, “I have my own relationship with God, thank you for coming,” and a firm move to close the door. These two were not to be swayed by that ploy of the Devil, and thought to trip her up by asking, “Could you explain what that relationship is?” To which she replied, with mounting anger, “Well, then it wouldn’t be a personal relationship, would it, gentlemen?” as she closed the door with more force than necessary. Her last glimpse of them told her everything of their feelings for the tragic loss of her soul.
Grace did her best to steer clear of any discussions about religion, but sometimes it was thrust upon her. She had once been asked to read the Bible to a nearly comatose patient as she sat with her. Grace loved parts of the Bible, and especially the language of it, but this particular family wanted only Revelation, fire and brimstone, the end of the world. As she read of the torment, the gnashing of teeth, tribulation, anguish, "no rest day or night," she wondered, with rising sadness, how this could possibly help someone move away from life with any peace. Grace had asked for a reassignment. Sometimes it just wasn't a good fit.
As she looked out over toward the Bay, she caught sight of a large coast live oak tree, its canopy spreading luxuriously, and she was reminded of one of her favorite patients when she was an aide.
Andrew was a gay man, in the final stages of AIDS, suffering from kidney failure and a number of other problems. He had decided he wanted to die at home. His life partner, Glen, had died three months earlier. Grace was taking the night shift, 10 p.m. to 10 a.m. with Andrew, and he often had trouble sleeping, so they talked long into the night.
He loved to watch old videos of himself in which he and Glen pretended he had a cooking show. Glen would set up the camera, then go to the piano and be the announcer, while playing a cheerful theme song that had the sound of a 1950's game show. Finally, with a dramatic musical flourish, he would say, "And now, ladies and gentlemen, for your dining pleasure, here's Cooking With Andrew!" Glen wielded the camera while Andrew went through a recipe, telling stories and sharing ideas, until he had created Beef Wellington, or Mom's Apple Pie From Scratch, or some other culinary masterpiece.
Grace loved watching the videos with him, seeing him whole, his hair strong and healthy, his eyes bright, smiling, laughing, hearing Glen in the background in hysterics over a dropped spoon in the pot. These were clearly two people very much in love with each other and with life. They had been together for 22 years when Glen died. Grace wished she had known them.
She looked over at the sunken figure beside her, staring at the screen with his face gripped in a mask of pain and remoteness, watching himself as if it were someone else's life he watched, perhaps a beloved younger brother. He would murmur comments, like "that soufflé fell right after we turned off the camera, it was still delicious," or "we made love that night after eating that salmon." Though Grace knew they were happy memories, Andrew never smiled.
One very early morning, she was reading by the soft light of a lamp, next to his bed as always, when she heard a timid, strangled question in the dark. When she looked at him, he had wet streaks falling straight down the side of his face, into the downy fuzz that was all he had left of his hair.
"Gracie, what if I'm just a piece of meat?"
Grace wasn't sure she understood what he meant, until she saw the tortured look on his face, and realized he was asking the question that was so many questions: Why am I here, Where do I go, What was the reason for all this?
Not meaning to be evasive, she wanted to find out how he felt about it before she answered. The people she sat with had such an amazing diversity of beliefs, and this was not the time to be arguing about cosmic issues. This was the time to be soothing and comforting and offer peace.
"Do you believe that?” She asked him gently.
The tears started to fall in rivulets, and she tucked a corner of the sheet up to catch them. "I d-don't know."
Grace moved the rail of the hospital bed up and released it, pulling it down out of her way. She leaned in very close to Andrew's ear, and placed her warm hand over his cold, emaciated one. She began to whisper to him as he sobbed.
"I have never seen anyone cook like you do. When you smile, you light up the room. You have a wonderful capacity to love. You make me laugh. You have good and faithful friends who bring you food, and write you profound cards. You had an extraordinary man in love with you for 22 years. I love being with you. You’re an incredible person, with a sweet soul." The last was true, but it was also in homage to Ethelyn, because hearing it had made Grace feel so good when she was little.
Grace let him think a moment, then whispered, "Have you ever said those things about a piece of meat?"
Andrew laughed shallowly, but with genuine mirth, through his tears, "Well, there was this prime rib once that was really good."
Grace laughed too, and laid her head near his shoulder on the bed. They talked then, about God and death, and how he wanted to be remembered. She wasn't sure if his question was answered, but he slept soundly far into the afternoon. As he was getting sleepy, he said, "Thank you, Gracie."
Grace kissed him on the cheek and said, "You're welcome. Just do me a favor, will you?"
He looked up at her and said, "Anything. What?"
"When you get there, will you give me a little nudge? Just to let me know that you're OK?" Grace wasn't sure exactly what she was asking, but she realized that very soon, he was going to have all the answers, and she would still be here, not quite sure.
Andrew smiled weakly, "It might be a kick in the ass, but if I can do it, you'll feel something, I promise."
Less than a week later, Andrew died. When Grace went to his memorial service, at the door she was given a small jeweler’s Zip-lok bag. In it was glitter, with some white, crusty granules, and ashes. The label on the bag said "Put me where you want to find me, and I'll be there. We'll talk. Love, Andrew."
Everyone who walked through the door got one of those little bags, so Andrew was spread all over the world. One took him to Paris, one to the South Seas, one to Japan, and one up in a fighter jet. He sat in beautiful jars on mantles, was taped firmly in an alcove on the Golden Gate Bridge, and rested under the floorboards of a Broadway Theatre in New York. Those were only the ones Grace heard about over the years, and there were many, many more.
About a month after Andrew died, Grace still hadn't decided where she wanted to put his ashes. She went to sleep wondering about it, and had a dream that was so profound, she couldn't explain it to this day.
In her dream, Grace was floating, not in a body, but just as a thought. She was aware of being alone, and then felt herself not alone. On one side, she "saw" Andrew, and on the other, Glen. They were just thoughts, too, but she knew who they were. She felt arms being reached around her, and as they joined, she was melded in with them.
What followed was the most glorious blending of life, spirit, compassion, tears, love, joy, oh, the joy she felt! It was as if her heart and her spirit were as big as the universe and every last inch of it was bursting with the most unimaginable joy.
When she woke right after, she was trembling violently, her skin felt as if it were buzzing, and she imagined she had light emanating from her body. As the feeling subsided, Grace lay in the dark looking at her ceiling, thinking, What the hell just happened?
Tears started to fall as she already missed the completeness of that feeling, already felt the heaviness of her body pulling her back down, already grieved for what she had known for that split second and lost.
In this grief, she thought, or the thought was placed, This is what it's like, Gracie. We're together again. This is where we all came from, and this is what you're coming back to. Don't worry.
Kick in the ass, indeed.
That weekend, Grace and Alex took a drive out to Inverness, a quaint seaside town about 45 minutes away where Jamie had a small cabin. They placed Andrew's ashes under an oak tree that stood majestically on a hill looking out to nothing but the vast Pacific. From there they could hear the crash of the surf, and smell the clean air that came across so many miles of blue, clear ocean.
Grace didn't try to explain her dream to Alex, she just said that Andrew was important to her, and he nodded as she held him close. She went there often and sat under that tree, thanking Andrew for the dream that finally convinced her of what and who she really was.
What gifts they have all given me, Grace thought, as she pulled on to the main road to get to Alex's baseball game. So many people fear death, and the great gift of Andrew's dream had been that. She wasn't afraid.
She had helped quite a number of people through that difficult transition since her dream. And since that night, she’d imagined that was why he’d given her the dream, so that she could help others with a clear understanding of where they were going.
Grace smiled, remembering Andrew, and a favorite phrase of his. “That’s my story, and I’m stickin’ to it…”
Grace started sewing her own clothes after asking for a sewing machine for her 10th birthday. Her first tour de force was a Halloween costume. She was the Lady of the Seven Veils, and the result was so tenuous that she nearly ended up the Lady of Naked and Sent Home From School.
She kept at it, though, and proceeded to a set of mix-and-match tops, jackets, vests, pants and skirts all in red, white and blue sailcloth.
Her father asked at dinner one night, "Is Gracie joining the Navy?" but Grace loved the practicality of it. She could wear something different every day for school, and everything went together, no matter what she pulled out of her closet.
Jamie, at 14, was fascinated right from the beginning, and watched in wonder as she took the lengths of fabric and made things that were stylish or frumpy, elegant or simple. The fabric started out flat and moved into lines that made him feel something, made him want to reach out and pull it here or there to change it, to make him feel something different.
He was smart enough to know that what he felt wasn't acceptable in St. Maries society. He had once confessed his longing for boys to Adam Perkins, and seeing the shocked look on Adam's face, realized that not everyone felt like he did. From then on, he’d kept a wary eye out, and held his thoughts to himself.
Jamie had to tell Gracie, though. The two of them lived in a house with a mother who was much too preoccupied with saving the planet and a father who seemed to spend most of his time on another planet entirely. They were friend, confidante, confessor and absolver for each other, in all things.
On a sunny Saturday in Grace's room, as Jamie watched her pin pattern to fabric, pushing shiny pins with round colored balls on them through and around, the crackle of the paper pattern the only sound in the room, Jamie took a deep breath and said, "I like boys."
Gracie stopped mid-pin, and with a look of such deep love, and an intensity that looked to Jamie as if it had come from a hundred years rather than just ten, she said softly, "I know."
They talked all day while she worked, and he told her everything. Because she had worked it all out for herself in the year since Jaynee had given her that magazine, she was able to accept and hear it all. He felt loved, even honored, not in spite of who he was, but because of who he was.
Jamie was studying the American Indians of the Northwest in school, and when he had said it all, he reached into Gracie's pin box and pulled out a pin with a blue top. He poked his finger and pressed hard until a bright red ball of blood appeared on his fingertip.
Gracie stopped her work and sat close on the bed, took the pin from him and squinched her eyes as she broke the skin on her finger. She squeezed, and there was her blood, looking just exactly like his.
Jamie took her hand, and held their fingers up in front of their eyes, so close that they were almost touching, but not quite. In the sunlight, the balls of blood had little windows in them, and the space between them was no more than a breath.
Gracie's heart beat, and the blood touched, forming in a bridge, so that for an instant, she imagined her heart pushing the blood out of the hole in her finger, across the bridge, and into the hole in his, transfusing.
"I love you, Graciela, and I always will."
As Grace pulled into the parking lot by the baseball field, she shook off the weight of her thoughts about Andrew. No more death. Grace thought, It's a sunny, beautiful day, and my son is playing baseball.
Alex, as she expected, admonished her for being late, and she smiled and said, "Well, I'm here now, and you have your stuff. And I know how glad you are to see me." He tilted his head, giving her the universal look from patient son to exasperating mother and smiled back, then turned and ran off with his bag. "Thanks, Mom!"
Teresa was already there in the stands, holding her son Aaron's jacket, with the ever-present Diet Pepsi in her hands.
"Still out saving the world, Gracie?"
"Not very successfully today, I'm afraid. No one to home but a very beautiful cat."
Grace stepped up through the bleachers and plopped herself down beside Teresa, the mother of Alex's best friend. As she put her hand down on the seat, she felt the pain of the splinters she had gotten from the post at Mrs. Preston's house. Out of her purse, she pulled the small first aid kit she always carried, and set it on the metal seat next to her.
Teresa watched as she opened the small plastic bottle of alcohol and dabbed her fingers with a cotton ball. "Wow, are they fighting back, honey?"
While Grace nursed her hand, expertly pulling each splinter, she described, as best she could, what she’d seen.
"What a trip this house was, Terri," Grace said, as she pulled a Band-Aid tight around the worst of the lacerations. "It was like the house was alive somehow, like it was breathing, you know?"
"Well, all I can say is that it's good to know I'm not the worst housekeeper in Marin County," Teresa snorted. Grace laughed, and felt some of the tension leave her body as she gave herself a little shake.
The echo of the announcer signaled the beginning of the game. Grace absolutely loved Alex's baseball games, despite the hard metal seats, the danger to life and limb and windshields from foul balls, and the lack of any kind of shade.
She had developed a wonderful group of baseball game friends, this gaggle of mostly stay-at-home moms and grandparents, because the weekday games were at 3 p.m. Many who lived in Marin County made the daily trip over to San Francisco to work, and it was hard for those tied to their jobs to make it back over the Bay in time for games.
The Saturday and Sunday games were very different, with whole families making a day of it. On Mother's Day there were always games, and Teresa brought in illegal Mimosas, mostly orange juice lightly seasoned with champagne that they surreptitiously passed down the bleachers and sipped from flower-patterned Dixie cups. The moms got silly and giggly, and the boys shook their heads and whispered behind their hands. Everyone had a grand time.
Alex was a natural athlete. He’d inherited his father's strong build and innate coordination, and Grace had watched games in awe as he calmly went up to bat with two outs, bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth. Why is it always him? she would think, but she knew the answer. It was him because he could take the pressure. Whether he hit a home run, or grounded in a run or two, or struck out, he did it with style.
One Saturday game last year, Alex had slid home and was safe. As he stood up and brushed the dirt off his once-perfectly white pants, he looked toward first base and saw nothing but ball as a late throw pegged him right on the nose. Alex went plunging down to home base, bleeding profusely. Grace didn't know she still had it in her to move that fast. She’d vaulted through the bleachers and was kneeling over him within a few seconds. He could count how many fingers she was holding up, and knew who the President was, so his brain wasn't addled. He also proved he knew a few choice words that Grace had had no idea he’d ever even heard.
His nose was definitely broken, and Grace had packed ice around it with a plastic bag from the snack bar. They rushed over to Marin General in time to get it reset, and Alex wore a nose-guard for the rest of the season. Since Alex was already over six feet at just under fourteen years old, he was pretty imposing anyway, but with a hard black plastic guard that went over his head and ran from cheek to cheek, the other teams started calling him "Darth Vader." Grace had to admit her boy looked pretty terrifying. With his own team shouting, "Use the Force," and the other team just looking scared, Alex stood up and hit the ball like he never had before, the aluminum bat pinging in his hands. This year had been much less dramatic, Grace was happy to say.
Teresa's son Aaron was very much like Alex. They both loved sports, did well in school, and although they had their moments, both were very good kids.
"Over the fence, Aaron!" Teresa yelled so loud right next to Grace's ear that she winced. Aaron looked up at his mom with that peculiar mix of embarrassment and pride that comes with having loud parents.
Grace had always been more comfortable with men than women, but she considered Teresa Butler her closest friend. Teresa shared Grace's intense dislike of shopping, which was practically "unfemale" to most of the women they knew. They agreed that window shopping was a supreme waste of time, getting nails and hair pulled together were necessary evils, and buying clothes by catalog was the best innovation of the last century.
Teresa's husband Ron worked late most evenings, so often while the kids ate pizza and played video games, Grace and Teresa would share a glass, or four, of wine and solve the problems of the universe. Although she had a studied cynical exterior, Teresa had an intelligent metaphysical and philosophic side that Grace enjoyed immensely. She was able to listen, without needing to deflect, while Grace debriefed about death, and illness, and the loss of her clients.
Both Teresa and Grace were convinced that all things happen for a reason, and that people have more power over their situations than most of them use, or even know. Grace had seen, over and over, as people made themselves sick. Less frequently, she had also seen people cure themselves of everything from chronic headaches to cancer by the power of their thoughts.
Grace didn't believe in coincidences. So the fact that Teresa also had a gay brother, whom she loved very much, did not surprise Grace. The fact that Aaron's brother, Pauley, who was six, was regularly snitching jewelry and high heels from his mother's closet, and wearing them to dinner to the great consternation of Ron, had Grace and Teresa in hysterics even before the second glass of wine.
Teresa’s husband Ron was a money broker of some kind. Grace's eyes tended to glaze over when he started talking about it, so she wasn't quite sure what that was, but from the few words she actually registered, it was very important work. As he was all too happy to share, Ron approached his attack on The American Dream the way he would manage a hostile takeover: with precision, skill, and deadly accuracy. The Dream required the house, the lovely wife, and the 2.5 children. He wasn't sure how he was going to manage the .5, "Probably by adoption," Grace mumbled under her breath, which sent Teresa into fits of giggles next to her.
The right car was a silver S Class Mercedes, and he had that. The right house was at the end of a manicured driveway on a quiet, affluent street. The right appliances, including the $5,000 Alfresco gas grill that he never used and would not allow Teresa to light. The right dog, a shiny-coated golden Lab. Teresa had put her foot down at calling the dog Greenspan, and let the boys name him, so they called him Pooch. But to Grace's mind, in the way that a faulty translator can get just a word here or there wrong and change the whole meaning, Ron Butler seemed to have missed the point of The American Dream.
For example, he had the dog, to be sure, but when forced to take the dog out for a morning walk, he did so in an electric golf cart shaped like a Rolls Royce, checking the market on his laptop, with a 16 ounce black coffee in the cup holder. He would inch along, talking on his cell phone, while Pooch dangled behind on the leash attached to the bag holder in the back. The dog puzzled over this for awhile and looked longingly at other owners using feet instead of wheels, but soon realized it was his lot in life, and kept his head down sheepishly. Pooch would finish his business while Ron sat working, then wander around to the side of the cart on his leash, and sit patiently until the cart started moving again.
But to Ron, the important part of the "walk" was that it provided him with the dialogue necessary for The Dream. "You'll never believe what I saw when I was walking the dog this morning...," he would chuckle conspiratorially to his co-workers, and he was one of them, a success.
Teresa took Ron's idiosyncrasies with good humor and an occasional joint. Never around the children, and never around Ron, but infrequently, when she was all alone and knew there was no chance of discovery, she would get stoned. Her brother Gerald had access to medicinal marijuana by virtue of his HIV-positive status, and he would sneak her some now and then.
She told Grace it mostly recalled her carefree days at college, when she and her two roommates had figured their pot costs along with rent and food, as a necessity to life and sanity. She couldn't do it much anymore, because every once in a while, she had the paranoid reaction of spending a few hours thinking she was either going to be arrested or have a heart attack any minute.
Grace and Teresa had talked often about getting Gerald and Jamie together, but it had somehow never happened. It seemed a little forced somehow, "Hey, my brother's gay, your brother's gay, they would probably get along!" In St. Marie's, Grace thought, the two "homosexuals" in town would certainly know all about each other, but in San Francisco it would actually be unlikely that they would have met.
What Grace absolutely knew from spending time with the Butlers was that Teresa loved Ron. Grace dissected the relationship at length, because she was fascinated that these two people could not only get together in the first place, but have stayed together for so long. Grace wanted the secret, and sat puzzling over discussions at the dinner table that seemed so diametrically conflicted that the two could be running against each other for office on two opposing tickets. All she had come up with was the sense of a subterranean river of affection and respect that was always running between them, no matter what their opinions or ideas of the moment might be. And humor. They laughed at each other’s way of looking at the world with a fondness that made Grace ache inside.
Teresa and Grace were finishing up the dishes from dinner when Ron came in from work. A peck on the cheek to Teresa, a piece of pizza from the open box, a “Hey, Grace” and then upstairs. Grace looked at Teresa, who shrugged her shoulders and shook her head as if to say, “I don’t know why I love him, but I do.” Grace smiled at her friend. I’m glad for you.
Driving Alex home after making sure the wine had worn off, Grace found a message on her phone from Jamie. He needed her to go shopping with him. Much as she hated it, she knew she would go. Jamie was a very successful businessman now, albeit in a rather unconventional business.
Jamie loved, really loved, women's clothes. Not in the way some men do who want to be women, Jamie was all man, and looked, sounded and acted completely male. He didn't want to dress in women's clothes, he just loved the way dresses fell in folds on a woman's body, the curves of a woman, how the line of a dress could make a woman beautiful or take her innate beauty away just by the placement of a seam or a sequin.
Grace often laughed about it with Jamie. Here she was, a woman, and she would rather do just about anything than go to a store and look at herself in three different mirrors under appalling lighting conditions in a tiny room. Jamie could spend his life there.
The whole house smelled like apples. Grace ran through the screen door for what seemed like the hundredth time, slamming it behind her, as Abby said, "Don't slam the...door!"
"Sorry, Mom." Grace stood on the chair and leaned over the wooden shelf behind the stainless steel sink in the kitchen. She carefully unfolded the long apron that Abby had tied around her to reveal her bounty of fresh-picked Red Delicious apples.
Plopping them one by one into the waiting sink filled with fresh cold water, she looked up at her mother hopefully and said, "More?"
"More," Abby said, giving her bright-eyed eleven-year-old a weary smile.
Beaming, Grace jumped down from the chair and ran outside. The Delaney's apple orchard lay close to the house and just behind it, between Abby's vegetable garden and the long-fallow wheat field that Grace's great-grandfather had spent his life tilling by horse-drawn harrow.
Under the trees, Grace dodged her brother, pulling at his shirt as she ran past. Jamie's job was to keep the fallen apples from rotting on the ground, so periodically during the summer he would take his grandfather’s old nine-iron out to the orchard and practice chipping them into the field where the bees would follow them and they would do no harm.
Every year in the early Fall, Abby would put up applesauce and sliced apples and bake a few apple pies. It was her only concession to farm life, and rose more from her loathing of waste than from any domestic spirit. Abby always seemed to be under duress as she stood at the sink, as if there were some invisible taskmaster barking orders behind her, but Grace took in the whole weekend with unabashed joy. The bubbling pots filled the house with a fragrance so sweet that Grace could taste cinnamon and apples in her sleep. She would find herself dreaming of picking them, climbing the tall three-legged ladder that Jamie would move from tree to tree as they worked.
Benjamin Austin Delaney, Grace's great-grandfather, had been only twenty when he’d built the farmhouse in 1904. The house and twenty-three acres was a gift from his father when Benjamin Austin took a wife, and together, the men of the family had cleared the land, tilled it and raised the two bedroom house, barn and slat-wall shed. Over the years, the house had been added to, a second story appearing sometime in the teens as the family grew. Indoor plumbing came soon after, and the farm prospered. The Delaney women were hard workers, polishing oak floors, whitewashing walls, and making do with the large woodstoves in the kitchen for cooking and in the living room for heat.
The farm and land had been worked, complete with cows, chickens, pigs and sheep, until the 1960s when the lone son of the family, Grace's father, had decided to become a painter instead of a farmer. The fields grew over with weeds; the animals, one by one, were sold to alleviate the time taken in their care and to augment Ben's income as he built his sign-painting business. The wooden letters spelling out "Delaney" over the barn, painstakingly hand carved by Benjamin Austin Delaney in 1905, had splintered and weathered and fell, until now there was only the "e", the "l" and the "y," with faint outlines of the others.
The Delaney men had been stout builders, and the house and barn still stood sturdily, having borne eighty years of harsh Idaho winters. Grace and Jamie spent many happy hours in the barn loft, talking about school and their dreams, lying in the old hay on Army blankets.
On one side of the barn, Benjamin Austin had built huge shelves with five feet of space between them and a sliding wooden door to protect the equipment he stored there. Some shelves still held a few lonely and rusting artifacts of a working farm, but most of them had long been empty. Grace created a shrine of sorts in one of the shelves, with endless pictures from teen magazines of George Michael, REO Speedwagon and Bruce Springsteen, that she lovingly cut out and tacked to the weathered wood while listening to her idols on an old battery radio. It was here that she wrote in her diary, in the glow of a camp light. It was here that she dreamed of a magical future after the requisite hardships, during multiple readings of “Jane Eyre” and “Pride and Prejudice.” She would read aloud in Julie Andrews’ voice, in as elegant a British accent as she could muster from only sixteen viewings of The Sound of Music at the St. Maries’ Cinema. This was her private space, where even Jamie knew not to enter. It gave her peace from school, and the arguing of her parents. It was her sanctuary.
Abby and Ben still called it "the farm," and the house was still "the farmhouse," although they hadn't been either for many years. Nevertheless, Grace and Jamie had grown up with the terms, so that was how they knew their home, although they would never call it that among their friends. Many of their friends lived on real farms, going to relentless meetings at 4-H Clubs, bringing bulls to the County Fair, waking at dawn to milk cows and feed chickens before school. Jamie and Grace were teased with thinly-veiled resentment for their easy lives. They had chores, to be sure, but they met the teasing with an understanding of its truth, feeling simultaneously guilty and grateful.
On the west side of the farm, the Delaney's old wheat field butted up against the real working farm of their nearest neighbors, the Cramers. John and Marjorie Cramer had two strong sons, Tony and Matthew, who lived the hard days of helping their father with the endless tasks of plowing, seeding and harvesting the grain that supported the family. Matthew and Jamie had become friends at school and often rode their bikes together down the long dirt road from the main highway. As Matthew disappeared down the final mile to his house, Jamie would stop and wave, knowing that Matthew had hours of chores ahead of him while Jamie would lie on his bed, reading or listening to music in his room upstairs.
Grace loved to walk out to the line that separated their property and the Cramers'. The sharp line, with short brown old hay on the Delaney side, flush against the tall green wall of sweet corn stalks on the Cramer side, was a testament to the exactness of John Cramer. It was as if a ruler had been laid, and not a drop of water or a stray seed could cross it. Peering down at the rows of corn, Grace could imagine an enchanted forest, filled with elves and gnomes living among the enormous stalks. Often, she would cross the line into the cool shade and sit in the forest with her dolls, telling stories of Jack and the Beanstalk and Where The Wild Things Are.
Because Grace didn't have the inescapable responsibility of chores on a farm, she thought it romantic and exciting. She watched from a safe distance as Matthew worked the combine, bouncing rhythmically on the seat as he worked, traversing the lines of corn stalks, away from her and back, the thunderous noise rising and falling. She thought Matthew was possibly the most beautiful person she had ever seen, and as she read her books aloud, he took the place of Mr. Darcy and Mr. Rochester to such a degree that they became inseparable in her mind.
And then one day, Grace and Abby had met Marjorie Cramer at Farm and Home, as they picked up some new Mason jars for the applesauce. Grace loved the mixed aromas of the musky leather and the manure, sharp and slightly sweet, that breezed through the store. She was rubbing her open hand on the most exquisite leather saddle she’d ever seen when she saw Mrs. Cramer move toward her mother to say hello. Grace gave one last pull on a tassel before hurrying up the aisle to stand attentively next to Abby.
"What a fine young lady you're growing up to be!" Mrs. Cramer had said to her, and Grace stood a little straighter just to make sure it was true. "And what a pretty skirt that is."
When Grace told Mrs. Cramer that she had made it herself, Marjorie clucked in appreciation, and asked how she knew what to buy to make such pretty things.
Grace smiled and said, "Just by the feel of the cloth, by rubbing it between my two fingers, like this." And she picked up the hem of her skirt and showed Mrs. Cramer, who laughed, sounding a little like the wind chime on her porch. There was a difference between the way Mrs. Cramer laughed and the way her mother laughed. Mrs. Cramer sounded like she really meant it.
For a long time, Grace had wanted to see what work on a real farm was like. She also thought that maybe if she was in the kitchen or the garden with Mrs. Cramer, Matthew might see how grown up she was, and not look at her as if she were a child. So she took a chance. Shy and serious, she said, "The nicest fabrics cost the most, though, and I'm looking for a way to make some extra money," now the words started tumbling out, "and since you don't have any girls at home, I was wondering if you need some help, maybe for a penny or two, after school?"
There, she'd said it.
Marjorie stood and smiled at Grace, then looked at Abby with a question in her eyes. Abby shrugged and nodded, and Marjorie turned back to Grace, who was standing still as a statue, waiting.
"Well, Grace, I would love the help." Mrs. Cramer smiled broadly. "Why don't you come by after school on Monday and we'll see what there is to do. I'll pay you fifty cents an hour."
Grace had been so excited, she could hardly contain herself. Now, on this sunny Sunday with the sweet smell of apples everywhere, she thought the world was just about a perfect place.
The salt air stings Grace's nostrils, so thick around her that she finds her breath hard to catch. She sits precariously on the warm sand, the shoreline rising high out of the water, so that she has to dig her heels in to keep from sliding.
Angle of repose, Grace thinks, the point at which the sand will stop falling, one grain at a time skipping down the slope, until finally gravity stops and all is still. The spot where Grace sits hasn't found its angle of repose yet, and as her heels dig in, the sand continues to fall into the chasm created each time the wall of water retreats.
Grace holds on then with her hands too, and soon instead of sitting, she is nearly standing, held invisibly, like the amusement park ride that spins and sticks you to the wall just before the floor drops away from your feet.
And always, the sound of the waves, the silence as the water rises, thick, pulled upward by lunar forces, reaching impossibly high, trembling at the top as it finds the incline that can no longer be supported. Slowly, one drop first, then another, the water slips and once it starts to fall begins its relentless descent down to its source.
With a crash like a clap of thunder, the force steals more of the sand at Grace's feet until she feels like she is standing on one small grain, all that remains between her and oblivion.
Looking up and over as the swell retreats for the split second between sets, Grace sees something bobbing in the sea, round, then gone, round, then gone. Then another pops up, and there are two, then three, alternating up and down. Heads. Four, five, six, more, moving closer.
Grace squints against the salt spray between waves, and the heads come close enough to become faces, familiar, beloved faces, but contorted, screaming for help, each scream becoming a swallow and a strangled cough. Alex, Jamie, Teresa, Aaron, and two, no, three, others behind them, indistinguishable between the upward swell of the massive waves.
"I'll save you!" Grace calls into the thundering sea, certain they can't hear her above the roar. How can I save them? she thinks, as she grapples with the slipping sand, When I can't save myself?
Desperately, Grace tries to climb, but each movement only makes her slither further down. She goes perfectly still, paralyzed, watching, listening as the roar of the sea becomes a whoosh, whoosh, whoosh....
Grace opened her eyes with a start, disoriented. Her hands were clutched beside her, tangled in sheets and comforter, as were her legs, so for a moment, she truly couldn't move. Still the whoosh, whoosh, in her head, until she realized, groggily, that it was the alarm. Extricating herself from the covers, Grace reached over and clicked the control back, and the ocean stopped.
For years, Grace had awakened to music, but now found the slow rise from sleep to the sound of birdsong or rushing water was more peaceful. Not today, she thought, as she rolled onto her back, adrenaline still coursing through her. She stretched her naked limbs fully out of the covers, feeling the freedom of it, and allowing the dream to recede, until she was breathing normally again.
When Grace was little, and had bad dreams, she would run down the hall to her parents' huge log bed and crawl in beside her mother. Lying there with Abby, Grace had calmed, her heart beating slower, peace returning in the curve of her mother's arm, the soft flannel warm and smelling of detergent and sleep. Abby always asked Grace to think of just one word to describe her feelings about the dream, and that would tell her the lesson it was trying to give her.
Grace thought now, trying to find the one word, and surprisingly, it was "capable." She felt, if she hadn't awakened, that she would have found a way to rescue those bobbing heads. There was always a way.
She swung her legs over and sat on the side of her bed, awakening. She combed her long fingers through the tousle of curls and stood up, stretching luxuriously. Grace dressed quickly in her bike shorts and a t-shirt, socks and running shoes, bike helmet and gloves. Before she was completely awake, she was opening the garage door and had jumped on her mountain bike.
Grace knew that if she allowed herself any more time than this, she wouldn't do it. If she stopped to wash her face, brush her teeth, comb her hair, anything, the day would start to enter her consciousness and she would find an excuse not to ride. This way, she was already riding before she was fully conscious, and from there, she loved it. Grace pulled the water bottle from the clip on her bike and drank deeply, breathing in the crisp fresh air of the morning.
In some ways, this was Grace's favorite time of day. Everything slowly awakening, heat rising in puffs from furnaces, porch lights blinking out, the smell of frying bacon and warm dryer sheets emanating from the houses as she flew by. With a day ahead of schedules to keep, Grace let herself not plan her ride each morning. She had an old sports watch firmly velcroed to the handlebars, and rode thirty minutes out and thirty minutes back. Which way she turned was literally a moment-to-moment decision. Freedom.
Grace's home in the old town of Fairfax was only minutes from the freeway, but with the tree-lined streets and their myriad back alleys, she could almost be back in Northern Idaho.
She felt the welcome warmth start through her legs and shoulders. Grace always dressed lightly for her rides, no matter how cold the morning, knowing that she would soon be making her own heat.
What was that dream about? Grace thought. Probably because of Abby, dreams always seemed very important to Grace. They were windows into her heart and mind. She never thought of them as insignificant or silly, because she knew she was author, director and producer of these little movies, in addition to playing all the parts.
How did I feel? Capable. Those drowning were those closest to her, her son, her brother, her best friend. There were others too, she thought it was a man and a young girl, but couldn't see their faces. Grace thought of dreams like puzzles, written by her subconscious mind to her conscious mind, asking it to stretch and grow and test its edges.
Grace breathed deeply and let the dream fly into the wind that whizzed past her as she pedaled. More will be revealed, she thought, It always is.
Grace sat in the darkened theatre at St. Maries High School, watching her brother in awe during the final technical rehearsal of Romeo and Juliet. He was looking up at Juliet in the balcony scene, and speaking the most beautiful words she had ever heard, making love just by talking. "A girl? Now that was acting," she whispered to him later that night, "you deserved a flippin' Oscar!"
Grace had read quite a few of Shakespeare's plays, lingering over what she called the juicy parts, parsing the obscure language word by word until she thought she understood. Even in the comedies, there was a roundness of the ups and downs of life that she liked. And the tragedies, oh, the tragedies were exquisite in their language and the tears they brought to her eyes. She took a delicious pleasure in the fullness she felt in her heart, as if she were under water, needing breath. She and her Julie Andrews voice had produced many of the Bard’s plays and sonnets in her sanctuary, but she loved nothing better than seeing it acted out, big as life.
At almost thirteen, Grace was still in love with Matthew, but he was so godlike, he seemed out of her reach. Not to mention the way he ruffled her hair, called her Sis, and looked at her with no more intimacy than he would a familiar lamp or ottoman. Coming from a small town, being an honor student, and not one of the "popular" girls, she of course hadn't even held hands with a boy yet. St. Maries boasted a population of about 2,000 and had fifteen churches. Grace didn't need to be a math prodigy to realize that her morals weren’t likely to be compromised severely anywhere within the city limits.
Abby and Ben weren't religious people, Ben had been raised Methodist, but had stopped going to church as soon as he was on his own. Grace had never even heard him utter the word God unless in vain, and even that not very often.
Grace's grandmother Ethelyn, the Family Counselor, had taken Grace to Science of Mind church for about a year before she died, picking her up in her old 1953 baby blue Kaiser sedan at 8:30 a.m. promptly and depositing her in Sunday School at five to nine before going to the main church for adult services. Grace would get herself up, get dressed, have a bite of breakfast, and sit patiently in the front room looking out the window for Ethelyn’s car. Abby, Ben and Jamie never chose to go, but Grace looked forward to her Sundays with Ethelyn. Grace remembered well that she liked riding in the big car with her grandmother, and that Ethelyn always wore a hat. Grace liked hats, and wished that she had a hat to wear to church. Her grandmother told her that when she turned twelve, she would buy her a hat for church, but of course, she never did. Ethelyn died when Grace was nine, and after that, no one had the time or the inclination to take her to church. Grace forgot about the hat.
In Sunday School, she would color line drawings of Jesus and Mary, and they made coasters with doves on them for Mother's Day. She remembered that people talked a lot, but not much of what they said. Most of all, she liked being with her grandmother, and the way Ethelyn talked to her as if she were an adult. Grace didn’t fully understand the things she heard, but Ethelyn never spoke to her as if she didn’t understand. Grace felt respected, and very grown up.
As Grace got older, whenever she spent a Saturday night with a friend, she would go to church with them on Sunday morning, because all of her friends attended church. In this way, she attended Methodist Church with Jeanette, Episcopalian Church with Sarah, and Catholic services with Pat on a pretty regular basis. She liked the Methodist best, in part because she got to drink the tiny glass of grape juice from the big tray with holes in it, and eat the little piece of cracker. It made it kind of like a party to Grace. And she liked the incense at church with Sarah, the sharp tang of the smoke as the priests walked down the aisle swinging the censer on long chains.
When she did listen, what she heard seemed reasonable. We should all be nice to each other, and we should help each other. The concept of God fell naturally into an amalgam of parents, teachers, bank presidents, and the checker at the grocery store. These were all people of power, and God was the boss of them all. Grace felt so far down the food chain that she could barely even register a relationship.
Her least favorite was Catholic church with Pat, but since Pat was her favorite friend and lived right down the street, she went to the Catholic church most often. Pat had five brothers and sisters, and all six children lived with just their mother, which was unusual in itself. Pat said her father was just "away," and it seemed to hurt her so much, Grace hadn't asked any more. Jeanette said it was against the Catholic law to get divorced, and that Pat's father had just up and left one day and never come back.
The Catholics seemed the toughest of all, and they talked much more about sin. They seemed to add about five layers of people in Grace’s power chain, with priests, nuns, cardinals, bishops, and the Pope. It was hard enough to talk to God in the Methodist church, but in the Catholic church it seemed nigh on impossible.
When they went to church, Grace couldn't take communion because she wasn't a real Catholic, so while the whole family stood up and walked down the aisle to the altar, Grace sat alone in the wooden pew watching them. They would all come back, with their mouths stiffly closed, and Pat said it was because you weren't supposed to chew the Eucharist, since it was the body of Christ. One night when Grace asked what it was like to have the body of Christ in your mouth, Pat went to the breadbox and got out a slice of Wonder bread. She took a small glass and made a circle in the bread like you would with a cookie cutter, then she squished the bread down with her thumb until it was very thin and very flat. She told Grace to put her tongue out and put the circle on it. "Now, don't chew, you have to wait for it to dissolve." Grace knew why the whole family was quiet for so long after communion.
Grace and Pat learned sign language so that they could talk in church without anyone hearing them. They would painstakingly spell out "I think Margaret Halprin looks stupid in that dress," and "What do you want to do after church," until their hands felt like they would cramp up. It took a long time, but it made the Mass go faster.
Pat's mother, Betty, went to work early in the morning Monday through Saturday on the bus, down to J.C. Penney's where she worked in the basement in the fabric department. Grace and Pat would visit her after school sometimes, and watch as she put the end of the bolt of cloth into a machine that was screwed into the long table. Betty pushed a button and then started pulling the fabric through, as small hands on a sort of clock face told her how many yards had gone through the machine. Then when she had the right amount, she would push another button and a knife came down, making a cut that Betty could rip apart. Then she would fold the fabric for the customer, and start with someone else. She did that all day.
Sometimes, Betty would give Grace remnants of cloth that no one was going to use, because she knew Grace liked to sew. Grace liked Betty very much, but she always looked so sad and so tired. Betty had huge, wrinkled pouches under her eyes, so big that Grace thought you could maybe hide a dime in there, and no one would know.
She worked all day, but her six children always sat down to a hot dinner, their clothes were always clean, and each one had a crisp dollar to put in the collection plate on Sundays. When Grace forgot her dollar, Betty would pull another one out of her wallet and give it to her to put in. Betty, each week, put a new twenty-dollar bill in the collection plate. This bothered Grace so much that she talked to Pat about it as they walked home from church one Sunday.
"How long does it take your Mom to earn twenty-six dollars?" she asked.
"I don't know, why?"
Grace was getting good at her multiplication tables, "Because that's $104 she spends each month, and it seems like she works really hard for her money. Why does she do that?"
"She says that we'll get it back a hundred fold if we give with an open heart. Mama says it will all come back to us someday through the grace of Baby Jesus. She calls it an obligation of our conscience."
Grace was always stopped cold with this type of talk. It was so hard to argue with, so she just shut up. It wasn't really her business anyway, and Pat's family seemed to think it was normal. But every time Grace sat in that huge church with the enormous organ, the smell of rich oils on the beautiful wood, the floor with the intricate tile patterns and all the gold and marble statues, she thought about Pat's little house with all the boys in one bedroom, and all the girls in another, and the pouches under Betty's eyes. When she first learned the word gilt, to describe the gold leaf that was on the statues of the angels in St. Maries Church, Grace thought it should be spelled guilt.
And of course, Grace's family were sort of outcasts in the small community because they weren't members of a church. The church ladies would come around periodically trying to coax Abby to join them on Sunday morning with her lovely family. Abby always said, "Well, we'll try," but Sunday morning would come, and Abby didn't try at all.
Abby's church seemed to be the meetings she had every week with her "Circle," on Wednesday evenings from six to nine p.m. Grace and Jamie were never allowed in, but they would listen at the dining room door until they got bored, which generally happened pretty fast. Even when they could hear, they couldn't understand much of it. The ladies would just sit at the beginning, for a long time, with their eyes closed and their hands on their knees. Sometimes one person would talk about getting relaxed, and sitting on a rock somewhere, and how to breathe.
Then, after that, they would talk about their families and how to prepare for the changes that were happening in the universe. "The universe," those were the words they used. Of course, Grace looked it up, and it seemed to her that it would be awfully hard for these ladies in St. Maries, Idaho, to be in charge of all that space. When it completely stopped making sense, Grace and Jamie would yawn and sneak away to do something more interesting.
One of the ladies, Mabel Connors, was about as ancient as anyone Grace or Jamie had ever seen. But Grace liked her, because she was the only one who seemed to pay special attention to them. Sometimes she brought cookies on Wednesday nights, just two, wrapped in flowered paper napkins, and she gave them to Jamie and Grace when Abby wasn't looking. She told them that life was short, and they should eat cookies whenever they could.
By the time Grace was about twelve, she had given up caring what they did in there, and just kept to her room on Wednesday nights at around six. Part of it was boredom, but she had to admit that part of it was jealousy. Abby never seemed to have much time for Grace and Jamie, but she had all the time in the world to think about sitting on a rock and breathing. It didn’t seem fair, and it hurt Grace’s feelings. Her friends talked about how they couldn’t get rid of their hovering mothers, and she sat quietly, feeling achingly different and out of place.
The complex combination of her mother’s benign neglect and her unbendable rules, her frequent absences and her firm convictions about practically everything, made doing the right thing and being good children exceedingly challenging for Grace and Jamie. And they thought of their father as almost a mural in his study, painted on in bright colors but one-dimensional. Interaction and decision-making was out of the realm of his expertise.
So, it was 1986 and the Delaneys were a family without a TV. Abby wouldn't allow it, saying, "Use your brain! Use your imagination! I don't want to live in a world without imagination!" No wonder that Jamie found an exhilarating world in school plays and the Drama Club, and Grace tagged along rapturously. Abby approved, and the pot was sweetened by the fact that Matthew, at sixteen, was the Apothecary in Romeo and Juliet, a very small part.
"No, he's not like me," Jamie sniggered to her, "He's always doing it with girls, every girl he sees, practically," and Jamie rolled his eyes, making that awful gesture with a circle of his thumb and forefinger, up and down, up and down, on his other finger. Grace knew it wasn't true, and that Jamie was teasing her because he knew she loved Matthew. She still couldn't see why people would actually want to do what Jamie had so thoroughly explained to her as "making love." But she had to admit that she imagined, in her Charlotte Bronte-inspired, 1800’s England world, a fiery holding, a passionate pressing up against, that made her head swim sometimes.
She looked up at Matthew on the stage. Even in the heavy velvet costume and the off-kilter cap, he looked exceptionally handsome to her, and she imagined him as Romeo and her as Juliet. He threw off the robe, climbed up the ladder and kissed her. From there, it got a little fuzzy, but there was definitely a lot of kissing. She was glad she was in the darkened corner of the audience, because she felt the familiar heated flush come to her cheeks, imagining Matthew’s hands, the strong calloused ones from the combine, trace a tender line across her cheek and down her neck. That’s as far as it got with Jane Eyre, and even that was scandalous, so she stopped there, but it was enough.
Rehearsal was over, and Jamie jumped off the stage with his bag over his shoulder. Matthew was still on the stage saying goodbye to the girl playing Juliet, as Grace watched, jealously. His fickleness in flirting with Juliet after having been so close to Grace just moments before, lurched her back to agonized reality.
"C'mon Graciela, we're going. If you're coming with us, get the lead out." Jamie breezed past her up the aisle. Grace didn't realize fully until she was older what a great big brother Jamie was. He never complained about having to take her with him to play practice, or the movies, to the roller rink, or the special treat of Bob's Big Boy for dinner.
What she didn't know then was that it helped him to have her along. Jamie had grown into an extremely handsome sixteen-year-old, with silky strawberry blond hair that had a habit of falling down over his blue eyes and making girls swoon. He wasn't interested in girls, though, and having Grace along was always a good excuse. Of course, the brotherly affection made them love him even more, but at least they couldn't get their hands on him too easily.
Jamie walked a fine line in St. Maries. He’d managed to keep a low profile so far, but there were a few boys at the school who loved to bully, and he was coming on to their radar. He'd been pushed into a corner at school by two of them last week, asking, "Why no football, homo, only drama? You like to look up the boys' skirts?"
He got away with just a sore stomach where they punched him as they left, but he knew that wouldn’t be the end of it.
Grace had tried to call Elizabeth Preston after driving home from Teresa's, but there had been no answer, so she left a message saying that she had been unable to meet with her mother.
Elizabeth was an environmental lawyer in D.C., climbing up the ladder as an associate with the firm, and it sounded to Grace as if she had little time to call her own. Elizabeth had asked her not to call her at work, so the only option was to wait until her message was returned.
The fact that this was Saturday had little bearing on the matter. Grace remembered reading an article about how associates become partners in law firms by offering every waking minute to the firm, and that didn't even account for a full eight hours of sleep. No wonder Elizabeth didn't have the time to watch over her mother, Grace thought, and felt a pang of sympathy for the young woman.
Grace's kitchen was warm this morning, but a shiver ran down her back. She thought she'd seen everything, but still she couldn't shake the memory of that house. She opened the door to the microwave on the second beep, and carefully pulled out the cup filled with hot water. Dunking a cranberry tea bag in, Grace placed a spoon on top of it, holding it down until it steeped.
Was Mrs. Preston doing the same thing now? Starting her morning, having a cup of tea? Grace doubted that the surroundings were as cheerful as her own cozy kitchen, sunlight streaming in through the clean, white, dotted Swiss curtains she had sewn and hung herself. She tried to extrapolate what the inside of the house looked like from her vision of the outside, and it wasn't a pretty picture. The thought of an old woman shuffling around alone inside those cold, dark rooms was almost more than she could bear, with the abundance of warmth and light around her here.
"Either stop thinking about it, or do something about it," Grace said to no one in particular.
I'll make a spiral ham for dinner tonight, she thought, pulling the red-cellophane-covered bundle out of the fridge. Alex loved it, and the whole ham would later give them sandwiches, the macaroni and cheese she made from scratch, and finally split pea soup from the bone and the scraps. "All parts used," she heard Abby say, "the perfect food."
Grace reached in the drawer for the kitchen scissors to extricate the ham from its packaging, and as she did, she wondered idly what Mrs. Preston ate. If she won't come to the door, how does she get food? Grace hadn't seen a car in the open shed that would have been used as a garage, and Elizabeth had told her that her mother didn't drive, anyway....so how....
Grace stopped and sighed aloud. Obviously, "stop thinking about it" wasn't an option.
"Do something it is, then," she said, putting down the scissors and tucking the ham back on the shelf in the refrigerator.
When Grace decided to start her own home health agency, she looked for a commercial office to fill the need, but they were all too big and much too expensive. Really, all she needed was a space with a couple of phones where she and a scheduler could sit at desks and do paperwork. Almost all of the employees in home health do their work in other people's homes, not in an office. Any meetings between company and clients usually occur in the home as well.
As she puzzled this out, initially, she realized that the in-law unit behind her own house would work well for the purpose, and so she had started the business in her home. When she needed to interview prospective aides, she generally did so over a cup of coffee near where they lived. Most of them couldn't afford to live in Marin County, and she hated to ask them to get to her without getting paid for it, so she almost always crossed the bridge to them in the East Bay.
Grace's scheduler, Cheryl, didn't work in the office on weekends, but she was on-call, and had a cell phone with her always so that Grace could get hold of her, just in case the scheduling for a client had gone awry. Cheryl had an eight-year-old son, and stayed close to home on weekends, so when Grace did need to get her, she was usually at Little League practice, or the grocery store, or the movies, and could handle it from there.
Grace picked up her tea and padded out of the kitchen door to the office. She was braless and in her slippers, a delicious luxury. Alex had left early to spend the day with friends, so she would have plenty of time to go over her notes on Mrs. Preston. She had taken so many case histories over the years that she was afraid sometimes she did it almost subconsciously. Right now she was finding she had lots of questions, and the answers weren't moving readily to the front of her brain.
As she traversed the flagstone walk through her wildflowers, and thought about the overgrown garden and the ramshackle house she had seen, she asked herself again, How did that person get to such a desperate place? The same question she used to ask every time she walked through San Francisco streets and saw the homeless sitting in alcoves. What path did that person take from the infinite possibilities of their birth into this diverse world of ours, to this?
Years ago, she had been part of a group of people who put on spaghetti feeds in Oakland for homeless families for free. She’d loved doing it, and felt good about the time and energy she spent. One evening she sat down next to a homeless man, as she usually did with a person or family there, to ask him his story. Most of the stories she heard on these nights were heartbreaking, of bad luck, misfortune or illness, mental or physical, which had undermined the person's will or ability to make things right. Most had given up, and had fallen back on simply survival instinct, truly one day at a time.
This man was about thirty-five, and actually looked it, unlike most of the people she saw. Being out in the elements all day and all night was devastating to human skin, and most had faces and hands like well-tanned leather. He had a burnished, brown, healthy look. He was slender, but not as thin as most. Actually, Grace thought with some surprise, Aside from the dirt and the long, tangled hair, he looks like someone you might see on a beach or on vacation.
She always started by asking their names, to let them know that she knew this was a person she was talking to. His eyes were glassy, probably from drugs, but instead of eating ravenously, he worked at his plate systematically, slowly, Almost as if he had already eaten, Grace thought.
"Charles," he said, as if "Prince" belonged in front of it.
"Where are you from, Charles?"
"Born and raised right here in the East Bay, ma'am," he said.
Grace couldn't tell if he was making fun of her, but she continued cautiously.
"And how did you hear about us?" This was her set of questions that usually opened people up to their stories. People tend to avert their eyes from the homeless, and very seldom engage them in conversation. Most of the ones who came to these dinners seemed to really want to talk.
Without answering, he pulled a crumpled flyer from his pants pocket with a filthy hand. It was one like so many that she had staple-gunned to posts all over Oakland and Berkeley, brightly colored, the word FREE in large handwritten letters across the corner.
"Best meal in town," he said, dabbing his mouth, "and I've had 'em all." He looked at her with fixed, steely eyes.
"Really?" Grace said, not liking him very much, but determined to know him. "Have you found other groups like ours?"
With that, Charles went into a monologue that Grace listened to in shocked and unblinking silence. He had cleared what he figured to be $60,000 last year, more or less, although he hadn't really kept track, not needing to pay taxes and all. "Strictly cash basis," he smiled. He had an apartment, and a car, unregistered, uninsured, but he didn't drive it much. Mostly Charles' day consisted of paying a neighbor who was only too happy to get rid of her two small children for the day, and taking the two-year-old girl and the four-year-old boy on Bay Area Rapid Transit over to downtown San Francisco. The three of them would sit on a ragged, grimy blanket. He had a primitively lettered cardboard sign that said, "Wife Died. Please Help. Children Hungry."
"You can pretty much double your take if you got kids," he said through a mouthful of meatballs. "Dogs are good, but kids are better."
He explained that the most challenging part of his day was avoiding the "do-gooders," mental health professionals, county welfare workers, and Child Protective Services, because, although the children were good for business, they were also dangerous. Riding back over the Bay, Charles would count out his money, usually between $200-$400 depending on the day, buy the children an ice cream or trinket, pay the mother a small cut, and go looking for his modest fix. He had a closet full of fine clothes. Freshly showered and hair pulled back, he went out to expensive restaurants, had girls he saw regularly, and took vacations whenever he wished. He spoke with smugness, pride and an unmistakable sense of invulnerability. His contempt for Grace was so overt and powerful that it pushed her back from him on the wooden bench.
Grace was speechless as he continued eating, and then she found her voice. "It's your job," she said, blinking.
"Yep." Charles smirked slyly at Grace from under his matted brows, and a chill ran down her spine. "Somebody's gotta give all of you a way to feel good about yourselves."
Staring at him, Grace’s sense of justice took her quickly through a series of scenarios. Short of shouting the truth to passersby on the downtown streets, she had no recourse. She could call Child Protective Services and ambush him, but truthfully, she had little faith in the system. The unvarnished truth was that he was the very successful product of a society that assuaged its guilt with a dollar dropped in a cup. Or a spaghetti dinner.
Her face flushed and her blood racing, incredulous and embarrassed, Grace had stood up without another word. She felt taken, exposed, and as if she might cry. She walked to the kitchen, snatched up her purse and her coat and never went back. Grace hoped that a part of her wasn’t lost that day, but she spent many days after wondering how much of his brutally honest assessment applied to her. What she determined was that she wanted to give help when it was asked for, and she took a hard look for any sense of superiority in giving it. She also tried to walk the line of looking through the eyes of a skeptic while keeping alive a heart of compassion.
That said, if Mrs. Preston was hiding, did she want help? OK, Abby, I'll be empirical. What is this lady's story? Grace opened the door to her office and flipped on the light. The fluorescents hummed and then clicked into brightness as she made her way over to her desk. She rotated the small knob on her desk lamp and then made her way back across the room to turn off the overhead.
"Too bright," she said for the hundredth time, although this time Cheryl wasn't there to hear it. Cheryl liked the flood of light to work by, and it was a constant source of friendly bickering between them. Grace liked the office to look like an sophisticated British library, and Cheryl, Grace was fond of saying, wanted a football stadium.
The cranberry tea had gone lukewarm, so Grace opened up the small microwave on the corner table and pushed "1" after closing the door. It sprang to life, and she watched as the glass tray inside turned the cup round and round. She was always awed by the waves that cooked and warmed and boiled but were invisible. So many mysteries in life. She still didn't know how a record player worked, and no one even used them anymore.
"OK, Grace, back to Earth," she clucked to herself. She pulled the hot cup from the oven, and placed it on the round terra cotta coaster on her desk. Settling in her wooden office chair with a creak, she reached down to her drawer of current cases, and pulled out a file with "Preston, Ellen" written on the tab. She opened the file and began to read her case notes on the left side, held with two metal prongs.
Grace remembered the long-distance call on Thursday afternoon from Elizabeth, who was in the middle of an important case and couldn't talk long. She sounded very busy, but seemed at the end of her rope. She said her mother had disconnected the phone, so that the only way they could communicate was if Elizabeth made the 2,800 mile trip from D.C., which was precisely what her mother wanted.
"Female, b. 11/29/54." Grace tapped on her calculator, subtracting from 2007. She input the numbers twice, just to be sure. That's only 53 years old, Grace thought. 53? Why did I think she was much older than that? Probably from the way Elizabeth had described her. She had used the words "dementia," "confused," and "bewildered" in her description of her mother, and Grace must have assumed this was an elderly woman.
"Severe personality change in recent months." Now it was starting to come back to Grace, Elizabeth had said that her mother had changed in odd ways, that she used to be very depressed, but had suddenly "cheered up," and was making strange comments that Elizabeth could only attribute to the onset of dementia.
"Can you give me an example?" Grace had asked.
"Well, my favorite was that the Earth was mad at us and had slipped off its axis. She also said something like, the best way to tell that a civilization was toppling was by the degeneration of their music, and that rap music was probably the final straw. Then she said if we were going to do something about this, I needed to come and spend a month with her so she could explain it to me. Hold on a sec."
Grace could hear Elizabeth talking to someone, but she only heard a few words, "appeal....no way...talk to his secretary...there in a minute."
"Listen, Miss Delaney, I've got to go. Could you just go and see her? I can't call her anymore, and I can't fly out there, this case would fall apart. She doesn't understand that what I'm doing is important. I'll pay you whatever it takes."
As she hung up the phone, Grace thought, Well, whatever is going on with Mrs. Preston, I have to admit I agree with her about the music.
He squatted, humming almost silently to himself. Humming always helped him to concentrate, and he knew he had a job to do, that he couldn't let down his guard. This wasn't a jungle, but it reminded him a little of 'Nam, it had so many dark places, so many places someone could hide.
He had mapped the area, taking notes, finding the high ground and the low. He didn't have the benefit of the U.S. Army behind him anymore, so his weapons were crude, but effective. Sharpened sticks, rocks, rope snares, all buried and set in such a way that he would have time to escape if he were discovered.
Daniel Michael Peter McGrath was 57 years old, with Army issue crew cut gray hair. He had the craggy good looks that came from a lifetime of exercise and sun, and one who treated his body like a temple. His bones ached a little now, and his knees creaked when he bent, but he never missed his 6:00 a.m. run, or the following regimen of sit-ups, pull-ups, and push ups.
Wiping himself with a large leaf, Daniel stood to his full 6'5" and pulled up his camouflage pants. He liked living this way, no distractions, nothing to get in the way of his mission. He kicked some dead leaves to cover the place where he had squatted, and turned to go back to his post. Maybe he'd do some more pull-ups, he thought, feeling the muscles bulge in his arms as he flexed them. That helped to keep him focused. Daniel thought it was stupid of people to spend all that money on exercise equipment when the great outdoors gave you everything you needed. Places to run, tree branches, rocks, soft mossy lawns, that was his equipment.
As he reached up to the low-hanging branch, Daniel thought, The one thing I have to control is my anger. I need my anger, but I am in charge of it. When he thought of what that woman had said to Marla, his rage started to rise up as if it would eat him alive. His little sister, so trusting, had told him things that any God-fearing person would think had come straight from the Devil. And Daniel was sure it had.
When Daniel was a boy, he thought about the priesthood for a while. He loved going to church, the quiet echoes of the huge building, the ceilings so high and so beautifully painted. He loved the story of Jesus, how he had died for Daniel's sins, and Daniel thought the only way to pay Him back for that was to go into service to Him.
In fact, Daniel was sure he would be a priest until Brenda Caldwell kissed him under the bleachers when he was twelve. She was a year older, and she took his trembling hand and put it in between the buttons on her blouse so that he could feel the hardness of her tiny nipple, bringing up an ecstasy in Daniel that he knew priests didn't feel for women. His crushing disappointment in his own nature, his own weakness, literally brought him to his knees. For months, he had locked his bedroom door and imagined the small, electric orb under his fingers while he whirled a homemade whip of twine and tiny balls of wire over his head and hard onto his back. He did this until he could no longer think of that moment with pleasure, only with pain.
Now he knew that Brenda Caldwell was in service to the Devil, testing him. Daniel had lost that battle with the Dark One, but he was stronger for it. When he was eighteen, he enlisted in the Army, wanting the Infantry so that he could look the Beast right in the eye. He had killed more of them than he could remember. On his left and his right men had fallen, but Daniel was saved because he had the light of the Lord around him.
After each day of killing, he hit his knees again, because at first he had questioned his breaking of the Commandment, and he prayed for an answer. Daniel's answer was given as he read his Bible. Jesus said "Whoever is angry with his brother without cause is in danger of judgment." Without cause. Oh, Daniel had cause, he was surrounded by people telling him he had cause, and because he needed to be angry not to be judged, Daniel got angrier. At the end of the war, resplendently decorated, crisp in his uniform and secure in his place in God's Army, Daniel had come home to shouts of "Murderer!" from young cowards who had not served, long-haired, unshaven savages who spit on him, and he saw the Devil again, here in America. He wasn't supposed to kill this Beast, but he had, quietly this time.
For many years, Daniel went faithfully by bus to his job as a dishwasher, making just what he needed to pay rent on his austere one-room apartment in the Sunset District in San Francisco. Marla would pick him up every Sunday, and they went to Our Mother of Perpetual Sorrows, where Daniel made confession, took communion, and asked Jesus to continue to control his life through the Holy Spirit. He still saw evil all around him, especially the fornicators and the homosexual deviants, but Daniel knew he couldn't kill them all.
As long as they left him alone, and at his size they did, he could turn away. Until now. When the Horned One makes a play for your baby sister, you can't turn away, and Daniel had heard the call to take action. He had never before asked for a vacation from his job. He told them he was going camping, which was not a lie.
He wasn't quite sure how he would fight this Devil, but he had fought Charlie, so he had a plan of a sort. For now, he would wait. He was very good at waiting.
"Jamie, you can't, you can't, what'll I do?" Grace was sobbing so hard Jamie almost couldn't understand her.
"Graciela, oh, sis, stop crying. It's not that far." Jamie held her tight and felt the wet spot on the front of his shirt start to spread as he shook with her. This, he thought, is why I couldn't tell her until my bags were packed and in the front hall. Matthew was in his truck in front of the Delaney's house, waiting to take him to the bus, which, if he didn't hurry, he was going to miss.
Abby was in the kitchen, putting the final touches on a box lunch that Jamie thought could probably feed the entire bus. She had her back to him, and he saw her brush away something from her cheek. Jamie knew the ice of his mother, but he also knew her soft underbelly. She couldn’t bear an emotional scene because it was beneath her, and although Jamie might have preferred a more overt show of sentiment, that stray and surreptitious tear comforted him.
Jamie knew his mother understood why he had to leave. The town was just too damn small, and he really had no interest in living in Spokane, or Boise, or even Seattle. He wanted San Francisco so badly that he could feel it under his skin. He had read everything he could get his hands on and finally found someone who knew someone who had a brother who lived in The City, as they called it. Never Frisco, that was for people who didn't live there. Those who did live there called it The City, so that's what Jamie called it.
He had finally graduated from high school with honors, and lots of black eyes. He hadn’t told anyone how many angry threats and disgusting insults he’d endured. Not even Grace, whose protective nature would have led her to be ostracized with him. Jamie had tried so hard to want girls, and even convinced himself a couple of times that he enjoyed kissing them when he got the nerve. But there was something too soft about them, something spongy and delicate that couldn’t match the fire he felt inside. He knew what he wanted, and it wasn’t in St. Maries. He had managed to survive until today, and today was the beginning of his real life. The only hard part about leaving, he was doing right now.
"Oh, honey, get a grip, Gracie, you'll see me soon." He stroked the brown, bobbing head below his chin, "I'll send you a bus ticket as soon as I can, and you and I will walk across the Golden Gate Bridge. Won't that be great, Graciela?"
Grace looked up at him, eyes streaming, and he felt like he had just strangled a puppy. "Oh, God, Grace, I can't feel any worse. Please tell me you'll be OK. I'll start writing to you on the bus. I'll mail it when I get there. You'll have a genuine San Francisco, California postmark. You can frame it. I love you so much, Gracie, please don't make me sad about doing this."
Grace looked at her beloved Jamie, and he was looking at her like his heart would break. Suddenly her own pain seemed less important than his.
"Oh-oh-oh-oh-kay," Grace said, hiccupping, and wiping her nose with the back of her hand. "I-I'll be f-i-i-ne," the hiccups were moving into sniffles. "I'm just g-going to m-miss you s-s-so much. Why didn't you t-tell me s-sooner?"
"This is why, baby girl, I couldn't stand to see you moping around the house, saying '5 more days,' '2 more days,' 'tooooooomorrrrrrrrow.'" He screwed up his face on the last word, howling like a loon, and Grace laughed in spite of herself. A couple of short honks came from the road outside. Jamie looked at Grace, eyebrows raised, and said, "Gotta go."
Ben came in from the kitchen, picked up a bag and started down the walk to throw it in the back of the pickup. Abby brought out the lunch, tucked it into Jamie's backpack, and gave him a kiss on both cheeks. Her face was more passive than Grace could imagine possible, but she couldn’t see the slight tremors that Jamie saw, just in the corners of Abby’s mouth.
"Be safe. We love you. Call us when you get there."
Grace watched in disbelief as Jamie hugged Abby, and walked out with another bag, his backpack, and the enormous sombrero a friend's father had brought back from Mexico.
"Hasta la vista, Gracielita," he called out, waving the sombrero like a bullfighter. His long legs disappeared into the cab of the truck, and he was gone. Grace closed her eyes, desolate, alone.
Jamie left in the end of June. Grace gradually adjusted to the emptiness in the house and the feeling that she had lost her armor, the protective bubble that Jamie provided. No matter how dysfunctional the farmhouse seemed, she and Jamie could always hold themselves separate from it. Sometimes all it took was just to sit opposite him, feeling how sane and sensible he was at the dinner table as their parents moved inevitably through the lines of their ongoing script with each other. The space at the table had been stripped of his green loomed oval placemat, and the lazy susan moved by degrees from the center of the table to the place where Jamie’s plate belonged. It seemed obscene to Grace that her parents never even noticed. Grace now stared at Grandma Delaney’s mute ancient sideboard instead of Jamie’s dancing and conspiratorial eyes.
In fact, within a month they stopped having dinner at the table altogether, as though Abby and Ben needed a minimum number of spectators for the play, and one audience member simply didn’t warrant a performance. Grace began to find excuses to stay at the Cramer’s longer these days, helping Marjorie in the kitchen. Mrs. Cramer saw how hard Grace tried to mask her eager acceptance of offers to stay for dinner, and how quickly she jumped up afterwards to do the dishes, ingratiating herself, making herself useful enough to be asked back. Other nights, Grace ate in her room or on a metal TV tray with her father in the den, where not a word was spoken while they ate.
Jamie kept his promise, and within a week she had a San Francisco postmark. The card he sent her was pure Jamie. A huge King Kong hanging by one arm off of the Golden Gate Bridge with a bubble that said “Wish You Were Here!” His writing was excited, electric, full of promise and hope. Her heart was happy for him, but melancholy, as if she were an inmate left behind after a jailbreak.
In August, Abby complained of back pain, thinking that, at forty-one, she should probably be a little more careful about what she lifted. She didn't see the doctor, because she thought she was just getting older. In mid-October, she was in such excruciating pain that Matthew finally drove her to Coeur d'Alene to the emergency room. Abby never left the hospital. The pain she felt was pancreatic cancer, so far advanced that there was nothing left to do but make her as comfortable as possible. Jamie rushed back toward the end. After five months in San Francisco he was settled and working, but managed to get time off to say goodbye to Abby.
As Grace sat with her mother during those last days, Abby slipped in and out of consciousness, sometimes making sense, but most of the time speaking a language of another world. Grace, at fourteen, gazed at her for hours to memorize the face that had eluded her for most of her life. In drug-induced repose, her mother often looked like marble, like the figures carved on sarcophagi, arms folded over their swords. Grace was ashamed that she was grateful for the static, peaceful face that she could finally study. She counted the lines around her mouth, touched the fine hairs on her upper lip gently, lovingly, and tried to remember the last time she was allowed to get this close to her mother. Abby, always moving, always in a hurry, always so many more important things to do.
But like treasures, Grace had memories locked away as proof that her mother loved her. Grace feverish with the measles, and Abby gliding through the dark bedroom, laying a cool hand on her forehead and murmuring softly, as if she could let her guard down in the half-light and move gently through the world. Afterwards, Grace had fought the desire to feign sickness just to see that woman again.
Then, there was Abby the protector, when some bullying girls at school had pushed Grace down on the grass and walked away, laughing. Her mother had kissed her tear-stained cheeks and patiently scrubbed the grass-stained dress, and then gone to the girls' mothers, standing resolutely outside their screen doors, forcing apologies and punishments. Those girls never spoke to Grace again, but she hadn't liked them much in the first place.
Most precious of all, the rare nights that Abby tucked her into bed. Fresh from the bath, skin still steaming with the smell of bubble bath, the day’s weariness snuggled into pink flannel Barbie sheets, Abby sang to her. In a kind of sighing voice, as if the air it took to make the sounds was as dear as gold, Abby would sing the song that Grace called the Horsey Song, Dan Fogelberg's Run For The Roses. Her mother would kneel down by her bed with an arm around Grace’s still damp head and her mouth close to her ear and start, Born in the valley, and raised in the trees, of western Kentucky on wobbly knees, with Mama beside you to help you along, you'll soon be a-growin’ up strong.
Grace tried so hard to stay awake forever. She imagined that they were those two horses, she the baby and Abby strong and tall next to her. There were no schedules, no pulls to her mother's time, just the grass blowing and the soft nuzzle of the mama horse on her back. "How much do I love you?" Grace heard it in the space between awake and dreaming. Abby told Grace that if every leaf on every tree in the whole wide world had the words "I love you" written on them, it still wouldn't say how much Abby loved her little girl. So when this soft Abby, this good Abby, this mother Abby, said "How much do I love you?" Grace always answered, sleepily, "Every leaf on every tree," before she closed her heavy eyes and fell fast asleep.
Now, in the hospital room, Grace awoke next to her mother and found her hand still clasped in Abby’s. The room was dark, but there was a light from the adjacent building shining uncomfortably across the bed. Grace started to untangle her hand in order to close the white plastic blinds.
Abby clamped down hard on Grace's hand, with more strength than Grace thought she still had, and said, hoarsely, "Don't go."
"I'm just going to pull the blinds, Mama," Grace said.
Softer, again, Abby said, "Don't go."
Grace sat back down, squinting against the bright light from outside into the dimness of her mother’s face. Abby, dark circles under her glassy eyes, looked at Grace for a long time without speaking. Finally, whispering, she said, "I'm so sorry, Gracie."
Her eyes wide, Grace shook her head, "No, Mama. For what?"
"I've tried so hard to keep you safe, baby." This was a new Abby. Fear. Regret. An unsure Abby.
Grace shifted so she could see her better, and looked earnestly at her mother to underscore how much she meant the words. "You have, Mama, you have. I'm safe." Grace felt tears begin, but she could see how important this was to her mother, so she stayed still, and listened.
"I couldn't protect you from all of it, Gracie. I tried, but I couldn't. You stay here, baby, don't go far, OK?"
Grace clasped her mother's hand tighter, moving even closer. "I won't go, Mama, I'll stay right here, I promise."
Abby's eyes were starting to blur, and Grace knew that she would fall asleep again, very soon. Her voice was the faintest whisper. "No, baby, I mean from home, it's alright if you leave me here, 'cause I'm going soon, just don't you go far from home..." Abby closed her eyes, and Grace listened for a moment to her slow breathing. She saw the pulse beat in the blue line in her mother's thin wrist as she laid her hand down into the shaft of light.
Don't go far from home. Grace didn't know what that meant, but she thought her mother might not have known what she was saying, exactly. Now the tears fell, and Grace laid her head next to her mother's frail arm, saying "Every leaf on every tree, Mama." Even at her age, Grace knew that fourteen years was not enough time to have a mother. She had always nurtured a hope that as her mother grew old there would be fewer battles to fight, and they might sit, sip lemonade and talk. That hope was fading away with Abby’s whispering voice.
Although Grace, Ben, Matthew and Jamie had taken turns being at her bedside every moment, when Abby died, she was alone. It was during Grace’s shift, but she had left the room to get a fresh carafe of water. Jamie, Matthew and Ben were down in the cafeteria. Grace didn't feel bad about not being there. Abby had told her that she would be going soon, and had also told her it would be alright if she was alone when it happened. Grace understood that it might be too hard for Abby to leave with her in the room, so her mother waited until she filled the carafe to finally let go.
As Grace stood in her freshly pressed dark blue dress with the starched snowy puritan collar that she had made just for the funeral, she watched Abby’s gray and white ashes fly in lazy circles into the St. Joe River. Holding her precious Jamie’s hand tightly, Grace felt two separate and distinct losses. The loss of the good Abby who loved her so much, and the loss of the hard Abby who she never really knew. But most of all, she wondered where they had both gone, and how she could ever find them again.
Elizabeth Preston was about as driven as a 31-year-old could be. She was awarded her Juris Doctor from Harvard, and had been snapped up by Williams, Lakes & Gage in Washington D.C. before the ink was dry on her certificate. Elizabeth, in the prime of her career as an associate at the firm, fully expected to be the youngest female partner at WLG before the year was out.
Her specialty, Environmental Law, dealt with the complexities of the regulations, statutes and policies that grew from the 1960's and beyond, all of them interlocking and incredibly confusing. Most of the laws were created to protect the natural environment from the impact of human beings, and most environmental lawyers spend their days upholding these laws. But the laws could also be manipulated by skillful lawyers to actually assist companies in their pollution of the environment. Essentially, that was Elizabeth's job. Her list of clients included some of the worst offenders on the planet.
Elizabeth looked the part of the quintessential businesswoman. Her Brooks Brothers silk dresses, Hastings wool jackets and cultured pearls complimented her tall, slender frame perfectly. Her blonde-highlighted hair was usually pulled effortlessly into a stylish chignon held with an assortment of solitary diamond stickpins. She moved with the air of a woman who knew she was beautiful. Elizabeth used it, but was smart enough to know that her beauty would only last so long, so she wanted to be remembered for her skill. She studied hard and did her homework before even the most casual meeting.
Elizabeth's current caseload was enormous by anyone's standards. She was not only expected to win her cases, but to offer 24-hour service to her clients. This included flattery, therapy, and long discussions about the finer points of law, often distilled into what Elizabeth called, in her head only, of course, "The Environment For Dummies."
Most important, however, was her ability to absolve her clients of their crimes. Elizabeth could somehow turn the most heinous environmental desecration on its ear, transforming it into a patriotic act or a creative commercial solution right before their eyes. An oil executive could begin a conversation with Elizabeth feeling a troublesome sense of wrongdoing, and end up feeling as if they were, in fact, performing a service for mankind. Elizabeth definitely had a gift.
She didn't consider herself a bad person, and except for this little flaw of conscience, she wasn't. Elizabeth had begun the study of law wanting to work for the little person, wishing to help small business owners attain success. Then one day, a college friend's father asked her advice on how to expand his business in spite of an ancient zoning law. Elizabeth succeeded in finding a loophole, and the adrenaline rush that came with overcoming the obstacle put her on a path from which she never wavered. The cases got more complicated, the rules and regulations more difficult to circumvent, but essentially Elizabeth became a superior rule-bender. Somewhere along the way she unpacked her conscience, and forgot to put it back in her bag.
Now, in 2007, she was finally at the place she'd worked toward for six years. Bill Williams, Managing Partner, had called her into his office and named her his "go-to girl" on a landmark case. She would be the team leader, and Bill implied in a less than subtle manner that a victory in this case would result in immediate partnership for Elizabeth. Partner at WLG meant prestige, sharing in the firm's profits, and pretty much lifetime security. The realization of her lifelong dream.
Bill warned her, "the Bonertz team will fight dirty. They're famous for it. They use National-Enquirer-style photographers and private investigators. They go through trash, monitor what you drink, and watch how you wipe your ass. Can you stand up to that kind of scrutiny?" Bill paused, letting the question sink in.
"Any skeletons in your closet, Miss Preston?"
Elizabeth looked him square in the eye. "Sir, I have devoted myself to my career since puberty. I haven't had the time or the energy to acquire any skeletons."
Bill smiled. "Be sure you continue that way, Miss Preston. The clock is ticking. Consider yourself a nun."
Elizabeth smiled crookedly. "God bless you, sir."
After six years with WLG, Elizabeth had a reputation, well earned, as one tough cookie. In a story that is legendary with the staff, a new and bright-eyed publications director at the firm was called summarily on her carpet. As the girl stood shaking on Elizabeth's Persian rug, Elizabeth said icily, "Do you know how we feel about recyclers, Miss Benson? They are a pain in our ass.” Elizabeth waved the offending magazine under Miss Benson’s nose. “You not only used recycled paper on our Environmental Law monthly, but you announced it to the world by using the recycling symbol."
Miss Benson timidly spoke up. "But you're the Environmental Group, I thought it would be a nice touch. Aren't we for the Environment?"
Elizabeth's voice got softer, and could cut glass. "Miss Benson, do you like your current environment? Do you enjoy working here?"
Nodding, Miss Benson got even smaller on the carpet.
"Our job is to protect the environment of our clients. To keep them happy. My largest client is a timber company, and they are not particularly happy with the recyclers, so neither are we. Do you understand?"
Miss Benson nodded again.
"If I ever hear of you using that symbol on any publication for this firm, or for your neighborhood garage sale for that matter, I will go straight to the Managing Partner and have you relieved of your duties. Is that clear?"
Still nodding, Miss Benson edged out of Elizabeth's office as if she was afraid to turn her back on her.
Elizabeth knew very well that people crossed the street rather than pass her outside the building. She had seen staff members, at the prospect of sharing an elevator with her, suddenly discover they had forgotten something in their car or at their desk. She had watched paralegals, Keystone-Cop-like, turn on their heels in the hallways and duck into bathrooms, offices and janitor closets to avoid a simple good morning. Elizabeth knew who she was, and if it distressed her at all, the occasional twinges of conscience were no match for her ambition. She knew that her strength lay in the fear others felt in her presence, and the rare desire of a warm and fuzzy conversation with another human being was counterproductive and indulgent. Sentimental moments were like banana splits. A few minutes of pleasure versus a long period of regret. She never indulged in either.
Now my mother, that’s another story. Elizabeth sat at her large mahogany desk and tapped her pencil, frowning. Her mother had always been a very timid person, frightened of life, and very depressed. The glass was not only half-empty, it was broken in pieces on the floor, and if anyone was going to step on it with bloody consequences, it would be Ellen. Elizabeth knew that if she ever decided to analyze her relationship with her mother, which she never did because it was a colossal waste of time, she would conclude that her own rise to power came as the direct result of watching her mother’s descent into helplessness over the years.
And yet, although they had never been close in the way she understood that mothers and daughters could be close, the gulf that was now widening between them was strangely disturbing to Elizabeth.
It had not been hard for Elizabeth to leave home, the only child of this poor woman. Her father had been good at dealing with Ellen, but after he died two years ago, she had gone even further downhill. Elizabeth felt she barely escaped the jaws of a long and boring death, leaving home with her mother's pained voice begging her to stay. Since then, a monthly call of about ten minutes’ duration was all Elizabeth could handle. The silences were long and her mother punctuated any talk with heavy sighs. Elizabeth felt if she had to talk with her any longer than ten minutes, she would be grateful to slit her own wrists.
So imagine Elizabeth's surprise when suddenly, two months ago, the tone of their conversations changed dramatically. Ellen was chatty and cheerful and, dare she say it, funny. Her mother had made a joke. A joke. She said she stopped going to church. When Elizabeth asked her why, Ellen said that she thought she was distracting the minister. He was looking at her legs and forgot what he was saying. "I think he'll save more people without me there," she had said. Okay, not slap-your-knee funny. But ironic. Playful. Incongruous. Mocking. Sardonic. Peculiar. All complex concepts that Elizabeth had never considered in the same sentence, or the same universe, with Ellen Preston.
Elizabeth had talked to her mother that day for almost an hour, and it was the strangest conversation she had ever had with anyone. She couldn’t put her finger on it, but it was like the woman on the phone was her mother, but with a personality transplant. As if she had suddenly decided to join the human race. After years of interacting with Ellen on a mutually agreed upon level, her mother had changed the rules, and Elizabeth, who was unaccustomed to being caught off guard, was seriously flummoxed.
Too busy to give it too much attention, Elizabeth had decided to just let the matter rest and see how she was in a month. In a month, it was worse. Ellen had now taken a sudden interest in life around her, in the environment, in social culture, in the news. Her mother! A woman who hardly knew or cared who her own President was. And what she said was twisted, turned upside down, strange. But, really, the most disturbing part of the conversation was a sort of implied threat Ellen made about the work Elizabeth was doing.
"You're going to have to stop, Elizabeth. You're doing more harm than you know." And then her mother had launched into the axis thing, and said that a trip to California was necessary. Now. When Elizabeth said there was no way that she could leave work at this particular point in time, Ellen had said, "I'm pulling the phone cord out of the wall. You come here and talk to your mother."
Now Elizabeth really was angry. She thought, I'll be damned if I'll let that old woman tell me what to do. I'm almost a partner in one of the best law firms in D.C. for Chrissakes. Well, if that's the way she wants to play it, fine. She made her usual call a month later, and heard the tinny recording say "The number you have reached has been disconnected. Please hang up and dial again." Elizabeth never thought her mother had the conviction to hold out this long.
And to make matters worse, Elizabeth had lost her little spy. Ellen wasn't much of a housekeeper, in fact, her depression sometimes didn't allow her to pick up a sock from the bedroom floor, much less do any cleaning of bathrooms or kitchen. Elizabeth had a found a very capable young girl about a year ago in San Francisco who would travel once a week to Ellen's house and clean. She even fixed some meals when she felt that Ellen was not eating well. Sweet girl, and she really seemed to care about Ellen.
But one of the biggest benefits to Elizabeth was that Marla would call her every week, collect, to tell her what was going on in the house. Marla was her eyes and ears, and had been very colorful in her descriptions of Ellen's gradual decline. Then, right after Elizabeth noticed the change in her mother, Marla had made her last call.
"I can't go back there, Miss Preston." Marla's voice was shaking terribly.
"Why on Earth not, Marla?"
The shyness in Marla's voice made it difficult for Elizabeth to hear. She closed her eyes and concentrated her focus to listen.
"Mrs. Preston is asking me to do things I can't do."
Squeezing her eyes tight, Elizabeth asked softly, "What, cleaning type things? I can pay you more if it's getting worse."
"No, Miss Preston, I can't go back." Marla had the distinct sound of a person who was about to hang up the phone.
"OK, Marla, you don't have to go back if you don't want to. Just tell me what happened. What is she asking you to do?"
Marla's voice was a choked whisper, "She means me to turn my back on Jesus, Miss Preston. She said some terrible things about Him."
Elizabeth prided herself on not being surprised by people, but this surprised her. My mother? Well, there was the thing about the minister and church. Put this together with everything Ellen had said to Elizabeth, and this had to be some kind of advanced dementia. Early onset dementia.
Marla was gathering some steam now. "She said a lot of people are going to die, and that I need to help her. She's getting others to help her too, something about spirits and the world shivering or something like that. She was talking crazy, Miss Preston."
Elizabeth sighed and wearily removed her gold button earring so she could hold the phone closer. "Marla, dear, my mother is not well. She doesn't mean the things she says. Can you just go and not listen to her? Can you still go and clean?"
Marla's voice took on more strength. "No. She don’t need me to clean anymore, Miss Preston. She's doing her own cleaning now. The last two times I'm there, all she wants to do is talk. I don't like it. I'm not going back." This time, Marla did hang up.
Still tapping her pencil, Elizabeth remembered the others she had found that were willing to go out and clean, but Ellen had stopped them all at the door. No one had made it inside the house since Marla had been there.
What did Marla say? She's getting others to help her too? Bill Williams’ face loomed in Elizabeth’s memory. "Any skeletons in your closet, Miss Preston?" That's all I need, thought Elizabeth, cradling her glass paperweight dangerously. I've got the biggest case of my life coming up, and my mother thinks she’s saving the fucking world.
Elizabeth calmly replaced the receiver, went to the online Yellow Pages, and, starting with the A's, found Angel's Grace Home Care.
Ben did not take Abby's death well. After the memorial service, after they had spread Abby's ashes over her beloved St. Joe’s River, after Jamie had gone back to San Francisco, and the required period of visits from friends, Ben and Grace found themselves falling back into a routine. The difference was, there was no one there to make dinners and lunches and breakfasts. No one for Ben to argue with. They both realized that they had been bouncing off of Abby for so long, they didn’t know how to stand still. The family glue was gone, and things started to unravel. Grace filled in admirably for a fourteen-year-old, but it seemed overwhelming to try to replace her mother, and she found her father increasingly remote. He really was beginning to resemble that limp balloon.
To Grace, Matthew made jokes about "the casserole brigade," the women in town who either had never been married, or were widowed or divorced and looking. No one would come right out and say they were competing for Ben, with Abby barely cool in the river, but they were, and Grace knew it. They would come over, always with food, with dinner for Ben and special treats for Grace, pinch her cheeks, ask her how she was, then proceed into the study by way of the kitchen, to "just say hello" to her father.
Ben was forty-nine, still good looking although seriously overweight, and he still made a good living as a sign painter. He owned the house outright, and it didn't seem he would ask much of them. Yes, in the grand metropolis of St. Maries, Ben Delaney was a catch.
Grace had resigned herself to the changes in her father over the years, and a part of her was wondering if, with Abby gone, Ben would get out of his chair and step up as the head of the family. She didn't have to wonder long, as he spent more and more time in his study, smoked incessantly, and in a new twist, started drinking Jim Beam.
One night, as she padded up to bed after turning out the lights, she decided, just by chance, to look into the study to see if her father had gone to sleep. He had, but he had done so in his chair, with a glass of bourbon in one hand, tipping precariously, and his pipe in the other. The pipe had already tipped, and the red cherry from inside the bowl had spilled out onto the worn shag rug under his chair. The rug had smoldered, and was, just as she registered the danger of it, catching fire, small yellow gold licks snaking out from the center.
Grace, from instinct only, pulled the blanket off her father's lap and covered the fire, stamping furiously with her bare feet long after the fire had gone out. From that night on, she never went to bed without knowing that her father was safely upstairs, the bourbon stoppered and put away, and his pipe completely extinguished and in the pipe holder.
For the holidays of the year that Abby died, Jamie arrived on the afternoon of Christmas Day to such hugs and kisses that you would have thought Grace hadn't seen him for years, not just since the funeral in November. What he didn't know is that on Christmas eve, his father had stayed up most of the night putting together a bicycle for Grace, so that it would be assembled under the tree when she woke up. It was, and it was beautiful. But assembling a bike is thirsty work, and her father had finished off the good part of a bottle while he did it.
So, when Reverend Brandeis came knocking on doors first thing Christmas morning to spread the Word of God on His day, Grace had let him in and then gone looking for her father. They had found him together, passed out cold in the bathtub, rolls of fat only barely covering his shriveled genitals, with the remnants of the bottle sitting by the tub. The Reverend, of course, was speechless as he and Grace stood in the bathroom, listening to her father's rumbling snore and the drip-drip-drip of the faucet. He beat a hasty exit without finishing his carefully rehearsed Christmas Day blessing.
Grace never told anyone these things. If she told Jamie he would feel he had to come back, and she knew that would break his heart. She didn't tell Matthew, or Pat, or Jeanette, because she was ashamed and embarrassed, and wanted them to think her family was as perfect as theirs. Grace learned to lie by omission, to pretend. She started to feel responsible for not only her own safety, but her father’s. She retreated to her room or to the Cramer’s when she wasn’t patrolling the house for dangers.
So, when Margaret "Maggie" Hamilton, thirty-three, redheaded, buxom, loud, opinionated and persistent, emerged as the front-runner in the contest for Ben, Grace welcomed her. She thought, Let someone else put out his pipe, and worry. Maggie would sit with Ben for hours in his study, smoking cigarettes, chattering away and drinking Jim Beam. They were made for each other, and so it was natural that they were married the next spring by the Justice of the Peace in St. Maries. Jamie couldn't make it, or wouldn't, and Grace wore the pink, shiny Easter dress she had made for herself. Maggie asked her to be her "little Maid," and, almost by default, Matthew was the Best Man.
Grace stood, holding her wildflower bouquet, and looked at Matthew in his graduation suit. She thought he was the most handsome man she had ever seen. She closed her eyes, hearing the words being spoken, and said them in her head, I, Grace Jean Delaney, take you, Matthew John Cramer, and then breathlessly mouthed, I do.
Grace loved Sundays. She'd just made Alex an early waffle breakfast, his favorite. He'd wolfed it down right before Teresa picked him up for her turn at taking the boys to baseball practice, and then Aaron and Alex were going to the movies. Probably video games after that, and she wouldn't see Alex until dinnertime.
Cheryl was on call, so Grace didn't need to worry about the business. Feeling like she had all the time in the world, she settled in to read the paper with her own waffle and a hot cup of cranberry tea. Before she had poured the syrup, her cell rang.
Probably Jamie. They loved to talk on Sunday mornings. She looked at the screen on her phone and saw "Unknown." Telemarketer? She started to put the phone down, unanswered, and then remembered Elizabeth Preston. She had left her cell number with her. Grace quickly put down her fork and picked up her phone again. She pressed the button to connect the call.
“Miss Delaney? I had a message that you called." Grace gratefully heard Elizabeth's clipped speech. "I realize it took a while to get back to you, I’ve been slammed. So, what’s your progress?”
Grace sighed. "Well, not much to report, I’m afraid. No one seemed to be home, so I wasn’t able to meet with your mother.”
“I probably should have told you that she might not let you in. Can you try again?” Grace heard the shuffling of papers in the background.
“I was planning to go back over tomorrow, but I had a couple of questions for you before I do.” Grace pulled a ballpoint out of the cup on the counter, and found a notepad in the drawer below it, preparing to make some notes.
“I can give you about a minute and a half,” Elizabeth said. Grace laughed softly, thinking she was joking, but realized in the subsequent silence that Elizabeth was absolutely serious. Grace resisted the urge to ask if she had an egg timer on her desk.
“Okay, then I’ll get right to it. What's the condition of the inside of the house? The outside is badly in need of repair.”
“I’ve tried to get my mother a gardener and a handyman, but she refused to allow them to do their jobs. According to their reports, they have cut back quite a bit of the vegetation already, but she won’t allow them to cut the branches that are moving into the house. She calls it her ‘tree house.’ Says she likes it that way. Ran them off with a broom when they tried.”
“And the inside?”
“It looked fine the last time I was there. There was a cleaning girl up until two months ago.” More shuffling of papers, and a voice in the background. “Hold for a moment.” Grace guessed her minute and a half was up. She was listening to Barry Manilow sing "Mandy."
Barry stopped singing abruptly and Elizabeth was back. “You were saying?”
“I was saying, 'When was that, Miss Preston?'”
“When was what, Miss Delaney?” Elizabeth was clearly getting impatient with this line of questioning.
“When was the last time you were on the inside of your mother’s house.”
Another pause, then, “Last Thanksgiving, I think. No, maybe it was two years ago."
It took every ounce of Grace’s self-control to simply stay silent. Mothers are precious, especially when you don’t have one. What could be so important that it would keep her from visiting her mother in that horrid house for two years? Grace took a deep breath. To herself, she admonished, Yours is not to judge, Delaney, yours is to care. Move on.
“How does she eat if she doesn’t go out?”
“I have groceries delivered once a week on Mondays. The boy says he leaves the box on the doorstep and when he comes back a week later, the box is there with a plastic bag of trash. He takes it out to the curb. He’s never seen her.”
“When was the last time you talked with your mother, Elizabeth?”
“As I said, she took the phone cord out of the wall the last time we talked. She told me to come and see her instead. That was, uh, I was working on the Baker case, so it was about two months ago. The cleaning girl saw her a week after that.” Clearly distracted, Elizabeth was shuffling papers again. Grace heard more voices in the background.
That does it, Grace thought, standing up and putting her now-cold waffle on the counter, No rest on this Sunday, I'm going out there now. Grace tried to keep the rising level of panic out of her voice. “No one has seen or talked to your mother in two months?” She wanted to say How do you know she's still alive? but instead, said relatively calmly, “How can you be certain she's okay?”
Elizabeth spoke as if she were talking to a particularly dense child. “The food and the trash, Miss Delaney.”
“Uh-huh. That certainly proves that someone is in there, Miss Preston. How do you know it’s your mother?” She seemed to have gotten Elizabeth’s attention. Finally. With lawyer logic, Grace thought cynically.
“Yes, I suppose you have a point there. Which makes it all the more important that you go visit her as soon as you can.” Well, Grace thought, don’t be so distraught. She was enjoying this conversation less and less, and feeling more and more compassion for the poor occupant of the "tree house."
“Miss Preston, I apologize for overstaying my minute and a half.” Grace tried to keep the acid out of her voice, but was afraid she was less than successful.
Grace thought her stepmother's eyes were going to burst. "I will not have that little bitch stealing my clothes!" Ben sat in his chair, and Grace could almost hear him willing the whole situation away. Maggie's face was so red, it clashed dismally with her nearly orange hair. A thin spray of spit was filling the air in front of her.
Ben opened his eyes halfway, and looked at Grace sadly. "Tell me what happened, Edie, what's going on?"
Grace, at 17, had grown much taller than Maggie, and she looked down at her stepmother as she calmly explained. "Well, Daddy, I guess Maggie had a little too much to drink last night, and when she came into my room at about midnight with an arm full of clothes to give me, I should have said no."
Maggie sputtered, "Why on Earth would I give you my clothes, you little liar?"
Grace smiled sweetly, and repeated last night’s conversation exactly. "You said you were too fat to wear them anymore, Maggie. You told me what a lovely little figure I had, and that I should have them." Grace couldn't believe that Maggie could get any redder, but she did. Maggie lunged for Grace, and dug her long, crimson fingernails into the skin on Grace's shoulder. Grace had not only gotten tall, she’d grown strong, and she twisted her arm up so fast and hard that her sweatshirt ripped in Maggie's hand, and Maggie let out a cry of pain as her wrist turned.
Maggie looked at Ben wildly, and said, "You see? You see how she treats me? What's wrong with you that you won't do anything when she treats me like this?" Dissolving into sobs, she gave Grace a look that had pure hatred in it.
Grace turned with a sigh to her father. "I might ask you the same thing, Daddy." Ben’s face was as blank as one of the new canvases out in the shed. Grace wondered if he was having an actual out-of-body experience.
Grace’s relationship with Maggie had begun to deteriorate at about the same time as the baby roses in her “little maid” bouquet had turned brown and curled at the edges. Grace had never been particularly fond of Maggie, but rather thought of her as a means to an end, as if she were hiring a babysitter for her father. Maggie had courted Grace at the same time she had nightly worked her way into Ben’s study, bringing her special treats and calling her “sweetie,” but once the ring was on her finger and the ink was dry on the license, she clearly felt the charade was no longer necessary.
There was never any question that Maggie would replace Abby in Grace’s mind or heart. The one-dimensional transparency of Maggie’s character could hardly occupy the same space as the complex, mystifying personality and confusing love of her mother, but Grace had hoped that they could at least have a benign coexistence in the old farmhouse. At first it was just criticism, thinly-veiled as friendly concern, expressed with an unnatural giggle and a sly eye to which Grace’s father was oblivious. Might that skirt be a little too short? I declare, Ben, we’ve got a hussy in the house! Dinner again at the Cramers? Well, Ben, I would think she might as well just pack her bags and move next door!
Over the last three years, Grace had developed an armor of sorts. The “two Maggies,” drunk and sober, were like evil twins. At night, after a liberal dose of scotch, she became maudlin, sentimental and cloying, and Grace was her “little maid” again. In the morning Maggie never seemed to remember exactly what she had said or done, and so felt an amorphous remorse that made her prickly and suspicious. As Grace matured, she began to recognize that Maggie’s snide comments about the size of her nose or her feet weren’t finely-honed attacks, but almost a scattershot approach to alleviate her boredom. Maggie was like a spoiled child absentmindedly teasing a trapped mouse with a stick, but what broke Grace’s heart was that Ben sat idly by and watched. Grace thought his only worry was that the mouse might actually rise up and bite, disturbing the silence, but, although young, she had developed a sharp mind and a better vocabulary. The mouse was starting to bite back.
Grace walked to the hall closet, got her coat, knit cap and scarf, and walked out the door into the pure morning snow. Without even thinking, she knew she was heading to Matthew's house. It was only a mile away, and the walk would do her good.
From the time Jamie had left and Grace felt alone in the house, she and Matthew had been friends. He’d gotten so used to being over at the Delaney's that he kept coming over, watching the TV that Abby finally consented to and playing Parcheesi with Grace. Matthew and Grace never spoke directly about it, but they both felt a light had gone out of their lives with Jamie, and their shared memories of him made the pain seem less. Of course, Grace had just turned fourteen before Jamie left, and Matthew was eighteen, so there was nothing between them but companionship.
But on her sixteenth birthday, Matthew took the birthday postcard from Jamie out of the Delaney’s mailbox so he could see her face when he read it to her. He held it until the very last minute, until he had watched her eyes grow moist and tender with worry that her brother had forgotten her birthday in the fascination of his new life. She walked out to the mailbox again in the fading light, and Matthew produced the card from behind his back just as she had given up hope. In wonder, he suddenly saw his future in the swimming hazel eyes, the arms that flew gratefully around his neck and the feel of the length of her body pressing against his. As she pulled away, crying, laughing and scolding, he kissed her for the first time, long and deep enough to feel her tears warm on his own cheeks. He was surprised that he had done it, but she responded in a way that absolutely astonished him and forever erased the kid sister next door. Matthew realized somewhere in the middle of that kiss that he loved her.
Grace had been in love with Matthew for a long time. As they stood intertwined next to the rusted mailbox, she felt the inevitability of their being together, as if it had already been written and they had simply gotten to the page in the book that described it. Her life was now divided into two distinct parts, before the kiss and after it. Then she was alone, now she was part of a couple. Then she was a girl, now she was a woman. The world seemed to fit, and now she fit in it, a unique puzzle piece among millions. The mysteries of life opened wide to Grace, and in an instant she saw a happy escape. Jamie’s escape was to San Francisco. Grace’s escape was Matthew.
Cooling from her encounter with Maggie, Grace stepped out into the snow, thinking how much she took pleasure in mornings like this, without the drama, of course. Northern Idaho had the habit of depositing large amounts of snow and then waking the world up with bright sunshine. The snow always looked like someone had sprinkled glitter in it, and the evergreens seemed greener, the sky much bluer when everything was so white. She loved the sound of it too, or the absence of sound. Everything seemed muffled, quieter. Even her footsteps, lightly crunching, were soft. March snow was the best, Grace thought. Most people were tired of it by now, but she loved it. These last snows of the year, before the glorious spring and the long, hot summer, were precious to her.
She would miss this place, but she knew she had to leave. She would graduate on June 7th, and would turn eighteen on the 9th. On the 10th, she and Matthew would leave St. Maries in his truck, pulling the well-used camper they had purchased together and had hidden on a friend's land. They would veer down south to Nevada, get married at the Winnemucca Justice of the Peace, and then go north to Alaska, where they would both get the high-paying jobs they had read about with the Alyeska Company on the pipeline.
Neither set of parents were privy to this knowledge because Matthew and Grace knew that they would try to talk them out of it. Grace had told Jamie only, and though she knew he still thought of her as a kid, he loved Matthew too, and wished them well. Jamie understands escape better than anyone, Grace thought.
Grace felt electric all the time now, as if the hairs on her arms and neck were standing straight up. She would forget for a few moments, and then the thought would enter her mind. Mrs. Matthew Cramer. The fact that it was a secret made it more delicious, more forbidden. Even as she looked into Maggie’s manic eyes she was calm, and thought, I have a secret. Every so often, Maggie would tilt her head and narrow her eyes, as if to say, What are you hiding? But no one knew, no one guessed.
As Grace walked, she felt the crisp air start to ease the tension of her battle with the "Wicked Witch." Jamie had started calling Maggie that, when at a screening of The Wizard of Oz he had noticed in the credits that the actress who played that role was named Margaret Hamilton. He had laughed himself nearly sick in the Castro Theatre in San Francisco, remembering that Maggie's maiden name was Hamilton. He couldn't wait to call Grace with the news. Jamie hadn't been home much since Ben remarried. He'd never had a very close relationship with his father, and Jamie's being gay opened the gulf even wider. Ben's nearly pathological desire to avoid confrontation, and Maggie's equal and opposite desire made for some passionate exchanges when Jamie was home, so it happened less and less.
Anyway, Jamie had a new home, and was blissfully, excruciatingly happy there. He lived in an old mansion on Divisidero, a house that would have been impossible to afford were it not occupied by eight young men divided among the six bedrooms, the study and the library which had been converted to bedrooms. They all shared the kitchen, five bathrooms, and huge living room, and all eight were gay. Contrary to the rather insulting popular beliefs about homosexuality, however, they were not all having wild sexual connections in that house together. They were friends, companions and buddies who occasionally would develop crushes, and rarely would act on them, just as any set of possible mates, male and female, would do when thrown together in the same house.
Grace had visited him three times in the four years he had lived in San Francisco. She loved it there, and if it weren't so expensive she would have tried to convince Matthew that they needed to move there instead. But she knew that Matthew would feel more comfortable in the rough lands of Alaska than he would in the big city, so they’d decided on north rather than south. To Grace, life was shaping up to be a series of compromises. She never thought Alaska would be their ultimate home. She and Matthew would put the money in the bank and then decide where there home would be.
Stopping to let the sun warm her chilled face, Grace realized that the weather in Alaska would be much like Idaho. Again, the current ran through her, and she closed her eyes as it moved from the back of her neck, down her arms and out of her fingers. Grace knew that she loved Matthew deeply, but she had loved him so long that he had become like a very comfortable sweater, worn at the elbows, one you put on when you really want to relax. She knew their life would be wonderful and they would be together forever. The real excitement came at the prospect of what married people do, and in the privacy of her own brain she imagined it all. The pillowcases and bedspread. The feel of his muscles under his smooth skin. His breath on her neck.
The only man she had ever seen naked was her father in the bathtub that awful day. Well, actually, she thought, that isn't exactly true. She had caught a glimpse of one of Jamie's roommates who, forgetting she was there, had started down the hall to the bathroom at the same time she had. He had jumped so quickly back into his room that she had seen just a glance of something before he’d turned around and shown her the glory of his muscular buttocks.
She wasn't stupid. She’d talked to Jamie and she’d been her mother’s empirical girl and looked it up in the Library. Her Life Sciences class seemed to tell her mostly how not to do it, but she had the mechanics clear. Grace remembered a trip to Silverwood with friends, standing on the platform of the huge roller coaster with the wind in her hair and the creaking of the wooden boards under her feet -- moving closer to the front of the line, hearing the whoosh of the cars as they sped into the station, seeing the flushed and thrilled faces of the riders. That’s how she felt now. Afraid, excited, wanting to turn back but knowing she wouldn’t. Electric anticipation.
Christ, Grace, she thought, shaking her head a little as she started her walk again. Virgins have been getting married and having sex since the beginning of time. Why did she think she would be so special? It would be what it would be, and when the time came, she would know what to do. She always had. She kicked a pile of snow out of her way for emphasis, and made her way up the walk to Matthew's house.