Then he picked up my photograph from Puerto Castilla. “Who’s he?” he said, pointing at Alfonso.
“A guy I knew,” I said.
“And the babe?”
Then it was the picture of our fathers and his uncle Sandy. “I think this used to be in the old place,” he said.
“Effie got it from John when they split up. She gave it to me.”
“Did you know that Uncle Sandy used to have a picture of Gracie Fields, from the same time, just before they went overseas? I wonder where that one got to? It was autographed. It’s probably worth something now. On the back of it she wrote:
Wish me luck as you wave me goodbye.
Then her name. Scrawled, but you could make it out, clear as anything.”
“I didn’t know.”
“I always wondered where he got that. There was a man, eh, Uncle Sandy. It wouldn’t surprise me if he took a run at old Gracie. You remember how he was?”
“And look at himself, my old man. Poor old Jack.” He shook his head. “They didn’t have a clue. But then again …”
“I didn’t know that you were coming home.”
“I meant to call,” he said, and smiled. “You know the way it is, how time goes.”
Now that I’m in middle age, the nights are always difficult, I find. I toss my body into various positions, awaiting sleep, but I just grow more alert. When I do sleep, my dreams persuade me that I’m still awake. I tell myself perhaps I need pills. Sextus said he took medication for a while for sleeplessness. Said it’s very common at our age. Especially in times of stress. And of course the stress increases with the weight of years. But he won’t take medication anymore and has started smoking pot instead. Said he can get it for me, any time. It’s everywhere in town. Better for you in the long run, he said.
I smoked pot once. Alfonso had it. Where he got it, I have no idea. I remember laughing a lot, an innocent hysteria. Lying here alone, swathed in the damp silence of the old house, I think of Alfonso as frequently as I think of Jack and Sandy Gillis and my father. What goes through our heads when suddenly we have to face the inevitable? Death imposed, or death chosen? Occasionally the questions drive me out of bed, to get up and get out to try to shake the feeling of despair. At the end of life, I wonder, how much comfort, really, is belief? Did it help them?
Sometimes I’ll shuffle to the bathroom, study the face in the mirror, now baggy-eyed, skin sere and thin. Soon throat and chin will become one continuum of sagging flesh. The ravages of half a century expose themselves at night. Time, the vampire, sucks away the juice of youth while we’re asleep. I can imagine the women from our earnest little meetings, and see them in such solitary moments. In their mirrors. In their husbands’ eyes. The night and time are harder on the women.
The women named me Pelirrojo.
The red hair now has a dusty look to it, fading like everything else. Bulging flab below the rib cage. And it gets worse from here on. After fifty.
dec. 16. alfonso nagging me again today about my spanish, or lack of it. says i’m useless here without it. the only word you’ve learned, he said, is pelirrojo. i’m going to hand you over to jacinta. gracias, i said. worse things could happen to me.
The doctor once told me: Don’t just lie there. Get up. Do something. And on many nights that summer I would follow his advice, leave the house for the damp, cool air outside, the fragrance of the mountain. The sea would whisper as I made my way through darkness to the silent church to kneel before the bank of candles. And I would think of Jacinta, wondering where she was. And pray to Alfonso, remembering his fate. Wondering what, if anything, went through his mind.
jacinta works at the hospital. she is a specialist in malnutrition and works with children. pretty in a modest way. very dark hair accentuates the green of the eyes. the kids are something else. sorrowful, silent, dark, empty faces, gap-toothed, snot-encrusted noses. thin hair the colour of clay. scab-encrusted scalps. ribs sticking through tissue-flimsy skin. you wonder how they get like that. jacinta will teach me to speak spanish … fluently, alfonso said.
Jacinta. My secret garden, the place where understanding blooms.
arly in July, Effie called to say that she’d be coming home for a visit. I was briefly tempted to comment on this odd coincidence, she and Sextus, after such long absences, returning. She claimed the purpose of her mission was to celebrate my special birthday. My turning fifty.
“This I’ve gotta see,” she said.
I laughed and said that age is just a number, a convenience for administrators, bureaucrats and bookkeepers.
“Then we’ll celebrate your health, wealth and common sense.”
I offered her the bishop’s room, but she told me she’d be staying at the old place. Home. “If that’s okay.”
“It isn’t really very comfortable,” I said. “Still pretty primitive.”
“I plan to do something about that.”
So I told her where the key was. Under a stone on the doorstep.
“I know what you’re thinking,” she said.
“You haven’t even seen the place for years. I haven’t done much since.”
She ignored me. “The place seemed solid then, no sign of damage. Nothing that a little TLC won’t fix.”
“Go crazy,” I said.
She’d been back once before that, briefly in 1987, her first repatriation since the cruel abandonment of John, the unseemly flight with Sextus after his father’s death seventeen years earlier. She didn’t explain her long absence or the unexpected end of it, just said she wanted to visit the old place on the Long Stretch. Our old home.
“Do you really—”
“Will you come with me?”
It was the last thing I desired. “Of course,” I said.
The tension grew as we neared the old place that time in 1987. She sat silent, arms crossed. I stole glances at her face, but it was closed. And then we were there, stopped on the roadside, studying the low-slung structure that had once been our home.
“It looks good,” she said. “The vinyl siding makes it almost new. When did you do that?”
“A few years back. Just after Honduras. I considered shingles, but—”
“I’m glad you didn’t,” she said. “I like the siding … It makes it … I don’t know.”
She shrugged and frowned.
Outside the car, she hesitated. “Home. This was home.” She sighed deeply.
She stood back as I unlocked the door. She was chewing on her lower lip, arms still folded.
“Maybe it’s too much to absorb all at once. Why don’t we wait?” I said.
She shook her head. “This just feels really weird.”
She remained standing there beside the car for a paralyzing minute longer. Then she started walking, slowly, thoughtfully.
Immediately inside the door, she drifted away from me, face drawn. I let her go, imagining her thoughts. Then I could hear her careful footsteps and knew she was wandering in the direction of her childhood bedroom, high, hard heels rapping slowly across the bare floorboards. Then there was silence. I sat at our old kitchen table, watching.
“It’s a strange thing,” she said, “to not remember a mother. It’s like a big hole in your life.”
“Maybe it’s just as well,” I said. “You’d mostly remember sickness and sorrow.”
“Maybe. But I think it’s always best to have a memory … of something. Good or bad.”
She was standing in the doorway to the tiny bedroom. “I remember it being bigger,” she said, walking into the empty space. She stopped and turned. “You got rid of my bed.”
“The mattress springs were rusted out. And it was an odd size. You couldn’t replace the old mattress. So I sent it to the dump.”
She was smiling at me. “You don’t have to explain.”
“I thought maybe …”
“No.” She paused by the window for a moment, then stood in the corner farthest from where her bed used to be. “He’d be here. I can still see the cigarette glowing.”
“It’s okay. It’s years since I even thought of it.”
I studied her closely. My sister. So detached from our history, and yet consumed by it. To distract her I asked, “Do you remember anything about our mother?”
“She’s always been a ghost.”
“And our father?”
She laughed. “I remember the day we moved here. I must have been, what? Four or five?”
In memory I hear the sudden rattle of the train all around us. The air is acrid from the locomotive smoking outside and the men smoking inside. Our father is leaning toward the window, looking out, his body fluid, moving gently with the swaying car. There’s a sleepy rhythm to the click and clank of iron rolling over steel. From time to time I hear an urgent howl from somewhere ahead of us. The train screaming danger at the empty countryside, the sullen trees. And I am aware again of the expanding distance from the heap of earth we left behind in the field of tall white stones, and that we four, now, are only three.
A truck rattled by outside. I glanced toward the window. It was John Gillis.
“Was that who I think it was?” she asked.
“Will you go to see him while you’re home?”
“I don’t think so.” She studied my face, looking for judgment or reassurance. “I can feel Daddy in the room,” she said at last. “You were never afraid of him, were you?”
“The old man? No. I disliked him. I judged him. Then over time I got past it … But you don’t hate him anymore, do you?”
This time it was John who told me she’d arrived. He called on a Wednesday morning. “There was a light on in the old place last night. I was wondering.”
“Effie must be home,” I said. “She told me she was coming.”
“Ah. And how is old Effie? Or didn’t she change it to Faye after she went away?”
“She’s back to being Effie.”
“That’s good. The Faye was kind of fake. I thought, anyway.”
“You should drop in. Say hello.”
Mid-morning on my birthday, which fell that Friday, the phone rang. I was standing at the picture window, studying the vast, flat bay, interpreting the ripples on its dark blue surface, trying to anticipate the weather.
“Happy birthday,” Effie said. “I’ll be expecting you at seven.”
“Expecting me where?”
“Out home. Where did you think?”
“Where are you calling from?”
“I’m at John’s. I dropped by to invite them. John and Sextus. I thought I should remind you.”
“I think I’ll pass,” I said.
“Remember. Seven sharp.”
The phone went dead.
Maybe to get it over with, I went early. The old house reeked of cleaning fluids, gentrified by burning wax. Candles flickered and the blinds were drawn to exclude the setting sun, or perhaps to prevent disclosure of what she was doing to the house.
“You’ll have a glass of wine, or maybe something stronger.”
“Something stronger,” I replied.
She poured a stiff Scotch. “A little toast to us. Before the others come.”
“Right. The others.”
“Don’t worry about it,” she said, and kissed me lightly on the cheek.
John arrived first. He’s younger than I am and his body has an adolescent slimness, but I noted that his hair has gone almost white. Apparently he jogs a lot for fitness and for sanity. He caught Effie’s hand, bent his head toward hers. Their cheeks touched. Her eyes were tightly closed.
Then Sextus barged into the room, singing a flat “Happy Birthday,” and knocked me off balance with a bear hug. This is becoming a habit, I thought, this hugging. He had a bottle of wine in each hand and I heard them clank dangerously behind me. He released me, then placed them on the cupboard with a flourish. He shook Effie’s hand with mock formality, bowing slightly. She dipped, face faintly pink. Then he took her in his arms, started a slow waltz around the kitchen, singing loudly:
“Can I have this … dunce … for the rest of my life …”