Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Chapter 4 / Mail

I returned from Ed’s funeral to a shopping bag full of mail. Our neighbor Nancy had picked it up at the post office and left it on the back deck. Bank statements, Christmas catalogues. I put it in the mudroom, curled up with the dogs. 

The next morning I poured a second cup of coffee and, out of habit, divided the mail into two piles, his and hers, on the kitchen table. We had never opened each other’s mail. If one of us received something we both wanted to see, the other one would say, Open it! Open it! and stand next to the recipient until we knew what was inside. The most obvious junk mail lay on the table until the addressee threw it into the recycling bag. 

In fact, there was nice mail here, lovely mail.: people sent condolence cards, or even letters they had written themselves. I opened each envelope carefully and read the notes slowly. I examined the cards and tried to imagine the person—the freelance graphic designer in San Diego, whom I had never met, Ed’s high school friend from Portsmouth that we exchanged Christmas cards with—driving to the mall, entering a card shop, choosing something to send me. The local library would buy a book in Ed’s memory. Perhaps something about the Hudson River, wrote the board president, since Ed loved to explore the flats in his kayak. 

And a friend—someone I wished we saw more—typed out six lines from Eliot’s Four Quartets that he said had served him as an “emotional mantra” during “unutterably” difficult times. “So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.” I stared at that, unable even to  imagine it. But that was his point, wasn’t it. Mantra. You asked for it. You prayed for it. 

Then I opened Ed’s mail. Bills he would have paid, a confirmation of his order of a barn jacket—we didn’t have a barn, but as Dave said, Ed was something of a clothes pony—a paycheck I couldn’t cash, a pitch from the Democratic party that he support Bill Clinton. They must be after everybody; we were both enrolled as independents. I opened all the credit card offers, just to make sure they didn’t, by accident, contain some cash. 

I saved for last a business-size envelope addressed by hand to Ed from a post office box in Truro, on Cape Cod. We had spent a week in Truro each summer for the past three years, but we hadn’t begun to talk about next year’s trip. Chloe was sitting in my lap by then; I turned over the envelope, let her sniff it. Finally I slit the side with Ed’s letter opener and pulled out a copy of a one-page contract for the rental of a house in Truro and a receipt for payment in full for a week’s rent. The receipt was made out to Ed. The contract was cosigned by Ed and the owner of the house. For the last week in July. Next year. 

A week’s vacation. All planned, all paid for. I knew the house. We had rented it the summer before this past one. Three stories high, glass all around, it was like living in the tops of the trees—the most beautiful house I had ever stayed in, anywhere. This past summer the owner had caught on and raised the price to well above our budget, and we rented another house, nowhere near as nice. Next summer, I see, she’s holding steady at the new price. 

That must be it. She’s confused the summer tenants, pulled Ed’s name out of her files, sent a receipt to the wrong person. Not that Ed’s last name, Tuczinksi, was a common one, but there had to be a mistake. I picked up the portable phone, which I now carried with me at all times, and called the number on the contract. 

“No,” she said, “it’s not a mistake.” I remembered her voice as soon as I heard it—I was usually the one who made this kind of booking—and from it her small, energetic, efficient self. In the summer she lived in a cabin at the edge of the property, one room no larger than a potting shed. She cleaned the house herself between rentals. Got it as part of a divorce settlement, we figured. 

“Your husband called me,” she said. “I’m so sorry, about his accident. So sorry. The contract I use says no refunds, but in this case, and since it’s so early in the season, I could make an exception.”

The money would support me for a month. “Can you make the check out to me?” I asked. 

“—I guess so,” she said. 

Again, so completely unlike him. 

Yes, he could be manipulative with his surprises. Guess what! he would say, when I was exhausted or distracted, not ready for games. Don’t you notice anything different? he would ask about some miniscule change he had made in our house while I was out. 

But to spend so much money without saying so, or, rather, without complaining about it, several times. To plan something like this without consulting me, much less even telling me. 

Now a vacation waited out there in July. Paid for with money I had never seen. It might support me for a month, that money, but then I would just need more money, and there would be no prize, no rest, no splendid house in the trees, down the road in July.

“Never mind,” I said. “I’ll keep it. I’ll come.” 

“It’s a big house,” she said. “You could share it with friends.” 

She was right. I could see who else might show up. 

Copyright © Debby Mayer

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Chapter 3 / Aria

I had no money with which to grieve. Like Ed, I freelanced as a writer and editor. Unlike Ed, I had no special area of expertise. When he died, editorial work was halted on two different textbooks, one in emergency medicine, the other in American history, while harried editors sought—and could not find—an editor with the same combination of intelligence, skill, and speed. 
I applied for food stamps. Two-thirds of my “family income,” as the form described it, had disappeared. In its place I had an expanding accordion file, into which I organized, in separate slots, papers representing my growing financial problems. For example, the $11,000 Ed had in his checking account. Since we weren’t married, I couldn’t touch it. We had discussed this, once. If anything happens to you, your mother will get everything, I said. He had looked appropriately horrified, and given the opportunity—a small life insurance policy, his Keogh account—he left it to me. But he had no will.  
His mother took the $11,000, saying simply, I raised him. 
“She said that?” Jaime stared at me, then mimed closing her mouth with her hand.
“When Ed was little,” I said, “he decided to run away. But he told his mother first. She said OK, but he couldn’t take any of his stuff. I think he was wearing his cowboy suit, and she said she’d bought it for him, it belonged to her.” 
“Jesus.” Jaime looked aside, out the window, then back at me. “He should have gone anyway.” 
“I know. But he hadn’t even started his paper route.” 
He did get away. Through a mix of brains that led to scholarships and the paper route that turned into selling tickets at a movie theater, followed by summer jobs at a Coca-Cola factory and a hospital, he got away. Now he was back there again, reclaimed by the rocky Portsmouth soil. His mother took his body, too, and buried it next to that of his father in a New Hampshire cemetery twenty minutes away from her and more than three hours from me. He was buried after a Catholic Mass, a ritual I took some comfort in, though it would have infuriated Ed. By that point I was too desolate, frightened, and angry to care what he thought.  
I did have friends. They caravanned in three cars to the funeral, transporting me and the dogs. Back home, they wanted to hold a memorial service, for us. “Just tell me whom you want to invite,” said Kathleen. “We’ll write it together. All you’ll have to do is show up.” 
“Thanks,” I said. “Not right now. I have to think about some things.” 
“It could help you think,” she said. “That’s the last thing I’ll say about it.” 
“No,” I said. “But don’t leave me.” 
“Never,” she said. “If you won’t let us mourn, we’ll organize.” 
Kathleen supervised the food. I had always joked that if it weren’t for Ed, I would be trying to live on coffee and breakfast bars. Now that menu was staring me in the face, except for Kathleen, who like Ed, was a terrific cook—they connected that way—and who put together a food chain that brought me a soup or a casserole each week. By myself, I could make it last for days.
Jaime took me to the bank. She had a disabled brother in assisted living, so she was accustomed to dealing with people who couldn’t quite take care of themselves. “She needs to renegotiate her mortgage.” Jaime told the suited woman in an office at the bank.
“And the line of equity against the house,” I said softly. 
They both looked at me, the bank lady through cheerful eyeglasses with leaf-green frames. 
“We took it for the renovations.” 
“I’ll leave you two to talk,” said Jaime. “I’ll be right outside.”
“What else,” said the bank lady gently. 
“The car loan,” I said.  “On the car that was totaled.”
She got out pieces of paper and we talked about them and I tried to listen to what she said. I tried to listen to what everyone said and to read the papers they gave me, which I kept in the new accordion file, one slot for each problem, but I wasn’t listening carefully and I couldn’t make my eyes focus on the papers. 
What I had to think about was this: On that rainy Tuesday morning, exactly one week after my 40th birthday, Ed drove off at 8 o’clock on his way to Dave’s house for their regular weekly meeting. He and Dave functioned as a kind of freelance editorial company without offices, meeting weekly in each other’s houses, and it was Ed’s turn to travel. 
But when Ed’s car skidded off the road, he was 10 minutes and three parkway exits beyond the turnoff for Dave’s road.
He should have turned right, but he didn’t. He kept on going. What haunted me then was not why he went off the road—he braked for a deer, he was changing a cassette tape, he was testing the brakes on the slick road, something he had confessed, out loud, to doing in the past, or he had, for the third time ever in his life, given in to an urge to smoke a Gauloise cigarette while he was driving—but why he was driving where he was. 
“There are a lot of ways to get there from here,” said Dave. It was eight o’clock again, 12 hours after Ed had left the house. Dave and I had sat at the kitchen table while Lauren, his wife, fixed spaghetti with clam sauce. There hadn’t been time for a picturesque covered dish, steaming under a towel; she had grabbed ingredients off shelves and thrown them in a bag.
“He might have decided to double back on one of the town roads,” said Dave. 
He might have. He liked to drive the back roads. He might have found he was running early, decided to check out a new route. The day was misty, with a spitting rain, not a great day for exploring, but not impossible either. He often glanced at a map, even as he drove, never trusting my directions.
He might have been distracted by the radio. He loved music—all kinds, except for the trashy oldies station I liked—and he always listened to music in the car. Just last week we had sat in the car in our driveway five minutes or more, listening to “Un bel di” from Madama Butterfly, my favorite aria in the world. Ed might have figured he couldn’t do something like that in Dave’s driveway without Dave coming out and interrupting the music, so he was going farther south to double back while he listened to something he loved. 
Or, he was driving away. He had left us and was going somewhere else altogether. So unlike him as to be incomprehensible. Not the leaving, but the leaving in silence. I am running away, he told his mother. This time, no one could stop him, if he wanted to. But slipping off, hoping no one would notice, sounded like me, not Ed. He was honest, and more, he knew—didn’t he?—that he would be missed. Not only by me, but also by Jethro. He might have hurt me, figuring that I’d recover and go on, but he would have never, ever, hurt his dog like this.
I thought he was coming to the house, said Dave. That’s all I know remained unspoken between us. If Ed had confided an affair, a dream, an escape plan, Dave wasn’t going to offer it, and I didn’t ask. 
Why do I even think about this? Why ride this train of thought? 
The mail, the desk.

Copyright © Debby Mayer

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Chapter 3 / Road Kill

We lived on a road where the women drove faster than the men. 

The women drove what people around here refer to as “vehicles.” These women zipped down the hill above our house and around our curve in their Chevy Blazers or their Ford Expeditions, as they ferried their kids to school or set out on errands. 

The men drove pickup trucks with elderly brake linings and stiffer steering. The speed limits were set for the pickup trucks. We learned this our first year here, when Ed got his second speeding ticket in six months and I had to take charge of drives into town for a while. Obey the limits in a vehicle, or even in a Honda hatchback like mine, and they seemed out of date, a throwback to 30 years ago, when the county was truly rural, dotted with family farms. Or even 10 years ago, when our neighbor Thompson still rode his tractor to the post office to fetch his mail. 

Borrow a friend’s truck to pick up a load of topsoil and you fit right into the pace. 

So we suspected our neighbor Sally and her red Jeep as responsible for the death of the peaceful stray cat that our neighbor Nancy had been feeding for a month. Ed imagined the old guy wandering around, or distracted by a field mouse, not having learned to be fast enough to stay out from under Sally’s wheels. Nancy buried the cat more or less where it fell by the side of the road, in a final act of charity mixed with her Scots practicality.

For Bob’s calico cat, I blame Grace in her black Chevy Blazer. 

I was driving home one Saturday morning from my twice-a-month trip to Shop Rite when I saw the cat lying in the other lane of our road, its calico coat still fluffy, dead but not yet squished. It lay across the road from Thompson’s house, and I thought it must be his. I pulled over just past his door and knocked. Thompson’s given name was Peter, but Ed and I always referred to him as Thompson or in public, Mr. Thompson. He went to school in our house, back in the day when the building was the one-room schoolhouse for this area, when his family’s farm would have been one of the three properties on this three-mile stretch of road. 

“Water was always silty,” he said about our well, trying to reassure us, but Ed, trusting no one, had a new well dug.  

Thompson had an ancient, agreeable black dog and a turquoise barn out in back of his house, so I figured he would have some cats. But he said, “Nope, must be Bob’s.” So I ran down the road a few hundred feet and up Bob’s 45-degree driveway, praying that other drivers would steer around the cat and not mangle it, and hoping Bob was home. 

Like Thompson, Bob greeted me with bewildered suspicion—this was the bachelor farmer end of our road. 

“Do you have a calico cat?” I said. “I’m afraid it’s been hit—”

Bob was out the door, past me like a shot, his tanned, moon face creased with fear. “Thank you—” he called over his shoulder.

I followed slowly, not wanting to see this. I knew Bob only slightly, to wave to as he passed in his pickup truck. We met up with him sometimes at the post office or the dump or when a local issue brought us all to a town board meeting.

When I got to the road, Thompson had scooped up the kitty in a shovel and deposited it on the shoulder of the road. He leaned on his shovel as Bob kneeled over the cat, his back to me. I left, feeling I had done my part and not wanting to see the dead cat. Driving away, it occurred to me that Bob probably thought I had hit it. 

“That was nice of you, Annie,” said Ed as we put away the groceries. 

“If my dog were lying in the road, I’d sure want someone to tell me,” I said, momentarily irritated with Ed because he would have felt the same, even more, and why couldn’t he put himself in Bob’s shoes, etc.

Years later—the field of coneflowers that Ed had planted around our new wellhead was waning but still beautiful, and even Ed was mildly optimistic about this new presidential candidate, Bill Clinton—September then, three years later, a state trooper came to the door to tell me where I might find Ed’s body, and I thanked him. 

I had been puttering around the house, feeding the dogs, not trusting my voice to talk to them. Afraid to use the phone, I still called Kathleen, who always knew what to do. I’m on my way, she said, so I sat and worried, trapped in a paroxysm of indecision about whether I should wait for bad news or go out and look for it. The officer arrived first, and I thanked him the same way Bob had thanked me—as an afterthought, appreciating an effort made and remembering not to kill the messenger.

What I saw in my mind’s eye as I put on shoes, found a jacket, was Bob’s calico cat, still clean and combed in the northbound lane of our road. And that reminded me of the red fox that Ed and I had seen just down the hill from Bob’s house one Sunday morning—one of the most beautiful creatures I had ever encountered. It lay stretched on its side in the early sun on a county road, its pelt perfect, full and rich and glowing auburn as if it had just been curried.

“Oh no,” said Ed. For as he slowed the car, a smaller fox came out of the brush and sniffed the dead one, nudging it a little. 

In the back of my mind, as Kathleen drove me through the darkening countryside toward the hospital, lay years of road kill—the dog with its head severed from its body, the half-dead deer struggling to rise—but they were still in my subconscious, waiting till I slept. After 15 years with Ed, what I thought of when he died was the calico cat and the red fox.

Copyright (c) Debby Mayer