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THE MEMORY BOX
The Memory Boxis a Houston Writers Guild Manuscript Award winner.
“The Memory Boxis a literary rarity—a story of high imagination cast with characters who seem as authentic as they are complex. From the moment Caroline Thompson dares to Google her own name, the stakes and suspense develop, treating the reader to a ‘can’t put it down’ mystery.”
—Sidney Offit, author ofMemoir of the Bookie’s Son
“In her impressive first novel, The Memory Box, Eva Lesko Natiello tells the fascinating story of a woman whose memories piece together a self-portrait she doesn’t recognize—until those memories yield to the terrible secrets they conceal.”
—John Biguenet, author ofThe Torturer’s Apprenticeand Oyster
“5-Stars . . .be prepared to toss that suburban fairy tale away, grab on to the steering wheel, and hope that you get through this obstacle course with all your mental faculties. Eva Lesko Natiello shows tremendous talent and courage in her creation of a powerful dichotomy, reaching beyond boundaries.”
—San Francisco Book Review
“. . . this one comes along and tears to shreds everything you thought you knew about the genre . . . And just when you think the book may have hit the limits of its genre, another sinister twist pushes it into serious GoneGirlterritory.”
—Emma Oulton, Bustle
“Epically creepy . . . creepier than Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. After the last word, I had to take a deep breath, and think of cute, comforting things, like kittens and baby hedgehogs to stop the chills running through me.”
—Sally Allen, Hamlethub
“Could not put this book down.”
—Jessica Collins, Books, Ink’s
“The Memory Boxleft me feeling stunned . . .”
THE MEMORY BOX
Eva Lesko Natiello
For Joe, Margaux & Mark my inner
Chapter Twenty One
About the Author
Saturday, April 21, 2007, 9:07 a.m.
The oddest sensation seized me that morning. At first it was subtle, nearly imperceptible, like the onset of a rolling fog. It crept over me with quiet, unsettling determination. I tried to shake it. But the feeling only grew stronger. It permeated my joyful veneer until it snuffed the thrill from my core. I’d never felt anything like it.
Things weren’t going as planned. I didn’t expect to feel doubt the day after I handed him my manuscript. I anticipated pride and celebration, joy. It was a triumph, for God’s sake.
No. On second thought, it wasn’t doubt that wormed its way into my giddy fever. It was something else entirely.
As a warm breeze leaked through the screened window over the sink, I shivered. And grappled with this feeling. It was foreign.
It was fear.
Friday, September 22, 2006, 2:38 p.m.
It’s impossible to un-know a secret. Once you know it, you own it. It can’t be returned like a borrowed book. Or burned like a love letter. The click of a mouse won’t delete it from the conscious mind. It’ll stick to the walls of your memory like dried oatmeal to a dish. The secrets you wish you never knew become a burden to lug. A bowling ball without holes.
Some people are great collectors of secrets. They roll around, like swine, in the muck of them. They gloat with pride to be the bearer of indelicate news.
I am not one of those people. I don’t want to pry into the backstories of others with a crowbar and a meat hook. What’s happened to privacy anymore? Nothing is private. Everything is knowable.
The thing about secrets is they’re mostly regrets, aren’t they? I mean, “good news” secrets aren’t really meant to be kept. Just the embarrassing, shameful kind. Everyone’s said or done something they wish they hadn’t. Maybe they were young and immature, or drunk, with temporary poor judgment. Do these things need to be broadcast? Should mistakes be tattooed on forearms?
The latest gossip around town is about a man whose daughter is in Lilly’s third-grade class. When he was young and drunk, he streaked through the dean’s backyard on a dare. Unfortunately for him, he was unaware of a ditch being dug and fell into it, breaking his fibula in the process, which left him stranded to sober up in a dark hole, waiting to be rescued in his birthday suit. One of our neighborhood snoops discovered this by Googling his name. Now this mature adult is living the shame all over again, as the gossipmonger moms of Lincoln Elementary pass their babble baton down a line of eager recipients. I’m surprised by how prevalent this rumor-wielding type is. Even in a place like Farhaven.
Practically everyone in town has been Googled by these women, who in turn cast out their questionable findings like a fistful of feed at the zoo. I make sure to smile warmly whenever I see this dad or any of the other gossip victims at school. It could be any of us. I wouldn’t want to be someone with something to hide in this town.
When they Googled my name—Caroline Thompson—a weeklong joke ensued at my expense. The search elicited only three hits. The skipper of the gossipistas, Gabrielle Callis, gave me the heads-up. “Caroline,” she said, locking her gaze on mine. Unblinking. (She never blinks. Sometimes I want to blow in her eyes to see if that’s physically possible. You’d think the weight of six coats of mascara and the law of gravity would collapse those lashes.) She placed a concerned hand to my forearm. “I wanted to be the first to tell you so you won’t be embarrassed when you hear others talking about it.” I swear she sips from a coffee mug with “Bomb-Dropper” written across it. What’s more, she pays only occasional deference to the facts.
A shrill, nerve-splitting siren comes from the corner of my desk, nearly knocking me out of my chair. Everything on the desk vibrates. I grab the egg timer and silence it while I simultaneously contemplate throwing it out the window. I’m the one who sets the darn thing, then I’m always shocked when it goes off. Smarty Pants, who a moment ago was sleeping under the desk, sprawled across my foot on his back with his paws sticking into the air like an upside-down coffee table, flips over and rights himself on all fours. He barks and shoots me a look of annoyance. “I’m sorry, sweetie.” I scoop him up and spill him into my lap. “I hate that thing, too.” I kiss the top of his head and rake my fingers through his white, corn silk hair. I lift one of his ears and whisper, “Who’s my best friend?” He follows, as always, with one certain bark. Sometimes I actually think he barks “Me!” which wouldn’t be correct English, but I’d let it slide because he’s so cute.
The time on my computer says 2:43 p.m. If I don’t leave the house in the next three minutes to pick up the girls, the closest parking space I’ll find at school will be in front of my own house.
Before I leave, I reread what I typed in the Google search box.
I don’t know why I haven’t ever Googled myself. I’ve been so glued to my soapbox trashing this voyeuristic time-suck, I’ve brainwashed myself. I’ve got a right to know what people know about me. And I don’t care if it is only three mentions. That’s not embarrassing. Frankly, I’d be relieved.
It’s a good thing I have no time to devote to this. I click “search.” If there are only three mentions, this isn’t going to take very long, anyway. I check the time. I’ve got two minutes. I scan a few pages.
There’s a strip of photos, running across the first page, of various Caroline Thompsons. I’m none of them. Once the esteemed potter from Colorado and the college professor from Pensacola are weeded out, as well as a few others I’m thankful I’m not, like the one who’s incarcerated, I read the mentions that look like mine.
All three of them.
Well, at least Gabrielle didn’t make that up.
The first is a review I wrote on Amazon for an electric toothbrush. No wonder people have tons of Google hits if reviews count. The second is for the time I coordinated the used book collection for the Farhaven Public Library. The third—when I headed the Healthy Lunch Committee at Lincoln Elementary.
Dirt like that could land me in Star Magazine.
Who cares? At least I don’t have any explaining to do.
I close the document, collect Smarty, and jump into the car to pick up the girls.
When I arrive at the school, I head toward the third-grade door where I find Vicki on her cell phone. There are clusters of moms and babysitters overlapping like a Venn diagram. Vicki’s wearing head-to-toe moisture-wicking Lycra—her second skin—even on days she’s not teaching a spinning class at the Y. Her head is tipped down and she’s deep in conversation, unaware of my arrival. She repeatedly twirls the ends of her hair. I stand beside her, waiting for her to finish, when I feel a tug at my pant leg. Then a hand rifles through the pocket of my khakis like a crab in a paper bag. It belongs to a two-year-old. My friend Meg’s youngest. She’s looking for a dog biscuit to give Smarty, who is curled up in my cardigan.
“Hiya, Sweetie!” I say. “Don’t you look beautiful in that orange dress. Are those daisies on the pocket?” She nods with her whole body. “Where’s your mommy?” She points behind her without looking. “Do you want to give Smarty Pants a biscuit?” This time she nods with such gusto her dress rocks back and forth like a church bell.
The phone remains pressed to Vicki’s ear, though she hasn’t said a word the entire time.
“You still on the phone?” I whisper.
“Not really.” The words sift out of clenched teeth.
Her head stays low while her eyes dart back and forth, then she snaps the phone shut. “I was faking a call.” She leans into me. “I’m not gonna be a sitting goose for her anymore. What, do I have some sign on my head that says ‘please, please accost me with your boring, senseless blabber?’” she hisses without taking a breath.
“That would be a large sign.” I have no idea what she’s talking about.
“I don’t want to hear about how her daughter won first place, again, or her son the science genius, blah, blah, blah,” she continues. “She’s insufferable.”
“Yes, Gabrielle. She ambushed me this morning.”
I look around at the thick mass of moms. “I don’t see her anywhere.”
“Well, don’t let that fool you—she can appear out of nowhere. Like the Wicked Witch of the West. I don’t want to hear any more about that stupid crafts show she’s having at her house. I’m not going.”
“I’m not going, either.” I shrug.
“Well, neither am I. I don’t care that the wife of the pitcher of the Yankees is gonna be there. Or the Mets—” Vicki looks up at the sky for help, “who the hell knows. That’s the only way she can get anybody there anyway. She claims she’s raising money for the ‘have-nots.’ Do you believe she said that?”
“Sheesh. Altoid?” I flip the top open, trying to distract her.
She straightens up and ignores my offer. “And, I didn’t want to tell you this, ’cause it’s so ridiculous, but when I was volunteering at Field Day last week I heard her tell someone she saw you coming out of Weight Watchers.” She yanks at her jogging top and scratches the skin on her forearm. “Not that anyone would believe it.” Vicki’s attention shifts for a moment to flake a gauzy piece of skin off her arm, post-sunburn. “You’re thinner than your eight-year-olds,” she adds before throwing her phone into her fringed handbag.
“What?” I balk.
The school doors sigh open, and 416 students scurry out like freed lab mice. I spot my girls racing over toward Meg, who’s about twenty feet away clutching the hands of her toddlers as if they’d blow away in the wind.
“Hey, Meg, ready for tonight?” I shout over the heads of others. Expressionless, Meg nods. But not at me. Gabrielle is firing news at her. I think about retracting, but it’s too late. A hand grasps my forearm.
“What a shame, Gabrielle. Did you hear that, Caroline?” Meg attempts to sound engaged as she now holds my arm for dear life, letting go of her daughter to do so. The little darling blasts off as fast as her tiny legs will take her until she trips on the bulging root of an old maple tree, then begins to wail. Meg’s cue to bolt. Leaving me with the Wicked Witch of the West—who doesn’t miss a beat. Gabrielle simply pivots on the heels of her powder-blue suede loafers to direct the news at me. I subconsciously cross my arms in front of my chest.
“Oh, Caroline, I may as well tell you, too, before you hear it from someone else, no doubt laced with falsehoods.” She tightens the belt on her Burberry trench and takes a deep breath. The veins in her scrawny neck wiggle with excitement. “It’s confirmed. You-know-whose husband took off with the au pair—back to England. They left yesterday.”
My mouth drops open, and I shut it. No need to give Gabrielle free advertising. “Oh, God—that’s terrible.” I’m sick to my stomach. I was the last holdout to think that it was idle talk, that people were just jealous of the Norwegian au pair who has legs, like chopsticks, up to her ears.
“Well, yes, of course it’s terrible, but if you ask me, it wouldn’t hurt to pick yourself up a little. Having five children is no excuse for not keeping up on personal maintenance.” She sweeps the flip of hair resting on her right shoulder, and her eyes pluck the crowd to see who she can apprehend next. This is her segue sign—she’s about ready to move on. “Not that getting rid of the gray would have held onto him, but it was time to lose the baby fat at the very least. I’m sure you’d agree.” She fixes back on me. “I hear Weight Watchers is quite successful.”
Gabrielle’s eyes throw a net over her next victim, thank God. She heaves her hand up over her head. “Oh, Bern!”
Bern is Gabrielle’s chief disciple. In a twitch she’s at Gabrielle’s side, her springing curls still bouncing though her feet have come to a halt. She blows her nose and sticks the tissue up the cuff of her sweater, then gives Gabrielle her rapt attention.
“I’ve got the greatest news . . .” Gabrielle reports. I’m long gone by the time she spews her next package of poison.
The crowd around school is dwindling. Lilly and Tessa have appeared at my side, amid a tight braid of friends. They turn their heads toward me and call out in unison, “Hi Mom!”
“Hey, Caroline,” Meg calls out as she walks in my direction, the kids dribbling behind. I wait for her to catch up. “Sure you can’t stay for a drink tonight? Andy’s still out of town, isn’t he? Stay for a while,” she says, and we resume walking toward our cars.
“Yeah, he doesn’t come back till Sunday. But I’ve got class tonight. Let’s do something next week. It’ll be easier for me with Andy back. Hey, I heard you ordered a fancy cake for Delia, you want me to pick it up? I’m going into town.”
“Mommy—” Tessa shouts from behind. “Smarty wants to go to the woods.” I didn’t even notice Smarty pulling the leash toward the wooded area behind the school. Tessa runs up and grabs my arm. “Can we let Smarty catch something so Delia can see, please.”
“No, we cannot let him catch something. He’s already been a bad boy once today,” I whisper, “I’ll tell you about that later.”
Tessa turns to Delia and says, “Smarty Pants hunts mice! My mom says he has an identity crisis cause he thinks he’s a bloodhound.”
We silently pass Gabrielle and Bern, who are standing next to Gabrielle’s gold Mercedes, still tangled up in a sticky glob of gossip. Two zoo lions at feeding time gnawing the same piece of slaughtered meat.
“Are you serious?” Bern exclaims. Her tiny stature forces her to look up at Gabrielle like she’s gazing at the Statue of Liberty. Occasionally she pops up on tippy toes with excitement. “Gabrielle—you can’t be serious.”
“I am. Allison doesn’t have eighty-seven Google hits.” Gabrielle reports this in a volume that benefits the far and wide, while her hands dance all over—shrieking-pink nail polish punctuating every word. “When she Googled herself, she didn’t realize that there was another Allison Scotte—also with an ‘e,’ who’s dead now but apparently led quite an interesting life back in the sixties—”
I think about my measly three Google hits as we walk by them, and I can’t help but feel slightly inferior.
Meg and I don’t say a word until we’re well past them.
Once we’re down the hill, she says, “Were they talking about that au pair again?” She shakes her head, “As if it isn’t painful enough without their . . . going at it, like some—I don’t know . . .”
Out of nowhere, my sister flashes through my mind. It’s not the first time Meg has reminded me of JD. She’d say something like that. Both of them have an ability to soar above the clothesline of others’ dirty laundry. They rarely engage in it. With JD living so far away, I’m lucky to have Meg to keep me grounded.
Since moving here nearly six years ago, making friends has brought along a certain amount of self-examination. It’s like being a teenager all over again. No matter one’s age, it’s important to feel part of something. To feel like you belong. But the balancing act inevitably becomes how much of yourself are you willing to compromise in order to be part of a community? Which, in this case, is the very specific subculture of stay-at-home moms.
I’m in Meg’s camp as far as choosing not to engage in dagger throwing with the likes of Gabrielle and Bern. It’s one thing I will not conform to as an at-home mom who has put her career as a journalist and future novelist on hold to raise a family in the suburbs.
Apart from being a dagger thrower, Gabrielle is famous for talking about dinners she’s had with “the Lesters” or “the Ferrneggis,” or how, at her beach house, she’s entertaining “the Pinnochets” or some such family with whom she’s “very close.” And somewhere after “we just got back from Vail with the Robsons,” she’ll stop midstream and say, “You do know the Robsons, don’t you?”
I have no desire to wear my friends like charms on a bracelet. I have dear friends. We’re very close, too.
I wave good-bye to Meg, who has crossed the street to her car. “No worries about the cake. I picked it up already. It’s huge—you better take some home.”
The girls and I hop in the car and drive into town to buy a birthday present for Delia.
“Hey, how was school?” I ask, as we stop at the corner for the crossing guard to sweep the streets clean of school children.
“Great,” says Lilly.
“Great,” says Tessa.
“Great.” Who can argue with that?
“The car smells disgusting,” says Lilly. “Smells like puke.”
“That’s gross, Lilly,” says Tessa.
“Well, it does. I’m just tellin’ it the way I’m smellin’ it.” Lilly clothespins her nose with her fingers.
“Smarty had a little accident this morning,” I interject. “But it’s all gone now, and I sprayed it with Lysol.”
“Smarty pooped back here?” Lilly shrinks back in her seat, hoists her legs up, and draws her knees to her chin.
“No, he didn’t poop. He threw up on the floor.”
“Yuck. Did you have to tell us that?”
“Well, sorry, you thought he pooped. Anyway, he caught a chipmunk, and I guess he swallowed it because when I found it, it was kind of very disgusting.”
“Hey, go easy on me. I’ve had a tough morning. I couldn’t just leave it there for Daddy to clean up.”
“Did Smarty find it in the basement?” Tessa asks.
“Well . . . I don’t know. Maybe, because when I walked him this morning, he was on a leash.”
“Ha! Daddy was right!” Tessa exclaims. “Smarty knew something was down there. See Mom, Smarty is a dog detective. You have to let Daddy get him a job at the police department.”
“Daddy’s not serious. Anyway, I don’t think he is. He can’t possibly believe the police would hire a thirteen-pound Westie to be a search dog. Why don’t we keep Sherlock Holmes to ourselves? Maybe you can train him to find stuff when we lose it. Like Daddy’s car keys, Daddy’s cell phone, Daddy’s wallet . . .”
“I’m gonna tell Daddy you said that—” Tessa playfully slaps the back of my seat.
Once we finish in town, the girls pack for the sleepover, and we head to Meg’s house, picking up another friend on the way.
By the time I get home from my writing class, I barely have the energy to inhale a few bites of Chinese before I undress, flop on my bed, and fall asleep. The next morning, despite it being Saturday, I resist the urge to hide under my comforter so I can instead be somewhat productive before I pick up the girls. A printout of today’s schedule is on my nightstand. I swipe it and head to the shower.
The smell of brewed coffee meets me halfway down the stairs. The closest I’m ever going to get to someone waiting on me is my programmable coffeemaker. And the doggy door. I grab a mug from the cabinet and take my coffee and yogurt to the den to work on something for my writing class at Drewer University.
The house is quiet. It’s just me and Smarty Pants. The only sound comes from Smarty chewing his toy mouse under the wing chair in the corner of the den. A wet rubber sound, a gummy-saliva squeak. Though I often crave quiet, this is not the welcomed kind—like a snowstorm that shuts the world down. Instead, it’s a lonely, I-miss-my-family quiet.
I turn on the computer, and its hum comforts me. My right calf is pressed against the side of the CPU, which subtly vibrates. Smarty snuggles up to my left foot, using it as a pillow for his head.
Through the den window, above the mounds of pink rose bushes, the morning sun is cowering behind clouds. Every so often it bobs and weaves, in and out, but ultimately it’s reluctant to reveal itself. The world is still. Or at least Brightwood Road is. No one is racing to work. No dogs are being walked. Nor are there any joggers jogging by. No sign of even a single grey squirrel scampering across any of the verdant lawns. All of the pristine center-hall colonials line up like toy soldiers, their American flags saluting at attention. The street looks like a vacant movie set.
There are a bunch of new emails to read. I check them first before I start to write. Chief among them is one from Andy. His arrival time tomorrow has changed to noon. After a quick glance at today’s news headlines, I open the document with my work in progress.
I stare at the screen without really seeing anything. My mind keeps wandering to yesterday’s conversation between Gabrielle and Bern. It was a stupid conversation between senseless, gossipy moms, and I’m angry that it’s taking up space in my brain. If only I could type a few words, that might get me going. Time’s ticking; I don’t have all day. I need to pick up the girls at ten.
I’m an independent thinker, I remind myself. Just because I’m a stay-at-home mom doesn’t mean I fill my days with vacuous activities, like other people.
My attention grows fickle. It’s no longer on the screen at all. My eyes meander around the desk and stop on a framed photo of Andy and me at the beach, taken when we were dating, when I was still Caroline Spencer. Both of us are tanned a golden brown, the color of Andy’s eyes, and I’m wearing a rather skimpy bathing suit, which I hold onto just in case my body ever looks like that again. As I stare at this photo, it occurs to me that the people in this town don’t know my maiden name. Do they? When we moved here, I had already changed my name to Thompson. They would never Google Caroline Spencer. Not even Meg knows my maiden name.
I type Caroline G. Spencer into the Google search box. A visceral sense of promise gushes through me. Maybe I’m a somebody after all.
Smarty’s now in the kitchen, nudging his metal bowl across the tile floor—dog speak for “I’m hungry.” My mind strays to think about when I last filled the bowl while my finger clicks “search.”
A tsunami of “Caroline G. Spencers” cascades before my eyes. Come on. My heart giggles. I click page two, then page three, then page four. “Yes!” Fist pump in the air. If only they could see me now. The Caroline Spencers don’t stop. Is this juvenile? Am I acting like a teenager who’s counting Prom Queen votes? No. Worse. I’m acting like a catty, immature gossipmonger mom. But I gloat for another minute. It’s not like I’m going to count them and brag to everyone at school on Monday. I’m just having a private me-moment of reassurance: I too have been interesting, so there.
Before my head swells any more, I should verify that these “Caroline Spencers” are me. But I can’t spend all day on this. I check the egg timer. Good, only a seventeen-minute diversion. My eyes sweep over the page. Midway down the screen, it’s my sister’s name, directly beneath mine, that catches my eye.
Jane Dory Spencer deceased at age 28 Lanstonville Press, April 21, 2000. She is survived by . . .
www.lanstonvillepress.com/ . . ./jane-dory-spencer-deceased . . .
What is this?
I blink hard, once—twice—the third time pausing with my eyes squeezed closed to the count of five before I open them. I read again.
This can’t be. This isn’t my sister. My heart leaps up in my chest and goes cold. With flurries. Like it’s a snow globe with a wind chill factor. Saliva floods my mouth. I try to gulp it down, hoping it’ll push my heart back into place. I can’t be reading what I’m reading. I let out a barking laugh to cut through my nerves. This is not true,of course. I just spoke to my sister. When was that? I struggle to remember. It seems like it was just . . . I don’t know exactly. For some reason, I can’t pinpoint it. But my sister is not dead. That’s for certain. She didn’t die. Oh my God, is this some kind of sick joke? Could someone have done this? People can’t plant a Google, can they?
I convince myself to settle down. Take it easy. This must be another Jane Dory Spencer. Someone else’s obituary. I can’t wait to tell JD that I found another Jane Dory. She’s gonna laugh her butt off over that—she’s always hated her name. Hence the acronym. Oh, she’s gonna love this.
I inhale with every muscle of my body, and the oxygen blow to my brain makes my head spin. I sit in a half-lotus, back in the chair, arch my back for strength, and click on the excerpt to read more:
Jane Dory Spencer, 28
Jane Dory Spencer 28, known as JD, a lifelong resident of Lanstonville, Pennsylvania, died on Friday, April 21, at Danielston Hospital in Danielston, Pennsylvania.
Ms. Spencer received her undergraduate degree in Women’s Studies at Barton College and a law degree from Stanton University in Hammond, New York. She recently worked as a law clerk for the Clarkston County Courthouse. She is survived by her mother and father, Elaine and Wally Spencer . . .
As I read my parents’ names I become dizzy; small, white, slow-moving spots are now blocking my view of the computer screen. I press my eyes shut to get rid of the spots.
. . . sister, Caroline Grace Spencer . . .
Oh my God. That’s me.
Saturday, September 23, 2006, 10:12 a.m.
This time when I gasp, the air slashes my throat. I can’t bear to read more, but I need to find the date of the obituary. My mind speeds in circles. I have to zero in. And forge an explanation. Any explanation. I think about those horrible hidden-camera game shows that I forbid the girls to watch because they’re so mean-spirited—I wonder if those stupid school moms would ever do something so violating and evil. I look for the date of the article. I try to find the scroll key, but I can’t. My fitful pecking is fruitless. Shit. I can’t see the arrow key through the swarm of floating spots.
Finally. At the top of the page: “April 23, 2000.”
What’s today’s date?
I reach for my desk calendar. I always keep my desk calendar right next to my mouse pad. But it’s not there. It’s never not there. I search my desk. On the right, the tissue box is perfectly parallel with my note pad. On the left, the lamp aligns with a stack of computer paper and a small cup of pencils (points up). Next to the tissue box is the egg timer. Everything’s in its place. Except for my calendar. I thrust myself against the desk so hard that the wheels of my office chair hurl me backward, close to the door of the den where I leap up and spring toward the hallway.
“April 23, 2000, April 23, 2000, April 23, 2000,” becomes my chant, to remember it long enough to find yesterday’s paper.
This is crazy—beyond crazy—like someone has kidnapped and drugged me. And—and—plopped me into a cryogenics experiment. How can this be? I’ve completely lost sense of the day—the year?
Not to mention—if this is true—tragiclife events.
I rush from room to room, panicked, like a mom who’s lost her toddler at the mall, tackling anything in my way. Poor Smarty, I trip over him twice, yet he continues to follow me underfoot with mirrored anxiety. He knows something’s wrong. He always knows when something’s up. Smarty has this sense. I don’t know what to call it. He just senses stuff. He knows me. I’m getting crazy now. What am I talking about? I’m not in my right mind.
The sound of Smarty’s nails on the wood floor is like the clicking keys of an old typewriter, a repeating staccato, a rhythm, a pulse. I can’t stand it. It’s creepy. But it’s just Smarty. It’s as if he’s typing a note I don’t want to read. He’s right behind me, following. Or is he pushing? Crazy again.
I race around the corner of the den into the kitchen, and my left heel hydroplanes across a slick of oil. I skid with arms outstretched until I stub my small toe on the iron leg of a kitchen stool. My body jerks sideways from the shocking tremor that soars up my leg, causing my cheek to smack against the iron cut-out monkeys that line the back of the stool. My face singes from the contact. My body buckles. Determined not to lose ground, I clamber to my feet.
“April 23, 2000.” The chant grows stronger and louder as if it’s possible to ward off the unspeakable if the mantra is not broken. I have no idea what today’s date is. Or the year. My memory is paralyzed. “Where’s my goddamned calendar?”
Finally, on the bathroom floor, sits last week’s Sports Illustrated. I collapse on the cold, hard tile and snatch it.
Not until I hear the doorbell do I realize Smarty is licking my face and I’m lying on the bathroom floor. The sound bellows through the house again and again like a blow horn.
Who would ring the doorbell like that? It’s insane. Paranoid that it’s the police with horrific news, I peel myself off the bathroom floor, but misjudge the space and smack my forehead against the corner of the sink.
Voilá, the Macy’s Fourth of July Fireworks Spectacular.
I wobble out of the bathroom and fumble for the closest wall to support me, down the foyer to the front door to kill the person on the other side of it. From the hall mirror, I catch a glimpse of myself. There’s a bruise on my cheek in the shape of what appears to be a small monkey, the color of freshly burst blood vessels, a dark reddish-purple with a faint skinny monkey tail curving alongside my hairline. God, I’m a freak. The room spins. I steady myself on the cool brass of the doorknob just before opening it.
“Electrolux, ma’am. How are you today?”
Electrolux? Is he kidding me? He was doing Morse code on the bell like a soldier with Tourette’s. The only people excused for ringing like that are cops and trick-or-treaters. Or a kid who has to pee.
His cell phone rings. He mouths “sorry” while he answers it. I’m in no mood for the vacuum man. Plus, he was just here, practically. Like four weeks ago. Who vacuums that much? I’m nauseous, and my head is splitting. Unease and confusion move through me like morning sickness. Looking at this guy makes me feel worse. Does he always look like this? He’s wearing wrinkled grey. Pants, shirt, even his skin is lacking any discernible color. “Electrolux” is embroidered onto his right breast pocket, like he sewed it himself in the dark. His hair is pasted to his head—oil concealing its true color—though at this point I’d speculate grey.
Who am I to criticize?
He finishes his call and looks back at me tentatively. He starts his spiel, “Do . . . you . . . uh, need . . . some . . . bags, or help with anything?” He stutters and keeps staring at my cheek. “Uh, would you like me to call . . . somebody. A doctor?” His eyes zip back and forth as he sneaks glimpses of my cheek and my forehead while he repeatedly pats down the back of his hair.
Something warm slowly trickles over my eyebrow.
“No . . . not today.” Vacuuming is the last thing on my mind.
“Uh, okay . . . I gotta go.” He jerks backward down the steps.
I step back to close the door, then see him stop on the brick path to pick something up. He turns and hands me something. It’s today’s paper.
My eyes find the upper right hand corner where the date is printed.
September 23, 2006.
A sick feeling slides from my eyes to my throat and settles in my stomach.
Visions of the obituary sneak back to my consciousness like a whiff of something rotten. How could my sister be—? There’s no way.
Just inside the house, an idea hits me.
I hurry back to the kitchen; Smarty chases behind.
My anxious finger presses the “Message” button on the dark grey box that listens to people when we can’t. The automated voice starts, “You have two old messages in your mailbox.”
“Hi, honey. I just got here.” The minute I hear Andy’s honey-roasted voice, my heart inflates. “I’m calling on the hotel phone because I think I lost my cell phone.”
This would be the third time he’s lost his phone this year. I can imagine him furrowing his brow as he talks into the phone, thinking he should be bummed out about losing it again. But down deep he isn’t because “it’s just a phone!” He often feels bad for not feeling bad. So he pouts to conjure self-condemnation.
“Why aren’t you home.” I yell at the answering machine, and my eyes begin to mist. I wouldn’t be so vulnerable if he were home. I don’t like feeling this way. It’s not me.
What am I thinking? How exactly would this be better with Andy home? Would I really tell him JD’s dead and has been for six years? And that I thought we spoke recently? No way. I need to sort this out first. My fingers fumble to find the stop button on the answering machine. He’s getting to the part when he tells me he loves me. I don’t want to hear that. I don’t want any reminders of how great my life is. Was. Until this morning. Why don’t we realize things are pretty damn good until they aren’t?
There has to be a message on here from JD. I press the button again.
“Oh hi, Mrs. Thompson. It’s Rachel. I can’t babysit on Thursday, the twenty-eighth, ’cause I have band practice. Sorry.” Crap. “But I can do October eighteenth. Okay? Okay, ’bye.”
Click. “Message erased. There are no more messages.”
No messages from JD. That doesn’t prove anything.
I’ll just call her. Jeez, how long was it gonna take for me to come up with that?
Her number comes to me immediately. Like I dialed it an hour ago. My hands are trembling so badly that once I dial, I rest the phone in the crook of my neck and shove my hands in the back waistband of my pajamas. Why am I so nervous? She’ll answer, and this charade will be over.
“Janie!” I jerk my head up, and the phone slips. I grab it just in time.
“No. This isn’t Janie. Who’s this?” says a guy.
“It’s Caroline. Is, um, JD there?” My voice cracks.
“No. There’s no JD here. What number are you looking for?”
I rattle it off, and he tells me it’s the right number. My voice is shaking. “How long have you had this number?” I ask him, my teeth knocking against each other.
“About four years. Who are you looking for?”
“Uh, uh, my sister . . . JD Spencer. I know it sounds crazy . . . but, we’re a little out of touch, um, I’m trying to track her down . . . Do you know her?” My voice hiccups, and my eyes leak.
I put the phone back, and it rings. I jump like a canned snake.
“JD?” A tear slides down my cheek.
“Hi, Caroline—no, it’s Meg. Are you expecting a call?”
“Meg? Oh my God, Meg. What time is it?” The oven clock says ten-thirty. “I’m so sorry, is everything all right? Oh gosh, I’m really sorry.”
“Don’t worry, everything’s fine. I was just going to ask you the same—only because you’re never late. Hey, I feel like a jerk calling you, but I have to bring my kids to the dentist in fifteen minutes, and I’d drop Tessa and Lilly, but I can’t fit them in my car.”
“You should’ve called me sooner. I’m screwing up your whole morning.” I barrel through the house looking for my car keys, trying not to pant into the phone. “If it wasn’t for the vacuum guy . . .” In the mudroom I slide into flip flops. “Did everyone have fun?” I squeeze out a light, happy voice. It sounds breathless and psycho.
“Uh, yes and no. Or no and yes. Two left last night and one left at two in the morning. She had a nightmare, and I found her roaming around the house, crying. Poor thing. I hate sleepovers. You’ll be happy to know your two fell asleep first.”
“Oh, good. Listen, I’ll be right there.”
I hang up the phone. Smarty is sitting in front of me, his ears pointing to the moon. I can’t go to Meg’s in my current physical state, especially considering that I’m still in pajamas. There’ll be questions. I could tell them I slipped on a lubed-up piece of broccoli swimming in a puddle of oil and went flying into the kitchen stool, but that sounds ridiculous. Who’d believe that? Wouldn’t slipping on a piece of broccoli mean I was running for my life through my kitchen? Why would I be sprinting through my kitchen? Because I was freaked out of my mind, that’s why. I’m an open book, for Pete’s sake. I don’t own a poker face. I own a scared-shitless face, an I-ate-the-last-granola-bar face, an I-got-a-scratch-on-the-new-car face, and an I-know-something-I-can’t-tell-you face. Which means I shouldn’t face anyone. I strain to think. I need something short and sweet. Short and sweet and neat. Not something that will prompt questions. Meg will want to fuss over me and be hyper-concerned, especially since Andy’s in London. My friends are like a SWAT team when he’s on a business trip. In a flash, they emerge from the nooks and crannies of their own lives to swoop in and help me. Meg will ask if Andy knows. If I’ve seen a doctor. And I’ll just lose it. And I just can’t. Where would that get me? With the morning I’ve had, probably the psych ward of Mountainview General. I can’t even think about Andy getting that call. Thank goodness Meg has a dentist appointment. She won’t have time for me.
I arrive at Meg’s house with a large Band-Aid stuck to a swollen forehead and a good slathering of foundation that fails to conceal the monkey. I look like a battered old lady. Thank God I have my teeth. A stately Dutch Colonial stands before me in a medium shade of putty, with a black lacquered door on which hangs a pineapple doorknocker in weathered verdigris. I’m embarrassed by its composure. I pick up my shoulders, smooth down my shirt, and ring the doorbell. Then I slip my hands in my back pockets to settle them.
“Oh, hi, Caroline. That was fast. . .” Meg barely turns to look at me because she’s on the phone. She motions with her head for me to come in, then whips back around, her eyes bulging. “Caroline . . . what happened to you?” The hand with the phone drops to her side. “Are you okay? Oh my God, what . . . look at you.” She puts the phone back to her ear and says, “I gotta go. Call you back,” then squints her eyes and peers back at me. “What happened?”
I finger my hair and mess it up so it falls on my face. I cup my chin in one hand and cross the other arm along my chest to support my elbow. “I fell, but it’s okay. It looks worse than it is. I’m fine, really. Really, I am.” My eyes find the floor. I become woozy. Then I inch my head up to look for Tessa and Lilly. I’ve got to get out of here.
“Fine? Caroline, my God . . . look at you.”
I can tell this is not gonna be easy, and my emotions squirm and wrestle. Let go, and tell her everything is in a headlock with Beg her for help at the hands of Shut up and get the hell out of here.
I practically vomit my explanation. “I slipped in the kitchen. There was food on the floor from dinner last night—Chinese—I ordered it steamed, but they put oil on it. Anyway, I slid and smacked into the stool by the island.”
What should I have said? It was the truth. I was relieved not to lie. It’s always the truth that sounds made-up. Which would explain the look on her face.
Meg puts her hands on her hips but says nothing. She tilts her head and gapes at my bruise. It must occur to her that her mouth is hanging open because she shuts it emphatically. In her silence, I call out for the girls, who are in the kitchen past the archway.
“What took you so long?” asks Lilly. I let it slide because she has her sneakers on—although not laced—just slid into with the back squashed down, but at least this will make for a quick exit. Their overnight bags are at the door.
When the girls look at me, I sweep my hair in front of my face and head toward the door. Over my shoulder, I thank Meg and promise to have them for dinner real soon. It sounds canned and glib.
“Did you call the doctor?” Meg asks again from her front door.
“Yes,” I lie. “Thanks for having the girls—” I yell back to her without turning around, just a hand in the air. I’m the first in the car.
Lilly opens the back door and throws her bag in, then slides across the seat.
“Mom, what happened to you?” She grabs the front seat and pokes her head over. Tessa slinks into the car and melts into her seat; her eyes drop to the floor.
Tessa covers her ears, “La, la, la . . .”
Lilly smacks her on the arm. “Quiet, Tessa. What are you doing that for?”
“Tessa, Lilly . . .” I turn around to look at them. Lilly’s face is only inches from mine since she’s still leaning on the front seat. Her honey-colored freckles form constellations across her cheeks. Once she gets a good look at my bruise, her nose crinkles, causing the Big Dipper’s handle to bludgeon Sagittarius.
“Listen, I’m okay. Don’t worry. It’s just a little bruise. It’ll be gone by the time Daddy gets home. I did one of my klutz moves and slipped on a piece of broccoli in the kitchen and collided with the stools.” I’m talking with my hands. I never do that. One hand forms a stop sign, the other does this little-itty-bitty thing, then both of them crisscross, and with fingers splayed, they create big, flashy fireworks. “And you know the monkeys? Look—one of them is bruised into my cheek. See it?” I point at it. “Is that hysterical, or what? A bruise in the shape of a monkey?” Lilly keeps following my hands like she’s hypnotized. Tessa hasn’t looked my way the entire time. “Who would believe something so ridiculous?” Tessa’s eyelashes pop up finally for a quick look. Both of their mouths drop open, and this is one of those rare moments when neither of them has anything to say. For ten seconds.
“Cute monkey.” Lilly nods like an old man. “Good story.” And pats me gently on the head.
“That’s not funny, Lilly.” Tessa hits Lilly in the arm, then looks out the window.
“Tess, it’s okay, I’m fine—don’t worry about me.” I reach out to rest my hand on her knee and give it a little squeeze. I wish she would look at me, but she’s staring out the window. The silhouette of her eyelashes in profile contrast against the bright light. “I’m a little worried about the stool—ha!” I fake chuckle. It sounds ridiculous. “By the way, let’s not tell Daddy if he calls tonight, okay? He’ll just worry, and he doesn’t need any stress right now, especially when he’s so far from home. He worries about us too much. Anyway, I’m sure it’ll look better tomorrow.”
I turn on the radio, and the car ride becomes normal. They launch into their chicken chatter, and I begin to chill out. This is good. I need the girls around me. I’ll be okay.
A couple of times, I slide into preoccupations about JD but yank myself back in the moment. “How was Delia’s?” I ask. They launch into a rapidly paced, immensely detailed rendition of their last eighteen hours—simultaneously, strangely unaware of their verbal collision: a story about a sports bra, someone having a crush on the boy from Germany, and something about blue tie-dyed soccer socks. They don’t know it, but their innocent ramblings are creating a bubble-wrap afghan, unwittingly comforting and protecting me.
“Oh, Mom, guess what happened to Hannah? Mrs. Henry had to call her mom at two in the . . .”
“One in the morning.”
“No, it was two in the morning . . .”
“No, it wasn’t. It was one in the morning. Iknow.”
“How do you know, you weren’t even awake?”
“I heard Mrs. Henry tell someone on the phone.”
“Well, whatever . . . it doesn’t matter anyway. Mom, Hannah’s mother picked her up in the middle of the night. Can you believe that? She was crying and walking around the house—she was sleepwalking, actually, like a zombie, and Mrs. Henry found her in the kitchen by the stove. She almost caught on fire!”
“She did not! Mom, Lilly’s making that up.”
“No. No, I’m not . . . that’s what Mrs. Henry was afraid she was going to do. Really.”
“Are you smoking me?” I’m half listening.
“What did you say, Mom?”
“I said, ‘Are you smoking me?’ You know, like ‘Are you kidding?’”
“Mom!” Tessa gasps as if I just took my shirt off at the gas station.
“Mom, are you serious? Where did you get that from?” Lilly follows.
“From you girls. I heard you say it to somebody.”
“It’s not ‘Are you smoking me,’ it’s ‘Are you joking me.’”
“Really, Mom, what is that?”
“Yeah, where did you get that from? You can’t say that. Come on, it’s embarrassing.”
“Fine. I’m sorry I’m so offensive.” Why is it kids are completely tuned in when you say something embarrassing but can’t hear perfectly normal things like “Please put your dirty clothes in the hamper, not on the floor next to the hamper”?
They both break into ripples of laughter until they practically can’t breathe. Tessa holds her stomach and falls to the side, where her head lands on Lilly’s lap.
We’re almost home, and I can’t wait for this day to be over. The time on the dashboard says 10:57.
It’s gonna be a long day.
I turn onto Brightwood Road and notice something I hadn’t seen before. Beyond our front yard, tucked into the elbow of the road, the very first autumn leaf appears on Mr. Snedgar’s oak tree; it’s a blazing reddish-orange. The tree’s widespread branches, like a hundred gnarled fingers, point in my direction. It’s always this tree that portends the approaching fall. Though this time, it’s far too early.
To say that I’m a little distracted once we arrive back home is the understatement of the century. The girls go upstairs to unpack their overnight bags and straighten their rooms while I retreat to the laundry room to deal with the mounds of clothes. I sit on the tile floor and sort the whites from darks while I try to sort my twisted emotions. I want to feel better. Erase what’s happened. Steal yesterday back. I want that typical Andy’s-coming-home feeling.
The only way to move forward is to find JD.
Or find out about her.
I need a reliable source. That’s not as easy as it sounds. First of all, my parents aren’t alive—they died before Andy and I were married. In fact, Andy and the girls are all the family I have. But even if the pool of relatives were more plentiful, it’s not as if I could call any of them and ask if JD died. How exactly would I phrase that? I’m afraid to ask anyone. Inasmuch as I’d stake my life on JD being alive, what if she isn’t?
My mother would’ve been the perfect person to talk to. I could always get information from her without revealing my lack of it. Which was particularly handy when I was a teenager and wanted her opinion as to whether my father might ground me for one thing or another. Often you got a lot more from her than you were seeking. Some people like that trait in others—takes the pressure off of them to talk. That might explain why most of her friends were the quiet type. Including my dad. He seldom spoke. Perhaps he felt he didn’t have ample opportunity, but I think he was relieved not to express himself. He definitely indulged my mother—not with fancy jewelry or a big house; those were beyond his reach. Instead, he was tolerant of her quirky ways. A perfect example of this was when my mother made a decidedly sudden and permanent change in the way she spoke, and my father never so much as flinched.
It happened when my sister and I were about six. My parents took a trip to London as a second honeymoon. It was their first trip abroad. While there, my mother “became” British. She fell in love with “those charming, classy Brits.” She was so transformed by the sound of their accent that she began speaking with one herself and never reverted back. Even in her final days.
She completely crossed over to the other side of the pond—linguistically, that is. The funny thing is that she never showed a bit of self-consciousness at the sheer craziness of it at all. I don’t believe she ever thought, How does a thirty-one-year-old woman, who’s lived in the States all her American life, instantly become British after a seven-day “holiday” to London? Believe me, everyone else did. Sometimes, now that time has distanced me from it, I think, Bravo to her. She didn’t want to slip invisibly into a group of suburban housewives like a queen of diamonds into a stacked deck. It was harder for me to understand that back then, when my schoolmates (and their mothers) would impersonate her. Behind my back and to my face. JD and I were desperate for our mother to stop. But she didn’t. She grabbed onto that accent like it saved her soul, and she wasn’t letting go.
It was my father’s reaction that had us dumbfounded. He never once gave Mom a hard time. He didn’t seem at all embarrassed. He accepted it like it was her destiny. I think he was glad she was so happy. She’d finally found her voice (in a manner of speaking).
JD and I were mortified for a long time. We realized pretty fast that we should make friends with any new kids who moved into town. Those families just thought Mom was British. I remember that in first grade, I had a classmate named Cindy Bone. She was vicious—for a seven-year-old—and she had an equally vicious mother. One day, soon after my parents returned from England, I came home from school and was standing on my front porch when Mrs. Bone walked past our house with the evil Cindy. I don’t think she saw me standing there, but she stopped in front of Mrs. Withers, our neighbor, who was weeding the flower bed in her front yard. With a mocking hand held up to the side of her mouth to feign discretion, she called out, “Has Elaine Spencer lost her mind, or has she landed a part in My Fair Lady?” That sent Mrs. Bone into an interminable horror-movie cackle that ended up in a half wheeze/half gag until she quickly stuck a newly lit cigarette between her shriveled lips. Thank goodness Mrs. Withers had the decency to turn away silently, start up her lawn mower, and drown out the rest of Mrs. Bone’s insults, while dispensing grass clippings onto her perfectly white seersucker trousers.
By the time I left for college, I was used to it. I don’t think very much about it anymore. But when I do, it reminds me to be aware of my own behavior—the emotional scars of children can take a lifetime to heal. If they do at all.
The laundry is separated, pockets checked for tissues and change, stains pretreated, and the washer filled with the first load. Once I close the lid, I head back downstairs to make lunch. The girls walk Smarty while I prepare three hummus and cucumber sandwiches.
Lilly and Tessa argue between bites about which craft project they’ll do, and I’m relieved not to be needed for this conversation. They always want to do the same thing, though they never agree on what that is. The battle seems to be as important as the task. JD and I always wanted to do the same things when we were young. The difference was we never argued.
Together we clear away the table. My printout of today’s schedule is on the counter next to the blender, reminding me to do laundry, change bed linens, go to drycleaner, Clorox the shower drains, and return beach chairs to the crawl space. All that was supposed to happen before noon.
The girls decide on pom-pom puppets and start their project on the kitchen table. I go upstairs to finish the laundry and change the bed linens. At the top of the stairs I sigh deeply, trudge toward the laundry room, and lose momentum. Perhaps I never had it. I wander in and out of rooms; Smarty’s my shadow. It’s impossible for me to drum up enthusiasm for anything. I begin a task that should take five minutes, and fifteen minutes later I have to remind myself what it is I was there for in the first place.
Finally, Lilly and Tessa’s sheets are changed and the laundry is half folded. I get to my room, and instead of stripping the bed I plop down in the middle of it. I cross-stitch my legs and coax positive energy to flow freely to my brain. Maybe something will kaleidoscope into clarity. I need time to think. I rack my brain—who would know about JD? If she were really gone, who would know?
They’d want to know. They’d put it in the alumni magazine or directory or whatever that thing is that reports marriages and births and deaths.
I race down the stairs to find the main number for Barton College in my Rolodex. I know it’s weird that I still have a Rolodex. I’ll be one of those old ladies who holds onto ancient rusty hedge sheers when nifty, super-fast, super-sharp electric ones are available. And I’ll never give up my corded phone—which hangs in the kitchen next to the fridge.
In the den, I unlock the bottom drawer of the credenza and pull out my Rolodex and place it on top. Right next to my desk calendar.