Pillar

The custard would not thicken and finally, having added this and that without result, she turned off the burner and walked away from it.  There was some ice cream in the freezer and some strawberries in the fridge.  The berries were a little sad-looking, but she’d cut out the bad parts and macerate the rest.  Her mother would never notice.

It was strange to her to be going through normal little rituals like planning for dessert.  In light of everything, she ought to be sitting with friends to either side of her, holding her hands, rubbing her shoulders.  That is what a woman should want when her lover has been murdered.  No one who knew her would deny it to her.

In the back of their cabin, the yard was a narrow strip running along a steep bank, thickly overgrown with scrub cedar and autumn olive.  Below, the thin branch of the North river slipped past, a determined and patient body, head down as it acquiesced to the bends and boulders and to the fallen trees.  It was low just now, silent and safe.

Last year there had been a flood and the river climbed the bank, pushed through the woods and rose up into the cabin.  The furniture lifted off the floor and swam about the rooms. When the water dropped, the dining chairs were ganged in a corner, drunkenly toppled against each other.  The carpet was covered over in mud and silt.

She and Mike had cleaned the place on their own, drawing on the wall in the bedroom closet when they were done, a mark of where the water had been, with the words, “We’ve decided to stay anyway.”  They added the year as an afterthought, hoping it was true this was a hundred year flood plain.

One night when they were cleaning up, they talked about where they might have gone if they hadn’t stayed put.  Mike was cutting out the bottom two feet of the drywall in the living room.  A work lamp, clamped to the ladder, cast his face in shadow, lit his golden hair and arms.  She glanced up now and then as she emptied out the kitchen cabinets, watching the muscles in his back moving under his shirt.

“What was that place Suzanne used to talk about?” she called out. “That town in Vermont where she went to school?”

“I don’t remember,” he said. “But I remember the name of the lunch place she used to talk about.  The Goat Head.  Sounded so good.  Didn’t she bring us hummus from there once?”

“Yep.”

“I could live up north,” he said.

“I could, too.”

She shifted onto her hands and knees and began to scrub the inside of the cabinet with bleach water.  The fumes stung her eyes, but they said it was the only way to prevent mold.  “We used to go to Maryland when I was a little girl.  There was a house on a point on the Chesapeake.  Mom always came alive there. She wasn’t much of a people person.  There she didn’t have to put on any acts.  She could flop around all day, drinking coffee and smoking.  She spent most of the day on the screened porch, reading and watching us down at the water’s edge.  It was peaceful.”

For a moment, his work went still.  She wondered if he was feeling sorry for her, but just as she would have cautioned him not to say anything about her mother, she heard his hammer at work, pulling nails.  She let out her breath, leaning out of the cabinet to breathe.

Outside they heard rain drops falling on the grass.

“Maybe this’ll kill the humidity.”

“That would be nice.”

They were whispering, though they were alone.

“Hey, Mike.”

“What?”

“I’m glad we didn’t move up north.”

 

 


 

Her mother was sanskrit before they cracked the code.  She was unreadable, unknowable, a column of femininity with pointy flats at the ground and a smooth dark crown that reached up into the sky.  She was not a tree, because they had boughs that reached out, listed, trembled with life.  Her mother’s arms were always close to her frame, folded against her chest; or else her hands were linked at her back or tucked into pockets.

Her voice was low, slightly less so when she was lying.

“Tell your father we went for a walk today.  All of us together.”

“But we didn’t.”

“I know, but he’s been hounding me.  Just tell him we went down to the point and then back.  Tell him I seemed good.”

Molly peered up at her.  “You did seem good.  Resting in the house.”

“Don’t be like that.  Just tell him I took you guys out for a walk.”

“Okay.”

Her mother hugged her shoulders, turning her head to pull on the cigarette dangling from her long fingers.  “Mmm. Tell him it was nice.”

Molly loved her father and she was almost sure she loved her mother, but it was never joyful to be around them at the same time.  He treated his wife like something delicate, as if he cherished a thing about her no one else could see.  His eyes followed her wistfully; he shifted himself to fit closer to her in all ways.

On his fortieth birthday, her mother fretted over a cake.  It surprised the kids not only because she usually treated the kitchen like the coffee counter at a gas station, but because she never went to any pains for their father.  It just wasn’t how they operated.

The night of the birthday dinner, he was telling them about something that had gone wrong at work, when their mother heaved a sigh and dropped her fork onto her plate.

“This is boring,” she said.

A silence fell in the small dining room.  The children glanced into their father’s stunned face, then studied their laps.  Molly tried to think of something to say so he could finish his story.  Maybe she could act like mother was just joking. She lifted her face to try the lie.

“Anyway,” her mother said.  “You could get to the point a little sooner.”

When she brought out the cake after supper, he made an effort to seem enthused. And despite his hurt over the earlier comment, Molly could see he was touched by the gesture.

“You didn’t have to, Annie,” he murmured.

“I know,” she said.  She looked into his face quickly, then lowered a scowl onto the cake as she cut it.  “Anyway, I hope you like it.”

 

 


 

The man who murdered Mike had known them both since high school.  His name was Julian.  He was lanky and handsome with shadowy brown eyes and curly hair that made him seem boyish.  Sometimes they made runs together, he and Mike, bringing pot across the state line to sell in town.  Mike wasn’t much of a drug dealer.  He knew a couple of guys who’d buy a quarter pound at a time.  It was Julian who had a roster of clients.  He sold his share in little bits to just about anyone: eighths, dimes, and nickels.  He’d sell a junior high kid a single bud, wrapped up in the cellophane of a cigarette pack, rather than turn away a five dollar bill.

She never liked Julian, never trusted him.  He used to look up at her from under his curls, letting a slow and knowing smile bloom on his face.  His lips were red and cherry sweet inside the frame of his dark beard and she could not deny that the smile had an affect.  He could see it in her eyes and they both knew it.   She always looked away.  He never touched her, never came up close or behind her.  He never said a sweet thing to her, told her she looked good in any color.  In truth, Julian didn’t talk much.

Mike told her one night how their drug runs always went down.  They drove up Route 50 into Maryland, then turned onto Greenlick Road just before the old burned out church.  There were two more turns off that road, each new road a little narrower, the last one gravel only.  Julian made him sit in the car while he went in to buy.  He’d play the radio, but low, because the men inside didn’t like noise from outside.

Every time they went there, it ended with three sounds.  The first was the screen door on the little green cabin, whining as it opened, then slapping the frame softly.  Julian tapped on the trunk and Mike hit the latch on the floorboard to open it.  Julian always closed the trunk so softly it made no sound, but then he’d tap his knuckles on the glass of the passenger door and Mike would unlock the car.

“How’d you guys work that out?” she asked, turning something over on the stove.

“We didn’t really,” Mike said.  “It’s just always like that.”

“So you never see the pot until you get back into town and split it up?”

“Nope.”  He pulled his guitar out from behind the sofa and began to tune it.  He wasn’t much of a player, but he handled the thing every day.

“So you don’t even know if its good until you own it?”

“Nope.”

She pulled the pan off the burner and came to sit on the coffee table in front of him.  It was winter that night, snow flying at the windows, the Kodiak stove hot to the touch, heating the little rooms faithfully.  “Listen to me,” she said.

He smiled up at her, knowing she was going to give him advice.  At times like this, she wondered how much he really took her words to heart.

“Molly Harding?” he said.

“What?”

“I’m listening.”

She put a hand over his, stilling the guitar strings.

“If you guys ever get caught, you need to play dumb.  You need to act like you thought he was just buying enough for himself.”

He opened his mouth to speak.

“Julian’s a piece of shit.  He’d throw you under the bus in a heartbeat.  You’ve never seen the seller but you know how to get to the house.  Draw the cops a map. Cooperate. Say you smoke now and again – they’ll test you, so no use lying about it.  Say you drove Julian because he’d been drinking.  Unless they’ve been following you guys a while, they’ll never know the difference.”

“What about my guys?”

“Your guys? Your three college friends who split your share?  They’re the opposite of him; they’d never betray you.  Besides, they’re all model citizens, don’t even really look like potheads.  We’re not in our twenties anymore.  Only people like Julian fit what cops think of as trouble.”

“What do you want me to say?”

“If you ever get caught, you were driving Julian because he’d had a little too much to drink. You knew he was getting some pot, but you thought it was just a little for himself.  And then you draw them a map of how to get to the place.  Julian’s exactly the kind of guy they’d like to send up.  If you get them to the place where he’s buying, that’s all they’ll want from you.”

He’d looked at her for a long while.

“You’re a little cold sometimes, you know that?”

She wanted to smile but couldn’t.  “I know how to take care of my chickens.”

He dropped his gaze.

“Well, I’ll think about it.”

“If you ever get caught, do it exactly like I said.”  She went back to the stove, “Or stop running with him.  I’d prefer that.”

He shook his head at the thought.

In the Spring they had another party, marking the flood from the year before. Everyone was to bring something. They made a makeshift table out on the side yard under two sycamores: two sawhorses from Mike’s shed and a piece of plywood. She spread two cloths over the rough panel and though they didn’t match, it didn’t matter once all the bowls of food covered everything over. She had asked him not to, but Mike invited Julian.

“I didn’t think he’d come.”

She was clipping flowers from the edge of the yard. “There’s free food and booze. Of course he’d come.”

After the sun set, people had started to separate into groups, some down by the river, where a couple of guys were making music.  Julian found her in the kitchen by herself, doing dishes.

“You always keep moving, Molly.”

She didn’t look up from the water.

In the darkening glass of the window over the sink, she could see his curly head outlined by the ceiling light from the living room. It almost seemed he was wearing a halo.  She rolled her eyes at the thought.

“You not speaking to me tonight?” he asked, his drawl never so lazy. “You’re always mean to me, Molly Harding.”

“Don’t call me that,” she said.

He laughed, a rich sound like one from an old wooden violin. No, not that distinguished.  She slowed her breathing, trying to decide what to say but a moment later he stepped away, leaving her alone in the house.  He left his scent with her in the kitchen, spicy and sweaty and warm.  Pulling her lips tight, she switched on the ceiling fan.

In August, they went through a long, rainy period.  The river rose again, rapidly, and people started talking about a second flood.  She and Mike never said their fears aloud.  One night he went on a run with Julian up Route 50 and when he was gone two hours longer than usual, she convinced herself the road had got washed out and they were stuck up country for a while.  They’d probably have to wait for the water to drop and that might take a couple of days.  She tried to imagine how the two men would spend that much time together.  She wondered when Mike would think to call her.

It was the middle of the night before the phone rang, waking her from a light slumber that had stole over her despite her efforts to stay awake.  She answered with a dry voice.  An operator asked if she would take a collect call from the county jail. Her heart sinking, she said she’d take the call.

“Mike?”

“I decided to take your advice,” he said.

 


 

When her mother got to the house that evening, she was sporting a new haircut. Over dinner she told Molly about the trouble she’d had finding a good stylist.  She only let men touch her hair.

“I don’t trust a woman to tell me what looks good on me.”

Molly didn’t ask why, mostly because she didn’t care.  She moved the food around on her plate.  Her mother pulled a leather cigarette case out of her purse, which always rested on the floor near her feet, even at dinner – and no matter the house.

“You mind?” she asked.

Molly rose and opened a couple of windows.

“Okay, I’ll be quick,” her mother said.  “It’s cold out there.”

The two women sat without words, the one eating her dinner half-heartedly, the other burning down her smoke like it was being timed.  At last her mother broke the silence.

“You gonna find a renter for this place?”

Molly’s eyes widened; it had only been ten days.

“What?”

“I mean, you can’t sell it. It’s in a flood plain. I tried to tell you guys that before.”

“It isn’t even on my mind right now.”

Molly pushed her food away.

“Okay. Suit yourself.”

“Mom!”

Her mother shrugged, rising to put her cigarette out under the kitchen faucet. Dropping the butt into the trash, she moved to close the windows.

“Not yet,” Molly said.  “It still stinks in here.”

Her mother folded her arms.  “You can’t stay here.  Those bastards may still be out there.”

“They’re not coming for me.  It wasn’t my fight.”

“You don’t know.”

Molly dropped her face into her hands, rubbed her eyes until she thought she’d rub them out, the two dark stains that had been condemning her from the bathroom mirror since the night of the shooting.  Eyes that said she’d brought this on him.

Her mother sighed.  “Can I close the windows now?”

“If you want to.”

They closed softly.  Molly looked up and caught her mother gazing at herself in the glass, her expression wistful or else nothing at all but tired.  This woman had taught her how to lie good and she had schooled Mike to do the same.  She frowned down at her hands, folded on the table.  It wasn’t fair to string things together that way.

It wasn’t the whole story.

Time had taught her why her Mother asked her to tell stories to her father.  She’d had reasons that were not without compassion.

“I want to buy you some blinds for the windows if you’re not leaving,” her mother said.  “Although I think when the shock wears off, you’ll want to start over again, somewhere else.”

Molly nodded wearily.  She was either too defeated to argue the point or not entirely sure the other woman was wrong.  Perhaps in time she would need to move on, to put these years in their place, and strike a fresh mark on a new page. If she had her mother’s strength or something like it.

 

Sister-in-Law

They blamed the house fire on the chimney and the brush fire on the wind, but knowing how it started didn’t undo the harm.  When the ground had stopped smoking, when the neighbors had wandered homeward, Vesta Marshall stood at the edge of the burn, looking at the only thing left standing, the long brick pipe that had made the mess.

At her side, her sister-in-law was crying quietly, her face dark and sooty, with clean, creamy rivulets marking the paths of her tears. She worried a hole in her sweater pocket and trained her eyes on her feet.  “It ain’t real,” she said again.  “It just can’t be real.”

Vesta shook her head.  “Well, it is, Katie.  Stop saying it’s not.”

She stepped away from the other and walked the burn line.  It was just a little amazing how the char met the tender spring grass.  Here is where calamity ran out of steam, she thought, and it was not so blurry a line.  What would they do now?  That house, a dried up tinder box after all, was all that she and Katie had in the world.  Until now, the two aging widows had twelve acres between them and a crooked tin roof to keep the rain off their heads.  Now all they had was the acres.

“There’s no money to rebuild,” she said to the field as much as to Katie.

Katie didn’t have words to answer, but Vesta hadn’t expected any.

She dug in her apron for her pack of cigarettes, then recalled she’d left the match book on the kitchen table earlier.  Staring down the barrel of her last smoke, she felt laughter welling inside of her.  Letting her head drop back, she opened her face to the sky and let it come.

____________

Back at Christmas time, they were invited to a party in town, at the house of Alan and Lena Metrie, whom they had known since childhood.  It was a time-honored tradition; the Metrie’s loved to have folks over, to hear their piano put to use, to serve rich foods and sweets.  The widows were dowdily dressed, but they always felt most welcome.  Lena Metrie had a gift for kindness that never smelled of pity.  Her husband was plump and pleasant, making little jokes that were never as funny the next day, but made for rounds of laughter in the moment.

A lady writer from Richmond who was a cousin of the hostess sat amongst the circle of old friends, smiling as they retold all their stories.  She found Vesta fascinating and watched her keenly through the night.  After the last guest had inched carefully down the snowy walk, she helped Lena clean up the kitchen while Alan went through the rooms, putting out lamps and gathering stray plates and glasses.

“The widow from out in the county,” the lady writer said. “She’s quite marvelous.”

“Katie?” Lena said, climbing onto a stool to put away the punch bowl. “She was so pretty when we were girls.  Such a softness to her, those long lashes.”

“Oh, no.  I meant the other one. The taller one with the widow’s peak and the black hair.”

“Vesta,” Lena said. “I always thought she was the prettier one, too, but not everyone can see it.”

“She has a strong, intelligent way about her.”

“Count you to notice that,” Lena said.  She put the stool back in its place under a table near the back door.  Taking up a cloth to dry more dishes, she said, “They are an odd pair.  Katie’s husband, Hargrove, had asked for Vesta’s hand first, but she turned him down and told him he ought to ask Katie instead.  As I heard it, he asked her why and she said Katie was sweeter and would make him happier.  I guess he wasn’t so much in love with Vesta, after all, because he took her advice.”

The cousin clucked, but said nothing.

“Then, within the year, Vesta married Katie’s brother, Reese.  Hargrove was pretty well off at first, but when the market crashed, he was soon as poor as most people around here.  He and Katie made an apartment of sorts inside his father’s old house.  It was too much to try to keep a grand old place like that warm in the winter.  They got thinner and thinner, which almost made Hargrove handsome for a while.  It didn’t make him any kinder, though, and most of the town knew the way he was treating Katie.”

“How do you mean?”

“He was beating on her, not that she would tell a soul.”

They were silent for a while, stacking plates on the counter, emptying the drainer one swipe of the cloth at a time. Alan came into the room with a jovial, foolish smile on his face, but sensed that something weighty was hanging between the two women.  He slipped a few glasses into the dish water as quietly as possible and left them alone.

Lena said, “When Reese found out, he was livid.  They’re family was as poor as dirt and a little ornery, too, at least if they got riled with any liquor in their bellies.  But they never mistreated their women.”

“What happened?”

“Hargrove got met by the Marshall boys in a side street one night, got taught what a kick in the ribs feels like, a boot in your back.  They worked him over good.  He got pneumonia soon after that, though no one said it was because of the beating.”

“Is that what widowed her?”

Lena nodded.  “Vesta insisted Katie come live with she and Reese out at their place on Coolidge Road.  Just a little cottage and a handful of acres.  They put up a wall to make her something of a room and she brought a bed from the old mansion.  I remember working my garden and watching Reese’s truck roll past with that big mahogany headboard dangling over the side.  If it didn’t fall off before he got up the mountain, I said to myself, it would be a miracle.”

“Vesta must have loved Katie a great deal to share her house with her.”

Lena shrugged, “It’s just what family does, especially if times are lean.”

The lady writer glanced away, an odd smile twisting her mouth.  “Well, I suppose that didn’t occur to me.  I’ve been taking care of myself for a long while and I am a little selfish with my privacy and my space.  What seems like a sacrifice to me is probably not a thought to other folks.”

Lena studied her cousin a moment. “Well, I can think of a lot of women who’d like that kind of life.  To come and go as you please and have no one to consider.”

“It’s lonesome at times, but mostly I enjoy it.”

____________

Katie wiped her face with the back of her hand and moved to stand nearer to Vesta.  Buttoning and unbuttoning her sweater pocket, she said, “Ray said we could spend a few nights with them while we sort things out.  We ought to start down now before it gets dark.  I don’t like his woods at night.”

Vesta smiled, “You child, you.”

Katie blushed.

“Well, I don’t care for them much, either, truth be told.  But I think we ought to stay only tonight.  I don’t care to owe Ray much.  You know how he likes to go on about people in his debt.  He had plenty to say about that plow last year, forgetting how many times Reese used to repair it for him.”

They turned away from the ruins of what had been their life earlier in the day.  In the slanting light, the oaks along the drive were burnished gold and rose.  A breeze flirted with the leaves, carrying still the scent of fire.  Folding her arms over her stomach, Vesta said, “What about that place of yours in town?”

“Hargrove’s place?” Katie sounded frightened.

Tensing for an argument, Vesta said, “Yep.”

“I can’t imagine we could save it.”

“It was built to last and the last time I saw it, the roof still looked good.”

“But the windows. The porch is rotting off.  I don’t think it’s a good idea.”

Katie paused, adding, “Reese always wanted me to sell it.”

“So you’d have some money.”

“But you always said no.”

“Because you’d never have made what it was worth.”

The sun lowered as they entered into the neighbor woods, but the path was well worn and well known, so the kept their pace. Vesta’s pale features shone in the shadows, a sturdy beacon as they had always been to Katie.  She hung her head, considering her sister-in-law’s suggestion.  It terrified her to think of going back to that house.  She found herself stifling a sob.

“Oh heavens,” Vesta said.

“I’m sorry.  I’m afraid it’ll be haunted.”

“Any ghost you find there, you’ll have brought with you.”

They walked on in silence as the woods lost the light.

“That wasn’t fair,” Katie said at last.

“I lived under that crooked, leaky roof back there for twenty years with plenty of my own ghosts,” Vesta said, scowling into the darkness. “I know what I’m talking about.  The ghosts are just ourselves doing the haunting.”

____________

Lena Metrie and her cousin were not sleepy after cleaning up the Christmas party.  They took saucers of cake up to the guest room.  It was a cheery little place, centered on a sloping dormer, with rosebud wallpaper and a pink chenille spread.  As they did in girlhood, they kicked off their shoes and settled in on the bed.  Leaning out to grab her purse off a chair, the cousin held up a polished silver flask.

“Will you have a pinch with me, Lena?”

Noting that the shades were already drawn, Lena smiled and took the flask.

They ate their cake in silence, letting the quiet spell of the little room charm them.

“My feet were killing me,” Lena said.

“You were at it all day. I’m not surprised.”

“We love having the Christmas party.”

“You have a lot of friends.  It makes a merry gathering.”

Lena smiled, letting her gaze list to the bedside lamp.  It gave a soft peach light.

“So how did the other one become a widow?”

Lena gave her cousin a glance.  “Well, Reese enlisted after Pearl Harbor.  He went over almost immediately and then one day they got the news he was dead.”

“How old would you say Vesta is?”

“I suppose she’s about forty.  She was a little older than me and Alan, but Katie was in our class.  I hadn’t thought of that – her being older than us – in quite a long time.  It used to stand out when we were kids.  In truth, we used to invite her and Reese along just because of Katie.  Not that we didn’t like them.”

She sat her saucer aside on the nightstand.

“Over time, it became like Katie and Vesta were one and the same.  They’ve come together every Christmas the same as all the husbands and wives.  Or I suppose like blood sisters.  One rarely says one name without the other.  You run into a person at the market and they ask how Katie and Vesta are getting along.”

The writer raised a brow, “It surprises me a bit they haven’t remarried.”

“Does it?”

“Doesn’t it you?”

Lena shrugged, “I suppose I never thought about it.  But, you know, there really aren’t as many men to choose from these days. I mean men of an age.  There are plenty of boys.”

“Well, as I said before, I think the tall one, Vesta, is rather interesting.  She’s more handsome than pretty and she has an air about her.”

“I’ll take note next time I see her.”

The cousin straightened her legs and rolled onto her side.  “You ought to,” she said. “Sometimes queens walk among us and no one is the wiser.”

____________

In the morning, they offered to feed the hogs and chickens.  The thin, sallow woman who was Ray’s missus watched them from her back porch as they carried buckets toward the barn.  Her hands made raw, homely fists at her sides.  Glancing back at the woman, Katie said, “She makes her husband look almost jolly.”

“Makes that place of yours in town look a little nicer, too, doesn’t it?”

Katie sighed.  “Yes, I think it does.”

After they fed the hogs, they stood in the shade of the barn for a moment.  Katie asked, “How would we make it work?”

“I think we see if old Collins will give you a loan against the house.  We could fix it up into apartments.  I bet we could get two on the ground floor and three more each on the second and the third floors.  You and I could live downstairs and collect rent from the other units. It would make us enough to pay on the loan and to make ends meet.”

“That sounds like a lot of work.”

“Well, there’s plenty of men we know we can trust to do it fairly.”

Vesta felt around in her apron pocket for a match she’d grabbed from the kitchen.  She struck it against the barn to light her cigarette, took a puff and handed the smoke to Katie.  They passed it back and forth a few times.

“It’s the right answer,” Vesta said. “I can feel it.”

“Well, I trust you.”

As they walked back to the house, Vesta said, “I’ll miss the air out here and the trees, but in town, we’ll find new things to cherish.”

The words made Katie feel hopeful.  It was a kind of magic Vesta had always possessed, a way of weaving dreams big enough for the two of them.  In that way, even when they each were widowed, they never really were left alone.  Last Christmas, after the party at the Metries, they drove home in Reese’s old truck.  The engine rumbled as they inched their way through the laying snow.  Vesta talked about things that were said at the party.

Emboldened by sherry, Katie said all in a rush, “Reese told me once you had a way of making people feel like you’d put them in your pocket.  I think he was right.”

Vesta paused.  “Wonder what he meant by that? What do you mean?”

“You make people feel covered and safe.”

Her sister-in-law never had known what to do with compliments; she stared out onto the snowy road, driving in silence.  Yet there was an air of happiness between them in the toasty truck cab.  It smelled of diesel and vaguely of perfume.  A deer wandered into their path, but Vesta kept her cool and eased off the pedal.  They just missed hitting it without having to trust the brakes.