Excerpt from The Loved Ones
Only a flurry. A thin blanket of white, something to take the gray mounds of snow and make them new. It began at dawn and fell over the blighted grass and the frozen river turning everything beautiful for a moment. Jean Devlin started her car, the Valiant wagon she used for errands. Soon the car was warm enough to drive and Jean made the reverse up the steep curve, then backed into the roadside pull-off where most delivery drivers chickened out and parked. They’d rather hand carry a refrigerator than make the plunge, but Jean could do it blindfolded.
Actually everyone gave up and parked here; it was true. Over the years she’d widened the pull-off to something almost stately with a stone wall framing a pretty stone stair that zigzagged under the spruce trees. She’d made those steps walkable. No matron climbing down for a house tour would tumble off her sling-backs and sue. Every summer for the last five Jean’s quiet little Cape had made the designer’s showcase. The star, the best of the best, her father crowed. Jean idled on the ridgetop and watched the snow sift down through the branches and thought of him, her father studying her face, so like his own, assessing. You never have to be anyone else he liked to say. Just tell them who you are.
I’m Clyde Boll’s daughter! she’d shout when tiny and he’d find her a silver dollar. Then she was nineteen years old and he was giving her a wedding gift. He’d just won Gooseneck Cove, and on this day they were taking a closer look.
Her father, stiff-legged even then, shoved aside the goldenrod grown thick in the trace of a gravel drive. She lifted her skirt high so she wouldn’t spoil her sundress. They sidestepped down and stood in an open patch of long wet grass. Blue spruce and birches made a wide-open circle, like the property was an amphitheater set to watch the drama of the river. The house was rotted up to the caved-in roof. Crows screeched from the trees at their intrusion and a water rat slid out through a broken window into a break in the cattails. Jean screamed and her father pulled her close to his chest. Don’t be daft, Jeanie. It’s a mouse.
A stench like something dead and decaying canceled the wet soft piney air. But she could still feel it on her skin, and she turned to see what the blue needles did, shivering, reflected in the water. What she’d make of all this. What a talent she had. Everyone said so. Then they climbed back up the ridge, Jean stepping like a deer, on the lookout for garter snakes.
Today, Jean would speak to Dr. Crabtree about some kind of sedation for the dog. Nick had laughed at her idea. She’s not that bad! he said. But how would he know. Now a sweet sickening aroma filled up the car. Between the house and the cage the miniature poodle had somehow rolled in manure.
One year, she told Nick. She’d give him the year.
That’s all he needed. That’s what he’d said at Thanksgiving. That’s all he was asking for. One year with her in London making things gorgeous, and then they’d see. Because how can we keep this going? he said. And finally she was willing to wonder that herself.
Even so, she looked at her gray shingle house tucked into the ridge overlooking the best stretch of the river for miles and felt she belonged only here. Fifteen years since her father’s poker crony gave up the tiny cove on the Navesink River. And what Jean had done with it.
But how could they keep going. Other people wondered and some had the nerve to say so aloud. Today, no doubt, Mimi Crabtree would be at the door of the barn, narrating her very limited understanding of Jean’s situation.
Oh! Jean could hear her say, as if she’d already arrived. Oh! How’s that handsome Nick Devlin making out on Carnaby Street?
Making out. Something her daughter Lily liked to say. Something for children. Making out. Kissing on the sly. All kissing felt like that to her now. Underground and unexpected.
Someone had the wit to clear the house after the dinner Thanksgiving Day. She never quite knew whom to credit. But the candles were still guttering on the table and the sideboard when Lionel and his latest wife, Kitty, Jean’s stepmother, Doris, and her father, Clyde, Lily, and even Perry the poodle went off for a ride in Lionel’s limousine and never came back. Jean had on an apron with a recipe for cornbread stenciled on the bib. Nick found her by the sink and leaned into the counter, took a cigarette from her pack on the sill, but didn’t light it. Need help? he said.
Not yours, she’d said. A little late for that. Even now it seemed harsh. Then she said it again. Not from you. The next thing she knew, he’d left the room, left her there with her apron and her hands already sudsy. How sick and foolish she felt all of a sudden. Her apron someone else’s holiday costume. She untied it and left it on the counter and followed him then, out through the dining room past the bayberry candles Doris insisted on, all letting out the strange spiced scent. She thought he might be in Cubbie’s old room, and wanted him to be there, but of course he wasn’t. He’d already talked to her about that long ago. If Cubbie were in there, I’d never be anyplace else. No, of course not. She hadn’t kept it up either. About a year ago, she’d put everything in a storage room in the attic. They’d understood at least that much together.
So now it was a sewing and craft room, or something like that. A place for a housekeeper—if she could ever tolerate someone working in the house again—to have a cup of coffee undisturbed. Or a room that had no use. And that was another reason to go to London. A year to reconsider this place, how to make their life work here again.
She took the curved front stair, the pride of the house, the one thing fully intact when they found it, and walked away from the main bedrooms to the one designated all their own, a small blue room with French doors opening over a rooftop balcony where the bend of the river came closest to the house. They’d chosen this room as newlyweds, and let the grander rooms be used in other ways.
He was sitting on the desk chair, struggling with his shoes. She sat on the edge of the bed. Soon he would be forty and he was beginning again. That’s what his brother Lionel said. All brand-new. And where she’d said to Lionel, who was so sure of everything, where does that leave me?
At some point Nick reached for her in a way she almost remembers, and that the French door was ajar, though it was cold enough for frost to spark the glass panes. Her skin was cold from that air, and his hands felt hard under her thighs, holding her up, catching her weight as if her whole body could be suspended in the air for a while, and for a moment it was. Though the ache of it the next morning kept them apart from each other. She’d been in the air, then her spine juddered fast, and then her bed felt as cold as concrete and he was asleep enough to be gone. It was the kind of thing she couldn’t remember even as it was happening; there was too much of that lately.
Luckily for Jean, Mimi Crabtree was focused on the Kennedys today. You look just like Joan in that coat, said Mimi, holding the door wide, a glass insert into the traditional door. They’d done a good job here; just the site and the hand-rubbed red planks of the converted barn had stolen every last client from the old vet Carter Smyth on Front Street.
Blond all over, said Mimi, nodding approval. A phrase Jean found mildly repulsive. But she smiled, and placed her cheeriest self somewhere on the damp floor between them. Yes, she laughed. And don’t believe the ugly rumors. I’ve never even met a brunette.
Our secret, said Mimi, and waved toward her mouth, a ghost of gesture they’d made in school.
Jean gave the complicit smile, then sighed. But, seriously. I’m at the end of my R-O-P-E. I can’t say the word. Imaginary objects are the worst. Jean closed her eyes and gave a joking shiver.
Jean Devlin was an extraordinary-looking woman. Mimi Crabtree could see it today, what everyone went on about. She hadn’t always thought so, and she didn’t agree that tragedy made people any deeper or better. Usually not, if she were honest. But who wanted honesty? Most wanted a blond looking lost in her polar bear coat.
What are we going to do with this bad boy? Mimi whispered to the cage.
God, please tell me you have some ideas.
Mimi thought for a minute. You know. Maybe I do.
But wait. Don’t we need the doctor? Jean laughed. I mean I’m willing to try anything. Believe me.
No, we need to talk to my sister. How do you think Perry would like Vermont?
Northeast Kingdom, up just past Burlington.
Vermont? said Jean. She felt herself go still, as if something had confused her, then she remembered to smile. What an idea. My sister has a big farm, makes this place look like the toy it is. She’s got a world of dogs and cats, all kinds. Perry would fit right in.
Perry in Vermont?
Why not? A buzzer rang on the big switchboard phone be-hind the check-in counter. Hold on a minute while I get that. She tucked herself in behind the artfully rough panels and picked up the receiver. Everything okay, sweet love?
Such a voice, Jean thought. What kind of a woman talks to her husband that way, at work no less. She sounds like a human Tootsie Roll.
She’s right here, said Mimi. No, we’re fine. Fine, she said again. Then: Don’t worry. She hung up the phone and beamed at Jean. He says don’t worry about a thing.
He knows about Vermont?
He trusts me.
Jean looked down at the small poodle looking up at her through the grille at the top of the cage. Perry was curled around the gray-pink matted rabbit toy that Lily put in the cage so he’d never be scared when traveling. It was Lily’s squashed companion from nearly the day she was born until age four. All drool and grime when Jean had finally pried it away and put it up on a high shelf, against her better judgment. But Doris and Nick and even Lionel had all weighed in on this. So she added a blue gingham bow to match Lily’s new big-girl bedspread and the rabbit had stayed. Until years later, when Lily identified the mangled fluff as the antidote to all of Perry’s problems, which of course it wasn’t.
He loves that rabbit, whispered Jean.
He can take it with him, said Mimi. Why not.
Jean wondered why people were always so ready to solve all her problems. Mimi Crabtree needed a hobby. Let’s start with the sedative, Jean said at last. And I’ll think about Vermont.
Do you want to leave him overnight?
Sure. Why not.
The tiny airport at Teterboro closed every time a teaspoon of snow fell on the silly red awning that covered the entry to the passenger lounge, and JFK was worse. Already a half inch had come down in the last ten minutes. Mimi waved now, arms wrapped tight around the unfortunate Fair Isle sweater she wore which emphasized the heavy high lift of her shoulders, the black and white all wrong. She looked like a spindly legged spider hovering in the gray light of the doorway.
Jean turned over the engine and waited. There was no point navigating the steep downhill through the orchard until the Valiant was ready. Waving Mimi, smiling waving Mimi. Suddenly Jean rolled down her window and gave a sweet wave back; she called out a warm good-bye and thanks. She might never need to see that woman again, and realized she was actually giving the Vermont idea a chance. Mimi, finally satisfied, retreated and closed the glass door.
Jean could almost hear the telephone in her kitchen ringing from here. Lionel calling with the contingency plan. What they would all do for Christmas if Nick didn’t make it across the ocean tonight. And almost in response, a knotted pear-shaped fist seemed to clench with a hard ache just behind her pubic bone. She released the emergency brake and let the car glide like a sled around the graceful curves through the apple trees, slowly, while she caught her breath, the pain that sharp and then muted again. At least Mimi Crabtree was gone. She caught herself being superstitious. In a long marriage, Mimi Crabtree had produced only one underachiever still struggling his way out of the slower eighth grade. Russell Jr. left back in kindergarten, almost unheard of, because he couldn’t grasp the basic shapes that would one day become letters. That Cubbie and even Lily were reading on their own in kindergarten was just a fact. Just the way things were.
Jean eased to a stop at the end of the drive and felt the rare peace of being alone. Not a soul on the road in either direction. The snow was no longer swirling; now one of those determined showers fell all around her and muffled the thick tracks some big vehicle with chains had made not so long ago. The ache in her belly subsided completely, like a big fish that had swum thickly to the surface, then away. It was well hidden now. She was not pregnant. She’d already been through that dashed hope and it had landed her overnight in Riverview for a quick D and C. Nothing to it. But she’d asked for and received a total anesthesia.
She’d been told at the Philadelphia children’s hospital that the very best thing she could do was have another baby. Have another child right away. There was lip service paid to the theme of impossible to replace, but the emphasis was: new baby. As aggressive and idiotic as they had all seemed to her at the time, Jean could barely understand or bear to think about why it hadn’t happened yet. One day about a year ago, she’d made the terrible mistake of bringing it up with Doris who was, after all, the closest thing she had to a mother. Doris had said something ludicrous about god’s time or god’s plan, god’s notion that was so enraging, that Jean had called her something horrible out loud: Christ, you’re a stupid piece of shit.
When did you start talking that way Doris wanted to know, as if that were all that mattered. Her father had laughed. Just once, but he did laugh, and it had clarified a great deal about where Jean still stood with him.
The road was beginning to look bad, but if she gave up now, it almost guaranteed a lost Christmas. She’d be curled in the big plaid chair nursing a Dewar’s watching Lily open a patchwork velvet miniskirt from a boutique on the King’s Road. Already too small. No, she would proceed as long as possible with the plans they’d made. She put on her left blinker, though at the moment it seemed as if she were the only driver out in the county. She’d skip the usual coffee with Doris, just drop off Lily’s overnight bag then beg a last-minute hair appointment. Who knew? Maybe she could get one.
Jean made the slow wide turn back onto River Road, empty and hushed, and angled the tires into the ruts left behind. The Valiant wobbled left then right. A truck maybe, something with a broader chassis. She felt herself upright in the seat, her chest coming close to the steering wheel, and took a breath. She’d be fine. But, my god, the snow had come down so fast!
Now she was on the steep hill that hugged the back of the golf club, slowly, her engine grinding out the ascent and then louder still on the downhill, with a whine to suggest it was at some break-ing point. But that was impossible: she was going twenty miles per hour. The scene lay out around her; the sudden open valley all the way to the water looked like something perfect. She said out loud, Pretty! As if Lily were in the car and needed to be distracted.
The heat blast made her gloves, the whole car smell like bacon. She rolled down her window but that fogged her windshield. A jolt of panic shot through her spine when she couldn’t see. She downshifted again, wiping the condensation with her hand, taking that deep slow breath she’d been taught, thinking grateful, I am grateful for the chance; she’d been taught that, too.
All the talk about summer on the shore but this was the time most beautiful, the grays and mauves and violets, the green cast in the snow that no one saw but her, and of course, Lionel. Bottle her, he always said. She’d forced herself not to think of these compliments with melting fondness. He was a scoundrel; that’s what her stepmother would remark if she knew the half of it. But Doris flirted with Lionel. Gave him the full wattle, Jean told Lionel. You’re getting the works, Jean laughed. She’s really turning on the lights.
Yes, I see. Wicked girl, he’d called her and smiled. Very wicked, he’d said as if appraising something hidden and precious.
Two weeks ago her latest errand for Lionel had made Nick laugh. His best good laugh played out long across the overseas cables. She listened and felt happy she could still do that. Tell a story and make him laugh.
Lionel had called too early one morning and begged her to get on the train. The most recent Katherine was locked in the bedroom and couldn’t or wouldn’t come out. I’ve tried everything. Believe me. He took a deep breath. He’d tell her everything, but she cut him off.
Oh, I believe you, she’d said and then waited out the sulky silence on the other end. Lionel preferred to persuade at length.
Please come, he said, finally. Could you come right now?
Her arrangements were easily made. Lily was spending the night at Margaret Foley’s. Jean could leave food and some newspaper on the floor for Perry in the basement, close off the good part of the house, and go.
She boarded the train in Red Bank with the last wave of commuters. You have me for an hour, she’d said. But ringing the door, just past ten on Sixty-Second Street, she knew her day was lost. She already heard herself calling Doris to arrange for her to check in with Lily around dinnertime. The Foleys couldn’t always be counted on.
She drew back from the door and looked up at the brownstone facade, freshly pointed, all the window trim painted a subtle unex-pected gray green. So Lionel—something to catch your eye and keep you looking to figure it out. Feeble blue Christmas lights twinkling off-rhythm in daylight. This must be Kitty’s hand at work. How did he find them. All of Lionel’s wives were named Katherine. But only the first, the loveliest and the sanest, had used the full title. The rest—only four! said Lionel plaintively—were Kates and Kokos and now, the most infantile, Kitty. The latest Mrs. Lionel Devlin was barely out of her teens. Is she out? Doris had asked, all earnest fact-finding, and Nick and Jean had roared with laughter. Maybe not, dearest, said Nick. Very possibly not.
How does a grown man meet a girl that young? Doris wanted to know. Jean took an exasperated breath, and Nick answered, Luck, dear. Someone’s luck, anyway, we’re not sure yet who’s the fortunate one. But I think it may be Lionel. She’s very sweet, this Kitty.
Oh, come on, said Jean, incredulous. She’s embryonic.
A quality most don’t appreciate right away, said Nick, and Jean gave him her slyest smile.
Lionel appeared at the front door in his uniform black silk kimono, belted with a hideous necktie, something in a zigzag hori-zontal knit. And sure enough, her eye went there, to the hangman’s knot he’d affected in the brown flame stitch. She smiled up at him. You’re a wonder.
No, you! How did you get here so quickly? I adore you. Come in.
He scanned the sidewalk behind her, happily, as if there might be some other pleasant surprises, and then sighed and stood back; the waft of some new scent caught her as she skirted by him. He took up the doorframe, yet assumed the posture of allowing her entry. Such an old-dog trick, he made her laugh. Look at you! she said.
His hair, usually a careful bell from crown to nape, was a nest of wet ringlets. Silver, black, beige, even green-looking damp tangles, cheeks bright pink, and teeth brushed, just, and he was saturated, completely saturated with a cologne that smelled of grapefruit rind. She barely made it past him and wondered why it never made Nick jealous—Lionel knocking her half silly with a greeting.
He’s only practicing, said Nick when she asked him. But she wasn’t so sure.
Practicing hard, then, she’d said.
He listened. What would you like me to say?
She shook her head. As if she’d started something stupid. He’s a silly man, your brother, she said. But silly wasn’t what she meant at all.
Lionel gave the door a pat when closed as if commending a faithful servant, odd the ways he got her to watch him. Thank god you’re here, he said. We are desperate.
You are always desperate, she laughed at him and shrugged off her jacket. Where is this nightmare unfolding?
It’s not funny, Jean.
No, of course not.
She’s in the upper flat and won’t come down. It’s been days.
All right, she said, dropping her jacket on the red lacquer chair, all right. Have you had any breakfast?
Of course not. Lionel tugged at his knot, pulled in his belly.
Well, you’re emaciated I can see. She put a fond hand toward his wet hair. Go find a brush. I’ll put the coffee on.
What about Kitty?
She went on to the kitchen and untangled the cord from inside the percolator, found coffee and corn toasties and Aquavit in the freezer. Even if the toasties were a thousand years old, just the scent of them would calm everyone down. Lionel reappeared in gray flannel trousers, red cashmere turtleneck, and black velvet slippers with a coat of arms embroidered in gold thread. His hair combed straight back from his forehead, his face soap shiny, fingertips pink from the scrub brush.
Much improved, she said. All right, I’ll root out the girl.
You’re an angel. Really, he said. You are. His eyes held her gaze then he jimmied a mug out of the dishwasher. That look he always gave her. Jean climbed up the interior stair to the upper duplex. What was that look. Longing, admiration, even love, lust, respect, something like awe, tenderness. Always something rich and good she wasn’t getting much of elsewhere. But sometimes the eyes were just big and dark and blank. Today, for instance, he’d used the same attentive watchfulness to rinse the dirty cup.
Jean reached the top floor, tucked in her loose blouse, knocked shave-and-a-haircut on the bedroom door. Kitty? Sweetheart, it’s Jean. Will you let me in?
The door opened a tiny crack. That didn’t take much; she’d have Kitty downstairs before the toasties were defrosted.
She pushed the door gently and entered the dark, dank-smelling room. Some sweetish, moldy smell seemed to be coming off the sheets of the rumpled bed. Opaque drapes were drawn and a yellow seam of light between each pair shone bright like strips of neon. Kitty was curled on the floor. A suitcase, a very small apple-green one, like a child’s overnight case, was stuffed with blue jeans and embroidered tops.
It’s no use, Jean. It’s really over, said Kitty. It’s like a death this time. There’s no changing it. I’ve tried everything.
She put her head inside the green suitcase and sobbed, very muffled sobs, but her shoulders shook under the peasant blouse she wore, a wispy blue and identical to the one she’d given Lily last birthday. Jean looked at the pantomime unfolding on Lionel’s very good carpet. She imagined Kitty had unlocked the door then rushed into her fetal position beside the suitcase. Kitty’s narrow shoulders quivered.
Jean lowered herself down, slowly, as if Kitty might be startled into a bite like Perry. Come on, she whispered, and arranged her tweed skirt close to her hips and thighs, in case Lionel decided to sneak in on them. Shh, she said and draped a very light, very tentative arm around Kitty’s waist. Sweetheart, hush now, really, now.
Kitty cried harder. But soon she pulled her head out of the suitcase and dropped her face into Jean’s lap, which was alarming, and for a moment Jean suspended her hand’s caress, then she remem-bered what to say: There’s nothing here that can’t be fixed. Nothing.
She stroked the fragile head under the thin blond hair. The skull felt light, as if Kitty’s bones were thinner than other heads she’d held. Both her children had been born with hard thick heads she’d thought would protect them. She felt the thin bone under the too fine, too light hair. The weeping girl who meant well but had foolishly married Lionel. What can be so terrible? Jean crooned a little; she heard herself sounding like a cartoon character. Hmm? What’s so awful as all this.
Then of course she got the answer, a baby on the way. Lionel’s inability to keep his prick in his trousers.
But surely, Jean started to say. But she was a prude. She was a cartoon prude; she felt Lionel’s prick was out of her range of operation. Sort of, she thought and laughed, and Kitty looked up confused. You’re married, darling heart. Aren’t you?
Yes, yes, but Lionel doesn’t even know what married means.
Kitty, sweetest, you’re pregnant now.
Kitty sat up and blinked. The same wide-eyed deep blank look that Lionel gave her. And Jean made the exact same gesture. Pushed back the light fluffy hair as if to get more of that look, whatever it was. You are having a baby, said Jean. Imagine how beautiful that baby will be. Imagine. My goodness.
She pulled Kitty into an embrace now, very light, better, much better than the collapse, and she felt the warmth of Kitty nestle into the curve of her lap, the tender softness of her slender arms holding Jean’s own. What a pretty picture they would make if Lionel came this moment.
How about a nice bath, said Jean. I always loved baths when I was pregnant. I’d feel the baby and I were doing the same thing, just floating.
She’d drawn the bath and changed the sheets and found clean clothes in the piles on the floor. She’d opened the drapes and for a while, the windows. By the time Kitty was tottering down the stairs smelling of lemon verbena there were voices in the kitchen. Kitty snuggled right into the depths of Lionel’s turtleneck. Heaven, he said into the top of her head. The man leaning against the counter said, You’re the rescuer I hear. He shook his head as if she’d done something wrong.
Here you go. He lifted a strawberry-shaped cup from Kitty’s counter-top mug tree and poured the coffee Jean had made.
Lionel was speaking into Kitty’s hair, and Jean could feel the comfort of that and Kitty’s resistance, both at the same time like a shiver. Irving Slater, said Lionel. Meet Jean Devlin, breathtaking sister-in-law.
The first thing she noticed was that his mouth looked clean. It had sharp lines, and big-looking teeth, and dimples. It looked like a mouth that made good choices. Not like Lionel’s open-ended banquet, his soft full mouth pressed to the passing parade. Irving Slater had a discerning mouth. She smiled at him. Now that Nick was becoming the great connoisseur of faces, maybe she could play this game, too.
She took a sip and said, Marvelous.
Oh! she said and now Kitty was laughing, too. This was all very funny. She’d done her job; now she could catch the 1:15 out of Penn Station and be home again as if nothing had happened.
* * *
Just thinking about Lionel made her smile and Jean felt the wheels find traction on the straightaway like another compliment delivered with his usual ease. She was fine and soon the snow would be over for good. December twentieth and everyone predicted an early spring. She really was okay, but once she made it over the bridge to Doris’s house she’d wait out the snow after all and drive home only when the roads were sanded and clear.
Copyright © 2015 by Mary-Beth Hughes. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic Inc. All rights reserved.