The morning after, the Sunday newspaper calls me “a friend who stopped by to check on the recent stroke victim.” Not the half of it, not even ten per cent, leaving out nearly everything that put me in those still-anonymous shoes.
So, listen. By 10 a.m. Saturday, after Linda Warren didn’t answer when I called at 9 and then again at 9:30, I was dressed and out the door. Since her husband Hank’s stroke going on six weeks ago, she’d never not answered my morning call. There was the chance she hadn’t heard the landline because she was busy in the bathroom with Hank or herself. She could have been running late with her schedule because she’d had a hard time getting Hank put together, the muscles on his right side so clumsy now he couldn’t button a shirt or tie his shoes, but I wanted to be sure this wasn’t something more. It’s never a good thing, frustration.
By then it was sunny and fixing to be the best early April weather of the year. Nice enough, anyway, for me to think about a long walk after I’d made my stop, locking my door and bringing along my key ring where I’d added the one for the Warren’s front door after Linda had given it to me in the middle of February. So I could come and go at their place. So I could help with things after Hank had what she kept calling his “incident.” And I walked slowly, giving the two of them another minute’s time to be ready to welcome me.
Still, there wasn’t an answer when I knocked and then rang the bell. Which is what the key was for. Which is how I walked in on such a thing that can best be described as “never in a million years,” though not the half of that either, not by a long shot.
Monday doesn’t ask me for anything more than the weekends do these days, but when it comes, I haven’t been out of the house since I’d let myself into the Warrens, seen what I’d seen, and said my piece to the police.
By the looks of the newspaper, neither have any reporters. What’s new according to them? Hank Warren is still unresponsive, in critical condition at the county hospital, but the doctors aren’t releasing additional details. The police still have a person of interest for the crime, but they’re not commenting further. Both of those items could have been had for one-minute phone calls, and for sure, there’s no sign that someone might have persisted past “fine, let us know when you’re ready.”
One good thing about that—my name’s not public yet, though maybe it’s worse waiting for it to be shouted from half the front porches in the county at six a.m., my small role in a story where everybody, before they read any further, knows what will happen. It’s like the way I remember reading Shakespeare fifty years ago, knowing all those people with their names in the titles, no matter how much they talk and talk in pretty language, are very shortly going to be dead.
Since Hank and I had retired five years ago, whether Thursdays were hot or cold or in between, Linda always made iced tea for after our dollar-a-stroke golf or during our nickel-a-point gin rummy, and then she busied herself someplace else in the house. “Big time gamblers,” she said. She always had a book to read. A new one every time I stopped by. Even the thick ones were over and done with by the next week. “You two have your stories. I have mine.”
Hank and Linda had lasted longer in marriage than me and my two wives put together. I’d managed twelve and eighteen years, and they were going on forty-five. “Hank’s my best friend,” Linda would say. “I’ve been lucky.”
They’d never had kids, so there wasn’t even that cliché of staying together for the children to fall back on as reason. Sometimes I thought them lasting was more surprising than most of the childhood-traumas-as-sources-of-issues I heard from troubled students from my working years, but then I’m not being a counselor when I think on marriage.
Hank was the one who labeled my work as mind-massages for the masses. He picked at my stories the way sports fans second-guess coaches. To tell the truth, I loved egging him on. Two weeks after his stroke, when I finally half-relaxed around him, I mentioned a student who had sued her college because it failed to account for her allergies to escalators, tall people and cactus. I wanted Hank to laugh and maybe forget himself for a few minutes. This student hadn’t attended the college where I worked. Both of us were free to joke about something that seemed to make satire out of my job. “She’d be safe in here,” I added, encouraging him by pointing out how he and Linda were short and didn’t own a cactus or have an escalator in their small, one-story, two-bedroom house.
Hank didn’t smile. “My mother always made me retie my shoes before she’d let me step onto an escalator,” he said. “She told me never talk to big people I didn’t know. Those aren’t allergies. Those are fears. If you pay attention to that drivel, you’ll spend your whole life making the weak feel important.”
“What about cactus?” I said.
“That’s just common sense.” He looked at me as if he expected me to apologize for gullibility, but then he went on. “There wasn’t any of that overthinking in driver’s ed. Kids wouldn’t last a day on the road thinking like that.”
“Allergic to bridges,” I said. “There’s some drivers that are.”
“They can walk then.”
“Or live in Kansas.”
“A clear head,” Hank said. “Anticipation. A lot of what used to be called horse sense.”
“Sounds right,” I tried, but Hank seemed pensive.
“You have your pine trees and grass seed,” he said. “Maybe you ought to sue the golf course for your lousy scores.”
“For goddamned sure. I’m stuffed to the gills with it, but none of it says ‘right-side hemiparesis.’”
“Lucky us,” I said, meaning it, but Hank looked bothered, his eyes fixed on the carpet by Linda’s empty chair as if he’d spotted crumbs from the oatmeal-raisin, vanilla, or anise cookies she baked every week to put out for us.
The story is still front page on Tuesday, but now there are two columns embellished with human interest, Hank and Linda’s neighbors talking, their pictures to the side. All three neighbors say the same thing. Such a shock. A devoted couple. Linda the nicest person you could run into when you stopped in on business at the borough office. Linda so devoted to her job as secretary she never once complained about having to attend all those public meetings that dragged on forever because townspeople thought they had something that needed listening to. Linda, according to one, a possessor of a good soul whose anise cookies at Christmas and Easter not only were decorated with Christian images but tasted as if they were baked in heaven.
Hank, I thought, would agree with that in a slanted sort of way. “Arguing with Linda,” he’d told me two weeks ago, “is like arguing with Jesus. All you earn is shame.”
He had fans as well. “The sweetest little man” is how one of Hank’s former driver’s ed. students describes him. “So gentle.” She’s my daughter Kelyn’s age, thirty-five, but I don’t remember her being in our house. She’s shown standing with three little kids and a baby in her arms, and I wonder whether her husband is as out of the picture as my Kelyn’s. The yard around her house, I notice, has the same well-kept look as Hank’s and Linda’s.
I’d say we live in a neighborhood where violence is as rare as a tornado or a Democrat elected to office. The paper says the last murder in the borough was twenty-four years ago, a two-year-old child, and I remember at once how a young father had thrown his boy against the wall of his apartment. “Because he cried and cried and wouldn’t stop,” the baby-tosser had said.
Hank’s condition is still described as critical. What’s included, just after, are two sentences that name me as the frequent visitor who discovered Linda’s dead body and Hank’s unresponsive one. I lay the paper down on the kitchen table, put on a coat, and drop my keys in the pocket. I don’t want to be home when the phone starts ringing, not even at 6:30 when some I know might call.
It’s still half dark, so when I pause a few steps from the crime scene tape that’s still up and intact, I finger the key Linda had given me, nearly pull it and the others from my pocket before I push myself down the block to keep from playing the fool.
By seven o’clock the sun has broken through, the morning brightening so intensely I start to think I’m being watched from houses where people live who recognize me. I imagine being stopped at the end of a driveway, a small crowd gathering to ask and ask. I take the shortest route back home, one that doesn’t go past the Warren’s house.
Two messages are blinking on the phone, and when it rings for the twentieth time before noon, I lock the door and drive off to see a movie. Tuesday afternoon, the one o’clock showing of 10 Cloverfield Lane has three other customers, each of us alone, each sitting in a center seat at least four rows apart.
All along I think John Goodman’s character is right to be hunkered down in his bomb shelter because the aliens have arrived. Not because it makes sense to believe him, but because I’d seen the earlier Cloverfield movie, the one filmed with a hand-held camera so I felt like I was right there, where it felt real because things turned out badly. Walking out, though, I wish I had Hank Warren to tell that Goodman acted “movie paranoid,” not much at all like my troubled students, who mostly stayed inside themselves the way I’d learned to do around my daughter since she’d turned overbearing after I’d retired, equating that natural event with senility.
I brought up one of those students to Hank about three weeks ago, a case more than seven years old so when I changed the boy’s name and considered the time that had passed, I decided confidentiality had expired like my old income tax records.
The referral, I told Hank, had been made in person to me and my colleague Rachel Faust by a professor. He’d never heard or seen anyone picking on this student, he’d said, but the boy had begun to send him email messages claiming persecution and humiliation, saying how much he hated everyone, including him, for allowing it.
“The first time,” the professor said, “I answered by email and suggested we talk, but he didn’t show. The second time, I asked him to stay after class, but he walked right out. The third time I came to see you because I find myself watching his hands when he enters the room. I pay attention when he reaches into his backpack until he extricates a book or a notebook. Even worse, he always sits directly to my left so I have trouble keeping him in sight. I’d be dead in a heartbeat if he wanted it that way.”
We did our jobs, I told Hank. We talked the student through the “situation,” and Rachel set up weekly meetings with him after he seemed more at ease with a woman than with me. For a while, Rachel reported “promising progress.” A few weeks later, though, that boy walked out of class and into the bathroom just across the hall so everyone in the class could hear him slam the walls with his fists and yell, “You fucking pussy” over and over, as if, the professor said later, he was admonishing himself for not shooting me and whichever students he held a grudge against.
Hank’s expression didn’t change. “Another professor brought the boy to the counseling center that day,” I said. “He was teaching in an adjoining room and hurried to the door, which turned out to be unlocked. He led the boy outside and walked him straight to Rachel Faust.”
By then Linda had shown up with two big tumblers of Arnold Palmers, what she’d started making after Hank’s stroke, diluting the tea with lemonade to cut down on Hank’s caffeine. Hank didn’t reach for his, and Linda waited while I sipped and said, “Good batch.”
A moment passed. Linda hovered. Hank stayed quiet in a way my mother used to call “down in the dumps.” Like nothing could rouse him.
Linda glanced my way. “How’s your girl getting along these days?” she said, and Hank sat up like he’d heard a cue from a prompter.
“That daughter of yours was a humdinger,” he said.
The word sounded so suggestive I didn’t know how to answer. Finally, Linda chimed in, “Whatever do you mean by that, Henry Warren?”
Hank smiled at me. “What? She never acted up around you? Speaking her mind?”
Linda shook her head and disappeared into the kitchen; I said, “She’s feisty.”
“A humdinger. She had herself more spirit than brains when she first got behind the wheel. A heavy foot. Like a boy almost, how she went at it.”
“She’s always been her own self.”
“That’s another way of putting it,” Hank said, and we both went silent for a few beats too long. The year before, Hank had asked three months running about my daughter right up until her divorce became final. “I kept hoping for some gumption from that man of hers,” he’d said when I gave him the news.
“She says it’s for the best,” I’d said, and Hank shook his head as if he was disappointed by the final episode of a thirteen-week mini-series.
Linda, when I’d told her about the settlement, said “She needs a shoulder,” and I imagined a much younger Linda baking and coddling for a few weeks while some boyfriend showed himself more and more to be a prick.
Hank turned animated, like his old self that would be ready to play a round of golf in forty-degree weather just because the calendar said Spring. “I bet you counseled some of my young drivers over the years,” he said.
“Not that many townies attend, so maybe not,” I said, but Hank didn’t slow down.
“Or maybe you’re doing right by them, keeping mum.”
“I’m here to tell you I remember them when I read about their crashes and their DUIs. How they acted at the start. How you could set your watch to inevitable. You do that with yours?”
“So you never know the sheep from the goats?”
Hank lifted his glass left-handed, took a sip from his drink, and frowned. He put the glass down carefully, but it nearly tipped, some of the amber liquid splashing onto the table. “Fuck’s sake,” he muttered, glancing toward the kitchen, and he turned toward me. “Those kids all expect something they’ll never get, every last one of them, so you’ll never be surprised.”
Right then it was a relief to have Linda come back in with a plate of her Easter season anise cookies that meant she was joining us, that an hour had passed, maybe more, so she could spare a few minutes for small talk before I left. “Here’s your favorites,” she said, giving me one and placing one beside Hank’s barely touched Arnold Palmer. She sat in her chair that was always protected with a shawl she’d bought years ago from an Amish woman who sold along the highway south of town.
“You hear how she has the hospice in her voice now?” Hank said.
Linda looked stricken, but Hank kept on. “She likes me being laid up. Like it’s good for me to be dependent.”
My cookie, I noticed, had two lilies embossed on its surface. There were crosses, doves and the face of Jesus on the others. I sat there deciding what I could say so that Linda wouldn’t speak. As it turned out, a moment too long. “A little time off never hurt anybody,” she said, biting into a cookie.
Hank pushed his cookie away from his glass until it looked as if it was meant for somebody who was expected to join us. “Hear that?” he said. “That’s the speech you get after your nurse decides she knows your time’s up.” He lifted his glass and moved it beside the uneaten cookie. “Arnold Palmer should be ashamed of himself having his name on this kids’ stuff.”
“Now, now, Hank, you know why,” Linda said.
“See?” Hank said. “See what I mean?”
On the phone the following morning, Linda volunteered, “He’s not as bad off as he thinks he is.” I could hear the television turned up loud coming from the living room where, by the sound of the dialogue, Hank was watching an old movie on the Turner network, sitting, I was sure, in his tan lazy-boy. “He can walk and talk and all that. Just slower with everything is all. I keep telling him he’s seeing just a yellow light. Caution. You need some of that when you’re seventy, stroke or no stroke, but he’s already slammed on his brakes.”
“A stale yellow,” I said, but I heard Hank hollering from the living room, and Linda managed just “Excuse me” before she hung up.
I sleep in on Wednesday, the bleak weather keeping the light from the bedroom. When I rouse myself, I leave the newspaper lie outside in its rainy-day plastic wrap until I finish a cup of coffee. Which is why I don’t get up from the dining room table while the phone rings at 8:45, figuring it’s one of the twelve who left messages the day before. But when the voice mail kicks in, it’s Kelyn leaving a message from two hundred miles away to tell me she’s coming to visit to make sure I’m ok.
“Why wouldn’t I be ok?” I try, picking up, and she’s off and running. “Word gets around fast, Dad,” she says. “Yesterday I got seven text messages saying you walked in on a murder scene.”
“You don’t have to come,” I say. “I’m fine.”
“It’s no problem.”
“I don’t need anything,” I say. “Stay home.”
Though I’m sure it’s moot, I hang up and manage a six count before the phone sounds again. She drops right back into her second-hand news. “This morning I got five texts that said it was your friend Hank Warren who’s the murderer,” she says. “I thought you said he had a stroke and lost most of his right side,” letting me know what to expect in the plastic-protected newspaper before I retrieve it. “I’ll be there tomorrow night. I’ll leave the girls with my friend who loves to have them, no questions asked.”
“I have questions,” I say, but the line is already dead, nothing to do but pick up a little to keep her from starting a lecture. I empty two shopping bags of boxes Kelyn had brought as “a cheer-up present” the last time she’d visited. Altogether, there are two full outfits: a new shirt, a pair of pants, a sweater, even a warm-up suit and what any sensible person would know was nothing but an extra pair of tennis shoes. Before she’d left, she’d filled two plastic bags with old clothes of mine and said she’d help out by dropping them off at the Goodwill bin on her way out of town.
The story’s been moved to the Local section, a good thing, because the first half of the front section has been dampened by water leaking under the plastic wrap. No matter what people were thinking before, now they know this was not a home invasion. Hank is the “person of interest,” the sole suspect. There is a picture of Linda, a recent one, because she’s wearing the glasses with the new frames she bought in January. Hank, it says, stands accused of bludgeoning his wife to death, beating her multiple times with a hammer found at the scene along with two empty vials of prescription drugs.
There’s no sign of a neighbor or old student talking nice in this article. There’s no sign of me except my name repeated in a cut-and-paste paragraph, nobody, not yet, interviewing me so I could tell them there are situations where you find out how many ways the world sticks to you. Seeing’s just a part of it. Hank’s clothes covered in blood. Linda’s body on the living room floor nearly hidden under a blanket. There’s silence, too, Hank so still slumped in his lazy-boy that I leaned down to feel for a heartbeat in his throat warm to the touch and faintly pulsing. Smell? Blood soaked into the carpet, the worst.
And the glass of white wine by the kitchen sink, nearly full, and me, without thinking, picking it up and sipping before I dumped it down the drain and ran water over it and set it back to dry, thinking, right then, that I’d walked in on something absolutely and purely inexplicable. Unless Hank Warren survives to tell his tale Unless he beats the odds of tragedy.
Two Thursdays before the murder, as I told Hank about another seven-year-old case, he seemed to perk up. I took it as a signal to elaborate on a student who, despite having been hauled into the student life office for multiple offenses, proved to be friendly when he came in to talk. With his phone, he’d secretly taken pictures of his resident assistant and a few other students who lived in his hall and posted them on Facebook with the headings “asshole” and “douchebag” and “dickface.” When some other students “liked” and even shared those pictures, it became fan-club-like, something more than nuisance when it tuned out he’d also made crude drawings on notebook paper of those students, each identified by name in a caption below their bodies being stabbed and bleeding.
The boy, I said, had left the pictures sit in plain sight on his dorm room bed long enough to be discovered by the resident assistant, which is when Hank interrupted. “That sneaky one from last week is the danger,” Hank said. “The stabber artist is just showing off. He’s a little wuss.”
When I smiled, Hank snorted. “You and your ambition. You should have stayed in the high school where people know what needs to be done. The college left the sneaky prick stick around, didn’t it? And dumped the kid who drew cartoons.”
“Uh-huh. Before you could say “fantasy,” it was a real mess. I did my best to mitigate the inevitable. I wrote a letter expressing my sense that this boy wasn’t a threat.”
“Not your call?”
“Rachel Faust’s, but student life had already decided.”
“A woman’s going to vote against blood every time.”
“What a counselor you’d make, using gender as the first criterion.”
“If I was prejudiced, I wouldn’t have passed any of the girls who never stopped talking while they were driving.”
“I know one of them,” I said, and for once, Hank laughed aloud and spouted the names of three students, all boys, he’d refused to have in his driver’s ed. car. “One time only offenses,” he said. “Talk about your dickheads, six years apart coming through, the three of them, but each was hopeless, so I said, ‘Ask your fathers to teach you this one thing.’ No doubt about it, those boys were always a danger to themselves, but in a car, they were a danger to others, so absolutely no more. Nobody complained or called the principal. Those fathers had to know exactly why I wouldn’t have their sons in the car ever again.”
Hank took a couple of quick breaths, panting like he’d just finished a dash down the block and back, before he settled in the lazy-boy and closed his eyes. I waited a minute, feeling like I was being tested, but though it had been nearly an hour, Linda didn’t bring in the Arnold Palmers, so I made my way to the front door, turned to look back just to be sure, and found Linda coming into the foyer from the kitchen. “Good for you, letting him feel smart,” she said.
“I didn’t want to get him worked up.”
“Thank you for that as well. I know he has his ways, everything either right or wrong. A boy’s way of seeing never quite left him.”
“Nuance isn’t his friend,” I said.
“That’s why I’m so happy you’ve kept coming by every week since the incident. You’re a prescription, and he doesn’t even know it. He gets a dose with his tea and lemonade.”
“Or without,” I said, and she looked back into the living room.
“I’ll make his tea straight again next week. Maybe normal’s better even if it’s pretend.”
“Normal’s what you make of it.”
Linda stepped closer to me, nearly whispering. “You know what Hank has said at least once a week for thirty-five years every time he’s angry over nothing? ‘Driver’s ed. is a fool’s job.’”
“Everybody has doubts about what they do,” I said, but she wasn’t finished.
“Not like Hank when he got going. ‘Anybody can drive,’ he’d say. ‘Just look around. It’s easier to drive than to print your name. It’s like the only math you need can be counted on your fingers.’ Everybody said Hank was a great teacher, but I’m the one who knew all that time that he hated that nobody thought he was smart.”
Today is the Thursday I was going to tell Hank Warren about the woman who was allergic to mauve. She claimed pale purple shortened her breath. It’s warm enough Linda would have talked him into sitting outside on the screened-in porch, the only change they’d made in that house since they’d moved in when I was still working with Hank at the high school.
I thought it would be good for him to mock me for even mentioning that one with a straight face. But what I really wanted was a prelude to telling him and Linda about my daughter’s allergy to gold, how the impossible can be fact.
The night Kelyn turned twenty-one, a friend at a bar bought her a special liqueur speckled with gold dust. As soon as she swallowed, her throat shut tight. She gasped and wheezed; her friend begged the bar for a doctor; strangers stared and did nothing until the seizure somehow passed.
“Like children watching a magician,” I said when she told me, and she answered, “I could have died a metaphor, the woman with an allergy to gold” before we walked outside, the day clear, just before sunset, as if we needed to dare both the light and dark.
The last Thursday before the murder I told Hank that the dagger and blood boy became my Facebook friend. He doesn’t post often, I told Hank, but a couple of years ago he posted himself and a girlfriend in caps and gowns graduating from another college. And when Facebook dropped in one of those You’ve Been Friends for Seven Year photos as compulsory nostalgia, it was the picture of me he’d posted right after I agreed to be his friend. I’m slouched in the school snack bar, and inexplicably close to me is a stuffed panda that belonged to his then-current girlfriend.
“There’s a thing called play therapy,” I told him. “Way back when we were kids, Life magazine had an article about it, a psychiatrist using a boy who heaved clay against the life-sized scrawled drawing of his brother, the body chalked on the wall like the dead. The patient declared he was happy now, and though not exactly in love with that hated brother, he’d stopped screaming, ‘I want to kill you!’”
“See?” Hank said. “The know-it-alls were wrong.”
“I message him from time to time like he’s an outpatient,” I said.
“All you have to do is wait for the other guy to snap,” Hank said. “Then you can message your old friends from student life and give them a Facebook poke.”
Linda walked past the doorway with a book, but she didn’t say anything. Without the Arnold Palmers or the straight ice tea or the cookies, it felt as if I’d just arrived. Hank rapped on the arm of his chair like a teacher. “Listen,” he said, “can you remember the time when you wanted your mother to stop touching you. You know. Fixing your collar or smoothing your hair.”
“I guess there was a time,” I said. “Maybe when I turned thirteen or something like that.”
“I was ten,” Hank said. “It was my birthday, and she kept fussing with my hair, taking her own comb to it like I was a simpleton. I had friends about to arrive, and she kept saying “birthday boy” like she’d never seen me before. As soon as the doorbell rang, I ran my hands through my hair so it fell all over the place before I answered.”
When I open my door, Kelyn throws her arms around me, but I feel myself stay rigid for a second before I move one hand onto her back. “You poor thing,” she says, “having to see all that and him your friend and such a nice, gentle guy.” When she doesn’t let go, I step back, and she says, “Are you ok?”
“You know what drivers ed. story Hank Warren told me just two weeks ago?” I say. “He wanted me to know that over the years he’d forced three boys out of the car and made them walk back to school.”
“Everybody knew that story when I had him,” Kelyn says, “but nobody knew what made him so angry.”
“Something about putting others in danger, but what I think he meant was they wouldn’t listen.”
“All that tough guy stuff about making kids walk. It was like a myth, Dad. Like that woman in the Bible who turned to a pillar of salt for not obeying. He must have thought those stories made it easier to teach us.”
“He said you were a humdinger. His word. It means you never shut up and drove too fast, too soon.”
Kelyn smiled. “He really was sweet, Dad. We had to change a tire for a test. Everybody dreaded it. There was a boy in my group, a head, you know, a druggie kid, and when it started to rain really hard while he was right in the middle, you know, the tire off, but the other one sitting there, Mr. Warren got out and finished up for him.”
“To be kind or because he had no patience?”
“I don’t know, Dad. He’s your friend.”
“In that case, because he wanted you to see how competent he was.”
“You mean another myth? Jesus, Dad, you talk as if you’ll testify against him. Maybe they’ll find out she had cancer or something. He covered her, Dad, and then he tried to kill himself with all that medicine.”
“Who beats his wife with a hammer if it’s a mercy killing/suicide?”
“He killed her with one blow and the others were just making sure. Or he thought he could kill her with one blow, but the stroke made him swing left-handed, and he had to keep going once he started. Don’t you hope for that?”
“There’s no reason to hope for the impossible.”
Kelyn starts to stack the old newspapers and gathers one empty frozen dinner dish that sits on the coffee table. “Look at this place. You go relax and let me clean up for a while before I take you out for a decent meal.” She runs water in the sink and squeezes detergent into it before dropping silverware and dishes into the soapy water. “I’ll stay until Sunday, Dad. Help you catch up with things like laundry and shopping.” I go and sit on the porch and wait for her to exhaust her charity.
When she comes out at last, the twilight starting to fade, she goes to her car and comes back, thankfully, with only her suitcase. “I’ll take it inside later,” she says, “and I’ll make a grocery run after dinner.”
For what? I want to say, but I begin to tell her what I know about Hank and Linda, how the police were waiting to get the full story because all this was such a surprise. “It sounds so open and shut,” I say. “I keep thinking that all those clues won’t let me see any way but straight in Hank’s eyes. Hank’s my friend, and yet I missed something beforehand.”
“That’s called normal, Dad.”
“Normal’s not enough then. I never even saw your Donny for who he was.”
“Dad,” Kelyn says, “Hank’s not my story. Donny never touched me. He was just 24/7 needy. Mom called him the Wicked Witch of the West’s little brother, a man who’d melt if somebody turned up the thermostat.”
“And now here you are mothering like you have everything figured out.”
“It’s just housework, Dad.”
“Unless a visitor does it. Then it’s called patronizing.”
“You want me to shut up?” she says. “How’s this?” and she zips her lips together with one finger to make it clear she’s done talking.
I give it a minute. Kelyn keeps her lips tight, but she doesn’t turn away. “Your mother had a way with words,” I say. “She told me I’d been a counselor so long I’d forgotten who people really were. She called it hand-holder’s paradox—the more you try to help somebody, the less you know about them.”
It sounds so weak, I look right at Kelyn and start again. “Your mother always hated Donny,” I say. “From the very first. Maybe that’s what made her so sure she knew everything about him, but I was always hoping you’d work it out.”
Kelyn sighs, but her shoulders don’t slump, and I feel a surge of panic. “For the girls,” I say and hear my voice crack.
Kelyn turns, her gaze going out across the yard. There’s nothing I can think of to do but turn as well, looking toward where the darkness amplifies how the forsythia’s annual bright yellow is fading. In a few days, the bushes will be all green and nothing but a hedge-clipping job all the way to October. For a moment, I thought either I would ask her to leave or she would do it on her own accord.
“The thing is, Dad, I did work it out,” she says.
I feel her hand on my arm, and I steady my eyes on the forsythia, allowing my fear and anger to pass. I want her hand to rest there, but it lifts as quickly as comfort.