The Longest Distance © 1992, D. W. Boynton
The night Maggie Whitehurst hanged herself, I was sixty miles away, fishing with her husband. Well, her estranged husband, as they say on the television news.
I spent a lot of time cleaning in the months following the final divorce decree. I cleaned the house. I mean all of the house, scrubbing the little brown stains out of the corners of the bathroom. I scrubbed the floors of the kitchen and the utility room on my hands and knees with a brush, then waxed the floors to a brilliant shine anyone who watches daytime television commercials would have been proud of. I could see myself. I shampooed the carpets, bought new curtains for the bedroom, and a new bedspread. I had a dent bumped out of an old Mustang I had picked up cheap in the Auto Trader, and then had the whole car painted metallic red. I always wanted a red car, and I always wanted a Mustang. I scrubbed as much of the corrosion as I could from the brightwork of my little boat, replaced the refrigerator in the kitchen, and painted the trim on the duplex I shared with my friend, Wesley Chin. I'm not sure exactly what caused my sudden interest in cleanliness, other than some Freudian reaction to one of my father's favorite sayings about "getting one's house in order". I also ended up cleaning out my desk at the television station where I worked. That wasn't my choice, though. It was theirs, after management decided they didn't like my face much anymore, either.
Sagging ratings at six and eleven brought in a consultant from Iowa, who hooked up a pack of "viewers" to a machine that measures "Galvanic Skin Response". In short, my picture on the screen didn't make their palms sweaty enough. They brought in the latest blow-dried model from Dubuque to replace me, at about half the cost. They were, however, perfectly willing to pay me for the eighteen months remaining on my contract - provided, of course, I did not seek employment at one of the two other network affiliates in town. I had no desire to do so. At thirty seven years of age, and after fifteen years in the business, I was just about televisioned out.
My friend Wesley told me I was a very lucky man. He was referring to two things. First, thanks to the contract payout, I was not in any immediate need of work, and could, in fact, live very comfortably for the next year or so doing absolutely nothing, or as he put it, "less than nothing".
"Doing nothing," he said, "implies that you are unemployed, and have no desire to seek employment. I would suggest that you really work at doing nothing. You have gone through the hit parade of stressful situations in the past few months." He counted them off on his fingers. "One, you have gone through a separation and divorce. Two, you have lost your job. Three, you've moved to a new home, and four, you have substantially changed your lifestyle. You need therapy, Brad. A little short-term stress reduction wouldn't hurt. Of course, being the manly super-hero you are, that is unthinkable. I'm suggesting you really revel in the nothingness of the things you do. Get plenty of sleep, drink plenty of liquor, if that's what you want to do, and generally clean out your head as well as you've cleaned up the apartment. Jesus, If you really want to clean, come on down to my place."
He also said there were much worse places to be single and thirty-seven than Virginia Beach, Virginia in the summertime. Wesley was referring, of course, to the large number of tourists who populate the beaches in the summertime. Many (I have it on good authority about half) of these tourists are women, who seek the sun and sand the city's tourism bureau is fond of publicizing in its brochures. I have lived in Virginia beach an even dozen years, and have never seen any of the places where all of these beautiful pictures are taken. I firmly believe the photos are taken somewhere else. Hawaii, for instance, then plugged into the Virginia Beach literature. The brochures show blue, blue cloudless skies, with romantic couples silhouetted toasting each other with wine, looking out over a white beach with multi-colored umbrellas. In reality, the weather comes pounding out of the mountains, then comes to a screeching halt when it hits the confluence of the Chesapeake Bay and the Ocean, leaving the sky an interesting shade of orange at times. When I was a reporter, I used to do stories this time of year about elderly people who didn't have or couldn't afford to run their air conditioning. This time of year was tougher than the cold days of winter. Air conditioning for them is just as much a necessity as a furnace in the winter. Nothing moves then, the winds die, and the air fills up with the gunk and smutch of industry and autos. The temperature goes up and up into the mid- nineties, along with the humidity. The beach isn't even real. Most of the sand is trucked in from well inland, since the spring storms wash away most of what's there every year, right up to the boardwalk's seawall. And God forbid any of the city's police officers catch you with a wine glass anywhere near the beach.
Virginia Beach is not Hawaii. It's not Florida, either, if only because its season is different. It is mostly a summertime resort, mostly for middle-income and working- class people from New York, Pennsylvania, and for some reason I cannot fathom, Canada. The signs welcoming you to the city ("World's Largest Resort City") are in both English and French, and many of the hotels fly both United States and Canadian flags out front, in respect for our neighbors to the north, and their strange colored currency. But it is home, and has been for the past ten years.
Wesley says the normal reaction of many men in my position would be to take my little red Mustang down to the beach, find myself one or more young women around the age of twenty, and have myself one hell of a summer. Frankly, the thought of doing that would scare me to death. For one, what would you talk about afterward? The latest "Guns and Roses" album? The latest hits on MTV? The prospect did nothing for me. I had, however, gone surf fishing once or twice along the tourist strip, and had noticed that a large proportion of the women were single, and appeared to be between the ages of say, thirty and forty, well within the range of my consideration. My shrink says that's progress. Yes, I have a shrink, too, and Wesley says that's progress.
My wife, well now ex-wife, Barbara, had decided our life together was not moving forward quickly enough to suit her. Whatever the hell that means. She wanted more of a commitment. Marriage is a commitment, I told her. When the time came for Barbara and I to settle up the inventory we had acquired in twelve years of marriage, guilt played heavily in my decision to be the one who moved out, leaving a good-sized home, the "good" car, and much of the furniture in her name. I retained the interest in a rental property I had invested in with Wesley, my old car, and the boat. Wesley already lived in the lower floor of the duplex. When the tenant upstairs moved out, I moved in on a "temporary" basis, and paid our little partnership rent at the going rate, six-month lease and all.
Wesley Chin got in on the ground floor of the computer revolution. He's a year older than I am, but looks ten younger. Early in his career, his expertise led to a pair of college texts, one a simple introduction to computers, for most any "Computer Science 101" class, the other a highly technical, graduate level text on networking computers, linking several machines, or several hundred, or several thousand together. It's how, for example, K-Mart World headquarters in Troy, Michigan, can tell when a package of chewing gum is sold at the store in Boca Raton, Florida. Although he keeps telling me he's overdue to crank out a third textbook ("Alternate Reality is the hot new area," he says), he makes a good living by keeping the other two current. A "second edition" and "third edition", updating the techno-world of computers do well in killing the used book market for college students, and they keep the cash register ringing, money flowing into Wesley's bank account. The Mexican restaurant he bought from the royalties also helps. It's called "Chin's Tijuana Palace", and to my knowledge, it's the only Mexican restaurant that serves fortune cookies with the check. It's on the tourist strip, Atlantic Avenue, which runs right along the line of big hotels on the oceanfront. The tourists like gimmicks, and it's something they remember to tell their friends when they head back to Montreal, Albany, or Harrisburg.
It had been one of those hazy, humid, close kind of Saturdays in late July at Chesapeake Beach. Not much wind to speak of, if at all. Being outside on days like this makes me feel as if I need hot rocks and branches to beat myself with. Compared to some parts of Virginia Beach, Chesapeake Beach is low-rent. The big cedar jobs on stilts line the ocean beaches; four, five, six bedroom homes that cost several hundred thousand dollars, only get used in the summertime, and cost a bundle to insure because of the hurricane threat every year.
Chesapeake Beach faces the bay instead. The residents mostly live here year-round in everything from cinderblock huts to homes of a little (but not much) more substance. The houses here are older, shorter, squatted between the dunes and scrub, out of necessity, taking the full brunt of spring's northeast winds. The tourist strip and the tourists are right around the corner, but they're mostly out of sight, and mercifully, don't wander much to our stretch of sand.
Wesley and I had been doing some work on the upper deck that sits atop the duplex we share facing the bay. Ours was not on stilts, sitting far enough from the shore that we had a wide beach, and few spring flooding problems. We became partners in the house a couple of years back, introduced by a real estate agent who puts together such deals for rental properties. It was sweaty work. A section of the deck near the wall was beginning to rot. Even the green salt-treated lumber has trouble holding up to the heat and humidity along the water. Owning a waterfront house here means constant maintenance. Inside, the big Kenwood was locked in to WNSB. Herbie Mann was driving the big E-V speakers with just enough power to go cruising by flute. We were both covered with sawdust kicked up by the table saw downstairs.
We were working up an appetite, and had been discussing the merits of a bushel of clams and a bucket of ice-cold Stroh's. A few of the other people from up the beach had wandered by, offering carpentry tips in exchange for cold beer. As the work wound down, Bill and Ramona Baker had fetched the clams, Pete and Sharon Crosby had rolled up with more beer, Tom Scott showed, and we wound up sitting on the deck, clams on the Weber Kettle, watching the dirty pink sunset. The party, if you want to call it that, turned into one of those events where people drift in and out, catching up on the latest neighborhood gossip, bitching about what the city council is up to now, coveting their neighbors spouses, and discussing in no particular order, the middle east, the American League East, the city's poor excuse for garbage collection, and traffic on the expressway. I suppose we topped out at about fifteen or twenty people, although there were never more than eight or nine around at a time.
Around eleven, the married couples had tottered off to their kids and to sleep in preparation for early tee-times and early church services in the morning. Only the three bachelors were left; Wesley, Tom, and me, staring out at the boats that bobbed out around the islands of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, that seventeen-mile span that crosses over and under the mouth of the Bay. A breeze had come up, blowing the pollution into someone else's air. You could smell it. Rain was maybe eight hours away.
Wesley is short, compact, and muscular, sort of like a
fire plug with black hair and glasses. Tom is tall and lanky, with red hair, and an ever-present sunburn. Aside from the fact that he's a very liberal attorney, an officer in the Virginia Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, he could be the kind of good ole boy with a full rifle rack in his Ford pickup. His neck is that red. His rifle rack, however, is full of fishing rods, with a tackle box in the capped bed.
"Must be good fishing tonight," Wesley commented, looking out at the boats around the bridge islands.
"The bluefish are running," Tom said.
"They sure would taste good for Sunday dinner," Wesley said.
They both looked at me.
"You guys want to go fishing, take the boat, I can take a hint," I pulled the keys out of my pocket, and tossed them to Tom.
"Aw, come on Brad," Wesley said. "come with us. Blow some stink off."
"You are incredibly confused, my confusing friend. Fishing does not blow stink off, Wesley. Fishing puts stink on. I am not interested tonight. If you two want to go, take off."
Wesley glanced at Tom, and smiled. "Is Robin working at the marina tonight?"
"I think so."
"Fuck you both," I said. "let's go." Tom grinned, and got his gear and a jacket from the truck. Wesley locked up.
The marina, and its adjacent pier, is about three-hundred yards down the beach at Lynnhaven Inlet. It was not planned the way it looks, it just sort of grew the way it did. The old plank pier goes back to the forties, and sticks some two-hundred feet into the Bay, adjacent to the inlet. At the foot of the pier stands the bait shop and office, built sometime in the fifties. The sixties brought the first of the docks, and a small Butler building as a service facility. The seventies, however, saw the marina business mushroom. Newer concrete piers with big timbers and galvanized bolts holding it all together. A modern brick- and-vinyl-sided building for lockers, shower facilities, and a fish market that will clean what you catch, or sell you what you didn't. The next step was to be a restaurant and small motel, that no doubt, would grow on into the next century. You couldn't build it from scratch the way it had grown unless you had quite a vision, and a lot of money.
We walked. By the time we got there, it was about eleven- thirty, and the complex, "Bubba's Lynnhaven Fishing Center", was busy with a wide variety of fisher-folks: the wealthy, in their designer clothes with little animals on the pockets, taking the Bertram for a late-night spin, whole families of the poor, mom and dad and the kids, both black and white, hoping to catch Sunday's crab dinner from the pier, using chicken necks tied to a string, and the three of us, somewhere in the middle, lined up to buy bait. Robin was, indeed, working.
Robin Williams (I swear) is a big, tall lady who manages the place for Ed Shaw, known to his friends as…you guessed it, Bubba. She has very short black hair, and strong features. This particular evening, she was barelegged, wearing red shorts, an Old Dominion University sweatshirt, and surprisingly clean white Reeboks. Her features are angular enough to look a little masculine, although there is nothing at all masculine about the legs, or the way she filled the sweatshirt. She is very tan, with a scattering of freckles across the bridge of her nose, darker tan than mine, and I had been working at it pretty good, It made her cool blue eyes look very vivid, and her teeth look very white. You would not confuse her with the comedian, despite the name. Thirty? Maybe, give or take five to seven either way. Hard to guess her age because her face had that sharply-chiseled look that doesn't show much decay between eighteen and forty or so.
I met Robin when I first got the boat, about the same time as the duplex. It was a 1947 twenty four foot Chris-Craft cruiser, purchased from a family up on the Eastern Shore. It was not in good shape. The family had used it as a crab boat. With the help of the mechanics at the marina, we had swapped the old mill out with a new Ford four-cylinder, scrubbed most of the pea green paint off the mahogany, updated the instrument cluster with digital units, and repaired or replaced most of the brightwork with original pieces they had helped me track down. Robin wrote the receipts for the checks I had stroked to fill this hole in the water. She also helped me christen the little tub, the "Talking Head", a television term for the tight shots of faces you see most often on news broadcasts. Robin thought it an amusing name, since "head" is the nautical term for "toilet". The boat still needed a lot of work, but then, so did I. Two years ago, when I first met her, Robin also sported a yellow wedding band on her left hand. That adornment had recently turned up missing. I was curious, and frankly, interested.
"Brad! Brad Streeter!"
I knew without looking that the voice that came across the crowded shop was Bobby Whitehurst's. I had not seen him in some time. I turned to greet him, wondering what kind of reception I was going to get, not exactly knowing if I was going to be greeted warmly or slugged in the face. He was smiling. I was relieved.
"Bobby…good to see you." It was not particularly good to see him. So I lied. "You coming or going?" I hoped he was coming, and going home to his wife.
"Going. You know, the blues are running." He jerked a thumb out toward the bay.
"Yeah, I heard," I motioned at Wesley and Tom, across the shop. "Bobby Whitehurst…I think you've met Wesley. This is Tom Scott." Bobby shook hands with Tom, nodded recognition, then shook hands with Wesley. "Bobby lived next door when I lived with Barbara," I said, to no one in particular.
"We've met each other once or twice around the courthouse," Tom said with a grin.
"More than that," Bobby said. "This old boy took one of my clients for a bunch of money."
"Now, Bobby," Tom said. "He shouldn't have locked them out of their house."
"It was his house, and they hadn't paid the rent."
"You guys gonna try this one again here, or are we gonna fish?" Wesley said with a smile.
Bobby looked at Tom, holding his fishing pole and tackle box. "You guys going out?"
"Sure," Tom said. "Want to come along? The beer is cold."
"Sure. Beats cleaning out my boat by myself afterward."
So the four of us piled into my boat, and cruised out the inlet, headed for open water. Once we were anchored near the bridge, Wesley and Tom sat on the bow, casting out into the pilings nearest the island. Bobby and I sat at the stern, casting the other direction. Bobby is a good-looking fellow, with close-cropped blond hair. Tall, loud and gregarious. The Whitehursts were Virginia born for generations back, from that hardy, earnest, hungry stock which had scared the living hell out of the federal troops they had faced during the War Between the States. He was a year or two younger than me, his eyes a pale, watery blue, blonde hair thinning a little. I guess you'd say he had a little bit of a baby face. Since I'd known him, he'd tried a beard once or twice, but always shaved it off, because he said it made him look like a leftover from the sixties.
Bobby and Maggie, Barbara and me. The four of us were pretty much inseparable when we lived next door to each other. Vacations together, holidays together, Saturday night dinners together. There's an interesting phenomenon about married couples. When one marriage goes down the hatch, the strain is usually too much on the "couples friends" they've developed. I hadn't seen Bobby since I moved out of the house.
An embarrassed smile. "She moved out about six weeks ago. Went to stay with her folks in North Carolina for a while."
That's the other thing about separation and divorce. It's contagious. "Temporary or permanent?"
"I don't know." Bobby sat down in a heap on the seat at the stern. "Said she needed some time to get some things straight, and put some things behind her. I offered to take some time off…to go on a cruise, or a vacation somewhere. Maybe a trip across the country. She said no, had some things to take care of at home with her dad. Said she wanted to get rid of some demons…" His voice trailed off. He looked me in the eye for the first time since we met at the bait shop. "I think she's going to file for divorce, and she just wants me to get used to the idea."
I can't exactly say it was a shock. Maggie and Bobby had their share of problems, even back in the days when the four of us were running around together. Bobby has never had what you would call a booming law practice, although he is an above average attorney when it comes to civil matters. His has always been a one-man office, with a part-time secretary to answer the phone when he's off to court, or looking up old deeds, or doing all those things attorneys do. When he was between secretaries, Maggie helped out, that's how they met, but mostly she stayed home. Bobby had turned down several offers to join other firms, both big and small, always saying he'd rather be his own boss. The fact that Bobby always seemed to be struggling was the source of much friction between Maggie and Bobby over the years. Maggie would see people her age at the sort of parties lawyers and their wives attend, and wonder why she and Bobby didn't have a home on the beach, a Mercedes in the driveway, and a condo on the ski slopes at Masanutten or wherever. In short, Maggie thought Bobby didn't try hard enough…didn't "apply" himself enough, as she used to say. But they had always hung in there, apparently until recently.
He spat over the side, downwind, with excellent accuracy and velocity. "I can't stand moping around like this," Bobby said, and turned to holler at Wesley and Tom on the bow. "Hey, guys, you getting any nibbles? Brad. Tell them about the time the four of us…"
And so it went for the next couple of hours. The time we hiked all over Washington, D. C. sightseeing in the sweltering summer heat. The time we went to the Outer Banks of North Carolina, rented a cottage on the ocean, got drunk, and staged "West Side Story" on the beach in the moonlight, ending up in the surf singing, "When you're a Jet you're a Jet all the way…"
We tried the windward side of the island. We tried the leeward side of the island. We went out to deeper water, we headed north nearly to the Eastern Shore, and tried the shallows. The crabs chewed up the bait over and over again.
By five, we had just about given up. The east sky was getting brighter, and we headed south, back to Bubba's, throttled down through the "no wake" zone at the mouth of the inlet just as the sun began to come up over the horizon, and idled down into the slip. Robin was waiting for us at the top of the dock, arms crossed. She was not smiling. A white Virginia Beach Police car was parked on the gravel near the dock. As soon as Tom tied up, Robin called to Bobby.
"Bobby," she called out. "These officers are here to see you."
The four of us looked at each other. Bobby shrugged, and said, "Maybe I'm being served with papers for one of my cases. It happens sometimes."
The officers were a Mutt and Jeff team. The uniformed one was a tall and skinny dark-haired fellow with a perfectly tailored uniform. The plainclothes officer, or detective, or whatever, was blond, short, and stout. Jeff spoke to Bobby.
"That's me," Bobby said.
"We need to speak with you for a moment." He said to Robin, "May we use your office?"
"Of course," she said.
We went to the bait shop, Bobby into the office with Jeff, looking confused. Mutt stood near the patrol car, drinking coffee. Robin shot me a look that said something was very wrong. We could hear the detective speaking to Bobby, but could not make out what he was saying. He was speaking in very low, very soothing tones. There was no mistaking, however, the anguish in Bobby's voice when he shouted, "Oh no!"
Then we heard Bobby talking very low, his voice barely audible over the hum of the fluorescent tubes. It was quiet for another moment. All four of us were bug-eyed, staring at the office door when Bobby stepped out the door, and said very quietly, "Maggie is dead. They say she killed herself last night out at her father's place."
Then he began crying. Big, racking sobs. The kind that don't let you catch your breath. He walked outside, sat down on the step, and kept on crying. The four of us looked at each other. Thank God Robin was the only one of us who had any idea of what to do. She sat down on the step next to Bobby, put her arms around him in a big hug, and the two of them rocked, back and forth. She stroked his hair, and whispered something into his ear, over and over.
My mind was somewhere else, I guess. Actually, my mind was in several locations at once. There was another reason I wasn't surprised Maggie had left Bobby. She had fallen out of love with Bobby several years before. I knew this because she had told me so in the bed we had shared for a very brief period following my separation from Barbara. For a while, I believed she would leave him, I would leave Barbara, and we would get together.
My shrink maintains that men are rarely ready to throw a marriage into the dumper until they have found a new person to begin a relationship with. I thought about this a lot, because I somehow had it in my mind that after the papers were signed, and my marriage to Barbara finally consigned to my past, I could begin over again with Maggie Whitehurst, that she would leave Bobby, and we would have something. I played and replayed a lot of scenes in my head concerning myself and Maggie. I wondered often how things might have been different. Or better. Or at least feel better. I wondered if I would ever see her again. I wondered if I should call her. I sometimes wondered what would have happened to my marriage if I had spent the same amount of energy on my relationship with Barbara that I spent on fantasizing about the past and possible future with Maggie. I wondered if it made any difference at all. The relationship with Maggie began about two months after Barbara and I split, and ended just before the final decree was signed. Maggie decided she could not take the stress of carrying on with her best friend's husband, although their relationship was not what it had been when I was living with Barbara. I don't know how it could have been. The whole thing wasn't doing much for my mental health, either.
As they say, it's all water under the bridge now. There are a lot of bridges in Virginia Beach. And one whole ocean full of water.
The Outer Banks of North Carolina is one of the more beautiful places on the continent. Getting there from Virginia along route 168 is not exactly picturesque. It is one of the most boring 90 minute trips through truck farms, tobacco fields, small towns, and Seven-Elevens on the face of the planet. The fields are only broken by an occasional ramshackle house or mobile home…each with its own satellite dish out back. All of a sudden, when you're thinking you will drive smack into a telephone pole just for a little excitement, the road takes a big turn to the left, and you get a breathtaking view of Pamlico Sound, and the bridge that crosses it into the Outer Banks.
When the Wright Brothers travelled this way from Dayton to turn bicycles into flying machines, the Outer Banks wasn't much different than the rest of the area, it simply faced the Atlantic Ocean instead of a creek or the Pamlico Sound. It's mostly scrub pine and dunes, all feeling (quite justifiably) like a good wind could blow it all away rather quickly. There is substantially more to blow away now than there was then. Those same cottages that line the ocean beach in Virginia Beach also form a queue along the shoreline here. So do small cinder-block motels, and tall name-brand hotels, small mom-and-pop grocery stores, and big state-of-the-art strip shopping centers. That wind is also the fear many of the people who live here have, and why the threat of a hurricane sends many of them miles inland when one approaches, almost annually. Of course, it was the wind that brought the brothers to North Carolina in the first place. It's usually gentle, but constant. On this day, it was neither. Each new detonation blew the dingy clouds at a good clip out over the ocean. It was unusually chilly, with the threat of another downpour at any moment. It was Tuesday, and had been raining off and on since mid-day Sunday. The signs along the highway warned of stretches with water over the roadway.
The Pamlico Sound stretches all the way back up to Virginia, a straight shot by water, or up the banks by land, but either route is blocked by the Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge, and a state park. You can go into, but not through that area back into Virginia, unless you have a permit. Those permits are jealously guarded by the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, and the U-S Department of Interior. The officers of both agencies patrol the dirt roads through their domains. If you've got a permit, it cuts the trip by more than half. The rest of us endure the haul through the country, where among the locals, the word "shit" grows to six syllables.
Maggie's funeral was scheduled for a small chapel at the south end of Kill Devil Hills, as far south on the Outer Banks as one can go without heading for Hatteras. With the rain still falling every now and then, my progress down the highway was not delayed considerably by the tourists who flock to this area this time of year. I was early. They were holed up in the stilted cottages, playing gin rummy, waiting out the weather. In the winter, the area's population can almost be counted on both hands and feet; on a sunny summer day, there's gridlock on the pair of two-lane highways that span the north-south length of the Banks. I had already made arrangements at a nearby hotel for an overnight stay after the service.
Like most of the newer permanent-looking structures in the area, the Morehouse Funeral Chapel was a brick and vinyl- sided building, red brick below white siding. Perhaps because of the progress I had made on highway, I was one of the first to arrive. I parked the Ford in the scrabbly oyster-shell lot, and walked into the building.
The funeral director - I guessed he was the owner of the establishment - was a short, stubby, balding man in an ill- fitting, shiny blue suit. He stood by the front door, and spoke in the soft, soothing, perpetually eternal, always very personal voice men of his profession cultivate.
I stuck out my hand. "Streeter. Bradford Streeter. I'm here for the Margaret Whitehurst funeral." He ignored the offer to shake hands.
"Of course. What a tragedy."
"Yes, a shock."
"…a young woman from people like that, with everything they have going for them. I simply cannot understand what would cause a woman like that to…well, to…"
"Well, yes. With so much to live for."
"Yes. Ronald. Ronald Morehouse." He offered his hand. I had given up, so I ignored it, wondering where it had been lately.
"Obviously, mister Morehouse, Maggie did not agree with your assessment of her assets." I did not mean it sarcastically, simply as a statement of fact.
His smile was strained, but properly noncommittal. The last thing he wanted was a discussion like this one was quickly turning into, talking about the reasons people voluntarily end up as his customers. So I obliged, and steered the conversation away from the direction it was headed. "Do you know Maggie's family well?" For all the time the four of us spent down here on one lark or another, we had never visited them, had never stopped by for dinner, coffee, or even to say hello. Nor had Maggie spoken much about them, save for her mother, who was dead. Her father had remarried, and I knew she had a sister named Madeline.
Mister Morehouse's eyes brightened, and he jumped at the opportunity to gossip a little. "Most people here do. I went to school with Margaret's father, Samuel, both here, for high school, and at Chapel Hill, at college. The Leonard family has lived in Pamlico County since, well, since before the War Between the States. In banking, most of them, with the exception of one or two. Sam Leonard is the president of the big bank in the county, over in Manteo. He's on the school board, and heads up the planning commission, too, in Tuttle, where the farm is."
"Then you knew Maggie?"
"Oh, my heavens, yes. Both she and her sister. Went to the same church, Pamlico First Baptist." He smiled. "Sweet little girls, both of them. Well-behaved, beautiful children. Little angels. It was a real tragedy when their mother died."
"That would have been…" I was sandbagging.
"Roberta. Roberta Bass Leonard. Oh my, I remember when she and Sam were married. It was still the biggest wedding I've ever seen. Miss Roberta was from Raleigh, Sam met her up at school. She ended up involved in most everything. The library board, ladies' church group, the Youth Fellowship, and the Girl Scouts. She loved those little girls to death."
"Maggie certainly thought highly of her mother. She was killed in an automobile accident, correct? I think I remember Maggie mentioned that."
"Yes. The girls were…let's see. Margaret was about twelve, and that would have made Madeline about ten. Terrible thing. Miss Roberta just lost control of the car somehow on a rainy night on her way inland back to the farm after a church dinner. It was between Manteo and Tuttle. Ran off into the woods, and hit a big oak."
"Must have been tough on the whole family," I said.
Morehouse winced, and nodded his head. "Just about killed old Sam. He was all weepy for about two years after the accident. Until he noticed Teresa."
"Maggie's Stepmother," I said.
"Yes, she was Sam's secretary at the bank. Put new life in him, that's for sure. Took him in tow. Didn't give him enough time to feel sorry for himself. Teresa was a young thing, pretty as a picture. She was only twenty-four when she married Sam."
"Strike it rich?"
"You mean was she after his money? Well, maybe at first, but by the time she married him, I think she'd changed her mind about that. Sam was pretty well into wallowing around in his sorrows. I think Teresa looked at it as a challenge, to bring him back to life." The old man frowned in thought, choosing his words carefully, then spoke slowly. "She married upward, but she grew into it pretty well. She's no Miss Roberta, but she's done pretty well in fitting in where she can. Keeps Sam out of trouble."
"What kind of trouble?"
He smiled, only slightly. "Most all kinds," he said. His tone left no doubt that the conversation was over. "Would you like to view the departed before the service begins? I've got to take care of some other details. He opened a door to an office, and called to a younger man. "Ronnie," he said, "Come watch the door while I make some phone calls." He pointed down a short hallway to what looked like two chapel rooms. A younger version of Mister Morehouse, with a little better head of hair, took his place by the door to greet the public.
I walked into the "viewing room". Maggie's coffin, open, stood in front of blue curtains trimmed in black. A copper- colored lamp stood at either end of the coffin. About forty chairs were arranged in the room, four rows of five on either side of a center aisle. A small podium was to the left of the coffin. The floral blanket read, "Daughter". A few other standard-issue funeral arrangements were spread around the floor, on stands nearby, and around the sides of the room. An elderly couple sat in the second row on the right. They both watched me as I entered, and walked up to the side of the casket.
I am never prepared to "view the departed". I think "stare at the corpse" is perhaps a better phrase. It's one of the more deranged rituals of life we put ourselves through, or that others choose to put us through. I, however, am a man who does what's expected, so I walked over to the casket to say goodbye to Maggie, and stood, hands clasped behind my back, looking down at her.
She was not a small woman, but she looked small lying there in a box. Five foot six, maybe. Better than average looks, but not drop-dead beautiful. On a street, in a supermarket, most men would not give her a second look. Not until she turned her full attention on you. Then, you noticed the shine in her very, very green eyes, the way the light reflected off that auburn-colored hair. She most often wore it pulled back, in a pony tail, a french braid, or something. You imagined it down, down to her shoulders, because that's how long it was. When you spoke, her eyes never left yours, she hung on every word, and touched you when she made a point. That's what you remembered most. The touch, the touch that said for that one fleeting moment, you were someone special.
It was that touch that made you, in solitary intervals, remember the shape of her legs, her lips. Well, hey. I'm not talking about you, I'm talking about me. I'm talking about what happened to me when I was around Maggie Whitehurst. I will not flatter myself to think that she was as intrigued with me as I was with her, except perhaps for a short time.
I was not used to seeing her dressed as she was today, like this, in a plain blue business suit, with a high-necked blouse, no doubt to cover the rope burns on her neck, and who knows what they did at the morgue. Her hair, though, was every bit as beautiful down as I remembered seeing it on those few occasions. She made a good-looking corpse, but the problem was, she looked dead. No matter how good the job the embalmer does, how "lifelike" the corpse looks, it's still a corpse. Whatever life was in that vessel has indeed "departed", perhaps gone to another, depending on your spiritual view, but certainly gone from this life forever.
I would have preferred to have remembered Maggie differently than this. She had her faults, but she was as full of life and honesty as any person I have known, or am likely to know.
Our affair had started as one of those couples trips, in fact, the last one the four of us ever took, late last summer. We went to the Outer Banks often over the years we had known each other, renting a cottage for a weekend, or sometimes a week. This time, it was a week-long trip after Labor Day, after the rental rates dropped. The cottage was a good one, an expensive one, a modern one, two stories, all light woods, formica, chrome and glass. It went for thirteen hundred dollars per week during the season. This particular week, the rate was four hundred dollars. A white gazebo atop a dune overlooked the Atlantic. We arrived on Friday night, with enough time to unpack and cook dinner on the barbecue, and take a little walk on the beach before turning in.
All the next day, Saturday, we had done the usual things, spent a little quiet time after breakfast, visited some of the shops along what passes for the waterfront strip, even visited the Wright Brothers Museum for the third or fourth time. We saw a movie, ate dinner at one of the better restaurants, and went back to the cottage, all of us a little tipsy. Barbara and I had a good time, I think. At least I did. We did not act like husband and wife toward each other, we acted as friends. I knew our marriage was in trouble, and had been for some time. It was The Thing we didn't talk about, the big elephant in the living room that you put a doily and a vase of flowers on, make it look like it belongs, like it's part of the furniture, but no one ever says, says, "What the hell is a fucking elephant doing in the living room?"
There was always a certain amount of sexual tension involved in these foursome outings, working at a very low, almost subconscious, level. Sometimes, we would swap spouses for shopping trips, museum visits, or even an occasional movie that the odd couple wanted to see. Sometimes, Maggie and I found ourselves holding hands as we walked along the beach, or in the theatre. I know Bobby and Barbara did the same. We had never acted on any of this, except to speculate once or twice about what the neighbors might think if they saw us paired off this way. It was, at the most, titillating, flirtatious, and fun. The fact that any one of us could be a little excited by holding the opposite's spouse…I always found slightly amusing.
I honestly did not know that Bobby and Maggie's marriage was in trouble, as well. I thought I sensed some distance, some withdrawal on the part of one or both of them, but I figured I was probably projecting some of my own problems on them. So I filed it away. Barbara and I had our own things to deal with, or I had to deal with what our situation was becoming, perhaps a friendly disengagement, but a pending parting of the ways, nonetheless.
That night, after falling asleep in bed next to Barbara, I dreamed of reaching out, waking her, and telling her gently that she was my friend, and that I recognized her pain. That if being with someone else, or simply being away from me would relieve that pain, I would do what I could to help. I just needed a sign from her that it was all right, that a separation would be a good thing, a comfortable thing, that it would relieve what I was feeling, too. I was not at all sure that would be the case. If, as my friend, she could reassure me about it all, it might be a bit easier. I awakened damp with perspiration, and a bit frightened.
So restless, I had decided to walk up to the gazebo, have a smoke, and stare out at the ocean for a while. The gazebo was about a hundred feet from the beach, and the roar of the surf was deafening. In supposing I would be unnoticed, either by Barbara, or by Bobby or Maggie, though, I was only partially right. Maggie found me. Lost in my own thoughts, she sneaked right up.
"What are you doing out here?" she shouted.
I turned with a start. "Having a smoke, clearing out my head." We were both yelling over the insistent rush of the surf.
"But not your lungs, huh?" She laughed, and moved closer. I was the only one of the four of us who smoked. It was a constant source of needling from Maggie.
I shrugged. "Everyone has an addiction or two. I'm just happy mine isn't for cute ten-year-old boys."
She gave a impish grin, and a sly wink. "Won't Barbara miss you? Aren't you two doing what people come down here for? A little romance? A little heavy breathing?"
I took another drag of the cigarette, and exhaled heavily. "Not this time, Maggie. It hasn't been that way for a while."
"I know. Me neither," She said. The silly, mocking tone disappeared quickly, and she turned to stare out at the ocean, the waves breaking endlessly upon the beach.
"Maggie," I said, "you go through cycles in a marriage. Up a little, down a little. Does it all average out? It was the argument I'd given Barbara. If not me, who? If not Barbara, who? Who would love me? Who would care about me? Why could I not bring myself to face facts? I threw the cigarette butt down in mild disgust, and stepped on it.
Maggie kept staring out at the ocean for a few more seconds, before she turned, and touched my arm. That touch. "Not this time, Brad. I think Bobby and I have pretty well bottomed out. Bobby keeps looking for the 'big score', the deal that's going to get us out of debt, let us…let him…feel comfortable enough to start a family, to get on to where we need to be, something more. He says he keeps looking for it, he promises he'll keep looking, but I'm sure he's not convinced it's what he wants. He's comfortable in getting by, keeping the bills paid. He doesn't want to get ahead. I'm tired of treading water, Brad. If you don't move ahead, you sink. I'm sinking." She squeezed my arm for emphasis. "I can feel it. Unless I get out of this marriage and move ahead, I'm going down for the third time. I can't do that. I won't do that. How about you and Barbara?" she asked, an eyebrow raised. "Are you going to give it a 'little time'?"
"I'm a patient guy. But you know Barbara better than me," I said. "You two shop, and lunch, and do all that female bonding stuff. You tell me. Tell me the truth."
"You don't want the truth, Brad. You're too busy being patient, and good, and kind, and it's not what you are at all. You're too busy working at being the good guy. You're too busy trying to be the one who's right, the wronged man, the stoic figure who can hold his head up high, beat on his chest, and say 'this marriage didn't fail because of me! I did nothing to bring this upon myself!' You're so busy working on that, because you've given up on the relationship. You're already working on how you'll see yourself after it breaks apart. You want the truth? Okay, the truth is maybe you could have saved it. Just maybe Barbara wouldn't have drifted away if you had spent a little more time on the relationship, instead of working fourteen- hour days. Maybe Barbara didn't care if you were a big- time, high-paid network correspondent by the time you were forty, like you did. Maybe, just maybe, Barbara wants a full-time husband, who hangs out around the house, fixes the busted faucet, and makes babies with her. The truth is that you don't have any time left. She's going to pull the plug, Brad. She's waiting for the right time, but she's going to pull the plug, you big jerk, and you know it. It's not if anymore. It's when. You're a nice guy, and she doesn't want to hit you while you're down, but it's coming. Not tomorrow, not the next day, but soon."
I snapped at her. "You're full of shit." Of course, she was right, not only right, but it was a direct hit. Mine was only what the military people call a secondary explosion, but that was about all I could think of to say at the time. Denial may not be a good thing, but it has its handy uses.
Maggie moved closer to me, and put her arm around my waist. I could smell the citrus of her perfume, even above the wind. Instinctively, I pulled her closer, turned her to face me, and put both arms around her.
"The truth," she said, "is that you are a nice guy, and not at all stupid about what's going on." Another squeeze. "And the truth is that I wish I had you, your drive, where you will be some day, and that Barbara had Bobby." She buried her head into my neck, sighed, and shuddered a little. "It sure would make a lot more sense that way."
We held each other for a very long time, just standing there in the gazebo, holding on. What happened that night, between the two of us, was really irrelevant to what was about to happen to the four of us. Whether we made love, or not, the fates of our respective marriages were already in the cards, and we all knew what they were. Maggie and I were simply fellow travelers on roads that converged for…a short time? I didn't know just then. I did know that I had thought about taking Maggie's hair down all night. So I did.
And so, after my separation from Barbara, Maggie and I became lovers for a few months. It would not last. I knew that then, but I let it happen anyway. When a person's world is falling apart, as I felt mine was at the time, that person will grab on to anything, using Maggie's metaphor, to keep from going down that third time.
Maggie spoke the last words either of us said that night.
"Hold on," she said. "It's going to be a bumpy ride."
I would have liked to have thought my relationship with Maggie broke faith with no one. But certainly, Bobby would have felt betrayed, had he known. I was still not sure he didn't know about it.
Barbara broke the news on a Sunday night in August, while we watched the late news. Usually the paragon of fashion, even in leisure, she had been moping around all weekend in a sweat shirt and ratty shorts, speaking in monosyllables, and saying over and over again she didn't feel well.
I said, "Are you feeling better?"
She said, "No."
I said, "Still feeling lousy?"
She said, "Yes."
I said, "Is something wrong besides feeling lousy?"
She said, "Yes. I want a divorce."
Well, hey. I was the one who asked. I did not sleep well that night. Barbara slept on the couch, I guess. I packed and moved on Monday, first into a hotel on the strip, then into the duplex above Wesley on the weekend. I got an attorney, signed the separation agreement, and sulked for two months. I worked a lot, putting in sixty, seventy hour weeks, volunteering for all the overtime I could get at the television station. I sifted through records at courthouses, drove to Richmond once or twice, and broke several big stories about corruption and crime. When it feels like someone has taken your world, turned it upside down and shaken it, it's comforting to have something familiar to turn to. For me, it was my work. It always had been. It was one of the problems, according to Barbara.
Anyway, after a couple of months of pouting, I was at the mall one Friday night, aimlessly shopping, wondering if spending money would make me feel better, watching people, and still pouting, when I ran into Bobby and Barbara. We made small talk. Funny how you can share the most intimate things as couples, but feel awkward when one of the four wheels falls off.
I caught them up on "what I was doing with myself", looked at my watch, and ducked into a movie theatre quickly, to see a picture I cared nothing about, just to get out of the awkwardness of the situation.
The next afternoon, I fell asleep with a beer on the couch while watching a football game I cared nothing about. There was a knock at the sliding glass door that awakened me. I looked at the clock. It was about six. I opened the curtains, and there stood Maggie on the deck, almost silhouetted against the purple fall sky, wearing a denim jacket, a plaid flannel shirt, and white twill slacks. The breeze off the bay was chilly with the sun down, and blew her hair around her neck.
"Where's Bobby?" I asked.
"Gone to Charlottesville for the football game," she said. "He's getting drunk with the good old boys. He'll be driving back in the morning."
"Where are you?" I asked.
"Here." Nothing ruins a rhetorical question like a literal answer. "Will you do me a favor?" she asked.
"Kiss me. Hold me. Make love to me."
I stepped out onto the deck, and took her into my arms. We kissed, and then I took her hand and led her to my bedroom.
"Isn't this where we're supposed to say, '…gee, she looks so life-like,' or something?"
I turned toward the voice, and looked into Maggie's green eyes. Same hair, same mouth, same green eyes. Younger, but not by much. A little hipper-looking. "Hello, Madeline, Brad Streeter," I said, offering my hand. "Sorry to trash the script, but she doesn't look too life-like to me. She looks dead."
"Yep. Dead," the woman said. She took my hand in a firm grip. "Friends call me Mary. Mary Leonard. Sister of the deceased." She winced. "Sorry about that crack. I'm not sure I know how to act at these things."
I nodded. "Death affects people in different ways."
I looked around the chapel. It was filling rapidly. Not a big crowd by my standards, but probably large enough for Tuttle, North Carolina.
Mary was wearing a black dress, knee-length, fairly plain, but elegant. What you would call a cocktail dress, I guess, under other circumstances, but suitable for mourning.
"You were Bobby and Maggie's neighbor, right?"
"Are you the one she had the affair with before she and Bobby split?"
A direct question deserves a direct answer. When in doubt, tell the truth. "Yes," I said.
"Want to sit?"
"Okay." She led the way to the back of the folding chairs. We sat in silence, although I have to admit I took a good look at her once or twice. The resemblance was striking.
Barbara joined the party just as the organ music began.
She looked better than I had seen her in some time. Of course, I had not seen her at all for about six months or so, since the hearing to finalize the divorce. She nodded, and mouthed "Hello" as she walked to the front. She was wearing a navy suit, with a white blouse, dark stockings and black pumps. She had let her hair grow, and had darkened the color. It had always looked sort of dishwater blonde. Now it looked a pleasant light shade of brown.
I thumbed through the program for the funeral. The Reverend M. Scott Thomas would be presiding, with Jessica Copal at the keyboard. Bobby arrived in a three-piece suit, followed by a gray-haired man, with what I was learning were Leonard eyes, immaculately dressed in a pinstriped number, and a much younger blonde woman in a black dress. I assumed they were Maggie's father and stepmother. Ms. Copal launched into "Amazing Grace", a few moments later, the Reverend Thomas appeared from behind the blue curtain.
Mary Leonard looked at me, and at eyebrow went up. "Showtime," she said.
Bobby sat in the front row, next to Barbara, on one side of the aisle, old man Leonard and the woman on the other. One glance between Bobby and the Sam Leonard said it all. Mary Leonard said no more.
Jessica Copal was competent at the keyboard, but the good reverend Thomas was boring as hell. It became immediately obvious that he had never met Maggie, Bobby, maybe not even old Sam Leonard. The only thing he got right was what a waste it all seemed.
Bobby and Sam Leonard were still glaring at each other when they and four other men loaded Maggie up into the hearse. The rain had stopped for now, but it looked as if it could start up again anytime. The wind was still blowing pretty strong. I was getting into my car when Mary Leonard trotted over to the passenger's side, and put her hand on the handle.
"Mind if I ride with you?"
"No problem," I said. "I kind of figured you'd be riding with your father, though."
"He's got whatshername to ride with."
"Right. Whatever." I crossed over to her side of the car and opened the door.
The two Mister Morehouses, Senior and Junior, handed out the little magnetic flags to put on our cars, and reminded us to turn on our headlights for the trip to the cemetery. A gray police cruiser sat in front of the hearse. Ronald Senior said we'd be going to the family burial plot, off a main road near the Leonard Farm, that we'd be running stop signs and traffic signals, and to stay close to the car ahead.
Mary and I rode in silence for the first couple of miles through farmland. I felt compelled to make pleasant conversation. When you don't know what to talk about, talk about the other person.
"Maggie didn't talk about her family much," I said, hoping that didn't sound like some kind of judgment.
"She hadn't been close to any of us for some time," Mary said. She continued to stare out the window.
"What I mean is," I said, "I don't know much about your family. Mister Morehouse said your father is a banker."
"That's right," she said. "He's got more money than you can imagine."
I smiled, a little. "I can imagine quite a bit."
"Well," she said, "He's got more than I can imagine, or most of the folks around here can imagine."
"What do you do?" I asked.
"A little of this, and a little of that," she said. "Right now, I'm working at a dress shop at one of the hotels."
"It was awful," she said finally, pulling a cigarette from her purse, Marlboro, if it matters, and lighting it with one of those slender little precious metal lighters with the little roller-thing on the side. Almost startled, she looked at me quickly. "Is this alright? Smoking in your car, I mean."
"Yes," I said, and fished a Salem out of my sport coat and lit it with my Bic. "You mean Saturday," I said.
"Yes. Daddy called me at about two Sunday morning. I mean, I knew she'd been depressed, but I didn't think she'd do something like this. I still have a hard time believing she's gone."
"You two were close?" I asked.
"Not exactly. But we'd gotten closer since she'd come down."
"How long had she been down here?" I asked.
"About six weeks. She was still making trips to Virginia Beach to see a therapist, and I really thought she had been making some progress. She talked about the future, what she wanted to do after the divorce was final." She shook her head. "Did you know she wanted to paint?"
"No, but I knew she had some talent in that direction."
"She wanted to paint." Mary Leonard was crying, watching the tobacco fields go by.
At the cemetery, it was the standard stuff. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. The Reverend Thomas' standard protestant graveside speech. I kept hoping it wouldn't begin raining again. After the final "amen", Mary plucked a rose from one of the wreaths, and the workmen began cranking the coffin into the ground.
Barbara, who pretty much had ignored me up until now, walked over to where I stood with Mary.
"Mary Leonard, my ex-wife Barbara. Barbara…Mary."
Barbara said to Mary, "I was saddened to hear about your sister's death. As I'm sure Brad has told you, we were very close with Maggie and Bobby."
"Yes," Mary said. "Very close. Excuse me, please. I've got to speak with some friends." Tight smile, and poof. Gone.
Barbara turned to me. "How have you been doing, Brad?"
"Unemployed, but well. You?"
"I read about your loss in the paper. I'm sorry, Brad. I know your job meant a lot to you. I've been well. I'm studying for a real estate license."
"Not great lately, but not a bad business to be into around Virginia Beach," I said. "Was the split between Maggie and Bobby nasty?"
"Not really, she just packed up the car, and left one afternoon. She waited for Bobby to get home, and told him she needed to get away for a while."
"Her sister said she was still seeing a therapist at the Beach."
"I think so, but to tell you the truth, we haven't talked much since…since you moved out and all."
"Yeah, I know how it goes." I couldn't help but wonder how much Barbara really knew about what had happened between Maggie and me.
The crowd was thinning quickly. Probably the weather. I offered to buy Barbara dinner. She politely declined. Mary Leonard had vanished. I watched Barbara get into the big Mercury alone, and drive away. Even the Reverend Thomas had split. It was me, the old couple, and the two cemetery workers, who were just starting to fire up the backhoe a few yards away. It was close to five o'clock. I walked over to the Mustang, and drove away.
Seven-Elevens grow like weeds in this part of the world. If it looks like any development is coming soon anywhere, the Southland Corporation cranks all the numbers into its massive mainframe computer somewhere and decides it's time for another Seven-Eleven, or maybe two or three. In some suburban areas, they're built right across the street from one another, so that you don't have to make a left turn to pick up the bread and milk on the way home. Left turns are bad for business. As I approached civilization and the hotel, I pulled into one and picked up a cold six of Stroh's. Better than paying ten bucks for it at the Armada. I parked the Mustang, and threw my sport coat in the back seat, along with my shoes and socks. I rolled up my pantlegs, popped the top on a cold one, stuck another in my pocket, and walked down the beach.
I don't know how far I walked, maybe five miles, or maybe it seemed like five miles. It was one beer's worth. I walked to where the hotels stop, and the beach houses begin. I sat on the beach, and stared out at the surf for a good long time. I finished the first beer, dropped the can into a barrel, and opened the second. It was warm. There were dynamics at work here that I didn't understand. Bobby and Sam Leonard. Maggie and Mary. Maggie and Mary and their stepmother.
I told myself it was none of my business. I told myself the relationship with Maggie, whatever it had been, had been over long before she had made the decision to leave this world. Maggie did not love me, did not know me well enough to love me, or me her. But it hadn't been that long. And I had to admit that whatever misguided feelings I had about love, I had felt as if I loved Maggie. Or could love her. Or wanted to love her. Or something. Whatever it was, it hurt. So I cried the tears of loss, and pain, and a little guilt, too. For what might have been with Maggie, and with Barbara, and with the other women I had known in my lifetime. The sky was beginning to clear. I walked back to the car as I finished the second beer, and grabbed my coat and the remaining four-pack out of the back seat. When I got back to the room, I put the beer on ice in the sink and took a long, hot shower. I shaved, dressed in white slacks and a polo shirt, and went downstairs for dinner. It was about eight-thirty.
As I passed the bar headed for the dining room, it was the same hoarse, rough sounding voice from the funeral home.
"Hey, Streeter." Mary Leonard was positioned at the end of the bar, with a view of the entry into the dining room. She still wore the black dress from this afternoon, but she didn't look like she was mourning anymore, it really looked like a cocktail dress. She was sitting with legs crossed, smoking a cigarette. An empty glass stood on the bar.
"Hello, Mary," I said. "Buy you a drink?"
"How about a drink and dinner?" She arched one eyebrow.
She picked up her purse, and we went into the dining room. I followed, and noticed that Mary had not only the same coloring, but much the same shape as her sister. Where Maggie was soft, however, there seemed to be just a little bit of an edge about Mary. She may have been Maggie's younger sister, but she looked just a little older, a little more worldly, if that makes any sense. We were seated at a table near the window. The dark clouds still hung over the ocean to the east, but it was obviously clearing to the west, because the setting sun outlined long shadows in orange across the beach. Mary ordered another drink, a vodka tonic. I ordered another beer, Stroh's if they had it, Bud if they didn't. The waiter said he'd be right back with a Bud.
"The service was nice," she said, while we waited for our drinks. "The day turned out nice, at least." She was looking out at the ocean.
"I got the impression that the minister didn't know Maggie well," I said.
"Not since we were kids."
"Well, you're right. It was a nice service." A brief lull, as both of stared out at the ocean. "Does your father get along with Bobby?"
"Daddy doesn't get along with much of anyone," she said as the drinks arrived. The waiter placed them atop the obligatory napkins, and departed. "Especially Bobby," she said.
"Do you know why?"
"Bobby was a little older than Maggie. Daddy was always real protective of the two of us. Didn't want us to go on dates until we were sixteen, and didn't really want us to do it then, either, but you can't exactly tell a sixteen year old girl not to go on dates, for Christ's sake. So Daddy's little girls were growing up, and Daddy didn't like it one little bit. I would hear them fighting when she came home late from her dates. I could hear him yelling at the boys out in the driveway, and I could hear him yelling at Maggie downstairs after they left." Mary took a large swallow of the vodka tonic. "He called her things like 'slut' and 'whore', and wanted to know every little detail of every date."
"Was your stepmother much help?"
"No. I always felt like she married Daddy for the money. She treated us alright, she never hurt us much, but she wouldn't stick up for us like Mother. Still doesn't, much. Mostly when Daddy got into one of his moods like that, she'd just leave the room and go upstairs and take a sleeping pill. Teresa just doesn't care about us much one way or another. Well, I mean, didn't…I mean…" Her voice was quivering a little. "God, she's really dead. Maggie's really dead, just like Daddy said." She stared out the window for a couple of seconds, then polished off the drink.
"Do you want to order?" I asked.
"Order me another drink, please," she said, putting the glass back on the napkin. "And I'll look at the menu after I get back from powdering my nose, having a good cry, and blotting up the mess." She rose quickly, and left.
I motioned to the waiter, and ordered another drink for Mary. I'd pass this round. The eastern sky was dark now, and I could see the lights of the ships running up and down the coast. Coal carriers, mostly, taking Virginia coal to South America. I was attracted to Mary. She had a sharp tongue and a quick wit. Was it that, or the fact that she resembled Maggie a lot? Was I attracted to Mary, or Maggie all over again, or just any woman? How well did I know Maggie? How well had I known any of the women who had been in my life, including my wife?
Doctor Al Avery, my shrink, says I should ask myself questions like this. Well, he doesn't exactly say it, rather, he asks questions like this, and expects me, by osmosis, to ask them to myself. I'm never sure if they're real questions, or rhetorical ones. Shrinks never tell you what to do, they simply ask questions that lead you to believe they're telling you what to do. "Are you saying I should think about this more?" I say. "What do you think about that?" he replies. This type of behavior is known as "analyzing the analyst", and is frowned upon by virtually the entire analyzing community. But then, we were talking about me, and not them. Go figure.
Mary returned, cigarette in hand, and plopped down with a great exhalation of air.
"Well," she said, "I'm glad that's over with. I'd been wondering when the good cry was going to come."
"Feel better?" I asked.
"For now. Probably not for long."
The waiter returned to take our order. I ordered a steak, medium rare, while Mary perused the menu. She ordered stuffed flounder. The waiter nodded his approval, clicked his ballpoint, offered me another beer, which I declined, and left.
"So why did Maggie move back here?" I asked. "Why not move in with you, or with some friends, or out on her own?"
"She was going to move in with me," Mary said. "Or that's what she told me. But she said there were some things she had to do first."
"If the relationship with your father wasn't good, moving to the farm couldn't have been much fun," I said.
"I don't think it was. Daddy didn't really want to take her back, but Teresa talked him into it."
"Teresa talked him into it? Your stepmother?"
"I don't exactly know," she said. "Maybe she wanted to make up for not being there before."
"When daddy cut Maggie off and kicked her out. I mean, she was ready to move out and tell him to stuff it anyway. But she moved up to Williamsburg, and started going to William and Mary studying art, and she got involved with some boy up there. Brian something was his name. Daddy didn't like it, so when he got her grades, and they weren't what he thought they should have been, he cut off her money, and told her not to bother coming home."
"What did she do then?"
"Got a job as a legal secretary, and met Bobby at a real estate closing. He was sweet, and polite, and romantic. He treated her real nice at the time, took her places, sent her flowers, and all that shit."
I had heard the story of how they met, but I didn't know the background. The waiter served salad.
"Daddy got real mad. See, he wanted her to come crawling and begging back home, saying she was sorry for how much she'd screwed up her life, and would he please take her back, and how she'd be a good girl and all that crap," Mary said. "She didn't do it. She got a job, trained herself, really, found a guy and married him real quick, just to have someone to take care of her. And Bobby's real sweet, but he's sort of a…Bubba, you know? Like there's all these guys who go out and drink beer on Saturdays, and watch football games, and do all that guy stuff? And about every other one of them is nicknamed 'Bubba'? Well, Bobby is a 'Bubba', whether that's his nickname or not. He's just a good ole boy lawyer, looking for the big score that will keep him in Budweiser and big screen, satellite dish football games for life. And fishing, of course. And Maggie finally decided she wanted more. She thought she deserved more, so she left him. She was going to figure out a way to go back to school. She was going to get a job here, and start going back to the community college, then transfer the credits back to William and Mary, or NC State, or somewhere else."
"I didn't know she was that unhappy with Bobby," I said.
"Bobby's a real hard guy to get mad at," she said. "He's just so darned…amiable, is that the word?"
"Oh, good." The waiter appeared with our meals, and made the appropriate little flourishes as he put them in front of us. Mary stubbed out her cigarette. "Bobby is a nice guy, just not very ambitious, or romantic, or loving, or intimate. Maggie was his wife, and he expected to keep the house, look good at parties, and give him a little roll in the hay once or twice a week. She got tired of it."
Maggie didn't talk about your father much. Or you, either, for that matter."
"That's not surprising. We weren't very close for a long time. At least not until recently." The liquor was beginning to catch up with her. 'Recently' came out 're- schent-lee'. She finished up the glass.
"That's what you said. Things got better when Maggie moved back?"
"Yes. She said she was going to move in with me, like I told you. We were going to be roommates." The word "told" came out "tole".
"Yes, but then she went and killed herself. But enough about me and my dead sister. Let's talk about you and my dead sister." Mary was now more than a little drunk. "So how was she in bed? Maggie, that is."
I winced. "Mary, I do not embarrass easily, but you're testing the limits here. Do you really expect me to answer that question?"
"I suppose not. She said you were pretty much a gentleman, and that you didn't tell anyone. She said you were…" She was groping for a word.
I helped her. "Discreet."
"Yeah. That's it. Discreet." It came out 'dish-kreet'. Learn a new word every day.
"So you said you and Maggie were getting closer?" I asked.
She looked out the window at the ocean, then back at me. "Let's say we had some things in common."
"The men in our lives. Or maybe I should say the man in our lives."
I twirled the cocktail napkin I had been playing with. "I give up," I said.
She smiled a silly, drunken smile. "Why, silly, Daddy, of course. He was screwing both of us when we were kids. That's why she's dead. She was going to confront him."