Steam was curling out of a pan on the stove in my mother’s kitchen when I pulled my truck onto the shoulder across the road from her little yellow house on the lake.
The house perched atop a short bluff that tumbled down to a crumbling concrete sea wall and a floating dock that was now propped on a pair of metal sawhorses above the shoreline. Mom had sold our boat years ago, when I’d first gone to Detroit to work for the Times. Now her house, along with Darlene’s mom’s house next door, was among the few remaining from when the first autoworkers and retired Detroit cops and firefighters came north to build their weekend retreats and retirement places.
Most of those cabins, with their screened-in porches and corn brooms standing by the back doors for sweeping sand out of kitchens, had been sold off and ripped down to make way for the fat-faced two- and three-story homes built by the guys who actually ran the auto companies, and doctors and lawyers from Chicago who rarely showed their faces at Enright’s or Audrey’s. Guys like the one supposedly building us that new rink.
The old things about the lake that Mom and I liked-the cinder-block garages lined up along the beach road, the smell of ammonia in the garbage to keep out raccoons, the sounds of dinner plates being cleared from a picnic table in the August dusk-were slowly disappearing. Mom liked how the old houses were tucked humbly back into the shoreline woods, just visible enough from the water that you knew whose dive raft was bobbing out front. The new places, she complained, seemed to be vying with the lake itself for attention. “People can build whatever they like,” she would say, “but they should remember that the lake is not just a fancy coat of paint.”
We took solace in the lake itself. On summer evenings, we’d sit on our oak swing atop the bluff and watch the setting sun make eddies of pink and tangerine undulate on the water. It was enough.
I had come back to live with Mom after staying for a while in a tiny apartment directly above the Pilot newsroom. Shortly after Media North took over the paper, I received in the mail a one-page letter addressed “Dear Tenant.” It said my lease, which was about to expire, would not be renewed because my drafty, leaky, cramped apartment that smelled faintly of mildew apparently was part of “Media North’s ongoing efforts to maximize shareholder value.” Mom was happy to have me back, and I was glad to be there, not just for my old room or her pot roast and Swiss steak suppers. I was worried about her. She seemed to have aged more than a year in the past twelve months.
The kitchen lights were on but I didn’t see Mom. As I approached the back door, I heard music playing inside. It seemed a little early for that.
“Hello?” I said, opening the door.
It took me only a few seconds to recognize the song. Mom usually played it just once a year, on the anniversary of my father’s death:
If ever I would leave you
It wouldn’t be in summer…
An open bag of turnips sat on the kitchen counter next to a glass baking pan containing a pork tenderloin smothered in rosemary. I looked into the pot steaming away on the stove. There was nothing but a little water in it, as if some had already boiled away. Why was Mom cooking so early anyway?
I turned the stove off and looked through the kitchen into the living room. My mother rocked gently in her favorite easy chair to Robert Goulet’s crooning. She had dragged the chair from its usual position near the fireplace to the picture window where she could gaze out onto the frozen expanse of the lake. Bunched about her shoulders was the blue-and-gold River Rats afghan she’d knitted for me when I was in high school and then had claimed for her own.
“Hi, honey,” she said.
She’d seen me in the reflection in the window.
I leaned over and kissed her on the cheek. She reached up with a one-armed hug, her pajama flannel soft on my neck. She had been crying.
“Hi,” I said. “Are you cooking?”
She gave me a blank look, as if she didn’t understand the question. She didn’t remember. I waited. She turned her gaze back to the lake.
“Turnips,” she said.
“I was going to make turnips. Last week, I bumped into Gracie at the drugstore and I promised I’d make them for her the way she likes them, mashed with lots of butter and salt and parmesan.”
Liked them, I thought. I put my hands on her shoulders, tried to find her eyes in the window reflection.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“It was the last time I saw her.”
Gracie had stayed with us on and off after her father-my own father’s cousin, Eddie-had had his chopper blasted from the sky over a jungle in Vietnam. She was one year older than me. As a kid, she lived with her mother mostly in between her mother’s boyfriends. My mother would come home from bingo saying she’d heard that Gracie’s mom had been seen wriggling her butt on the lap of some new out-of-town guy at Enright’s. “Better get Gracie’s room ready,” she’d say, and I’d dread having to share my tiny bathroom with all of Gracie’s perfumes and hairsprays and boxes of tampons. I never understood why, but she always seemed to get her brightest red lipstick smeared on the mirror. And I hated mashed turnips, especially when Mom made those instead of potatoes.
Mom and I quietly watched the lake. Robert Goulet sang. She loved his voice, a voice so big, she said, it could fill up the sky. As if to prove her point, she would wait until my father was out on the lake in our little runabout with the ten-horse Mercury outboard, then she would put Goulet on the stereo and blast it over the outdoor speakers so my father could hear it all the way out at Pelly’s Point. “Nobody sings like that anymore,” she would say. “Not even Frank sings like that anymore.”
My father teased her that she loved Robert Goulet because he looked like Dad. “You mean,” my mother would tease back, “you look like him.” And then he would bow in his paint-spattered coveralls, the drywall contractor with the dimpled chin and eyes as blue as the lake, and she would curtsy in her polyester slacks and Ban-Lon shirt, the housewife with the waves of hair and the smile that could light up the sky, and they would whirl around the living room while I watched from the kitchen, sheepish but happy.
My father died not in the summer but the late fall. My mother dated now and then but never came close to remarrying. She never spent a night outside our house unless it was with relatives downstate, and no man, at least none I saw, ever stayed in our place past supper. She was not happy when I left home for Detroit, and though she was proud of my success there, or at least told me she was, she was quietly relieved when my failures sent me back to Starvation. “You’re all the man I need in my house,” she would tell me, explaining that she was too busy for a man, too busy with her two-day-a-week job at Sally’s Dry Cleaning, too busy with her bowling and ceramics and euchre and church and Meals on Wheels.
But I think she clung to the memory of her Rudy, my father, because he’d already hurt her in the worst possible way, and she would never take a chance on being hurt that way again. Instead she put all of her heart into me and into her friends, the closest of them all women. While I could see that they made my mother happy, I knew there was a part of her that she had locked away forever in the deepest shadows of her heart, and it made me sad.
Today was not the anniversary of my father’s death. But I understood why Mom was playing Robert Goulet anyway. When I was in high school, I had come home from hockey one evening, hungry and tired, hoping Mom would have dinner on the table. But when I’d walked into the kitchen, the stove had been quiet, the table clear, and Robert Goulet was playing on the stereo. Although I had forgotten, that day was in fact the anniversary of my father’s death-and the same day of the month, by chance, the twenty-second, of Gracie’s father’s death-and Mom and Gracie, who was staying with us at the time, were in each other’s arms, dancing in the darkened living room between the sofa and the armchairs, a girl and a woman grieving the men they had lost.
I remembered this as I stood with Mom now, feeling her shoulders rock back and forth beneath my hands. The song ended. I walked over and turned the stereo off.
“Can you play it again, dear?”
I took Mom’s chair in both hands and swiveled it around to face me. I sat on an end table. She bunched the afghan around her.
“It’s all so sad,” she said.
“Yes. It’s very sad.”
“How is Darlene doing?”
“Devastated, I’m sure, but she’s been out working the case all night, so I suppose she’s distracted, for now at least.”
“Good. Will you give her my love?”
Mom looked up at the ceiling and sighed. “Those two,” she said. “They were nothing but trouble.”
Gracie was nothing but trouble. I pictured her on the night before she left town for college, having barely made it out of high school, a wisp in blue jeans, swaying to and fro on the roof of the Volkswagen bug she had painted orange to match her hair. Her nipples jutted against the T-shirt she’d torn short above her belly button. She waved around a bottle of Boone’s Farm as she sang off-key to “Joy to the World” blasting from the VW’s eight-track player.
Darlene danced and clapped and sipped from a Schlitz tallboy on the ground beneath Gracie. She shook her head shyly and laughed when Gracie motioned for her to climb up there too. Soon two boys and then a third climbed up there and little Gracie lowered herself to her knees and disappeared within the tangle of gyrating hips.
“Well,” I said, “Darlene knew when to stop.”
My mother nodded.
“How are you two doing?”
Mom held her look for a moment. She didn’t really believe me. I supposed how we were doing depended on how you defined “OK.” Darlene quietly worried that I would run back to Detroit; I wondered why she hadn’t finalized her divorce.
I’d asked her more than once when she was going to switch back to her maiden name. “I like how Esper sounds like whisper,” she told me. “Darlene Bontrager sounds like a fat person.”
“Were you with her last night?” Mom said.
“Yeah, until she got the call.”
“You let her go alone?”
“She was on duty, Mom. She couldn’t have me along.”
“But you went out there anyway, of course.”
“I have a job to do, too.”
Mom rocked back in her chair, pulled her hands out from under the afghan, and laced them together across her lap, bracing herself.
“Yes,” she said. “You do.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“She’s family, son. You have to get to the bottom of it.”
“Mother, forgive me, but get to the bottom of what? She hung herself. I’m sorry about that. But that’s the way it is.”
“Why did she hang herself? Why would she do that?”
Though I could not answer them, the questions themselves didn’t baffle me as much as why my mother was asking them. Did she really think there was something more to know other than that Gracie’s entire life seemed to point to an end like this one?
“I know you loved Gracie. But it’s not like this is shocking.”
“It may not be shocking, but it is a shock, at least to me.” She looked up at me. I saw fresh tears in her eyes, more angry than sad. “Gracie did not deserve this, Gus. She did not deserve this. She was starting to come around. She was starting to settle down.”
I thought, How could she not deserve what she chose? But I did not say anything. I dropped to a knee and put a hand on one of my mother’s. “Mom, she was sleeping with Soupy. She was drinking with Soupy. That isn’t quite settling down.”
“Soupy has a good heart.”
“Yes. And a hollow leg and the maturity of a ninth grader.”
Soupy Campbell was my oldest friend. We had played hockey together since we were kids. He was one of the boys who had climbed atop Gracie’s orange VW on that drunken high school night. I could still see him swaying his hips as he chugged from a quart bottle of beer.
Something about that memory bothered me.
“What is it you always say about your work?” Mom said. “‘You don’t know…’” Her voice trailed off. She was struggling to remember. She had been doing a lot of that lately.
I started to say, “You don’t know what the story-” but she cut me off: “Don’t.” She stared at my hand on her knee. “‘You don’t know what the story is… until it’s in the paper.’ ”
She lifted her head. “You’re making assumptions here.” She hesitated. “I hate to say this, but I think you may be letting your emotions cloud your judgment.”
“What emotions?” I said.
My cell phone rang in my pocket. “Excuse me,” I said, pulling it out.
“Those things will be the death of civilization. Why couldn’t they, just leave them down in Detroit with the rest of the rat race?”
“Get with it, Mom,” I said as the phone rang again. “Media North is bringing us into the twenty-first century.”
“This one’s plenty hard enough. Put that down.”
I figured it was Darlene, and I wanted to talk with her, though not in front of Mom. I stopped the ring. “Sorry. Where were we?”
Mom hesitated, then said, “It’s not your fault that you were an only child, honey.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“An only child gets used to having things his way. Then you suddenly had Gracie in your world.”
“She liked having things her way too.”
“And you didn’t appreciate it. You didn’t like Gracie.”
“That’s not true.”
It really wasn’t. I didn’t dislike Gracie any more than she disliked me. Our house just wasn’t big enough for both of us. Or maybe Mom wasn’t.
Over the years we had found a way to coexist, largely by avoiding each other, even after Gracie returned to Starvation the year before. When I saw her at the wheel of the Zamboni, I usually called out, “Hey, Gracie,” and she’d nod, if not smile. I sent her a drink or two when I saw her sitting on her stool at the back of Enright’s, her Kools and Bic lighter at the ready. Sometimes she acknowledged it, sometimes she didn’t.
But now, as my mother prodded me, I was thinking of Gracie’s old VW. She’d gotten rid of it a long time ago, of course, and I was trying to remember what she had been driving recently, besides a Zamboni.
I stood again.
“Gus?” Mom said.
“Do you remember what kind of car Gracie had?”
Mother looked at me blankly.
“Mom,” I said. “Did you go to the doctor?”
“The what? Oh. Yes. I mean-yes. Yes, I did. Yesterday.”
“Yesterday was Sunday, Mom.”
I walked into the kitchen and stared outside at the garage. Mom’s car, a tomato red 1995 Buick LeSabre, was parked inside. Gracie had driven an old lady’s car too. It had been in a photograph on an inside page of the Pilot. After a long Two-fer-Tuesday evening at Enright’s, Soupy had nearly driven it off the Estelle Street Bridge into the Hungry River.
I walked back into the living room.
“What’s with all the rosemary on the pork roast?” I said. “It looks like a pine branch.”
Mom furrowed her brow. “It’s good for you,” she said. “I saw it on that channel, the one that, you know. With all the recipes. They said it’s good for your digestion and circulation. Gets the blood flowing to your brain.”
Ah, I thought, a home remedy for creeping senility.
“Hey,” I said. “What kind of car did Aunt Helene drive when she used to come up from Bay City?”
“That was years ago.”
Long enough ago that Mom might remember.
“A Ford, wasn’t it?” she said, brightening. “A hideous green thing.”
“Yeah. An LTD. That’s what Gracie drove. Not quite as big, but just as green and ugly. With a big rust spot-a hole actually-in the back of the trunk lid.”
“Why does this matter?”
I stood there remembering the night before. My mind’s eye traveled up and down the snowbanks on either side of the road. I saw police cruisers, the ambulance, the fire truck. I did not see an ugly green Ford LTD with a rust hole in the trunk lid.
“I would have noticed that,” I said, thinking aloud.
“What?” Mom said.
“Gracie’s car, it wasn’t there.”
“At the shoe tree.”
“No. How the hell did she get out there? She couldn’t have walked in that storm, although I suppose-” My cell phone rang. “Hang on.” I didn’t want to miss Darlene twice. I answered. “Yeah?”
Philo. I wished I hadn’t picked up. “What’s up?”
“It’s on with Haskell. Eleven fifteen.”
He paused. “Laird Haskell. Your appointment.”
“Oh, right, sorry. OK. I’ll be there. You coming?”
“Unfortunately, no, I have a meeting in Traverse City. Buzz me when you’re done, OK?”
“Just… just keep in mind now is really not the time to stand on principle.”
I was too stunned to answer right away. Philo said, “Talk later,” and hung up the phone.
“What’s wrong?” Mom said. “You look surprised.”
Surprised wasn’t quite the word.
“Nothing,” I said. “Where was I? Gracie’s car. That’s right. It wasn’t there. I guess-”
“-she could have walked.”
As a reporter for the Detroit Times, I had written plenty of stories about people killed in or by cars and trucks. Regardless of whether I saw the blood spilled across asphalt or just heard about it from a police sergeant over the phone, I felt for the dead. I felt they’d been wronged, whether it was by a faulty steering suspension or a drunk driver or even their own innocent mistake. I felt for them even though they were strangers. Or perhaps, more accurately, because they were strangers. Because I knew nothing of their flaws. How they always grabbed the last piece of French toast for themselves. How they sucked up to their bosses and lied to their wives. How they used silence to punish their children.
But I knew all of Gracie’s flaws. Or imagined that I did.
I thought of her sitting on Mom’s lap in that very chair, the two of them sharing a box of Jujubes and chattering about the girls at school-“phony-baloneys,” Gracie called them-who wore too much makeup and the kind of blouses that would make the boys notice their boobs, both Mom and Gracie hopelessly blind to Gracie sitting there with her eyelids painted indigo and her T-shirt tied in a fat knot tight beneath her budding bosom.
It wasn’t that I thought Gracie somehow deserved her fate; it was more that I believed it was where she alone had aimed herself, a destination she had mapped out, consciously or not, years before. I had nothing to do with it then, so why should I have anything to do with it now?
But there were questions I could not answer: How did she get into the tree? What did she stand on before she dropped to her death? How did she get out there? All by herself. In a storm that had torn branches from trees.
I thought of Elvis and the others at Audrey’s snickering over their breakfast plates. Boneheads, every one of them.
“All right, Mom,” I said.
My phone started ringing again. I ignored it.
“All right what?”
“I’ll be looking into this. There must be an explanation.”
Mom allowed herself a faint smile. She shrugged the afghan off her shoulders and stood. “You better get going then,” she said. “I’m going to put those turnips on.”