Authors: J. Courtney Sullivan
Alice’s daughters called them the Perfects. Well, by comparison, yes. Alice was always quick to point out that Ann Marie was a better daughter to her than either of them was. Ann Marie included her in weekend activities; they got their hair done together at a fancy place in town. They had long lunches and traded recipes and thick hardcover books and fashion magazines. Alice’s own two daughters could barely manage to call her once a week and update her on their lives. Clare made up for it every now and then with nice presents, but Kathleen didn’t even bother trying.
Clare was Alice’s middle child, born two years before Patrick. When they were young, Alice had worried the most about her. She had a shock of red hair, the color of autumn leaves; an unfortunately round face; and freckles (Daniel’s side). She was a tomboy, and she was smart, perhaps too smart for her own good. In high school, Clare acted as serious as a nun, cloistered away in her bedroom, reading her textbooks by the open window, sneaking cigarettes when she thought Alice wasn’t looking. She never had many friends, no more than one or two at a time, and never for longer than a few months. Daniel said it wasn’t very motherly of her to say so, but Alice feared it was something Clare was doing that kept chasing people off, rather than the opposite.
After graduating from BC, Clare worked with computers, doing something Alice still didn’t quite understand. She was completely devoted to her job, and never went on any dates as far as Alice knew. In her late thirties, she met Joe, through work, of course. His family business was a religious goods store in Southie that sold ornate Bibles and prayer books to true believers, and crosses and Infant of Prague statues to children making their First Communion. Joe’s father gave him the company when he retired and Clare put the merchandise on the Internet somehow.
They had done well for themselves. They lived in an old Victorian house in Jamaica Plain, a neighborhood that they claimed to love for its diversity and public victory gardens. (
Those sound like the sort of traits you’d use to praise a slum
, Alice thought each time they mentioned them, though she knew the house had not come cheap.) Their neighbors on either side were black.
Until she went to work in downtown Boston at the age of nineteen, Alice had hardly ever seen a black person. Today, you couldn’t drive down the street she had grown up on in Dorchester without locking the doors and holding your breath and saying ten Hail Marys. There were gang members and prostitutes on the corner where her brothers used to play baseball before dinner. But you weren’t allowed to comment on such things. If you did, according to Clare and Joe, you were a bigot.
The two of them were a perfect match, so in step with all that liberal hoo-haw. So in love that Joe didn’t even seem to notice that Clare was downright plain and she didn’t seem to care that he was embarrassingly short. Their son, Ryan, only seventeen, was a student at the Boston Arts Academy. He was a gifted little singer, a real hot ticket. A bit of a brat sometimes, but that was how he’d been raised. Alice had warned them against having just one child. When Ryan was small, he would ask her to play the piano for him and he’d belt out “Tomorrow” as pitch-perfect as any girl on Broadway. Alice and Daniel had gone to so many school plays over the years that eventually Daniel invested in earplugs so he could nap in the auditoriums. But Alice loved watching those shows. She had saved all the programs. Clare and Joe kept Ryan away from her so often now. They were always too busy with auditions and meetings and travel and
, as if that were any excuse.
Kathleen, her oldest, was the one with Alice’s black hair and blue eyes—the prettier sister when they were young, though only by default. Kathleen’s features were terribly round. When she was a teenager, her full hips and breasts hinted at the weight she would gain later.
Daniel said that Alice never really took to Kathleen, that she didn’t treat her like a mother should. He, on the other hand, spoiled her rotten, making no secret of the fact that she was his favorite. It was true when Kathleen was a little girl, and true when he offered her the cottage during her divorce, even though it wasn’t strictly his to offer, and it was true right at the end of his life, a fact that Alice could never forgive.
After Kathleen’s divorce, she went to graduate school for social work. Her kids were still young then, they needed her. But Kathleen stayed out late studying and attending AA meetings as if they were handing out bars of gold there. Later, she started working as a school counselor and began to date all sorts of unsuitable men.
Her two kids, Maggie and Christopher, had become the kind of adults one would expect from a broken home: Chris had anger issues. As a teenager, he once punched a hole in the bathroom wall because his mother grounded him for sneaking out. In contrast, Maggie always tried too hard to make everything perfect. She was too polite, too inquisitive. It put Alice on edge.
After Daniel died, Kathleen moved to California with a loafer boyfriend named Arlo, who she had known for all of six months at the time. They had a plan (or rather, he did) to start a company making fertilizer out of worm dung. It was a preposterous choice that still embarrassed Alice nine years later, especially because Kathleen had used Daniel’s money to finance the whole boneheaded plan. Kathleen had borrowed plenty of money from him before he died too. Alice didn’t want to know how much. She had once thought of Daniel’s money as
money. But if it were hers as well, then she would have had some say in how he spent it, and that was certainly not the case when it came to Kathleen. Each time she made some foolish romantic mistake, there was Daniel, ready to clean it up.
Even as a teenager, Kathleen had always been popular with boys.
“Why don’t you invite your sister to come to the party with you?” Alice would say to her on a Friday night. Or “Can’t you find a nice fella for Clare?”
But Kathleen would only shrug, as though she couldn’t hear her.
Once, they had argued about it, Alice feeling so enraged at her uncharitable offspring that she shouted, “You’re lucky you even have a sister, you wretch. Do you know what I would do if I—”
“What would you do?” Kathleen had interrupted. “What? Take her out to some club and then leave her there to die?”
Alice was shocked, and instantly livid with Daniel for telling Kathleen. That was the only time in her life that she ever struck one of her children.
Usually, especially when they were young, she left the physical discipline to Daniel, for fear of what she might do out of fury or frustration. They had agreed that he would hit the children with a belt when they needed it, and Alice had never felt bad about this. She and her own siblings had endured much worse.
“Wait until your father gets home,” she’d tell the kids when they acted up, and their eyes would grow wide with fear.
When he arrived, Daniel always made a big show of dragging the offending youngster to his or her room, and closing the door. Alice would hear him say sternly, “Now, you brought this upon yourself and you know it. Take it like a grown-up.”
Next came the sound of his belt lashing against a soft backside, and then the child’s dramatic scream. This sort of behavior was highly out of character for her husband, and it always thrilled Alice a little, for the children could be monsters and she felt like he provided the exact buffer she needed to cope.
After Daniel died, the kids told Alice that in fact he had never once struck them, only taken them upstairs and thwacked his belt against the mattress a few times, instructing them to shout as soon as they heard the sound.
Alice rose from her spot on the porch now, and went to the kitchen. She poured herself a glass of wine. Surveying all the dishes and silverware spread out on the counter, she sighed. She had wanted to get a bit of reading in before dinner, but the contents of her pantry were staring straight at her, begging to be dealt with.
There was a big roll of bubble wrap there, and she began by cutting off several thick sheets. Next, she wrapped the plates, one by one. Newspaper would have been quicker, but it seemed a shame to risk staining the china gray, even if she was giving it away. She had briefly considered asking Clare or Ann Marie if they wanted it, but she knew that would only raise their suspicions, and she didn’t feel like arguing.
Lately, the one thing her three children had in common was a real love of nagging her.
They wanted her to quit smoking, and were forever citing statistics about the bad effects or pointing out that her white ceilings were tinged orange, so imagine how her lungs must look. Last spring she had somehow left a lit cigarette burning on the edge of an ashtray on her kitchen table when she went out shopping with Ann Marie. Her daughter-in-law helped her bring in her bundles afterward, and saw the still-smoldering cigarette, which had rolled onto the tabletop and left an ugly burn. The kids all went crazy over it, even though nothing bad had happened.
They thought she drank too much. Well, honestly, who gave a fig about that? She had abstained for more than thirty years for heaven’s sakes, and only to appease her husband. Patrick had given her a stern lecture at Thanksgiving about driving the car after a few cocktails, which made her laugh. She wanted to say that she had driven a car after more than a few lousy cocktails throughout her twenties; when she was pregnant with him and his two sisters; when they were screaming brats in the backseat of her station wagon; and everything had worked out fine. Alice assumed they were thinking about the accident back when they were kids, even though that was a onetime slipup, ancient history. With all that was painful in the world, she wondered why on earth her children felt a need to focus on unlikely hypothetical disasters that might or might not eventually occur.
They said she wasn’t watching her diet carefully enough, monitoring her salt intake like the doctor said she should. Ann Marie called over and over with cautionary tales about her own mother’s ever-worsening diabetes or an article she had read in
on the subject. Alice had to bite her tongue to keep from saying that though Ann Marie’s mother had once been pretty enough, she now looked a lot like Winston Churchill in a swimsuit, while Alice herself had never weighed an ounce over 119 pounds, other than during her pregnancies.
They said Alice should be smarter with her money, because in the wintertime, cooped up in her house with a Manhattan or a glass of cabernet, she enjoyed buying items off the television every now and then—Time Life music collections, hand blenders that promised perfectly thick soups in minutes, even a replica of Lincoln’s log cabin for her granddaughter Patty’s children. But she never spent much, not more than $19.99. She went to the department stores in the mall after church one Sunday a month, and made herself feel better by trying on silk scarves and lipstick or mascara at the Chanel counter. But she certainly didn’t buy any of it. She just memorized the feel and the look, and then went to Marshalls and bought the closest knockoff. She followed the sales at Macy’s and Filene’s like a hawk. She clipped coupons every morning, and called Ann Marie to let her know about any really good deals.
Still, it was hard to keep much money in the bank just between her pension and Daniel’s. A couple years back, when Patrick looked over her taxes, he frowned and said, “You’re shelling out a heck of a lot more than you’re bringing in. You need to reverse that situation, pronto.”
Her very first thought was that perhaps she ought to sell the property in Maine. It surprised her that she would even consider it, but there it was.
Alice wasn’t particularly attached to the big house, but she still felt sentimental about the cottage, with its familiar details, and stories from their past tucked inside each cupboard and under every bed. On the doorway leading to the kitchen, hundreds of dates and initials had been written in by hand, chronicling the heights of her children and grandchildren and nieces and nephews over the years. This was where Clare had learned to walk, and Patrick had broken his arm one summer, trying to jump off the roof of the screen porch and fly like Superman. Where her grandchildren had first stepped in sand and had their tiny bodies dipped into the ocean. Where she and Daniel had taken countless strolls to look at the stars, hand in hand, not a word spoken.
But those were only memories. The place wasn’t moving forward anymore, not for Alice. In recent years, her children had even created an asinine schedule for the cottage: One month per family each summer. Kathleen and her kids got June; Patrick, Ann Marie, and theirs got July; Clare, Joe, and Ryan got August.
It made Alice nervous, unsettled, to have to see her children one at a time like this. The joy and spontaneity of summers past were gone now. Daniel’s death had ended them as a family. Each had pulled away from the others, and at some point without realizing it, Alice had gone from the matriarch—keeper of the wisdom and the order—to the old lady you had to look in on before the day’s fun could begin.
She got the feeling that none of her children particularly liked one another, or worse, that they had no use for each other. So why keep the old place? And why bother coming up, year after year, when it only made her feel lonely, longing for something she’d already had?
It seemed to Alice that everyone these days was out for themselves. The sort of families she and Daniel had grown up in and tried to carry on no longer existed, not really. Her mother had had eight children, including the two babies that died. Daniel’s mother had had ten. Though she had hated the noise and the chaos and the sacrifice this implied back then, now Alice saw that it gave you something, being part of a family like that. Her own children and their children would never understand it. That was why they were so comfortable splitting up their summer home, or living a few miles apart but only seeing one another every couple of weeks. Or, in Kathleen’s case, moving clear across the country for no good reason. Worms, for Christ’s sake.
She gently laid the plates in a cardboard box on the floor. The box already contained the second teapot they had kept around forever, and some old dish towels, and a
Kiss Me, I’m Irish
coffee mug that had once belonged to her brother Timothy. Alice took the mug out and placed it back in the cabinet.