Authors: Christina Baker Kline
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Contemporary, #Contemporary Fiction
Christina Baker Kline
To D.K. and Beth,
who helped me find my way
used to want to forgive, but now all I want is to be let alone. I don’t have forgiveness left in me. My forgiveness ran out with her blood on that long backwoods stretch of highway when he crawled away in terror that he would be found out. He left her to bleed to death because he could not bear to watch his own life’s blood draining into that red Tennessee dirt; he could not accept that a life he made he had also destroyed. He could only think in the think-speak of whiskey that no one must know, and he gathered up the shards of the bottle, searching for them in the darkness, the smell of burning rubber. He clasped the jagged pieces against his shirt, cutting himself on the glass, and crawled with them far out into the cornfield on the right side of the road, where he dug a hole with his fingers and buried them as deep as he could, which wasn’t deep enough.
He lay there in the trampled corn until his mind started to search through the debris of drunkenness and work itself back into logic and he realized in the lightening darkness, the shadowy cornstalks starting to emerge around him, that he was in it deep. So he dragged himself out of the field on his hands and knees at first and then staggering to his feet, not so much from the whiskey now but in the clearing consciousness of accountability, and made his way back to the scene of the crime. When they found him he was leaning sobbing over our daughter, dirt all over his hands and knees and sweat tears blood on his face, and he was saying, “Sleep now, Ellen—sleep. We’ll wake you in the morning.”
never really knew my mother’s father. So when I received the message on my answering machine from a magistrate at the Sweetwater courthouse asking me to attend the reading of his will, it was as if I’d won a prize in a contest I couldn’t remember having entered. I sat in my Brooklyn apartment in the fading afternoon light, listening to the soft drawl of the voice on the machine several times while I tried to figure out what it meant. Then I called my dad.
“Hi, honey,” he said. “Well, I’ll be damned.” He was silent for a moment. “Of course you know there’s no need to go down there. They can send you the details of whatever it is the old buzzard’s left you.”
“I didn’t even know he died.”
“Elaine sent me the obituary last week.” His voice sounded tired. “I guess I should’ve called you.”
“But what does it mean?” I said. “Why would he leave me anything? He never even so much as wrote me.”
“Oh, it’s probably something of your mother’s he’s been hanging on to all these years. Some keepsake.”
“Why now, though? What good did he think it would do?”
“Who knows why anybody does anything? Maybe this is his way of apologizing. To be fair to the guy, Cassie, it couldn’t have been easy for him. I’m sure he’s been carrying around a lot of guilt for a long time.”
I laughed dryly. “Never stopped him from drinking.”
I could hear my dad draw a deep breath. “That’s just what Elaine says, but then, she was never his favorite kid. Look, Amory Clyde had a hard life. And the drinking he did after the accident was different. It was his only way of dealing with it. I don’t think it’s for us to judge.”
I sat there fingering the dial on the telephone. I tried to remember my mother’s face, but all my memories seemed to be derived from snapshots. I could see her in a lime-green dress and black shoes, short dark hair and red lipstick. She was holding me up, pressing our cheeks together, whispering through smiling teeth, “Smile at the camera, honey.” Another time, I vaguely remembered, we had gone to the zoo. I was wearing white tights and a tan corduroy dress and holding a blue balloon. When I pointed at the gorillas and made a face, she scratched her head like an ape and pretended to peel a banana.
“I’ve got to go, sweetheart,” Dad was saying. “Susan’s out there in the kitchen by herself. She’s getting so big I want to keep her off her feet as much as possible these days. But if you come into a fortune, don’t forget who raised you.”
“You mean Mrs. Urbansky?” I smiled into the phone.
“Hey, you hated her guts, remember? You told me she used to make you floss until your gums bled. She made you swallow Listerine every time you brushed your teeth.”
“Did I tell you that? I really must have wanted to get rid of her.”
After he hung up, I rested the receiver on my shoulder for a moment. As long as I held on, there’d be a connection between us; if he picked up the phone again, I’d still be there. I imagined him going back and chopping onions, whipping eggs for a soufflé, laughing with Susan in the kitchen as people waited for their food. Sometimes all I wanted to do was go home and live above the restaurant again, waking to the voices of deliverymen in the street below, drifting to sleep at night amid the smells of lemon chicken and fresh bread.
The receiver started to beep in my hand, and I replaced it on the cradle. It was too late to call the magistrate today; I’d have to do it
tomorrow, from the gallery. I wondered if I should try to call my grandmother but almost immediately thought better of it. What could I possibly say to a woman I hadn’t seen since I was three?
I tried to conjure images of my grandfather, of what my grandmother’s voice sounded like, the shape of her body. I could dimly recall a powdery smell and soft, dry skin. The only thing I knew with certainty was that one Easter, right before the accident, they gave me a doll that blinked, with hair that grew. The doll had been as big as I was. It was still around somewhere, locked in the musty attic of my dad’s house.
I leaned over and picked up the phone again, dialing my friend Drew’s number. “You know what to do,” his tape-recorded voice announced.
“It’s me. I’ve either inherited a plantation or a lock of my dead mother’s hair. Call if you want to celebrate.”
My voice, talking to a machine in an empty room, sounded strangely hollow. All at once I realized that I was sitting alone in the dark. I wondered idly where Drew was, then remembered that he was at some Sotheby’s function in the city. The apartment was hot and sticky. I got up and started unlocking windows, hauling up the heavy wooden frames and releasing into the room a cacophony of city sounds. The smell of burgers drifted over from across the street, and feeling a stab of hunger, I realized I hadn’t eaten anything but an apple since morning.
I could have called someone to meet for dinner, but I didn’t feel like it. I went into the bedroom and curled up on the futon, one part of me burying everything and the other part excavating, dredging up faces and smells and sounds. My grandfather had died and I never loved him, never even knew him. It didn’t matter. I didn’t care. My mother was dead and now he was dead too, and so everything was finished. There was no one left to blame. I lay under the darkness as if it were a blanket, a churning sea, trying to forget and trying to remember, until I drifted into sleep.
* * *
After my mother died, my father used to tell me the story of my name.
He told me that Cassandra was a princess from the land of Troy, the beautiful daughter of a proud king. That she had special powers: she was a visionary, she could see into the future. That she was wise and knowing, nothing ever surprised her. And she always told the truth. Then he’d look at me intently and say, “We had a hunch you’d be something special.”
When, in the fifth grade, some too-smart kid on the playground told me the details of the story—that everybody thought Cassandra was crazy, that she was stabbed to death by the wife of her two-timing lover—I demanded to know how they could have named me after a lunatic with a curse hanging over her head.
We were driving home to Brookline after one of our afternoons at the Boston Aquarium. It was raining; the loose old wipers swished and slapped against the windshield.
My father looked at me. He pulled on the tufts of his beard like he always did when he didn’t know what to say. “We never thought of it that way,” he said. He adjusted the knob for the wipers, trying to speed them up. “Maybe we should have. I don’t know.” He moved his shoulders up and down in a shrug.
“Can I change my name, then?” I asked.
“Sandra.” I had thought about it. It seemed like a good compromise.
“You’re serious about this.”
Dad. Nobody believed a word she said.”
“But they were wrong, Cassie,” he insisted. “She was the only one who knew what was going on.”
I sighed and leaned back against the cool vinyl. “Nobody believed her, so what good was that?”
He drove for a while, adjusting the wipers again, fiddling with the rearview mirror. “‘Sandra.’” He said the name as if he were holding it out and inspecting it. “I’m not sure I can get used to it.”
“How about Ann?”
He put his big, warm hand on my cold knee. It felt as large and leathery as a gorilla’s. “You have to understand, Cassie, we were very idealistic. We thought the truth was the most important thing.” He paused. “‘Cassandra’ was your mother’s idea.”
There was nothing I could say to that. I looked at my side window, at the spots of rain slanting against it and running down in a sheet.
“She loved you very much, Cassie,” he said in the stillness. “And I do too. You know that, don’t you?”
My father didn’t normally say things like this. I knew how difficult it was for him. I felt a lump in my throat and fought to keep from crying, angry at myself for giving in.
“Okay,” I said in a hard voice.
“You know what?”
“I know you love me,” I said, my voice muffled against the glass.
“Good,” he said, tugging at his beard. “Good.”
I didn’t want to feel sorry for my dad, but I did, and I felt even sorrier for myself. I stared out at the gray streets, the shiny cars, the muddied puddles and potholes. My breath fogged the window.
After a few minutes I could feel him looking over at me. “Don’t you think it’s interesting—,” he began. I turned to him. “Not to change the subject, but don’t you think it’s interesting that all those swimming mammals evolved from the same group as bears?”
“You mean walruses?”
“The whole bunch of them. Walruses, sea lions, seals. They’re called Pinnipedia. ‘Fin feet.’”
“Pinnipedia,” I said. We were back on familiar territory. “They even look kind of like bears. When you think of it.”
“They kind of do,” he agreed. “And you know, another thing. It’s very easy to tell their age. Their teeth have rings, like a tree trunk. One ring for each year.”
“Really. Some of them even live to be forty. They must have
The rain was lighter now, only sprinkling. He turned the knob, and the wipers ground to a halt diagonally across the windshield. We stopped at a red light, and my father yawned and stretched.
“Cassie, it’s up to you, I guess,” he said. “You can change your name if you want. It’s your decision.”
I sighed again. My breath made a big, soft-edged circle against the window. I reached up and erased it with my index finger. “I guess Cassie’s okay,” I said. “For now.”
“I might want to change it later.”
He nodded. “Later would be fine.”
When my mother died, my dad was a junior faculty member in the anthropology department at Boston University, but after the accident he didn’t want to teach anymore. A year later he opened the restaurant, Grasshopper’s, in Brookline. With the occasional help of Mrs. Urbansky, a shrill, fastidious woman with a mania for oral hygiene, he raised me in the little apartment upstairs. When I woke in my bed with nightmares, he was there to soothe me. He took me to antiwar demonstrations in Cambridge and interpreted the Watergate hearings—with a lot of yelling at the television—as we watched them together in the restaurant the summer I was ten. He might have been overbearing if he hadn’t had the restaurant, which kept him busy enough to give me space. I always had the feeling that he was scared of hurting me, and that he wanted me to like him. It made us afraid to tell each other too much. We awoke anxieties in each other with our too-careful dance around the edges of truth, our shared memories of pain.
We almost never talked about my mother. Over the years I picked up bits and pieces about her—her favorite poet was William Carlos Williams, she loved Brahms, her favorite color was midnight blue—but I was always afraid of pushing too far, of being too demanding. It
wasn’t until Susan moved in that I felt I could bring up some questions I’d been saving for years.
“You still miss her, don’t you, Dad?” I asked one time when he visited me at college. It was a bitter-cold Parents Weekend in the fall, and we were sitting in the dark-paneled student pub, drinking coffee.
“I still think of her,” he said.
“It’s been hard on you.”
“Harder on you, not having a mother. I mean, I’ve got Susan.”
“But you didn’t, for a long time.”
“I didn’t,” he agreed.
I wrapped my hands around the paper cup and leaned over it, blowing holes in my coffee. “Is Susan very different?”
He sat back. I could tell he felt uncomfortable talking about it, even now. The question hung in the air between us. “She is,” he said finally. “Well, in some ways. Major ways. But there’s something—I don’t know what it is—something about her that every now and then reminds me of Ellen”—he looked up; he had never used her name like that with me—“reminds me of your mother. It’s not the way she looks, or an expression, or anything like that. I guess it’s a spirit or something.” He pulled at his beard.
“I don’t remember very much about her,” I said.
“What do you remember? I mean, I was never really sure.”
I tried to think back. When I was little, five or six, I used to go home after school and sit in the window overlooking our narrow, busy street, waiting for her to come back. One day, I was certain, I’d recognize my mother’s shining dark hair among the crowds at the end of the street, weaving and bobbing purposefully toward the restaurant. As she got closer, I was sure I’d see her thin, bare white arms, her lime-green dress, the slant of her cheekbones.
“I’m not sure I remember anything.”
While we were talking, the lights had come on in the pub, and the sky outside had darkened like a stone dipped in water. I sipped some coffee, burning the tip of my tongue, and blew into the cup again.
“I’ve often wondered what kind of a mother she would have been. A pretty good one, probably.” He paused, considering. “But you know, Cassie, I think both of us have built up this memory of a woman who was close to perfect, and she wasn’t that. She was unpredictable. Moody when you’d least expect it. And she would’ve hated living in that tiny apartment above the restaurant for however long it’s been—twenty years? She’d probably have gone crazy. But maybe I wouldn’t have quit teaching if… Who knows?” He looked over at me. “And maybe it would’ve been better to get out, anyway. It’s such a day-to-day life.”
“That’s not true, Dad.”
“You would have loved her, though,” he continued. “I mean, I know you do, but if you really knew her…” He squinted, as if concentrating on an object across the room. “She was captivating, Cassie. Here I was, this boy from New Hampshire. I had never met anybody so passionate about so many things. Her feelings were so strong it scared me sometimes. And she didn’t do anything by halves. In her mind, you were either with her or against her. If you weren’t with her, you were against her.” He shook his head at the memory. “I was entranced.”
“I’m not so sure we would have gotten along,” I said.
He looked at me, distracted. Then he reached over and grasped my hands. “Oh, no, you would have! I know you would have. It’s hard to get across the whole picture of who she was. She was …” His voice trailed off. “You know, I don’t think either of us were ready for it when she got pregnant. It took us some time to adjust to the idea. But as soon as you were born, all that changed. We used to take you everywhere in this little papoose carrier—museum tours, hikes in the country, concerts in the park. You just became a part of our lives together. And she cared about you intensely. When she died I felt so sad that she would never get to see you again. It just didn’t make any sense. And I couldn’t quite believe that you and I would have to go on living, without her.”