We Were the Mulvaneys
JOYCE CAROL OATES We Were the Mulvaneys
This novel is entirely a work of fiction. The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it are the work of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or localities is entirely coincidental.
An imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd. 1 London Bridge Street London SE1 9GF
This edition published by Harper Perennial 2008
First published in Great Britain by Fourth Estate in 2001
Copyright © The Ontario Review, Inc. 1996
The quoted passage on page 177 is taken from Ludwig von Bertalanffy,
Problems of Life: An Evaluation of Modern Biological and Scientific Thought (Pitman Publishing, Ltd, London, 1952), page 103
PS Section copyright © Sarah O’Reilly 2008, except ‘What is a Family except Memories?’ by Joyce Carol Oates © The Ontario Review, Inc. 2008 PS™ is a trademark of HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd.
Joyce Carol Oates asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library
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Source ISBN: 9780007268399
Ebook Edition © DECEMBER 2012 ISBN: 9780007502134 Version: 2017-04-20
From the reviews of We Were the Mulvaneys:
‘Oates’s finest … a major achievement’
‘We Were the Mulvaneys works not simply because of its meticulous details and gestures … What keeps us coming back to Oates Country is something stronger and spookier: her uncanny gift of making the page a window, with something on the other side that we’d swear was life itself’
DAVID GATES, New York Times
‘This is a book that will break your heart, heal it, then break it again every time you think about it’
Los Angeles Times
‘Novelists such as Updike, Roth, Wolfe and Mailer slug it out for the title of the Great American Novelist. But maybe they’re wrong. Maybe, just maybe, the Great American Novelist is a woman’
‘A brilliantly detailed and varied picture of family life and a succession of dramatic set pieces … These are people we recognise, and she makes us care deeply about them’
for my “Mulvaneys” …
I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.
You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,And filter and fibre your blood.
Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged.Missing me one place search another,I stop some where waiting for you.
from Walt Whitman, Song of Myself
We were the Mulvaneys, remember us?
You may have thought our family was larger, often I’d meet people who believed we Mulvaneys were a virtual clan, but in fact there were only six of us: my dad who was Michael John Mulvaney, Sr., my mom Corinne, my brothers Mike Jr. and Patrick and my sister Marianne, and me—Judd.
From summer 1955 to spring 1980 when my dad and mom were forced to sell the property there were Mulvaneys at High Point Farm, on the High Point Road seven miles north and east of the small city of Mt. Ephraim in upstate New York, in the Chautauqua Valley approximately seventy miles south of Lake Ontario.
High Point Farm was a well-known property in the Valley, in time to be designated a historical landmark, and “Mulvaney” was a well-known name.
For a long time you envied us, then you pitied us.
For a long time you admired us, then you thought Good!—that’s what they deserve.
“Too direct, Judd!”—my mother would say, wringing her hands in discomfort. But I believe in uttering the truth, even if it hurts. Particularly if it hurts.
For all of my childhood as a Mulvaney I was the baby of the family. To be the baby of such a family is to know you’re the last little caboose of a long roaring train. They loved me so, when they paid any attention to me at all, I was like a creature dazed and blinded by intense, searing light that might suddenly switch off and leave me in darkness. I couldn’t seem to figure out who I was, if I had an actual name or many names, all of them affectionate and many of them teasing, like “Dimple,” “Pretty Boy” or, alternately, “Sourpuss,” or “Ranger”—my favorite. I was “Baby” or “Babyface” much of the time while growing up. “Judd” was a name associated with a certain measure of sternness, sobriety, though in fact we Mulvaney children were rarely scolded and even more rarely punished; “Judson Andrew” which is my baptismal name was a name of such dignity and aspiration I never came to feel it could be mine, only something borrowed like a Hallowe’en mask.
You’d get the impression, at least I did, that “Judd” who was “Baby” almost didn’t make it. Getting born, I mean. The train had pulled out, the caboose was being rushed to the track. Not that Corinne Mulvaney was so very old when I was born—she was only thirty-three. Which certainly isn’t “old” by today’s standards. I was born in 1963, that year Dad used to say, with a grim shake of his head, a sick-at-heart look in his eyes, “tore history in two” for Americans. What worried me was I’d come along so belatedly, everyone else was here except me! A complete Mulvaney family without Judd.
Always it seemed, hard as I tried I could never hope to catch up with all their good times, secrets, jokes—their memories. What is a family, after all, except memories?—haphazard and precious as the contents of a catchall drawer in the kitchen (called the “junk drawer” in our household, for good reason). My handicap, I gradually realized, was that by the time I got around to being born, my brother Mike was already ten years old and for children that’s equivalent to another generation. Where’s Baby?—who’s got Baby? the cry would commence, and whoever was nearest would scoop me up and off we’d go. A scramble of dogs barking, their eagerness to be taken along to wherever a mimicry of my own, exaggerated as animals are often exaggerations of human beings, emotions so rawly exposed. Who’s got Baby? Don’t forget Baby!
The dogs, cats, horses, even the cars and pickups Dad and Mom drove before I was born, those big flashy-sexy Fifties models—all these I would pore over in Mom’s overstuffed snapshot albums, determined to attach myself to their memories. Sure, I remember! Sure, I was there! Mike’s first pony Crackerjack who was a sorrel with sandcolored markings. Our setter Foxy as a puppy. The time Dad ran the tractor into a ditch. The time Mom threw corncobs to scare away strange dogs she believed were threatening the chickens and the dogs turned out to be a black bear and two cubs. The time Dad invited 150 people to Mulvaney’s Fourth of July cookout assuming that only about half would show up, and everyone showed up—and a few more. The time a somewhat disreputable friend of Dad’s flew over to High Point Farm from an airport in Marsena in a canary-yellow Piper Cub and landed—“Crash-landed, almost,” Mom would say dryly—in one of the pastures, and though the baby in the snapshots commemorating this occasion would have to have been my sister Marianne, in July 1960, I was able to convince myself Yes I was there, I remember. I do!
And when in subsequent years they would speak of the incident, recalling the way the wind buffeted the little plane when Wally Parks, my Dad’s friend, took Dad up for a brief flight, I was positive I’d been there, I could recall how excited I was, how excited we all were, Mike, Patrick, Marianne and me, and of course Mom, watching as the Piper Cub rose higher and higher shuddering in the wind, grew smaller and smaller with distance until it was no larger than a sparrow hawk, high above the Valley, looking as if a single strong gust of wind could bring it down. And Mom prayed aloud, “God, bring those lunatics back alive and I’ll never complain about anything again, I promise! Amen.”
I’d swear even now, I’d been there.
For the Mulvaneys were a family in which everything that happened to them was precious and everything that was precious was stored in memory and everyone had a history.
Which is why many of you envied us, I think. Before the events of 1976 when everything came apart for us and was never again put together in quite the same way.
We Mulvaneys would have died for one another, but we had secrets from one another just the same. We still do.
I’m an adult telling you these things: Judd Mulvaney, thirty years old. Editor in chief of the Chautauqua Falls Journal, a twice-weekly publication, circulation 25,600. I’ve been a newspaperman or in any case working for newspapers since the age of sixteen and though I love my work and am, I suppose, fairly obsessed by it, I’m not ambitious in any worldly sense. I’ve been entrusted by the elderly gentleman publisher of the Journal, who happens to be a friend of mine, to put out a “good, decent, truth-telling paper” and that’s what I’ve been doing and will continue to do. Moving out and up to better-paying jobs in larger cities evokes only the mildest glimmer of interest in me. I’m not a newspaperman who strives for sensation, controversy. I’d rather be truth-telling and I hope always to be without hypocrisy.
I’ve constructed a personality that is even and temperate and on the whole wonderfully civilized. People murmur to Corinne Mulvaney, after they’ve met me, “What a nice young man!” and, if they’re women like her, women of her age with grown and far-flung children, “Aren’t you lucky, to have such a son!” In fact I suppose Mom is lucky, not just because she “has” me but because she “has” my brothers and sister too, and we love her as much or nearly as much as she loves us.
Mom doesn’t know and I hope never will know that two of her sons were involved in a criminal action of extreme seriousness. I’ll be direct with you: I’ve been an accomplice to two Class-A felonies punishable by lengthy prison terms in New York State and I came close to being an accessory both before and after the fact in an actual case of murder and very possibly I would not be repentant if this murder had been committed. Certainly my brother Patrick, who came close to committing the murder, would not have been repentant. Asked by the judge to speak on his own behalf, at the time of sentencing, Patrick would have looked the man in the eye and said, “Your Honor, I did what I did and I don’t regret it.”
Many times in my imagination I’ve heard Patrick say these words. So many times, I almost think, in that twilight state of consciousness between sleep and wakefulness, which involves a subtle, shifting, mysterious personality few of us have explored, that in fact Patrick was arrested, tried, and convicted for murder, kidnapping, auto theft—whatever the numerous charges would have been—and had stood before a judge and spoke in just this way. Then I force myself awake, and relief floods through me like sunshine! It didn’t happen, not in that way.
But this document isn’t a confession. Not at all. I’ve come to think of it as a family album. The kind my mom never kept, absolute truth-telling. The kind no one’s mom keeps. But if you’ve been a child in any family you’ve been keeping such an album in memory and conjecture and yearning, and it’s a life’s work, it may be the great and only work of your life.
I’ve said there were six in our family but that’s misleading. Six is such a small number! In fact High Point Farm was busy and complicated and to a child confusing as a stage play in which familiar and unfamiliar faces are ceaselessly coming and going. Friends, relatives, houseguests, Dad’s business contacts, hired help—every day and frequently every hour you could count on it that something was happening. Both my parents were sociable, popular people who had little patience with quiet, let alone solitude. And we lived on a farm. We owned horses, dairy cows, goats, a few sheep, chickens and guinea fowl and geese and semi-tame mallard ducks. What a barnyard squawking in the early morning, when the roosters crowed! I grew up with such sounds, and the cries of wild birds (mainly jays who nested close about the house in our giant oaks), I came to believe they were part of the very fabric of morning itself. The very fabric of my soul.
Unlike neighboring farms in the Valley, High Point Farm wasn’t any longer a “real” farm. Dad’s income came from Mulvaney Roofing, in Mt. Ephraim. Originally, the farm property had included three hundred acres of good, fertile if hilly soil, but by the time Dad and Mom bought it, only twenty-three acres remained; and of these, Dad leased fifteen to neighboring farmers to grow timothy, wheat, soybeans, alfalfa, corn. But we had farm animals we loved, and of course we had dogs, rarely less than four, and cats—cats!—always a select number of cats allowed inside the house and an ever-shifting number of barn cats. My earliest memories were of animals with personalities stronger than my own. A horse has a very defined yet often unpredictable personality unlike, for instance, a dog; a cat can be virtually anything. Dad used to complain jokingly that the boss of the household was a certain temperamental, supremely self-absorbed and very beautiful Persian cat named Snowball and the second-in-command was Mom, of course, and after that he didn’t care to speculate, it was too humbling.
“Oh, yes! We all feel sorry for poor Curly, don’t we?”—Mom teased affectionately, as Dad made a brooding face. “So neglected in his own home!”
Say I counted the animals and fowl of High Point Farm with personalities defined enough to have been named—how many might there have been? Twenty? Twenty-five? Thirty? More? And of course they were always shifting, changing. A new litter of puppies, a new litter of kittens. Spring lambs, goats. It was rare that a foal was born but when a foal was born, after many days and nights of worry (mainly on Mom’s part, she’d sometimes sleep in the stable with the pregnant mare) it was quite an occasion. Several families of canaries had come and gone before I was born and it was a fond household tale of the time Mom had tried to breed canaries right there in the kitchen, the problem being she’d succeeded only too well, and at the height of the “canary epidemic” as Dad called it there were three large cages containing a total of fifteen canaries, trilling, warbling, chirping, scolding, sometimes screeching—“And ceaselessly defecating,” as Dad said dryly. I remember once when I was very small, Dad brought home a spindly-legged little gray goat because its owner, a neighboring farmer, had been going to shoot it—“Come meet Billy-boy!” Dad announced. Another time, Mom and Mike returned from a trip to the feed store in Eagleton Corners with a large flamey-feathered golden-eyed strutting bantam cock—“Everybody come meet Cap’n Marvel!” Mom announced. My first puppy was a bulldog named Little Boots with whom I would grow up like a brother.
When I think of us then, when we were the Mulvaneys of High Point Farm, I think of the sprawling, overgrown and somewhat jungly farm itself, blurred at the edges as in a dream where our evercollapsing barbed wire fences trailed off into scrubby, hilly, uncultivated land. (On a farm, you have to repair fences continually, or should.) Getting us into focus requires effort, like getting a dream into focus and keeping it there.
One of those haunting tantalizing dreams that seem so vivid, so real, until you look closely, try to see—and they begin to fade, like smoke.
Let’s drive out to High Point Farm!
Come with me, I’ll take you there. From Route 58, the Yewville Pike, a good two- and three-lane country highway linking Rochester, Yewville and Mt. Ephraim on a straight north-south axis, you pass through the crossroads town of Lebanon, continue for eight miles following the Yewville River and crossing the erector-set new bridge at Mt. Ephraim. (Population 19,500 in 1976.) Continue along what turns into Meridian Street, passing the aged redbrick mill factories on the river (manufacturers of ladies’ handbags, sweaters, footwear) that have the melancholy look of shutdown businesses but are in fact operating, to a degree. Take a right onto Seneca Street past the stately-ugly old Greek Revival building that is the Mt. Ephraim Public Library with the wrought-iron fence in front. Past the Mt. Ephraim Police Headquarters. The Veterans of Foreign Wars. The Odd Fellows. Bear right at the square, where most of the tall old elms have been removed, and continue on to Fifth Street, where you take a right at Trinity Episcopal Church.
No—wait. This route is a shortcut to avoid Mt. Ephraim’s “downtown” (hardly more than three blocks but the old, narrow streets can get congested). Let’s circle around to the far end of South Main Street, another right, and a left, now we’re in an area of small businesses and warehouses. There’s Mulvaney Roofing—a smallish single-storey stucco building, recently painted an attractive dark green with white trim. On the roof are state-of-the-art asphalt-and-polyester shingles in a slightly darker shade of green.
How proud Dad was of Mulvaney Roofing. How hard he’d worked for it, and to build up his reputation as a man you not only wanted to do business with because his product was so fine but because you liked and respected him as a damned nice guy.
Now back onto Fifth, and continue for three blocks. Passing on the left Mt. Ephraim High where we Mulvaney children all went to school, in turn (factory-style design, flat leaky roof and cheap bargain bricks built in the mid-Sixties and already showing signs of wear) and the school playing fields and at the corner a town ballpark, nothing spectacular, a few bleachers and a weedy infield and litter drifting in the wind like tumbleweed. There’s Rose & Chubby’s Diner, there’s the Four Corners Tavern with the cinder parking lot. Past Depot Street. Past Railroad. Down the long hill past Drummond’s Gloves, Inc.—still operating in 1976, skidding just ahead of bankruptcy. (Mr. Drummond was an acquaintance of my dad’s, we’d hear of the poor man’s problems at mealtimes.) Bear right at the fork in the road past Apostles of Christ Tabernacle, one of Mom’s first churches in the area but back before Judd was born, a sad cinder-block building with a movie house marquee and bright pink letters REJOICE ALL, CHRIST IS RISEN! Continue across the train tracks and past the Chautauqua & Buffalo freight yards. You’ll see the water tower fifty feet above the ground on what I’d always think were “spider legs”: MT. EPHRAIM in rainwashed white letters. (Probably there are Day-Glo scrawls, initials and graffiti on the water tower, too. Probably CLASS OF ’76 MT.E.H.S. There’s an ongoing struggle between local officials who want the tower clear of graffiti and local high school kids determined to mark it as their own.)
Turn now onto Route 119, the Haggartsville Road, a fast-moving state highway. Gulf station on the left, Eastgate Shopping Center on the right, the usual fast-food drive-through restaurants like Wendy’s, McDonald’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken all recently built along this strip in the early 1970’s. Spohr’s Lumber, Hendrick Motors, Inc. Familiar names because the owners were friends of my dad’s, fellow members of the Mt. Ephraim Chamber of Commerce, the Odd Fellows, the Mt. Ephraim Country Club. The traffic light ahead marks the town limits. Beyond, on the left, is Country Club Lane that leads back from the busy highway for miles in an upscale “exclusive” residential neighborhood; the Mt. Ephraim Country Club itself isn’t visible from the highway but you can see the rolling green golf course, a finger of artificial lake glittering like broken glass. On the right is a similiar prestige housing development, Hillside Estates. Now you’re out of town and the speed limit is fifty-five miles an hour but everyone is going faster. Heavy trucks, semis. Local pickups. You’re passing small farms, open fields as the highway gradually ascends. Railroad tracks run close beside the road for several miles then veer off through a tunnel that looks as if it’s been drilled through solid rock. Beyond a scattering of shantylike houses and a sad-looking trailer village there’s a narrow blacktop road forking off to the right: High Point Road.
Now you’re in the foothills of the Chautauqua Mountains and those are the mountains in the distance ahead: wooded slopes that look carved, floating. Mt. Cataract is the highest at 2,300 feet above sea level, chalky at its peak, visible on clear days though it’s thirty miles away. It looks like a hand doesn’t it? Marianne used to say like someone waving to us. In winter this is a region of snow vast and deep and drifting as the tundra. In my mind’s eye I not only see but cringe at the blinding dazzling white hills stretching for miles, tufted and puckered with broken cornstalks. Sparrow hawks circling overhead in lazy-looking spirals, wide-winged hawks so sharp of eye they can spot tiny rodents scurrying from one cornstalk to another and drop in a sudden swooping descent like a rocket to seize their prey in their talons and rise with it again. In warm weather most of the fields are tilled, planted. Hilly pastureland broken by brooks and narrow meandering creeks. Herds of Holsteins grazing; sometimes horses, sheep. You’re in the deep country now, and still ascending. Past the crossroads town of Eagleton Corners—post office and general store in the same squat little building, farm supply store, gas station, white clapboard Methodist church. Now the character of High Point Road changes: the blacktop becomes gravel and dirt, hardly more than a single lane, virtually no shoulders and a deep ditch on the right. The road rides the edge of an ancient glacier ridge, one of a number of bizarre raised striations in the earth in this part of New York State, like giant claws many miles long. And now there’s a creek rushing beside the road, Alder Creek that’s deep, fast-moving, treacherous as a river. Still you’re ascending, there’s a steep hill as the road curves, it’s a good idea to shift into second gear. When the road levels, you pass the Pfenning farm on the right, which borders the Mulvaney property—at last! The Pfennings’ house is a typical farmhouse of the region, economical asphalt siding, a shingled roof exuding slow rot. The barn is in better repair, which is typical too. Lloyd Pfenning is Dad’s major renter, leasing twelve acres from him most years to plant in oats and corn. A half mile farther and you pass the run-down, converted schoolhouse, Chautauqua County District #9, where a succession of families have lived; in this year 1976, the family is called Zimmerman.
Another half mile and you see, on the left, a large handsome black mailbox with the silver figure of a rearing horse on its side and the name M U L V A N E Y in lipstick-red reflector letters. Across from the mailbox there’s a driveway nearly obscured from view by trees and shrubs, and the sign Mom painted herself, so proudly—
HIGH POINT FARM
The gravel drive is lined with tall aging spruces. Around the house are five enormous oaks and I mean enormous—the tallest is easily three times the height of the house and the house is three storeys. In summer everything is overgrown, you have to stare up the drive to see the house—what a house! In winter, the lavender house seems to float in midair, buoyant and magical as a house in a child’s storybook. And that antique sleigh in the front yard, looking as if the horse had just trotted away to leave the lone passenger behind—a human figure, a tenderly comical scarecrow wearing old clothes of Dad’s.
A storybook house, you’re thinking, yes? Must be, storybook people live there.
High Point Farm had been a local landmark long before my parents bought and partly restored it, of course. Most recently it had been the secluded homestead of an eccentric German-born gentleman farmer who’d died in 1951 and left it to young, distant relatives living in cities far away with little interest in the property except as an occasional summer place or weekend hunting retreat. By 1976, when I was thirteen, High Point Farm was looking almost prosperous and it wasn’t unusual for photographers from as far away as Rochester and Buffalo to come out to photograph it, “historic” house and outbuildings, horses grazing in pastures, antique sleigh and “quaint” little brook winding through the front yard. Each year, High Point Farm was featured on calendars printed by local merchants, the Mt. Ephraim Patriot-Ledger, the Western New York Historical Society.
On the wall of my office at the newspaper there’s a Historical Society calendar for 1975, opened permanently to October—“Pumpkin Time at High Point Farm!” A glossy picture of the scarecrow figure in the sleigh in Dad’s old red-plaid jacket, earflap cap, bunchy khaki trousers, surrounded by Day-Glo orange pumpkins of varying sizes including, on the ground, an enormous misshapen pumpkin that must have weighed more than one hundred pounds. Beyond the figure in the sleigh is the lavender-and-fieldstone farmhouse with its numerous windows and steep-pitched roofs.
I’ve had the page laminated, otherwise it would long be faded and tattered.
Our house was a rambling old farmhouse of seven bedrooms, verandas and porches and odd little turrets and towers and three tall fieldstone chimneys. Dad said of the house that it had no style, it was styles, a quick history of American architecture. Evidence showed that as many as six builders had worked on it, renovating, expanding, removing, just since 1930. Dad kept the exterior in Al condition, of course—especially the roofs that were covered in prime-quality slate of a beautiful plum hue, and drained with seamless aluminum gutters and downspouts. The old, central part of the house was fieldstone and stucco; later sections were made of wood. When I was very little, in the mid-Sixties it must have been, Dad and two of his Mulvaney Roofing men and Mike Jr. and Patrick repainted the wood sections, transforming them from gunmetal gray to lavender with shutters the rich dark purple of fresh eggplant. The big front door was painted cream. (Eighteen gallons of oil-base paint for old, dry wood had been required, and weeks of work. What a team effort! I’d wished I was big enough to use a brush, to climb up onto the scaffolding and help. And maybe in my imagination I’ve come to believe I had been part of the team.)
Part of the house’s historic interest lay in the fact that it had been a “safe house” in the Underground Railroad, which came into operation after the passage in 1850 of the Fugitive Slave Act, one of the most shameful legislative measures in American history. My mother was thrilled to discover documents in the Chautauqua County Historical Society archive pertaining to these activities, and wrote a series of pieces for the Mt. Ephraim Patriot-Ledger on the subject. How innocently vain she was! How captivated, as she said, by “living in a place of history”! She’d been born on a small farm about fifteen miles to the south where farm life was work, work, work and the seasons simply repeated themselves forever, never adding up to what you’d call “history.”
It was after I started school that Mom became seriously interested in antiques. She’d furnished much of the house with authentic period items, those she could afford, and it became her notion to buy and sell. She acquired some merchandise, set up shop in a small converted barn just behind the house, advertised in one or another local antique publications and painted a sign to prop up beside the scarecrow in the sleigh—
HIGH POINT ANTIQUES
BARGAINS & BEAUTY!
Not that many customers ever came. High Point Farm was too far from town, too difficult to locate. Sunday drivers might drop by, enthralled by the sight of the lavender-and-stone house atop the hill, but most of Mom’s visitors were fellow dealers like herself. If in fact someone wanted to buy an item of which she’d grown especially fond, Mom would seem to panic, and murmur some feeble apology—“Oh, I’m so sorry! I forgot—that item has been requisitioned by a previous customer.” Blushing and wringing her hands in the very gesture of guilt.
Dad observed, “Your mother’s weakness as a businesswoman is pretty simple: she’s a hopeless amateur.”
Scouring auctions, flea markets, garage and rummage sales in the Chautauqua Valley, not above browsing through landfill dumps and outright trash, about which Dad teased her mercilessly, Mom only brought home things she fell in love with; and, naturally, things she’d fallen in love with she couldn’t bear to sell to strangers.
What is truth?—Pontius Pilate’s question.
And how mysteriously Jesus answered him—Every one that is of the truth heareth my voice.
Once I thought I understood this exchange but no longer.
In setting forth this story of the Mulvaneys, of whom I happen to be the youngest son, yet, I hope, a neutral observer, at least one whose emotions have been scoured and exorcised with time, I want to set down what is truth. Everything recorded here happened and it’s my task to suggest how, and why; why what might seem to be implausible or inexplicable at a distance—a beloved child’s banishment by a loving father, like something in a Grimm fairy tale—isn’t implausible or inexplicable from within. I will include as many “facts” as I can assemble, and the rest is conjecture, imagined but not invented. Much is based upon memory and conversations with family members about things I had not experienced firsthand nor could possibly know except in the way of the heart.
As Dad used to say, in that way of his that embarrassed us, it was so direct, you had to respond immediately and dared not even glance away—“We Mulvaneys are joined at the heart.”
Like whispering the furtive rustle. Judd. Judd. Judd.
I must have been eleven years old, that night I was wakened by the deer, and followed them back to the pasture pond. Wakened not by hooves outside my window (I had no idea the sound was hooves) but by a rustling in the tall dry grasses. Judd. Oh Judd!
Judd sleeps so hard, Mom used to tease, when he was a baby his dad and I would lean over the crib every few minutes, to check if he was breathing!
It was so: up to the age of about thirteen, I’d sleep so hard, I mean—hard. Sunk to the bottom of a deep, deep well.
Wonder why? Weekdays at High Point Farm never began later than 6 A.M. when Mom hollered up the stairs, “WAKE UP! RISE ’N’ SHINE, KIDDOS!” And maybe whistled, or banged a pot. Barn chores before breakfast (my God it could take as long as an hour to wash the cows’ filth-encrusted milk-swollen udders, hook up the milking machine to each cow, drain their heavy milk bags dry, empty the milkers into pails) and barn chores after school (horses, mainly—as much work, but at least I loved our horses), approximately 4:30 P.M. to 6 P.M. And then supper—in our family, intense. Just to hold my own around our table, for a kid like me, the youngest of the Mulvaneys, used up energy, and staying power, like keeping on your toes through twelve rounds of a featherweight boxing match—it might look almost easy to outsiders but it isn’t easy, for sure. And after supper an hour or so of homework, also intense (Mom insisted that Patrick or Marianne oversee my efforts: worrying I wasn’t the high-nineties student it was her conviction I should be) and more excitement among the family, watching TV for a while if something “worthwhile, educational” was on: history, science and biography documentaries on public television were favored by our parents. And we’d discuss them during, and afterward—we Mulvaneys were a family who talked. So when around 10 P.M. I staggered upstairs to bed it was with the gravity of a stone sinking slowly through deep, dark water. Sometimes I fell asleep half in my pajamas, lying sideways on my bed, and Little Boots curled up happily beside me. Sometimes I fell asleep in the bathroom, sitting on the toilet. “Oh, Judd! Goodness! Wake up, honey!” Mom might cry, having pushed open the door I’d neglected to lock.
No privacy at High Point Farm.
What with the six of us, and the dogs and cats and frequent visitors and overnight guests (my parents were what’s called hospitable, and Marianne was always inviting girlfriends to stay the night—“The more, the merrier!” Mom believed)—privacy just wasn’t an option.
Patrick was the self-declared loner of the family. He’d read Henry David Thoreau’s Walden at the age of twelve and often camped out overnight on Alder Creek, in the woods—even so, he’d have one of the dogs with him, or more than one. In his room, there was always a dog or a cat and I’d peek in on him sometimes (the kind of dumb-admiring thing a kid brother does) to see him asleep twisted in his bedclothes with a heavy furry shape slung across his chest, both of them snoring softly.
God, did I sleep hard as a kid! Everything in those days was stark and intense and almost hurtful—I mean, it had the power to make me so happy, so excited. I’d fall into bed and a switch in my brain turned off and I was gone, out. And if anything suddenly woke me in the night (you’d be surprised, it was never the wind: High Point Farm was buffeted constantly by wind that made the oak limbs creak, rattled windowpanes and whined under the eaves and down the chimneys, but we never heard it, only if the wind died down we’d get a little anxious) it was like someone shone a flashlight into my face. My eyes would fly open and I’d lie in bed with my heart pounding, covered in sweat. The time of quick terror when you don’t know who you are, or where.
Then I would recall my name, my true name: Judson Andrew Mulvaney. Dad liked to hint I’d been named after a “rich, eccentric” relative of his, an “Irish landowner of County Kildare” but I guess that was some kind of joke, Dad hadn’t any relatives at all in Ireland that he knew, nor any relatives in this country he’d acknowledge. But what a name for a little boy! What promise of dignity, worth! Just the sound of it, shaping the words aloud—it was like Dad’s new overcoat, camel’s hair, Mom’s Christmas present for him she’d bought on sale the previous March in Yewville’s best department store, that coat so many sizes larger than anything scrawny Ranger might wear yet a coat I might grow into one day. Like Dad’s classy riding boots, another bargain-sale item, and Dad’s fur-lined leather gloves. His Ford pickup, and Mom’s Buick station wagon, and Mike’s lipstick-red Olds Cutlass and the Jeep Wrangler and the John Deere tractor and other farm machinery and vehicles I might one day be capable of driving. All these, Judson Andrew Mulvaney summoned to mind.
Shivering with excitement I stood at my window staring down at the deer. Counting six, seven—eight?—cautiously making their way single file through our yard. They were white-tailed deer probably headed for our pasture pond where it extended twenty feet or so beyond the fence. Where by day our small herd of Holsteins drank, grazed, drowsed on their stolid feet slowly filling their enormous milk-bags, near-motionless as black-and-white papier-mâché beasts, only the twitching of their tails, warding off flies, to give you the idea they’re alive.
It was 3:25 A.M. A strange thrill, to think I was the only Mulvaney awake in the house.
There were many deer on our property, in the remoter wooded areas, but it was rare for any to pass so close to our house, because of the dogs. (Though our dogs never ran loose at night, like the dogs of certain of our neighbors and a small pack of semi-wild dogs that plagued the area. Mom was furious at the way people abandoned their pets in the country—“As if animals aren’t human, too.” And there were miserly farmers who didn’t believe in feeding their dogs so the dogs had to forage the countryside.) Mulvaney dogs were well fed and thoroughly domesticated and not trained to be hunters though they were supposed to be watchdogs “guarding” the property.
I wanted to follow the deer! Made my way barefoot out of my room and to the stairs thinking None of them knows where I am, Ranger is invisible. Little Boots slept so hard on my bed, he hadn’t even known I was gone.
Troy, sleeping somewhere downstairs, didn’t seem to hear me, either.
You could do an inventory of the Mulvaney staircase and have a good idea what the family was like. Staircases in old farmhouses like ours were oddly steep, almost vertical, and narrow. Our lower stairs, though, were always cluttered at their edges, for here, as everywhere in the house, all sorts of things accumulated, set down “temporarily” and not picked up again, nor even noticed, for weeks. Unopened mail for Dad and Mom, including, sometimes, bills. L.L. Bean catalogues, Burpee’s seed catalogues, Farm & Home Supplies circulars. Back issues of Farm Life, Time, Newsweek, Consumer Reports, The Evangelist: A Christian Family Weekly. Old textbooks. Single gloves, a single boot. Stiffened curry combs and brushes, thumbtacks, screws, stray buttons. Certain steps had been unofficially designated as lost-and-found steps so if you found a button, say, on the living room floor, you’d naturally place it on one of these steps and forget about it. And there it would stay for weeks, months. For a while there were two blue ribbons from the New York State Fair on the stairs, won by Patrick for his 4-H projects. There was a necktie of Mike’s stained with spaghetti sauce and wadded up, he’d tossed down and forgotten. Every few weeks when the staircase got so congested there was only a narrow passageway at the bottom, Mom would declare a moratorium and organize whoever was around to clear it; yet within days, or hours, the drift would begin again, things accumulating where they didn’t belong. Dad called this the fourth law of thermodynamics—“The propensity of objects at High Point Farm to resist any order imposed upon them.”
At the bottom of the stairs I paused to get my bearings. Except for the rattling and creaking of the wind which I didn’t hear, the house was silent.
I tiptoed through the dining room, pushed the swinging door open cautiously (it creaked!) and tiptoed through the kitchen hoping the canary wouldn’t wake up and make a noise. Off the back hall was a small bathroom, and across from it Mike’s room, his door closed of course. (Mike, the oldest child, was special, and had had special privileges for years. He didn’t sleep upstairs with the rest of us but had his own large room downstairs, near the back door so he had virtually his own entrance, his privacy. Now he was twenty years old, working for Dad at Mulvaney Roofing, he wasn’t a kid any longer but wanted to be considered an adult. Often he was out late at night, even on weekdays. I didn’t know if he was home even now, at this hour.) The back door of the house wasn’t locked, I smiled turning the knob it was so easy!—slipping from the house, and no one knew.
Ranger’s the baby of the family but he’s got some surprises for us. Wait and see.
How bright, glaring-bright, the moon. I hadn’t expected that. Shreds of cloud blowing across it like living things. Almost, the light hurt my eyes.
All those stars winking and pulsing. That look of being alive, too. So many! It made me dizzy, confused. Of the constellations Patrick had been trying to teach me, looking through his telescope he’d assembled from a kit, I could identify only the Big Dipper, the Little Dipper, Orion?—but where was Andromeda? The sky seemed to shift and swim the harder I stared. The wind seemed to make the stars vibrate.
The hard-packed dirt of the driveway was wonderfully cool and solid beneath my feet. My bare feet still toughened from summer when I ran around barefoot as much as I could. Up in my room it hadn’t seemed cold but now the wind fluttered my pajama legs and lifted my hair from my forehead, I was shivering. And the moon so bright it hurt my eyes.
There was the rooster weathervane on the peak of the hay barn. Creaking in the wind: looked like north-northeast. It was October already. A smell of deep cold, snow to come.
In the barn one of the horses whinnied. Another horse answered. Those quizzical, liquid sounds. A third horse! What were they doing awake at this hour? It wasn’t possible they heard me, or smelled me. Clover, my horse, always knew me by some mysterious means (my way of walking, my smell?) when I approached his stall, before I actually came into his sight.
Something streaked past me and disappeared into the grass—one of the barn cats? Or a raccoon? My heart thumped in immediate reaction, though I wasn’t scared. The night was so alive.
I was a little worried my parents might notice me out here. The floodlights might come on, illuminating the upper drive. Dad’s voice yelling, “Who’s out there?” And the dogs barking.
But no. I waited, and nothing happened.
It’s like I was invisible.
The house looked larger now in night than it did in day. A solid looming mass confused with the big oaks around it, immense as a mountain. The barns too were dark, heavy, hulking except where moonlight rippled over their tin roofs with a look like water because of the cloud shreds blowing through the sky. No horizon, solid dark dense-wooded ridges like the rim of a deep bowl, and me in the center of the bowl. The mountains were only visible by day. The tree lines. By night our white-painted fences gleamed faintly like something seen underwater but the unpainted fences and the barbed wire fences were invisible. In the barnyard, the humped haystack, the manure pile, I wouldn’t have been able to identify if I didn’t know what they were. Glazed-brick silo shining with moonlight. Barns, chicken coop, the sheds for the storage of machinery, much of it old, broken-down and rusted machinery, the garage, carports—silent and mysterious in the night. On the far side of the driveway the orchard, mostly Winesap apples, massed in the dark and the leaves quavering with wind and it came to me maybe I’m dead? a ghost? maybe I’m not here, at all?
But I didn’t turn back, kept on, following the deer, now passing the strawberry patch (my sister Marianne had taken over, since I’d done only a mediocre job fertilizing, weeding the summer before) and there was Mom’s garden we all helped her with, anyway Patrick, Marianne and me, sweet corn, butternut squash, a half dozen pumpkins still remaining, and marigolds beginning to fade, for we’d had a frost or two already. That look as Mom characterized it of an autumn garden—“So melancholy, you want to cry.” Along the fence, the sunflowers crowding one another, most of them beginning to droop, going ragged, heads bowed, swaying in the wind like drunken figures. Birds had pecked out most of the seeds and the flowers were left torn and blind-looking yet still it was strange to me to pass by them—sunflowers seem like people!
I was following the deer though I couldn’t see them. The earth was puddled and the puddles glittered like mirrors. Smells are sharper by night—I smelled a rich mud-smell, wet-rotted leaves and manure. I wasn’t much aware of my feet, cold now, and going numb, so if they were being scratched, cut by stones or spiky thorns, I didn’t know. I was scared, but happy! Not-Judd, now. Not-known.
I crept up to the pond, which was only about three feet deep at this end. Draining out of the meandering brook that connected with Alder Creek. Every few years the pond choked up with sediment, tree debris and animal droppings, and Dad had to dredge it out with a borrowed bulldozer.
A single doe was drinking at the pond! I crouched in the grasses, watching from about fifteen feet away. I could see her long slender neck outstretched. Her muzzle, lowered to the water. By moonlight the doe was drained of color and on the pond’s surface light moved in agitated ripples from where she drank. Where were the other deer? It was unusual to see only one. They must have continued on, into the woods. The doe lingered, lifting her head alert and poised for flight. Her ears twitched—did she hear me? Maybe she could smell me. Her eyes were like a horse’s eyes, protuberant and shiny, black. Tension quivered in her slender legs.
I loved the wild creatures. I could never hunt them. They had no names the way the animals of High Point Farm had names. You could not call them, nor identify them. As soon as you sighted them, by day, they would vanish. As if to refute the very authority of your eyes. Theirs was the power to appear and to disappear. It was meant to be so: not as in Genesis, where Adam names the creatures of the earth, sea, and is granted dominion over them by God. Not like that.
Next month was deer-hunting season in the Chautauqua Valley and from dawn to dusk we’d hear the damned hunters’ guns going off in the woods and open fields, see their pickups parked by the side of the road and often on our own property. Every year (this was county law, favoring “hunters’ rights”) Dad had to post new bright orange NO HUNTING NO FISHING signs on our property if we wanted to keep hunters off, but the signs, every fifty yards, made little difference—hunters did what they wanted to, what they could get away with. Through the winter we’d see almost no deer near the house, and rarely bucks. Bucks were killed for their “points” and their handsome antlered heads stuffed as trophies. Ugly glass eyes in the sockets where living eyes had been. Mom wept angrily seeing killed deer slung as dead meat across the fenders of hunters’ vehicles and sometimes she spoke to the hunters, bravely, you might say recklessly. To kill for sport Mom said was unconscionable. She was of a farm family where all men and boys hunted, out in Ransomville, and she could not abide it—none of the women could, she said. Once, long ago, Dad himself had hunted—but no longer. There were bad memories (though I did not know what these were) having to do with Dad’s hunting and the men he went hunting with, in the area of Wolf’s Head Lake. Now, Dad belonged to the Chautauqua Sportsmen’s Club—for “business” reasons—but he didn’t hunt or fish. It was Dad’s position he called “neutral” that since human beings had driven away the wolves and coyotes that were natural predators of deer in this part of the state there was an imbalance of nature and the deer population had swollen so that they were malnourished, always on the verge of starvation, not to mention what predators they’d become, themselves—what damage they caused to crops. (Including ours.) Yet, Dad did not believe in hunting—animals hunted animals, Dad said, but mankind is superior to Nature. Mankind is made in the image of God, not Nature. Yet he didn’t seriously object when Mike wanted to buy a .22-caliber rifle at the age of fifteen, for “target practice,” and he still had his old guns, untouched now for years.
The doe was staring toward me across the pond. Forelegs bent, head lowered.
Then I heard what she must have been hearing—something trotting, trampling through the meadow. I heard the dogs’ panting before I saw them. A pack of dogs! In an instant the doe turned, leapt, and was running, her tail, white beneath, lifted like a flag of distress. Why do deer lift their tails, running for their lives? A signal to predators, glimmering white in the dark? The dogs rushed into the pond, splashing through it, growling deep inside their throats, not yet barking. If they were aware of me they gave no sign, they had no interest in me but only in the doe, five or six of them, ferocious in the chase, ears laid back and hackles raised. I thought I recognized one or two of our neighbor’s dogs. I shouted after them, sick with horror, but they were already gone. There was the sound of panicked flight and pursuit, growing fainter with distance. I’d stumbled into the pond and something stabbed into my foot. I was panting, half sobbing. I could not believe what had happened—it had happened so quickly.
If only I’d had a gun.
The does, fawns, their carcasses we found sometimes in the woods, in our cornfields and sometimes as close as the orchard. Once, a part-devoured doe, near Mom’s antique sleigh. Throats and bellies ripped out where they’d fallen. Usually they were only partly devoured.
If only I had a gun. One of Dad’s guns, locked in a closet, or a cabinet, in a back room somewhere. The Browning shotgun, the two rifles. There was Mike’s rifle, too. Mike had lost interest in target shooting pretty quickly and Patrick hated guns and Dad hadn’t taught me to use either the shotgun or the rifles, hadn’t allowed me even to touch them. (Though I’m not sure, maybe I never asked.) Still, I believed I would know how to use the guns.
How to aim, pull the trigger, and kill.
Instead, I ran back to the house crying.
Helpless little kid! eleven years old! Babyface, Dimple!
Ranger, roaming the night. Wiping tears, snot from his face.
In the downstairs bathroom, trembling, I ran hot water in the sink. I was trying not to think what had happened to the doe—what the dogs might be doing to her—what I couldn’t see happening, and couldn’t hear. Back in the woods it would be happening if she had not escaped (but I did not think she had escaped) but maybe I would never know. Don’t think about it Mom would say. Sometimes even with a smile, a caress. Don’t think about it, Mom will take care of it. And if Mom can’t, Dad will. Promise!
I was terrified the hot-water pipe would make its high-shrieking noise and wake my parents. What the hell are you doing downstairs, Judd?—I could hear Dad’s voice, not angry so much as baffled. Going on four in the morning?
My damned foot, my right foot, was bleeding from a short, deep gash. Both my feet were covered in scratches. For Christ’s sake, why didn’t you put on shoes? I had no answer, there was no answer. I sat on the lowered toilet seat staring at the underside of my feet, the smeary blood, the dirt. I lathered soap in my hands and tried to wash my feet and there was this uh-uh-uh sound in my throat like choking. It came over me, I’d trailed blood into the house! For sure. Into the back hall. Oh God I’d have to clean it up before somebody saw.
Before Mom saw, coming downstairs at 6 A.M. Whistling, singing to herself.
There were some Band-Aids in the medicine cabinet, I tried to put on my feet. Tetanus! What if I got tetanus? Mom was always warning us not to go barefoot. It would serve me right, I thought. If my last tetanus shot was worn out, if I died a slow terrible death by blood poisoning.
Don’t think about it: back in the woods, what’s happening. Or not happening. Or has happened already. Or a thousand thousand times before even you were born, to know of it.
Outside, Mike pulled up, parked. Quiet as he could manage. He’d driven up our driveway with only his parking lights on, slowly. Getting out of his car, he hadn’t slammed the door shut.
I couldn’t get away in time, there was my older brother in the doorway, blinking at me. Face flushed and eyes mildly bloodshot and I smelled beer on his breath. Blackberry-color smeared around his mouth, down onto his neck—a girl’s lipstick. And a sweet smell of sweat, and perfume. Good-looking guy girls stared after in the street, Mule Mulvaney himself, the one of us who most resembled our father, and with Dad’s grin, slightly lopsided, teasing-reproachful-affectionate. Mike hadn’t shaved since morning so his beard was pushing out, his jaws shadowy. His new suede jacket was open and his velvety-velour gold shirt was partly unbuttoned, showing matted-frizzed red-brown hair at the V. A zipper glinted coppery in the crotch of my brother’s snug-fitting jeans and my eye dropped there, I couldn’t help it.
Mike said quizzically, “Hey kid what the hell: what’s going on? You cut yourself?” There were splotches of blood on the floor, blood-soaked wadded tissues, I couldn’t hide.
I had to tell Mike I’d been outside, just looking around—“For the hell of it.”
Mike shook his head, disapproving. “You’ve been outside, this time of night? Cutting up your feet? Are you crazy?”
My big brother, who loved me. Mikey-Junior who was the oldest of the Mulvaney kids, Ranger who was the youngest. Always there’d been a kind of alliance between us—hadn’t there?
Mike, who was slightly drunk, like Dad good-natured, funny and warm when he’d been drinking in an essentially good mood, and nobody was crossing him, and he was in a position to be generous, crouched down and examined my feet. “If they know you’re running around outside, barefoot, like some kind of weird, asshole Indian, there’ll be hell to pay. You know how Mom worries about damn ol’ tetanus.” He gave the word “tetanus” a female trill, so already he was treating this as some kind of joke. Weird, but some kind of joke. Nothing for him to get involved in, anyway.
Of course, Mike wouldn’t tell on me, that went without saying. Any more than I was likely to tell on him, mentioning to Mom what time he’d come home tonight.
Lifting me beneath the arms like a bundle of laundry, Mike removed me from the toilet seat, suppressing a belch. Lifted the seat, unzipped and urinated into the bowl with no more self-consciousness than one of our Holsteins pissing into the very pond out of which she and the other cows are drinking. Mike laughed, “Christ am I wasted,” blowing out his cheeks, rolling his eyes, “—gotta go crash.”
Too sleepy to wash his hands, his fly unzipped and penis dangling he stumbled across the hall to his room. The little bathroom, closetsized, was rank with the hot fizzing smell of my brother’s urine and quickly I flushed the toilet, wincing at the noise of the plumbing, the shuddering of pipes through the sleeping house.
I was shaky, felt sick to my stomach. Don’t think! Don’t. I wetted some paper towels and tried to clean the hall, blood-smears on the linoleum which wasn’t too clean, stained with years of dirt, as for the braided rug—it was so dirty, maybe nobody would notice. I heard a quizzical mewing sound and it was Snowball pushing against my leg, curious about what I was doing, wanting to be fed, but I only petted her and sent her away and limped back upstairs myself and to my room where the door was half-open!—and in my room where the dark was familiar, the smells familiar, I crawled back into bed beside E.T. who made a sleepy gurgling cat-noise in his throat and Little Boots who didn’t stir at all, wheezing contentedly in his sleep. So much for the vigilance of animals. Nobody knew I’d been gone except my brother who not only would not tell but would probably not remember.
The wind had picked up. Leaves were being blown against my window. It was 4:05 A.M. The moon had shifted in the sky, glaring through a clotted mass of clouds like a candled egg.
No one would be able to name what had happened, not even Marianne Mulvaney to whom it had happened. Corinne Mulvaney, the mother, should have detected. Or suspected. She who boasted she was capable of reading her husband’s and children’s faces with the patience, shrewdness and devotion of a Sanskrit scholar pondering ancient texts.
Yet, somehow, she had not. Not initially. She’d been confused (never would she believe: deceived) by her daughter’s behavior. Marianne’s sweetness, innocence. Sincerity.
The call came unexpectedly Sunday midafternoon. Fortunately Corinne was home to answer, in the antique barn, trying to restore to some semblance of its original sporty glamor a hickory armchair of “natural” tree limbs (Delaware Valley, ca. 1890–1900) she’d bought for thirty-five dollars at an estate auction—the chair was so battered, she could have cried. How people misuse beautiful things! was Corinne’s frequent lament. The antique barn was crowded with such things, most of them awaiting restoration, or some measure of simple attention. Corinne felt she’d rescued them but hadn’t a clear sense of what to do with them—it seemed wrong, just to put a price tag on them and sell them again. But she wasn’t a practical businesswoman, she hadn’t any method (so Michael Sr. chided her, relentlessly) and it was easy to let things slide. In the winter months, the barn was terribly cold: she couldn’t expect customers, when she could barely work out here, herself. Her breath steamed thinly from her nostrils, like slow-expelled thoughts. Her fingers stiffened and grew clumsy. The three space heaters Michael had installed for her quivered and hummed with effort, brightly red-coiled, determined to warm space that could not, perhaps, be warmed. On a bright winter day, cold sun glaring through the cobwebbed, uninsulated windows, the interior of the antique barn was like the vast universe stretching on, on and on where you didn’t want to follow, nor even think of; except God was at the center, somehow, a great undying sun—wasn’t He?
These were Corinne’s alone-thoughts. Thoughts she was only susceptible to when alone.
So the phone rang, and there was Marianne at the other end, sounding perfectly—normal. How many years, how many errands run for children, how many trips to town, to school or their friends’ houses, wherever, when you had four children, when you lived seven miles out in the country. Marianne was saying, “Mom? I’m sorry, but could someone come pick me up?” and Corinne, awkwardly cradling the receiver between chin and shoulder, interrupted in the midst of trying to glue a strip of decayed bark to a leg of the chair, failed to hear anything in the child’s voice that might have indicated distress, or worry. Or controlled hysteria.
It’s true: Corinne had more or less forgotten that Marianne’s date for last night’s prom (you would not want to call Austin Weidman Marianne Mulvaney’s “boyfriend”) had been supposed to drive her back home, after a visit at Trisha LaPorte’s—or was it perhaps the boy’s father, Dr. Weidman the dentist?—no, Corinne had forgotten, even whether Austin had his own car. (He did not.) Corinne prided herself on never having been a mother who fussed over her children; it wasn’t just that the Mulvaney children were so famously self-reliant and capable of caring for themselves (Corinne’s women friends who were mothers themselves envied her), Corinne had a hard time fussing over herself. She’d been brought up to consider herself last, and that seemed about right to her. She didn’t so much rush about as fly about, always breathless, not what you’d call perfectly groomed. Her women friends liked her, even loved her—but shook their heads over her. Corinne Mulvaney was an attractive woman, almost pretty—if you troubled to look closely. If you weren’t put off by first impressions. (Those who were invariably asked, with almost an air of hurt, how handsome Michael Mulvaney Sr. could have married that woman?) Corinne was tall, lanky, loose-jointed and freckled, somewhere beyond forty, yet noisily girlish, with a lean horsey face often flushed, carrot-colored hair so frizzed, she laughingly complained, she could hardly draw a curry comb through it. On errands in town she wore her at-home clothes—overalls, rubberized L.L. Bean boots, an oversized parka (her husband’s? one of her sons’?). She was a nervous cheerful woman whose neighing laugh, in the A & P or in the bank, turned people’s heads. Her eerily bright-blue lashless eyes with their tendency to open too wide, to stare, were her most distinguishing feature, an embarrassment to her children. Her fluttery talk in public, her whistling. Her occasional, always so-embarrassing talk of God. (“God-gush,” Patrick called it. But Corinne protested isn’t God all around us, isn’t God in us? Didn’t Jesus Christ come to earth to be our Savior? Plain as the noses on our faces.)
At least, Corinne didn’t embarrass her daughter Marianne. Sweet good-natured Marianne who was Button, who was Chickadee, who was—everybody’s darling. Never judged her mother, or anyone, with that harsh adolescent scorn that so wounds the parents who adore them.
Marianne’s voice was low, liquidy-sweet and apologetic. She was calling from Trisha LaPorte’s house, where she’d spent the night. The St. Valentine’s prom at Mt. Ephraim High had been the previous night, and Marianne Mulvaney had been the only junior elected to the King and Queen’s “court”; it was an honor, but Marianne had taken it in stride. She’d stayed over in town as she usually did for such occasions—dances, parties, football or basketball games; she had numerous girlfriends, and was welcome anywhere. Less frequently, Marianne’s friends came out to High Point Farm to spend a night or a weekend. Corinne basked in her daughter’s popularity as in the warmth of sunshine reflected in a mirror. She’d been a gawky farm-girl lucky to have one or two friends in high school, self-conscious and homely; it was a continual amazement to her, her daughter had turned out as she had.
Michael Sr. objected: you were damned good-looking, and you know it. And you got better-looking as you got older. How’d I fall in love with you, for God’s sake?
Well, that was a wonder. That was a puzzle Corinne never quite solved. Thought of it every day for the past twenty-three years.
Marianne was apologizing—that was a habit Corinne should try to break in her: apologizing more than was necessary—for being a nuisance. “Trisha’s father says he’ll be happy to drive me home, but you know how icy the roads are, and it’s so far—I really don’t want to trouble him.” Corinne said, “Button, honey, I’ll send one of your brothers.” “Is it O.K.? I mean—” “No problem,” Corinne said, in a country drawl, “—no problem.” (This phrase had become part of Mulvaney family code, picked up from some TV program by one of the boys and now everyone said it.) Corinne asked Marianne to say hello and give her warm regards to Lillian LaPorte, Trisha’s mother: a friendly acquaintance of Corinne’s from years ago, both women longtime P.T.A. members, active in the League of Women Voters, the Mt. Ephraim General Hospital Women’s Auxiliary. She was about to hang up when it occurred to her to ask, belatedly, “Oh, how was the prom, sweetie? Did you have a good time with—what’s-his-name? And how was the dress—honey?”
Marianne had already hung up.
Later, Corinne would recall in bewilderment this conversation, so matter-of-fact and—well, familiar. So normal.
Of course, Marianne had not lied. Concealing a truth, however ugly a truth, is not the same as lying. Marianne was incapable of deliberate deception. If now and then there’d been the slightest trace of what you might call subterfuge in her it was a sign she was protecting someone: usually, of course, as they were all growing up, her older brothers. Mikey-Junior who’d been quite a handful in his teens (“First ‘Mule’ was our bundle of joy,” Corinne used to joke, sighing, “now he’s our boy-oh-boy!”), Patrick, poor sweet-shy short-tempered Pinch, who’d had a tendency since kindergarten to blurt out things he didn’t mean, truly didn’t mean, not just to his family, which was bad enough, but to his classmates—even to his teachers! Even, one memorably embarrassing time, when he’d been no more than ten, a cutting, shrewd remark (“How do you know, did God tell you?”) put to a Sunday school teacher at the Kilburn Evangelical Church. (Corinne was a passionate “nondenominational Protestant” as she called herself, with a weakness for remote country churches; she dragged the children in her wake, and they seemed happy enough. Michael Sr. was never involved in these infatuations, of course: he described himself as a “permanently lapsed Catholic,” which was religion enough to suit him.)
Of the children, Marianne had always been the most natural Christian. In her flamboyant way that embarrassed her children, Corinne was fond of saying, “Jesus Christ came to dwell in my heart when I was a young girl, but He’s been dwelling in Button’s heart, I swear, since birth.”
At this, Marianne would blush and flutter her fingers in an unconscious imitation of her mother. She sighed, “Oh, Mom! The things you say.”
Corinne drew herself up to her full height. Mother of the household, keeper of High Point Farm. “Yes! The things I say are truth.”
Corinne Mulvaney’s terrible vanity: her pride in such truth.
She marveled at it: how even as a child of two or three, Marianne simply could not lie. It distinguished her from her brothers—oh, yes! But from other children, too, who, telling fibs, instinctively imitate their elders, feigning “innocence,” “ignorance.” But never Marianne.
And she was so pretty! So radiant. No other word: radiant. The kitchen bulletin board, Corinne’s province, was festooned with snapshots of Marianne: receiving a red ribbon for her juicy plum-sized strawberries a few years ago at the state fair in Albany, and, last year, two blue ribbons—again for strawberries, and for a sewing project; being inducted as an officer in the Chautauqua Christian Youth Conference; at the National 4-H Conference in Chicago where she’d won an award, in 1972. Most of the snapshots of Marianne were of her cheerleading, in her Mt. Ephraim cheerleader’s jumper, maroon wool with a white cotton long-sleeved blouse. The previous night Michael had taken a half dozen Polaroids of Marianne in her new dress, which she’d sewed herself from a Butterick pattern—satin and chiffon, strawberries-and-cream, with a pleated bodice and a scalloped hem that fell to her slender ankles. But these lay on a windowsill, not yet selected and tacked up on the bulletin board.
She, Corinne, had never learned to sew. Not really. Her mother had been impatient trying to teach her—she’d mistaken Corinne’s eagerness for carelessness. Or was eagerness a kind of carelessness? All Corinne was good for with a needle was mending, which she quite enjoyed. You weren’t expected to be perfect mending torn jeans or socks worn thin at the heel.
How beautiful Marianne was! Alone with no one to observe, Corinne could stare and stare at these pictures of her daughter. At seventeen Marianne was still very young, and young-looking; with a fair, easily marred skin, no freckles like her mom; deep-set and intelligent pebbly-blue eyes; dark curly hair that snapped and shone when briskly brushed—which Corinne was still allowed to do, now and then. It was Corinne’s secret belief that her daughter was a far finer person than she was herself, a riddle put to her by God. I must become the mother deserving of such a daughter—is that it?
Of course, Corinne loved her sons, too. As much—well, almost as much as she loved Marianne. Loving boys was just more of a challenge, somehow. Like keeping an even course in a canoe on a wild rushing river. Boys didn’t let you rest!
A long time ago when they were young married lovers with only the one baby, Mikey-Junior they’d adored, Corinne and Michael made a pact. If they had more babies—which they dearly wanted—they must vow never to favor one over the others; never to love one of their children the most, or another the least. Michael said, reasonably, “We’ve got more than enough love for all of them, whoever they are. Right?”
Corinne hugged and kissed him in silence, of course he was right.
What a feverish, devoted, you might say obsessed young mother she’d been! Her blue eyes shone like neon. Her heart beat steady and determined. She knew she could love inexhaustibly because she was herself nourished by God’s inexhaustible love.
But Michael had more to say. In fact, Michael was argumentative, impassioned as Corinne rarely saw him. He’d come from a large Irish Catholic family of six boys and three girls in Pittsburgh; his father, a steelworker and a heavy drinker, had bullied his mother into submission young and slyly cultivated a game of pitting Michael and his brothers against one another. All the while Michael was growing up he’d had to compete with his brothers for their father’s approval—his “love.” At the age of eighteen he’d had enough. He quarreled with the old man, told him off, left home. So his father retaliated by cutting Michael out of his life permanently: he never spoke to him again, not even on the phone; nor did he allow anyone else in the family to see Michael, speak with him, answer any of his letters.
“Of all of them, only two of my brothers kept in contact with me,” Michael said bitterly. “My mother, my sisters—even my sister Marian I was always so close with—acted as if I’d died.”
“Oh, Michael.” He shrugged, screwed up his face in an expression of brave boyish indifference, but Corinne saw the deep indelible hurt. “You must miss them …” Her voice trailing off weakly, for it was so weak a remark.
Of course she’d understood that relations were cool between Michael and his family—not one Mulvaney had come to their wedding! But she’d never heard the full story. She’d never heard so sad a story.
Michael said quietly, “No more, and no less, than the old bastard misses me.”
There was Patrick, shrewd-suspicious Pinch, falling for one of Mom’s tricks!
Ringing the cowbell on the back veranda, the gourd-shaped coppery “antique”—as Mom called it—to summon him back to the house and inveigle him into volunteering—“volunteering”—to drive into town to fetch Marianne home.
Like a fool, Patrick had come running. The sound of the cowbell at High Point Farm was understood to be code for Who’s in the mood for an outing? a nice surprise? Years ago when the family had been younger, Dad or Mom frequently rang the cowbell on summer evenings to announce an impromptu trip for all within earshot—to the Dairy Queen on Route 119, to Wolf’s Head Lake for a swim and picnic supper. When the drive-in on Route 119 had still been operating, the clanging cowbell might even mean a movie—a double feature. In any case, it was supposed to signal an outing! a nice surprise! Not an errand.
Patrick should have known better. Eighteen years old, no longer a kid dependent upon his parents’ whims and moods, he, not one of his parents, was likely to be the one driving somewhere on a Sunday afternoon. In mid-February, it wouldn’t be to any Dairy Queen or to Wolf’s Head Lake. But the sound of the cowbell in the distance, as he was walking along the frozen creek, one of the dogs, Silky, trotting and sniffing at his side, had quickened his pulse with the promise of childhood adventure.
Of the family, Patrick was the one to wander off by himself. He was content to be alone. At least, with only an animal companion or two. He’d done his barn chores for the day, cleaning out the horses’ stalls, grooming, feeding, watering—seven pails of water a day per horse, minimum! Then he’d gone hiking along Alder Creek for miles up into the hills above High Point Farm. He might have been entranced by the snow-swept windswept distances but in fact his mind was tormented with ideas. Ideas buzzing and blazing like miniature comets. In one of his science magazines he’d read an essay, “Why Are the Laws of Nature Mathematical?” that had upset him. How could the laws of nature be mathematical?—only mathematical? He’d read, too, about certain recent evolutionary discoveries and new theories of the origin of Homo sapiens in northern Africa—what had these to do with mathematics? He said aloud, aggrieved, “I don’t get it.”
Innocently vain at eighteen, Patrick Mulvaney thought of himself as an experimental scientist, a biologist. He’d been awarded quite a prestigious scholarship from Cornell University to study “life sciences” there. His dad, who hadn’t gone to college, boasted that Cornell was “one of the great American universities”—embarrassing to Patrick, though surely true. Patrick intended to push on for a Ph.D. and devote himself to original research in molecular biology. His grades in science at the high school were always high A’s; his grades in solid geometry and calculus were high A’s too, but Patrick sensed his limits, knew he hadn’t natural aptitude for higher math. It filled him with dismay and panic to think that the laws of nature might be mathematical in essence and not a matter of indefatigable observation, data, experimentation. It was unfair! Unjust! Yet—was it correct? Science is a continuous text ceaselessly being written, revised, redacted, expanded and edited, while mathematics is pure and ahistorical. Much of today’s science will be refuted, but not mathematics. Was this so? How could it be so? What could mathematics say of life? the simplest unicellular life? What could mathematics say of the mysterious evolutionary branchings of life through the millions of years of earth’s existence? Patrick murmured aloud, “They don’t know everything.”
A fine powdery snow was blown against his face, from the ground. Above, the sky was clear—a hard wintry blue like ceramic.
Patrick hiked on, and began to smile. Recalling the “exquisitely beautiful watercolors”—Mom’s words—he’d slyly tacked up on the kitchen bulletin board, aged fourteen. Mysterious prints of what appeared to be brilliantly adorned suns, moons, comets—whatever? After keeping the family guessing for a few days Patrick revealed what the prints were: magnified slides of the dogs’ saliva.
The looks on their faces.
How Patrick had laughed, laughed. All of them, even Mike, staring at him in disbelief and revulsion. As if he’d betrayed them, or some sacred trust. As if he’d betrayed the dogs! Patrick demanded to know why the dogs’ saliva, teeming with microbes (not so very different from their own) had seemed “exquisitely beautiful” to them one day, but not the next. Never mind, Patrick, Mom had said huffily, just take those things down at once, please.
Now Patrick laughed aloud, remembering. The memory had quite vanquished his anxiety of a few minutes before. “They don’t know anything!”—he heard his bemused voice, aloud.
He meant not just the Mulvaneys, but most of mankind.
Hearing the cowbell, a summons from his mom, Patrick cut his hike short and trotted the mile or so back to the house, Silky panting excitedly beside him, but the trick was on him this time—“I’m sorry to bother you, P.J., but Button needs a ride home from the LaPortes. Can you drive in?” Mom was apologetic, smiling, in that shamelessly exploitive way of hers none of her children could resist, Corinne Mulvaney playing at and perhaps even imagining herself as flustered, helpless—so contrary to her true nature, which was all efficiency. She was in the midst of refinishing a piece of furniture and couldn’t stop, she hoped he’d understand, she was sorry to be intruding on his time to himself after he’d done his chores and did them so well and—anyway—it was a favor for Button, wasn’t it? “Take the Buick, hon. Dad’s out with the pickup. Here, catch—” fishing the keys to the station wagon out of a deep pocket of her stained coveralls and tossing them with inappropriate gaiety to Patrick, who glared at her with all that he could muster of adolescent irony. “Gee thanks, Mom,” he said, shoving his glasses against the bridge of his nose, “—a Sunday drive to Mt. Ephraim and back. Just what I need.”
Fourteen miles, round-trip. No, closer to fifteen since the La-Portes lived on the far side of town. It was a trip he took five days a week, back and forth, usually on the school bus.
So he’d driven into Mt. Ephraim, and picked up his sister, and yes he’d possibly noticed that something was wrong, Marianne’s smile less convincing than usual, an evasiveness in her eyes, and certainly she wasn’t her usual chattery-brimming self, a purely and profoundly and to Patrick’s superior mind often exasperatingly girl-self; but frankly he’d been relieved not to hear about the prom and the party and her “date” and her familiar litany of girlfriends Trisha, Suzi, Bonnie, Merissa—how “fantastic” the decorations in the gym, how “terrific” the local band, what a “wonderful, unforgettable” time everyone had had. And how “honored” she’d been, in the Valentine Queen’s court. Patrick, a senior, hadn’t the slightest interest, not even an anthropological interest, in the frantic febrile continually shifting social lives of any of his classmates. Corinne was disappointed in him perhaps, he’d scarcely known the Valentine’s Day prom was the previous night until the commotion and fuss over Marianne and her new dress, Dad taking Polaroids as usual, and the “date” showing up—Austin Weidman in a dark suit that made him look like a funeral director, poor adenoidal Austin who was in fact a fellow senior, a shy frowning nervous-handed boy intelligent enough to have been a friend of Patrick Mulvaney’s through the years but was not. Patrick simply wasn’t impressed with Austin and smiled coolly at him, looked through him. Why? Just Patrick’s way.
Marianne had once complained to Mom, why was Patrick so unfriendly? so rude? to her friends? to her friends who admired him in fact? and Corinne had said soothingly, in Patrick’s earshot, Oh, that’s just Patrick’s way. Which had quite boosted his ego.
So he hadn’t paid much attention to his kid sister as he considered her, a year younger, a year behind him in school but light-years distant from him, he was sure, in matters of significance. He may have asked her how the dance—“or whatever it was”—had been and Marianne might have replied murmuring something vague but in no way alarming; adding, with an apologetic little laugh, touching her forehead in a gesture very like Corinne’s, “—I guess I’m tired.”
Patrick laughed, one of those coded mirthless brotherly laughs signaling So? He’d tossed Marianne’s garment bag into the back of the Buick where it upended, and slid down, and oddly Marianne hadn’t noticed, or in any case hadn’t reached around to adjust it. In that bag were Marianne’s new prom dress, her prom shoes, toiletries. Patrick didn’t give it a thought.
Why didn’t you tell me? Why, as soon as you got into the car? As soon as we were alone together?
Afterward he would think these things but not at the time. Nor did he think much of the fact (he, who so prided himself in his powers of observation) that when he’d turned into the LaPortes’ driveway there was his sister already outside waiting for him. Waiting out in the cold. Garment bag, purse at her feet. Marianne in her good blue wool coat. Just waiting.
In truth Patrick might have felt relief. That Marianne’s best friend Trisha wasn’t with her, that he didn’t have to exchange greetings with Trisha.
He’d backed out of the LaPortes’ driveway without a second glance, wouldn’t have noticed if anyone had been watching from one of the windows, behind the part-drawn blinds. Marianne was fussing with the seat belt, at the same time petting Silky’s persistent head as he poked against her from his awkward position in the backseat, forbidden to climb into the front as he dearly wanted, but she hadn’t let him lick her face—“No, Silky! Sit.” Silky was Mike’s dog he was always neglecting now.
Afterward Mom would say, I thought you and Marianne were so close. Thought you shared things you wouldn’t share with Dad or me.
Patrick hadn’t even thought to inquire why Marianne needed a ride home, in fact. Why Austin Weidman—her “date”—hadn’t picked her up, driven her. Wasn’t that a “date’s” responsibility? Marianne often stayed overnight in town with one or another girlfriend and nearly always she was driven home, if not by a “date” then by someone else. Marianne Mulvaney was so well liked, so popular, she rarely lacked for people eager to do her favors.
Nor did Patrick inquire after Austin Weidman. It was absurd, that Marianne had gone to the prom with Austin. A dentist’s son, fairly well-to-do family, very Christian, bookish. Marianne had agreed to go with him only after consulting her conscience, and no doubt asking Jesus’ advice, for though she didn’t “like” Austin in the way of a seventeen-year-old girl’s “liking” a boy, she did “respect” him; and he’d asked her weeks ago, or months—the poor jerk had actually written her a letter! (Which she’d showed only to Corinne, not to the derisive male Mulvaneys.) Crafty-desperate Austin had dared put in his bid to Marianne Mulvaney, a junior, and hardly a girl who’d encouraged him, well in advance of other more likely “dates.” Marianne was so tenderhearted, so fearful of hurting anyone’s feelings, of course she’d said yes.
Last year she’d done the same thing, almost. Jimmie Holleran in his wheelchair. Jimminy-the-Cricket Holleran the kids cruelly called him behind his back, a boy in Marianne’s class long stricken with cystic fibrosis, in fact vice-president of the class. He and Marianne were friends from Christian Youth and he, too, had asked her to a dance months before. Though even Mom had wondered about that—“Oh, Button, won’t it seem like, well—charity?” Marianne had said, hurt, “I like Jimmie. I want to go to the dance with him.”
Impossible to argue with such goodness.
“Button” Mulvaney was so sweet, so sincere, so pretty, so—what, exactly?—glimmering-luminous—as if her soul shone radiant in her face—you could smile at her, even laugh at her, but you couldn’t not love her.
As a brother, that is.
Patrick disdained high school sports, most clubs and activities and competitions of popularity in whatever guise, but he could hardly ignore the presence of “Button” Mulvaney at Mt. Ephraim High. (Even as, grinding his teeth, he could hardly ignore the fallout of his similarly popular older brother Mike—“Mule”—“Number Four”—who’d graduated in 1972.)
Not that he was jealous. Not Pinch.
In fact his sister’s popularity this past year at Mt. Ephraim High was an embarrassment to him. He squirmed having to watch her with the other varsity cheerleaders at assemblies before games—the eight girls in their maroon wool jumpers that fitted their slender bodies snugly, their small perfectly shaped breasts, flat bellies, hips and thighs and remarkable flashing legs. They were agile as dancers, double-jointed as gymnasts. They were all very, very good-looking. They wore dazzling-white cotton blouses and dazzling-white wool socks and their smiles were identically dazzling-white—such joyous smiles! And all in the service of the school football team, basketball team, swim team. Boys. Boys whom Patrick privately scorned. Grimly Patrick stared into a corner of the auditorium as into a recess of his own labyrinthine mind, as about him hundreds of idiots yelled, clapped, whistled, stamped their feet like a single great beast.
TWO! FOUR! SIX! EIGHT!
WHO DO WE AP – PRE – CI – ATE?
MT. EPHRAIM RAMS!!!
Too silly, too contemptible for words.
But try explaining that to Michael Sr. and Corinne, the proud parents of “Button” Mulvaney. As they’d been for four glorious years the proud parents of “Mule” Mulvaney.
Patrick had never told his parents how he dreaded one day discovering Marianne’s name in a school lavatory. Whenever he saw obscene or suggestive words, nasty drawings, above all the names or initials of girls he believed he knew, Patrick rubbed them off in disgust if no one was around, sometimes inked them over with a felttip pen. How he despised his male classmates’ filthy minds! their juvenile humor! Even the nice guys, the halfway intelligent guys could be astonishingly crude in exclusively male company. Why, Patrick didn’t know. Every other word “shit”—“fuck”—“bugger”—“asshole”—“cocksucker.” Patrick himself was too pure to tolerate the breaking of taboos not wholly intellectual.
Another thing Patrick had never told his parents: how Marianne, for all her popularity, was considered one of the “good, Christian” girls. Virgins of course. But virgins in their heads, too. There was something mildly comical about them—their very piety, decency. A tale was told of how Marianne had asked one of the science teachers why God had made parasites. In the cafeteria, amid the bustle of laughter, raised voices, high-decibel jocularity, Marianne was one of those Christians who bowed their heads before picking up their forks, murmuring prayers of gratitude. Most of these conspicuous believers were girls, a few were boys. Jimminy-the-Cricket Holleran was one. All were unperturbed by others’ bemused glances. Or wholly unaware of them.
In conversation, exactly like her mother, Marianne might speak so familiarly of Jesus you’d swear He was in the next room.
The previous fall, one of the popular football players was injured at a game, hospitalized with a concussion, and Marianne Mulvaney had been one of the leaders of a fervent all-night prayer vigil on the field. The injured boy had been admitted to intensive care at Mt. Ephraim General but by the time the prayer vigil ended next morning at 8 A.M., doctors declared him “out of immediate danger.”
So you could smile at Marianne Mulvaney and the “good, Christian” girls of Mt. Ephraim. You could even laugh at them. But they never seemed to notice; or, if they did, to take offense.
Why didn’t you tell me? Anything.
How could you let me drive you home that day, not knowing what you were feeling. What you were enduring.
By 5 P.M. the sky was streaked in dusk. Plum-colored crevices in patches of cloud. Blowing, flying high overhead. Patrick tried not to be spooked by the sight of snow-covered vehicles on the roadside, abandoned days before during a blizzard. The Haggartsville Road was fair driving but High Point was basically a single crudely plowed lane. He’d gotten out, so he supposed he could get back. And school again in the morning. That damned school bus he was bored by the sight of.
Saying something of this to Marianne, who was clutching her pink-angora hands on her lap and didn’t seem to hear or in any case didn’t reply. The stiffness, the tension in her. Was she frightened of her brother’s driving? The heavy car skidding? Beneath loose powdery snow the hard-packed snow of High Point was smooth as satin. Treacherous.
That satin dress: cream-colored, with strawberry chiffon trim: St. Valentine’s. Mrs. Glover the senior English teacher speaking coyly of Cupid, “romantic love,” Eros. Does anyone know what “Eros” means?
At the curve in the road just beyond the Pfenning farm the station wagon’s rear tires did spin for several sickening seconds. Patrick quickly shifted gears, pumped the brakes. He knew not to turn the steering wheel in the direction instinct suggests but in the opposite direction, moving with the skid. And in a moment the vehicle was back in control. He’d reached out to shield Marianne from the dashboard but there hadn’t been that much momentum and her seat belt held her in place. He saw, though, how stiffly she held herself, oddly hunched and her mittened hands gripped together tight against her knees. Her pale lips were moving silently—was she praying? Patrick had broken into a quick nervous sweat inside his sheepskin jacket.
“Marianne? You all right?”
“Sorry if I shook you up.”
Why didn’t you tell me about it then? Why, not even a word?
Was it that you didn’t want me to become contaminated, too?
Frankly, by this time, miles of driving, Patrick was becoming annoyed, hurt by his sister’s silence. And now this silent-prayer crap! An insult.
High Point Road, haphazardly plowed, wound along the ridge of the ancient glacial striation. Out of the northeast, from the vast snowy tundra of northern Ontario, came that persistent wind. Rocking the station wagon as it frequently rocked the school bus. Like ridicule, Patrick thought. Like jeering. Invisible air-currents plucking at your life.
He remembered, in ninth grade. In the boys’ locker room. Boys talking of their own sisters. Maybe it was one boy, and the others avidly listening. Patrick had not been among them, rarely was Patrick among these boys but at a little distance from them, swiftly and self-consciously changing his clothes. In that phase of his early adolescence in which the merest whisper of a forbidden word, a caress of feathers, a sudden sweet-perfumy scent, the sound of fabric against fabric, silky, suggestive—the mere thought of a girl’s armpit! nostril! the moist red cut between the legs!—would arouse Patrick sexually, to the point of pain. He’d hidden away in disgust, in shame. Hadn’t yet cultivated the haughty Pinch-style, staring his inferiors down.
Patrick Mulvaney a genius? Come on! His I.Q. was only 151. In tenth grade he’d taken a battery of tests, with a half dozen other selected students. You weren’t supposed to know the results but somehow Patrick did. Possibly his mom had told him, absurdly proud.
Not a genius but still rumors spread. Like the rumor that he was blind in one eye. Did Patrick care, Patrick did not care. Telling himself he’d rather be respected and feared at Mt. Ephraim High School than liked. Popular!
His heroes were Galileo, Newton, Charles Darwin. The Curies, Albert Einstein. The scientists of whom he read voraciously in the pages of Scientific American, to which he subscribed. You couldn’t imagine any of these people caring in the least about popularity.
It did upset him, though, that everyone seemed to know his secret: he was in fact blind in one eye. Almost.
Mom had surely confided in his gym teacher, when he’d started high school. She’d promised she would not but probably yes it had been Mom, meaning well. Not wanting his other eye to be injured—that would have been her logic, Patrick could hear her pleading, could see her wringing her hands. Patrick had had an accident grooming one of the horses, in fact his own horse Prince he’d loved, young high-strung Prince who was both docile and edgy and somehow it happened that the two-year-old gelding was spooked in his stall by something fleeting and inconsequential as a bird’s whirring wings and shadow across a sunlit bale of hay and suddenly to his terror Patrick, at that time twelve years old, weighing not much more than one hundred pounds, was thrown against a wall, found himself down beneath the horse’s terrible malletlike hooves screaming for help. His left arm had been broken and his left eye swollen shut, the retina detached and requiring emergency surgery in Rochester. Of the experience Patrick recalled little, out of disgust and disbelief. It had long wounded his pride that of the Mulvaneys he was the only one obliged to wear glasses.
Driving, Patrick shut his left eye, looked with his right eye at the snowy road ahead, the waning glare of the snow, the rocky slope down into the Valley. This should have been a familiar landscape but was in fact always startling in its newness, its combination of threat and promise. He was never able to explain to anyone not even to Marianne how fascinating it was, that the world was there; and he, possessed of the miracle of sight, here. He would no more take the world there for granted than he would take being here for granted. And vision in his right eye at least. For the eye was an instrument of observation, knowledge. Which was why he loved his microscope. His homemade telescope. Books, magazines. His own lab notebooks, careful drawings and block-print letters in colored inks. The chunky black altimeter/barometer/“illuminator” sports watch he wore day, night, awake, asleep, removing only when he showered though in fact the watch (a birthday gift from the family, chosen by Marianne out of the L.L. Bean catalogue) was guaranteed waterproof—of course. And he loved his shortwave radio he’d assembled from a kit. Plying him on insomniac nights with weather reports in the Adirondacks, Nova Scotia. As far away as the Canadian Rockies.
You could trust such instruments and such knowledge as you could not trust human beings. That was not a secret, merely a fact.
Patrick was driving his mom’s Buick station wagon carefully along this final stretch of High Point Road. He was thinking that the horizon he’d grown up seeing without knowing what he saw here in the Chautauqua Valley, 360 degrees of it, was a hinge joining two spaces: the one finite, a substance inadequately called “land” that dropped to the Yewville River, invisible from this distance, and the other infinite, a substance inadequately called “sky” overhead. Each was an unknown. Though Patrick tried to imagine the glacier fields of millions of years ago, an epoch to which had been given the mysterious name Pleistocene which was one of Patrick’s words reverently spoken aloud when he was alone.
Pleistocene. Mile-high mountains of ice grinding down everything in their paths.
You could see Patrick was hurt, obviously it showed in his face. If Marianne had noticed.
Gunning the motor as he turned up the rutty-snowy drive, racing the station wagon in the home stretch to announce Here we are! And parking noisily in front of the antique barn inside which Corinne was working. Marianne might have begun to say, “Thank you, Patrick—” but she spoke too softly, already he was out of the vehicle, in one of his quick-incandescent and wordless furies, and there came Silky exploding comically out of the rear of the vehicle too, to dash about in the snow, urinating in dribbles, shaking his ears as if he’d been confined for days. Marianne was carrying her garment bag in the direction of the back door and somehow the plastic handle slipped from her fingers and Patrick hesitated before helping her to retrieve it and Marianne said quickly, her voice quavering, fear in her eyes that were a damp blurred blue Patrick would afterward recall, “No!—it’s fine, I have it.” Marianne smiled at him, unconvincingly. Her tall impatient brother loose-limbed and nerved-up as one of the young horses. “Suit yourself,” Patrick said. He shrugged as if, another time, he’d been subtly but unmistakably rebuffed, turned to slam into the house, upstairs to his room, his books.
It’s fine, I have it. It’s fine.
Many things were coded at High Point Farm. Like our names which could be confusing for they depended upon mood, circumstance, subtext.
For instance, Michael Sr. was usually Dad but sometimes Curly and sometimes Captain. He could be Grouchy (of the Seven Dwarves), or Groucho (of Groucho Marx fame), he could be Big Bear, Chickie, Sugarcake—these names used exclusively by Mom. My oldest brother was usually just Mike but sometimes Mike Jr. or Mikey-Junior; sometimes Big Guy, Mule, Number Four (his football jersey number for the three years he excelled as a fullback at Mt. Ephraim High). Patrick was frequently P.J. (for Patrick Joseph) or Pinch. Marianne was frequently Button or Chickadee. My names, as I’ve said, were many, though predominantly Baby, Dimple, Ranger.
Mom was Mom except for special names which only Dad could call her (Darling, Honeylove, Sweetheart, Sugarcake). Occasionally Mom could be called Whistle—but only within the family, never in the presence of outsiders.
It was a matter of exquisite calibration, tact. Which code name at which time. Especially in Mom’s case, for there were times when being called Whistle seemed to vex her and other times when it was exactly what she wanted to hear—she would laugh, and blush, and roll her eyes as if her innermost soul had been exposed.
Why Whistle? Because Mom had a habit of whistling when she believed herself alone, and to those of us who overheard, her whistling was a happy contagious sound. In the kitchen, in the antique barn; tending the animals; in her garden through the long summer and into the fall. Mom’s whistling was loud and assured as any man’s but with a shift of mood it could turn liquid and lovely as a flute. You’d listen, fascinated. You’d think Mom was speaking to you, without exactly knowing it, herself. Locking stanchions around the thick neck of a cow, scrubbing a horse’s mud- and manure-splattered coat, fending off enraged fowl who’d hoped to hide their eggs in the hay barn, especially in the early morning when she and our canary Feathers were the only ones up—there was Mom, whistling. “Faith of Our Fathers”—“The Battle Hymn of the Republic”—“Tell Me Why the Stars Do Shine”—but also “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas” (a year-round favorite, to Dad’s exasperation)—“I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles”—“I’ll Be Seeing You”—“Heartbreak Hotel”—“Hound Dog”—“Blue Suede Shoes” (though Mom claimed to disapprove of Elvis as a poor moral example for the young). When she was in the house, Mom was likely to be whistling with Feathers, who, like most male canaries, responded excitedly when he heard whistling in or near his territory. Whistling was a quick expedient way of communicating with the livestock, of course: the horses whinnied alertly in reply, pricking their ears and flicking their tails as if to say Yes? Time to eat? Cows, goats, even sheep blinked to attention. Two deft fingers to her mouth, a shrill penetrating whistle, and Mom could bring dogs, cats, barnyard fowl and whatever else was in the vicinity to converge upon her where she stood, usually beneath one of the carports in an area designated for outdoor feeding, laughing and bountiful as the Goose Lady in our well-worn old copy of Grimm’s Fairy Tales.
Dad whistled, too. Hummed happily under his breath. But none of his names alluded to his musical ability or lack of ability.
Coded too were the ways in which we sometimes spoke to each other through animals. This was a means of communication that predated my birth, of course. I remember as a very young child crawling energetically on a carpet, and Dad and Mom praising me to one of the dogs—“Foxy, look! Baby is as fast as you.”
Such a way of addressing one another was a witty, playful means of making simple requests: “Silky, will you trot over and ask Curly when he wants supper, early or late; and when he plans on husking the sweet corn, in any case.” Or, in a raised voice, “Snowball, will you please ask Judd to come out here and give me a hand?” It was a favored means for mild scolding: “Muffin, please ask a certain somebody”—this might be Mike, Patrick, Judd, or even Dad—“how long he plans on lounging there with the refrigerator door wide open?” Mostly such remarks were from Mom or Dad. When we kids imitated them, the code seemed somehow not to work, quite. I remember Mike furious at Patrick for some reason, the two of them riding their horses in the front drive, Patrick stiff and upright in the lead, his horse’s tail flicking, and Mike calling after, “Hey, Prince: tell your rider he’s a horse’s ass, thanks!” But both Prince and his rider ignored the taunt, breaking into a canter to escape.
Most of these exchanges, in fact, were inside our house. Now that I think of it, most were in the kitchen. For the kitchen was the heart of our household; where we naturally gravitated to seek one another out. The radio was always on, turned to Mom’s favorite Yewville station; there were always dogs and cats underfoot, looking to be petted or fed; of course, Feathers was a permanent resident in his handsome brass cage near the window. Of all the Mulvaney pets, it was Muffin the cat who was the favored medium for such exchanges; Muffin who was sweetly docile and patient and so unfailingly attentive when we human beings spoke, you’d swear he understood our words. With comical intensity Muffin would look from one speaker to the other, and back, and again, like a spectator at a tennis match. His tawny cat-eyes flashed sympathy, concern. It was almost possible to think, as Dad insisted, that Muffin wasn’t a cat but a human being in disguise; yet, being an animal, he was ever so much nicer than any human being. “Muffin, you and I understand each other, don’t we?” Dad would say, stooping to pet the cat, shaking dry food out of a box into a dish for a between-meals snack that was in fact against Mom’s household diet rules just as Dad’s own forays into the refrigerator between meals were against the rules, “—both of us endomorphs, eh?” Dad was growing ever more husky with the years, his muscular torso thickening, his belly pushing out over his belt; he would never be a fat man, nor even plump, for there was no softness to him, only a kind of defiant sinewy flesh. Muffin had begun his Mulvaney life as an abandoned kitten, rescued with his brother Big Tom from imminent death by starvation in a landfill off High Point Road, so tiny he could fit into the palm of the youngest Mulvaney’s hand; with alarming swiftness he’d grown into a soft heavy adult male, neutered, weighing somewhere beyond twenty pounds. He was by no means a beautiful animal though his coat was silky-white, always impeccably clean, with lopsided markings like a child’s drawing in orange, black, gray, brown. His head was round as a cabbage. His tail was ringed as a raccoon’s. He’d been Marianne’s kitten from the start, but we all loved him. Dad was a little rough showing his affection, hauling the big cat up onto his lap as he sat at the kitchen table sipping coffee and making telephone calls. It was Dad’s habit to speak craftily through Muffin to certain of his sons—“Muffin, one thing puzzles me and maybe you can clear it up? Why, after I made a simple request five days ago is the tire on the goddamned John Deere still flat?” The object of such remarks was usually Mike, who tended to slight his farm chores. So Mike would say to Muffin, with a smile, “Muffin, explain to Dad I’m just a little behind, I’m still mucking out those goddamned stalls. Tell him I’m sorry, sir!”
There was a protocol to such exchanges, a logic to the most circumlocutory of maneuvers. When the code was broken the effect was like a slap in the face. That time Marianne entered the kitchen so quietly I didn’t know she was there at first, this would have been early evening of the day following Valentine’s Day, early evening of the Sunday she’d been at the LaPortes’. Less than twenty-four hours after it had happened to her and in that limbo of time when none of us had any idea, any suspicion. I was hurriedly finishing one of my household chores, cleaning out some of the accumulated magazines, newspapers, mail-order catalogues from the kitchen alcove, and Mom was trimming a half dozen plants she’d brought to set on the table, whistling under her breath, and I heard her say in her bright-flirty voice, “Feathers!—what’s this I’ve heard about a certain someone not getting to church this morning?” There was a moment’s startled silence, I turned to see that Marianne had come in. Her back was to me. She wore jeans, a sweatshirt. Her hair was pulled roughly back in a ponytail. She said, so softly I almost couldn’t hear, “I—I think it’s cruel for that poor bird to be caged his entire life so that selfish human beings like us can be entertained by him. I think it’s a sin.”
Mom was so surprised, the shears slipped from her fingers and clattered to the floor.
Not just that Marianne of all her children had spoken these harsh words but that Marianne had broken the code. When Mom or Dad addressed you by way of an animal, you always replied the same way. Yet, suddenly, Marianne had not.
Mom said, defensively, drawing herself up to her full height as if her very integrity had been challenged, “Why, Button! What do you mean? Feathers is a canary bred for the cage, and so were his parents and their parents going back for generations! Feathers wouldn’t have any life if he hadn’t been bred for the cage. He was born in that cage, in fact. You could say that the cage is Feathers’ life. And it’s a lovely nineteenth-century brass cage, an antique.” Mom’s voice was tremulous with hurt and indignation, as when she argued politics with Dad, rising on the reverential word antique.
Marianne said, almost inaudibly, “Mom. It’s still a cage.”
Turning then, with a sigh of exasperation, or a muffled sob, taking no heed of me but hurrying out of the kitchen before Mom could protest any further. Mom and I stared after my sister in mutual astonishment as she pushed blindly through the swinging door into the dining room, and was gone.
Did you know, Marianne: how by breaking the code that day, you broke it forever? For us all?
Mike Mulvaney Jr. was a senior at Mt. Ephraim and he was on the football team and some of his buddies were involved with the girl but he had not been involved. “Mule” heard all about it, for sure. But he had not been involved.
What can you expect of a girl like that. That kind of a girl. Her mother, her sisters. County welfare. Runs in the family.
What the Mt. Ephraim guys did after the last game of the season. Three or four guys on the team and some older guys who’d graduated the year before. Sure, they were all friends of Mike Mulvaney’s but Mike Mulvaney had not been one of them, that night.
Getting a retarded girl drunk. Doing—you know, things—to her.
Hey: she isn’t retarded. Who says that?
The whole family, the Duncans—the mother’s an alcoholic, she’s got Indian blood. Comes from the Seneca reservation.
That’s not what I heard. I heard they’re—you know, Negro.
Well it’s all the same. That kind of people. At that—what d’you call it—trailer court—
Trailer village. On the Haggartsville Road.
Mule knew all about it, or maybe just a little about it. Guys exaggerate. They were all drunk. In the Mt. Ephraim Cemetery—wild! You can’t believe everything you hear. Della Rae Duncan went out with all kinds of guys including guys in their twenties, and older. Or it was her sister, or one of her sisters—the one with the baby. Baby pitch-black as tar. No, that’s the one that died. Wasn’t it a hole in the heart?
On Monday morning we began to hear of it. First on the school bus, then at school. Nobody knew exactly. None of the younger kids knew. Their older brothers wouldn’t tell and it wasn’t clear if their older sisters knew: they’d frown, look away. There was the exciting promise something had happened which was a still more exciting promise somebody’s going to get into trouble. Either Della Rae Duncan had had something happen to her or she was going to get into trouble or both.
Della Rae was one of the big girls on the bus. Fifteen years old and still in ninth grade. She wasn’t in special ed like a cousin of hers, a tall hulking boy with a harelip. Some of us believed she’d started off in special ed, in seventh grade possibly, but she was in regular ninth-grade classes now.
Della Rae was a dirty girl we’d hear. It was just something you knew. There were certain dirty girls and Della Rae Duncan was one of them. Some of us thought that Della Rae was a dirty girl because her skin was dirty, and her clothes. Her skin looked stained, like wood. She was a short heavyset girl with sizable breasts. A bulldog face. Large thick-lidded eyes and a snaky scar on her swollen upper lip. She was almost nice-looking except she was ugly. She was shy except for her quick temper. She wore boys’ jeans and a khaki jacket every day through the winter and she smelled of woodsmoke and underarms. She smelled of the inside of a trailer that doesn’t get aired. Her hair was stiff with grease and fitted like a cap over her head, not like normal hair we thought. You could see it was black hair yet it didn’t look black exactly, more like it was coated with a thin film of dust.
Della Rae wasn’t waiting for the school bus with the other kids at the trailer village, Monday morning. Nor Tuesday. Nor Wednesday. Thursday she was back again, same bulldog face. Dark-stained skin. Puffy-lidded eyes. That pea-colored jacket with a drawstring hood that looked like it’d been used to wipe hands on. Della Rae stared through us making her way to the back of the bus where she sat with another girl they said was part Indian or possibly part Negro. Or both.
At the senior high there was talk, but only in secret. Whispering, sniggering. Guys told one another in the lavatories or at their lockers, heads bent, faces creasing in amazement, lewd grins. There was much laughter. There were expressions of incredulity. How many? How long? When? The girls, of course, knew nothing about it. Especially the nice girls knew nothing about it. They did not want to know for just to know of certain things was to be sullied by the knowledge. It was possible to pray sincerely and passionately for an afflicted person (like Della Rae Duncan) to be aided by Jesus Christ without knowing exactly why.
Maybe, in fact, it was better not to know why? You could feel sorry for that person, and generous. You didn’t shrink away in disgust.
A year or so before, an older brother of Della Rae Duncan’s was reported killed in Vietnam. His name would eventually be engraved, with other “casualties” from Mt. Ephraim, on a granite marker in front of the post office.
His name was Dwight David Duncan and he was a private first class in the United States Army, twenty years old at the time of his death. Since dropping out of high school he’d worked for Mulvaney Roofing. When his picture appeared on the front page of the Mt. Ephraim Patriot-Ledger, Dad exclaimed, “Son of a bitch! Dwight Duncan! Poor kid.”
We gathered around to stare at the picture and read the columns of print. Dwight David Duncan was no one we knew, but the fact that Dad knew him, and was so upset, seemed to bring him into the house with us; into the kitchen, where even the dogs moved about uncertainly, worriedly. Private First Class Duncan was a burly, swarthy-skinned boy with heavy-lidded eyes like Della Rae’s and lank, straight, Indian-seeming hair. He’d been photographed in his dress uniform, his cap tilted back rakishly on his head; a cigarette slanted from his mouth. Dad was saying what a good, hardworking kid, very quiet, not too bright maybe but able to follow orders with no questions asked, and no complaints. “God spare us, Mikey-Junior never gets called,” Dad said, sighing. There was a pause, and he added, as always when he was on this subject, “Still, the war needs to be fought.”
This was like tossing a lighted match into a can of gasoline.
Mom said, “Why does it need to be fought?”
Dad said, “Darling, we’ve been through this already.”
Mom said, “Yes, but you never change your mind!”
Dad said, calmly, with a wink at us kids, “Well, you never change your mind.”
By this time Mom would be pacing about, arms flailing, eyes hot with anguish. If there were cats in the kitchen they’d rush out, ears laid back. If Little Boots was present, the most anxious of the dogs, he’d dance about clicking his toenails on the linoleum floor and whimpering up into his mistress’s and master’s faces, vivid to him as balloon faces. Mom who’d given impromptu, stammering speeches on the subject to relatives, at prayer meetings, at the P.T.A. and in the A & P, would choke back sobs of frustration, saying that the war in Vietnam had to stop, the killing had to stop on both sides, what a terrible thing, what a tragedy. Tearing the country apart! Turning fathers against sons! It was like the 1850s when the Fugitive Slave Act tore the country apart and led to the Civil War and almost four hundred thousand deaths, such a cruel, inhuman, ignorant piece of legislation, and now in enlightened times wouldn’t you think our leaders would have learned from the past? “First Kennedy, then Johnson, and now Nixon!” Mom cried. “What we need to save us is a true Christian leader, before it’s too late.”
“Yes,” said Dad, “—but the fact remains, the war needs to be fought.”
“No, no it doesn’t! You’re wrong!”
“Because the Communists have to be stopped, pure and simple,” Dad said. He spoke quietly, stubbornly. His broad handsome face glistened, his curly hair caught the overhead light with a glisten too of oil, the color of wood shavings. He was not a tall man but he was a solid, foursquare man, a man of presence, gravity. You knew that, if you pushed hard against his chest, he would stand firm, unyielding. “—Just like the Nazis, maybe worse. Twenty million men, women and children killed by Stalin and his henchmen! Even more millions killed by ‘Chairman Mao’ and his henchmen! No, darling, the war can’t stop until we push the bastards back, and even if a son of mine has to put on a uniform and fight—”
“What! What are you saying?—”
“—or, God forbid, two sons—”
“Two sons! Michael Mulvaney, are you crazy!”
“—it has to be fought. Pure and simple.”
Sometimes Mom would stalk out of the house, and go into a barn for the solace, as she put it, of dumb animals; sometimes Dad would stalk out, to smoke a cigarette in the open air; or Little Boots would get so excited he’d have to be placated by both Mom and Dad; or, suddenly, Feathers would begin to shriek, and everyone would turn to his cage in astonishment that so tiny a creature, smaller than the smallest of our hands, could cause such a ruckus.
Of the Mulvaney boys, Mike Jr. was the patriot (though he confessed he “sure as hell” hoped he wasn’t drafted into the army, come graduation) and Patrick was the dissident—of course. Though only fourteen at this time, a weedy-lanky boy with a cracking voice, Patrick was an admirer of the war-protesting Berrigan priest-brothers and warned he’d run away to Canada as a conscientious objector if necessary. Dad said ominously we’d see about that if the time ever came, God forbid! Mom wrung her hands saying you see, you see!—the war is tearing American families apart! Patrick, incensed, had a habit of pushing his glasses against the bridge of his nose as if he hoped they’d break, declaring he was a pacifist, he’d been reading Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience,” he could not shed blood, not even animal blood let alone human blood, and no mere earthly political power could change that.
It was strange, though: Mike and Patrick never quarreled with each other on this issue. Patrick shrank from confronting his big brother (in fact, bigger than Patrick by about twenty-five pounds) and Mike seemed mainly amused by Patrick, regardless of what impassioned words issued from his mouth. Mike just wasn’t one for debating abstract issues. (“BS-ing” he called it.) Just laughed and shrugged his muscular shoulders, a mannerism of Dad’s that meant Hell, live and let live. In this case, Fight and let fight. His philosophy was the trustworthy team player’s: you do what your buddies are doing, and you don’t let them down.
Marianne, flush-faced like Mom, but by instinct the peacemaker in the family, said she hated war, any war, and prayed the Vietnam War would end soon, and all wars would end, forever. And then no one would be mad at anyone else, ever again.
Judd who was eight years old kept his thoughts to himself. He hoped to join the Air Force as soon as he was old enough, and be a bomber pilot.
Private First Class Dwight David Duncan’s picture from the Mt. Ephraim Patriot-Ledger was carefully clipped out and tacked to the kitchen bulletin board, where it prevailed for months, a smiling and not accusing presence, until, eventually, it was covered over by newer clippings, Polaroid snapshots, Mom’s FAMILY CALENDAR, pages of brilliant color from Burpee’s seed catalogue.
Mike “Mule” Mulvaney, a fullback on the championship Mt. Ephraim football team for the ’71—’72 season, had been with some of his teammates that night, but not the guys who did it.
Whatever it was, exactly, they did. With Della Rae Duncan. Or to her.
If you could believe half the wild tales making the rounds! You know how guys exaggerate.
Guys who weren’t even there, for Christ’s sake.
That night following the game, and the big celebration party, Mike didn’t have a car. He was with his buddies Frankie Kreigner, Brock Johnson, some others. Jammed into Frankie’s dad’s Cadillac and it was true some of the guys were drinking, passing cans of beer to one another, and also a flask of vodka, and somebody’s dad’s Wild Turkey. So maybe the boys were violating the law, drinking in a moving motor vehicle, but only technically. Nobody was actually drunk, anyway not Mule Mulvaney, not much. Nor Frankie, who was driving.
Mule could be a rough guy sometimes, a tough customer on the football field (you don’t get baptized “Mule” by coach, for nothing) but his rep was that of a helluva nice guy. Not mean. Sure he’d hit you square in the solar plexus with his shoulder and lift you off your feet like a cartoon character too astonished to register surprise before you landed, hard, on your ass, but it wasn’t to hurt, like some guys, it was more to—well, impress. So you’d know that he meant business. So you’d respect him. And stay out of his way next time, if you could.
And he was the kind to help you up off the ground afterward, clamp a hand on your shoulder saying Good play! nice try!
The most popular guy on the team, practically. One of the best-looking.
A decent guy, and even, if you knew him better, a Christian—sort of. His mother Corinne Mulvaney was a devout churchgoer, at this time a member of the South Lebanon United Methodist congregation. Mule went less and less frequently with her and the others to church services now he was older, but still it rubs off on you. You have to know deep in your heart Do unto others as you would they would do unto you is just plain common sense. So he was beginning to get a little scared. Not seriously scared, but a little. Mixing warm Molson with vodka and whiskey didn’t help. After the big party at the MacIntyres’ (this really cool ranch-style house on the golf course) they’d piled into cars and driven six miles out to the funky County Line Tavern, where there was the possibility, unwarranted as it turned out, of some after-hours drinking, and some “girls.” Then word got out that T-T MacIntyre had picked up Della Rae Duncan, the poor bitch was dumb enough and drunk enough to imagine he “liked” her and wanted to be her “steady.” They were in Jamie Klinger’s van, this gang of guys. Cruising Route 119 as far south as the river, then turning back to Mt. Ephraim. Cruising Main Street, where (it’s after 2 A.M.) everything is dead—the Majestic, the Checkerboard Diner. Then into the cemetery off Iroquois. Which was where Frankie Kreigner trailed them. Though not turning into the cemetery but circling the block. Mule Mulvaney was saying, “Maybe we should check them out?—they might be hurting her, or something.” Another time he said, like pleading, “Shit, Della Rae, that poor mutt, that’s like shooting fish in a barrel.” The other guys were divided. Maybe yes, maybe no. There was something exciting about this. Knowing Della Rae was putting out for their buddies, or anyway guessing so. Though they didn’t want to investigate, exactly. Della Rae was a pig and she was smashed out of her skull and you didn’t want to think about it, Mule felt blood rush into his cock like a faucet turned on: hot.
So what they did was, actually they did nothing.
That’s for the cemetery!—the guys would snigger behind their hands.
Hoo! One for the cem-e-tery!—the girls would overhear, perplexed and vaguely embarrassed.
Keep it for the cemetery! Right on!—giving one another the peacenik sign, laughing like hell. Sometimes under their teachers’ very noses and if it was a woman teacher, all the more hilarious.
Girls knew nothing about it. At any rate not the good girls. So if one could be enticed into saying, “‘Cemetery’?—why?” this was quite a coup.
In the junior high, where Della Rae Duncan was a student, the girls knew even less. The smartest girls, the leaders, the most popular girls—Marianne Mulvaney, Suzi Quigley, Trisha LaPorte, Bonnie Sherman and their clique. These were cheerleaders, class officers (Marianne Mulvaney was secretary), members of the Drama Club, the French Club, the Quill and Scroll Literary Society, the school chorus. They were Honors Students. They were active in the Christian Youth Conference. Because they were good-girl girls they believed they were not snobbish and they competed with one another in being friendly, being nice, to the most obscure students; the most pathetic losers; like Della Rae Duncan, and other “trailer-village” kids. Their smiles were golden coins scattered carelessly in the school corridors, their Hi’s! and H’lo’s! and How are you’s! were melodic as the cries of spring birds.
It wasn’t until after the Christmas holiday, when school resumed again in January, that Marianne Mulvaney turned a corner in the girls’ locker room and saw, to her discomfort—Della Rae Duncan. Just sitting there, slump-shouldered, on a bench in front of her opened locker. Staring at the floor. Della Rae’s face was puffy and embittered like a grown woman’s. Her lips appeared to be moving. Her oily hair lifted from her head in stiff coils. Gym class had begun ten minutes before, and at roll call Della Rae had been marked absent, but she was in no hurry now, just slouched there in a kind of torpor. Marianne, so fastidious in her personal grooming, saw in dismay that Della Rae was partly undressed, in baggy gym shorts that ballooned about her hips and a frayed, grimy-gray bra (what heavy breasts!) held together by safety pins. Her flesh that looked stained, with its oily glisten, and a smell of talcumy sweat, seemed on the verge of spilling from her clothes.
For all her social poise at the age of fourteen, Marianne was a shy girl; physically shy; never comfortable in the locker room undressing with the other girls, still less in the communal showers. At church, Reverend Appleby spoke in his flushed, impassioned, somewhat tongue-tied way of sins of the flesh as temptations to us all but Marianne could see little temptation. At home, she would have been mortified with embarrassment had even her mother glimpsed her in just underwear.
Too late to retreat, Della Rae had seen her. Marianne’s pretty face lit up in its customary dazzling smile. “Hi, Della Rae!”—the very voice, a lilting soprano, of Caucasian privilege. The girls’ eyes locked. Sharp as a blade was Della Rae’s black stare: Marianne felt her face burn at once, and her heart kicked as if she’d been shot, like a bird in flight, yet like a wounded bird carried forward by sheer momentum, scarcely faltering in her stride. Marianne had returned to the locker room to get a packet of Kleenex from her locker but she couldn’t remain in the other girl’s presence, not a moment longer! She retreated, still smiling, her face aching with the effort, as Della Rae Duncan stared at her with undisguised hatred.
But why me? What have I ever done to you? Whatever has been done to you—how is it my fault?
In a daze, as if she’d been slapped—she, Marianne Mulvaney!—Marianne returned to gym class, where a volleyball game was just beginning. Miss Deltz, the gym instructor, asked Marianne if she’d seen Della Rae Duncan, and Marianne nodded yes. Miss Deltz, a short, wiry, white-blond woman of about thirty, regarded Marianne, one of her favorites, with a look of cautious confidentiality. “Those people, they cause more trouble … That kind of a girl. Sad!” It was a murmur, more like thinking out loud than actual speech. Marianne stared at her gym shoes, cleanly white, with white laces perfectly tied, white-ribbed woollen socks. She could not think of a word to say.
Della Rae never did show up for gym that day and if any of the girls missed her, not a word was said.
Well then! Don’t believe if you choose not to. I know what happened and I know what truth is and God’s purpose is not altered whether such as you believe, or not. And we’d laugh, protesting. Oh Mom.
It was December 1938, between Christmas and New Year’s. Corinne was seven years old. Ida Hausmann, her mother, was driving the family car with just Corinne as a passenger, that car that was a battered old 1931 Dodge like a sunk submarine gray and speckled with rust like pimples. They were at about the midpoint returning home from the village of Ransomville, about four miles yet to go, and a storm was blowing up, rain and sleet and then sleet and snow, the sky above the mountain-rim of the Valley a frightening bluish black roiling with clouds like those fleeting distorted faces you see as you’re beginning to fall asleep, and the sun a smoldering red eye at the horizon like the last coal in the smithy engorged with flame by the blacksmith’s bellows. (Corinne’s grandfather Hausmann was a blacksmith, as well as a farmer.) And you could hear a strange sound like the hoarse-breathing suck! suck! suck! of the bellows that was the wind sucking at the struggling car wanting to pluck it from the road.
Against her husband’s wishes (Mr. Hausmann was parsimonious regarding gasoline and the general upkeep of the family car and did not approve of “jaunts” to town except for practical purposes like shopping) Mrs. Hausmann had driven backcountry crudely plowed roads to visit a sickly older sister who lived in Ransomville; now on the return trip she was beginning to panic, the way the snow was coming down, an unexpected blizzard. Corinne’s mother was one of those women susceptible to “nerves”—“agitations”—of unknown origin, and in emergency situations she either took control completely, as when Corinne’s twelve-year-old brother lost several fingers in a threshing accident, or broke down completely, talking and moaning to herself, praying aloud, shaking her head as she was now, oh! they’d never make it home, if they were stuck in snow she’d never be able to shovel out (there was a snow shovel kept in the car trunk for such purposes), why had she gone to visit her sister oh why, why! Her eyes began to glisten, she was blinking rapidly. It was Corinne’s task to keep the inside of the driver’s windshield clean where it steamed up, swiping at it with mittened hands, but the steam kept coming back, and snow and ice particles were sticking to the outside, and Mrs. Hausmann wept and scolded as if it were Corinne’s fault.
Corinne was a big girl in her own eyes, not a scaredy-baby, and she didn’t cry easily, but the way the wind rocked the car! and sucked at it! and snow was swirling and rushing toward them like a tunnel they had no choice but to drive into, for there was no turning back. And the windshield wipers were going slower and slower, encrusted with ice. And Mrs. Hausmann cried I can’t see, Corinne keep the window clear I told you! And Corinne wiped frantically at the glass, leaning across the steering wheel, but what could she do?—the ice was on the outside. And Mrs. Hausmann could drive only ten miles an hour, or less. And at a plank bridge over a creek invisible in a haze of seething white there was a ramp so icy-steep the Dodge’s tires even with their chains began to spin, and slip, and the Dodge began to slide backward and Mrs. Hausmann gunned the motor and still the car was sliding, then the motor sputtered and died, Mrs. Hausmann screamed as the car tilted off the ramp entirely, the most sickening sensation Corinne would remember all her life as they fell, overturning into a twelve-foot culvert beside the road. God help us! Mrs. Hausmann screamed. God help my baby and me, don’t let us die!
It might have been that God heard, and took mercy: lucky for mother and daughter, the culvert was solid ice at its base, not water. The car upended and came slowly to rest and there was silence save for the wind and the sifting-hissing sound of the snow that was like something alive, and malevolent. Corinne saw that her mother’s mouth was bleeding, and her black wool cloche hat, her only good hat, was crooked over one eye, its sprig of shiny red holly berries askew. Later, Mrs. Hausmann would discover that two of her front teeth had loosened, where she’d been thrown against the steering wheel, but she didn’t notice now, she had no time. She panted, grunted like a man forcing the driver’s door open, and outward, then crawling out, with much difficulty into the freezing snow, her heavy skirt hiking up revealing lardy-pale thighs and thick-mesh beige stockings in such a way Corinne had never seen before. Corinne! Take my hand! Hurry! she cried. Corinne grabbed her mother’s gloved hand and climbed, for all the terror of the situation, monkey-nimble out of the car into a roaring of snowflakes so fierce she could barely see her mother only a few inches away.
Then on their hands and knees they crawled back up the incline to the road now so drifted in snow it was hardly recognizable as a road. Ice-rivulets began to form on their faces; snowflakes caught in their eyelashes like living, lashing cobwebs. It was a cold beyond cold, you couldn’t register it, fingers and toes going numb, faces chill and brittle as ceramic. Mrs. Hausmann shouted to Corinne that they’d go to the Gorner farm close by—wasn’t it close by?—though she seemed confused about which direction it was. She set out one way, crossing the bridge, then suddenly halted and reversed, gripping Corinne’s hand. She removed her woolen scarf from around her neck to wrap it around Corinne’s head, to protect Corinne from frostbite. Don’t be afraid! Don’t be afraid! Momma will take care of you.
It would seem afterward that they walked, trudged, for many miles, heads bent against the wind. Yet they could not have gone very far at all. Were they walking in circles? It wasn’t clear which side of the creek they were on, Mrs. Hausmann couldn’t remember. It was not even clear where the road was, exactly. There was a high ringing sound in the air, above the tolling of the wind. Like a voice, the words so drawn out you couldn’t hear them. Like high-tension wires, except of course there were none along the Ransomville Road, electricity had not yet come to this remote part of the Chautauqua Valley. Corinne, don’t give in! Stay with Momma! Mrs. Hausmann pleaded. She had never been a demonstrative mother, still less a warm mother, she’d had four or five babies before Corinne, of whom only two had lived, and who knew how many miscarriages, “accidents” as they were elliptically called, never clearly distinguished from other species of “female troubles,” yet now, in the blizzard, she seemed to Corinne so loving! so loving! hugging Corinne tight, scolding and pleading, blowing her warm desperate breath into Corinne’s face. Corinne was so sleepy, her eyelids wanted to shut. Her knees inside her thick wool leggings were like water—boneless. She wasn’t afraid now and wasn’t even cold, wanting only to lie down in the shelter of a snowdrift and cradle her heavy head in her arms and sleep, sleep. But her mother kept shaking her, slapping at her cheeks. Her mother’s swollen mouth glistened where blood had coagulated into ice. God help us! Mrs. Hausmann prayed. God help us! I’ll never drive that car again, nor any car I swear to you God.
There came then an eerie smoldering-red glow as if the dying sun had slipped its moorings and sunk to earth, buffeted by the terrible wind. It splintered into a myriad of fragments, glowing-red sparks, tiny as fireflies. And in fact—they were fireflies! Mrs. Hausmann saw with dazed eyes what could not be, but was. Corinne, look! A sign from God! Mother and daughter stumbled in the direction of the fireflies which led them not as they would have gone (so Mrs. Hausmann swore afterward) but in another direction entirely, and so saved their lives. For within five minutes something dark hulked above them in the blizzard: the schoolhouse! The single-room schoolhouse that was in fact Corinne’s own school, closed for Christmas recess. Mrs. Hausmann had no time to wonder how they had found their way to the school, for hadn’t she been headed in the opposite direction?—but the fireflies led them on, winking, almost invisible, dancing several yards before them, emitting too (for so it seemed) that strange melodic high-pitched sound that must have been a voice of God, too pure for human ears. At the school, Mrs. Hausmann lifted a rock, and threw it clumsily into a window, so the glass shattered; and she and Corinne crawled through the window, in their numbed, distracted states tearing their clothes on the jagged glass in the frame, but at last they were inside, in a sheltered place, panting and sobbing with relief. Inside it was freezing cold, and dark as the interior of a cave, but Mrs. Hausmann located the woodburning stove, and Corinne found the tin box containing her teacher’s kitchen matches, and Mrs. Hausmann was able with her stiffened, shaking fingers to start a fire, and so—they were saved.
They would not be rescued for nearly twenty-four hours, by a sheriffs rescue team accompanying a snowplow along the Ransomville Road, but from that point onward as Mrs. Hausmann would say they were in the bosom of the Lord.
Another, less fortunate traveler on the road that day, a neighbor of the Hausmanns, froze to death when his pickup stalled and he tried to walk to shelter. On a county highway, a young couple abandoned their car to the storm and set out bravely on foot, lost their way and crawled into an irrigation ditch to escape the wind, the man lying on top of the woman and so saving her from freezing; he survived, too, but only barely, both legs having to be amputated at the knees. And many head of cattle died in the Valley, trapped outside when the storm swept upon them. Canada geese were said to have dropped like shot out of the air, transformed to ice. Even in the towns of Ransomville, Milford, Chautauqua Falls, and Mt. Ephraim there were deaths and near-deaths. The Yewville River froze so solidly it didn’t thaw until late April. Snow endured for months, well into spring, hard-crusted unnatural snow it seemed, acrid and bitter on the tongue, hiding the bodies of numberless wild creatures, revealed only in the thaw. But Mrs. Hausmann and Corinne were spared, the spirit of God dwelling forever afterward in their hearts.
That’s why I love fireflies so, Corinne would say, her eyes shining like a seven-year-old’s, they saved Momma’s life and mine.
And some of us would be laughing. Oh Mom!
And Mom would flare up, quick as a cat might turn on you and hiss, her fur stroked the wrong way, “Don’t you ‘Oh Mom’ me! I remember that day as clearly as if it was last week, not thirty-eight years ago. Yes, and I can see those fireflies as clearly as I see you.”
Dad, Mikey-Junior and Patrick would try to keep straight faces. The story of Grandma Hausmann and Mom as a little girl of seven, lost in a blizzard on the Ransomville Road, was one of the oldest Mulvaney family stories, and a favorite, but as we got older one by one (except Marianne, of course: she always defended Mom) we came to wonder how accurate it was.
Most embarrassing was when Mom told the story to people she hardly knew like my eighth-grade math teacher Mr. Cole, or some lady she’d run into at the A & P, or friends of ours spending the night at the farm—how God watches over us all, how Mom’s life was changed forever by an act of “providence.”
Just the way Mom uttered that word: providence. You saw a tall black marble column with a cross at its summit. You saw a blue sky so vast and deep you could fall into it forever.
So Dad couldn’t help commenting behind his hand, with that wink that squinched up half his face, it was surely an act of providence that his mother-in-law Ida Hausmann never drove any vehicle ever again—“That was a blessing of God’s, yessir!”
To us kids, who’d known her only as a nervous-skinny, querulous, gray old woman with thick eyeglasses, the thought of Grandma Hausmann driving any vehicle on the road was hilarious.
But Mom held her ground. Mom was stubborn, and eloquent. She said, in a hurt, dignified tone, that her mother was a country woman of the old days, German-born and brought to America at the age of less than a year; she’d always been a commonsense Lutheran, not given to flights of religious fancy; when such people are confronted by a truth they know to be true they never change their minds, ever. Mom said you have to experience certain things to know certain things. Like an explorer to Antarctica, or to the moon—once you stepped foot in such a place, you’d never doubt it existed. Like giving birth—that, just once, you’d never doubt. “If you’ve done it, you know; if not, you don’t.” Mom would smile beatifically, and fix her glowing blue gaze on us one by one until we’d begin to squirm. Even Dad.
For that was Mom’s trump card: she was the mother, and so possessed a mysterious and unquestioned authority. Dad was the boss, but Mom was the power. Mom in her manure-stained bib overalls, or, in warm weather, her MT. EPHRAIM HIGH T-shirt and khaki shorts, an old hand-knit sweater of Dad’s pushed up past her elbows, her boots she called combat boots, or hippie-style leather sandals worn with cotton socks. Mom with her frizzed hair that shone a luminous carroty color in the sun. Mom’s smile that could turn sweet and teasing, or pucker into her “vinegar” look; her loud neighing laugh that made people want to join in, just hearing it. Here I am, a funny-silly woman, an ordinary woman, a TV mom, but God has touched my life nonetheless.
Mike Jr. (who was the most like Dad) might tease, daringly, “Hey Mom: what about Doughnut?”—one of the barn cats—“she’s had thirty kittens, what kind of authority does that make her?”
And Mom would retort, quick as, at Ping-Pong, she was capable of returning a killer serve, “It makes her an authority on kittens.”
And we’d all laugh, including Mom. Yet the fact she was our mother remained.
Of us kids it was always Patrick who was most skeptical about the blizzard-fireflies story. (Maybe because Patrick, the smartest of us, wanted so badly to believe?) There was a way he had of leaning his elbows on the table (the kitchen table: where we’d likely be) and shoving out his lower lip, his warrior-stance in Debate Club at school, and saying, “Oh, Mom! Come on! Let’s examine this rationally. It could not have been ‘fireflies’ in a blizzard in December. Ple-ease.”
And Mom would retort, her cheeks reddening, “What were they, then, Mr. Socrates? I was there, and I saw. I know a firefly when I see one.”
“How would I know what they were?” Patrick protested. “It might’ve been a hallucination.”
“Two of us? Momma and me? An identical ‘hallucination’ at the identical moment?”—Mom was incensed, leaning across the table toward Patrick.
“There’s such a phenomenon as mass hysteria,” Patrick said importantly. “The power of suggestion and wishful thinking. The human mind is—well, real weird.”
“Speak for your own ‘human mind’! Mine happens to be normal.”
Mom was laughing, but you could see by the glisten in her eyes she was getting miffed.
Yet Patrick persisted. Mike might kick his ankle under the table, Marianne might poke him in the ribs and tease “Pinch!”, but Patrick couldn’t stop. There was something wonderful in the hot harried look in his eyes, especially the bad one. “O.K., Mom, but consider: why would God send a blizzard to almost kill you and Grandma, then rescue you by sending ‘fireflies’? Does that make sense?” Patrick’s glasses winked with adolescent urgency. His voice cracked like a radio beset by static. Here was an American teenager who just wanted things to make sense. “And what about the other people who died that day, in the blizzard? Why did God favor you and Grandma over them? What was so special about you?”
That was Patrick’s trump card, he’d toss down onto the table in gloating triumph.
By this time Mom had gone dangerously red in the face, that mottled look you sometimes get without being aware of it, working in the barns on a stifling hot day, even if you’ve avoided the sun. Her hands fluttered like hurt birds, her words came stammering. All of us, even Dad, watched closely, wondering how Mom would answer these challenging words of Patrick’s, to silence his doubts, and ours, forever. Damn old Pinch!—I wanted to punch his smug mouth, making us all anxious, after Sunday supper (Sunday nights were always “super-casserole” occasions, meaning Mom and Marianne would concoct delicious refrigerator-leftovers unique and not-repeatable), and the dogs and cats gobbling away at plate scrapings, in their separate corners, anxious too, with that twitchy animal anxiety that shows as rapacious appetite, muzzles lowered to the bowl. And by this time Feathers would have woken from his earlyevening drowse to scold, chatter, chirp in sounds sharp as the twining of a fork on a glass. Patrick took no notice of such upset as he’d himself caused but leaned farther forward, his bony vertebrae showing through his shirt, and he’d shove his prissy John Lennon glasses against the bridge of his nose, and beetle his brow so he’d be staring at Mom like she was some kind of specimen, one of those poor sad dead “nocturnal” moths pinned to a Styrofoam board in his room.
Corinne drew her shoulders up, and threw back her head. However she was dressed, however flyaway her hair, she spoke calmly, with dignity. Always, you maintain your dignity: that was Captain Mulvaney’s charge to his troops. “I believe what God requires me to believe, Patrick. I would not ask of Him that He explain His motives any more than I would wish that any of you might ask of me why I love you.” Mom paused, wiping at her eyes. Our hearts beat like metronomes. “It was providence, and it is, that I was spared from death in 1938 so that—” and here Mom paused again, drawing in her breath sharply, her eyes suffused with a special lustre, gazing upon her family one by one, with what crazy unbounded love she gazed upon us, and at such a moment my heart would contract as if this woman who was my mother had slipped her fingers inside my rib cage to contain it, as you might hold a wild, thrashing bird to comfort it, “—so that you children—Mikey, Patrick, Marianne, and Judd—could be born.”
And we sighed, and we basked in that knowledge. Even Pinch, who bit his lip and frowned more deeply. Yes it made sense, yes it was our truth, Dad grinned and nodded to signal his agreement.
Hell, yes: providence.
That Sunday afternoon, upstairs in her bedroom, Marianne methodically emptied her garment bag of everything except the satin prom dress, her fingers moving numbly and blindly, yet efficiently. She then zipped the bag shut again and hung it in the farthest corner of her closet beneath the sharp-slanting eaves.
Always, you maintain your dignity.
At High Point Farm in the big old house she’d lived in all her life. What began to beat against her nerves was the familiar sound of clocks ticking.
Clocks measuring Time, was what you’d think. That there was a single Time and these clocks (and the watches the Mulvaneys wore on their wrists) were busily tick-tick-ticking it. So that in any room you needed only to glance at a wall, or a mantel, or a table, and trust that the time you’d see measured there was accurate.
Except of course that wasn’t how it was. Not at High Point Farm where Corinne Mulvaney collected “antique” American clocks.
Not even that she collected them—“More like the damn things accumulate,” Michael Mulvaney Sr. complained.
So it was not Time at High Point Farm but times. As many times as there were clocks, distinct and confusing and combative. When the hand-painted 1850s “banjo” clock in the front hall was musically striking the hour of six, the 1889 “Reformed Gothic” grandfather clock on the first-floor landing of the stairs was clearing its throat preparing to strike the quarter hour after one. On the parlor mantel were a Chautauqua Valley “steeple” pendulum clock of the 1890s and a Dutch-style painted walnut pendulum clock of the 1850s, one about to strike the hour of nine and the other importantly chiming the hour of eleven-thirty. In the family room was a crudely fashioned 1850s eight-day clock with a tarnished brass eagle at its top, that clanged the hour, half hour, and quarter hour with a jazzy beat; in the dining room, a mantel clock of golden pine with a river scene hand-painted (and now badly faded) on its glass case, of the 1870s, and a delicately carved mahogany Chautauqua Valley grandmother clock of the turn of the century, with ethereal chimes. Scattered through the house were numerous other antique clocks of Corinne’s, each a treasure, a bargain, a particular triumph. If there wasn’t an excess of competing noise from radio, TV, tapes, records, raised voices or barking dogs you could move through the house in a trance of tick-tick-ticking.
Of course there were a number of clocks, including the most beautiful, that had long ago ceased ticking completely. Their pendulums had not moved for years; their slender black hands, pointing at black numerals, were forever arrested at mysterious fatal moments.
You would think that Time “stands still.” But you’d be wrong.
Always, Marianne had loved the clocks at High Point Farm. She’d thought that all households were like theirs. So many clocks ticking their separate times. Striking the hour, the half hour, the quarter hour whenever they wished. Friends who came to visit asked, “How do you know what the real time is?” and Marianne said, laughing, “Oh, the real time is in the kitchen: Dad’s electric clock.” She would lead her friends into the big country kitchen where, above the fireplace, was a moonfaced General Electric clock in the design of a sunburst, with fat black hands and bulgy black numerals and a maddening little hum like something grinding its teeth. The clock had been a gift to Dad on the occasion of his forty-fifth birthday from his poker-playing circle. The men of the circle were local businessmen and merchants and their dominant attitude toward one another was one of good-natured bantering. Since Michael Mulvaney Sr. was notorious for being late for many occasions, including even his poker nights which meant so much to him, there was significance in the gift clock.
In any case, here was High Point Farm’s “real” time.
Except, of course, as Mom liked to point out, when the electricity went out.
Up in Marianne’s room were several more of Mom’s clocks, of which only one “kept time” and that fitfully: a small cream-colored ceramic mantel clock with garlands of tiny painted rosebuds, golden pendulum and delicate hands, a chime like the sweetest of birdcalls. It was turn-of-the-century and a genuine antique, Mom insisted. But its time couldn’t be trusted, of course. So Marianne kept a windup alarm clock with a plastic face, luminous green hands and numerals that glowed in the dark. Five nights a week Marianne set the alarm for 6 A.M. though it had been years since she’d needed an alarm to actually wake her. Even in the pitch-dark of winter.
She took up the clock suddenly, wanting to bury it under her pillow to smother its snug tick-tick-ticking. But of course she didn’t. For what would that solve?
And there was her watch, her beautiful watch, a white-gold battery-run Seiko with tiny blue numerals; a gift from Mom and Dad for Marianne’s sixteenth birthday. She’d taken it off immediately when she’d come home. She hadn’t examined it too closely, knowing, or guessing, that the crystal was cracked.
How many times compulsively she’d run her thumb over the crystal feeling the hairline crack. But she hadn’t actually examined it. And if the minute ticking had ceased, she didn’t want to know.
She was not a girl accustomed to thinking, calculating, plotting. The concept of plotting an action that might be broken down into discrete, cautious steps, which Patrick would have found challenging, was confusing to Marianne. A kind of static intervened. But this was so: Mt. Ephraim was such a small town, if she took the watch to Birchett’s Jewelers where it had been purchased, Mr. Birchett might mention the fact to her mother or father if he happened to run into them. He would mention it casually, conversationally. And if she ceased wearing it, Dad who was sharp-eyed would notice. There were other watch repairmen in the area, at the Eastgate for instance, but how would she get there? Marianne felt fatigued, thinking of the problem. Maybe it was wisest to continue wearing the watch as if nothing were wrong, for unless she examined it closely nothing was wrong.
Patrick would guess, unless Patrick had already guessed. He frightened her with his talent for seeing what wasn’t there to be seen. His mind worked like a calculator: a quicksilver adding of digits, an immediate answer. He had not asked her much about the previous night because he knew. In disgust of her he held himself stiff against the knowledge. Not a word about Austin Weidman. Why isn’t your “date” driving you home? Under normal circumstances her brother would have teased her but these were not normal circumstances.
Cutting his eyes at her, outside when she’d dropped the garment bag in the snow. And she’d murmured quickly, shamefully, it’s fine, I have it, it’s fine. And he’d walked away, not another word.
You know you want to, Marianne—why’d you come with me if you don’t?
I’m not gonna hurt you for Christ’s sake. Come on!
Nobody plays games with me.
And this was a strangeness she’d recall: how when she entered her room which was exactly as she’d left it the day before, yet irrevocably changed, she’d known what a long time she’d been away, and such a distance. As if she’d left, and could not now return. Even as, numbly, she stepped inside, shut the door.
Her favorite cat of all, Muffin, fattish, very white with variegated spots, lay dozing in a hollow of a pillow on her bed, stirring now to blink at her, and stare.
Away so long, and such a distance.
She unzipped the garment bag and removed her toiletry kit, her badly stained satiny cream-colored pumps, wadded articles of underwear and the ripped pale-beige stockings, placed everything except the toiletry kit in the bottom of her wastebasket without examining. (The wastebasket was made of white-painted wicker, lined with a plastic bag for easy disposal; Marianne would be emptying it into the trash can herself in a few days, as usual. No one in the family would have occasion to see what she was throwing out, still less wonder why.)
She didn’t remove the crumpled satin-and-chiffon dress from the garment bag. Didn’t glance at it, or touch it. Quickly zipped the bag up again and hung it in the farthest corner of her closet, beneath the sharp-tilting eaves. Then rearranged her clothes on hangers, not to hide the garment bag exactly but simply so that it wouldn’t be seen, first thing she opened the closet door.
Out of sight, out of mind!—one of Corinne’s cheerful sayings. Not a syllable of irony in it, for irony was not Corinne’s nature.
In the closet, three white cotton cheerleader’s blouses on wire hangers. Long full sleeves, double-button cuffs. If you were a cheerleader at Mt. Ephraim High, generally acknowledged the most coveted of all honors available to girls, you were required to buy your own blouses and maroon wool jumper and to maintain these articles of clothing in spotless condition. The jumper was dry-cleaned of course but Marianne hand-laundered the blouses herself, starched and ironed them lovingly. Inhaling the good, familiar, comforting smell of white.
Which she stooped now to inhale, closing her eyes.
Love you in that cheerleader’s costume. Last Friday. You didn’t see me I guess. But I was there.
Corinne was so amusing! Like a mom on TV. She’d tell stories on herself, to the family, or relatives, or friends, or people she hardly knew but had just met, how she’d have loved to be a housewife, a normal American housewife, crazy about her kids, in her heart she loved housewifely chores like ironing, “calming and steadying on the nerves—isn’t it?” yet in the midst of ironing she’d get distracted by a telephone call, or a dog or cat wanting attention, or one of the kids, or something going on outside, she’d drift off from the ironing board only to be rudely recalled by the terrible smell of scorch. “It’s my daughter who’s the real homemaker: Button loves to iron.”
That wasn’t exactly true, though almost. She’d taken pride as a young girl of ten or eleven, ironing Dad’s handkerchiefs at first, and then his sports shirts, which didn’t require too much skill, and finally his white cotton shirts, which did. And her own white cotton blouses of course. Like sewing, ironing can be a meditation: a time of inwardness, thoughtfulness, prayer.
Not that she’d tell her girlfriends this, they’d laugh at her. Tenderly, affectionately—Oh, Button! Even Trisha, who was such a good girl herself.
He’d said there was no one in Mt. Ephraim to talk with, about serious things. Except her.
Whether God exists? Whether God gives a damn about us, if we live or die?
She couldn’t remember when he’d said this, asked this. If it was before leaving the party at the Krausses’, or after, at the Paxtons’. Before or after the “orange-juice” cocktails. The tart stinging delicious taste coating the inside of her mouth.
Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night, y’know?—and I’m so scared, almost I want to yell something weird, crazy—Why’d you screw me up so, God? What’s the point?
His earnest moist heavy-lidded eyes. Some girls thought them beautiful eyes but Marianne shied from looking at them, into them, too obviously. There was his quickened breath, the sweet-liquor smell. The heat of his skin that was rather pallid, sallow. A shrill girlish giggle escaped her, didn’t sound like her but like an anonymous faceless girl somewhere in the night, between houses, in a boy’s car or staggering drunkenly between cars in high-heeled pumps and unbuttoned coat in blurred swaying rays of headlights.
Oh Zachary what a way to speak to God!
She shut the closet door, hard.
The cat was pushing himself against her ankles in an ecstasy of yearning. He seemed to sense, or even to know. How long she’d been away, and how far. How hazardous, her return. Temporary.
She knelt, hugging him. Such a big, husky cat! A sibling of Big Tom, yet heavier, softer. Head round as a cabbage. Long white whiskers radiated outward from his muzzle stiff as the bristles of a brush, and quivering. His purr was guttural, crackling like static electricity. As a kitten he’d slept on Marianne’s lap while she did her homework at her desk, or lay across her bed talking on the phone, or read, or, downstairs, watched TV. He’d followed her everywhere, calling her with his faint, anxious mew?—trotting behind her like a puppy.
Marianne petted him, and scratched his ears, and stared into his eyes. Loving unjudging eyes they were. Unknowing. Those curious almost eerie black slats of pupil.
“Muffin, I’m fine! Go back to sleep.”
She went to use the bathroom, she’d been using the bathroom every half hour or so, her bladder pinching and burning. Yet there was the numbness like a cloud. She locked the door, used the toilet, the old stained bowl, aged ceramic-white, the plumbing at High Point Farm needed “remodernization” as Corinne called it, the bathrooms especially. But Dad had laid down some handsome vinyl tile of the simulated texture of brick, a rich red-brown, and the sink cabinet was reasonably new, muted yellow with “brass” from Sears. And on the walls, as in most of the rooms at High Point Farm, framed photos of family—on horseback, on bicycles, with dogs, cats, friends and relatives, husky Mikey-Junior clowning for the camera in his high school graduation gown twirling his cap on a forefinger, skinny Patrick, a ninth grader at the time, diving from the high board at Wolf’s Head Lake, arrested at the apogee of what looked to have been a backward somersault, maybe a double somersault. Button was there, Button smiling for the camera that loved her, how many times Button smiled for the camera that loved her, but Marianne, wincing as she drew down her jeans, her panties, and lowered her numbed body to the toilet seat, did not search her out.
As sometimes, not frequently but sometimes, she’d whimper aloud with the strain of a painful bowel movement, a sudden flash of sensation almost too raw to be borne, now the sound forced itself from her, through her clenched teeth—“Oh God! Oh Jesus!” She seemed fearful of releasing her weight entirely; her legs quivered. The pain was sharp and swift as the blade of an upright knife thrust into her.
You’re not hurt, you wanted it. Stop crying.
Don’t play games with me, O.K.?
I’m not the kind of guy you’re gonna play games with.
At first when she tried to urinate, she couldn’t. She tried again, and finally a trickle was released, thin but scalding, smarting between her legs. She dared not glance down at herself out of fear of seeing something she would not wish to see. Already seen, in vague blurred glimpses, at the LaPortes’, in the hot rushing water of a tub.
The pain was subsiding, numbness returning like a cloud.
Flushing the toilet, she saw thin wormlike trails of blood.
That was all it was, then!—her period.
Of course, her period.
That was how Mom first spoke of it, warm and maternal and determined not to be embarrassed: your period.
It was all routine, and she was one who responded well to routine. Like most of the Mulvaneys, and the dogs, cats, horses, livestock. What you’ve done once you can do again, more than once for sure you can do again, again. No need to think about it, much.
Still, Marianne’s hands shook, at the first sighting of menstrual blood she’d feel faint, mildly panicked, recalling her first period, the summer of her thirteenth birthday, how frightened she’d been despite Corinne’s kindness, solicitude.
I’m fine. I’ll take care of myself. In her bureau drawer a supply of “thin maxi-absorbent sanitary pads” and snug-fitting nylon panties with elastic bands. She realized she’d been feeling cramps for hours. That tight clotted sensation in the pit of the belly she’d try to ignore until she couldn’t any longer. And a headache coming on—ringing clanging pain as if pincers were squeezing her temples.
It was all routine. You can deal with routine. Ask to be excused from active gym class tomorrow, which was a swim class, fifth hour. After school she’d attend cheerleading drill but might not participate, depending upon the cramps, headache. Always in gym class or at cheerleading drill there was someone, sometimes there were several girls, who were excused for the session, explaining with an embarrassed shrug they were having their periods.
Some of the girls with steady boyfriends even hinted at, or informed their boyfriends, they were having their periods—Marianne couldn’t imagine such openness, such intimacy. She’d never been that close to any boy, had had countless friends who were boys yet few boyfriends, with all that implied of specialness, possessiveness. Sharing secrets. No, not even her brothers, not even Patrick she adored.
Her cheeks burned at the mere thought. Her body was her own, her private self. Only Corinne might be informed certain things but not even Corinne, not even Mom, not always.
She shook out another two aspirin tablets onto her sweaty palm, and washed them down with water from the bathroom faucet. In the medicine cabinet were many old prescription containers, some of them years old, Corinne’s, Michael Sr.’s, there was one containing codeine pills Dad had started to take after his root canal work of a few months ago then swore off, in disgust—“Nothing worse than being fuzzy-headed.”
Well, no. Marianne thought there could be lots worse.
Still, she took only the aspirin. Her problem was only routine and she would cope with it with routine measures.
Marking the date, February 15, on her Purrrfect Kittens calendar.
She’d been a tomboy, the one they called Cute-as-a-Button. Climbing out an upstairs window to run on tiptoe across the sloping asphalt roof of the rear porch, waving mischievously at Mule and P.J. below. Her brothers were tanned, bare-chested, Mule on the noisy Toro lawn mower and P.J. raking up debris. Look who’s up on the roof! Hey get down, Marianne! Be careful! The looks on their faces!
Roof-climbing was strictly forbidden at the Mulvaneys’, for roofs were serious, potentially dangerous places. Dad’s life was roofs, as he said. But there was ten-year-old Button in T-shirt and shorts, showing off like her older brothers she adored.
It was a good memory. It came out of nowhere, a child climbing through a window, trembling with excitement and suspense, and it ended in a blaze of summer sunshine. She’d ignored the boys calling to her and stood shading her eyes like an Indian scout, seeing the mountains in the northeast, the wooded hills where strips of sunshine and shadow so rapidly alternated you would think the mountains were something living and restless.
And Mt. Cataract like a beckoning hand, for just Button to see.
Here. Look here. Raise your eyes, look here.
In the warmly lit kitchen rich with the smell of baking bread there stood Corinne leaning against a counter, chatting with a woman friend on the phone. Her blue eyes lifting to Marianne’s face, her quick smile. The radio was playing a mournful country-rock song and Feathers, incensed as by a rival male canary, was singing loudly in rebuttal, but Corinne didn’t seem to mind the racket. Seeing Marianne grab her parka from a peg in the hall she cupped her hand over the receiver and asked, surprised, “Sweetie? Where are you going?”
“Out to see Molly-O.”
That startled plea in Corinne’s voice: Don’t we prepare Sunday supper together, super-casserole? Isn’t this one of the things Button and her Mom do?
Outside it was very cold. Twenty degrees colder than that afternoon. And the wind, bringing moisture to her eyes. It was that slatecolored hour neither daylight nor dark. The sky resembled shattered oyster shells ribboned with flame in the west, but at ground level you could almost see (sometimes Marianne had stared out the window of her bedroom, observing) how shadows lifted from the snowy contours of the land, like living things. Exactly the bluish-purple color of the beautiful slate roof Michael Sr. had installed on the house.
In the long run, Dad said, you get exactly what you pay for.
Marianne’s heart was pumping after her close escape, in the kitchen. There would be no avoiding Mom when they prepared supper. No avoiding any of them, at the table.
Yet how lucky she was, to have a mother like Corinne. All the girls marveled at Mrs. Mulvaney, and at Mr. Mulvaney who was so much fun. Your parents are actually kind of your friends, aren’t they? Amazing. Trisha’s mother would have poked her way into Marianne’s room by now asking how was the dance? how was your date? how was the party? or was it more than one party? did you get much sleep last night?—you look like you didn’t. Another mother would perhaps have wanted to see Marianne’s dress again. That so-special dress. Even the satiny pumps. Just to see, to reminisce. To examine.
One of the rangy barn cats, an orange tiger with a stumpy tail, leapt out of a woodpile to trot beside Marianne as she crossed the snow-swept yard to the horse barn. He made a hopeful mewing sound, pushing against her legs. “Hi there, Freckles!” Marianne said. She stooped to pet the cat’s bony head but for some reason, even as he clearly wanted to be petted, he shrank from her, his tail rapidly switching. He’d come close to clawing or biting her. “All right then, go away,” Marianne said.
How good, how clear the cold air. Pure, and scentless. In midwinter, in such cold, the fecund smells of High Point Farm were extinguished.
No games. No games with me.
At the LaPortes’ she’d bathed twice. The first time at about 4:30 A.M. which she couldn’t remember very clearly and the second time at 9:30 A.M. and Trisha had still been asleep in her bed, or pretending to be asleep. The gentle tick-ticking of a bedside clock. Hours of that clock, hours unmoving beneath the covers of a bed not her own, in a house not her own. Toward dawn, a sound of plumbing somewhere in the house, then again silence, and after a long time the first church bells ringing, hollow-sounding chimes Marianne guessed came from St. Ann’s the Roman Catholic church on Mercer Avenue. Then Mrs. LaPorte knocking softly at Trisha’s bedroom door at about 9 A.M. asking, in a lowered voice, “Girls? Anyone interested in going to church with me?” Trisha groaned without stirring from her bed and Marianne lay very still, still as death, and made no reply at all.
Later, Trisha asked Marianne what had happened after the party at the Paxtons’, where had Marianne gone, and who’d brought her back, and Marianne saw the worry, the dread in her friend’s eyes Don’t tell me! Please, no! so she smiled her brightest Button-smile and shook her head as if it was all too complicated, too confused to remember.
And so it was, in fact: Marianne did not remember.
Unless a giddy blur, a girl not herself and not anyone she knew. Coughing and choking dribbling vomit hot as acid across her chin, in a torn dress of cream-colored satin and strawberry-colored chiffon, legs running! running! clumsy as snipping shears plied by a child.
Out in Molly-O’s stall, at this hour? But why?
This safe, known place. The silence and stillness of the barn, except for the horses’ quizzical snuffling, whinnying.
Marianne wondered if, back in the house, Corinne was consulting with Patrick. Is something wrong with—?
Judd, too, had looked at her—strangely.
He was only thirteen, but—strangely.
Marianne took up a brush and swiftly, rhythmically stroked Molly-O’s sides, her coarse crackling mane. Then lifted grain and molasses to the wet, eager mouth. She clucked and crooned to Molly-O who had roused herself from a doze to quiver with pleasure, snort and stamp and twitch her tail, snuffling greedily as she ate from Marianne’s hand. That shivery, exquisite sensation, feeding a horse from your hand! As a small child Marianne had screamed with delight at the feel of a horse’s tongue. She loved the humid snuffling breath, the powerful, unimaginable life coursing through the immense body. A horse is so big, a horse is so solid. Always, you respect your horse for her size.
She loved the rich horsey smell that was a smell of earliest childhood when visits to the horse barn were overseen scrupulously by adults and it was forbidden to wander in here alone—oh, forbidden! Brought in here for the first time in Dad’s arms, then set down cautiously on the ground strewn with straw and walking, or trying to—the almost unbearable excitement of seeing the horses in their stalls, poking their strangely long heads out, blinking their enormous bulging eyes to look at her. Always she’d loved the sweetish-rancid smell of straw, manure, animal feed and animal heat. That look of recognition in a horse’s eyes: I know you, I love you. Feed me!
So easy to make an animal happy. So easy to do the right thing by an animal.
Molly-O was nine years old, and no longer young. She’d had respiratory infections, knee trouble. Like every horse the Mulvaneys had ever owned. (“A horse is the most delicate animal known to man,” Dad said, “—but they don’t tell you till it’s too late and he’s yours.”) She wasn’t a beautiful horse even by Chautauqua Valley standards but she was sweet-tempered and docile; with a narrow chest, legs that appeared foreshortened, knobby knees. Her coat was a rich burnishedred with a flaglike patch of white on her nose and four irregular white socks—Button’s horse, her twelfth birthday present. There is no love like the love you have for your first horse but that love is so easy to forget, or misplace—it’s like love for yourself, the self you outgrow.
Marianne hid her face in Molly-O’s mane whispering how sorry she was, oh how sorry!—since school had started she’d been neglecting Molly-O, and hadn’t ridden her more than a dozen times last summer. Her horse-mania of several years ago had long since subsided.
It had been a mild horse-mania, compared to that of other girls of Marianne’s acquaintance who took equestrian classes and boarded their expensive Thoroughbreds at a riding academy near Yewville. Flaring up most passionately when she’d been between the ages of thirteen and fifteen, then subsiding as other interests competed for her attention; as Marianne Mulvaney’s “popularity”—the complex, mesmerizing life of outwardness—became a defining factor of her life. Competing in horse shows wasn’t for her, nor for any of the Mulvaneys. (At the height of his interest, at fifteen, Patrick had been a deft, promising rider.) Dad said that the “great happiness” in horses, as in all of High Point Farm, was in keeping it all amateur—“And I mean real amateur.”
It was more than enough, Dad said, for a man to be competing in business with other men. Maybe an occasional golf game, squash, tennis, poker—but not seriously, only for friendship’s sake, and sport. A man’s heart is lacerated enough, being just an ordinary American businessman.
Of course, Dad admired certain friends of his, business associates and fellow members of the Mt. Ephraim Country Club who were “horsey” people (the Boswells, the Mercers, the Spohrs), but the thought of his daughter taking equestrian lessons, competing in those ludicrously formal horse shows, was distasteful to him. It was rank exhibitionism; it led to fanaticism, obsession. You don’t want animals you love to perform any more than you want people you love to perform. Also, it was too damned expensive.
The Mulvaneys were in fact “well-to-do.” At least, that was their local reputation. (Despite the way Corinne dressed, and her custom of shopping at discount stores.) High Point Farm was spoken of in admiring terms, and Michael Mulvaney Sr. cut a certain swath in the county, drove new cars and dressed in stylish sporty clothes (no discount stores for him); he was generous with charitable donations, and each July Fourth he opened his front pasture to the Chautauqua County Volunteer Firemen’s annual picnic. But in private he fretted over money, the expense of keeping up a farm like High Point, leasing as much land as he could, supporting a family as “spendthrift” as theirs. (Though Michael Sr. was the most spendthrift of all.) From time to time he threatened to sell off a horse or two—or three—now the older children’s interest in riding had declined, but of course everyone protested, even Mike Jr., who rarely poked his head into the horse barn any longer. And Mom became practically hysterical. That would be like an execution! That would be like selling one of us!
In. the next stall Patrick’s gelding Prince was knocking about, whinnying and snorting for Marianne’s attention. And so Clover and Red were stirred to demonstrate, as well. Here we are, too! Hungry! And a gang of six barn cats was gathering around Marianne, mewing and suggestively kneading the ground. Love us! Feed us! All these creatures had been fed twice that day, by Patrick and Judd, but Marianne’s appearance threw their routine off kilter, or so they wished it to seem; and Marianne was far too softhearted to disappoint. As a little girl she’d made rules for herself: if she petted or fed one animal in the presence of others, she must pet and feed them all. It was what Jesus would have done had He lived intimately with animals.
What would Jesus do?—that’s what I ask myself. I try, and I try, but my good intentions break down when I’m with other people. Like with the guys, you know?—it’s like there’s the real me, that being with somebody like you brings out, Marianne, and there’s the other me that—well, that’s an asshole, a real jerk. That makes me ashamed.
His eyes lifted shyly to hers. The heavy lids, the narrow bridge of the nose, the lank hair fallen onto his forehead. His skin looked grainy, as in an old photograph. He was stretched on the step below her, his shoulders rounded, so she’d wanted to poke at him as she might have poked at Patrick to urge him to straighten his backbone, lift his shoulders. Music pounded and pulsed through the walls. It was loud enough to influence the beat of your heart, to make you sweat. He’d been drinking but wasn’t drunk—was he?—and seemed instead to be speaking frankly, sincerely, as she’d never heard him speak before. Oh hadn’t he meant it, any of it? Had it solely been to deceive, to manipulate?
She could not believe that, could she?
Not Marianne Mulvaney in whose heart Jesus Christ had dwelled for the past seventeen years, or more.
As she left the barn, the thought touched her light and fleeting as a snowflake. Am I saying good-bye?
Now the sky was cracked and cobbled and glowed in the west with a mysterious bruised flame on the very brink of extinction. In the front windows of the antique barn lights winked, and Marianne thought for an uneasy moment that Corinne was inside; but it was only reflected light.
Marianne unlatched the door of the antique barn with cold-stiffened fingers and let herself inside. Switched on the overhead light, hoping no one in the house would notice. Hoping Corinne wouldn’t grab a jacket and run out to join her.
She’d had a thought of—what was it?—not a dream exactly but a vivid memory of a framed reproduction, a wall hanging?—one of Corinne’s “bargain treasures.” Suddenly it seemed urgent to find it.
But where, amid this clutter?
Marianne hadn’t been in her mother’s shop for a while. There must have been new acquisitions, it looked as if Corinne was stripping down and refinishing a weird armchair of twisted, gnarled tree limbs, like a torture machine, and there was a Shaker-style rocking chair positioned on a worktable, but Marianne couldn’t be sure.
A smell of paint solvent, varnish, furniture polish, oil-based paint (Corinne had been painting the interior of the barn a bright robin’segg blue but hadn’t quite finished the task), mouse droppings, dust. That comforting smell of old things, of the past. So happy here, things are so calm and sane here Corinne would exclaim, brushing away cobwebs, dodging a drip from the ceiling, gamely clearing space for visitors to walk through the clutter, her eyes glistening like a child’s. All the Mulvaney children were involved in Corinne’s obsession from time to time, particularly Marianne, eager to be Mom’s helper, though lacking her mother’s unquestioning passion for old things, the mere look and feel and smell and heft of them; the fact, to Corinne endlessly fascinating, they were old. And abandoned by their former owners.
Michael Sr. took a characteristic humorous view of High Point Antiques: to him, Corinne’s stock was basically junk. Some of it “O.K. junk” and some of it “not-bad junk” but most of it “just plain junk” of the kind you can find in anybody’s attic or cellar if not the town dump. The mystique of old and abandoned was lost on him. “In my business,” he said, “you provide the customer with state-of-theart goods and labor or you’re out on your ass.”
Marianne guessed that the antique barn was Corinne’s haven from the continuous intensity, the carnival atmosphere, of family life. Especially when Marianne and her brothers had been small children. There was cram and clutter and a look of a tornado having blown through in both the house and in the antique barn but in the antique barn it was quiet, at least.
Heavy rusted wrought-iron garden furniture, a “gothic revival” settee, a “rococo revival” chair of exquisite cast-iron filigree, willow ware settees and headboards, that twisty furniture made of gnarled tree limbs with bark still intact—“naturalistic style,” of the turn of the century; native willow and imported rattan and much-varnished aged wood that looked as if it would disintegrate into its molecules if anyone’s weight was lowered upon it. There were dining-room sets, battered drop-leaf maplewood tables and matching chairs with split rush seats; there were stacks of dust-limp lampshades, lamps of yellowed carved ivory, free-standing gilt-stenciled “Doric columns,” even a broken-stringed harpsichord with keys the color of English breakfast tea. There were lacquered surfaces, grimy-fabric surfaces, splotched-mirror surfaces, porcelain and marble and stone and concrete (urns, dogs, horses, a ghastly white-painted “darky” holding out a fingerless hand for an invisible horse’s rein). There was a counter of shoe boxes stuffed with aged postcards dated 1905, 1911, 1923, handwritten, in the scrawled and faded and frequently indecipherable hands of strangers; penny postcards bearing vista-views of the Chautauqua Valley, photographs painted over to resemble watercolors in romantic pastel hues, selling for as little as one dollar a dozen. (If Corinne could sell them at all.) Marianne couldn’t resist, pulled out a card at random, a sunset scene of canal barge, yoked mules and mule driver titled Erie Barge Canal at Yewville, N.Y., 1915. On the reverse was a message in near-invisible blue ink, in a woman’s flowery hand: Hello Rose! Suppose you think I am dead. But I am not, very much alive instead. How are you all? & are you still in the same house? Let me hear from you. All O.K. here except for Ross & grandma, no change. Love to all & the baby too. Yr. sis. Edna. It was dated Fri. P.M., July 16. Hastily Marianne put the card back in the shoe box and moved on. If she began reading through these old cards she’d lose herself for an hour.
Some of them she’d stolen away to keep in her room. They sold so cheaply, it seemed a shame. Such tragically real and unique and irreplaceable documents. Corinne agreed they were precious but then everything in her antique barn was precious wasn’t it?—that was the point of antiques wasn’t it?
Behind stacks of water-stained and -warped old books—James Fenimore Cooper’s The Pathfinder, Winston Churchill’s A Modern Chronicle, Hamlin Garland’s A Son of the Middle Border, A Children’s Garden of Poesy and several volumes of Reader’s Digest Books, Information Please Almanac 1949—partly covered by a kerosene-smelling ratty old quilt, Marianne found what she was searching for. A framed reproduction of an antiquated painting by an unknown artist, titled The Pilgrim: a romantically twilit vista of mountains, a woodland lake, light radiating from a likeness of Jesus’ face in the sky falling upon a robed figure kneeling in a meadow of grazing sheep and lambs beside the glistening water. The figure was barefoot and seemed to have made her way across a rocky terrain; her profile was partly obscured by a plait of faded gold hair and a shawl modestly covering her head. Beneath the title was the caption, which Marianne found thrilling: He that loseth his life for my sake shall find it.
Corinne had brought The Pilgrim home years ago from a flea market and hadn’t sold it though the price had been lowered several times, rather conspicuously—$25, $19.98, now $12.50. (How did Corinne determine these prices, anyhow? She seemed to have, as Michael Sr. observed, an unfailing instinct for keeping them just high enough to discourage potential buyers.) Marianne recalled Patrick saying of the reproduction, What cornball stuff, Mom! and she supposed she had to agree, yes it was sentimental and silly, bad as the worst of Sunday school Bible cards, Jesus floating in the sky like a balloon, the lambs gathered around the pilgrim like wooden toys with disconcertingly humanoid faces. Still, Marianne found the image fascinating, like a riddle to be decoded. Many times she’d asked Corinne who was the pilgrim, and where had she come from? She was alone—why? She seemed quite young, only a girl. Was she about to die, and that was why Jesus smiled down upon her from the clouds? Yet she did not appear injured or exhausted; in her very posture of humility, head bowed, hands clasped and uplifted in prayer, there was a suggestion of pride. Clearly the pilgrim was praying to Jesus, unaware of Him though His rays of light illuminated her out of the shadow.
Corinne found The Pilgrim fascinating, too. She had the idea it was based on some German folktale, she didn’t know why. And the caption wasn’t accurate, exactly: it should have been She that loseth her life for my sake shall find it.
Marianne drew her fingers across the glass, trailing dust. She squatted beside the painting, staring avidly at it, her eyes misting over in tears. She felt a surge of happiness sharp as pain in her heart.
She hadn’t actually seen The Pilgrim in a long time and had more or less forgotten it. Yet, evidently, she’d been thinking of it the previous night, soaking in Trisha LaPorte’s bathtub. Numbed, dazed. Her thoughts flying rapidly and fluidly and without weight or seeming significance. Jesus help me. Jesus help me. Like scenes glimpsed from the window of a speeding vehicle, lacking depth and color. Like those strange fleeting faces, strangers’ faces, some of them distorted and grotesque, we see as we sink exhausted into sleep. So, amid the steaming water, above a limp-floating naked girl’s body, a body at which Marianne did not look, The Pilgrim rose, took shape. It hovered suspended until finally it faded into numbness and oblivion, a gouged-out hole in the very space of consciousness.
So much to talk about! So many interruptions! Laughter, and Judd scolded by Dad for passing sausage-bits to Little Boots beneath the table, and Mom scolded by Dad Honeylove will you for God’s sake stop jumping up every five minutes?—and the discovery, midmeal, that the oven was still set at four hundred degrees and the Mexican chicken-shrimp-sausage casserole was beginning to burn. Marianne had helped Mom prepare supper as usual as if nothing were wrong, so perhaps nothing was wrong. In addition to the super-casserole there was grilled Parmesan-dill bread, baked butternut squash sprinkled with brown sugar, a giant tossed salad with Mom’s special oil-and-vinegar dressing, homemade apple-cinnamon cobbler with vanilla ice cream. How many suppers, how many meals, here in the big cozy country kitchen at High Point Farm: you might bear the memory into eternity, yet each occasion was unique, mysterious.
In a haze of smiling, nodding, chewing, swallowing Marianne navigated the hour-long meal. Not quite so talkative, smiling, happy as usual but maybe no one noticed? (Except Mom?) Mikey-Junior was away with his girl Trudi Hendrick (Are those two getting serious? Mom’s worried, wondering) but all the other Mulvaneys were in their usual seats. And all hungry.
You know you want to, why’d you come with me if you don’t?
Nobody’s gonna hurt you for Christ’s sake get cool.
Talk swirled around Marianne’s head like confetti. She was listening, yet seemed not to hear. Did they glance at her oddly?—or not notice a thing? There was a buzzing in her ears remote as wasps, in summer, under the eaves. That ache like weeping in her loins. (Don’t think: va-gin-a. Ugly words like ut-er-us, clit-or-is.) Marianne leapt up to save Mom a trip, carrying the heated casserole back to the table; passed the newly replenished bread basket back to Dad, the salt-free margarine, the hefty gleaming “Swedish” salad bowl. Mom was telling them excitedly of the candidate she and church friends intended to campaign for, in the upcoming Presidential election, Jimmy Carter—“A true Christian, and an intelligent, forceful man.” Dad murmured in an undertone, with a wink for the kids, “Rare combo, eh?” but Mom chose to ignore the remark; tried never to argue at mealtimes, on principle. Next was talk of the icy roads, Monday morning’s predicted weather (snow flurries, wind-chill temperatures as low as minus twenty). Talk of upcoming dental appointments (Patrick, Judd—both groaned), a vet appointment (for poor Silky, whose teeth were getting bad). Dad brought up the subject of the bid Mulvaney Roofing had made last Monday to the contractor for the St. Matthew’s Hospital addition, one of seven bids from local roofers, so far as he knew; a decision was due soon, maybe this week. With a shrug of his burly shoulder meant to disguise the hope and anxiety he felt, Dad said, grinning, “Well, as the fella says, ‘No news is good news.’ Right?” Mom interjected in her way of thrusting her head forward, gawky-girl style, with her neighing laugh, “‘No noose is good noose’—as the condemned man said on the scaffold.”
“Oh, Mom!” everyone brayed.
Except Marianne, who smiled vaguely. Knowing she’d hurt her mother’s feelings earlier, that exchange about Feathers. Though she couldn’t remember any longer what either of them had said.
Patrick tried to initiate a discussion of time travel but Dad laughed scornfully, pointing out it was bad enough we have so many useless overpriced places to travel to now, let alone going back and forward in time. Mom remarked it would make her so nervous, plunging into the unknown—“The ‘known’ is about all I can handle.” Patrick sulked they never took anything seriously and Dad said in fact they took everything seriously except not at mealtimes. Going on then to tell a new joke (“There’s these identical-looking skunks, one’s a Republican and the other’s a Democrat, meet in a bar”) he’d heard in the club locker room that afternoon and everyone laughed, or made laughing-groaning sounds, and Marianne too smiled though preoccupied with passing the salad bowl. And replenishing the bread basket lined with bright pumpkin-decorated paper napkins from Hallowe’en. Patrick observed dryly, “Is Homo sapiens the only species that laughs? What’s the evolutionary advantage in laughing, does anyone know?”
Mom said thoughtfully, “Laughing is a way of getting out of yourself, laughing at yourself—mankind’s foibles, pretensions.” Dad said, “Hell, it’s a way of letting off steam. Nervous tension.” Judd said, “It’s just something that happens, you can’t force it.” Patrick said, “But why? Why does it happen? What’s the point?” Mom said, sighing, laying a hand on Patrick’s arm, “Oh, well, Pinch—if you have to ask, you’ll never know.” And everyone laughed at Patrick who was blushing, embarrassed.
Everyone except Marianne who was at the counter cutting more slices of bread. She smiled, and returned to her seat. What had they been talking about?
It’s as if I am already gone. Just my body in its place.
She’d seen Patrick glancing at her, sidelong. Not a word from him.
There was the Mulvaney cork bulletin board on the wall. Festooned with color snapshots, clippings, blue and red ribbons, Dad’s Chamber of Commerce “medal,” dried wildflowers, gorgeous seed-catalogue pictures of tomatoes, snapdragons, columbine. Beneath what was visible were more items and beneath those probably more. Like archeological strata. A recent history of the Mulvaneys. The bulletin board had been there forever, Mom’s contribution to the household. At its center was a large calendar with the handprinted * * * WORK SCHEDULE * * * above. High Point Farm had to be run like a boot camp, the elder Mulvaneys believed, or chaos would sweep in and bear them all away like a flood. So painstakingly, with the judiciousness of Solomon, Corinne drew up each month a schedule of chores—house chores, mealtime chores, trash-related chores, all variety of outdoor/seasonal chores, horse chores, cow chores, barn chores, pet chores, and what was unclassifiable—“misc.” chores. (These, the Mulvaney children agreed, could be the most treacherous. Helping Mom clean out the cellar, for instance. Helping Mom sand, scrape, caulk, paint in the antique barn. Helping Mom put flea collars on all the dogs and cats in a single afternoon.) Like any month, February 1976 presented itself to the neutral eye as a phenomenon of white squares arranged symmetrically along proportionate grids as if time were a matter of division, finite and exacting; each square mastered by Corinne Mulvaney’s meticulous hand-printing. Corinne was famous for her terrible fair-mindedness, as Dad said she spared no one the worst, not even herself and him.
True, the Mulvaneys sometimes made deals with one another, switched chores without Mom’s approval. So long as the chores got done there was no problem but when the * * * WORK SCHEDULE * * * failed in any particular, as Dad said there was hell to pay.
Still it was nice wasn’t it, comforting. Knowing that at any time you could check the bulletin board, see exactly what was expected of you not only that day but through the end of the month.
Most prominent on the bulletin board as always were the newer Polaroids. Button in her pretty prom dress. Before the luckless Austin Weidman the “date” arrived in his dad’s car to take her away. Strawberries ’n’ cream! Dad teased, snapping the shots. But of course he was proud, how could he not be proud. And Mom was proud. Pride goeth before a fall Mom would murmur biting her lower lip but, oh!—it was hard to resist. Marianne had sewed such a lovely dress for her 4-H project, not due until June for the county fair competition. And Marianne was so lovely of course. Slender, high-breasted, with those shining eyes, gleaming dark-brown hair of the hue of the finest richest mahogany. In one of the shots Marianne and Corinne were smiling at Dad the photographer, arms around each other’s waist, and Corinne in her baggy SAVE THE WHALES sweatshirt and jeans looked wonderfully youthful, mischievous. The white light of the flash illuminated every freckle on her face and caused her eyes to flare up neon-blue. She’d been photographed in the midst of laughing but there was no mistaking those eyes, that pride. This is my gift to the world, my beautiful daughter thank you God.
The meal was ending, they were eating dessert. Talk had looped back to Dad and his triumphant or almost-triumphant squash games that afternoon. Marianne listened and laughed with the others. Though her mind was drifting away and had to be restrained like a flighty unwieldy kite in a fierce wind. No telephone calls for Button that day. Not one. Corinne would surely have noticed.
Dad was being good, amazingly good for Dad—eating a small portion of cherry cobbler and stoically refusing another helping. He complimented Mom and Marianne on the terrific supper and went on to speak of his friend Ben Breuer whose name was frequently mentioned at mealtimes at High Point Farm. Mr. Breuer was a local attorney, a business associate and close friend of the Democratic state senator from the Chautauqua district, Harold Stoud, whom Michael Mulvaney Sr. much admired and to whose campaigns he’d contributed. “Ben and I are evenly matched as twins, almost,” Dad was saying, smiling, “—but I can beat Ben if I push hard. Winning is primarily an act of will. I mean when you’re so evenly matched. But I don’t always push it, you know?—so Ben thinks, if he happens to win a game or two, he’s won on his own. Keeping a good equilibrium is more important.”
Patrick pushed his wire-rim schoolboy glasses against the bridge of his nose and peered at Dad inquisitively. “More important than what, Dad?” he asked.
“More important than winning.”
“‘A good equilibrium’—in what sense?”
“In the sense of friendship. Pure and simple.”
“I don’t understand.” Patrick’s mild provoking manner, his level gaze, indicated otherwise. A tawny look had come up in his eyes.
Dad said, pleasantly, “Friendship with a person of Ben Breuer’s quality means a hell of a lot more to me than winning a game.”
“Isn’t that hypocritical, Dad?”
A look of hurt flickered across Dad’s face. He’d been spooning cherry cobbler out of Mom’s bowl which she’d pushed in his direction, seeing how he’d been casting yearning glances at it, and now he said, fixing Patrick with a fatherly patient smile, “It’s sound business sense, son. That’s what it is.”
After supper there was the danger of Corinne knocking at her door. Of course the door could not be locked, impossible to lock any door at High Point Farm and violate family code.
In fact there were no locks on the children’s bedroom doors. For what purpose, a lock?
God help me. Jesus have pity on me.
During the meal Marianne had had a mild surge of nausea but no one had noticed. She’d conquered it, sitting very calmly and waiting for it to subside. As Dad said, An act of will.
But it was there, still. The nausea that had spread through her body like that species of thick clotted green scum that, if unchecked, spread through the animals’ drinking pond and despoiled it each summer. Microorganisms replicating by an action of sunshine, Patrick explained. Only drastic measures could curtail them.
But the nausea remained, and a taste of hot yellow bile at the back of her mouth. Like acid. Horrible. It was the vodka backing up, vodka and orange juice. She hadn’t known what it was, exactly. Zachary prepared the drink for her saying it was mild, she wouldn’t notice it at all. How happy she was, how elated! How easily she’d laughed! You’re so beautiful Marianne he’d said staring at her and she’d known it was true.
Jesus have pity on me, forgive me. Let me be all right.
As soon as she’d come home that afternoon she took two aspirin tablets. To get her through the ordeal of supper, two more. It seemed to her that the pain in her lower belly, the hot sullen seepage of blood in her loins had lessened. Her skin was hot, her forehead burning. If Mom had noticed she would have said in her usual murmurous embarrassed way, dropping her eyes, that it was just her period. A few days early this month.
How to examine her dress without touching it or smelling it.
The left strap was torn from the pleated bodice but did not appear to be otherwise damaged, it should be easy to mend. More difficult would be the long jagged tear in the skirt, upward from the hem on a bias. She could hear still the shriek of the delicate fabric as if her very nerves had been ripped out of her flesh. Nobody’s gonna hurt you for Christ’s sake get cool. Where she’d gently hand-washed the dress with Pond’s complexion soap in lukewarm water in Trisha’s bathroom sink the stains were still visible, blood- and vomit-stains. The satin was still damp. When it dried, it would wrinkle badly. But she would try again of course. She would not be discouraged.
Picking up the dress between her thumb and forefinger as if she feared its touch might be virulent, she turned it over on the bed.
Oh. Oh God.
The scattered bloodstains across the front of the dress were light as freckles but the darker stains on the back, a half dozen stains as long as six or seven inches, had turned a sour yellowish shade, unmistakable. Like the stained crotches of certain of her panties which Marianne scrubbed, scrubbed by hand to rid them of traces of menstrual blood before drying them in her closet and dropping them into the laundry chute. Ashamed that Corinne, who did the laundry, might see. Oh, ashamed! Though Corinne would never say a word, of course—Corinne who was so kind, so gentle. There’s nothing to be embarrassed about, Button, really, Mom insisted, perplexed at her daughter’s sensitivity. But Marianne could not help it. These panties weren’t disreputable enough to be discarded yet were not fit to wear; especially on gym days at school. One by one they’d collected at the back of Marianne’s underwear drawer in her bureau, to be worn, if at all, only in emergency situations.
Look, you know you want to. Why’d you come with me if you don’t?
Nobody’s gonna hurt you for Christ’s sake get cool!
At the prom she’d been photographed with the Valentine King and Queen and the Queen’s “maids-in-waiting” of whom Marianne Mulvaney was the only girl not a member of the senior class. Up on the bandstand. Smiling and giddy. The band was so loud! Sly-sliding trombone, deafening cymbals and drums. The Valentine King who was a tall blond flush-faced boy, a basketball star, kissed Marianne—full on the mouth. There was a smell of whiskey, beer, though drinking on school property was forbidden. Confetti caught in her hair. The band was playing “Light My Fire.” She was dancing with a senior named Zachary Lundt and then another senior named Matt Breuer who was the son of Dad’s close friend Mr. Breuer. In the excitement she could not recall with whom she’d come, which “date.” Then she caught sight of Austin Weidman’s long-jawed glum face and waved happily.
Her friends had come out to High Point Farm to see her dress and to stay for supper. Mom loved Marianne’s girlfriends—how lucky Marianne was, Mom said, to have such good friends! Such sweet girls! Her own girlhood had been lonely, she’d been a farmer’s daughter of the kind who had to work, work, work. That way of life was past now, like kerosene lamps, outdoor privies, snow chains on tires.
In her room, Marianne modeled the dress for Trisha, Suzi, Merissa, Bonnie. They were themselves very pretty girls, from well-to-do families in Mt. Ephraim, they were “good, Christian” girls—generally. Suzi and Merissa were cheerleaders like Marianne. Bonnie was class secretary. Trisha would be editor, the following year, of the school newspaper. They all had “dates” for the prom of course but their “dates” were with boys they’d gone out with in the past, boys of a certain quality. They teased Marianne about Austin Weidman whose name they pronounced in four flat-stressed syllables—“Aust-in Weid-man”—as if it were the funniest imaginable name. Suzi who was the boldest of them said slyly, What a shame, Button wasting that dress on Aus-tin Weid-man. All the girls laughed, including Marianne who blushed fiercely. She’d been prancing about her room in the shimmering satin dress with the strawberry-pink chiffon netting at the waist and hips, the finely stitched pleated bodice, elegantly thin straps. (Yes, she would have to wear a strapless bra beneath! Imagine.) She’d parodied the sexy arrogant pelvisthrust stance of a fashion model, lifting her arms above her head, but now froze in that position, confused.
Nobody’s gonna hurt you, Marianne.
“Marianne Mulvaney”—hot shit.
You’re pissing me off, you know it?
Everyone in the school had voted for the Valentine King and Queen and the names of the eight finalists were announced on Friday morning over the intercom in each homeroom and Marianne Mulvaney was the only junior in the list and her friends had shrieked with excitement and hugged, kissed her. Marianne had been dazed, disoriented, a little frightened. Who had voted for her? Why would anyone vote for her? This was not like being elected to the cheerleading squad for which she’d practiced tirelessly for weeks, nor was it like being elected secretary of her class which might have been perceived as an honor few others would have coveted. This was grace falling from above, unexpected. This was high school celebrity.
Was it a sin, such happiness? Such vanity?
Later, she would try washing the dress again in the bathroom sink. She would have to wait until everyone had gone to bed. And then she would have to be very quiet, stealthy. If Mom heard. If Mom knocked on the door. If Mom whispered, Button—?
Quickly Marianne folded the dress back up, to the size of a T-shirt. A spool of thread among her sewing things she’d spread on top of her bed went rolling, and Muffin leapt to pursue it. He’d been watching her from across the room. The dress was still damp, but Marianne placed it on a high shelf in her closet beneath some summer clothes. Zipped up the garment bag and hung it in a corner of her closet. Out of sight.
Fortunately Marianne hadn’t a mother like Trisha’s. Poking about in her room. That look in Mrs. LaPorte’s eyes, that nervous edge to the voice.
I’m fine, thank you. Really!
A little tired I guess. A headache.
That look passing between Trisha and Mrs. LaPorte. They’d been talking of Marianne of course. Last night, those long hours she’d been out. Hadn’t returned with Trisha and the others. Went where?
O Jesus truly I do not remember. I have sinned but I do not remember.
Between her legs she was bleeding into a sanitary napkin. Her lower abdomen ached. There was comfort in this ache which meant cramps: something routine. A few days earlier this month but nothing to be alarmed about, was it. Take two more aspirin before bed. Put your mind on other things.
It was too early for bed. The telephone had not once rung for her, all that Sunday.
She sat at her desk. Opened her geometry book. The printed words, the figures began to swim. She read, reread the problem and even as she read she was forgetting. The cat batted the spool of cream-colored thread about on the carpet until Marianne could not bear it any longer and scolded, “Muffin! Stop.”
Cruel and unfair, certain of the rumors at Mt. Ephraim High. That the “good, Christian” girls—the “popular” girls—the “nice” girls—if they were pretty girls, in any case—were subtly upgraded by their teachers. Marianne was sure this was not true—was it? She worked hard, she was diligent, conscientious. True, her friends were happy to help her with problems of math, science that gave her trouble. Boys in her class, senior boys. Not often Patrick, though: Patrick disapproved.
At the thought of Patrick, Marianne began to tremble. She was convinced that he knew. In the station wagon, driving home—the way he’d glanced at her, frowning. Certainly he would know by the end of homeroom period tomorrow morning. Or would no one dare tell him? There would be, in any case, murmured jokes, innuendos for him to overhear. Mulvaneys! Think you’re so good don’t you!
At Trisha’s she’d bathed twice and a third time since returning home that afternoon and now at 10 P.M. yet a fourth time cautiously lowering herself, her clumsy numb body, into water so hot it made her whimper aloud. The bathroom was filled with steam so she could barely see. The tub was an enormous old-fashioned clawfooted vessel of heavy chipped white porcelain. As a child, Marianne had been lost in it, giggling just slightly frightened as the buoyancy of the water lifted her feet and legs, tilting her backward. Mom had bathed her in this tub, careful not to run too much water into it, and to keep the water from getting too hot. Scalding water issued from the right-hand faucet, cold water from the left. You would not want to lift your foot experimentally to that right-hand faucet.
Nothing happened you didn’t want and ask for.
So shut up about it. Understand?
He’d shaken her, hard. To stop her crying, sobbing. Choking-vomiting. The stink in his car that made him furious.
In the tub the currents of scalding water twined and twisted with the currents of cold water. A noisy gushing that muffled any other sound. Her heart was beating strangely as it had beat the other morning when she’d heard her name—her name!—over the loudspeaker. She shut her eyes not wishing to see her naked arms and legs, milky-pale, floating like a dead girl’s. Her pale bruised breasts, floating. The ugly plum-colored bruises on the insides of her thighs. Especially she did not wish to see any thin tendrils of blood.
O Jesus have pity, Jesus let me be all right.
Always, you maintain your dignity. You’re a Mulvaney, you will be judged by different standards.
It came to Marianne then, late in the evening of that windy-frigid Sunday in February, that you could make of your pain an offering. You could make of your humiliation a gift. She understood that Jesus Christ sends us nothing that is not endurable for even His suffering on the cross was endurable, He did not die.
Dissolving then like a TV screen switched to an empty channel so there opened before her again that perfect void.
In a family, what isn’t spoken is what you listen for. But the noise of a family is to drown it out.
Because Judson Andrew Mulvaney was the last-born of the Mulvaney children, because I was Babyface, Dimple, Ranger, I was the last to know everything—good news, or bad. And probably there were lots of things I never knew at all.
This was long before the trouble with Marianne, I mean. When I was a little cowlicky-haired kid all eyes and ears like, if you’d imagine me as a cartoon figure I’d be a fly with big bulging eyes and waving antennae. For years I was undersized for my age, and a quiet boy, so to compensate sometimes I’d chatter loudly and importantly at school and, if it was just Mom and me, or Mom, Marianne and me, at home. I’m embarrassed to remember, now. And maybe I still behave that way, unconsciously, now. In imitation of Mikey-Junior who was my hero until I was in high school.
Secrets excited me, secret talk! What I’d understand was not for Ranger’s ears.
How many times I’d overhear Dad and Mom talking just out of earshot—their lowered, conspiratorial voices, mostly Dad’s—and Mom murmuring what sounded like Oh! oh yes! and occasionally Oh no!—and my heart would contract like a fist—what was wrong?—no joking?—no outbursts of laughter?—Dad and Mom not laughing? The memory of it makes me uneasy even now.
Say Dad and Mom were upstairs in their bedroom with possibly the door ajar, but I’d be scared to eavesdrop, scared of being discovered. Or they’d be in the kitchen with the stove fan roaring and rattling to drown out their conversation. (At least I’d think that was its purpose.) Or they’d meet up (accident? not likely) in one of the barns, or out in the driveway, strategically far enough from the house or any outbuilding, and they’d talk, talk. Sometimes for as long as an hour. Serious adult talk. Once I was crouched peering over the railing of the screened-in back porch and Patrick crept up behind me and we observed Dad and Mom talking together, out of earshot, for a long time. They were standing in the driveway by Dad’s Ford pickup, one hot-gusty summer afternoon: Mom in manure-stained jeans and dirty T-shirt and a bra strap showing, raggedy straw hat, dabs of white Noxzema on her sunburned face, and Dad in his summer town clothes, short-sleeved sports shirt, loosened necktie, neat khaki trousers with a braided belt fitting him snug around the waist. Dad was rattling his ignition keys in that way of his (had he just returned home from Mt. Ephraim? or was about to drive out again?) and talking rapid-fire, and nodding, not smiling though not exactly grim either, like a stranger to Patrick and me, one of those adult men you’d see in town or on TV speaking with another adult man or woman not as he’d speak to a child or a young person but in that special way like it was a different language, almost. Dad was a good-looking man in those days built like a steer (we kidded him) with a thick neck, solid torso, somewhat short legs in proportion to his body; he always took up more space than anyone else; his speech and gestures, even when he was confused, had an air of authority. A man you would not want to cross. A man you would want to please. Probably he was discussing money with Mom—money-problems were a major category of such private conversations, or, what was about the same thing, some vehicle or machine or household appliance in need of repair or replacement (“Everything’s collapsing on this goddamned farm!” Dad would groan, and Mom would reply, “Not everything, Mr. Mulvaney!—speak for yourself”—a line that doesn’t sound so funny in retrospect but was guaranteed to crack up anybody who happened to overhear); or, maybe, what was most unnerving, one of us. That day I asked P.J. in an undertone what did he think Dad and Mom were talking about like that?—and P.J. said with a shrug, “Sex.”
I was nine years old. Too young to know what “sex” was or even what a kid of fourteen, P.J.’s age, might imagine it was. I looked at my brother amazed. “Huh?”
“Don’t you know, Babyface, everything is about sex? It’s the primary law of nature of living things—what keeps us going.”
P.J. was the reader of the family, hidden away much of the time with science books and magazines and his “projects”; he’d discovered biology in eighth grade, and believed that a man named Charles Darwin who’d lived in the nineteenth century had had “the answer.” Half the things he said were purposefully inscrutable: you never knew if he was serious, or just being, as we’d say, Pinch.
I asked, “Keeps who going? How?”
“I don’t know how,” P.J. said loftily, looking over my head, “—I just know it’s sex. Like if a man and a woman are arguing, or whatever, it isn’t about money or needing to get things done or—whatever: it’s about sex.”
Which impressed me, but also scared me.
Because as I’ve said, you never could trust Pinch to say what was serious, or even what was true.
But there was the time years before, when I was really small, maybe three years old, wakened at night by a bad dream or by the wind banging something against the house, I ran next door into Dad’s and Mom’s bedroom uninvited and unexpected and their bedside light was on and I climbed right in bed with them, burrowed against them, so focussed on my own childish fear I hadn’t the slightest awareness of surprising them, annoying or embarrassing them, in the midst of what I could not have named, at the time, robust lovemaking. I can remember only the confusion, the creaking of bedsprings and Dad’s exclamation (I think it was “What the hell—!”) and Mom quickly pushing Dad from her, his bare sweaty shoulders and back, covered in frizzy hair, his bare buttocks, and hairy muscular legs, both my parents breathing hard as if they’d been running. Mom gasped, “Oh Judd!—Judd, honey—is s-something wr-wrong?” trying to catch her breath, shielding herself, her naked breasts, with the sheet, even as I continued to burrow blind and whimpering against her, and Dad flopped onto his back beside us with a forearm across his eyes, softly cursing. I said I was afraid, I didn’t want to be alone, I kicked and wriggled and of course Mom comforted me, possibly scolding me a little but her naked arms were warm and her body gave off a wonderful yeasty odor. Above my head Mom whispered to Dad, “I thought you said you locked the door,” and Dad said, “You locked it, you said,” and Mom said, “Judd’s had a scare, Michael—he’s just a baby,” and Dad said, “Fine! Good night! I’m going to sleep.” And Mom whispered to me, and got me to stop crying, and we giggled together, and Mom switched off the light, and soon we all fell asleep together, a warm sweaty tangle. And it wasn’t until years later I realized how I’d intruded upon my parents in their secret lives, and it was too late to be embarrassed.
And if I force myself to think of it, maybe I’d have to admit that I’d done this more than once, as a small child. And each time Dad and Mom relented, and took me in. He’s just a baby.
(Corinne and Michael Mulvaney were so romantic! All the while we kids were growing up, until this time I’m telling of when things changed. Mike thought they were embarrassing but sort of funny, you had to laugh, smooching like kids like they were just married or something; P.J. was plain embarrassed, and sulky, turning on his heel to walk out of, for instance, the kitchen, if he’d walked in upon Dad and Mom kissing, or, as they sometimes did, breaking into impromptu dance steps to radio music appropriate or not—a dreamy-dithering fox-trot, or a faster, less coordinated step, what they called “jitterbugging,” poor Feathers in his cage trilling wildly. When Dad and Mom met in public, even if they’d been apart only a few hours, and where they were was a Friday night football game at the school, a hundred people milling around, Dad would greet Mom with a big grin and “Hello, darling!” and he’d lift her hand to his lips to kiss it tenderly—even Marianne cringed at the sight, it was too, too embarrassing. Once, one of Mom’s women friends asked what was the secret of her and her husband, and Mom replied, in a lowered voice, “Oh, that man isn’t my husband. We’re just trying things out.”)
Secrets! As a child you come to see the world’s crisscrossed with them like electromagnetic waves, maybe even held together by them. But you can’t know. Not, as kids say, for sure. And if you blunder by accident into a secret it’s like you’ve pushed open a door where you thought was just a wall. You can look through, if you’re brave or reckless enough you can even step inside—taking a chance what you’ll learn is worth what it costs.
This other time I’m thinking of, when Mike Jr. was a senior in high school, and a star player on the football team, his picture in the local papers often and the name “Mule” Mulvaney famous in the county—I did barge in on a secret, sort of. Dad was talking to Mike and P.J. in the family room, the door shut against intrusion (you’d have to know that our family room door was never shut, I’d have thought there wasn’t even a door to the room), and I came downstairs and overheard just enough to arouse my curiosity, something in Dad’s usually congenial jokey voice that was low and earnest and quivering with emotion and exciting because I understood this was not for Ranger’s ears. I went to crouch by the door and pressed my ear against it. Dad was saying, “—I don’t care who the girl is. What her reputation is, or people say it is. Or she herself thinks it is. No sons of mine are going to be involved in behavior like that. If anybody’s treating a girl or a woman rudely in your presence—you protect her. If it means going against your friends, the hell with your ‘friends’—got it?” Dad’s voice was rising. I could picture his creased forehead, the set of his jaws, his eyes that seemed, at such times, to snap. Just—snap! You’d feel the sting of his glance like a BB pellet in the face.
Now I know it must have been Della Rae Duncan Dad was speaking of, in such outrage. Word was spreading through town, half the Mt. Ephraim football team had “had relations” with the drunken girl, after the Rams had won the Chautauqua County high school championship.
Finally Mike was allowed to speak, pleading, “But I wasn’t with those guys, Dad! I d-didn’t know anything about it until afterward.” Dad asked skeptically, “Oh yes? How long afterward?” and Mike said, “I—don’t know, exactly.” “An hour? Five minutes?” “Gosh no, Dad—the next day, I guess.” Mike’s voice was weak and scared and I’d guess he might be lying. Or maybe Dad just scared him so, he was breaking down. It was fascinating to me to hear my big brother Mule speaking to our father like a small child—like me, aged ten. The thought came to me Don’t we ever grow up? For some weird reason this was consoling.
They talked a while longer, Dad and Mike, and finally Dad relented, saying, “All right, Mikey. But if I ever learn you were involved, even just that you knew, at the time, I’ll break your ass. Got it?” Mike murmured, “Yes sir,” like he was grateful! All the while P.J. must have been sitting there, stricken with alarm and embarrassment, only fifteen at the time and not what you’d call “socially mature” for his age—Dad must have figured he was old enough to learn certain facts of life, even if they didn’t immediately apply to him.
Dad said, winding things up, “O.K., guys! Enough for one day. Any questions?” Mike and P.J. murmured no. “Just so you know your old man loves you, eh? Just so you know.”
I hurried out of Dad’s way, hiding around a corner, and after he’d left I tiptoed back to the doorway, and there were my brothers standing with a shared look as of witnesses to an accident. They didn’t see me but I didn’t hide from them, exactly. Mike was wiping at his eyes, kind of solemn but excited, shaking his head, “—You can’t lie to Dad, it’s the weirdest thing. I mean, you can try, but it doesn’t work. It’s like he knows. It’s like he can hear what you’re thinking. He always understands more than I tell him, and more than I know.”
P.J. had removed his glasses and was polishing the lens on a shirttail. He said petulantly, “I don’t know anything about it! Why am I being blamed?”
Mike said, “You’re not being blamed. Blamed for what? I’m not being blamed, am I?—not that I deserve to be, I don’t.”
P.J. said, “Those guys are your friends, not mine. I don’t even know what they did.”
“Well—I don’t, either.”
“Yeah, I bet.”
“I don’t.” Mike was pacing around, running both hands through his hair. He looked a little like Dad, from the back. He said in a rueful voice, “It’s a funny thing, how you always know more than you say. I mean—a person does. What you say is always less than you know.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Just what I said! Like if I say, ‘I went out with the guys, we went from point X to point Y, from point Y to point Z’—well, I’m telling the truth, but I’m saying less than I know.”
P.J. looked confused. As if Mike was saying things of the sort P.J. was known for, and P.J., thrown in the position of listener, was at a disadvantage. “But—why?”
Mike said excitedly, “Because to say a thing is just to state a fact. If I say, ‘My name is Mike Mulvaney’ I’m saying a whole lot less than I know about myself, right? It’s impossible to say who I am, where’d I begin?—and where’d I end? So I wind up saying my name.”
P.J. said, “That’s true about any statement we make, isn’t it? We never tell as much as we know.”
“Right! So we’re lying. So almost every statement is a lie, we can’t help it.”
“Yeah. But some statements are more lies than others.”
This, Mike didn’t seem to hear. He’d stopped his pacing and was looking toward the doorway, not seeing me; his face glistened with sweat but he smiled suddenly, as if something had just become clear. “It’s weird, man—it’s like a discovery to me. It means I’m not going to be telling much of the truth through my life, or even know what the truth is. And, for sure, I’m not going to be able to tell Dad anything he doesn’t already know.”
P.J. snorted with laughter.
Later I found Mom out in the antique barn and asked her what was going on, what had Dad been talking about with my brothers, and Mom said she had no idea, none at all—“Why don’t you ask Dad, Ranger?”
I asked Marianne instead. She didn’t know, she told me quickly.
Not a thing.
Wednesday morning, a harried errand-morning, and there was Mrs. Bethune the doctor’s wife approaching Corinne, with a smile and a wave of greeting, in the Mt. Ephraim Post Office. Not one of Corinne’s women friends.
Keep in motion, don’t slacken and you’ll escape Corinne instructed herself, smiling vaguely at Mrs. Bethune even as she lifted a hand in an ambiguous gesture—hello, or hasty good-bye?
Lydia Bethune was one of the inner circle of the Mt. Ephraim Country Club, to which the Mulvaneys had belonged for the past three years; always perfectly dressed and groomed, one of that species of attractive, capable women whose very being seemed a reproach to Corinne. For an ordinary weekday morning in Mt. Ephraim, Lydia was wearing, not wool slacks and a soiled parka, like Corinne, but a lovely soft russet-dyed rabbit-fur jacket, one of those unspeakable “fun” furs, and expensive-looking leather boots that shone as if they’d been polished only minutes before. Her hair was beauty-salon frosted-blond, cut stylishly short; her makeup was impeccable; thin smile-lines radiated outward from her pink-lipsticked mouth like Muffin’s whiskers, that seemed to quiver with emotion when he looked up at you. Lydia was a familiar Mt. Ephraim presence, active in charities including of course the hospital women’s auxiliary of which Corinne was a member; her daughter Priscilla was in Patrick’s class at the high school, a flashy girl with a sullen smile—pretty enough, Corinne granted, but thank God not hers.
The inward-swinging door of the post office kept opening, customers kept coming in, Corinne’s escape was blocked. No choice but to stand and chat with Lydia Bethune who was a nice woman, a well-intentioned woman, but who carried with her an aura of perfumed complacency that set Corinne’s teeth on edge.
“Corinne, how are you?”
“Oh, well—you know, busy.”
“Bart says he sees Michael at the club often, on the squash court especially, and I have lunch there sometimes, about once a week. But we never see you there.”
Corinne murmured a vague apology. True, she rarely went to the Mt. Ephraim Country Club, despite the ridiculous six-hundred-dollar yearly dues Michael paid. She wasn’t a woman who golfed, in warmer weather; she had no use for the tennis courts, or the indoor or outdoor pools; if she wanted exercise, she had plenty of house-and farmwork to do. Above all, she wasn’t a woman who “lunched”; the thought made her smile. Dressing up to have expensive lunches, with drinks, with women like Lydia Bethune and her friends!—not quite Corinne Mulvaney’s style. Every few weeks, Michael insisted that they have dinner on a Saturday evening with one or two other couples, or maybe Sunday brunch, with the children, but that was about the extent of Corinne’s involvement. And even then she went reluctantly, like one of her own adolescent children dragooned into something against his will, complaining that she hadn’t the right clothes to wear, or her hair wasn’t right, or she had nothing to say to those people.
Don’t be ridiculous, Michael chided, we’re those people ourselves.
Lydia Bethune was chattering, smiling—a smile that made Corinne uneasy, it looked so forced. “Priscilla says Marianne was so pretty at the prom. I saw the pictures in the paper—”
“Oh, yes.” Corinne’s cheeks burned. Her daughter was so much Corinne herself, how could she accept such a compliment?
“I hope you took photographs?”
“And—” Lydia was a bit rattled, breathless, “—how is your family?”
“My family?” Corinne drew a blank. “Why, the last I knew, they were fine.”
What an awkward encounter. Corinne stood miserably balancing a heavy grocery bag in the crook of one arm and her catchall tote bag crammed with library books in the other. Her parka hood had slipped so she had to tilt her head at an angle to look at Lydia Bethune; if they were to continue their conversation, she really should lower the hood, out of courtesy. Oh but she yearned to escape! Lydia had dredged up another subject, a mutual woman acquaintance who’d just had a cyst removed from a breast, and Corinne murmured yes Florence was lucky it had been benign, trying to back off, edging toward the door. She glanced at her watch and gave a little cry of alarm—“Oh, my God! The parking meter!”
So Corinne made her escape, probably rather rudely. She heard Lydia Bethune call “Good-bye” after her but she did no more than waggle a hand, not glancing back.
Now what had that been all about? She discovered she’d been perspiring inside the nylon parka. Damp circles the size of silver dollars had formed on the palms of her hands.
Not those kind of people. We’re not!
Everyone and everything associated with the Mt. Ephraim Country Club made Corinne uneasy. And when she was uneasy she was resentful, even angry.
She hadn’t wanted to join, of course. It had all been Michael Sr.’s idea.
Already Michael belonged to the Mt. Ephraim Chamber of Commerce, where for years he was one of the younger, more vigorous and more active members, and he belonged to the philantrophic-minded if not very effectual Mt. Ephraim Odd Fellows Association, and he belonged to the Chautauqua Sportsmen’s Club for “social and business” reasons, but for more years than he would have wished to acknowledge (at least fifteen) he’d wanted very badly to be invited to join the Mt. Ephraim Country Club which was the most “selective”—the most “prestigious”—certainly the most expensive—of all; where the richer, more prominent and influential of local citizens belonged, some of whom Michael Mulvaney did in fact count as friends, or anyway friendly acquaintances—the Boswells, the Mercers, the MacIntyres, the Spohrs, the Lundts, the Pringles, the Breuers, the Bethunes. There were not many prominent families in Chautauqua County, still fewer in Mt. Ephraim, but Michael Mulvaney knew them, knew the men; they knew him, and liked him; it wasn’t really an exaggeration to claim they were all equals. This, Michael felt strongly in his heart. He deserved to be a member of the Mt. Ephraim Country Club. He deserved the privilege of playing golf there if he wished, of bringing his family to the Sunday brunch buffet, of having dinner in the elegant atrium dining room overlooking the golf course, of playing poker with like-minded friends, of watching his children play tennis on the courts, of dropping by after business hours for drinks, a cigar, in the Club’s Yankee Doodle Tap Room. Strictly for business Michael insisted, but Corinne understood this was only part of her husband’s motivation, and surely not the largest part.
Oh, she should have been more sympathetic!—Michael Mulvaney, a disowned son of a Catholic working-class family in Pittsburgh, had reimagined himself as a small-town American businessman who owned property, had money and influence, was “known” and “liked” and “respected” in his community. He’d been a loner in his late adolescence, and was now a “family man.” If he’d never be one of the wealthier citizens of Mt. Ephraim and vicinity he had a chance of becoming one of the “well-to-do”—“something of a country squire.” Or, if not quite even that, at least a friend, a friendly acquaintance, a social equal of such. At first Corinne in her awkward way tried to tease him—“Darling, aren’t we enough for you? Your family, your animals? High Point Farm and its debts?” But Michael had only grimaced, hadn’t laughed. Nor was he in a mood to be consoled when, year following year, into the 1970s, on or about March 12, the membership committee of the Club proposed its candidates for balloting, and Michael Mulvaney was overlooked.
Secretly relieved, Corinne would say, incensed, “Those snobs! Self-important, selfish snobs! What do you care? We love you.”
Michael would only shrug irritably, and turn away. No kisses from Whistle right now, no hugs and jokes. No thanks.
Corinne would glimpse her husband outside, in his work clothes, lugging bales of hay, buckets of water into the horse barn. Exercising the horses in the back pasture, with the boys. He’d rise early to clean out the horses’ stalls, feed and bathe and groom the horses—these arduous, least-favorite chores the responsibility, of course, of his children. But there Michael was, working off nervous energy in the barn. He’s that hurt, that furious Corinne thought, shocked. It struck her to the heart, left her weak, disoriented, that, to Michael Mulvaney, after all, his family wasn’t quite enough.
Then, March 1973, a call came, from the Club, followed by an absurdly self-important registered letter, and Michael Mulvaney was in.
(No secret that Michael’s sponsor was his old friend and business associate, a fellow officer in the Odd Fellows, Morton Pringle. Mort who was chief counsel for the First Bank of Chautauqua and who’d hired Mulvaney Roofing for work he’d admired, and recommended to his well-to-do friends. One day, Michael would inadvertently learn that his candidacy at the Mt. Ephraim Country Club had not been unanimously supported. Out of deference to Mort Pringle, and because Michael was, in fact, a well-liked person in Mt. Ephraim, no one had actually blackballed him; but several members hadn’t voted. They’d gone onto the record as abstains.)
Corinne wasn’t happy about the invitation, still less about her husband’s excitement at receiving it, at last. Where was his pride? Where was his character? How could he want to waste his hard-earned money (twenty-five hundred dollars for “induction fees,” six hundred dollars annual dues!) when High Point Farm’s expenditures were relentless, not to mention the children, a family of four healthy active children costs. “We’ve gotten along for almost twenty years without belonging to the Mt. Ephraim Country Club—why join now? Who cares?” Corinne demanded.
Clearly, Michael Mulvaney cared.
Corinne, a Democrat and a liberal, the sort of Protestant who allowed no one to stand between her and God, argued, furthermore, that the Club was un-American, unchristian, immoral—“For whites only! And all male! Women can belong only as adjuncts to their spouses or male relatives!”
“So what?” Michael said.
“So what? Don’t you understand?”
“Corinne, it’s a private club. It’s friends who’ve gotten together, who want a clubhouse, essentially. When the Club was founded, in 1925, there were only twelve men—they were friends. And, eventually—”
“Stop! I can’t believe what I’m hearing! You, Michael Mulvaney—a bigot. A sexist. A snob.”
“What the hell, Corinne?—I can’t join the Women’s Garden Club, or the Women’s League of Voters—”
“League of Women Voters—”
“I can’t join a Negro fraternity, or the Knights of Columbus. There are exclusively Jewish country clubs, there are Italian-American clubs, what’s the problem?”
“It’s un-American, that’s the problem!”
“It’s American, in fact: all kinds of organizations, private clubs, even secret clubs. It’s people making their own decisions about who they want as friends.”
“‘Friends’?—it’s as much about keeping people out. It’s cruel, it’s discriminatory. Look how they kept you waiting for years—how hurt you were. How you tried, you campaigned—”
Heatedly Michael said, “Never mind about me! We’re talking principles here. First principles. The right of a group of people to—”
“To exclude others, for their own self-promotion. For ‘business’ purposes. And to drink. I’ve heard tales about those country club bashes—”
“Corinne, everybody drinks. Anybody who wants to, drinks. Our friends drink.”
“Your friends drink—”
“They’re your friends, too! Drinking is hardly a monopoly of the country club set.”
“Michael, this ridiculous club discriminates against two members of your own family! Marianne and I, being ‘female,’ can’t even enter by the front door! We have to enter by a side door, through the ‘family entrance.’ Were you aware of that?”
So they argued. For days, for a week. The quarrel would flame up, then subside; like a treacherous marshland fire it would seem to have been extinguished, when it had merely gone underground. Corinne sulked, and Corinne was sarcastic, and Corinne was morally, spiritually dismayed. She knew, she knew she was right! But the children weren’t eager to come to her defense. And there was Marianne’s question, put to Corinne one day with dazzling simplicity: “Mom, don’t you want Dad to be happy? We do.”
For even Marianne wanted to belong to the Mt. Ephraim Country Club. Especially Marianne—so many of her friends’ families belonged.
So Corinne, who was a good sport after all, bought a CONGRATULATIONS! card for Michael, got the kids to sign it, and added smudged paw prints with dogs’ and cats’ names attached; added a warning, in parenthesis, A woman convinced against her will is of the same opinion still. She signed the card LOVE ALWAYS YOUR ‘WHISTLE’ and dropped it off with a bottle of champagne at Mulvaney Roofing.
So Michael Mulvaney was inducted into the Mt. Ephraim Country Club one evening in May 1973. And quickly became an involved, active member, generous with his time, eager to serve on committees, offer his practical advice on such matters as building maintenance, plumbing, public relations. You would think your father is running for political office, Corinne observed dryly to the children, he’s become such a handshaker. Watching affable Michael Mulvaney, smiling, gregarious, in his navy blue blazer with brass nautical buttons and his bright plaid necktie, moving about in the atrium dining room at Sunday brunch, greeting friends, being introduced to potential friends, shaking hands, laughing, flirting with women who clearly adored him—all very innocently of course (of course!)—Corinne had to acknowledge with a sigh that the Mt. Ephraim Country Club made her husband glow with pleasure in a way that High Point Farm, for all its beauty, no longer could.
Am I disappointed with him?—oh just a little.
Corinne did admire the Club, from a distance: the colonial-style building of fieldstone and spotless white clapboard, overlooking the golf course of gently rolling, sculpted-looking hills; the fir-lined gravel driveway with the ominous sign at the entrance: MT. EPHRAIM COUNTRY CLUB PRIVATE MEMBERS AND GUESTS ONLY Of course, there were numerous decent people who belonged, people she knew well, and liked very much, as they liked her, quite apart from the Club. It was just that she couldn’t overcome her prejudice against it. People whom she could respect outside the Club she did not, somehow could not, respect there. How would Jesus Christ fit in, in such a milieu? Would He have been blackballed for membership, year after year? Over time, Corinne visited the Club less and less frequently, and then only when Michael insisted. “Oh Mom, you’re not trying,” her shrewd children objected. But why should she try? Whom was Corinne Mulvaney hoping to impress, or deceive? True, women like Lydia Bethune were friendly enough to her, but probably (almost certainly) out of pity; she felt their eyes crawling over her, assessing. Who was Corinne Mulvaney but a gawky farm wife trying to pass herself off as someone she wasn’t; someone who belonged in overalls, jeans, polyester slacks or shorts, not cotton pastels, linen skirts, “chic” black, shoes with ridiculous heels and fussy little straps. She was miserable at the Mt. Ephraim Country Club, couldn’t her family see? Michael compounded her misery by insisting she was a “damned attractive woman” except why didn’t she have her hair cut and styled? wear a little makeup, at least lipstick? smile more? buy some new clothes? Marianne said, “Mom, you’re just as nice-looking, nicer-looking, than any of the women your age at the Club.” When the other Mulvaneys laughed at this innocent slight, Corinne the loudest, Marianne quickly said, blushing, “I mean, Mom, you look just as nice as anybody. You do.”
The Mulvaneys, a family who loved to laugh, hooted with laughter at such a notion.
Thinking of such things, smiling and grimacing to herself, Corinne wasn’t prepared for—yet again!—Lydia Bethune appearing suddenly before her. Corinne came to a dead stop on the sidewalk, staring at the woman. What was this? What on earth did Mrs. Bethune the doctor’s wife want with her? So commanding a presence in her russet rabbit-fur, her sleek frosted-blond hair, glowing makeup. She was smiling uneasily at Corinne, knowing how close Corinne was to bolting past her. “Corinne, please?—let me tell you—about your daughter?”
Corinne stared at Lydia Bethune, blinking. Her luminous blue eyes had gone hard and blank and opaque and she was gripping her packages and tote bag as if fearing the other woman might snatch them from her. “What—what about Marianne?”
Lydia Bethune swallowed. “Well, I don’t know, exactly,” she said apologetically. “It’s just something Priscilla mentioned and I—I’ve been seeing her, by accident, not in school. I mean, during school hours. I’m wondering—is anything wrong?”
Corinne asked evenly, “Where have you been seeing Marianne?”
“In St. Ann’s Church. You know—on Bayberry. Yesterday afternoon, when I dropped by. And I think today—I mean, I happened to see her go in, this morning around eleven.” Lydia tried to smile at Corinne, one mother of an adolescent girl to another, but the pink-glossy smile disintegrated like wet tissue. The women regarded each other with raw, perplexed eyes.
Corinne bit her lip, and said, trying to keep her voice from shaking, “Well. Thanks, Lydia. I do appreciate it.”
Driving to St. Anne’s Corinne thought, calmly So this is how it will be revealed to me: by a stranger.
Memory blurs, that’s the point. If memory didn’t blur you wouldn’t have the fool’s courage to do things again, again, again that tear you apart.
Labor was the right word for it. You surely do labor. Like pushing a wagon loaded with cement blocks uphill, three wheels stuck. Grunting, sweating, straining like a sow to give birth as it’s called. There came a high-pitched roaring, and a muscular contortion not to be believed like pulling yourself inside out, like you’re a glove. And then suddenly, after how many hours it would always seem suddenly, a rushing out of the tunnel into blazing, blinding light.
Here I come, here I come, oh! here! I! COME!
Michael Mulvaney her husband grinning and gritting his big teeth, droplets of sweat gleaming on his face like shiny transparent beetles. Oh his bloodshot eyes! No sleep for eighteen hours! Push! push! push! uuuuhhh! he and the nurse were urging like demented cheerleaders. Veins stood out on the young husband’s forehead, close to bursting. Corinne I love you, love love love you, that’s my girl thatagirl! that-a-girl! PUSH!
Then suddenly it was out of her, and in others’ rubber-gloved hands. The baby!—she’d almost forgotten, that was the point of this ordeal wasn’t it, so much fuss—the baby, squirming and red-slippery as a sea creature, incongruously lifted into raw air. Where did so much lung power, so much volume, come from? What if the baby had begun to wail like that, that loud, inside the womb? Corinne laughed at the thought, drunk and dazed. Jammed her scraped knuckles against her teeth and laughed, wept behind her hand. Oh God, am I worthy? Are You sure You didn’t make a mistake?
Four times Corinne would give birth. And never grow wiser. In fact each time it would seem more preposterous—she’d done so little, and reaped so much. Were she and Michael Mulvaney really good enough, strong enough, smart enough, deep enough to be entrusted with babies?
That first time, in the Rochester hospital, March 1954, euphoria swept over her like a drug. Red-slippery baby in her arms: a boy. A boy! Michael Jr.! (In fact, was Corinne drugged? What was it—Demerol? She’d been brave and brash asking the doctor please not to sedate her, please no thanks but maybe with her anxious husband’s complicity he’d dosed her anyway on the sly? guessing it would be a protracted labor he’d hoped to maintain her screams at a respectable decibel level, was that it?) And there was her husband, her Michael Mulvaney she’d married after only a few months of knowing him, loving him more than her life, her life she’d have tossed into the air confident he’d catch it, yes and she’d given birth to this astonishing kicking-crying boy-baby for his sake.
Joking amid the sticky bedclothes, lifting the tiny baby in her arms, for always they were great kidders, a comic duo to crack up the nurses—“See what you made me do, Michael Mulvaney!”
They were married, it was quite legal. But Corinne had removed her plain, worn-gold, pawnshop-purchased wedding band months before, worried she’d never get it off her swelling fingers. The only mother in the maternity ward with no ring, just—fingers. So Michael couldn’t resist quipping, loud enough to be heard through the room, “Well. Guess I’ll have to marry you now, kid, eh?”
The looks on those strangers’ faces.
So Corinne was a new mother: slightly touched by new-mother craziness. She hoped to dignify herself by commenting sagely to the doctor (always, you want to impress them: men of authority) about “the sucking reflex”—“the bonding instinct”—and similar clinical-anthropological phenomena. She wanted to impress this man she hardly knew, she’d been a college student after all, even if it was only at Fredonia State, and she’d dropped out between her junior and senior years to get married. She wasn’t some immature girl like others in the maternity ward with her—seventeen, eighteen years old, just kids. She, Corinne Mulvaney, was a mature young wife of almost twenty-three.
Plucking at the doctor’s sleeve as he was about to move on, “Oh! doctor, wait!—one thing!” and he’d smiled at her breathlessness, “Yes, Corinne?” and she’d said in a rush, stammering, “Y—You don’t think God made a mistake, do you? That He might change His mind, and take our baby back?”
Marianne, the third-born, the sole daughter, was to be the miracle baby.
You only get one of them, once. If you’re lucky. But most people aren’t lucky. (So you mustn’t gloat, of course.) Corinne and Michael Mulvaney seemed to understand, though they were still young parents when their daughter was born, in their twenties. This was in June 1959.
Already, they had two boys. Two boys! But where Michael Jr. and Patrick Joseph had been screamers and thrashers virtually from birth, strong-willed, stubborn, crying through the night in a contest of wills (“Pick me up! Nurse me! I know you’re there!”), their intransigent male selves assertive as their tiny, floppy penises, Marianne was sweet and amiable, an angel-baby, a friendly baby. A baby, as Michael Sr. observed, who actually seemed to be on our side. Within two weeks of coming to live with them at High Point Farm, this baby slept seven hours through a night, allowing her exhausted mother and father to sleep seven hours, too. Corinne and Michael grinned at each other. “Why didn’t we try one of these, right away?”
Not that they weren’t crazy about their sons, too. They were, but in a different way.
Boy-babies: unpredictable surges of animal-energy, even in the crib. Mauling and bruising Corinne’s milk-heavy breasts. With sly goo-goo eyes Love me all the same! When they slept, they did sleep hard. Especially Patrick, in his first six months. But more often there were thumps, crashes, the sound of breaking glass. Earsplitting heartrending baby-shrieks. Kicking and splashing bathwater, refusing food, refusing to be diapered, flush-faced, flailing like beached little sharks.
Mikey-Junior, the firstborn, the biggest baby (nine pounds, two ounces) would come to seem in time the most distant: he’d been born, not in Mt. Ephraim, but in Rochester; in a “big-city” hospital; brought back to a rented duplex in an almost-slummy neighborhood near downtown, not to High Point Farm like the other babies. This seemed to cast him, in retrospect, in a kind of gritty urban light; amid traffic noises, frequent sirens, the isolated and mysterious shouts of unknown men in the middle of the night. Sometimes it almost seemed that Mikey had been born to strangers—young, clumsy, frightened parents who hadn’t yet decided exactly whether they wanted to have children; whether all this they’d set into motion by their passion for each other was serious.
Michael Jr., Mikey-Junior, Big Guy, one day to be called “Mule” and “Number Four”: all boy as a certain kind of sausage might be said to be all sausage. Uncanny how he’d resembled his young (twenty-six, and scared) father, already in the delivery room: the puggish nose, the squarish jaw, the close-set warm-chocolatey-brown eyes, the dark-red curls like wood shavings. The belligerent mouth that turned, when kissed, to sugar. Within his first year alone Mikey got his head so stuck between stair railings (in the rented duplex) his terrified father had had to remove one, to free him. He’d snatched at and trapped in his hand a bumblebee (yes, he was stung); tackled a young cat and was scratched above his right eye; hung on his mother so much she’d begun to be lopsided, with a chronic aching neck. His first words, in comical imitation of his parents’ admonitions, were Mikey! Baby! and Noooo! As soon as he grew teeth he used them: gnawing at newspapers like a hungry rodent, gnawing at his crib railings, biting through a toaster cord—fortunately, the toaster hadn’t been plugged in at the time. Very quickly, being mechanically-minded like his father, he learned to switch on the radio, the TV, the washing machine; to unplug the refrigerator and start it defrosting; to pick his father’s jacket pockets for loose change, which with gleeful squeals he’d toss rolling and bouncing across the floor. More dangerously, he learned to turn on stove burners and the oven, to strike matches into flame. He was comically aggressive in “protecting” his Mommy when visitors dropped by. Once the Mulvaneys moved to the country (what a wonderland for an active child, the many rooms in the old house, the outbuildings, fields and woods) he cultivated a habit of escaping parental vigilance, climbing out of his playpen and wandering off, sniffing like a dog, inexhaustibly curious. Always, Corinne was calling, “Mikey! Mikey where are you!” and trotting after him. Once, aged two, he drifted out of her sight when she was working in the garden and disappeared for ninety minutes—only to be discovered peacefully asleep in a dark, stiflingly hot corner of the hay barn by his distraught parents. Mikey-Junior was as finicky an eater (Corinne joked) as Porky Pig. Indeed, he had a cast-iron stomach: if he didn’t vomit immediately after gobbling down some problematic food (for instance, rancid dog food) he digested it with no evident side effects. He weathered falls, cuts, bruises, insect bites, poison ivy and poison oak. Bouts of furious weeping passed swiftly as storm clouds scudding overhead, no sooner gone than forgotten. Like an amphibious creature, he seemed already to know how to swim before, at the age of three, he was led gently out into shallow water at Wolf’s Head Lake, hand in hand with his Dad. By the age of five, he was diving unassisted into the lake, nimble and monkeylike in imitation of Michael Sr. (at that time almost-slim, boyish, with powerful shoulders, arms and strongly muscled legs that propelled him through water hell-bent as a torpedo). A sunny, uncomplaining, good-natured child—“but, wow!” as Corinne so frequently sighed, “—two handfuls.”
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