Saturday, September 05, 2009
I Should Be Laughing: Barbara
In the spring of 1958, when newlyweds Barbara and Billy Seaton, William to his mother-in-law, never Bill, and definitely not Billy, saw Beal’s Landing for the first time, it looked almost exactly as it had in the late nineteenth century, and still does today. Nothing more than a clump of silhouetted shops and huddles cottages scattered haphazardly in a foggy field above the sea.
Seated in the back, glancing out the window with dead eyes, Barbara Pierce Seaton, new mother, newlywed, barely out of her teens, considered the fog an omen of what lie ahead for her; a life of gray, no color whatsoever. Everything was bleak; the fog, the town itself—Beal’s Landing sounded like a place in New England—and everything else, most importantly, her life. All of it was colorless; the sky above, running from horizon to hilltops, as well as the clouds that surged up from the sea below. Barbara heard the ocean berate the cliffs angrily; she understood that sense of hatred, for it was how she felt about her mother. Her sentiments, though, unlike those of the sea, went unvoiced.
Aged shingles, stinking of salt and wetness, rot and loneliness, covered all of the buildings, save the church and the gas station, and there was then, as now, a row of houses on the Beach Road above the cove. Fast houses from a time when Beal’s Landing was a logging settlement, furnishing timber for, what seemed, was an ever-burning San Francisco. Lumberjacks needed the diversions of liquor and women to keep them on the job during the damp, dull winters. Every building appeared lifeless, except one.The Methodist church wasn’t bleak and drab, nor did it reek of dankness and decay. In fact, it was as newly arrived to The Landing—which is what the townies dubbed their home—as the Seaton family. The clapboards bore a fresh coat of whitewash, which lent the building an aura of light, a halo, and the entire area smelled of sawdust and fresh oak. The congregation had erected a picket fence, standard for California coastal villages hoping to mirror their New England counterparts, around the property and virgin sod sprouted from the sandy soil.
Irene Pierce’s Buick Special, the first in recent years, as far as she was concerned, to be a decent model—no fins on the back as though it were a rocket ship destined for Mars, although the interior was red with a matching stripe outside—cruised between the pumps of the Phillips 66 on the edge of town. The attendant, dressed in a crisp beige uniform, a tie knotted securely around his neck and a cap placed properly atop his head, promptly jogged out to the black sedan.
“Fill’er up, Ma’am?”
Irene nodded through the closed window, and while the attendant pumped the gas, cleaned the windows and checked under the hood, Billy got out to have a cigarette. Flipping up the collar of his sports coat to stave off the chill, he pulled a thin gold cigarette case out of an inside pocket, then looked around at The Landing; through it, was a more accurate statement. Even then, it was only blocks from end to end, from the highway to the fields at the brink of the Pacific. Dewy grass layered the meadow, the droplets glistened crystalline in the slender rays of sunlight drizzling from the clouds. Facing the beauty of the sea, and the way the sun amused itself on the water, Billy frowned. The rolling fields gave the illusion of running on without end, and he wondered what he was doing, married to a woman he scarcely knew, and moving hundreds of miles away from everything, everyone, he ever cared about; with a baby daughter no less.
Inside the car, as the attendant wiped the windshield dry, Irene Pierce watched her son-in-law’s movements. Without taking her eyes from him, she spoke: “You must make this work, Barbara Jean.” Her reedy thin voice decreed, so full of itself. “Now that you’ve gotten yourself into this…situation…you must make it work.”
“Yes, Mother,” Barbara sighed, a declaration of defeat. Her own gaze had followed her husband from the car, and she watched the puffs of smoke spewing up and away from his mouth when he exhaled; they were as vague as her feelings for him. Although she had wanted him from the moment she saw him, that day he came to the house in a suit and tie, toting a bouquet of roses for a blind date, now that she had him, she didn’t know what to do. She didn’t know what to do with him, with their baby girl, with the house her mother had given them in this godforsaken town. She wanted Billy Seaton because he belonged to someone else; someone who always got what she wanted. Well, now she had him….
The house in Pasadena, though not especially large, was meticulously maintained; Irene Pierce made certain of that. Gardeners were hired to mow the yards and tend to the flowerbeds and, though rarely used, they also cleaned the pool, a necessary status symbol for Southern California in the forties and fifties. Although she had no live-in help—even she thought that pretentious—Irene employed a woman who came in to clean twice weekly; a woman whose husband serviced the car, kept it washed and waxed until it gleamed.
Lemon and avocado trees surrounded the house, a Greene and Greene design, which sat atop a hill on a large expanse of lawn. On the veranda, beneath a wide overhang, among the several pieces of Adirondack furniture, there were always baskets of fresh flowers from Irene’s gardens, and on top of a stout pole in the center of the lawn, an American flag was proudly unfurled every holiday. Erich Pierce, a decorated colonel, died in Germany during the last Great War, and Irene honored his memory religiously.It was to this house, this painstakingly detailed house, that Billy Seaton came to see his fiancé before she returned to Vassar. He brought a box of chocolates, red roses, and a gold locket enclosing his picture. Most of his weekly pay had been spent on the gifts, but Billy was in love with this girl and would have done anything to please her. In his dress blues—she loved to see him in uniform—Billy strode through the gate and saw her in the window.
Soft blond curls framed her face and her eyes were laughing, as always; she seemed to be every color ever named and every musical note ever played. As she waved from the second floor window he saw the diamond ring he had slipped onto her finger, once Missus Pierce had given her blessing. It was a plain ring, simple; Billy knew, even before he saw Irene Pierce’s frown, but he promised something more appropriate when he had the money.
“I’ll do anything for her, Missus Pierce,” he vowed at dinner that summer night, holding a glass of iced tea in his hands so she wouldn’t notice them trembling. “She’ll never want for a thing.”
Irene smiled at her future son-in-law, at William as she called him. He was so much like Erich, handsome and smart, with a bright military future ahead of him. Yet, hers was a dispassionate smile, even in times of sheer bliss; it was a shroud of propriety and good breeding, hiding the fact that she was never a happy woman. Pleasure was a veneer Irene Pierce wore only when deemed necessary, for joy, true joy, was an emotion for which she had no use. It was frivolous, pointless; a waste of time. She had other things to consider: standing in the community, for one, keeping up an appearance that reflected positively on her dead husband.
Still, she smiled at William, and her oldest daughter, sitting demurely at the far end of the table. She certainly was her father’s child, this girl for whom smiling was effortless, for whom laughter was ever-present. This was a girl who would much rather dance that walk, sing than talk. Irene smiled at this girl, and then turned toward her youngest daughter, brooding and angry, sitting across from William. Irene looked at her two girls, so different from one another; Barbara, dark and moody, jealous, while Patricia was prized and lively. Patricia was hope; Barbara was despair.
“Do you love this man?” Irene asked her daughter, raising her glass of champagne in toast. “Do you love him, Patricia?”
Irene tapped the horn sharply to alert William that she was ready; the harsh sound bleated through the fog like a wounded animal before dying in the mist. Billy dropped his cigarette in the sand and stubbed it out with the toe of his shoe, then, dutifully, he marched back to the somber car, to the three women waiting on him; one of whom he barely knew; one of whom he could scarcely tolerate; one of whom was an innocent. Sliding onto the red leather seat beside Irene, he pulled the door closed with a thud, suffering another one of her disapproving looks; he chose to ignore it. His eyes were lost in the fog that gathered around the black car; the windows were steaming up on the inside, drizzling with dew outside.
“So? Where’s this house?” he asked, and the car roared off through the low clouds like a black bullet through soft tissue.
“Barbara Jean?” Irene cried from the foyer, hat and gloves in hand, her pocketbook lying on a side table. “You best be getting up this instant, young lady! There is a lot to do today. BARBARA JEAN!”Upstairs, locked inside her bathroom, Barbara sat on the floor where it was cool, her back to the commode, a damp cloth pressed to her forehead. For now, the vomiting had ended, but her skin still felt clammy, her eyes pulsed, and her stomached roiled. She could not tell her mother that this would be the third time in a week she would take a sick day, and that her boss at the museum, a chopstick of a woman who wore her hair tight and her eyebrows arched, had suggested she find employment elsewhere. But Barbara couldn’t look for another job, not now. No matter how menial Mother called her job… “A museum gift shop, Barbara? This is why you left university? To be a salesgirl?”…she would not quit until she had enough money for a place of her own, something downtown or near the beach, anywhere other than Pasadena where she and Billy could be alone.
Eyes closed, she rubbed the now warm cloth over her forehead, down her nose and across her mouth. Reaching down she unbuttoned her sweater and pushed it aside. Today there were two buttons on her skirt she couldn't fasten; last week it was one. “Please don’t let this happen,” she muttered. Then, believing she could stand, Barbara pushed herself off the floor, grabbing the lip of the sink to steady her ascent. Instantly her stomach turned over and she dropped to her knees and lowered her head over the bowl.
“Don’t let this happen to me.”
“There’s the market.” Irene tapped a honed fingernail against the driver’s window. When the car slithered past Dawson’s Market, drawing stares from shoppers, a young boy of no more than ten, Jerry Dawson they would soon learn, stood on the sidewalk, stared at them, resting his chin atop a broom handle until a voice inside yelled at him to get to work. “I’ve already checked, Barbara,” she glanced in the mirror, holding her eyes in the small glass rectangle until her daughter looked up, “and they deliver anywhere in town.
“That’s the stationary store.” Irene aimed a finger through the windshield. “And the florist, although this one doesn’t have as nice a selection as the one in Fort Bragg. This one is far too common, Bar—.”
“What are those?” Eyeing a row of tumbledown buildings at bluff’s edge, Billy interrupted Irene. The four unbalanced structures, two stories each, had balconies facing the street, though black shades covered every window.
“Fast houses.” Irene sniffed.
“Fast houses?” Billy asked, at once intrigued. He had no idea from where Irene’s vocabulary originated, she used such old-fashioned terms, but it always peaked his interest. “What’s a fast house?”
“Bars, William. Brothels. Certainly not the kinds of establishments I would expect you to frequent, not with a new wife and child—.”
“I understand that, Irene,” Billy told her, knowing that by cutting her off, and using her first name when the instructions were to call her Mother, that he was once again risking rebuke. “I was merely curious.”
Irene sniffed and stared straight ahead. The remainder of their short drive through Beal’s Landing, down the three blocks to the end of town where the road curved to meet the Shoreline Highway, as well as the ride atop the cliffs themselves, was committed in silence. Irene scowled at the hood of the car while Billy studied the dull green meadow that seemed to run on and on, full of the remnants of long-dead houses; he wouldn’t ask about those, however, he would remain quiet. Silence also spilled over the back seat, where Barbara sat watching her hands and thinking, “Please don’t let this happen.”
Outside the enormous picture window, working quietly as per her instructions, five Mexican day laborers, brought to the neighborhood each morning by truck and then carted away at nightfall, strung the house in Christmas lights and hung garland on each porch column. Irene couldn’t be bothered watching the men work though; she was far too busy glaring at the couple sitting before her. Her eyes pivoted from one to the other—Barbara, three months pregnant, and William, who had admitted to fathering the bastard child.
“Let me say again, I thank God Patricia isn’t coming home for the holidays.” The very picture of decorum, Irene Pierce perched regally in a wing chair beside the fireplace, her feet crossed properly at the ankles, never higher, and her hands folded in her lap. “What do you plan on doing about this?”
“I was going to—.” Her daughter muttered slowly.
“I am not speaking to you, Barbara Jean.” Irene lashed out, though the only muscles to move were the tiny ones encircling her mouth; the rest of her face remained utterly calm, on the off chance that one of the workmen might look inside. She could not take the risk of having them spread rumor and innuendo throughout the neighborhood, telling anyone and everyone that there was something amiss in the Pierce house; she could not tolerate that. Leveling steely blue eyes at her daughter, she snarled viciously, “Understand me when I tell you that you have no say at all in this matter, Barbara Jean.”
Giving her daughter, who sat back in the sofa as though trying to descend into the cushions, no chance to respond, Irene directed her black stare onto William Seaton. He had opted to sit far from Barbara, even though it was evident that, at one time, he’d gotten very close to her. Now, he sat in the easy chair at the far end of the sofa, facing the firing squad of Irene Pierce.
“Well, ma’am,” he began, politely apologetic, shifting his gaze from the hat in his lap to Irene, to the fire, to Barbara, and then quickly back to the hat. “We thought Barbara might go up north to have the baby and then give it—.” Billy stopped.
“No,” Irene snorted, her ruby red lips curled in sarcasm. Turning momentarily, she motioned to one of the workers that she would like the wreaths hung higher on the porch columns, and then went back to William, the smile hardened. “You will not give this child away as though it was some unwanted piece of garbage. As sickened as I am by what the two of you have done, to Patricia, to me, this family, her father’s memory, I will not allow this child to be given away like candy on Halloween. You’ve made a mistake and you will set it right.”
“Missus Pierce,” Billy said, afraid to look directly at her. “We thought it would be best if—.”
“William,” Irene half-laughed. “The fact of the matter is that you haven’t thought at all. That has been your problem all along. If, just once, you stopped to think, then perhaps you would have kept your pants zipped and your…your hands off my daughter.”
Easing back in her chair, Irene watched the lights outside the glass flicker on and off as the workmen tested the strings. A row of poinsettias, as well as two Christmas trees, one for the foyer and a large one for the living room, were to arrive from a downtown florist later in the day. Even though she remained seated, in that wing chair, with her legs crossed stiffly at the ankles, her hands laced into her lap, planning a future for Barbara and William, while disregarding their wishes, Irene made mental notes to herself. There was a Christmas goose to order; one of the workmen had to retrieve the boxes of ornaments from the attic; invitations for her annual holiday party must be addressed and sent out.
“You will marry Barbara as soon as possible—.”
“Mother!!” Barbara wailed at the precise moment Billy shouted, “Missus Pierce!”
Irene went on as though the pair hadn’t uttered a sound. “—in a civil ceremony, of course. It wouldn’t look good at all to have you marry in the church so suddenly. Everyone would know. You will be married by Judge Corbett—I think he can do it this weekend—and then you will leave town. I’ll take care of Patricia. I’ll say that you’ve asked for a transfer, William, and left without a word.” Irene was pleased with the sense of order she was creating; everything fell into place rather easily and more quickly that she anticipated. A few phone calls, a withdrawal or two from the bank, a meeting with a realtor, and all her troubles would go away. Irene smirked, and stared at her daughter.
“As for you, Barbara. I think it best that Patricia know nothing of this…pregnancy. It would kill her to learn of your betrayal. I’ll write her that you and I have had a falling out over your refusal to finish your studies. I’ll tell her that you’ve moved away, perhaps to San Francisco. I will not have either one of you hurt Patricia, so neither of you shall see her, or speak to her, again.”
“Mother? She’s my sister! You can’t make me—.”
“I can!” Irene replied angrily. “It’s apparent you don’t care about her, given what you’ve done…you will not see her again! Am I clear?”
“Missus Pierce,” Billy interrupted. “I am so sorry for what’s happened. Really. But I can’t marry….” He took his eyes and turned them toward the frail, pale, girl sitting mutely on the couch, the ashen eyes turned down, the skin moist with perspiration. “I...I’m sorry, Barbara…Missus Pierce…but I, uh…I don’t love her.”
“Of course you don’t, William. I never said that you did. Nevertheless, you put your hands on her and now you will marry her. Thanks to my late husband, I enjoy many close friendships with influential men at the air base. Think of how it would look if anyone found out about you fathering a child and then suggesting an…abortion. Think how those men might react to your running out on a girl and her baby. I doubt a dishonorable discharge is what you had in mind, William; it certainly isn’t the reputation one would care to have for the rest of one’s life.”
Now, smiling frostily, for it was the only way she knew how, Irene cocked an eyebrow at Barbara’s intended, her future son-in-law, and glanced at the brightly colored bulbs glittering along the front of her magnificent home.
Only after Irene parked the Buick near the fence, the For Sale sign still banging on the lamppost, did Barbara take her eyes from her lap and look up. The house was scarcely visible in the fog, even though it stood a short distance from the road; it was nothing more than a shapeless hulk looming grimly in the mist. A square gray box that bore a greater resemblance to the prison Mother had meant for them than a home; a punishment of solitude and distance.
Barbara was unaware he had gotten out of the car, when suddenly Billy was pulling the door open; she offered a smile, for he seemed in such pain. Her weak grin struggled to apologize for that one night when it was too hot in the valley, and they’d had too much champagne, for that one time when she stopped caring about what was expected, what was right, and had done what she wanted. Her eyes, filled with sorrow, stared at her husband, her sister’s former fiancé, but Billy only extended his hand to her, to help her from the car. For his part, however, his face and mannerisms held no recriminations; only resignation registered in Billy’s eyes, a confession of guilt, and acceptance of his punishment.
Without waiting for either one of them, Irene began her march on the house, the low heels of her shoes clacking along the stone pathway. Rising into the cold air, peering over the roof of the car—Billy had already left her side to get the baby—Barbara traced her mother’s path. At first critically visible, all blackness and angles, except for a scratch of crimson on a crooked, unsmiling mouth, Irene soon melted into a ghastly demon writhing in the foggy tendrils. Murky air swirled in the wake she left behind until she settled on the porch, opening the door slightly to reveal a large, dark, vacant house behind her. Staring into the blackness, Barbara somehow hoped the house would swallow her mother whole, so she and Billy might end this charade.
“Barbara?” Irene called with what, for her, amounted to cheerfulness, while tugging the gloves from her fingertips. She plucked the pin from her hair to remove her hat and veil. “Come inside. I know it seems dour, what with all the fog and the chill, but it truly is a magnificent home. There is nothing like it on the entire coast.”
That spring of 1958, during their first week in the house, Billy and Barbara busily accepted packages from Pasadena. Wooden crates arrived early every morning, bursting with fine china and crystal; sterling silver pieces, pots, pans, toaster and blender; stair runners and throw rugs of the finest quality, some new, some hand-me-downs from Irene’s home. A settee, an exact replica of the one at the foot of her mother’s bed, was placed in the back parlor for Barbara’s afternoon naps. A crib was set up in what Irene dubbed the “maid’s room.” Brawny deliverymen carried lamps and tables into the house, while the Post Office delivered watercolors and whatnots. Candy dishes, serving bowls, tea sets. Linens and towels; napkins and napkin rings. Cookware. Curtains, pillows, books, clocks.
Each and every carton and crate, the wooden trunks and collections of artwork, arrived at the house at the end of Skeleton Road bearing a card as though the boxes and bundles and chests were wedding gifts. Yet these treasures hadn’t been sent by friends and family to wish the newlyweds good luck; these gifts, all from Irene, were bars and chains to keep the couple in Beal’s Landing—a two-day car trip from home—and to keep them from contacting Patricia.
“Make a home for your husband, Barbara.” Irene wrote on each package and card, and Barbara did exactly that, spending the entire spring unpacking the odds-and-ends her mother had sent, tending to her baby daughter, setting up her house and trying to love her husband. Good girl.
Billy did his part, too, throwing himself into the job Irene secured for him through one of her numerous military connections. And even though he was away frequently, in Southeast Asia, for months at a time, he wrote often and brought home colorful gifts for his daughter and elegant presents for Barbara. The perfect airman, and when he was home, the ideal father. So much so, that in 1961 he received Airman of the Year honors and the base sent out a photographer to take glossy, staged and posed, eight-by-tens, of Seaton family togetherness. Each time Billy received any recognition from the base, in fact, even before he himself learned of the honor, a congratulatory package from Irene would arrive. A color television set; a reel-to-reel tape player; dolls for the baby.How Billy loved that child, and yet how he tried to forget the way she had come into his life. He just loved her, and spent all his free time with her, feeding her in the mornings while Barbara slept late, and each night, still in his brilliant orange fatigues from work, as Barbara fussed in the kitchen—the right forks, the perfect Manhattan—he headed up to the baby’s room to see his girl. It was Missus Pierce's idea, the name Irene; a constant reminder of what Billy and Barbara had done. Irene. Irene. Irene. Straight away, Billy began calling her Renny.
Over the next few years, he and Barbara settled into their respective roles—the homemaker and the breadwinner—and every time Billy went away, be it Korea or Saigon, he returned home happy to see his daughter, and perhaps even his wife. Billy and Barbara became close; if not in love, they were close. Close enough, in fact, to have another child, with a little prodding from Irene—“What’s to stop William from leaving you, Barbara? The older Irene gets, the easier it will be for him to walk away. You must have another child.”—who visited The Landing once a month, regular as clockwork, the warden checking on the inmates. As a result of Irene’s near constant interference, Harry was born in 1965, and James came along another seven years later; an itch scratched. Barbara and Billy, never in love and never meant to be, found they had created a family, against all odds. Then, Billy retired and their lives changed forever.
After some twenty years in the service, he needed a change. Each day, driving across the mountains to the base, Billy would count the wineries that sprang up from Healdsburg to Ukiah. When a buddy of his, another Master Sergeant, Joe Baker, and his wife, urged him to join them in starting a winery of their own, Billy, sensing the growing popularity of California wines, leapt at the chance. And, of course, Irene was only too happy to help; she would do anything to keep him in Beal’s Landing with Barbara and the children.
When Billy needed money to attend a school on winemaking, Irene took an extra step; she purchased a new car so he could make the trip more easily. The only thing she hadn’t counted on was the fact that Billy would attend classes in San Luis Obispo; so far from home, and so close to…. Sitting in a motel room from Monday until Friday, he grew bored and picked up the phone….“Hello Patricia.”
“Break it down if you must,” Irene directed the man from town; the man who had driven her from the small airport in Ukiah, “Break it down.”
The thickset man, Irene thought he’d said his name was Jack, although she couldn’t be bothered with remembering, asked her to step off the porch. She moved into the yard, to stand in the tall grass, stiff and brown, moist from the fog, but dead as could be, watching Jack take hold of a granite porch support, watching him raise his solid leg, then wincing as he sent it crashing into the door beside the knob. Jack gave the door three swift kicks before it cringed; another pounding and the door cracked and splintered, and burst open.
The smell of the house gushed out at them like floodwaters over a ruptured dam. Rotten food and filth, the stale air of a house closed up for many weeks. The man, Jack she thought, looked back at Irene and then began to head inside.
“NO!” She commanded and the burly hired hand instantly stopped; he turned like the obedient dog she presumed all manual laborers to be and took his place behind her in the yard. “I’ll go in alone. You can go. I’ll send a check.”
Moving guardedly toward the door, Irene recoiled as the smell grew increasingly unbearable. It had only been a matter of months since her last visit, since she delivered the new wardrobe for her granddaughter. Yet in the last weeks, every time she telephoned, the bell would ring and ring and…. Knowing that even if Barbara was… incapacitated…one of the children would pick up the receiver, Irene became alarmed.
The creaking of the hinges, loosened by Jack’s steel-toed work boots wasn’t helping her nerves; nor was the darkness and the stench, the black waves of thunderclouds rolling overhead and the surf pounding the cliff behind the house. The winds pushed her inside, the clouds overhead pummeled her, and the disgusting odor repelled her. Irene had expected the worst after Patricia’s call, but this was beyond her perceptions.
“Billy’s here, Mother,” Patricia announced, coolly and evenly. “He’s told me everything…about Barbara, the children. What you did to th—.”
“Patricia,” Irene responded in kind, her voice dignified and sedate, her mind spinning. Settling in at the desk, she took her checkbook from the drawer; this might cost her. “You need to realize what he did to you—.”
“You did it, Mother, by playing God with our lives. Pushing Barbara so hard that she had to quit the university…comparing the two of us. That’s why she hated me. That’s why I chose Vassar. It was so far away from you.” Patricia began to cry, her words growing congested and scattered, “If you…our own lives…left us alone…Billy and I might…this never would have happened!”
“Shut up Mother.” Patricia stopped weeping as she listened to Irene’s unemotional, unruffled tone. She instantly became the controlled woman her mother had shown her over the years. What Irene had done, to them, Billy, Barbara, herself…those children…sent her freefalling into anger and rage. The only way to find safety was to fight back. “For once in you life, shut up and listen!”
Setting down her pen and pushing her checkbook away, Irene leaned back in her chair; she wasn’t listening, however, she was thinking.
“Do you remember when Renny visited last summer? The day I spent with the two of you? My God, Mother! Billy’s own child and you…. I used to wonder about Barbara’s husband, about why no one ever mentioned him. I thought he…. I felt so sorry for her.”
“SHUT UP!” Patricia took a deep breath and then, strangely enough, laughed, bitterly. “Billy’s left her, Mother. He’s been staying with me for nearly a month. He told me that Barbara is out of control, that she hits the…. He’s bringing the children here—.”
“That will NEVER happen!” Irene had been silent for as long as she could stand. No one, not even her own child, would speak to her like this. Patricia was in control, but Irene would not lose this battle. “William will never take those children away from their mother. I’ll see to that. I’ll spend every dime I have to see that he loses all rights to them. Push me, Patricia, and see what I’ll do to the both of you. How dare you do this to your sister!”
Patricia still managed the last word. “How dare you do what you did to us.”
Piles of trash lay all over as Irene entered the dismal foyer; newspapers were strewn about like carpeting in a tenement, and pizza boxes and fast food containers were evidence of past meals consumed and forgotten. Irene glanced into the dining room, the light timid and shy, entering through blurry shades drawn shut. A mound of clothing, shreds actually, lay in heaps atop the dining table; narrow pieces of fabric, Irene recognized as the dresses and blouses purchased for her granddaughter, precisely shredded. There was a pyramid of sorts, crafted from empty liquor bottles, bordering the bundle of fabric. In the kitchen, the swinging door held open by a slipper shoved beneath it, the sink was filled with dishes and glasses, stacked high, filmy with dried milk and food.
A spark of light, no more than a flicker in the shadows, captured Irene’s attention and kept her from setting foot in into the kitchen. Returning to the foot of the stairs, she eyed the second floor landing, but it was all blackness and silence. The light flashed again, gray and white, alive with feeling and this time Irene realized it emanated from the back parlor. The television was on back there, although the sound was down in an effort, she assumed, to keep the silence intact. Steeling for a shock, knowing that Barbara had brought yet another black mark to the family name, Irene moved toward the black and white lights, into the back parlor.
Barbara lay curled up in an old knit bedspread, and something more disgusting than her mind could comprehend splattered the cloth; the shiny brown stains tinted the blanket an indescribable color. Barbara’s hair had neither been combed nor washed in many weeks and stood up in greasy clumps around her head. Her face, what Irene could see of it, the part that wasn’t obscured by hair and blanket, was as blank as the television screen.
“Barbara?” Irene whispered as she neared her daughter, holding her hands beneath her chin, her arms close to her sides, to avoid touching anything. The foyer had been awful, so dark and full of rubbish and those horrendous odors, but here…this room was far worse. Bottles littered the floor beside half-eaten meals; empty glasses smeared with fingerprints sat on the end tables, on top of the television. A trashcan Barbara had obviously vomited into over the course of the past weeks had tipped over, the contents vandalizing an oriental rug, pooling and hardening beneath the couch. “Barbara?”
Scarcely able to turn her head, Barbara managed to open her eyes, the lids heavy and bruised from lack of sleep. She tried to focus on the tiny rigid woman who knelt before her; her eyelids bounced, her mouth and head twitched a bit. With quivering hands, she bunched the blanket tighter under her chin and turn away from her mother.
“Barbara?” Irene said again, her tone growing louder, more severe; the panic also rising. She could not bear the thought of her daughter dying like this, alone and drunk, so filthy, her children nowhere in sight, her husband having left her for her own…. What would people think? Her fingers, reluctantly, reached for Barbara’s shoulder. “Where is Irene? Barbara?”
“Gone.” Barbara answered cleanly, picking a piece of dried food from her lip. “She ripped up the clothes you gave her yesterday…”
“No.” Irene muttered in disbelief. It had been over a month since she’d brought out the new clothes and she wondered if her granddaughter had been gone that long. “Where did she go?”
“Where is Harry? Did Harry leave you alone, too?” Irene grew angry, believing her grandchildren had left Barbara by herself all this time. Irene, she could understand; that girl was stubborn and out of control, but Harry…. Irene did not understand that boy. He rarely spoke when she visited; he stayed in his room or disappeared entirely. “Where is Harry?”
“Where else?” Barbara scowled and turned her face back to the cushion. Her voice was muffled when she spoke again, “In his roo…wif a door logged.”
Careful of where she placed her feet, Irene inched closer to the sofa; she gathered up the hem of her skirt in her fingers. “James?” He was only a baby, a year old, she thought, or maybe more. Surely, Barbara wouldn't leave him unattended. Irene pushed her face into her daughter’s. “Barbara? Where is James?”
“I don’t know.”
Yes, you do, Barbara,” Irene said firmly. She pushed the hair from her daughter’s eyes and asked again. “Where is the baby?”
“I don’t know.”
“You do know, Barbara.” Irene said stubbornly. She reached for her daughter’s face, pinched Barbara’s cheeks between her fingers and made her open her eyes. “Where is James?”
“I don’t know!” Barbara said, viciously, the words spat into her mother’s eyes. “I don’t know!” Instantly shot through with energy, Barbara sat bolt upright and tossed the vile blanket aside. “I don’t know!” Rising off the couch with a jerk, she knocked Irene to the ground, and then rushed around the room, as wobbly as a marionette gone amuck. She kicked aside the bottles and knocked over the lamps. “I don’t know!” Dropping to all fours, she peered beneath the couch, laughing. “Where is my baby?” She ran to the curtains and threw them open, the light stinging her eyes, bringing fresh tears. “Where is my baby?”
Her laughter filled the house with darkness.
Upstairs, at the far end of a darkened hallway, in a room that faced the sun-dappled Pacific, Harry listened through his door just as he had been listening to his mother shrieking for weeks now, in between the silences that stretched on equally as long. Now, however, he heard his grandmother down there, shrieking as well, begging Barbara to calm down, shouting something about a doctor, pleading to know where Barbara had put the baby.
Leaving the door, after first locking it, Harry went back to his bed. As the weeks had worn on, the endless hours of his mother’s rages and tranquility, long after Renny left the house, he gathered all the extra blankets and pillows he could find. The clean ones anyway, of which there were but a few. He took linen from Renny’s room, from his mother’s closet, only the clean ones, then carried them into his room and made a nest of sorts on his bed; a place where the shouting would not be heard, a quiet place to sleep. He stacked pillows and blankets and sheets and coverlets around the bed, leaving a hollow in the lushness; he used all the linens, save one pillow and one blanket. Those he set on the window seat, beneath the window that faced the sea, the cove, his one place in the world.
Harry slept on the window seat whenever he had the chance, whenever he wasn’t downstairs in the dead of night, checking on his mother to make sure she was all right, to see to it that she didn’t hurt herself. Harry hid the knives and the scissors in the crawlspace beneath the back porch; he cleaned Barbara’s medicine cabinet of the numerous pills she stored there. When Harry wasn’t checking on his mother, he was making something to eat, for himself, for her, or warming a bottle on the stove.Standing at the edge of the nest of bed linens, he peered into the deep center, at the one person who remained unaffected by the shrieking…for a while at least. A few months over a year old, Jimmy lay among the mounds of sheets and blankets, sound asleep and thankfully unaware of what lay in store for him, for Harry, for Renny. For Mother.
It cost Irene a pretty penny to turn the house around after that day. She hired women from Eureka to come down and clean it from top to bottom; she paid them extra to return to their homes and never speak of what they witnessed in the house at the end of Skeleton Road. The gossips from Beal’s Landing would never know what happened to Barbara and her family, to William; she even sent a sizeable check, with a bonus to Jack, at least she thought his name was Jack, in return for his silence.
Slapping Renny hard across the face for abandoning her mother, Irene personally dragged the girl home from that friend’s house, and she forced Harry downstairs. Making them stand before her in the front parlor, she told them that their father had run off, “To God knows where!” She informed them that William was never coming back, that he no longer wanted to be a father; he didn’t want them, didn’t love them. She spoke swiftly and sternly, avoiding eye contact, refusing to acknowledge the tears her grandchildren shed. She sat in that house and lied to Billy’s children. “Daddy doesn’t love you anymore.”
Only once did she tell the truth. Upstairs in Barbara’s room, as her daughter began to recover from her stupor, the first day her eyes weren’t dim and confused, Irene muttered the truth. Sneering, she told Barbara that William was marrying Patricia and that he was never, ever, coming back to Beal’s Landing. She told the whole truth, except for one small lie, one that came a bit too easily.
“He doesn’t want the children. He wants no contact with them at all and none from you obviously. Patricia is angry with you for what you’ve done and also refuses to speak to you.” Irene told her stories to anyone who would listen, and spread her lies to Barbara and the children. She told the story so often that she, too, began to believe it. She told lies and sent checks to anyone and everyone who would keep her secret.
It cost her plenty to set things right. She hired the finest attorneys to guarantee that Barbara retained custody of her children, lawyers to prove William an unfit parent. Bills for doctor and dentist visits for the children were sent to Pasadena and she paid Dawson’s the first of each month, only after receiving an accurate accounting of what he sent out to the Seaton house. The electric bills, the gas bill, phone, water and sewer, taxes; she paid. Irene directed that all the bills be sent to her home except one; for that bill, she sent a small envelope of cash. Barbara would pay the liquor store and the pharmacist on her own.
And her lawyers sent monthly letters, threats really, to William, to keep him away from his family, away from Beal’s Landing. She reminded him of how he had devastated Barbara with his betrayal, and how his children were far too hurt to see him again, to hear from him. William, however, felt the threats unnecessary; the longer he stayed away the less he desired to see his children, to be reminded of how many years he had wasted. He had a new life now, one Irene nearly cheated him out of living; the past was dead to him. The checks, though, he welcomed, since Irene followed through on her promise to discredit him within the Air Force. None of his former superiors would help him find work, and, of course, the schooling his mother-in-law paid for had ended. He would never return to Northern California to open a winery.
Preserving her husband’s memory, now and after she was gone, Irene paid a team of lawyers to make certain the flow of checks never diminished; she had controlled the lives of her family for decades and would do so long after she passed. And that was exactly how Irene did die, leaving one dismal world for another, on a smoggy, dusky afternoon in 1997.
Sitting in her home in Pasadena—not a large house by any means, but meticulously maintained—Irene Pierce passed away exactly one year to the day before her daughter swallowed a hundred or so pills. Irene, however, went much more quietly; sitting at her desk, pen in hand, adding another zero to another check for another lie.
What would people think?