Kate would not remind the Bakers that the day of her visit was also her birthday. It was probably bad enough that she was visiting, their dead son’s wife, showing up to—what? Remind them that David was still dead?
He had died in a boating accident in June, four months ago, and this visit to the Bakers—planned in conjunction with her conference in DC—had been in the works before that, since May. The plan was that David would join her. Now it was October. Now David was dead. Since the Bakers knew about the trip, she felt trapped into seeing them. One night, Kate told herself, a few drinks, dinner, coffee. Nothing more.
The Bakers lived in Alexandria, Virginia, an historic town about seven miles from Washington. Grady, the father, owned a heating and oil company and had served two terms on the city council. Josie, the mother, ran things: Garden Week, the Junior League, a Siamese cat rescue group. Several years ago she had taken up cooking in a fierce way and now talked about opening a specialty cookie bakery. There were four sisters, all of whom lived in nearby suburbs, all orbited by an assortment of husbands, ex-husbands, partners, and children. David, Kate’s husband, was the baby of the family, with thirteen years between himself and his oldest sister.
The funeral service was the last time Kate had seen the Bakers, when they had descended upon Grinnell, the small college town in Iowa where Kate taught economics. The family trooped through en masse, as if a tour group with an itinerary, eager to see the sites of David’s life: house, car, cat, grocery store, where he planted tomatoes, the Wednesday night poker friends, the coffee house where he hosted monthly poetry readings. She didn’t want to think unkind things—after all, they had lost their son and brother and uncle—but there was something so noisy about the Bakers and the way they encompassed space, as if they felt entitled to much more of it than anyone else. Kate’s own family was small and quiet, people who proudly stayed in the background, preferring the margins.
Josie and Grady always made it clear that they wanted Kate and David to live in DC, emailing job notices for which neither was qualified. They rarely visited Iowa, and during ten years of marriage, Kate and David traveled to Washington twice each year, once in the spring, and once for Christmas or Thanksgiving, with Kate’s family in Wisconsin getting the holiday unclaimed by the Bakers.
She didn’t tell her friends about her plan, feeling vaguely embarrassed to admit that she wanted to see the Bakers. Surely they would talk her out of it, with dull warnings that a visit might be “hard.” Or remind her that she didn’t like the Bakers; “why would you want to see them?” they would ask. Kate intended to tell the therapist about the trip but didn’t. The therapist was in Iowa City, sixty miles on the interstate, because Grinnell was too small-town; she couldn’t confide in anyone she might spot buying potato salad at Hy-Vee. Kate went every other week because the woman in HR said twelve appointments were covered by insurance when a spouse or school-age child died and that people usually stretched them out to span as much time as possible. The HR woman had brought up therapy, not Kate, insisting that when her mother had died, “crying it out with a shrink was the number one thing that got me through.”
She canceled the appointment that fell the day before the trip because she needed to pack. What a relief to drop folded sweaters into a black suitcase instead of to perch on that modernist, boxy couch, staring across empty space at the therapist in her swivel chair. There was always a shawl draped around her shoulders, whatever the weather, and she watched Kate with heavy-lidded eyes, like a lizard lazing in the sun, keeping so still that Kate worried something was wrong, that this deep, distant blankness wasn’t what she should feel, that she was screwing up grieving and the therapist was too polite to say so.
The first time she met David at a party, he told her he liked claiming he came from a family of circus performers. “People always believe me,” he said. Kate, already bewitched by his broad, happy face, replied, “I’d believe anything you told me. Your face looks like it can’t lie.” David laughed and said, “Then how about this: I love you.” She also laughed, but much later, David confessed that it was true, that he had fallen in love with her immediately. Nothing like it had ever happened to him before, he said, but that time it did: He simply knew.
Grady offered to pick her up at the hotel, but Kate insisted on taking the metro to Alexandria. It would be nerve-wracking to be alone with Grady for the forty-minute drive from downtown to Virginia. On the surface, he was simple: he liked men who drank scotch or bourbon, dogs that were too big to fit into laps, children who didn’t squeal or whine. He didn’t trust anyone who wasn’t in some sort of club—country club, Kiwanis, Junior League…it didn’t matter which one, it seemed to Kate, he just needed to know that someone had taken a vote on you; he had only warmed up to her after he found out she’d been a Tri-Delt in college. He liked making money, and he liked talking about money. He had no special appreciation for David’s poetry, beyond saying, “I’ll be damned how you do that,” anytime David sent him a copy of a journal that published his work. On the other hand, sometimes at Christmas he would grow morose and maudlin when he drank red wine; it seemed to Kate that he mourned another life he thought he might have lived if only he’d had the guts, though it was hard to imagine him running off to New York City to set himself up as a painter in the Village, or to become a merchant marine, or anything other than what he was: successful local businessman, well-respected pillar of the community.
She wheeled her suitcase out of the King Street station into the sunlight. Grady honked and waved, as if she wouldn’t remember his giant red Lexus hybrid from the visit last spring. “Hey, honey,” he greeted her as he jumped out to load her luggage into the back of the vehicle. “Not much stuff,” he said, “so I guess you’re not moving in, are you?”
She laughed uncertainly, unsure if she was supposed to hug him; he fiddled with the small suitcase, rearranged her tote bag of books, pushed aside an orange emergency triangle that was wedged in one corner. Awkwardness as he reached for her duffle bag and she said no, she’d hold onto it, then silently berated herself for not letting him take it, as if he were a dodgy taxi driver.
Finally she said, “Great to see you,” with the slightest pause before she mustered the courage to add, “Grady,” which was ridiculous, since that was his name and how she always addressed him. He called her “honey,” never “Kate,” even after David had pointed this out one Christmas. He had just laughed. That was another thing: Grady laughed a lot, and he liked people who also laughed a lot.
He turned and headed to his side of the car, so no hug. The greeting felt incomplete—even a false hug would be preferable—and she wondered if Grady wanted her visiting. Who was she to him now but a reminder of his dead son? She got in the car, duffle bag squashed into her lap.
He pushed the radio buttons, jumping to a classical station, and she wanted to ask what he had been listening to before she arrived, but she thought too hard about how to frame the question into a casual inquiry, and then it was too late. He steered out of the parking lot, swerving to miss an incoming bus. “Wake up, moron,” he said, flipping his visor against the sun.
“How has everyone been?” Kate asked.
“Josie’ll fill you in on the nitty-gritty,” Grady said. “But we’re fine. Everyone’s excited to see you. Big family pow-wow tonight. The whole kit and caboodle.”
“Great.” Kate hoped she sounded enthusiastic. At the stoplight was the bar where she and David liked to sneak to on Christmas Eve day, for their private gift exchange. The rule was one tiny item, small enough to fit in a pocket—a four-leaf clover he gave her once, neatly folded in waxed paper, or a penny that he had found on the street on her birthday that was imprinted with the year of her birth with a mint mark of D for Denver, where she had been born; things that he had carefully planned and waited to give her. One year she gave him an antique pocket watch with someone else’s initials already engraved into the back, and though he said he liked it, she knew were businesslike and unimaginative. After that bar was the cheese shop where they bought the expensive Italian cheese laced with slivers of truffles, and beyond that, the gelato shop that opened in the spring during their last visit, the actual last visit.
Kate turned to look at Grady, quickly asking about the weather. Grady seemed relieved to discuss the unseasonable—or, as he put it with a laugh, “unreasonable”—heat, the powerful thunderstorm last week that flooded so many neighbors’ basements.
The Bakers lived in a large brick house in the heart of the historic district, the sort of illustrious house that was on the garden tour, a house that made tourists point cameras. A plaque noted that General Lafayette had been a guest during one of his visits to America. A local artist used a watercolor of the house as a Christmas card design sold in the local gift shops. Kate might have liked the Bakers better if the house were a family home, or if the Bakers had restored it themselves, but according to David, they had moved in while he was in seventh grade, paying a lot of money at the peak of the housing market, already fixed up. A team of people kept the house running, including a twice-weekly cleaning service, a part-time gardener, and a handyman who came on Mondays. “We love to entertain,” Josie liked to say, “we’re an entertaining family.” There was always a big party at whichever holiday Kate was there for, some long night or endless afternoon where people flowed in and through the house like a raging torrent, all of them asking the same questions of her and David—where was it she taught again? What was it exactly David did in Iowa?—and telling the same story about how they had driven through Iowa once on a cross-country trip, and wasn’t Iowa flat?
And now here she was in the house, in the entryway, the wrought iron coat rack, the round mirror, and Josie’s arms on her hips, “Well, look at you, just look at you,” and that couldn’t be an undertone of anger, could it? Kate hunched her duffle bag up on her shoulder so that she wouldn’t feel awkward about not hugging Josie—had no one hugged anyone in this family? She thought she remembered hugs; surely they had hugged David, but maybe not; why couldn’t she remember such a simple thing?—and then Josie held out her arms for a hug. But when Kate dropped the duffle bag on the floor, it knocked against a small table topped with a vase that teetered and Josie grabbed to steady it, so in the end, no one hugged because there was Grady pushing his way in with Kate’s suitcase, disappearing somewhere with it. A current of welcoming clichés carried the two women through the entryway, beyond the dining room, past the living room, and into the sun room, where Grady had also ended up. Kate still had her duffle bag, and she wasn’t sure where her suitcase had gotten to, and the tote bag with the books from the conference. Wasn’t it normal to show someone their room first, to let them freshen up? But they were racing into drinks at only four o’clock—“scotch and a splash of soda,” she heard herself telling Grady—and then she realized that she could count on one hand the times she had talked to these two without David to ease and interpret, and also she realized it was likely she would be sleeping in the same guest room where she stayed when she visited with David. Except, of course, without David. On her birthday. How had she not thought this through?
“We figured you might—,” Josie started, as she looked over at Grady, mixing drinks at the granite-topped island in the kitchen. Josie had a way of speaking so that you weren’t sure if she was trying to affect a southern accent or a British one; something about her felt slightly fake and off-kilter.
Kate smiled pleasantly though she was nervous. It wasn’t like Josie to be shy about saying anything, and this pause was peculiar.
“Did you say gin and tonic?” Grady called. It wasn’t clear to whom he was speaking, but when Josie stared at her, Kate decided he must be addressing her.
“Um, scotch and soda,” she said.
“Thank God,” Grady said. “Gin and tonics are for summer.”
“It’s been feeling like summer lately,” Josie said.
“So now you want a gin and tonic?” he asked.
“Lord no,” she said. “That’s a summer drink.”
Kate felt as though she’d been smiling for a hundred years.
“How have you been?” Josie said, leaning over and patting Kate’s knee. “We think about you all the time.”
“Well, you know,” Kate said. “Mostly fine.”
“Fine?” Josie repeated.
There was an awkward pause as Josie drew back, and Kate felt she had given the wrong answer. Maybe she was supposed to burst into tears? She hadn’t cried at the funeral. She wasn’t a crier, not in public. She talked about not-crying to the therapist, who hadn’t seemed all that interested. People were concerned about excesses of emotion, but Kate suspected that an absence of emotion might also be a problem. At the funeral, she silently watched Josie bawl through everything, one of the Bakers always rushing to hug her.
Grady set two amber drinks on the table, and Josie immediately whisked leather coasters under them. “Thank you, sweets,” she called. Kate reached for her drink and was about to take a tiny sip before remembering that the Bakers always toasted first.
To cover her near-faux pas, she said, “I think about you guys, too.” The whiff of scotch had been tantalizing. “How you’re doing.”
“It’s hard,” Josie said. “But what can you say except that you’re fine?”
There was a moment when Kate and Josie’s eyes locked, and Kate wondered if Josie might cry. It might be nice if she did, because then Kate would understand exactly what to do: hug her.
Kate said, “I do know. I go through the day the same as I always did—classes, grocery store, feeding the cat, TV—but something feels missing.”
Josie looked away. “Obviously something’s missing,” she said. “David is missing.”
“Well, yes,” Kate said, feeling a rosy blush discolor her face. “I’m not explaining what I mean. Like sleepwalking, maybe. I’m there, but I’m not quite there.”
“Hmm,” Josie said, vaguely, “sleepwalking’s not so terrible,” and Kate’s blush turned hotter. David would have understood what she meant, but David was dead, and these were just his parents.
Then Josie’s voice dropped to a rough whisper: “He’s the one to worry about,” and she gave a meaningful nod at Grady, coming in with the third drink in his hand, a taller pour than the other two. Dark brown: bourbon.
“Spilling secrets already, sweets?” Grady said as he sat down in a frail wingback chair that creaked under his weight.
Josie said, “What Grady means is that we’re putting the house on the market.”
“We weren’t supposed to jump straight into that,” Grady said as Kate gasped.
“Really? Wow. That’s such a surprise,” Kate said.
“Life is filled with goddamn surprises,” Grady said. He lifted his glass and said, “Here’s to us.”
She and Grady drank, but Josie’s glass remained in the air.
“To David,” Josie said, and Grady and Kate took another sip, as Josie added, “My baby boy.”
“Our fine boy,” Grady tacked on, so they drank to that, too. There wasn’t much soda in Kate’s drink, if any. Was she to string on the toast? But Grady spoke up:
“Hits the spot,” Grady said. His sips had been long and expressive.
“So, the house,” Kate said. “Wow.”
Josie shrugged. “You get to a point where you don’t care anymore.”
Grady said, “I think what happened this summer showed us what’s really important.”
There was a pause as if Kate was supposed to provide the answer, and the silence felt oppressive. “Family?” she said. It seemed like a trick question, or maybe the suddenness of the scotch was addling her brain.
“Family,” Grady repeated.
“I hate when you say it that way,” Josie said.
“That way you have,” Josie said, though Kate hadn’t heard a “way.”
Grady shifted in the fragile chair, one elbow knocking askew a decorative doily.
“Anyway,” Josie said, turning slightly on the couch, perhaps to put Grady outside her immediate view. “I have something to talk about before the kids show up. What to do with David’s things that we have here.”
“Well, I mean.” Kate looked down into her scotch. “They’re yours, of course. I never felt that I had a claim to childhood—.”
“I know all that,” Josie interrupted.
Grady sighed and finished off his bourbon, rattling the ice cubes with gusto.
Josie shifted further, essentially turning her back to him. “It’s just some things of David’s, from childhood. School trinkets—”
“Books with his notations,” Grady said.
“We want,” Josie started, then corrected herself: “We need you to sort this out for us. Who gets what.”
“Who David would most want to have these things,” Josie said. “Him or me. Which of us gets his collection of books. You knew David. What do you think?”
“I don’t understand why—,” and then Kate understood exactly why: “You’re getting divorced?” She tightened her grip on the glass, her fingertips settling into a long groove of cut crystal.
Grady said, “Don’t look at me. Everything was fine how it was, as far as I’m concerned.”
“We’re not revisiting that right now,” Josie said in a way that made Kate think the sentence had been scripted by an expensive therapist.
A timer in the kitchen dinged. “Cheese straws,” Josie said as she stood up, brushing her hands over the wrinkles in her pants, which seemed to fall away upon command. “Just a little something-something before dinner,” she said, briskly walking to the kitchen. It was what she always said when the cheese straws came out of the oven before the Thanksgiving turkey or the Christmas rib roast. It occurred to Kate that she would probably never hear a grown woman say “a little something-something” ever again.
She and Grady stared at each other. His face was shaped like David’s, big and round and honest, a salesman’s face. She had only known him with gray hair, but the gray looked duller now compared to when she’d seen him at the funeral in June, more dispirited. Would David have grown old with the same gray hair, if he had grown old? David had died when he was thirty-five, so Grady must be seventy-something. It seemed silly to divorce a seventy-year-old man, a lot of bother and somehow wasteful. What issues could possibly remain after all this time? Plus, they must be about ready for their fiftieth wedding anniversary, and it was hard to imagine the Bakers passing up that occasion for a party. Could the Bakers still be the Bakers if they lived in a different house, if Josie and Grady weren’t married? If David was gone?
She became aware that Grady had spoken because he was gazing at her expectantly.
“Still set,” she said, shaking her glass to show that scotch remained (though not a whole lot; when had she drank all that?).
“No.” Grady leaned forward in his chair. “What I said was this is all she’s going on about. Dumping this house, dumping the family. She thinks she’s going to live in some beach town and sell her damn cookies to summer tourists. She hasn’t told the kids any of it.”
“Oh my,” Kate said.
“She’s the one I’m worried about,” Grady said, crooking his thumb over his shoulder toward the kitchen, as if he were a hitchhiker. “Totally off the deep end.” He stared meaningfully at Kate, their eyes locked. “What am I supposed to do without my son or my wife?” he asked.
Both of them glanced toward the kitchen, at Josie lifting the cheese straws off the cookie sheet with a spatula. There was no indication that she knew they were talking about her. She was smiling, as if the cheese straws were indescribably beautiful.
“Make it stop,” Grady said. “You know David would hate this.”
“Me!” Kate exclaimed. “I can’t fix it.”
“But you have to,” he said.
Kate shook her head. It was so typical of the Bakers to use the death of their son as an excuse to muck around in some sort of new grand mess like this, as if David’s death wasn’t enough, as if there should be more upheaval and commotion. She was almost ashamed for thinking such a thing, except that she was also exasperated. They were sad, but did that mean everything had to be so dramatic? Look at her: she was heartbroken, of course, and she had lost her husband—her husband—and yet the sun kept shining: she got out of bed each day. She kept her job and bought groceries at Hy-Vee and paid the bills and took the cat in for annual shots. If anyone was going to fall apart, it should be her. And yet it was the Bakers who were a crumbling mess. Somehow, she had suspected as much, and perhaps that was why she came here: to see them at their messiest, to feel that she was coping simply by not being them.
Today’s my birthday, she thought about saying. Instead, she repeated, “I can’t fix it,” as Josie returned, carrying a silver tray that she set in the middle of the coffee table. She opened a drawer and took out a stack of paper napkins with a picture of grapes and doled one out to each of them as if off the top of a deck of cards.
Josie said, “I want David’s books.”
Grady slapped both hands against his thighs. “Always with this,” he said.
“Can’t you divide them?” Kate asked. She wanted a cheese straw but didn’t want to be the first to reach for one.
“Of course we could,” Grady said. “But she says no.”
“They’re David’s books,” Josie said. “With his notes in the margins. How he was thinking, what he noticed as he read. Splitting them up is like chopping up David into tiny little pieces. It would be another loss, like a whole other death.” Again, Kate thought she recognized a therapist’s vocabulary.
In the silence, Grady rattled his ice cubes. It seemed like a nervous tic that might get tiresome after fifty years.
“Is that what you want?” Josie pressed. “Your son chopped up into tiny little pieces?”
Kate understood what Josie meant: David viewed every book he read as a conversation, scribbling questions and comments on virtually every page along the way, working himself up into a lather of question marks, underlines, double underlines, asterisks, and exclamation points. He would scrawl, “Like hell,” when he disagreed, or, “Truth,” if he thought something was profoundly meaningful; he often made long references to other books and authors, with page numbers. Reading a book after David had been through it was a work-out. He scoffed when she brought up the idea of reading on an electronic reader; “some people keep diaries,” he said, “but I keep books.” Indeed he had: the study’s shelves in the Iowa house were lined with double-rows of David’s books. Now, when she couldn’t sleep, she would pluck one at random and sit in the tiny circle of light cast by the desk lamp, staring at his precise handwriting: each letter could fit neatly into a square on graph paper. She didn’t need to read the words.
His handwriting, David’s hand holding the pen, moving it across paper, David’s mind thinking those words. Oh, she understood Josie exactly. A surprise to feel so sympathetic with her mother-in-law. And a surprise to learn that Josie even cared; Kate would have guessed that Josie tossed David’s books long ago. She remembered David asking about them, and Josie saying that if the books were anywhere, they might be in a box in the attic, but probably not. “There’s not much closet space around here, you know,” she had said, as if David was accusing her of something.
It would be easy to offer some of the books she had to the Bakers. That might help them through this at least.
She opened her mouth to speak but said, “The cheese straws look delicious, as always.” Josie smiled, and so Kate was forced to be the first to reach for one after all, which she set onto the grape napkin. The cheese straws were virtually all the same shape, as if made by a machine, very professional.
What books did the Bakers have, what books David had left behind here—from high school, from college maybe, from the summers he had spent here working as a tour guide at Mount Vernon before she knew him? He had told her about the summer he read only Dickens, the summer he studied Stanislavsky and Berthold Brecht and Ibsen and Strindberg, when he thought he might become a playwright. The summer of Chekhov, of Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. She scanned her mind quickly through the bookshelves in the study; she did not have those books. The Bakers did.
Josie said, “He didn’t like David’s poetry.”
Grady said, “You didn’t even read it.”
Josie said, “You told me I wouldn’t like it! You said—.”
There was a pause, and Kate wished the sisters would show up now for the big dinner, the sisters with their teenagers and dogs and chirping phones. The last visit here had left her exhausted—ears aching from the assault of sounds and clamoring voices—but this visit was worse: like a blind man knocking through a room full of gongs, the discordant crashes, one after the other, into infinity. Like having to untangle a ball of string. David should be here to sort out this mess. She couldn’t even find an appropriate metaphor.
Josie said, “You said his poems weren’t any good.”
Grady slumped back in the chair, then just as quickly, bounced up for a refill of bourbon, grabbing Kate’s glass as he passed, not asking if she wanted more. The scotch was raging through her head, and she should have remembered that she always drank too much with the Bakers. The ice tumbling from the dispenser sounded aggressive.
Kate said, “I can give both of you copies of his poems. I’ll give copies to everyone in the family, actually. I should have already done that. I’ve been meaning to.” She patted Josie’s shoulder; the beige, nubby sweater was made of some fiber that felt chalky under Kate’s fingers. “I’m really sorry about that,” Kate added, to make the lie sound more truthful.
Josie said, “His poems made me feel stupid. I didn’t understand them. Like he was making fun of me. Shouldn’t a poem be something pretty? Shouldn’t I be able to read it and just know what it’s about?”
“Well,” Kate said. The truth was, a lot of the poems were about his family, and might be read as being critical of the Bakers. Also, the truth was that sometimes she didn’t understand David’s poems either, though she pretended to. Or she didn’t like them, though she pretended that, too. She could admit this to Josie, but it seemed like a triumph not to.
Grady called out from the kitchen: “That’s why I told you to stop reading them. They made you unhappy.”
“I just want my boy back,” Josie said. “I want my David. You don’t understand what it’s like, a mother losing her child.” She began to cry—no, to weep, bending forward as if her spine had given way, choking sobs that were breathless and dramatic, the way a child cries after a long day of too many presents and too much dessert.
“I want him back, too,” Kate said. You can’t understand either, she thought, my David.
But there was Grady, plopping the drinks right onto the wood of the table, wedging himself into the small space between herself and Josie, awkwardly flopping his arms around his wife, her body sinking onto his. “Hey, sweets,” he murmured into her hair, “don’t be sad, okay? I love you. I love you. I love you.”
Kate looked away, at a careful stack of three decorative books. Then she stood, stretched as if she really needed to, and said, “I should freshen up before dinner.” When no one stopped her, she tiptoed up the stairs to the bedroom where she and David stayed during their visits.
She pushed open the door to David’s former bedroom, redecorated years ago as a guest room with tasteful yellow tones and painted white furniture, the sort of room professionally designed to evoke some approving comment about how cheerful it was. There was a falsely fresh smell, like air freshener, and the sense that someone had been in this room not too long ago. Her suitcase wasn’t there—maybe this wasn’t where they wanted her to stay—so she stood in the doorway, trying to imagine David in this room before it was yellow, before there was a pencil post double bed with matching nightstands and matching lamps. Before she knew him, before she started visiting this house. Would it be Nirvana pounding on the stereo or Pearl Jam? Dirty sneakers strewn about, or lined up in a neat row in the closet? He had told her about the old rolltop desk of his grandfather’s that he loved, now gone, but what was tucked in the drawers—packs of cigarettes, secret notebooks of poems, unsharpened pencils?—and what cluttered its surface: thrift-store paperbacks, family photos, pizza crusts, half-empty bottles of Coke, interesting rocks, a collection of bottle caps? A gallon glass jar full of pennies? Baseball trophies? What did David hang on the walls? Posters of Georgetown basketball no doubt, but what else? Fast cars? Little League team pictures? Playboy centerfolds or Penthouse pets? Sharon Stone, Michelle Pfeiffer, Cameron Diaz, Uma Thurman?
Now, on one of the bedside tables, she spotted a pair of eyeglasses set diagonally across the top of a worn paperback, and a scattering of crumpled Kleenexes. She stepped in, just enough so she could read the spine of the book: Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman.
She stood there for a moment, another. It was quiet up here. Very still. She could hear herself breathe, hear her heart beating in her ears. A tiny spider scurried up the edge of the doorway. A distant, relaxed creak of the house.
She stepped deeper into the room and slid the book out from under the eyeglasses, which dropped into the cloud of Kleenexes and she flipped open the book to a random page: “I stop somewhere waiting for you,” and David’s handwriting jumped at her: Last word you—WW talking to everyone. Inclusive. She shut the book, set it down, then immediately grabbed it again and, lifting the yellow quilt, she shoved the book hard and deep under the mattress. Her heart thumped.
The squeak of the door opening, someone shouting, “Hey, Mom! Dad! I parked behind you in the driveway, is that okay? And Gabrielle needs a Band-Aid.” The first of the sisters. The end of the silence. This was what was going to happen.
Dinner had been a confusion of voices and stories and questions—with very few answers. One sister would ask how teaching was going this semester, and then one of the teenage boys would burp and get scolded. Or Josie would tell one of the girls to tell Kate (they had never called her Aunt Kate) about the dance recital coming up, and just as that started, a phone would ring, with one of the husbands claiming to be on his way for real this time. The food—potluck: pasta and salads, most picked up from the store, nothing homemade—and the wine—everyone bringing a bottle—was as cluttered as the conversation. Only Josie’s dessert felt organized and serene: a tray of homemade Italian biscotti and cappuccino from her fancy espresso machine. Frangelico for the adults.
“How are you?” the sisters kept asking Kate. “Are you doing okay?” As Kate nodded, the sisters continued: “You look great. Doesn’t she look great? Mom, doesn’t Kate look great?” and everyone would agree that she looked great, and Kate got the hang of it and told everyone they looked great, too.
The toast: To us. It wasn’t normal. You weren’t supposed to toast yourselves. She wondered what the therapist would say.
No one mentioned her birthday.
“David would have loved this,” one sister said, while they were drinking cappuccino, and Kate nodded again, as everyone’s words tumbled in agreement. “Almost like he’s here,” another sister added. “Remember what a happy baby he was?” the oldest sister said, and everyone agreed he was the happiest baby. “He loved to smile,” Josie said, and everyone laughed and nodded.
Kate wasn’t necessary for these memories. She sat still and listened, like an audience of one. No one mentioned the divorce. Perhaps it wasn’t real; sometimes David’s death didn’t seem real to her either, as if he were away on a writing retreat and would be home in a week. But when two of the sisters starting talking about Thanksgiving, she caught Josie and Grady staring across the table at each other, as intently as if they were having a private conversation.
She and David had sent their own silent signals across this same table: Is she for real? Get me out. If Josie and Grady knew the loneliness of looking over and finding no one there, they wouldn’t go through with this crazy divorce, but she didn’t say so. She nodded when the sister asked, “I guess you’ll go to Wisconsin for Thanksgiving?” Something else Kate could worry about later. Perhaps she would ignore Thanksgiving the way she was ignoring her birthday.
Suddenly, or so it seemed, the sisters and their families had packed up and were gone, driving off to their homes. Kate helped Josie rinse the dishes and run water in the bottoms of the wineglasses, but Josie said the cleaning women would wash them tomorrow, so without that distracting task, it was the three of them back at the long dining room table, the room dim in flickering candlelight. Instead of moving in closer, Grady stayed at his end of the table, and Josie returned to her spot at the other, far end. Kate felt awkward, but had no choice: she sat in the middle, not where she was earlier, but exactly between the two of them, in the midst of some salad dressing spots one of the teenagers left behind on the tablecloth. The Bakers didn’t use paper plates unless they were eating outside and not always even then. The Bakers liked real dishes and cloth napkins and crystal glasses for the wine when they were all together, as if every day was important, like Christmas. The salad dressing spots stretched like an archipelago of four small islands, like a page in an atlas. Kate stared at them.
Then she said, “This has been great,” leading into the it’s-getting-late routine, because she couldn’t imagine how much longer any of them wanted to sit there.
Josie said, “I hope we see you again one of these days. Next time you’re in Washington.”
“Of course,” Kate said.
“Just because David’s gone doesn’t mean we stopped caring about you,” Grady said. “You’re family. No matter what happens.”
The divorce. The room seemed to hush a notch or two. There had been music earlier, a playlist compiled by one of the teenagers, but now there was nothing, just the three of them alone in the quiet, the darkness gathering, waiting in the halls and stairs beyond this room.
Kate thought about David as a teenage boy, staining the tablecloths, living in this house, this din, this silence; David in his bedroom, reading books in a circle of lamplight, scribbling his notes, this world revolving on beyond him, without him, the Bakers and their dishes and silver trays a million miles away, while he lay upstairs reading Whitman, that drumbeat of language echoing in his head, rhythm and meaning and truth. “I always wondered where I came from,” David told her when he proposed, “who I belonged to, because clearly not this family. It was books that showed me where I belonged,” and then he took both her hands, “and you. When I found you, I knew exactly where I belonged for the rest of my life.” They had only known each other for four months, and there was no reason to propose—no Valentine’s Day or surprise pregnancy. Just that he wanted to. There wasn’t even a ring yet, but he knew. For one long second she thought about saying “no” because a proposal after four months was crazy; she knew she should say, “Let’s wait,” but it was impossible for her mouth to form those words while looking into his eyes, while his fingers were twisted in hers. The only word was yes. She said it.
Josie’s face was hollow in the candlelight and seemed worn away. Grady rolled a silver napkin ring along the tablecloth with the palm of his hand. There were napkin rings for each of the Bakers, engraved with their first names. Kate thought about David’s napkin ring, alone in a drawer somewhere. Her napkin ring was one of the blank, interchangeable extras for guests.
“It’s not right,” Josie said, “that people should have to survive such a thing.”
“There’s all kinds of things people survive,” Grady said. “Famine, floods. Watch the nightly news, why don’t you?”
“It’s not right,” Josie repeated, and it wasn’t clear that she had heard her husband. “It’s like,” and she paused, as if the words would be hard ones, but her voice was steady: “Like I’m standing right here, and I look the same, and I say the same things I always did, but inside, there’s only black emptiness.”
After a moment, Grady said, “We’ll get through this, sweets.”
Josie shook her head. “I don’t want to. I’m sixty-eight. That’s old enough to die. It should have been me.”
“No, me,” Grady said, at the same time that Kate thought, Yes, then immediately felt ashamed, as if the word were etched across her forehead. She felt the heat of them both staring at her, as if waiting for her to add, No, me, me! It wasn’t supposed to be a contest to see who loved David the most. But maybe it was. Maybe the Bakers were winning.
“Today’s my birthday,” Kate said, an unintended note of anger pushing into her voice.
Josie’s hand flew to her mouth. “How terrible that we forgot. I would’ve made a cake.”
“Oh, honey,” Grady sighed. “Happy birthday.”
“You should have told us,” Josie said. She sounded incredibly sad. “You deserve more of a celebration. At least you’re here with family.”
Josie seemed on the verge of tears again, and Kate was embarrassed to have brought up the birthday. It was just one more awful day in a row of awful days, not that that would comfort the Bakers, or anyone, really. Why couldn’t she just admit that she and the Bakers both loved David? Couldn’t that be enough? She should say something.
“I’m afraid I really have to get to bed,” she said. “The flight is early.”
“I thought you said noon,” Grady said.
“I misread,” she lied. “It’s at nine.” So she’d sit in the airport. Or get on an earlier flight to Chicago and then sit there, waiting for her flight to Iowa. She’d sit somewhere, by herself, and that would be better. “If that’s a problem, I could take a taxi.”
Josie jumped up. “No, no,” she said. “One of us will take you. Family doesn’t take taxis to the airport!” She forced a laugh, then kept talking: “But let’s get you off to bed. I thought you wouldn’t mind being downstairs in the back room. That bathroom was redone with a new jet shower that’s absolutely amazing. It was—well, the thought was we might make it the master bedroom one day, being on the first floor. Now, well,” and she shrugged. “I think you’ll like it.”
“Sounds nice,” Kate said, understanding whose pair of eyeglasses and whose Kleenex were on the nightstand in the yellow guestroom.
Josie leaned in to blow out the four candles, one by one, using her hand to shield the table from splattered wax. Columns of smoke spiraled and wafted upwards; the air filled with a sharp, burned smell. “So sad,” Josie said. “The party’s really over when the candles go out.”
My birthday wish, Kate thought, too late.
The room felt colder, darker, and emptier without the flickers of light. Kate looked at the blank glass of the picture window, where outside she supposed autumn leaves were collecting up against the patio fence, and would collect up against the fence in the same pattern next year, and the year after. It didn’t matter who lived in this house.
What the hell. She wished she could hold David’s hand one last time. She wished she could forget the silly fight the morning he died about opening wet umbrellas to let them dry properly. She wished she was sixty-eight and could give up. She wished she had cried at the funeral and that she could box up every one of David’s books, all the books, and the “David” napkin ring too, and take them home with her; she wished he could stay all hers, always. She wished, she wished.
Really, she wished she loved him the most.
“David always said,” Kate started, and Grady looked up from his napkin ring, as Josie, who had been scooping the used napkins into a pile, paused, turning to Kate. There was an expectant silence. For once, she had their attention. She could say anything. Those books are mine, were the words that flashed through her head, he was all mine. She continued: “David always said how much he loved you. What great parents you were, what a great family.”
Josie’s smile was tiny. Grady heaved a gusty sigh. “Yes,” Josie said. “Yes, we were.”
“And how lucky I am to be a member of it,” Kate concluded, a burst of relief filling her chest at successfully navigating through something tricky, at saying what had to be the exact right thing to say. There was a pause, and Kate caught her breath, waiting to hear how the Bakers would respond. She expected Josie to keep going, telling her about how lucky their family was to have her, about how lucky David was to have found her, as if this were a simple matter of slapping back a tennis ball sailing over the net.
Instead, it was Grady who spoke: “To us.” The raw whisper, the hitch in his voice, his eyes flattened by the dim light. He grabbed Kate’s hand—his fingers warm, slightly sticky—and slid his other arm along the tablecloth toward Josie, reaching but falling short, until Josie leaned forward to grab hold, letting her fingers entwine with his, squeezing.
There was more than enough love in the world, Kate thought, feeling oddly hopeful. Yes, she missed David so much her heart hurt and she longed for the simple fix of tears to stitch up that aching hole; Josie was crying now, Grady’s eyes were bright. But David was gone, and the Bakers were gone, and today—her birthday—was gone too, just a memory of an awful-wonderful jumble of books and booze and cheese straws and this, all this confused love, and that had to be something. That was something.