by Linda Sillitoe
[p.182]Nine o’clock. Compliant with the household rule, all the children were in their rooms reading or, hopefully, falling asleep. Gently, Barbara heaped the pile of family photographs spread on her bed into a cardboard box, which she stowed neatly underneath. She had taken the photographs from her parents’ home that afternoon and spent all evening rustling through them and explaining them to her children as they bounced in and out of the bedroom. Only Stacy had much staying power. Tomorrow Barbara would sort them and begin to identify those that ought to go into the anniversary video.
Now, though, she walked through her house, automatically tidying as she went, relishing the relative quiet and ignoring a low rumble from the older boys’ room. She didn’t expect Fred home from his bishopric meeting for another hour at least, but she was eager for his return.
Moving from kitchen to living room, she played a private game, pretending she was a stranger in the house learning about the inhabitants strictly by observation. The refrigerator was layered with the children’s drawings, the spelling lists with 100 percent marked in red at the top, and the mid-term grade reports. Ribbons and drawings from church filled a collage with ‘Jesus [p.183]Loves Me” and Stacy’s heart-shaped needlepoint, “Love is Spoken Here.”
The clutter dispelled the shiny order of the kitchen but in a proud way, she felt. In fact, she hoped her children’s memories would include both the crowded refrigerator door and the shining floors. Children seemed to remember the oddest things. She and Fred had driven them to Disneyland in June, and all Mindy seemed to recall was that she had thrown up in the car on the way home.
Barbara made the living room the most formal room in the house, always clean enough for company. But the chintz sofa and matching drapes looked welcoming and the soft hassocks and overstuffed chairs invited conversation. The oversized color photograph of the Salt Lake temple above the buffet reminded Barbara daily of the long-ago morning that she and Fred had knelt opposite one another at the altar between mirrors. And the print—that appeared to have been drawn in Crayolas—of Jesus with the children, sparked guilt or affirmation in her, depending on the day. The children had grown up with these symbols around them, and Barbara hoped they were imprinted in their hearts.
All in all, the house was largely her creation and congruent with her memories of her childhood home and the way her parents still lived. Small comforts, quiet successes, and lots of security were hers to perpetuate. Whenever she spoke formally at church, or rose to bear testimony, she said fervently, “I am so blessed!” Hoping, as her voice caught, that everything good would continue indefinitely—that the dreadful disappointments and illnesses and heartbreaks that haunted other people’s lives would stay far from her door. Happily ever after could come true, she thought, if one simply made the right choices and enough of them in time.
[p.184]Tonight she was eager to show Fred the video footage she had taken earlier in the evening at Stacy’s school Christmas program. As one of the snowflakes in an originally choreographed number, Stacy had drifted in a white chiffon costume she had sewn herself. Barbara tried to judge the six girls on stage objectively, but concluded that her daughter had the prettiest curls, danced with the most artistry, wore the best-fitted costume, and was the most petite. Some very pretty girls had begun adding extra pounds since adolescence, she was sorry to see, but Stacy’s curves remained delicate.
Stacy also had better sense than some of her peers, Barbara had decided after the program. Bambi Sweat, for instance, had perched on her father’s lap all during refreshments, still wearing her snowflake costume. Had Stacy tried a coquettish stunt like that, Fred would have sent Stacy off to change or to put on her coat. But Parry Sweat had simply encircled his daughter’s waist or stroked the ends of her hair. Lorna Sweat had smiled blandly from the chair beside her husband, her eyes fixed upon her husband’s diminishing oatmeal cookie or on Bambi’s curvy legs in her white tights. Lorna weighed well over three hundred pounds, in Barbara’s estimate, and had refused refreshments, proclaiming herself on a diet. Barbara had smiled sympathetically and said, “Good for you!” but inwardly couldn’t help thinking that Lorna must eat alone—a lot.
Waiting for Fred, Barbara debated whether to steal this undemanded hour to finish the novel she’d been reading for a week during her spare minutes or to review her to-do list for tomorrow. The dryer’s buzz and the telephone’s ring, sounding simultaneously, made her decision for her. The telephone continued to ring, for the children were forbidden telephone calls this late, as she hurried downstairs to the extension by the laundry room where she could fold and press clothes while she talked.
[p.185]She half expected to hear Robyn’s voice, but it was Caitlin instead. Cait and Marly, she quickly learned, had put their heads together and developed a theory on why Roger left—and they thought it had to do with Boyd’s death. What was even more unlikely—and by this time Barbara felt a bit numb—Caitlin had somehow been able to check police records. The very thought of those papers recording something so private and sad gave Barbara uncomfortable chills down her neck. Roger’s abrupt exit from the family stage had prompted some impulsive actions in Caitlin, that was clear, just as Barbara had predicted.
Listening, but feeling an impatience grow, she shook out the warm queen size sheets and folded them briskly.
“You know,” she said quickly when Caitlin took a breath, “I really don’t think I want to know any police details about how Boyd died. Knowing the gory details won’t bring him back, or Roger back either. Besides, now that I have teenagers, I understand how difficult those years are.”
A bit of a put down, maybe. Cait’s twins were still children.
There was a silence as if Caitlin were trying to interpret another meaning. Swiftly Barbara was stricken with the thought that Caitlin would ask if she were suggesting that Boyd had committed suicide—and was she? For once Caitlin let the question lie, and Barbara didn’t elaborate. How to change the subject?
“Actually,” Cait said patiently, “we think that knowing the truth may help us find Roger, and that’s why I called. Your memory is probably the best, since you were older when it happened.” A pause, as if apologetic for pointing out Barbara’s seniority, then, “Wouldn’t it be great to have Roger home by Christmas?”
Barbara eagerly adopted Christmas as a more positive topic and explained to Caitlin all she’d been doing to help Robyn get [p.186]ready. “Those little kids should have just as wonderful a Christmas day as they would have had if this hadn’t all happened.”
“That’s great,” Caitlin said, but Barbara could tell she was trying not to sound skeptical. Well, Cait and Roger had always been close. “That’s thoughtful of you, Barb.”
“By the way,” Barbara interjected, ‘‘I’m glad you called, Caitlin. We’ve been a little worried about you.”
“Really?” Cait said in what Barbara thought an odd voice.
“Yes. Fred ran into you having lunch with a man last week in a restaurant. You seemed intent on this person. In fact, Fred said he walked by your table and you didn’t even notice.”
Caitlin laughed, as if relieved instead of accused. “For pete’s sake, why didn’t Fred say hello? I’m always intent.”
She was either evading or missing the point, so Barbara tried again. “Fred didn’t say hello because he didn’t want to embarrass you. You seemed so—involved.”
“Barbara…I don’t believe we’re having this conversation. I know it’s Fred’s job to observe people at work, but really, this is a bit much.”
“Now don’t get huffy.”
“Okay…” A sigh. “Which restaurant was it?” Caitlin asked, as if she’d lunched with a dozen men recently and thus must narrow the field.
“McDonald’s, I believe.”
“Then I was having lunch with Nick, who doesn’t like yuppie restaurants. You know, Nick Fazzio, the investigator who came to Robyn’s house to talk to us about Roger.”
“Oh, yes, him. Why would you have lunch with him?”
“Barbara, half my work is done at lunch. I interview. I have meetings at lunch. And a lot of my colleagues, many of my interviewees, and some of my friends happen to be men. It’s no big deal.”
[p.187]Barbara still didn’t approve, but she laughed lightly. “Okay, that’s fine.” Of course, Caitlin knew that church employees never went to lunch or even rode in a car alone with the opposite sex, so Barbara didn’t belabor the point. If Caitlin wanted to ignore church guidance, that was entirely up to her, but Barbara wasn’t quite ready to drop the subject either.
“Well, I’ll let Fred know. He was just a little alarmed that you were staring so hard into this man’s face that you didn’t even notice your own brother-in-law.” She paused, added lightly, “He said your hands were nearly touching on the table top.”
“We were probably tussling for the bill.” Caitlin sighed, then said a little urgently, “Barbara, there’s a lot of intense stuff going on. Nick and I have had quite an agenda lately, and it includes Roger.”
Back to Roger again. Barbara rolled her eyes. Some instinct warned her not to ask what else was on Cait’s agenda. She changed the subject. “You know what? I collected the most wonderful heap of old photographs from Mom this morning. They’re great. In half of them, you have scabs on your knees.”
“Too much roller skating,” Caitlin said. “My underpants probably show in the other half, right?”
“Only in a couple,” Barbara laughed, “and mine do, too, I’m afraid. Why did Mom put us in dresses all the time? Why don’t you come and help me sort through them tomorrow?”
“I can’t, Barb, but I’d like to see them sometime. They must really take you back.”
“They do,” Barbara said, then saw where they were headed.
“Good. Well, I just wondered, Barb, if you remember anything that happened before or around the time that Boyd died that might help us.”
“No, I’m sure I don’t.”
[p.188]“Maybe it’s something that doesn’t fit or make sense. Just another piece or two of the puzzle.”
“Oh, Caitlin, why does everything have to be a puzzle just waiting for you to put it together?” Even as she protested, Barbara realized that actually there was something surfacing in the back of her mind. Maybe this would satisfy her sister. “Okay, one incident has never made sense, but it’s just an odd scrap. It doesn’t really connect to anything else.”
“Well, it happened a while before he died, maybe a few months—about the time they all started talking a lot about his mission. I’d gone to a movie with Hardy—remember him?—and
I came in the side door afterward, as usual. Mom and Dad and Boyd were in the living room talking, but their voices were raised. I’d heard them out on the step, and it was so unusual that I guess I just crept in. As I shut the door, I heard Mom say in this terrible tone I hadn’t heard her use before or since, ‘You are my son! I know you! And you are not!’”
“Just, ‘You are not.’ Then I thought I heard crying, but I don’t know whose. I panicked, I guess—just ran down the hall to my room. Nobody talked to me about it that night and nothing was said the next morning. After a while, I forgot about it. I haven’t thought about it for years.”
“Tell me again what she said?”
Barbara repeated the words. Caitlin remained quiet. Barbara knew she’d told the incident accurately but, even so, was beginning to doubt herself. “I guess I retained the memory because Mom’s voice was so fierce, but what she said never made any sense. She couldn’t be saying he was not her son. She couldn’t be saying he could not go on a mission.” Her voice trailed off. Still silence. “Cait?”
[p.189]“I’m with you. Just taking a few notes.”
“Oh, don’t take notes! It probably doesn’t mean anything anyway.” Time to change the subject for good. “Listen, did the twins tell you what they’re doing for the anniversary video?”
“Yes, they’re all excited about it. Heidi’s been practicing reading her poems. She sounds like a dynamic Emily Dickinson. And Julie has about deafened us, working on an original piano piece called, ‘Thunder.’”
Barbara laughed. “They’ll be great. I thought they’d want to do something twins-ey, but, if not, that’s fine. Tonight I videoed Stacy doing her snowflake dance at the school Christmasfest. And she’s also going to narrate a missionary skit I wrote for her brothers—they’re going to be the first missionaries to the South Pole. Fortunately we own three stuffed penguins. In that spirit, Mindy is going to sing to her teddy bear. Now you’ve got to think how you and Jake want to be portrayed.”
Caitlin groaned, then said, “I’ve got it. Why don’t we have Jake sorting through piles of books with me conked out beside him on the floor?”
“Now that sounds charming.”
“Well, it’s realism. Besides, don’t we need a little comic relief?”
“We’re thinking of having Stacy film Fred and me dancing under the chandelier in the dining room. Doesn’t that sound fun?”
“It sounds romantic.”
“Really, you ought to see these photos. I need to choose the ones that will work best in the video. A collage maybe, to move us through the years.”
“Sounds good. Maybe lean,” but her mind was clearly elsewhere. “I won’t keep you Barbara. Tell Fred to say hello next time he observes me. If I’m having an affair, I’ll go cross-eyed and stick out my tongue to tip him off. Otherwise, it’s okay.”
[p.190]“Just be careful, little sister. Call me when you’re ready for a shooting session over at your house.”
“Right, I can hardly wait. A good excuse to clean the house, I guess. Good night,” Caitlin said and was gone.
Barbara had folded the batch of sheets, started a load of underwear drying, then arranged six bath towels in the washing machine by the time the conversation with Caitlin ended. The appliances chugged soothingly as she went to fetch tomorrow’s list. A conversation with Caitlin always prompted a need for organization. She perched on a stool at the snack bar and went slowly, item by item. By the time she had reviewed and annotated her schedule, and added picking up stocking stuffers for the boys, headlights gleaming through the foggy window announced Fred’s arrival home. She fluffed her hair, picked up the videotape of Stacy, and went to open the door.