by Linda Sillitoe
[p.155]Marly moved almost silently through her day, shelving books and planning a new section. She had offered to take a late lunch, and then listened with relief as the rest of the staff left. Before long they returned, and soon she was walking north on Second East, munching a chicken sandwich. When she eased back into the stacks later, she managed to say almost nothing to anyone the entire afternoon.
All day Marly managed to maintain the silence that refreshed her until Caitlin dropped by her apartment that evening with the books Marly had loaned her. Marly found she needed the resilience she had accrued, for Cait popped questions until Marly felt like a vending machine, spilling out an answer when the proper lever was pulled.
“But how did you know?” Caitlin was saying urgently. “Was it the funny films? How did this intuitive stuff become real for you?”
“When did I know what?” Marly asked, moving the books to a corner of the couch. Caitlin ignored Lennon.
“That telepathy or extra sensory perception or intuition—whatever you call it—that it’s real. That people actually use it. One book says natives in Australia and Africa broadcast their [p.156]psychic programs all over the continent. Here we use radio or television or computers. So how did you know this stuff is real?”
Marly shrugged and led Caitlin into the kitchen, where she began rifling for supper. “I think most of us receive signals as children. I know I did, but I never knew how to interpret them. We learn to talk and listen. Then we learn to write things down. We forget how to do anything else.”
“That’s the other thing,” Caitlin added, her eyes flashing. “This book says that, just as some families are musical or lawyerly, others tend to be psychically linked.”
Marly nodded again. “But we deny it,” she added. “Notice how often one of us says, ‘I had a feeling I should have done it the other way,’ or reads your mind during a conversation. Or starts humming the tune that’s running through your head. Or calls just as you reach for the phone.”
“True, but we don’t take any of that seriously! I mean, Roger became an accountant, tied down to numbers. I became a journalist, looking for proof Barbara wouldn’t listen to a word of this unless we translated it into religious terms. And Boyd—well, who knows about Boyd. He died too early for us to tell anything. And you became a librarian.”
Marly was looking up a number to order pizza. “I don’t really know what to say, Cait,” Marly began. “Sure, I’ve read some books, but I’m not used to analyzing this the way you do.”
Caitlin clutched at her short shiny hair. Marly turned away to keep from laughing and called in the pizza order. “Remember when I was in the hospital?” Marly asked, then took a long sip of tea as Caitlin nodded.
“Yeah. When you were a little girl. What was that all about? Mom and Dad would never really say what was wrong with you.”
“I don’t know the official diagnosis. Maybe it was clinical depression. I think they called it a nervous breakdown.”
[p.157]“Can an eleven-year-old have a nervous breakdown?”
“Boyd had just died, and I think I was the one who cracked first,” Marly told her. “That’s why I held on to the things that you let go.”
When they had taken Marly to the hospital, she had been disoriented for a time. Strangers undressed her, pushed and poked her, asked questions, stabbed her with needles. After a few hours she had managed to float beyond the questions but couldn’t avoid the needles or the thermometer plugged into her rear end every four hours, or the blood pressure cuff that squeezed her arm to the bone.
She became a sheet between sheets and not even the needles mattered. She flattened and became white and crisp, indifferent, her pains woven like threads. Sheets have no eyes, and Marly’s remained closed especially when anyone came in. Even open, they saw everything flat, almost as flat as she had become. Her parents’ faces gazed at her two-dimensionally, like people on a poster. She would close her eyes again.
At some point a voice said to her, “Marly, you are going to be just fine, honey. Nurse Josy is taking care of you now. You are getting better already.” After a moment she opened her eyes. A face the color of a Hershey bar looked back at her.
Later she heard Nurse Josy say, “Doesn’t this smell good, Marly? Open your eyes, honey, and drink this broth.” An aroma made Marly pucker all over. She opened her eyes and then her lips. Nurse Josy tipped a warm mug against them and Marly swallowed. Chicken broth ran warmly down her throat.
“You’re not going to have any visitors for a little while,” Nurse Josy said. “Or any presents. Just you and me from eleven in the morning until seven at night. People have plumb worn you out.”
[p.158]Marly closed her eyes again, feeling exhaustion consume her like a swamp.
“They didn’t mean to,” the nurse said, taking her cold flat hand in a big, warm one, “but then they never do. So you rest now, and I’ll get on with my knitting.” In a moment Marly heard a faint click of metal against metal. As if a switch had been flipped, she took a deep, ragged breath and fell deeply asleep.
Every evening, beginning that evening, Nurse Josy rubbed Marly’s back and shoulders with baby oil and encouraged her to talk. “Tell me about your house,” she said. “What does it look like on the outside?”
Marly described the green lawn the first evening, then the borders of flowers in the spring and summer, the red maple leaves in the fall, the snow fort she and Roger and, until recently, Caitlin built each January.
One morning she asked for Nurse Josy. The young nurse with square blond hair hadn’t known who she was talking about. Finally she looked at Marly’s chart. “You must mean Mrs. Johnson,” she said finally, with a little sniff. “She comes in from eleven to seven—special.”
Evening after evening as Nurse Josy rubbed her back, Marly described the yard around her house and then the bricks and shutters, the heavy wooden doors. Late one evening Nurse Josy had said in her slow, easy voice, “Now I’m opening a window, Marly. You and I are still outside on the grass. I’m just opening a window here. What comes out?”
“Poison,” Marly had said, then buried her face in the pillow.
Nurse Josy’s hands hadn’t even paused, they just kept rubbing, probing under her shoulder blades. “Who can see this poison?” she asked.
“Just me,” Marly said into the pillow.
“Do the others know it’s there?”
[p.159]“I think so. But they say it’s not there. It’s like a cloud.”
“Well, I believe you,” Nurse Josy had said, and let her hands finish the conversation until Marly relaxed.
“Poison?” Caitlin said now, her eyes scanning Marly’s face. “What did you mean?”
“Boyd had died a while before I got sick,” Marly reminded her and saw her sister flinch as she nodded. “No one would tell me what had happened to him, but I knew it was something very bad.” A pause, then she asked, “Did anyone tell you?”
“Not really. For a while I heard Mother and Dad talk about foul play, but that never really went anywhere. I don’t think the police made a second visit. Barbara wouldn’t talk about it at all, and Roger—Roger didn’t talk about anything after that, did he? It seemed like he was always gone, always busy.”
In a minute Caitlin went on, “I remember one time when Rog and I started crying, stringing popcorn for Christmas the year after Boyd died. The popcorn was getting soggy and our faces were oily. Finally Roger jammed his hands in his pockets, and said, ‘Accidents happen,’ as if that was the last word on it.
“He’d found Boyd that Sunday, you know. I don’t think we ever mentioned it again.”
Marly considered. “No one would talk to me at all,” she said, and hurt rose in her throat as if Boyd had died last month. “But I knew.”
“Knew what? What did the nurse get out of you?”
Marly walked into the bedroom to retrieve Lennon, and brought him back to hold while she talked. “I think Josy probably knew the family history. She got me to blow the cloud out of the house, one breath at a time.”
“Wow,” Caitlin said.
[p.160]Marly took a slow breath; she seemed to have frozen this memory long ago, and now it rose fresh and whole. “Josy said, ‘Marly, I don’t know exactly what happened to your brother, Boyd. I know he died, maybe by accident or maybe he took his own life. Sometimes people take their own lives without meaning to, you know?’”
Caitlin quirked her eyebrows, and Marly shrugged. “That’s what she said.”
“You mean they attempt suicide as a cry for help, but they succeed—accidentally?” Caitlin asked.
“Maybe that’s what she meant. Then she said, ‘The point is, Marly, don’t you ever let anybody—your parents, or your school teachers, or your friends, or anybody—tell you that you don’t know something you know. Because the fact is, if you know it, you know it. And they don’t.’”
Caitlin laughed sympathetically. “I like that.”
“So I held on to that and finally things began to knit together.”
“You have such peace here,” Caitlin said. She sounded surprised. Probably she considered her best evenings to be those she and Jake spent playing with the twins.
Marly smiled. “It’s nice having you around.” Her throat tightened, and she realized how lonely her family ties had become. Caitlin seemed to realize, too. Then her eyes gleamed in a way Marly recognized, and Marly took a long breath, bracing for Cait’s return to the rational.
“You know what,” Caitlin breathed. ‘‘I’ll bet I can find out what really happened to Boyd. Even that far back there’s got to be a police record somewhere.”
Silence again, as the sisters replayed their memories. Marly recalled how Roger had trembled on the back steps that day as the siren’s wail ran down beside their house. Marly had sat down close to him, close enough to feel him shaking. “What hap-[p.161]pened?” skinny Caitlin was demanding. Her hair was cut as short as a boy’s and she’d pierced her ears. “Tell me, Roger. Tell me what happened.”
Doors slammed, they heard voices inside the house, and finally Barbara came out, looking as old as a grown-up. She stood before them, sobbing like a kid. “They don’t know ifit was an accident or foul play,” she said. “Boyd is dead. Mom and Dad are crying.” Roger kept shaking.
“Roger,” Caitlin said, reading Marly’s eyes. “You know, he never said a word that long awful day. Boyd’s death has got to have something to do with why Rog disappeared—don’t you think?”
“It must,” Marly nodded, remembering her image in church of Roger blindfolded, stepping high through thorns and snakes. “Maybe he finally cracked too.”
“Barbara’s ne-ext,” they chanted together, breaking the tension.
“Check the police record, Cait, and also see what you can find out about those letters that Roger sent to Robyn. Did Nick ever see the envelopes?”
“There’s not much to see,” Caitlin said. “First thing tomorrow, I’ll do it, then call you.”
“I’ve been wanting some time away from the city,” Marly said, surprising herself, for the thought had only been a vague impulse before. “Find out what you can, and then I’m going to go find him.”
“Right,” Caitlin laughed, as if Marly was kidding. “I’m going to let you get some sleep. You look awfully tired.”
“I am,” Marly admitted, stifling a yawn.
Marly drifted around the apartment. She felt alone and sad, as if she had lost her brothers again that very evening. Or was it herself she had lost?—the tail-end of an achieving, reproducing [p.162]family. Caitlin had Jake and the girls. Robyn had her toddlers. Barbara and Fred had a full house, and Mom and Dad had each other. She looked at Lennon, who snoozed peacefully on his back taking up half the sofa.
She hadn’t seen Paul for two weeks, but that wasn’t usually a problem. She had no intention of depending on him when he had only part of himself and his time to give. Now, though, she worried about his impending transfer and wondered if he had given her all the time he ever would. She looked at the clock—nearly nine. He would be preparing for the ten o’clock news. She looked up his work number in her address book and dialed quickly before she could change her mind.
Paul’s recorded voice answered. She waited for the tone. “This is Marly,” she said quietly. “I need to see you tonight.” She hung up. Would he be surprised or upset that she called? She was usually available when he wanted to see her, either at the apartment or at the library.
Shortly after ten-thirty when the news ended, he called. “What’s wrong, Marly?” He sounded concerned but not annoyed.
“I’ve got a sudden case of the blues. I just needed—” her voice stuck.
“I can come over in fifteen minutes—if it’s not too late.”
“It’s not too late,” she said, then laughed at the melodramatic implications.
“Glad to hear that!” he kidded, sounding relieved. “See you.”
Marly had put on her Simon and Garfunkel tape and brushed her hair before she heard the intercom bell announce his arrival. When he came through the door, he engulfed her in his overcoat and held her for a long minute.
“Do you want coffee?” she asked.
“No, I’ve had a quart this evening.” Coat off, he led her into [p.163]the living room, lit only by the adjacent kitchen light. He sat down on the couch and pulled her on to his lap. His hands were everywhere, rubbing her neck and shoulders, smoothing her hair, turning her face to be kissed.
“Want to talk?” he asked.
“Oh, I don’t know. Not really. Just hold me a minute. Have you heard any more about the transfer to Denver?”
“Not a word except I gather it would mean a higher salary. Sorry, but I don’t have too many minutes,” he added. “I’ve got a kid with the croup.”
“Oh,” Marly said, straightening. “I didn’t know.”
He pulled her back down. “Of course you didn’t know. Now sit here a minute. What if I drop by the library tomorrow and we’ll grab a little lunch?”
“Sure,” Marly said. “Sounds good.” He kissed her again.
“Like a bridge over troubled water,” Simon and Garfunkel sang, “I will lay me down.” He held her until the song ended, and then he was gone.