by Linda Sillitoe
[p.252]After scanning the food court to make sure Caitlin hadn’t arrived ahead of him, Roger bought a root beer and a burrito, then found a wire chair and table where he had a wide view. He had walked the three blocks from his office to Crossroads Mall despite the snow. Now his feet protested his damp shoes and his umbrella formed a small pond under the table.
Here came Cait now, watching him as the escalator glided downward. Four Tongan boys, three large, one small, lounged on the escalator ahead other and seemed to Roger to be eyeing her. But just as she reached the floor, Caitlin smiled and poked one in his huge bicep, said something, and they all laughed. Looking less tired than the last time he’d seen her, she made a beeline for Roger.
“Friends of yours?” he asked as she surveyed the fast food booths.
“Two of them posed for our cover photo about a year ago,” she said. “Funny kids.” She held up one finger meaningfully then headed for the quickie Chinese, returning with egg rolls and a Coke. “For moral support,” she said, popping an egg roll in her mouth and muttering around it, “so shoot.”
[p.253]“How are you?” Roger asked, not quite ready to get down to business. “Have you recovered from the holidays?”
“Absolutely. How about you?” She smiled understandingly as he nodded.
“A great Christmas, thanks. I hope yours was, too.”
“Oh, yeah. The usual cheerful chaos. You know, I think I got Jake the best present ever—a little handwritten book about four inches square. He loved it.”
“What was it? Some kind of antique?”
She nodded. “His partner at the bookstore told me about it. It’s a code book they used in the days of polygamy so the feds wouldn’t be able to decipher the polygamists’ letters to each other. They’d have a list of nouns to be substituted for other nouns, and if you didn’t have a copy of the code book, you couldn’t tell what they were saying.”
“No kidding. I never heard of that. Wouldn’t the feds catch on eventually that every time they said ‘ostrich’ or something, they meant ‘Miss Lila Gray?’”
She laughed. “Well, it was a bit more complicated than that. You’d substitute a name for another name, then if you had to, you could code the substitute name and no one would ever get back to the original.”
“Interesting,” Roger commented even as he watched Caitlin absorb some inner thunderbolt. “What?”
“Hot damn,” she muttered under her breath. “Double coding.” She shook it off, shrugged, and smiled. “So—why have we gathered here today, brother?”
Okay, Roger thought, down to business. “Thanks for meeting me,” he began. “I just felt I ought to run some of this by you. As far as this family video goes, Barbara’s editing is beginning to look more like censorship. And Marly…I don’t know; Marly’s feet don’t seem to quite touch the ground on this one.”
[p.254]“Or very often in real life, either,” Caitlin quipped.
“Right.” He managed a smile. “Caitlin, I just can’t have Boyd included as the smiling big brother, the Eagle Scout, and then never mention his death—or gloss over it with a little funeral music and a photo with a black band around it.”
“Okay, I think the minimum rule is that we don’t say anything in the video that isn’t factual.”
Roger considered. “Then, for instance, we don’t say that we don’t know the cause of Boyd’s death.”
“Right. Or that he was called to serve a higher mission.”
Roger winced. “Okay. That’s the minimum. Then what?”
But Caitlin was looking past him at the round pool and fountain in the center of the court. He followed her gaze and wondered for an instant why she was watching a slight, older woman, who was staring into the pool bottom sprinkled with pennies. Then he realized she was looking at their mother.
They exchanged one startled glance—shall we?—before Caitlin jumped out of her chair and went to get her. Roger watched them return, chuckling together at the coincidence of meeting. He stood and pulled over another chair, bending for a kiss.
So much for business, he thought, as his mother declined any refreshment, worrying that she would miss Dad, who was to meet her at the fountain. Caitlin assured her that they would all watch for him. But business didn’t end after all. Once the pleasantries were finished, Cait plunged right in, explaining why she and Roger were in the mall at an hour when they’d usually be hurrying home. Surprised, Roger hung an arm casually over the back of his mother’s chair and kept encouraging Caitlin with his eyes.
Good for you, Mom, Roger thought, watching her nod as Caitlin explained their desire to see Boyd well represented in the [p.255]video. “Well, of course,” she said, though the little lines around her mouth tensed.
Roger took a deep breath. “How do we do it, Mom?” he asked. “How do we go from the happy days when we were all kids together, through Boyd’s death and into adulthood?”
Her eyes misted, and she shook her head. The silence stretched.
Caitlin reached out and took her mother’s hand. “Mom, what if we say that Boyd died accidentally shortly before he was scheduled to leave for his mission?”
Roger met his mother’s sharpened gaze that switched between his eyes and Caitlin’s. “We know, Mom,” he said. “It’s okay. We’re grown up now.”
“Do all of you know?” she asked, her voice trembling. She withdrew her hand and clasped it with her other.
“Well, not Barbara really,” Roger said. “She doesn’t want to discuss it, and she can’t believe that Boyd was … ” Under his mother’s sad gaze, he let his voice trail off. Wimp, he accused himself.
Pain masked his mother’s face then so intensely that he touched her folded hands and looked desperately at Caitlin. She gave him a determined look. For a moment they all held on.
“I can’t even cry any more,” their mother said then, her voice even more weary than her eyes. “Boyd really tried, you kids should know that. He tried to discuss it with us. He talked to the bishop. He even talked to the stake president.”
“What did they tell him?” Roger asked softly.
“They told him to go on his mission, then come home and get married in the temple. They told him everything would be all right if he just did what he was supposed to.”
For Roger then, the mall took on a reddish cast. He jumped up and walked once around the food court, returning with a glass [p.256]of lemonade, which he handed to his mother. She and Caitlin were sitting in silence. Caitlin looked like a ghost, as if all her energy flowed toward her mother, Roger thought. He pushed her Coke toward her and she drained the last of it.
“And afterward?” Caitlin said then.
“Oh, after Boyd died, we met with them—the bishop, the stake president,” his mother said. “We talked about it. They counseled us and then we let it rest.”
“Rest,” Roger choked. He cleared his throat. “What did they tell you, Mom?”
“They said to leave it all in the hands of the Lord and to remember Boyd as he was when he was younger, before he got—lost.” Her voice broke and she trembled all over, but still no tears came.
Roger remembered the sunshine warming him and Marly at the edge of a snowy crevice. He took a long breath. “You know, Mom, I think Boyd did the best he could,” Roger said. “What was he supposed to do if he felt he couldn’t change?”
“Oh, I know,” she said. ‘‘I’ve been following the newspapers and magazines on all this new research. Genetics, you know. Biology. Even the church says now that it’s not a sin to-be that way—as long as you don’t … ”
“Don’t love anyone,” Caitlin put in softly. She sighed and looked at Roger, her eyes brimming.
After a moment their mother said, “But of course you can’t put any of this in the video.”
“Then what—” Roger began, stopping when he saw she hadn’t finished her thought.
“They asked us—back then, the stake president went with us to see a general authority, we were so despondent—and they asked us to keep this quiet. They said it would be better for Boyd, better for us as a family, and better for the church if we didn’t [p.257]discuss the reasons around his death. And you were all so young. What would we have told you? We could hardly deal with it ourselves.”
A silence fell, but silence was something Roger could no longer abide. “It isn’t easy to deal with,” Roger admitted, but his voice cracked. “Still, we have to say something…”
“They let you hold all the pain,” Caitlin interrupted, eyes on her mother.
“Well, we’re his parents—” she began, and then the tears came. Roger and Caitlin instinctively moved closer. Caitlin reached into her bag for tissue.
“It wasn’t your fault,” Roger said. “It was never your fault.”
“She knows that, don’t you, Mom?” Caitlin asked.
They watched their mother dry her face, drink lemonade, and then, amazingly, compose herself. Even the trembling stopped. “Here comes Dad,” she said. She waved. As they watched him cross the food court, talking energetically with another man, she added sternly without looking at either of them, “Your father can’t discuss this.”
“You remember Jerry Jenkins from the South Millcreek Stake,” Dad was calling to Mom now, as they approached. “Looks like a little family party here. Jerry, this is my son, Roger, my daughter, Caitlin.”
“Good to see you,” Jenkins said heartily, clapping Roger on the back in a way that communicated his status as a forgiven prodigal. Amused, Roger noted that he gave Caitlin, the muckraking journalist, a little wave across the table. She smiled sweetly. In the meantime, Roger noticed, his mother had fully made the transition to her social self. As they all chatted, he and Caitlin made the appropriate responses, then said good-bye. Once the threesome walked away, still talking, Roger and Caitlin dropped like stones into their chairs.
[p.258]“God,” Caitlin said, “I feel like I’m about to dematerialize. Nothing like getting mowed down by the past.”
“Except it isn’t the past,” Roger said. “It’s now.” He looked at his watch. “I’ve got to get home and I’m sure you do, too. Did we solve anything?”
“I think so, “Caitlin said. “I just haven’t figured out what. Let’s talk in a day or so. Marly too. At least we know Mom knows and others know—it just isn’t supposed to be discussed.”
Roger scraped back his chair in frustration, shook loose the tense muscles in his shoulders. “How about a ride back to my office? I didn’t bring my car.”
“You’ve got it,” she said. He took her arm as they stepped on to the three ascending escalators, one by one. Was he steadying her or himself?
“Will you be okay?” he asked, once in her car. “You’re awfully pale.”
“I’m feeling pretty good these days. This pain with Boyd just washes over me, that’s all. Everybody’s pain.”
As he nodded, she reached into the back seat and handed him several magazines, all alike. “The March issue,” she said. “The absolute last of Hubbard. The story doesn’t have much depth.”
“Thanks,” he said.
“Take them all,” she said blithely, “spread them around. I took one fast look and never want to see it again.” The car slid toward the curb nearest his office.
“You didn’t read it?” he teased.
“My eyes don’t adhere to the print.”
He gave her a smile. “Well, thanks. I’ll call you in a couple of days.”
Roger took the stairs instead of the elevator and retrieved his car from covered parking. He pulled slowly into the rush hour traffic and drove south on I-15. The windshield wipers swished [p.259]frantically. He had always liked the snow, used to ski, in fact; but tonight the whited city on either side of the valley floor smothered his heart like pain born in silence.