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Authors: Gillian Roberts

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BOOK: Adam and Evil
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“Her son.” Beth wiped at her eyes. “Gage. It’s a family name. She—there was a custody battle. She lost.”

“Why? I can understand the money, but why the child?”

“She’d had …” Beth wasn’t meeting my eyes. Instead, she talked to the green-gray carpet, which looked as if it would hurt bare feet. She sighed and then looked up at me. “It was never a good marriage. Emmy was unhappy for a long time, and—you know how it happens. Eventually there was a man. She thought she was in love.” Her eyes demanded that I understand. I nodded.

“He was married, too,” she continued. “It was stupid, but you could see why it happened. She was so lonely. As for him, well, she definitely didn’t mean to him what he meant to her. After a while he ended it, and that’s when Ray struck. He’d been running around throughout the marriage, but he’d become suspicious of Emmy—maybe she seemed too happy or something—and hired a private investigator. He claimed moral turpitude, made up stories about her leaving the child for these assignations, endangering the boy. Ray even convinced his mother, who’d never been crazy about Emmy, to agree to the false claims. He exaggerated and pushed, used her affair as a wedge to take more and more— he wanted out, but wanted as much of their property as the law allowed, including his son, until after months of it she couldn’t stand it anymore and agreed that Gage would be better off with his father, who had money and could provide more opportunities. That’s when she decided to move to the city. Staying in the suburbs and being shut out of his life was too painful. This place is set up for visits, but basically he was to live with Ray. Which I guess is for the best now.” She dabbed at her eyes again and stood up, ready to complete her assignment.

I followed her into the kitchen, carrying the third silver-framed photo. “And this? Is this her in better times?” Beth looked at a drawer with an almost empty flatware organizer, then closed it back up and checked the photo I held, the posed portrait of a woman who looked like Emmy if she’d been hand polished with optimism, smoothed with poise, straightened up with self-assurance, if she’d had the tension ironed
out of her muscles and tendons, and if she’d had scarves, jewelry, and better-arranged hair to set off her features. A lot of ifs, but possible.

Beth opened another drawer and closed it, looking disappointed. “That’s her sister. Helena Spurry. As in Whatsis Spurry—you’d know who I mean, the zillionaire computer whiz. To her horror, she divorced him before he’d made a cent. A tiny cash settlement years ago, and that was it. Two sisters with men and divorce and money problems. And that’s all they had in common.”

When I looked again, I saw how different Helena Spurry actually was from the woman who’d guided me around the library. And yet the look of her felt familiar—but there the impression ended. No sense of a voice or personality. “She seems familiar,” I said. “Could I have met her through you?”

“I doubt it. I never cared for Helena. She’s a year and a half older than Emmy, and I swear she never got over her fury that there was another baby in the house. She’s always picked on her sister, begrudged her everything she had. Consumed by jealousy, always checking to make sure she had more and better. And Emmy always gave in. When their mother was alive—she died last year—it was worse. Helena was like a well-groomed, articulate toddler screaming, ‘Me! Me!’” Beth was now on her knees, opening bottom cabinets, peering inside.

“So why her photo on the mantel?”

“I just told you how I feel about Helena. Emmy was much more forgiving. And much more intimidated. Besides, it looked good for the housewarming.” Beth laughed, a bit uncomfortably, and continued to remove every item from a bottom cabinet with such expertise and nonchalance that the inventory and search seemed second nature to her.

“A peace offering,” she continued. “Helena was here, probably just to make sure that Emmy wasn’t living as well as she was. The part that infuriates me is that Helena could have made a difference. She owns an antiques store. She could have pulled a few pieces of her inventory, given them to her sister. Brightened the place up, made it less impersonal. She could have and should have. It was Emmy who provided the capital that started Helena’s pretentious store. Emmy loaned
her most of her share of their inheritance. Poor Emmy. Her timing stunk in just about everything. She loaned Helena the money one month before her marriage exploded and she suddenly needed it.”

“Maybe Helena was going to repay her. Maybe that’s what she meant about having a way out of the money problems,” I suggested.

“My foot.” Beth replaced a carton of dry milk, a plastic container of pasta, and a bottle of oil. “Helena’s store doesn’t bring in a penny. Helena just insists on living as if she were wealthy, and heaven forbid she should take a job that’s beneath her imagined status. But what does any of it matter now? What I’m saying is that even if Helena wasn’t making money, she could have given her sister, who technically must own half the store’s stock, something pretty that would have made this place more like a home.”

Beth sounded ready to burst into tears again. I dropped the topic. It didn’t matter. “Is—Was Emmy getting support despite this battle?”

Beth looked still more troubled. “I’m not sure now.” She spoke slowly. “She told me nothing tangible, no details, but she was under pressure and the sisters were quarreling about the money….” She shook her head. “I’m making it sound terrible. I’m not suggesting that Helena …” But she looked worried.

“Maybe Sam could find out about the will, too,” I suggested. “At least some sense of how much was left to the two of them.”

Beth sighed. “He’ll hate my asking all these obvious questions. Sam’s still friends with … you know how couples wind up choosing one or the other half of a divorce, but I can see Sam’s point—he and Ray went to law school together, worked together all these years, were made partner around the same time. But it made it so hard on me. Like I was sneaking around to still see Emmy, and then to be a good wife to Sam, to make his life easier at work, I’d have to be polite and sociable with Ray when I knew what a louse he was.” She opened an eye-level cabinet that had two dishes, two cups, two saucers, and two soup bowls.

“Sam didn’t actually come up here Sunday.” Beth was staring at the nearly empty cabinet as if mesmerized. “He
walked around town with the kids, used them as his excuse, but it was really because it felt awkward to him. It makes me bone-tired. Angry, too.”

The night’s foray made better sense now. It was more than a final act of friendship—it was also an act of defiance. Of solidarity with a dead friend.

“So far her kitchen is pathetically tidy.” Beth’s voice was cleansed of its bitter overtones. She gently closed the cabinet door. “Not even a true junk drawer.”

I wandered back to the living room and over to the bookcase. It’s how I peg a person, and as far as I could see, it was the one place in this set of rooms where a personality might peek through. I expected a librarian to have interesting shelves.

The bulk of her library was given over to world classics, heavy on the Russians, poetry collections, James Joyce, Irish playwrights. I have almost the same titles in the same editions—or had, before my house blew up. College texts— the books she’d have brought into the marriage. Plus one title about book collecting and, next to it, a dealer’s catalogue, and another that was obviously the text for the computer course she’d said she was taking. One on helping your child through your divorce. One on managing money. You could chart her life by her book titles. The suburban years were represented, I suspected, by a small collection of relatively new fiction. “Hey, Beth,” I said, checking, “did your book group read Ursula Hegi?
Stones from the River?

“About a year ago. Maybe longer.”

“Cold Mountain? Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood?”

“How’d you know?”

“My group read them, too. And a few more that are here, all separated from the college classics. Ray let her keep them even though they were acquired during the marriage. Big of him.”

“Probably thought they were revolutionary. Or worse—

The fatigue I’d been fighting returned in waves that threatened to pull me under, and I saw how futile and silly this outing was. I went into the kitchen. “Let’s go home,” I said. “This is as impersonal a place as I can imagine, so why are we really here? To annoy Sam? To prove something? Do you
actually think she had anything she didn’t want people to see? And if so, who are those people? And how am I supposed to find something I don’t know about? I’d like to throw out all her furniture, but surely that isn’t what she meant. I’m useless here.”

Beth looked on the verge of tears again. “I think … I think she was afraid on behalf of her son. I think she assumed I understood that there were love letters. Something Ray could use to poison their son against even her memory.”

“Then why the kitchen? Who’d hide love letters there?”

Beth looked surprised, then she quickly opened another door and peered inside with excessive interest, examining its contents, which were paltry and sparse.

“You? You have—you’re kidding, aren’t you?”

“You don’t think I have a life, do you?” She turned to me, her lips pursed. “You don’t think I have a personality. The kitchen’s a perfect place. Everybody hides things in their lingerie drawer, so everybody knows to look there. Anybody with imagination would realize how much better kitchens are. Men almost never … well, Sam almost never goes into the cabinets. Ingredients don’t interest him.”

I folded my arms across my chest and waited. It always worked on my students.

“I use a half-full box of rice. Been using it for a dozen years. An old boyfriend had a resurgence of feeling for me about a year after I was married. I didn’t answer except to say I wasn’t interested, and I wasn’t—but all the same, I couldn’t throw them away, either, even though I knew they’d upset Sam if he found them. And about once a year the man still writes—as a friend—but he always says that in case I’ve changed my mind, he’s waiting.” She shrugged, bit at her top lip. “I can’t throw them out, but I wouldn’t want …” And she turned her back to me and continued pulling every bottle and box off the kitchen shelves.

“So,” I said, “do you want me to … if, say, you were hit by a bus—”

At which Beth grabbed a dishtowel and wiped at her eyes. “See? Yes. Because Emmy … that was the pact.”

To think that for all these years a piece of my sister’s heart had lived in an old box of rice. Beth had always seemed to me the one truly serene woman in the world. No longer. I’d always
accepted her at face value, but several times tonight I’d seen her smoothly pave over her features, give that face its desired value. It saddened me—not the knowledge that Beth was more complicated than I’d given her credit for being, but that I’d wanted to hold on to the idea that there was a thoroughly and perpetually contented woman somewhere on earth.

“I don’t think Emmy used the pantry.” Beth’s voice was once again smooth.

“I’ll check the bedroom,” I said. “That’s where I’d hide my secrets, even if it’s predictable and clichéd.” It depressed me to realize I didn’t have anything that would embarrass me posthumously except general clutter, and I didn’t know if that was because I was stupefyingly boring or so far gone that I didn’t give a damn.

“Have you gone through her desk yet?”

I hadn’t, because it was a stupid thing—a shellacky copy of one of those rickety, undersized stations where ladies in bustles wrote bread-and-butter notes with quill pens. Its surface was uncluttered, with nothing under the unmarked blotter pad. When I pulled open its single shallow drawer, the results were equally unimpressive and predictable. Pens, pencils, highlighters, a ruler, and a notebook, which I opened.

Its contents were as close to clutter as Emily Buttonwood seemed to have gotten. The lined sheets had notes in a precise hand, the sort that would have pleased her teachers. Looking at it, though, I felt sorrow behind its tidiness, a desperate need to do this correctly. But I was undoubtedly reading into it what I already knew about her. I glanced at her notes, filled with abbreviations and signals for her computer course. I wondered where the computer itself had gone. A laptop would fit on this wee desk. And in Ray Buttonwood’s shopping bag. It was technically his, too, I suppose, but he still seemed a vulture in swooping it up.

The binder paper’s notes were tidy, but the rest of the binder’s contents were a dramatic contrast to that tight, neat penmanship. It seemed as if every inch was filled with notes to herself on scraps of paper, some with adhesive backing, some clipped to pages, many to the front and back covers, and all trivial or unintelligible. Mostly they seemed the sort
of reminders meant to be chucked as soon as the chore was completed. Emmy hadn’t believed in the chucking part.

She had a housekeeping flaw. I felt a great wave of relief and kinship.

I compulsively read the scraps and bits, looking at their various designs—angels and teddy bears, and
, stamped across the tops. Lined and plain, pastel and deep hues.

One had a list of books to buy or check out for her son:
Cat in Hat, Pooh, I Can Reads
, and another I assumed was for Gage as well:
Trucks, esp. red.
Couldn’t she remember that? Was she falling apart so much she needed such primitive reminders? I’d once read about a rare neurological disorder where the afflicted couldn’t “dump” temporal information. While the rest of us park our car in a structure and remember the space only until we reclaim the car, those poor souls can’t get rid of the information. They remember every laundry receipt and due date at the library until their minds must be pure clutter.

Emily’s notebook seemed the written equivalent. Her notes were mundane, from recipe and dental reminders—
Moussaka recipe/Terry, 12mo, VF, dent
—to cryptic missives about friends (or at least I hoped they were friends; this woman needed people) or dates—
Clark/Shoemaker/Buck95, Bauman knows?
—to the totally unintelligible (unless this was her shorthand for CDs she wanted to buy):
One had been imprinted with the drawing of a finger with a string tied around it on top and, in her writing,
Check/Bauman/Sabin/leaf, gutters. I
had to assume she no longer paid the bills for maintenance on a home she’d left, so why hang on to this probably painful reminder? In fact, there were two more notes mentioning Sabin at other spots in the book. I thought of the fellow who had come up with the first polio vaccine. My aunt Lydia was convinced that Sabin, whose name was whispered reverentially, had personally, specially, saved her children from the dire disease that had killed her sister. It was impossible to visit Aunt Lydia without hearing that anecdote—Sabin hadn’t saved her from being boring.

BOOK: Adam and Evil
2.52Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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