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Authors: Ayelet Waldman

Tags: #Fiction, #Literary, #Contemporary Women, #Sagas

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BOOK: Love and Treasure
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“Okay.”

“Seeing a document from Daniel’s firm made you quit your job?” he asked, wondering if his brain was slowing, if there was some obvious connection here that anyone but a dying old fool could see.

“It made me realize how entangled our lives are. He could end up at my office for a closing. Or I could end up at his for a settlement conference. I just don’t want that to happen.”

“You quit a job making twice as much money as I made in my last year as a tenured professor because you were afraid you might bump into your ex-husband in a conference room?”

“It sounds ridiculous.”

“It
is
ridiculous.”

“I just want a fresh start.”

“Doing what?”

“I don’t know. I don’t want to talk about this anymore. Is that okay?”

He nodded. Not talking about things was always, in the view of Jack Wiseman, a viable if not preferable option. In this case, in particular, because all that he could think of that he wanted to say to his granddaughter boiled down, in the end, to:
What the hell happened to you?
She had always been so sensible, resilient, purposeful, even single-minded. But ever since her divorce—no, from the moment she had unaccountably decided on her hasty and ill-advised marriage to Daniel Friedman—the kid had been a fucking mess.

“Turn right at the blinking yellow,” he said, but her turn signal was already on. In this regard, at least, she still knew her way.

The Red Hook Grill, an arrangement of vinyl-sided boxes stacked like lobster traps alongside Caldecott Falls, was the only restaurant in town that stayed open all through the off-season. In the gathering gray twilight of a frozen afternoon it blazed like a gaudy promise of warmth and comfort, and though the bar was topped with Formica and the pie with Cool Whip, the locals depended on it—Jack depended on it, too—to cheer the endless dark tunnel of a Down East winter. Jack placed his usual order—fish-and-chips, with onion rings swapped for the fries—though he knew he wouldn’t be able to eat more than a bite or two. He hadn’t been able to tolerate much of anything for a while now, despite what the doctors had promised when they’d convinced him to have the stent put in to relieve his jaundice. He was dropping weight so fast he thought he might vanish before the cancer killed him.

Natalie’s usual was a hamburger and a Diet Coke, but today she ordered a milk shake, a black and white, and, when Louise brought the food, dropped a straw into the frosty metal blender cup that the Grill always served alongside its shakes and slid it across the table toward Jack.

“It might be easier to get that down.”

He patted her hand and out of gratitude and good manners took a sip, with a show of relish, of the thick and saccharine confection. He loathed milk shakes.

At the end of the meal, Louise came over with a piece of pie, on the house, baked that morning from blueberries frozen at the end of last summer.

“Tide you over till next summer,” she said.

She and Natalie exchanged a look. Louise put her hand on Jack’s shoulder.

“How are you, Jack?”

“Fine, Louise,” he said.

And then he felt obliged to take a bite of pie. It tasted to his dysfunctional palate like vinegar and salt.

“Very tasty,” he said.

“Thank you, Louise,” Natalie said.

As they watched Louise make her way back to the kitchen Natalie said, “Ever since Daniel left, everyone’s always asking me, ‘Natalie, how are you?’ like they expect me to break down crying or tear out my hair or something. I never know what to say.”

“It’s for just such moments that the word ‘fine’ was invented.”

“I guess. Daddy calls me every morning and says, ‘How bad is it today, Sugarbear?’ and I give him a number from one to ten. For the first month or two, I was pretty steadily in the ones and twos, but eventually I worked my way up to around a five.”

“Your father does the same with me. Every morning.” Jack was fond of Neil Stein, his son-in-law, closer to him than he’d been to his daughter. Close enough, in fact, that this daily ritual of checking in comforted rather than annoyed him.

“What number do you give him?” Natalie asked.

“I try to stay above a six.”

“Pancreatic cancer and you’re a six. My dumbfuck husband cheats on me, and I’m a one. Okay, that makes me the most selfish person in the world.”

That made Jack smile.

“I’m glad you’re here, darling,” he said. “Now come on.” He pushed back in his chair. “Let’s go out and look at the falls before it’s too dark to see anything.”

“It’s probably really slippery. And it’s still snowing.”

Jack shrugged on his coat and pulled on his gloves. He handed her his scarf. “Put this on. I don’t know what you were thinking, bringing a coat like that to Maine in January.”

“I wanted to look nice for you.”

“You always look nice to me.”

“I wanted to look nice for me, then. It, you know, it helps.”

Because, she meant, she felt ugly and unwanted on the inside.

“I understand,” he said. “Come on, gorgeous.”

He took her arm as they walked through the snow to the edge of the water, whether to steady her or himself he wasn’t sure. They reached the falls, a mysterious tidal churn of seawater that reversed direction with each turn of the tide. It must have been slack tide; the water milled in the narrows between the near and far shores as if uncertain which way to turn. Natalie threw a stick into the water, and they watched it drift irresolute on the swell.

“Your life is not over, Natalie. You will meet someone new.”

“Will I? I want what you had with Grandma. That kind of great romance. The first time you saw her, you knew.”

“Did I? How interesting. Tell me, what did I know?”

He could see that he had shocked her.

“That, you know. That she was the one.”

“The ‘one.’ ” He shook his head.

“Grandma wasn’t the one?”

“Your grandmother was a beautiful woman with a good heart, and I loved her very much. Was she ‘the one’? That I don’t know. That strikes me as awfully simplistic.”

“What happened with Daniel wasn’t too complicated, Grandpa. He loved me. Then he didn’t. Or maybe he just loved her more.”

“Perhaps. Or maybe he is just a little shit.”

“Whoa!”

“Is that simple enough for you?”

She laughed so hard that she was obliged to take a Kleenex out of her pocket and blow her nose.

“Look,” he said, pointing to the water where a seal’s slick head had popped up. “That’s how seals sleep. With their bodies below and their heads like snorkels just above the surface.”

“Oh, my God,” she said. “You never liked Daniel.”

“I never liked Daniel.”

“Why didn’t you say something before we got married?”

“I didn’t think you were very likely to listen.”

Though she had been going out with Daniel Friedman for years with marriage a frequently discussed, oft-deferred possibility, in the end they had married on an impulse, without advance notice or, as far as Jack could tell, any discussion at all. Daniel’s parents were on their way to a vacation in Nova Scotia; Jack had offered them his guest room and a chance to break the long trip from New York before they headed up to catch the ferry in St. John. Natalie and Daniel were already scheduled to spend the week with Jack, along with Neil. It was on realizing that what remained of their respective families was going imminently to assemble in the same house for a day and a night that Natalie had abruptly decided to get married. Jack thought it was a rotten idea, but he held his tongue, figuring that the young man would find a way to weasel out of it. But Daniel, true to his weasel soul, had allowed the ship to sail knowing that its hull was ruptured, and so Jack had found himself hosting a pretty little ceremony by the seaside, at which Natalie’s and Daniel’s immediate
families were joined by a haphazard collection of acquaintances who happened to be in the vicinity of Red Hook, Maine, on the afternoon of June 20. When, a mere three months later, Daniel had stunned poor Natalie by confessing to having been, for the last two years, sleeping with a junior associate, Jack had not been surprised.

“You’re right,” Natalie said now. “I wouldn’t have listened, because I’m an ass.” She kept her gaze fixed on the seal, and Jack saw a worried look come into her eyes, familiar to him from the time she was a toddler. “If a shark comes up while he’s sleeping, does he wake up?”

The chills began a few miles from home, and by the time they reached the pair of whitewashed posts that marked the entrance to his long gravel drive, Jack’s whole body was shaking, legs shuddering, teeth clacking together. He grasped one hand with the other to keep them from flopping around in his lap like fish on a line. The car crunched through a blue-white canyon of banked snow up the drive. As Natalie pulled all the way to the front steps of the house, Jack closed his eyes. He did not have the strength even to open his door, let alone to get out of the car. He waited, listening to the creak and slam of the trunk lid, the banging of her bags against the steps of the porch.

“Grandpa?” Natalie said. She had opened his door and was hovering over him, a note of panic in her voice. “Are you okay?”

“Just tired,” he said.

“You’re sweating.”

He could feel sweat pouring down his forehead, pooling in his armpits and between his legs.

“I could use a nap,” he said.

He allowed her to hoist him out of the car and help him into the house, but when she tried to follow him into his bedroom, he drew the line. He closed the door and, after a feeble attempt at the buttons of his shirt, crawled under the comforter and let the fever overtake him. He slept for twelve hours and woke at six feeling better than he had in weeks, well enough even to load and light the woodstove. Well enough to put a pot of coffee on, if not to drink it.

Natalie came down soon after. In her flannel nightshirt, with her hair tousled, her eyes puffy with sleep, she was again the little girl with whom he had passed so many early mornings, telling stories of the sack of Troy, the Peloponnesian War, Antigone and Polynices, Odysseus and
Penelope. Wildly inappropriate tales, some of them, for a small child, stories of slaughter and mayhem and betrayal. She had adored them.

“You hungry? Want me to make you a pancake in the shape of an N?” He meant it as a joke, but the offer came out sounding unexpectedly sincere.

She smiled. “It’s been a long time since I had one of those.”

“Oh!” he said, mildly panicked now that she seemed to be taking him up on his foolish offer, wondering if he had the wherewithal, either in his pantry or in his constitution. “I—I’m sure I could—”

“I’m not hungry,” she said.

“Ah,” he said, absurdly disappointed.

“How are you feeling, Grandpa?”

“I’m feeling much better.” He looked at her. “Did you sleep well?”

“Not really.”

“Was the bed—”

“The bed’s fine. I don’t sleep well in New York, either.” She went to the counter, poured herself a cup of coffee, splashed in a little milk from the refrigerator. When she turned back to him she was holding a slip of paper.

“This is for you,” she said. She handed him a check, folded in two. When he opened it, he saw that she had made it out to him in the amount of five hundred dollars.

“It’s what you gave me and Daniel. For our wedding. I’m returning it.”

“Honey, that’s crazy. This is just five hundred bucks more you’ll have to pay inheritance tax on.” He crossed to the woodstove, opened the door, and tossed the check into the blaze.

“So much for that part of my plan,” she said, sounding so lost that he almost regretted his action.

“What plan is that?” he said. “Returning your gifts?”

“Don’t you think I should? Since the marriage lasted only three months?”

“You want to know what I think? I think that if your little shit of a husband leaves you for some dolly after you gave him twelve years of your life, you are entitled to enjoy the modest consolation of an automatic bread maker. Or a five-hundred-dollar check from your grandfather.”

She nodded, a small, childlike nod of submission that made his heart ache.

“I guess I need a new plan,” she said.

That was when she started to cry. Softly, for a long time, saying nothing about the grandfather she would soon be losing or the husband she had already lost. He patted her on the back and then, when she showed no sign of stopping, went to try to find her a box of Kleenex. He had forgotten to restock. He considered bringing her a roll of toilet paper, then remembered that in his bedroom he had a drawer full of old linen handkerchiefs, ironed flat. As he peeled one off the stack, he saw in the drawer a little pouch of worn black velvet. He hefted it, remembering with a faint pang the weight of it against his palm. At one time the
contents of the pouch had been a kind of obsession. Now the velvet pouch was just one of the things stuffed into his dresser drawers. He wished there was a way to help Natalie understand the flimsiness, the feebleness, of objects, of memory, even of emotions, in the face of time with its annihilating power, greater than that of Darius of Persia or Hitler of Germany. But she would just have to live long and lose enough to find out for herself.

He feared what Natalie might do after he died, with no job to distract her. He imagined her sitting alone in the midst of a Maine winter, growing ever more depressed, losing the last of the spark that had made her the delight of his life. He weighed the cinched pouch of velvet in his hands for another moment, then took it with him back in the kitchen. He handed her a handkerchief and then, as she wiped her eyes and blew her nose, tipped the contents of the pouch into his palm. He caught hold of the gold chain. The gold-filigreed pendant dangled. It bore the image, in vitreous enamel, of a peacock, a perfect gemstone staring from the tip of each painted feather.

She flinched when she saw it, as if it were not a pretty little art nouveau bauble but something hideous to contemplate.

“Ugh,” she said.

“What’s wrong?”

“I wish I’d listened to you. You didn’t want me to wear it at the wedding, and I did anyway. And now I’ll think of him every time I look at it and feel ashamed.”

BOOK: Love and Treasure
3.44Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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