Read The Last Secret Online

Authors: Mary Mcgarry Morris

The Last Secret (9 page)

Nora parks under the portico. She looks to make sure the front room light is on before she climbs the wide granite steps. It takes four rings of the bell before Oliver finally appears behind the etched door glass.

“What is it?” he says, running his fingers through his unruly hair. His baggy eyes are heavy with sleep. Though his tie is still on, his white shirt is unbuttoned to the waist and his unbuckled belt dangles from his rumpled suit pants. Apologizing, she follows him through the
drafty, unlit foyer into the spacious living room. On the narrow credenza to the left of the door are stacked laundry boxes, torn open whenever he needs a fresh shirt. Under the credenza, on the plank base between two ornately carved mahogany pedestals, sags a large green trash bag filled with soiled shirts. The smell is always the same here, stale: stale clothes, stale furnishings, stale flesh. The only light in the long room comes from the pitted brass floor lamp next to Oliver's chair. Its pleated silk shade is yellow with cigar smoke. Ashes salt its base. Oliver's cast-off black socks lie strewn in front of his chair like a tidal deposit of seaweed.

“The layouts. I should have just left them on your desk!” she shouts over the classical music. “I didn't realize how late it was.”

“It's all right. It's okay,” he sighs, sinking his huge body down into his chair. With a touch of a button, the back tilts, the seat glides forward, and the padded footrest lifts his bare feet. He aims his remote at the old stereo system, lowering the volume. His chair rises from a sea of dropped newspapers and books, musical CDs, coffee cups, three black wingtip shoes, and across the marble coffee table his suit coat, carefully folded. In this cavernous house, this corner is all he needs anymore. Upstairs, his childhood bedroom contains all the books and games of his youth. She is overcome now with a companionable sadness. This is what becomes of the unloved. Bare feet. Musty clutter. Fatigue that seeps from the pores into cloth, plaster, wood.

“What time are you leaving?”

“It's a seven thirty flight. We're getting picked up at five. We land in San Juan at ten thir—”

“So, show me what you've got,” he interrupts. It is a habit both brothers share, asking a question, then growing bored with the answer. Ken's suggests a certain boyish distraction, while Oliver only seems rude. At first, it took her a long time to warm up to Oliver. But now his brusqueness is also his saving grace. Always to the point, he never leads anyone on.

“I thought a piece by each of the hospital's board members. Pictures of the newest units, labs, whatever.” She stands over him,
handing down the sample layouts. “I thought something from a nurse, say, and a lab technician, a housekeeper, EMT, all the different viewpoints on—”

“Kenny's doing good, huh?” He looks up over the smudged half glasses perched on the tip of his nose.

“What do you mean?” she says sharply.

“Just that.” He shrugs. “We had lunch. He seemed a hell of a lot more engaged, I thought. That's all.” He shuffles through the papers. “He had me worried there for a while.”

“How's that?” She passes him more sheets.

“Oh, I don't know. For a while there he just wasn't tuned in, you know?”

“What do you think was wrong?”

“Ah, who the hell knows. Probably the same cobwebs, same treadmill we all get stuck on.” He glances up, frowning, rolling his hand. “Where's the ads? You gonna run this on love or something?”

“They're just mock-ups.” She gives him four more. “I mean, nobody's even gone out yet.”

He looks over her proposed ads, nodding, muttering. “Cheap bastards,” he says when he comes to the companies he doubts will buy space. He reaches beside his chair and brings up a bottle of scotch and a glass, cloudy with amber rings. He fills the glass, sips it warm, no ice. He asks about her dates for getting the supplement in on time, then raises his glass. “It's your ball. Run with it.”

“You sure now?” She's not surprised. The trick is to answer Oliver's questions before he asks them, then tunes you out.

“Sure I'm sure.” He reaches down for another glass and pours it half full. “Bon voyage!”

“Bon voyage!” The long burning drink makes her eyes water and her nose run.

Oliver is telling her about today's phone call, complaining about the recent
Chronicle
photo of state senator Bob Gallewski. In it, Gallewski, with tumbler in hand, looked dazed, thick-featured, open-mouthed, and if not intoxicated, certainly slow-witted. His campaign manager, Abby Rust, is demanding they run a better one. “‘But, Abby’
I said, ‘if I do that, next thing I'll be running photo retractions on the bake-sale ladies and the Eagle Scouts.’” At the thought of it, Oliver laughs, refills his glass. “Before and after editions.”

“You've got to admit it's a dirty trick,” Nora says as she moves about, kicking socks into a pile, lining up shoes by the door, stacking weeks of newspapers and magazines. “It's like another kind of power you have over someone.” She hangs his suit coat over the back of a chair. “One nobody can really call you on, it's so insidious.”

“As conscience of the people.” He hoists his glass. “However self-appointed.” Then takes a drink.

“What if it was me? Suppose Ken and I were in a messy divorce, what would you do?” She is stacking his CDs on the cluttered table next to him.

“What I usually do in domestic matters.” His eyes lift slowly to hers. “Nothing. Nothing at all.”

“Ollie,” she begins, then catches herself He despises conversations like this. Get too personal and he'll walk away. The hell with it. She can't keep up the façade. This pretense of a normal life is destroying her. It takes too much energy. More than she needs to talk, she wants Oliver's help, though hasn't the slightest idea what form that might take. Not financial and certainly not emotional, for that is beyond Oliver's ken. What she wants is to stop hurting.

“You knew all about it, didn't you?”

“What do you mean?”

“You know what I mean. Don't—”

“For a couple years now. All right?”

She shakes her head, not knowing whether to laugh or cry, though seems to be doing both. “A couple years. Great! That's just great. I guess everyone knew, huh? Probably even Chloe and Drew. Everyone but me. But I guess that's how an affair works, doesn't it? Excuse me, a relationship. That's what he calls it. Not an affair, no, that would be too, too, what? Cheap? Trashy? Low class? God knows, Ken's not that, is he?”

“What do you want me to do, Nora?” He hasn't moved, his features lost in shadows, his voice cold, almost angry.

“Oh, nothing! Nothing. Just thought we should get it out there. You know, be perfectly honest with one another. I mean, isn't that what we've always done?” Though their honesty has always been about work, she realizes. She knows as little about him as he does about her. Of course his first loyalty would be to his brother.

“Why're you mad at me? What'd you want me to do? Break up your family?”

“No.” She's crying again. “It's just … I'm so hurt. I feel so alone.”

“But you're still together, right?”

“Barely.”

“What do you think, I just sat idly by? Of course I didn't. I tried. I did the best I could.”

“What? What did you do?”

He takes another long drink. “I told him what an asshole he was. What a loser. I told him you were the best thing that ever happened to him and I wasn't going to be party to anything that would destroy that.”

“Party to anything, what do you mean?”

“Just that.”

For days
this conversation replays in her head. All she can conclude is that Oliver regards her as some kind of crutch for Ken. Take away the crutch, his brother goes down. And maybe it's true. Maybe that's what did it, what's still keeping them together. Her strength, something Robin lacks. That's what Oliver was trying to tell her.

aturday, 5 a.m.:
Chloe is staying at her friend Jesse's house. Drew will be at Johnny Hale's while they're in Anguilla. The limo has been idling out front for fifteen minutes.

“What's the holdup?” Ken calls up from the front hall.

She can hear voices, the door opening, then closing as the driver carries their luggage down to the car.

“Nora! C'mon!” Ken calls.

Down in the driveway the trunk bangs shut. Fully dressed, hair blown dry, makeup on, she sits on the edge of the bed, staring at the deep molding around the two-over-two panels on the door painted Luster Pearl. Two years ago this room was done over. How important the color seemed then; after all, it was their bedroom. The cut-glass doorknob glitters as it turns.

“Jesus, Nora. We're going to be late.” He gestures back over his shoulder. “Why're you just sitting there?”

Imagine that, she thinks, looking at him fresh and trim, pressed khakis, lavender Polo shirt, so eager, ready for a good time. As always. Just another vacation, winter getaway, that's all. Recharge the batteries. As if nothing has ever happened. Walk out that door and they'll be the same two people they've always been. Ken's good at that, better in his role than she's ever been in hers. Theater, that's what this is, living theater.

“Nora?”

“I'm not going.”

“What do you mean? What're you talking about?” He lifts his hands in astonishment.

“Nothing. Because what on earth would we talk about?”

“We'll … we'll relax. Get away from … everything.”

“Can you do that? Really? Because I can't. I don't know how. I keep trying, but I can't. I can't sit beside you on a plane, or on a beach, or in a hotel room, or a restaurant. I can't.”

“What do you mean you can't?” He's trying to sound understanding, but she sees the utter panic in his eyes.

“I can't pretend.”

“I don't want you to pretend. That's not what this is.”

“What is it, then?”

“We need to get away.”

“Why? What good will it do?” She stares up into his lean, boyish face. “I can't. Not now.”

“What, then? You won't talk to a counselor.” He leans close, voice faint with the one thing she hasn't heard before, fear. “What're we going to do? We've got to do something.”

“Then
you
talk to me, Ken.
You
listen to me. Answer my questions. Even if they hurt. Answer them! I can't do this in front of someone. You know I can't. It's … it's too damn degrading.” And with that he turns and walks downstairs. Certain he's leaving without her, she watches from the window. He speaks to the driver who laughs. They remove the suitcases and golf clubs from the trunk. As he tips the amused driver, she imagines the repartee.
Women, always changing their minds at the drop of a hat.
Corny, but not from Ken. Part of his charm, to be so hip yet endearingly old-fashioned. And then, as if from high on the helm of his wrecked ship, he gives his departing rescuer a brisk salute.

Her sense
of time is skewed. It's like losing a basic faculty, taste, smell, touch; everything seems unremarkable. A week has passed and yet there's not a day she can recall.

“You feel all right, Mom?” Chloe asks from the half-opened door.

“I'm … I'm just …” Nora struggles to open her eyes. She took a sleeping pill at bedtime and for the first time in weeks has slept through the night. “What time is it?”

“Quarter of eight. I was gonna leave, but I figured I better check.”

“Quarter of eight! What're you doing here? Damn it, Chloe, you're late again.” Squinting, she sits up on her elbows. “You know what Mr. Brown said. One more tardy slip and you'll be—”

“It's Sunday.”

“Oh.” Her eyes close heavily.

“Want me to open the drapes?” Without waiting for an answer, Chloe opens the ivory panels and stands looking down into the front yard. Nora turns from the sudden glare. How like her father. Bring in the light, get on with life. Her daughter can't bear dissension in the house. “It's beautiful out!” From anyone else this bright insistence would ring false, but Chloe needs cheeriness, demands it. “It snowed. All night long. It just stopped.” She leans over the low sill. “Hey. Somebody's down there. I'll go see what he wants.” She hurries from the room. The doorbell is ringing.

Nora wonders if Ken is downstairs. Though they still go to bed in the same room, by morning he's gone, having slept most of the night in the guest room, on top of the spread, covered with an afghan. Probably so as not to alarm the children. For a week now they've barely spoken. Her last-minute refusal to go to Anguilla shocked him. The tables have turned. Now
he
has a reason to be angry, a reason to sulk for long hours in his study, a reason to avoid her. Suddenly, he is offended, the one aggrieved. And she doesn't care. There is no energy left for scenes or confrontations. This silent morass is a relief for Chloe and Drew. At least on some level life can seem a little more normal. In the past she and Ken seldom argued about anything, which was not for lack of trying on her part. Some conflicts need to be worked out, and it's only natural with children, especially teenagers. But with the slightest turmoil Kenny would disappear. “Not my bag,” he'd say. Lighthearted-ness, his dispensation, a free spirit not to be sullied.

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