Bertie’s downtown again,” Cash said. “I wouldn’t call you, Ed, but she just won’t budge for me” Cash is the oldest of the town cops. He knows everyone, all two thousand in this tourist town, and it is he who invariably ran into my great-aunt, my grandfather’s sister Bertha—Bertie, or sometimes Birdie because more and more she dwindles to tiny bones twigging along astumble. At odd times day or night my great-aunt would wander from her house on the North Road, across from what used to be her grandpapa’s house, walk off in whatever she happened to have on, unaware or indifferent, impelled by whatever sudden thought motivated her pilgrimage into a time alien to the others around her.
“I’ll be right there, Cash”
Downtown, the waterfront, is only a hop from any place in town, but holiday traffic was heavy. Fourth of July week the plague descends: tourists darken the streets, swarm the beaches, boats crowd the docks, the ferries are laden day and night, strangers strip the grocery shelves the way the neighborhood used to strip my grandfather’s little store for the credit that drove him bankrupt when the First World War broke out. When the tourists go, they leave the town a still and exhausted body after their orgy.
Bertie was outside Grants. She had a following. Apparently Cash had had a difficult time holding my aunt’s interest until I arrived. Had it not been for the tourists, he’d have had to pressure her into the car.
Bertie loved to mock. She was imitating the young girls’ walks. She’d sidled up behind one, closer and closer, mimicking the swing and sway in grotesque joy, legs wide apart, her torso thrown almost too far back, but some resilience in her kept her from falling. She had on pajamas, pink, under her pink cotton robe, and pink slippers with fleshy pompons, which imitated the motion of the bony hips.
But as she was sashaying after them, it was her hair that was so ridiculous and beautiful: she’d let it down nights before bed, and it hung now, swayed, thick and lovely in a quiver down to her tailbone, shimmering frosty white as the sunstruck water of the harbor. That hair was no longer the image now of the hair which leaped to my mind whenever anyone mentioned the Bertie of my childhood—a middle-aged, handsome woman on the beach, with her tight black one-piece bathing suit, a charmer deceptively young and slinky with her hair golden, much too golden, drawn taut in a bun. She was always the center of a group of men, too young, a sun around whom they moved as necessary planets. Bertie was the hot number in the family, and I would sit far off, admiring and ashamed at once as I watched her throw her legs about, feeling the first stirrings of the hot nuts I kept waiting to experience so I could beat my meat in the shed with the older boys.
“Bertie,” I said.
She turned, her arms frozen like a clumsy ballerina’s in midair. Plainly she didn’t know me—she might in an instant, or not. As I’d walked into her time, it was up to me to adjust.
“Come on, sweetheart. I’ll take you home”
Her face, with one of those inexplicable transitions, turned the air fog, she was blind in it, lost, and her arms rose, probing for direction.
She didn’t fall for it, though she smiled coyly, wilier than I.
“No,” she said. “I’m going to Tom’s”
“Well, then, let’s go to Tom’s” Usually it would take Cash or whoever had run into her some time to cajole her into a car to take her back to her own place. Seeing her house usually brought her round.
I held out my arm.
Skeptic, she asked, “Who’re you?”
“I’m a friend of Tom’s” I’d have said I was his grandson, but there’s not the trace of a resemblance between us, and I was not sure what time she was living.
“He’s sure got ‘m—plenty of friends” Maybe he had had once, but at the end I saw there were only stragglers standing around the sod. Bertie had stood opposite me at the cemetery, all sticks even then, her face as white as my grandfather’s in death (He’s standing there, I thought, and she’s in the box. Except for his quivering albino eyes, which squinted to see, they looked that much alike, and both so thin you couldn’t tell whether a man or woman’s body). Beside her had stood the one man my grandfather had once disliked, Ross Trimble, whom he had tried to keep away from my mother. Ross had covered the coffin with a blanket of roses, My Pal.
I said, “I live by Ace Williams”
“Ace Williams!” She knew authenticity. From Tom’s house you could see Ace’s. She gripped my arm then. “What a wonderful car!”
I opened the door. She sat, preened, despite coffee stains down her front, grease, and bits of hardened food her bad eyes couldn’t spot. Grand she was, disdaining the muddle of people.
But when I headed toward Chapel Lane, she reared. “Back! Tom’s is back” Her hand veered, I was afraid she might try to get out, turn the wheel, suddenly strong in a pinch.
“Oh, you mean that short way?”
“Back” Her hand shot the direction: “Past the hospital, by the crick, and home” Or else! Was she following the old childhood school path home? She tilted her head into the breeze—wind seized her hair and threatened to draw her after. She sucked noisily at the rich perfume of weeds in the hot air, and the sights must have smarted, for she so starkly stared, and her head rotated for a panoramic view to the widow’s walk on her grandpa’s house, where her grandma’d watch for the whalers to come in and dock.
“A whale of a ride!” Her laugh ripped and popped, as young as when she’d lie on the beach. She’d drive you crazy with her whale-of-a-this-or-that cracks. Obviously she was young now. There was a time you could’ve brought Bertie back to the present in a hurry, but lately she’d travel farther back, get younger: go to grade school, ransack for her bonnet, ask about the horse and sulky, want to dress in her father’s duster. At times shoes made her mad, she wouldn’t keep them on. Seeing her then, nobody’d believe she lived alone and managed fine most of the time.
It was the winter I feared: as her only relative, it would be up to me to do something about a home for her before then. Still, it was summer and good wandering weather.
“Wait!” Her fierce grip belied her old bones. “The apple tree’s gone! Who cut it down?” Her blunted gaze made me turn to verify—as if the tree had not been gone for 30 years.
“It was rotting. Besides, it was ruining the cesspool”
“But it bloomed—bloomed!—white as . . . white. . .”
“As Aunt Libby’s ghost?”
My grandfather’s Aunt Libby, the legendary saint in the family, had never married. On her deathbed she had told them, “If there’s such a place as heaven, I’ll come back to tell you—I promise” And one April evening, at dusk, my grandfather saw her, just as clear as life, standing in a long white dress under the apple tree. Not to frighten it away, he whispered, “Look! It’s Libby!” When he went close, thinking to talk to her or touch her, she vanished.
Bertie’s hands clapped. “Tom’s place! And that was my bedroom” The ell was built on just for her to be born in. So she was back in the time her brother Tom was young and married and living in the house where both of them had been born.
My great-great-grandfather had ended up the richest mason on Long Island, and when he died the money was divvied up among his ten, and then great-grandfather divvied it up among his own ten. By her father’s time he had only the house and a pittance, yet he doled out the buildings and lots and each of the family carted off an outhouse and built onto it, adding rooms as each piled up kids. Now the whole block I lived on summers was a cemetery of Verity outhouses.
Bertie streaked, but the kitchen stopped her flat—perhaps it was the new configuration—and she turned, dubious.
“Where’s Tom? I want my brother Tom”
“He’ll be back”
“Oh, she’s with him”
“Then, I’ll wait” She sat pert, stiff, knees together, hands folded in her lap—an 85-year-old child patiently waiting. Since she did not ask about Tom and Mary’s children, he would be newly married then, the time before his own ten children, who would one day be scattered from Maine to California. So, to Bertie, I was still probably some friend of Tom’s.
“Tell you what—you’d rest better if you sat in there on the couch”
More dubious, she said, “In the parlor?”
Wanda, the Polish girl, my once-a-week cleaner, had come the day before: furniture, knickknacks, floors—everything caught the flagrant July light.
Bertie sat on the couch, facing the door to the room she’d been born in.
“Where’s the radio?”
Radio? I kept a small transistor in the kitchen by the toaster.
“Tom’s radio. Where is it?” She was in the time before TV.
“In the alcove”
The tall, handsome Philco cabinet with its fine beige mesh over the speaker, a forgotten and unused antique now, worked perfectly. My grandfather’s picture hung over it—an oval photograph, enlarged and hand-colored, of a man on deck, looking in his dress clothes more like the captain than the cook, his left hand shoulder high gripping a rope, his gaze out to sea, past the viewer. You couldn’t tell about his eyes. They looked fine.
She stared at the lit dial but talked over the radio announcer.
“Tom was Mama’s favorite. Hard as nails Mama was. Made Papa’s life miserable, and him the sweetest, quietest little man—never said a word, did what Mama said, was all. But you couldn’t blacken Mama. She came first with Tom”
“I know. Tom’s Stella hated her”
In sepia photos I had the image of the taut-faced old woman—short and round, swelled into black bombazine. She had beaten my mother with a whip and marked her badly. “I won’t go back into that mean old woman’s house, Pa, never. She beat me for nothing” “If your grandmother whipped you, Stella, you must’ve done something wrong”
“Tom’s Stella! You wouldn’t believe the dainty thing she turned into—98 pounds the day she married. I went to Rhode Island for the wedding. Oh! All those good-looking dark Latin men!” Bertie’s eyes as well as voice gave off rhapsodies. “And dance! Oh, how I loved to dance. Tom took me. He was the limit—rather dance than eat” She threw one stick leg out, then set them both together, firm. “Look at ‘m! Been through it all! Danced half across the country, these legs did. A penny for every dance and I’d be rich as Rockefeller. My Bill, he loved dancing. We met at Halversons’— You know that, Sonny?”
Sonny. Just like that—so fast it dizzied—she was back to today, this moment of the Fourth of July weekend. You couldn’t deny, even running down (or was it?), the marvel the mind was—the time it held, the space. We don’t know how much time passes through us; sometimes we catch glimpses so devastatingly distant we can never look at the world the same again. I had watched, one by one, all the great-aunts and uncles and my grandparents break down (?)—the body, then the mind, the backward motion, the sharpness of earliest times—till each of them grew at last indifferent to the world, so you would think they were keeping something from you. I saw it all again in Bertie. I saw her wandering—I couldn’t even know in what form—beyond the glaciated boulders on the Sound shore, into the sea, farther and deeper into the endless ages before us.
“You were always close to the Halversons,” I said.
“And Bill was so good. Wasn’t he so good, Sonny?”
“Couldn’t have been better”
Bertie’s husband’s easygoing nature had got him into trouble in his law practice. He had taken—unavoidably—the proverbial rap for a bunch as powerful as the Mafia. After his prison term, Bertie got him out to Long Island to the inherited set of outhouses across the road from her grandfather’s decaying crate of a mansion, the widow’s walk crowning the elms. She and Bill had scraped and painted, remodeled and installed, until a quaint ramble of guest cottages caught the runoff from the motel world sprouting as fast as mushrooms along the Sound shore.
“Sonny, I can’t wear this rig all day. You take me home?” The pink made her skin, a dry salamander hang, quite liverish. Her eyelids were a sick red glitter with too much rheum. In a jiffy her knobbed hands had pulled her hair taut and twined it.
“Tell you what, Aunt Bertha. We don’t have many holidays together. You spend the day with me”
“You mean it? And me dressed this way?” She spread her shabby pink robe.
“There have to be piles of my mother’s stuff you can get into. There’s the old trunk. We’ll have Fourth of July supper here. You can sleep in your old room—”
“I was born in!” She laughed, a rip.
I knew that, a bug on genealogy, she’d wander down the family river. “Imagine—FDR’s related to us: 36th cousin!” She’d travel the afternoon through, that loud Verity voice belted out over the flats. You could always hear a Verity.
Our old Elizabethan trunk, made by J. Dampler in 1599, has Everyman carved on it, his pack on his back, setting out to make his way in the world. I like to think him a Verity intent on getting to the New World. Forever frozen in his wandering, he looks unaware that he would be shunted through time from generation to generation and from house to house less and less well befitting his mahogany dignity, but would outlast three hundred years of flesh and dozens of moves in as stubborn an attempt as that of insects and flowers and animals to defy sickness and death to get a few through.
Crossing the Atlantic, my ancestor Daniel Verity had opened that trunk each night, and his wife Amanda had laid their son to sleep on all their worldly possessions. It was a habit which, when short of space, each generation would use at one time or another. My grandfather claimed he was brought up in that trunk; it was the last thing he, like each heir, would have dreamed of parting with. Long after the rich mason had died and the ten and then the next ten had divided their lot, my grandfather was reduced to almost what his ancestors had arrived with.
Handsome, and with still perfect hands, he looked out from wedding photos beside the timid woman with the high cheekbones—a squaw’s, the family kidded—rightly. His looks and his land were all he had. He turned to farming and failed; turned to the grocery store from which his old mama and all the neighbors with boys off to war with the kaiser drew and drew on credit (“I can’t ask Mama and my neighbors for money!”) till his kindness bankrupted him and caused the Great Argument of his married life, which (my grandmother claimed) inevitably led to The Fire and finally (he claimed) to the Threat of Damnation:
“You’d better stay here, Tom. A man’s place is to home, working in town where his wife and children are,” my grandmother said. “But there’s no living here, and what’s left of this family’ve gone to sea—well, haven’t they, Mary?—so why shouldn’t I?” “But they were fit for it, Tom. Are you?” “I can cook—there’s that—cook circles around most women” “Then do it to home! Don’t run from us, Tom” “You think I’d run from you, Mary?—when it’s need drives me, and the winter’s cold, and the kids all in school and clothes awanting, and you—look at you—needing. I got to go, Mary”
Bitter she grew, hardened against him.
Over the years he became for the children Pa coming home, then the welcome guest, then stranger, then a phantom who would appear afternoon or night, stay a day, two, and go.
“Hot damn!” The voice shocked—not Cramp’s, but Bertie’s. “Looky here!”
But for the dress she could have been Tom: its teal blued her eyes as deep, the strawberry blond streaks were his, the face freckling over in bitty cancerous outbreaks his (she’d powdered them into little white peaks), and his stance of bones too rid of flesh. Yes, Tom—but for the quiver and pink of his eyes and the crippled spider hands which had hung from his cuffs.
Her own hands gripped an album. She sat on the sofa and opened it.
“Say! Someday I want the pictures Tom promised—for my collection. You interested in genealogy? That’s Gladys—she was 13” Cramps’ oldest daughter, beautiful, stared from the ornate cardboard oval of his day.
“You can have that, aunt Bertha”
“Have Gladys? Now? Why, I’ll have them all back if I live long enough”
Her parlor was an antiquarian’s, or kid’s, paradise: mementos, photographs, clippings, miniatures on every shelf, table, and chair. Sometimes when I arrived she’d be sitting on the parlor floor, sorting photos by family branch into careful piles, an eternal child wielding scissors and paste.
“Tom never got over Gladys. In the great diphtheria epidemic Tom sent Gladys away to aunt Jennie’s in Rhode Island to escape it. I took her and your mother—Tom trusted me. Woe’s the day. Tom’d sent her straight into the heart of the sickness. Caught the black diphtheria and died, Gladys did”
For an instant I feared Bertie might be gone back into that time.
“And they wouldn’t let a soul out of that house. They embalmed her on the kitchen table. (“I never saw anything so gruesome,” my mother’d told me. “I sneaked down. I saw Gladys’ arms hanging down with tubes in them, and buckets underneath, it stank of formaldehyde, and Gladys’d turned black all over. They had to put her under glass”) Tom couldn’t stand Mary’s eyes after that. Her eyes said You sent Gladys away, Gladys would be here if you hadn’t. Everything was “Where’s Stella?” now. He wasn’t having anything happen to her too. “She running to the cemetery with that Ross Trimble?” He’d surprise Stella with Ross sitting behind a tombstone and them as innocent as the bodies in the graves under them. He’d haul Stella, his tongue flailing the wrath of God at her. He clung to Stella so, I think it made life hard between Mary and Stella. And when things happened, it all fell on Stella. Say, you tell me: What’s it all about?”
Bertie was suddenly the intelligent child asking the embarrassingly unanswerable question.
“You think there’s a reason—why Stella’s singled out?”
“Singled out by Gramp?”
She squinted and her finger zeroed in. “Singled out—how do I know what by? Like father like daughter. She saw things. It’s why your mother bought this old family place, you know that? She said for a summer place, or maybe for the day she’d ever be alone, or for you and your brother. Say, where’s he now?”
“Training to be an astronaut”
“Astro— Out there?” Her arm scooped at sky. “Hope he makes it where he’s going” But she hadn’t lost her sights: “Stella wasn’t fooling me. I knew she bought the house for Tom—yes—because Mary divorced him and all his children abandoned him and scattered to kingdom come” She let out a terrible laugh, cryptic and harsh. “Because of his hands! Could Tom help his hands? He did what he had to do for his kids, them, what they are. Those hands! Tom himself was the first to say “They were the beginning of something and the end, ” claimed it was bad enough that family sin—Papa and Mama were first cousins—came out in his albino eyes. “But I didn’t have to go and add to that, did I?” he’d say. I don’t know what he meant. Do you?”
I didn’t answer.
“Look at that picture! He had beautiful hands then. That damned fire!”
For me the fire was an event in the legendary time before I was born. The family labeled all events Before the Fire or After the Fire. The handsome man they knew, existed for me in a primordial time from which the great glaciated rocks and this island had also come. The man I knew was from After the Fire.
“You know the story?” Bertie said.
A hundred hundred times the story—how he burned, how he became. “He’d never told me,” I said.
“He knocked a can of grease over in the galley of the Commodore’s yacht. He tried to put it out, but the fire shot all over his clothes. He tried to shut the galley off, but the fire was raging too fast, and when he ran outside and struck air it whipped him into one living flame. The Commodore told us he never saw anything like it. And the crew—quick as they could, God bless them—threw canvas over him to smother the fire and keep him from leaping overboard; but he burned head to toe, third-degree. The doctors were sure he wouldn’t live. Thank God you never saw him like that, Sonny”
See. See. How do you ever stop seeing a legend?
Months and months he lay wrapped hand to foot, with openings only for his eyes, nose, and mouth. Gradually they removed sections of his bandages. Little by little the Lazarus thing was brought back till he could sit, stand, walk—go home:
He stood in the kitchen doorway, revivified, unbandaged but for the one last thing—those hands on which the family fixed like alien things.
Who was Pa?
Finally unwrapped, those hands repelled and fascinated, even amused, them; but they were never comfortable with the hands. And at night in bed Mary would fear, she would cry. “I can’t, Tom, I can’t,” she finally confessed.
“But it was Stella who clung. Never said a word, just bought this house for the time when. That girl! She was with Tom when trouble came, and she was with him at the end. And didn’t she let him build that place in the rear?”
His hands performed wonders. Almost overnight, a ceaseless spider, he built, insulated, corked, tarred, sealed—four rooms, bath, an ell for tools and storage. He lived on Edison naps, working at hours that made the neighbors forgive as they would complain—as they would later on Sundays when his old Philco from morn till night blasted church music, services, sermons by Father Coughlin, Harry Emerson Fosdick, Bishop Sheen, all the greats. All night his raw kitchen bulb burned for blocks around, “Tom’s light,” a beacon as prominent in the neighborhood as the Long Beach light-house was to ships to the Sound.
“Getting ready for the long winter, he was. “Work for the night is coming, ” he’d say. Your mother’d let him do anything. She was his grace.”
Bertie gripped the album and stood.
“I’m going out to Tom’s place. You mind?”
I watched her go out through the kitchen and cross the lawn. She halted once and stood—long, as my grandfather would. In late years the least thing would send him into long speculation. I could see straight through the windows of his house, east to west. Inside, Bertie appeared and disappeared in the flaming white shafts, setting up a clatter and rummaging.
After the fire my grandfather meandered through four years of increasing isolation from my grandmother, of her silences and his insistences, through separations and even the birth of another girl. By then my mother had married and gone off to Rhode Island to live—for good, she thought. He took a coal barge across the Sound to Bristol harbor: to Stella. “Oh, it’s you, Pa.” Stella was no more surprised at his presence than he was doubtful that his proper place was with her, bed and board waiting. “Supper’s ready. Mark will be home any minute”
My grandfather was almost the first world I saw. I crawled over his clothes, his body; I fastened on his claw hands, played with them, struck them, hung laughing while he raised me straight up off the ground on them; I crawled under his shed after our lost baby rabbits. Later on, when he took a job raising peacocks on a local farm, I was miserably bereft, alone. Over the years I would now and again go for the day with him. My grandfather moved familiarly among hundreds of peacocks. “Don’t be afraid—come on” Peacock eyes gleamed hard as sunstruck glass; and close, as still and dark and deep as my grandfather’s eyes when their quivering ceased, they were filled with impenetrable mystery. The peacocks screamed, the tails fanned out into hundreds of velvet eyes so suddenly that my blood almost stopped. The first time, I hid my face against him, afraid I’d never be able to tear such terrible beauty from my eyes. Then I retreated from their rage of cries and hid in the silo.
At going-home time, fun-dodging the hard-surfaced plops of cow turd, I’d cross the pastures to find my grandfather. At winter dark the woods would turn a sudden pitch with only stray glimmers of light to tease the imagination. One afternoon I saw him standing on the edge of the dark woods, dark as a shrub beside rocks humped like prehistoric tortoises. The last of day was high and still gray. He was talking out loud. For all the life I could remember he’d always muttered to himself, but this was the first time I’d ever heard him talking loud and clear outside—to nothing. At least I didn’t see anybody. So I stopped, afraid I’d get a scolding if I broke in. I didn’t know what the words meant, but I would hear him say words just like them later on when I sneaked down cellar and hid behind the partition and listened through the slits as he talked to himself:
”. . . and you can’t run from it because it’s always ahead waiting and you blind to see it. Is there a thing won’t let up on you because of what you did? You’d think it would make known what is required of a man for what he did. There was the promise: “When thou walkest through the fire, thou shalt not be burned; neither shall the flame kindle unto thee. ” But the flame did kindle. Look back and take heed, Tom. The reason that drew fire was in you long before you ever touched grease and saw in the flames what you were and what you must begin to do. But what must I do yet? For if it do not let up, then there must be more to do, more yet. Is that why it won’t speak—so’s to make me stand up to it?”
I waited until there was a lull and called out as if I’d just arrived, and he said, “I’m coming, Sonny”
“Well, here I am!” His back door clattered to, and for as long as a breath he was standing there. Sun struck the figure from behind: his cap, his red and black mackinaw, my old army O. D. trousers he’d wear, his woolen slippers. I almost cried Gramp! but it was Bertie.
“Got you that time, didn’t I?” She whooped and stuck her scarecrow arms out and turned to model. “A perfect fit! I’d have a ball in there. You kept everything, didn’t you?”
“I haven’t had time to start cleaning out and selling”
“Selling!” All her angled bones accused. “Sell family land and property?” She spoke as if it were all intact, a hundred years hadn’t gone, and the mason hadn’t yet distributed to his tribe often and they to theirs. I even feared she’d say, “No you don’t. I’ll tell Tom. Where’s Tom?” but her mind stayed with me—it was still the third of July, she was the sister, Tom was dead, and I was the grandson.
“You know what? I’m hungry. And I could do with a cocktail. You make me one?”
“Will I! And a snack. And make the lady preparations—for a whole meal later”
“You a cook too! Whoopee! Must run in the family. Your grandfather couldn’t be beat. Ever have his flaming plum pudding? I’ll get out of these. My! No lady ever had the fun I’m having”
“If you keep changing clothes, I won’t know who you are”
She whooped again. “No man ever did!” Except for the voice, I couldn’t find, hard as I looked, a trace of the luring woman on the beach of my childhood.
By seven the hot breath off the ground waned a bit. On the bay motors kept up a persistent drone. From the baseball grounds came the carny sounds—merry-go-round music, shots, metallic wrenchings and clanks, loudspeakers, yells. The air was stale with salt and dry grass and the pungence too much heat drew from the straggling marigolds and geraniums left in my mother’s garden.
In the spring following the fire, when his hands could finally work, my grandfather took to a vegetable garden. For milk for the children (ten, with the last girl), he added a goat and several cows to pasture on all the land from his house to where Bertie now lived, a mile away. The itinerant circuit waited for his deep rich resonance once more, the fire in him which could brand words almost visibly in the air. But his horse and buggy never appeared on Chapel Lane then, never in the towns around or at Sunday services, unions, picnics, suppers. Everybody asked when he’d go back to preaching. Even in my time, his only answer was the pink quiver of his stare or sometimes the tip of his tongue lingering meditatively over the left side of his lower lip. His cigarette would hang so long it almost dissolved to ash in his mouth. Had his faith gone dry? What had flowed out ceased. His words had gone inward. But his silence was strange and eloquent.
What was it that pressed at his heart and made him turn to the woods and speak to the dark?
“Bertie,” I said. “Did Gramp talk to himself when he was young?”
“Used to be he didn’t, not till he practiced hellfire and damnation—cause of Laura Hill maybe. It was scandal in those days. He never told you?”
“I don’t think so”
“Tom jilted Laura. In those days that was bad enough, but then Laura drowned herself in the well the day Tom married Mary. Nobody ever said the reason. The families went on speaking. But Tom knew—and Mary. Could be the thing drove him to preaching, to keep her in his head and put him on the straight and narrow. I’m thinking people maybe get a place in your head and stay there till the time comes to step right up and make you see them so stark you got to face them”
I wondered if Laura began to press him toward the woods’ edge. Was it some hope that what was in the dark would listen?
“Truth is, Tom went crazy when Mary divorced him: he’d go off and talk to himself by the hour, then be so still it’d scare me. That’s when he went to Rhode Island to Stell’s: lucky for her cause she was pregnant with you and needed him. Oh, how the family’d pick on Stell cause she had everything and Tom took her part as she did his. They claimed Tom brought you boys up, not Stell. Damn their hides”
“But he was always there, Aunt Bertha. I can’t remember a minute Gramp wasn’t except when something called him back here”
He was a presence, a voice, shadow, the smell of cigarette smoke, the sound of the wheels of the wooden crate he pulled heavy things in, or a scuffing in the cellar, where he tended the furnace and had a cot he retreated to more than to his bed upstairs.
“Why’d Tom keep coming back here?” She attacked with a hard eye. “You know what? Every time he came it was a sign” She was talking like him: she wasn’t with me, she was talking to herself. “We should’ve watched out. He was a walking lightning rod, that Tom. Every time he was near, a thing came— Still, I couldn’t live without seeing Tom. My Bill sometimes got a little jealous when I wanted Tom and Tom wanted me, and Bill’d mock me: “”Where’s Tom?” I’ll give you “Where’s Tom!” But Bill didn’t mean a thing by it. I was all he had after the world turned on him and we scooted back here to start from scratch with the sheds Papa left me. How come we all kept running back to this place?”
By instinct my grandfather appeared at family weddings and reunions and funerals, as unobtrusive but obsessive as a specter, as if he must deliberately deny himself joy by seeing them for some kind of periphery.
“Come back from the fire, Tom did. Come back to bury all of us but me. Come back for two sons dead of cancer. Come back when your father and Dan were drowned after World War Two—you remember that”
I was studying at Wisconsin when it happened. I knew the news was bad because there was a national telephone strike and only emergencies got through. The Riverhead operator said, “I’m calling for your mother. She wants you to know, first, she’s all right, but has temporarily lost her voice. Your father and your uncle Dan were drowned in the Gut while trying out a rowboat they’d made. The bodies haven’t been found so there will be no funeral now. She says there’s nothing you can do to help her by coming. And, oh yes, your grandfather’s with her”
I said all right and thank you and tell her I love her and I’ll call my brother in Kingston, and I hung up. I did call Ralph and told him. It was my exam week. I was glad my mother didn’t know that. She would never inconvenience anybody. And I was glad my grandfather was with her: because it wasn’t my father or my uncle I kept seeing, but my grandfather standing there. Maybe he was her pillar of fire by night, and mine, the one he himself had never had.
Long after, it would be my mother’s voice which haunted, telling me, “What made it worse was I had to tell Pa about Danny”
And I would see them, father and daughter, like the tides in the Gut between Orient Point and Plum Island, together but meeting and parting in periodic rhythms.
“And Tom come back here when your mother bought this house from your grandmother. Your mother didn’t know she’d end up making a home for Tom in his own house. Ohhhh! Maybe she did. Maybe selling it to your mother was Mary’s way of admitting what wrong she did Tom or how sorry she was she divorced him and took all the kids’ affection—cause they sided with her. Maybe they felt betrayed cause he singled out Stella, always Stella. Who knows?”
“But I played my part without knowing it, Aunt Bertha. My money bought the house and made all that possible”
“With your money then. But now the house is yours, and everything that goes with it”
“All that happened in it. And all of us”
All of us. But especially you, old man, who had stood like a specter then, who stood like a specter now—in what pursuit?
“You’re it now! You’re a Verity. You think you’re up to it?” She laughed. “It takes some doing”
“Who knows what a Verity is?”
But she was quick, and hard: “If you don’t, nobody else will! So you better find out, or you’re not Tom’s grandson” For an instant her eyes were as still and deep with mystery as my grandfather’s when they ceased quivering. I saw him standing on the edge of darkness, and I sensed now how alone he must have been, staring into the deeps of himself, how you must make yourself worthy to stand before men, a shadow of a saint, loyal to the thread of sterling or gold that runs through us, even if men do not know your worth.
“You believe in signs? Oh, I know—nobody does these days. But wasn’t it a sign Stella bringing Tom back here, and him and your grandmother living next door to each other, like you coming for the summer and first thing we run into each other?”
“That’s because beauty attracts. I remember you were queen of the beach”
“Whoooeee! You got a hunk of Tom in you, young man” But she had her sights now. Her eye was hard on that house next door. “You think your mother could’ve guessed what she’d finally have to do? When your grandmother was dying next door, your mother took her in here. It was like your mother’s a girl again and got them both back, her mother in the house sick and her father out back in that house he built with those hands. The only blight was she had Mary’s new husband on her hands too, when he was home from sea— Captain Leeds, he’d sit, smoke his pipe and never speak, rocking and rocking. Drive your mother crazy—”
Gramp would come to the door: “Stell?”—softly, because he knew every sound was a needle in my grandmother’s ailing flesh. He would not enter until my mother invited him in to see Gram—if the Captain were there, he would nod and go on past him into the sickroom.
Whenever my brother and I were home between semesters, he’d expect our visits before bed. “Sonny didn’t come out last night. Where’s Ralph?” My mother would buy him tea, take him hot dishes—any excuse to pass the time or pass through the house and complain of his housekeeping—and do a little of it. “Telling me I’m dirty, are you?” But pleased, puffing, petting Shasta the cat in his lap. “Smells of cat and dog, Pa” “Well, it’s because cats and dogs,” he’d say. “You!” she’d say. A touch of his shoulder or hair did not harm.
“You know where my money is, Stell, case anything happens to me?” It was a now and again question. He hid a change purse torn from an old pocketbook in the daybed pillowcase. “Don’t want anyone else getting it” By then— poverty, pittance, but pride: he did not want to die a pauper.
An old man would die before his children, but my mother died before him.
At her graveside my brother and I had to hold him up.
He would die quietly in the hospital one evening the following year after asking to be shaved and to see the minister. He would drink his milk and turn over and go to sleep.
Long after, in his pillowcase I found the change purse with a two-dollar bill in it.
“Aunt Bertha . . .?”
The deck chair under the maple was empty. She must have gone in to get out of Gramp’s clothes.
I called into his house. Too still. Not a breath.
Then I went through my own rooms—and upstairs. Bertie! Out the window I saw her hibble-hobbling down the blacktop toward the cemeteries and the sea, as if trying to keep up with her long shadow, still in Gramp’s clothes, headed toward her brother Gill’s long abandoned place. All she needed was his wagon and she would be Tom.
I took the car, but Bertie had made time—she was not in sight. I stopped at the wooden bridge—under it a body could stand up—for she sometimes went back to her childhood swims there; but she had gone on, between the two cemeteries. Gill’s was on a dead end which faced sea and endless sky. A shipyard had invaded the acres, but you could find Gill’s old dirt drive under thick sea grass taller than any man. I said softly, “Aunt Bertha, are you in there?”
I heard flicks ahead—halts and flicks.
Then I tried “Bertie?”
“Gill? Where’s Tom?” Her voice came, tired but Verity loud.
“Well, Bertie! You here?” Caught in the stalks, she had made it almost to the clearing. Her sight, blank as time, filled with too much space. Then she squinted and scrutinized me.
“Tom must be back home. We’ll find him”
I took her hand. She leaned from tiredness an instant, then reared. “You sure you’re going there?”
“Sure I’m sure” Dark was rising in the stalks. Sun burned the tips a high golden sea over our heads.
Her face was wary. “You sure you know Tom? He’s my brother” But she let me pick our way through to the road.
“Tom’s my grandfather,” I dared.
“You don’t say! Which one’re you?”
“Stella’s older boy, Sonny”
“You are! The size of you! And where’s Stell now? She here— at the house, with Tom?”
I didn’t know when she was—in which year, moment—but, to her, my mother was still alive, and my grandfather, and I was somewhere, but when was it?
The sun went crimson up the trees and all the land began to shadow.
“Listen!” she cried. “A band!”
From the village the music carried over the flat land, then ceased. Applause, whistles, cries broke like a close splash before the town band struck up again.
“What’s the celebration?”
“Why, tomorrow’s the Fourth, Aunt Bertha”
“The Fourth! Wow—ee! Tom and I always ride the Ferris wheel—you can see the whole town and the Sound and forever from up there. You’re on top of the world. The Fourth! Why, the whole family must be here. They are! It’s a surprise, I bet! Is it?”
“We’d better get back. It’s eight-thirty, time for dinner” Broken threads of light wove through the trees. “It’ll be dark in a minute”
“Not with the sun hauling up that big moon”
But the house was dark, and she cried out, “They’re gone! They didn’t wait! Didn’t you tell them to wait?” You could hear the heart thump in her voice, near breaking.
“I think they’ll all be here for the big meal tomorrow”
“They will? I forgot that” In the last vague light all her face lacked was Tom’s light white fuzz.
After the band ceased, from all directions came single bursts and some runs of fireworks.
Moon was turning houses and trees white, and the air itself turned silver.
“You find something of my mother’s to get into, Aunt Bertha, and we’ll have dinner out in the yard”
While she was hunting something to wear, I set table and chairs on the lawn. The thickening night noises from the baseball grounds grew so loud I could scarcely hear the close rustling, and when I turned, I thought my mother had come back: Bertie stood there in a white silk party dress—it hung in a still sheath, if too loose.
“Perfect fit!” Her arms rose and the silk puffed softly up and fell in two slow soft wings.
Bang! Boom! Air and ground reverberated with fireworks.
“They’ll all be here tomorrow—for dinner?”
“All the family”
“As sure as you’re here”
“Well, I’m here” Her laugh went up, soft now, into the other sounds, the waves gently striking the cliffs on the Sound, the faint hush of leaves, a growing rush and murmur from the edge of town.
“But they’ll miss the big block dance downstreet!” she said. “The Radcliffes and Jim Stewart, the Turnhill boys, Alex and Boyd always come. It’s a real smash. You like dancing, don’t you?”
“Rather dance than eat”
“You! That’s my brother Tom’s line. He can sure shake a leg at a shindig, Tom can. Handsome Harry—and all that life in him. The girls know he likes the quiet ones, and set their caps—don’t throw themselves at him out and out the way I do with my men!”
“Just stand there a minute. Now don’t you move”
“Not a chance. You want me to close my eyes? I love surprises!”
“No. Just don’t you move”
In the front room was the old RCA Victor with its plate of the dog with its ear cocked toward the speaker, listening for “his master’s voice” From the cabinet below I took out some 78’s, wound the machine up, raised the top, set the record on, and went back out.
There came a scrape and fuzz, then sound tinny and muted, then the man’s voice blunt and breaking, Standing specter still, the dress glowing white with moon, Bertie listened in vague disbelief. The voice rose, flowing from far down time, drawing her and me down time.
I dreammmmmmmm . . .
Soft surprise sighed from her throat, her head tilted, all her hair a long silver fall down her back. Out of the sheath her arms rose, white flowing wings. I caught her close and we turned, swayed, swaying,
in lilac timmmmmmmmmmme . . .
Her humming rose and fell with the voice, her body caught the rhythm of my own, over the lawn we drifted, and the grass and the moon and all the sounds flowed into a timeless rhythm gathering sea and sky and earth and all who were or had ever been into this moment white with moon and palpitating.
With only the tips of her fingers touching mine, Bertie slipped free. Slowly she swirled in a wide circle, silk wings undulating gently, as white as the summer moths which hover in the trees one hot night in July and make them palpitate like great white hearts in the moonlight,
her hair a silver flow, her dress a white veil, all a specter which in a moment would rise on the vaguest breeze and mount the night
and vanish into time