Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Saturday, December 07, 2019

Darwiniana

I promise that I am writing as much as I can to finish Strange Plots for you all. It is simply that this past week, "as much as I can" has been not very much because our Christmas show goes up today: The Bing Crosby Christmas Special, an old-timey TV variety hour featuring musical guests such as Karen Carpenter, John Denver, Peggy Lee, and the Lennon Sisters. The girls and I are the Lennon sisters, singing Snow from White Christmas, and The Christmas Song (second selection here):



One thing you'll notice about the lovely Lennons is their ability to blend, with their equal tones and equal physiques. We've had to work hard on our tight harmony and seamless unison, and are doing fine there, but it's not quite as easy to disguise the fact that we are three nubile teenagers and a newly-minted 41-year-old who's had seven children. Fortunately, our early-70's setting serves us well: we have floor length dresses with sleeves that cover the telling part of the arm. Stage makeup, too, can work wonders, as can squeezy shapewear.

Another bar to my word count is my 2-year-old. 'Nuff said, I know, but allow me to expand. This guy is nuts. He's taken to climbing, as in, someone found him standing on the stove the other day. (The stove was not on, FORTUNATELY.) He drags chairs or stepladders to where he wants to be. Recently I found him on top of the toy shelf. He'd climbed up the sides, throwing toys on the floor as he went, and was perched happily on the denuded fifth shelf, six feet up. Right now, before 8:00 on a Saturday, he is sitting on my lap, banging on my keys. Yesterday I heard a banging, and turned from the computer to find him banging on the arm of a chair with the uber-sharp knife which he'd climbed up into the fridge to take from the birthday cake platter. So I took it from him and put it away, and when I came back he was stabbing the chair with an alcohol marker. He's so bad during the day, and at night when he's finally asleep, I'm exhausted. And that's assuming that I don't fall asleep trying to put him down, because I was too old to train him up to sleep in a crib at 6 months like I did for everyone else, and now he's still in my bed kicking me and flinging an arm across my face all night.

Good thing he's cute.

Wednesday, December 04, 2019

Strange Plots 19

Two more installments left. Thanks again to M.L and brother Bill for the medical assist, and do believe that all errors are my own.

***

Previous.

I don’t know how you’d feel if, after 85 years, you learned your true birthday. Grandpa cried like the day he was born, zooming in again and again on the photo of the baptismal register to see the date, his name, and his parents, A.M and T. And to my teary astonishment, Mom cried too, rocking with him and laughing and blowing her nose loudly.

“It’s too late to change it on my birth certificate,” Grandpa declared. “I’m just going to have two birthdays from now on. Two parties, two cakes.” He sniffled. “Two parents.”

“I hope you aren’t going to need another daughter to round out the pairs,” said Mom, and they cackled together as if the joke had even been funny.

My mother and I had reached a sort of truce, which meant that we didn’t talk so that we didn’t fight. I could live with it, I guess. Being ignored, as I’ve said before, irks the living daylights out of me, but not fighting did have its upside. For one thing, I started seeing more of Dad. He’d often been tucked away in his office when he was home, but one night he sat and watched Christmas movies with me and mom, even though he had no stomach for that kind of sap. It was as if he liked being with us when we weren’t tearing it up.

I hadn’t gotten fired from my job yet, which was a good thing because I needed the gas money. The route to Titusville had become a strange sort of pilgrimage for me. I was climbing the mountain to go to the holy temple — Sacred Hearts. Vin wanted to go sit at Mass again, and I wanted to go sit with him. And God. Of course. I wanted to sit with God. But I didn’t seem to pray all that well myself, so it was interesting to watch Vin. I mean, I probably would have watched Vin anyway, because I’m an irreverent heathen. But I was captivated by his natural ability to focus and be silent and get the significance of things that whizzed right by me. And when he shook hands with Father Leonard after mass, he asked him questions about the words of the long prayers that I’d heard all my life but not not marked, and the actions that I’d seen all my life without noting.

Vin and Father Leonard seemed like they were becoming best pals too, and it took an effort on my part not to be jealous because they went to the diner during the week and talked about life, the universe, and everything.

“I’m going to mass on Christmas,” Vin told me as we drove out of town after mass. “I was hoping you’d come up here with me.”

I was flabbergasted. “Oh my gosh, Vin. Your mom is already always on the edge about tradition. What are she going to say if you skip going to her church on Christmas Day itself to go see the Catholics?”

“What do you mean?” he asked. It seemed to be our constant refrain in any sort of religious discussion. “We’ve never gone to church on Christmas day.”

“Never?” I wasn’t sure I was hearing him right. “Are you even Christians?”

“Of course we are, but church on Christmas isn’t really our thing. Even ministers like to be with their families on Christmas day.”

“With their families at church,” I said. “I’ve never heard of anything so insane. You mean it’s Jesus’s birthday, and to honor it you skip church because it’s too much fuss?”

“Well, and so where do you think I’ll be going to church this Christmas?” Vin asked. “Sacred Hearts. With you, I hope.”

After that, I couldn’t really say no.

We were driving out of town because we were going to see a ruin. Not too far down the main road was a gate I’d passed every time I came to Titusville, a sagging mess of wire and rails blocking a rutted drive. We turned into the drive, and Vin got out to wrestle with the rusty latch.

“Aren’t we trespassing?” I asked, for once the good law-abiding citizen.

“Technically.” Vin maneuvered through the narrow opening and got out to push the gate to again. “But it’s abandoned. I don’t even know who owns it now. Kids come out here sometimes on Halloween to creep each other out.”

Frozen grass and mud and gravel squelched under the wheels as we crawled down the overgrown drive. Perhaps once the path had been broader, more spacious, but  now shrubby, twiggy brush almost scraped the sides of the car. It felt like we were driving in a tunnel. I resolutely pushed away any thoughts of claustrophobia.

“How long has it been since anyone lived here?”

“I think it’s been abandoned since it burned.”

The drive opened up into a clearing of sorts, once a farmyard. A stark, blackened shell of a house was shrouded in vines. In some places the walls were no more than charred framing, in others, window sashes remained. Several chimney stacks teetered unsupported. Roofless, eyeless, the house was deader than dead.

My curiosity was blunted by my desire to stay in the warm protection of the car, but Vin refused to be oppressed. He ushered me from the car and swept a grand gesture of invitation that took in the whole desolation. “Welcome to my ancestral home, where family feuds come to die.”

“Hm. A bit of a fixer-upper.”

It was hard to get too close to the house because of the defensive thicket, but the front porch was still barely walkable. In the most useless precaution ever, the door was boarded up.

“What’s the point?” I asked. “There are huge holes in the walls.”

“Want to go in?” Vin asked, not moving. “I’m sure the bodies are long gone.”

I pulled my jacket tighter around me. “Not surprised this place was left to rot. It feels unhealthy.”

We picked our way around the back, trying to avoid icy puddles or patches of slick leaves. There stood, or used to stand, a barn. Unburned but unwell, the whole structure had collapsed to the side. Here too, nature was reclaiming its own. The effect was not comforting.

“I’m trying to compose the real estate listing,” I said. “So far, I have ‘American Gothic.’”

“Well, it probably didn’t always look this bombed out.”

“I wonder what it looked like before the fire? Was it ever a happy home?”

“We might be able to find out. The Historical Society has a lot of photos of Titusville going way back. Andrew Titus must have been important enough to have been caught on film at some point.”

“And your grandma has a picture of Lavinia, so they must have had cameras up here.”

Vin laughed. “It was the 1930s, not the 1830s. Even the mountain yokels had Kodaks.”

I started back toward the car. “If I had to pick between Titus farm and the corn maze on Halloween, I’d definitely go with the corn maze.”

Vin caught up with me. “So what you’re saying is that I shouldn’t have bought this place for our honeymoon cottage?”

“Don’t be an idiot,” I said, willing him to be at least a bit idiotic. “You couldn’t afford something this glamorous.”

“Oh, it wasn’t much.” Vin opened my door. “I got it at a fire sale.”

I buckled up, and he started maneuvering the car to get back out of the driveway. We were halfway up the driveway when I shouted. “Fire sale? No, you did not just say that. Get out.”

“I’m already burning up the road.”

“Stop.”

“Don’t pour cold water on my puns.”

“I hate you.”

He smirked. “No you don’t.”


Around the side of City Hall, an unobtrusive door proclaimed itself the entrance to the Titusville Museum and Historical Society, open Sundays from 1-4. An elderly docent, scrolling on her tablet, waved us in.

“Your tax dollars at work,” I said. “Have you ever been here?”

“Maybe?” he said. “It’s the sort of place you go on a grade school field trip. But field trips are wasted on the young. When I had to go to a museum or a play back then, it was just a chance to get out of the classroom. I didn’t learn anything. Now I’m old and I wish I had back the time I spent not learning when I had the chance.”

“Here’s your opportunity, Gramps,” I said. “Let’s reform your fourth grade shiftlessness.”

There were a few early Indian artifacts, some antique documents and deeds, a pencil sketch or two of the first settlements, even a preserved dress, shawl, and boots. Vin wanted to lean in and read all the labels, but I wandered over to an aerial photo of downtown from the 1930s.

“What’d they take it from, a hot air balloon?” I wanted to know. “Look, here’s Sacred Hearts. It’s tiny, isn’t it? All the businesses are noted, and even some of the houses.”

“‘Mayor Sanders’,” read Vin. “He had the biggest house in town. I know where this is. I’ll take you by sometime. It’s pretty.”

“Let’s buy that for our honeymoon cottage,” I said. “We can kick the mayor out. He can go live with the little people.”

“The current mayor lives in a McMansion he built on his own property,” said Vin. “I doubt he’d live downtown if you paid him…”

“You do pay him.”

“… because the water pressure is terrible here.”

The docent glanced up from her electronic babysitter. “If you’re interested in Mayor Sanders and his house, there’s a photo in the 1930s album of him on his front porch.”

We weren’t interested in Mayor Sanders, but we trooped politely to a table of photo albums, each embossed with a decade. I opened the 1930s volume and paged through it, Vin leaning over me with his chin on my shoulder. The pictures were mildly interesting. There were lots of locals in old-timey outfits gathered in various locations for various occasions. Vin recognized most of the places, and even I could spot some familiar scenery. We didn’t know exactly what we were looking for, but there was no harm in flipping through the book with Vin warm and attentive behind me.

“I think this is the photo she was talking about,” said Vin, pausing at a family trio on a roomy porch. “That’s the old mayor’s house, anyway.”

“Vin,” I breathed, jabbing him with my elbow. “It’s him. It must be him.”

Standing at the far edge of the house, segregated from the family, was a black man, rake in hand, who might have seemed subservient except for his bold gaze directly at the camera. Caught in wonder, we gaped at photographic proof of the presence of a black man in Titusville in the 1930s. And Vin, Mr. Eagle Scout himself, slid the museum’s photo out of its plastic sleeve as if he owned it, and turned it over to check the back.

1933. Clayton Sanders (mayor) and Mrs. Tamar Sanders
Demetrius (son of T.)
Negro Gardener (Aaron Moore?)

“Aaron Moore,” I whispered.

“And T.”

I was nearly hyperventilating, but Vin, cool as a cucumber, put the photo back. He carried the album over to the docent, smoothly scanning the “Doris Smith” on her name tag

“Mrs. Smith,” he said, like the nice mannerly young man he was. “Can you tell us a little about this photo?”

“That’s Miss Smith to you,” said the single lady, not putting down Words with Friends. “I told you, that’s Mayor Sanders on his front porch.”

“Yes, but who are these people?” I demanded. The docent, not about to be hustled by the kids these days, pulled out the photo in her turn and took her time studying the back.

“That’s the mayor,” she explained, “and that’s his wife, and that’s her son, and that’s the gardener.”

“Ah,” said Vin, keeping me patient by squeezing me, “I see. Do you know anything about them?”

Miss Smith chewed on her thoughts for a moment. “He died in the Titus house fire. And she might have died in childbirth. Or, no just after childbirth. Or maybe she was in the fire too?”

“Childbirth?” Vin was killing me with how casual he was being, but he at least he was getting results. “That’s quite a spacing between her children.”

“She was a widow, you know.” Miss Smith was now ready to be obliging; she got up out of her chair. “We have a portrait of her over here.”

“I didn’t know Titusville was important enough to have artists,” I murmured to Vin, recovered just enough to be snide.

“All humans deserve art,” said Miss Smith, whose ears were sharper than she let on. “But not all humans ought to have their portraits painted. Mrs. Sanders was an exception, I think you’ll admit.”

Several undistinguished paintings of past dignitaries were clustered in a small gallery. We didn’t need Miss Smith to point out which canvas we were looking for. Even the artless style could not disguise Mrs. Sanders’s personality. She was a woman of decided character and decided jaw. And decided hair, red hair, red as Vin’s as he stood with decided jaw reading the label.

“Tamar McGrath Sanders.” He jerked up his head to look at Miss Smith. “McGrath?”

“Yes, she was one of the McGraths. The McGrath, in my opinion.”

“But her son, Demetrius,” I said slowly, over the sounds of wheels turning in my head, “was he a McGrath too?”

“I told you she was a widow.” Miss Smith shook her head at our obtuseness. “After Andrew Titus killed her son, she married the mayor to get back at him. But — I told you wrong before — then her baby died, and they decided to bury the hatchet, and then the whole house burned down and killed them all while they ate dinner. So there was no one left to feud in the end.”

“But what about the corn maze?” The effort cost me a few years of my life, but, clinging to Vin’s example, I played it light. “The legend about the feud and the pact and the lynching? The black man in the photo?”

Miss Smith glared at me. “I told you they had a peace dinner. People don’t end feuds by burying innocent men in fields. The gardener wasn’t from around here, and he went back to wherever he came from.”

“But why is there even a corn maze legend?” I pressed. “Was there really a body?”

Miss Smith refused to be pressed. “Because people are simple, that’s why. Likely some local farmer killed a tramp in a cornfield for stealing, and didn’t want to get in trouble so he made up a fantastic story.”

I was deflated. “That’s… not very exciting.”

“No,” said Miss Smith with satisfaction, “but it’s probably the truth. No photos, young man!” she said, startling Vin who was focusing his phone on Tamar McGrath Sanders. “This is a museum, not a free-for-all. Come back again if you’d like to look at Mrs. Sanders. Please put that book away when you’re done.” She settled back down with her tablet. “If you’ve enjoyed your visit, you can leave a donation in the offering box.”

“I don’t believe her,” I snapped outside. “I’ve been to plenty of museums where you can take pictures of the art. Your tax dollars at work indeed.”

“I need to sit down,” said Vin. “I need paper and pencil. I’ve got to see this all written down.”

“The diner?”

“No. I can’t deal with everyone in Titusville right now. Let’s go to my place.”

“Let’s,” I said, my heart skipping a beat at the unexpected invitation. “I’ll follow you over there.”

Vin lived up a set of icy steps in the second floor of an old house. His apartment was nothing much to write home about. The paneled wallboard screamed “cheap 80’s renovation” and and the brown paint of the trim suggested that the designer had never seen a real piece of wood. I thought with real envy of how small his rent check probably was. The furnishings were bachelor spare and the kitchen mostly bachelor clean, but there was nothing wrong with the place that the aroma of coffee wouldn’t smooth over.

One mug and several sheets of paper later, we had a rough chart.

“My line is easy.” I traced up the family tree. “Me, to my mom Linda, to my grandfather, Aaron Moore, born 1934, to his father, Aaron Moore, and T. his Scots-Irish mother, who could be Tamar McGrath Sanders.”

Vin took his turn. “Me, to my dad Dan, to his mom Kay, to her mom Helen, born 1934. Mother, Lavinia. Father, unknown”

“Aaron Moore is connected to your grandmother by his mother. Tamar had a child who died in 1934.”

“Your grandfather shows up at an orphanage out of town in 1934.”

“Aaron Moore the father disappears in 1934.”

Our eyes locked across the table. The air was electric with the thrill of discovery.

“Aaron Moore is connected to the Tituses through his mother.”

“Tamar, possibly his mother, has a son, Demetrius.”

“Who is roughly the same age as Lavinia Titus.”

“And Helen Titus is born in 1934, out of town.”

“And everyone else dies in a fire.” Vin sat back in frustration. “It doesn’t make any sense. They go to have a peace dinner, and everything burns down. That’s pushing the idea of accident too far.”

“It has to be an accident, right?” I said, uncertainly. “Why would it be deliberate? What would they still be feuding about?”

“If the mayor knew about Tamar and Aaron, he’d be mad,” Vin said, and I couldn’t disagree. “But no one in Titusville ever knew about Aaron Moore’s son with T. — except Father Walsh. Which means that no one, including the mayor, talked. Which could make sense if you think of a missing baby. Is the mayor going to want everyone to know that his wife had an affair with a black man?”

“But how does Andrew Titus come into it? Why would he care if Tamar McGrath shamed herself with a black man?”

“He might care a great deal about his daughter, though.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean that there have never been any rumors in town about a Titus girl and a McGrath boy, which you’d expect if they were simply a pair of star-crossed lovers.”

“Not necessarily,” I said, thinking hard. “What if she got pregnant and Andrew Titus was angry and beat her so badly that she had to go into an institution? And he covered it up so no one would ever know.”

“And Demetrius McGrath wouldn’t publicly denounce him, or just elope with Lavinia in the first place? No, that doesn’t sound right to me.” He couldn’t sit still anymore with  the speed of his speculations. “I think it’s worse that that. What’s been the running theme of the Titus-McGrath feud?”

“Revenge?”

“That’s right. And what would Andrew Titus want revenge on the McGraths for now? Tamar McGrath wasn’t really bothering him anymore. She was busy with the mayor, and she had her side piece going on.”

“Hey now!” I was indignant. “That’s my great-grandfather you’re talking about.”

“It may be my great-great… great-grandmother I’m talking about.” Vin would not be deterred. “Is it Tamar who strikes the next blow in the feud? Or is it Demetrius?”

“Oh my god.” His meaning began to dawn on me. “You mean you think Demetrius was the one who messed up Lavinia so much she was paralyzed in an institution?”

“Not just paralyzed,” said Vin grimly. “Pregnant.”

The ugly apartment, Vin pacing, the lamplight — everything about the situation felt remote and unreal, as if I was watching from outside myself. “That’s sick,” I said, trying hard to keep myself from floating off away from this conversation. “I’m going to be sick.”

Vin knelt down and chafed my shaking hands. “Don’t you see? Demetrius covers it up because he doesn’t want to get caught, and Titus covers it up because he’s a man of strict honor and it’s shameful for his daughter to lose her virtue.”

“It’s not her fault! You can’t blame her!” I protested.

“I don’t. And it sounds like Titus blamed someone a lot more than he blamed Lavinia. After all, she’s the only one who survived.”

“No.” Now I couldn’t be still, not with the pounding in my head and the horror clogging up my nose and eyes. “You don’t know any of this. You’re just making this all up. Stop it, Vin. This used to be a fun family mystery game. Why do you have to ruin it?”

“I’m not making up the family tree,” Vin said, trying to sound sensible and only getting as far as pedantic. “Track back the degrees of connection on the DNA report and it will suddenly make sense that Kay’s grandfather is the half brother of your grandfather. We are all kinds of messed up, cousin.”

“So what? It doesn’t mean anything!” I sobbed. “It means nothing to us. It means nothing about you and me.”

“Easy for you to say,” Vin retorted. “You aren’t descended from a rapist.”

“You do not know that!”

“But I believe it.”

He stood trapped in anguish generations in the making. It broke my heart to see him so oppressed. Since he would not come to me, I went to him and laid my head on his heart and tried to pull him back into the present.

“Listen to me.” I would stop crying; he would understand me. “You are you. You’re not anyone else in your family tree, not Demetrius, not anyone else. Your ancestors don’t define you, or me. We don’t have to make their mistakes. We can start fresh.”

“Start fresh.” Misery made Vin motionless. “What does the Bible say, about the iniquities of the fathers being visited down to the third and fourth generation? My whole family line is dysfunction and absence. Then at last my dad managed to get married, and you’ve seen how that turned out. I wouldn’t inflict that life on anyone, wife or child.”

You are not your father.

But he sighed and gently removed my arms.

“It’s presumptuous of me to think that I can somehow straighten the twisted family tree. Maybe it’s better if we leave it be.”

“‘Leave it be.’ What’s ‘it’? You mean us? Because that’s not an ‘it’ to me.” He kept trying to turn away, but I made him look at me. “I am not an ‘it’. I am Erin Moore Ramirez, and you are Vincent Titus, and I am telling you that right here, right now, we can end the Titus-McGrath feud. Don’t you see? We’re the descendants. We’re the end of the line. It stops with us.”

“It stops, yes.” Vin retreated and wrapped his arms around himself to hold everything together. “If we walk away from each other now, and you find someone else, and I… I just stay alone.”

“Why don’t you make a better family instead?”

“No more generations. No more curse. I’m sorry.”

The familiar fire of temper, that I’d tried so hard for two weeks to tamp out, flared up as hotly as it ever had at my mother, and this time I let it blaze. “If there was anything I’d be glad to walk away from, it’s you saying you’re sorry, again. Stop apologizing. Own your cowardice for once. Just say you’re afraid.”

I stomped to the table and grabbed my purse. Let the neighbors downstairs get an earful. I hoped they complained to the landlord.

“Erin, I really am sorry,” Vin begged. “But it just makes sense this way.”

I yanked my coat on and wrenched the door open. “It’s the fifth generation.”

“What?”

“If you count Demetrius and his iniquity as the first generation, you’re the fifth generation. So you would have been out of it anyway.”

A hearty slam for the people downstairs, and a good furious trounce down the stairs. And then there was even more noise, as I went flying on the ice and slammed my outstretched fingers into the wall of the house and yowled in pain.

Vin clattered down behind me, pulling on his jacket. “Erin, are you all right?”

I cradled my hand. “Go away.”

“Are you hurt?”

“Only my dignity. And not even that. ” I was not going to go into hysterics about the crazy ache and the freaky way my middle finger was bent. I was not. “My dignity is fully intact. So is my integrity.”

“Can I see?”

“No. I’m going home.”

“So you’re going to drive down the mountain at night in December with one hand?” He took it anyway and pressed gently on the nail, and I hummed and choked in spite of myself.

“How about this. Can you feel me touching your fingertip?”

“Don’t touch me, you asshole,” I hissed, white hot both with fury and because I could indeed feel it. “You tell me to go live my own life because you’re incurably diseased, and then you come running to rescue me when I go boom down the stairs? As if that hurts more than you turning away from me?”

“I don’t think it hurts more than walking away,” said Vin, messing with the wrong angle of my joint. “Not if the way I feel is any indication. I just think that this, at least, I can fix.”

“Absolutely not,” I moaned. “I’m not going to be stuck in Titusville a minute longer at whatever cut-rate medical facility sees patients at this time on Sunday. Ow! Vin! Motherfu--!”

With a pop, the pain was only an echo. A window flew open downstairs and a choice stream of profanity accompanied a request for us to be quiet.

“What did you do?” I asked, weak with relief.

“A closed reduction.”

I wiggled my finger tentatively, waiting to see if it would stay normal. “I called you an asshole, and you fixed me anyway.”

“‘Asshole’ seems pretty mild for you, to be honest,” he said, pressing my nail again. “And for me, too. You should still see a doctor, just to be sure, because you’re going to be pretty sore. And it is entirely outside protocol for me to perform a reduction, so I’d appreciate it if you didn’t mention my name.”

He pulled a roll of medical tape from his jacket pocket and wrapped my middle and pointer fingers together.

“You carry tape in your pocket?”

“Who doesn’t? Here.” He pulled out a little bottle and shook two pills into my hand. “You want some water?”

“Ooh, are you prescribing me the good stuff?”

“Certainly not,” he said sternly. “I can’t prescribe anything. This is just ibuprofen, friend to friend.”

“Okay, friend.” I knocked back the pills like I’d seen people do in the movies.

“Let’s get you up.” He put his arm around me and helped me up, and I put my arm around him and pulled him into a soft, snuffly, cold-nosed kiss.

“That,” he said, once I’d released him and he’d released me, “was not fair.”

“Nothing about this is fair,” I replied, and walked stiffly to my car.

Monday, December 02, 2019

Knives Out

The short review: yes, you absolutely must see this, especially if you are fan of Agatha Christie, big house mysteries, fantastic set decor, southern accents, Chekhov's gun, crazy families, donut holes, and whodunits that keep you guessing until the end.

Someone asked us, "Does this movie have any sympathetic characters who end up happy, or is it blistering satire all the way through?" The answer is that the movie works because of one good character, pure of heart and motivation: Marta, the young nurse of the murder victim, mystery author Harlan Thrombey. In a houseful of oddballs and egomanics, she's the only one who cares about something other than her own skin -- although her efforts to save her skin drive most of the plot to delightful effect. And Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), to my surprise, was not the sumbitch paterfamilias of a Christie mystery, but a genuinely interesting and careful patriarch. 

Daniel Craig as Benoit Blanc, the private inspector with the deep-fried accent, has the most glorious movie detective monologue I've ever heard. If there is any justice in the world, suits at major studios are even now begging director Rian Johnson to develop a Knives Out franchise with Blanc's further exploits.

(For the parents out there wondering: we took our 13, 11, and 9yos and had a fantastic time. I don't know others' tolerance for profanity and mild violence, but this fell within our own family's parameters. Of more concern to me personally were two passing jokey (and inaccurate) accusations of masturbation, but they went over my kids' heads.)


Sunday, December 01, 2019

Strange Plots 18

Previous.

August, 1934. Aaron Moore stared at the tiny brown-eyed bundle shoved into his arms, and to his horror he found that he wanted it to live.

There was no reason why it should live, or that he should want it to live. Life had never dealt him a fair hand from the day he was born, starting with the color of his skin. Everything he possessed, everything he called his own, had been clawed from someone else. That was how you made your way in this world. If someone else had it, you didn’t. If you had it, someone was waiting to take it from you. Possession was nine-tenths of the law, but you had a lot more scope for possession if you stayed outside the law.

Along the way he’d found that he had a talent for hatred. If a saint was someone who was holy, he was the anti-saint. He craved the sufferings of others to make him feel alive. Let fools talk about love, about family, and sacrifice and the common good. Fools were weak. The strong didn’t need those crutches. The strong took what they needed, and when they had what they needed, they took what they wanted, and when they had what they wanted, they took for the sheer joy of depriving other people of their strength. Brook no rivals. Leave no disrespect unavenged. If you hit back late, hit back hard.

And so everything about his situation in Titusville had been sweet as honey to him, a game where he could pick off the pieces at his leisure. Tamar was his ideal woman, the anti-angel to his anti-saint, a woman whose lust for revenge ran as deep as his own. He enjoyed her comforts of her home and the heat of her body. He relished her hatred of the Titus family, a rivalry that meant nothing to him but gave him free play for any horror he could set in motion. With her help, he’d molded her clod of a boy into something almost useful, a pawn whose red hair and pale skin gave him entry to situations that Aaron was barred from by the accident of his birth.

And Demetrius had been oh so useful. Aaron savored the memory of Tamar’s revenge, even though he’d only played a background role. Even now in his sleep he heard the sweet sound of the screams from the Titus house. Demetrius had lost his head with his first taste of cruelty. Aaron had been impressed by the boy’s thoroughness, but it did make the cover up more complicated. In the end they’d had to wrap the limp, moaning body in a sheet and haul it up to the top of the hayloft, carefully passing it from step to step up the boards nailed up for a ladder. Then they toppled it over the edge of the rail..

“Maybe that will account for her face,” said Aaron, contemplating the sprawled legs and head all askew. “If you gonna throw up, boy, do it outside in the stream so it will wash away.”

They’d driven away without being seen, without leaving behind Tamar’s pie, without leaving a trace to indicate that anything McGrath had ever set foot on Titus property.

“Buck up, boy,” Aaron had said to the shaking Demetrius. “Even if he realizes she didn’t just fall from the loft, he’ll think a tramp did it.”

Tamar and Aaron had savored their pie that night, and then he had savored her with a hunger aroused by the day’s hard villainy. Tamar was all the more luscious for being another man’s wife. Tamar shared something with him that she’d never give to Sanders, even if he was capable of understanding it. Their minds locked together as infernally as their bodies did in the close confines of his garage room. He wanted to consume her, her every evil impulse and smooth lie and the slender creeping tentacles of her plots of revenge. There was in her no imperfection, no passing softness to mar the glorious intensity of her rage. Aaron could have loved her, could he have loved anyone.

And they had gotten away with it. Andrew Titus had been seen driving hell for leather for the city that night, although he’d only just returned from there. Eventually he had come back, haunted and hollow, but Lavinia was gone. The talk was that she’d fallen from the hayloft, that she was paralyzed, that she was dead, that she had brain fever, that she did not know who she was. Aaron listened attentively to the talk, as he stood at a respectful distance in the butcher shop or the general store, but no speculation went any deeper than wondering if she’d ever walk again.

This tickled at the back of his mind, that even the gutter nature of town gossip had not picked up on the idea that Lavinia might have been ravaged. It struck him that there was an intelligence at work behind the chatter, someone directing public opinion and shaping it from a safe distance. At least, that’s how he would have worked him himself. But there was no one in town but Tamar to equal him for plotting. They were safe, and it was time to lay their plans for the next stage of their overarching scheme: escape from Titusville, with name, reputation, riches, and revenge intact.

Every option was more intriguing than the last. Should they murder the mayor and have Tamar move away as a grieving widow? Was there a way to get out of town fast enough to leave pursuit and justice behind? Should they take Demetrius, or leave him to fend for himself? The boy had his uses as an errand runner and a front, and Tamar had an attachment to him, but he’d gone weak in the head since his assault on Lavinia. He knew better than to tell anyone what he had done — Aaron had made sure to describe to him in full and gory detail all the pretty operations a mob could perform on a rapist — but right now he was idle and gloomy and no help. He could be dealt with later, whether he would be salvaged or tossed aside.
The plan was falling into place slowly enough. Tamar was buying time for herself by playing sick. This groundwork for this piece of the plot had been laid the very day of the Titus revenge, when Aaron had picked up Demetrius early from school on the pretense that his mother was ill and needed him at home. This was a precious little lie that had pulled all sorts of duty — it had built alibis for both Tamar and Demetrius, and had gotten Demetrius into fatal contact with Lavinia, and set an impression that Tamar was fragile.

There was nothing more useful than sickness as a cover for evil plans. Tamar had seen to it that she was well-liked in town, and she had local sympathy on her side when she pulled back from making pies and performing the social duties of the mayor’s wife. It had gotten her out of other wifely duties too, very convenient for the appetites of the conspirators.

But there came a time when playacting went too far. Tamar began to live in the role, a temptation Aaron had seen fell even seasoned professionals of crime. She was a little too languid, a little too choosy, a little too moody. Someone was going to catch on if she didn’t pull back her performance.

He spoke to her one morning in the kitchen, after Sanders had left for city hall and the hired girl was busy upstairs. Tamar sat in the front room, wrapped in kimono and slippers, every now and then opening her eyes to watch the snow drift down outside the window.

“The chores are done, ma’am. Is there anything else you need?”

“No, that will do.”

“Are you sure, ma’am?” Aaron checked to make sure his boots were clean and stepped into the room on the carpet. “It seems to me that there ought to be some task around the house I could do.”

“I can’t think of any. Go away,” she said, not turning her face from the window. But Aaron knelt down by the end table and began inspecting a loose table leg.

“You sure are beat, ma’am,” he in a low easy tone. “Perhaps you should consider going out of town for a while. I hear that Florida is nice this time of year, but a clever person can find lots to do in Chicago. Perhaps I could help you make some arrangements, but of course there’s lots of doors open to you that aren’t open to me.”

“I can’t go anywhere right now,” she said.

“Can’t, or don’t want to, ma’am?” he persisted. “It’s not always healthy to stay in one place for too long. It wouldn’t be too hard for a woman of your position to get away. If you set your mind to it.”

“A woman in my position is not allowed to travel,” she said, looking full into his eyes. “A woman in my position is well-advised to lay very low.”

“Laid indeed, ma’am,” said Aaron slowly, taking in her pallor, her peaky face, her tired hands. “The best laid plans… And the father, will he be surprised?”

“I don’t know,” said Tamar. “I don’t know if he will be surprised or not.”

Aaron slid a hand into her kimono and placed it on her stomach, considering. For a moment neither of them moved. Then Tamar shuddered and heaved, and Aaron stood up.

“There’s no rush, ma’am,” he said conversationally. “You seem to have a number of months before you have to make a decision.”

Those months, however, did not seem to give either Tamar or Aaron any clarity. In hurried whispers in stolen moments, they weighed their options. It was too risky to go to the local doctor to take care of the problem, and any home remedies had dangerous side effects. Then Tamar’s condition became obvious, and her opportunities of traveling alone to Roanoke were over, had she even been able to. Mrs. Sanders was no young farm wife, able to work right up until the moment she dropped her bairn. She was ill, confined, weary. Her recipe box sat neglected in the kitchen. Mayor Sanders was ebullient, slapping backs and speculating on what great gridiron feats his son would accomplish. Demetrius lurked at his mother’s side, leaving Aaron no excuse to be near her. The boy was definitely a liability, and Aaron reworked his careful plans to leave him out.

But there came a day toward the end where the house was quiet and Aaron was able to make it upstairs without any bar. He sat on Tamar’s bed. Her hair, drained of fire, fell lankly on her shoulders. All the color in her face had faded to a watery wanness.

“You’re here at last,” she said.

He picked up her swollen hand from the coverlet and began to knead it softly.

“You’re not an easy person to get to these days,” he said.

She laughed, a cracked ugly sound, and shifted her bulk to face him fully. “I never go anywhere anymore.”

“The day will come.”

“Or perhaps I’ll never go anywhere again. Perhaps I’ll die here, in this room.” A heavy tear slid down her cheek onto the damp pillow.

“Hey now,” Aaron said, wiping it away. “You never died before.”

“Those times were different,” she said. “There wasn’t as much danger.”

“Danger for you, or danger for the child?”

“No danger at all if the baby has blue eyes.”

Aaron studied their paired hands. “If the child can’t pass for Sanders’s brat, you and I are finished. You will have nothing. And me… I’ll be lucky if I survive the night in the county jail. Or not so lucky, depending on the night.”

“Sanders wants me to go to the maternity hospital in Roanoke. But there’s too much risk there.”

“It might be safer for you,” said Aaron.

“But not for you,” said Tamar. “There are too many people who will have hands on the child right away.” She sighed and closed her eyes. “I need a private nurse here, from the city.”

Aaron stood up. “You’ll have one.”

Sanders, who knew nothing about birthing babies, was prevailed upon to send a letter to a nursing agency in Roanoke. Aaron carried the letter to the post office himself. In a week, Nurse Cornelia arrived and took up her duties at home. She was a martinet of the old school. Sanders found himself relegated to an hour’s visit each evening, and Demetrius was allowed to kiss his mother before school and after dinner. Aaron was pressed into service to run errands, to carry specialized exercise equipment up to Tamar’s room, to do any heavy work Cornelia might require.

The afternoon that Tamar paced, groaning, from doorway to doorway, turning, sitting, rising, Nurse Cornelia sent Mayor Sanders to his office.

“Father only gets underfoot,” she scolded. “You’ll get regular updates, but I expect you to stay away until you’re summoned. Mother must have no agitation.”

Cornelia and Aaron sat in the kitchen, drinking coffee despite the heat of the afternoon, when Tamar staggered in and tried to sit. “Oh, no,” she gasped, getting right back up again.

“Not much longer now, I think,” said Cornelia briskly, rubbing her back with a firm hand. “You’re doing fine, dear. Keep walking.”

“Don’t,” said Tamar through clenched teeth, pulling away and leaning on a chair.

Aaron watched her sway and gasp with sickly fascination. “Can’t you do something for her?” he demanded of the nurse.

“She’s doing it all herself,” said nurse, with the easy calm of one not in pain. “Anything I give her will slow down the process, and I have Sanders nicely out of the house now.”

“Do not put me to sleep,” demanded Tamar, seizing the nurse’s arm with intensity, if not strength. “You must not put me down. I have to be conscious when the baby is born.”

Afternoon shaded into evening. Tamar had retreated upstairs with Nurse Cornelia. The doctor was in the house now, so Aaron was forced back below stairs, pacing the kitchen with Demetrius. After a time Nurse and Doctor came back down in clinical discussion. 

“In two hours, then, Nurse,” he said at the door. “Send word if anything changes.”

“Of course,” she said, shutting the door. Aaron rushed out of the back hall.

“What’s happening, Nurse?” he pleaded.

“I’m going to break her water,” said Nurse, all business as she marched up the stairs. “We’ll have a baby in half an hour. Be ready.”

“For what?”

“For whatever you need to do,” said Nurse, turning into Tamar’s room and closing the door.


Nothing in Aaron’s career had prepared him for this night of waiting. He had spent a lifetime inflicting pain on men and women, had spent time waiting for others to inflict pain on him. He had waited with patient endurance for schemes to bear their bad fruit, taking the setbacks with the same spirit as triumphs. But this was different, this night of labor. Sounds drifted from the top of the stairs, drawn-out, muffled, agonized. Should he be up there with Tamar? He could do none of her work and take none of her pain, and even if he could, would it be worth it for another man’s child? Sanders could claim the baby even if it were not his, as long as it was even passably white. Light skin would ease this child’s path in life, give it passage to worlds that Aaron could only see from the outside. To sit where you pleased, eat where you pleased. To enter by the front door.

“Please,” Aaron prayed, for the first time in his life. “God. Let the child be white.”

A fresh voice wailed thinly from the room upstairs. Not long after, the door opened and nurse called down. “It’s a boy. Come look.”

Tamar lay exhausted and murmuring on the bed. Bloody linen lay piled on a sheet on the floor. Nurse finished wrapping baby in a blanket and handed him to Aaron.

“Who is he?” Tamar could not open her eyes, but she lifted a hand to Aaron. “Who is he?”

Aaron carried the child to the lamp and inspected him. The baby was a healthy red, its nose no broader than any other baby’s. His hair, as Aaron slid the blanket off his head, was fine and dark. Aaron turned over a tiny hand to check the color of the palm, but at his touch the little fingers closed on his. The cheeks, the lips — nothing marked this child as different. He could live. Whether his son or Sanders, he would live.

“He’s white,” Aaron said.

Tamar shuddered with great sobs. “Give me my baby.”

Aaron handed her the mewling infant. He nestled in her arm and bumped his small chin at the nipple Tamar brushed against his lips. With a hum of content, the baby closed his mouth on his mother’s breast. His small face unscrunched, and he finally opened his eyes to take in the world.

His father’s eyes.

Tamar wailed in bed as Nurse Cornelia reached for the baby. “It’s better not to bond,” she said. “I can give it a shot. It will all be over in a moment."

“No!” Tamar roared. She pushed the child at Aaron. “Take him! Don’t let her hurt him!”

“It’s easier this way,” Nurse soothed. “The Mayor will only ever see him wrapped up with his eyes closed. No one will ever know.”

“Don’t white babies ever have brown eyes?” Aaron asked, buying time to think.

“They can,” said nurse. “But not Mayor Sanders’s baby. He’s not that stupid."

“Aaron, please,” sobbed the mother. “Please.”

The child looked at his father with cloudy brown eyes. The father looked at his child with clear brown eyes, and saw that he must live. Everything was wrong. The plan was shot to hell, and there was no way it could end well now. But it must not end this way, with his son condemned to death for the crime of being like his father.

“You’ll have to kill me first,” he said to the nurse.

Nurse Cornelia hesitated, looking from the dangerous father to the devastated mother. “Well,” she said, “That would be difficult for me to explain.” She pondered. “You’ll have to dig a grave in the back yard. I’ll tell Sanders the child was born dead and deformed, and that the mother couldn’t bear for anyone to look at it.”

“Will he believe that?” Aaron asked.

“Long enough for me to leave,” said Nurse. “I’ll be long gone by the time Sanders suspects that you killed or stole the child.”

“Father Walsh,” begged Tamar, clutching at Aaron's arm. “Bring him to Father Walsh. Father will take care of him.” She fought her way past nurse out of bed, and promptly fainted.

“The sooner you get out, the better,” said the nurse, wrestling the bleeding body back in bed. “I can explain a missing child, but not a missing child and a dead mother.”

Aaron wrapped another blanket around the baby. “Make Demetrius dig a grave and fill it in,” he said to nurse. He knelt by Tamar’s side, and kissed her clammy forehead.

“I will come back for you,” he said.


Father Walsh was just turning to lock the mission church after his vespers when a hulking figure clutching a parcel appeared and pressed him against the door.

“Don’t make a sound,” growled Aaron Moore, forcing him back inside.

“Well, now, it’s good to see you too,” said Father in his placid brogue. “Needing some help, are we?”

Aaron hauled the little priest down the aisle and pushed him into a chair in the office.

“Is it stolen property perhaps?” Father asked as Aaron pulled the curtains. “Don’t worry, I can help you return it.”

Aaron leaned over the priest in the locked room. “Oh, you’ll help me, all right, or God help you.”

“He always does,” said Father. He lifted the fussing bundle from Aaron and unwrapped it. The baby blinked dark eyes at him and closed them again. “So it’s the child, is it? And how is mother keeping?”

Aaron knelt by the chair, drained of bravado. “Tamar told me to bring him to you. She could die.”

Father Walsh rocked and clucked over the newborn.“There, there,” he cooed. “There, there. You’ll be fine, wee one. St. Patrick will watch you, and St. Brigid too.”

“So you’ll keep him?” Aaron demanded.

“Think about it, my wee babby,” Father said to the baby, jostling him gently. “What will people say when Father Walsh turns up with a child on the same day that Mrs. Sanders’s wee boy dies? This is not the big city to lose a child in. The good people of Titusville know what dad looks like. How safe are you here, babby? How safe is dad?”

Aaron rubbed at his bloodshot eyes. “What do I do now?”

Father still sang to the boy. “Babby must take a little trip, yes he must. The sisters at the orphanage in Roanoke won’t turn away my boy. There’s work and safety for dad in Roanoke.”

“How do I get to Roanoke with a newborn?” Aaron jumped up and prowled the little room. “They gonna be out there searching the roads for me tonight. Baby gonna cry.”

“Father will take a little trip down to Roanoke tonight, yes he will. Won’t it be funny if babby and dad stow away?”

The tension slowly drained out of Aaron’s shoulders as he leaned against the door. “All right, Father. Let’s get going then.”

“Not in such a rush,” said Father, unlocking the sacristy door and carrying baby into the church. “There’s only one gift I can give this poor child, and given his unorthodox little life so far, I don’t like to put off until the good sisters get a hold of him.” He held the infant over a holy water font. “What name shall I give him, then?”

“Aaron,” said his father, crumpling his hat in his hand. “Give him my name.”

“Aaron Moore,” Father intoned, dipping his hand into the basin. “Ego te baptizo in nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti.”


At midnight, an dirty automobile sputtered to a smoking halt in an alley down the street from the Holy Cross Convent and Orphanage. Two figures stirred and stretched in the dark car. The third slept.

“The sisters don’t separate the black babies from the white,” a gentle Irish voice remarked. "They’re all brought up together. Your son will be safe with them.”

“And what afterwards?” rasped the other. “What kind of life is it for a black orphan?”

“It’s better than no life at all.”

The baby snuffled in the silence. His father held him closer.

“I can do all the talking, if you like,” Father offered.

“I’ll take him myself,” Aaron muttered, still unmoving. “I just… I just gotta say goodbye to him first.”

He bent his face over the baby. “You looking up at me, huh, boy? You know your daddy?” His voice cracked and failed as he stroked the whimpering child. “Don’t you cry, now, baby boy, ‘cause you look like daddy. You shoulda taken after your mama. You could have been anything you wanted, if you was just a white boy. You could have been President one day.”

Shuddering sobs wracked him as he rocked his son. “I ain’t never done anything good in my life, baby boy. I have lied and I have hated and I have killed, and my old man was no better. But Daddy gon’ come back for you one day. He gon’ take you away to a little cabin, and teach you to fish and to fight. You’ll be a man, my man, my little man.”

Father and son cried together. The priest waited patiently, lips moving, beads passing through his fingers. Presently Aaron scrubbed at his eyes and began to swaddle the baby more securely.

“Don’t tell him goodbye,” said Father mildly, picking up the conversation as if there had been no interruption. “Tell him you’ll be near him, working hard to bring him home with you.”

Aaron got out of the car, but leaned in before he shut the door.

“You go home,” he said gruffly. “They gon’ need you in Titusville real soon.”

He slipped away and blended into the shadows across the street from the convent, watching until the auto turned around and drove back toward the massive shadow of the mountain.

Next.

Saturday, November 30, 2019

Strange Plots 17

Previous

I didn’t know how much space Vin would need to sort himself out, but there was no doubt he was a slow mover. I was bracing myself not to hear from him until the fact of my absence percolated down through his system and pooled in his nerve endings. For myself, I was already at that point, feeling my want of him stinging throughout the day and building to a steady yearning by night.

To distract myself, I went out and got a job. Not a cool job at a bookstore or Starbucks or secretary at a publishing house or at some classy boutique, like in a Hallmark movie. Nor a career like my mother would have approved of, getting my first leg up at some reputable tech company or getting in on the ground floor of a hot start-up. No, I needed something fast and I needed it now, so I went down to the mall and applied to work holiday retail. I’m young and pretty and ready to start now, so there wasn’t much challenge in hurdling the low barriers to entry. By Wednesday after Thanksgiving I was ringing up credit cards and gift wrapping packages and making jolly chitchat with harried shoppers.

By my second day I’d already had to bite my tongue to keep from telling off a fool, but I had some strong motivations to maintain my cool. First and foremost was Vin’s example of humility. I couldn’t be near him in person, so I was near him in attitude, smiling patiently as customers took out their year’s worth of frustrations and family stresses on the one person who had to treat them as if they were always right. When I felt hot words boiling up, I swallowed and became Vin patient with his crazy mother, or (more compelling) Vin, patient with crazy me. And to my constant surprise, not only did it work in the moment, but it changed people. A few shoppers went away with their nastiness still fully lodged up their asses, but most of them, given space, softened and regained their humanity and even apologized to me for losing their tempers.

As I neatened the cash wrap in the slower moments, I thought about the times when I’d been extended my own grace moments to let my brain catch up with my behavior. Never from my mom, who loved to catch me out. But dad, whether because he had more tolerance for me or because he just didn’t like conflict in general, almost always gave me that room to change myself without being forced to. Maybe that’s why he and I had a stronger bond and a more flexible relationship than I did with mom.

But what about me? Did I ever give mom the same space I was making such a big deal about right now? I tried to remember the last time I’d let her words hang and echo in the air. I always had to have a comeback, to give as good as I got. I could never let anyone get one up on me. One-upping wasn’t really a good name for a process that was more like a race to see who could dig themselves in deeper. And Mom and I had dug down so far that we were stuck in our World War One trenches, facing off across no man’s land, and I didn’t know who was going to be able to sneak out first and cut the barbed wire.

So that was one reason and two reasons not to blow up my job: Vin’s respect, and space from Mom. The third was straight up money. Driving to Titusville took a lot of gas, and looking cute for Vin meant a girl had to go every now and then and drop a wad of cash on a pair of boots or a pair of new hoops. My own savings were depleted perilously low, and I could not always be borrowing from Grandpa or my dad, open-handed as they were. Until my finances regulated and expanded I was stuck living with Mom and Dad — not the world’s worst arrangement, when everything was peaceful, but a little humiliating nevertheless. But they say that the best time to look for a job is when you already have one, so maybe after the holiday rush I could find something better and more permanent, which in turn could lead to more and quality adulting.

These considerations filled my working time, and when I got off I was worn out and ready to veg and stream some brainless entertainment, so I was surprised on Friday to get a call from Vin.

“Hey, sorry to disturb you,” he said.

“You’re not bothering me,” I said.

“I just always think I’m going to interrupt someone. But look, I was wondering if you could come up today. I ran into Father Leonard in town, and he said that he was wanting to get in touch with you. It seems like he had something to show you.”

“Something show us? What do you think it could be?”

“I don’t know. I wondered if maybe the man from the cornfield was buried in the Catholic cemetery or something.”

Oh my gosh, I wish I could get up there right now,” I groaned. “But I’m scheduled to work this afternoon. I’d get fired if I blow it off, and I’m really trying hard to make a good impression.”

“You have a job?” Vin was too polite to register all his surprise, but there was definitely an inflection of disbelief there. “When did this happen?”

“Right after Thanksgiving. I’m actually on break right now. I didn’t know when I’d hear back from you, so I decided I’d better start living my own life in the meantime.”

“Oh.” I could hear the gears shifting in his head, and I wondered with satisfaction if he’d gotten used to the idea of me being available whenever he needed me. “Okay, yeah. Of course. When are you free?”

“I’m off Sunday morning. Are you?”

“This week? Yeah.”

“What if I come up to Titusville and we go to mass, and catch Father afterwards? That way we’ll know exactly where and when to find him.”

“Wait, can I just go to mass with you? I thought there were rules about that.”

“Of course you can just go to mass with me. What do you think, that we have bouncers at the door keeping you out?”

“No, but I mean… I thought you had to go through some initiation to be Catholic.”

“Yes, but you don’t have to be Catholic to go to mass. Anyone can go to mass.” I reached back to my catechism days. “That’s what catholic means. It’s Greek for ‘universal’ or something.”

“But what about your Lord’s Supper? Not just anyone can take communion, right?”

“You can go to mass without taking communion.” I sighed. “I have to do it a lot, actually.”

When I got home I dragged myself into the kitchen for a snack, and found Mom at the table. We’d mostly avoided each other since Thanksgiving, but if we were going to be under the same roof we weren’t going to be able to keep that up indefinitely.

“Hi,” I said.

“Hi.”

I rummaged in the fridge. “By the way, I’m going to Titusville again on Sunday.”

“On Sunday? Really.”

“Really. I’m going to mass with Vin.”

“Vin is Catholic?”

“No.”

Mom got up from the table and shrugged. “That’s nice you’re going to church together.” And she left without further comment.

I stared after her. I’d concocted plans for many discussion scenarios — snark, needling, prying, dismissal — but outright acceptance had not made any part of my battle strategy. And her retreat had never been factor I'd considered, mostly because I’d never seen it happen before. I wondered if everything was okay and whether I should go upstairs and press the point with her. And then I thought about how I’d just been pitying myself for never getting any space from Mom. Take it where you can find it, I told myself. This moment may never come again.

“Thank you, Lord,” I breathed. “Let me not screw this one up.”

The Sunday sky was gray and lowering as I headed up into Titusville. The forecast called for snow, and I was glad of it. It would be such a pretty picture: Vin and me, strolling around the old square in the swirling flakes, crystals glistening against our hair, dark and red. (Hats did not figure in my images of seasonal bliss.) Snow melting in our hair as we knelt together at mass. Except Vin wouldn’t kneel, because he wasn’t Catholic so why would he?, but maybe he’d do it just to be polite. But would that be worshipping false gods if you didn’t actually believe? Suddenly I hoped I wasn’t provoking a theological crisis that would tear us apart before we were actually together. Maybe mass hadn’t been the best idea for a meeting place, but it was too late to change it now.

And indeed, the first flakes were starting to fall as I pulled in next to Vin’s car in the small parking lot next to Sacred Hearts. He was studying the pretty stonework so intensely that I felt intrusive knocking on his window.

“Sorry,” he said, getting out. “I was just thinking about how this church has been in Titusville for almost 100 years, and I’ve lived here all my life, and I’ve only gone inside once on a call. There’s so much history I’ve never been curious about, or taken any time to explore. I’ve been so obsessed with the missing fathers in my history that I’d never asked my grandmother about her own grandmother. What else have I been missing all this time, that’s always been right under my nose if only I could see it?”

“Hello,” I said, cozying up to his side. “I’m right here.”

“So you are.” He put his arm around me. “And we’ll go into that church together, where Father Leonard is plotting to steal you away and make you a nun.”

“What on earth?”

“And then someone will ask me, ‘Do you have a girlfriend?’, and I’ll point to you and say, ‘Nun’.”

“Do you even know the first thing about Catholi… No. Just, no.”

Vin was shaking silently next to me. I drew myself up with dignity.

“I hope I would have more respect than to go to your church and desecrate the holy ground with godawful jokes.”

“That’s why I have to come to church with you.” Vin gurgled. “We don’t even have nuns. Oh my gosh, I’m going to have to become Catholic. You guys have the best scope for puns.”

“I’m pretty sure God is going to send fire from heaven to strike you down,” I said, hampered in my ability to stalk off by Vin keeping a tight grasp on my hand.

Fortunately he didn’t cause any scenes, humorous or ecumenical, during mass. As we all knelt, I glanced over to see him sitting in universal posture of religious respect-but-not-ascent, elbows leaning on knees, head bowed. But he was watching the altar in fascination. I watched, too, wondering what he was looking at, trying to find something new and unfamiliar in the same liturgy I’d seen week after week, year after year.

“That was something else,” he said, as we sat in the pew afterward. “”There’s a lot of stuff going on up there.”

“It’s the first Sunday of Advent, so you have the Advent candles added in,” I said. “Otherwise, it was pretty standard.”

“What do you do on weeks when you don’t have the Lord’s Supper?”

“What do you mean?” I asked. “We go to communion every Sunday.”

“That’s a standard part of every Sunday worship service?”

“It’s a standard part of the mass. There’s not a ton of variation. You could go to mass and take communion every day of the week if you wanted.”

He gazed up at the golden tabernacle where Father Leonard had put away the hosts. “Do you want to?”

“Go every day? I never thought about it.”

“I would,” he said, sitting back. “That, every day. You’re lucky.”

Father Leonard passed up the aisle from greeting his sheep. “Hello again to both of you. Come back in the sacristy with me. I have something you will be interested to see.”

In the sacristy, Father unvested while Vin tried not ogle the closet of chasubles or the narrow drawers of linens.

“I thought a good deal about what you told me,” said Father, hanging everything up. “You have Aaron Moore, a tiny black baby, or half black. And he is not taken to the county orphanage or put in local foster care. He is taken to Roanoke.”

“Maybe his parents didn’t want anyone to know about him?” Vin suggested.

“But why not take him to a state institution in Roanoke?” Father asked. “Doesn’t it seem strange to you that someone would have come all the way down from the mountain to seek out a Catholic orphanage for this little baby? I thought about this, and I decided to do a little digging around in the only Catholic institution in Titusville.”

He led us back into a small room off the sacristy, not much more than a glorified passageway from the back door, packed with filing cabinets and drawers. A computer took up most of a small desk under the window. There was just about room for one extra chair.

“This is my office,” said Father. “It’s been the parish office ever since the church was built. Here is where we keep all the old registries and records.” He pulled down a large book bound in red leather. “In those days, the priest here did not have a secretary or a staff. He did all the recording himself. A lot of work, though the congregation up here has never been very large.”

He flipped open to a page he’d marked with a ribbon. “This is the registry for the 1920s and 30s, from the founding of the mission.”

The double page spread was lined with columns with Latin headings and filled with a tight cursive hand.

“This is the date,” Father said, stabbing the far left column. “You see this page is Summer 1934. And this next one says, in English, ‘I, Father So-and-so, baptize you’, and Father So-and-so would write his name.”

The top entry for the column was scribed “Francis X. Walsh”, with ditto marks most of the way down the page. 

“And this says, ‘Name of Infant’.”

He traced halfway down the page and stopped under a neat listing that read, “Aaron.”

“Oh my god.” I looked at the next column. “Natum? Is that birthday?”

“Yes.”

“This is the day before his birthday. Oh my god. It’s been wrong all these years.”

“If he was very small, the orphanage may have listed his birthday as the date they found him,” Father said.

Vin had moved to the next column. “Ex Parentibus. Parents. A.M and T. Why aren’t they written out? Everyone else has full names.”

“Perhaps even in an obscure Catholic registry, Father Walsh didn’t want to make it too clear who the baby’s parents were.”

“A.M,” I sobbed into Vin’s chest. “Aaron Moore. I wish Grandpa were here. I wish he could see this.” Father Leonard patted my shoulder as Vin murmured into my hair.

“You see,” said Father Leonard, brushing at his eyes. “No godparents. This must have been a very private baptism.”

“I wonder who T. is?” said Vin. “She must be the missing maternal link.”


“But wait,” I snuffed into the tissue Father handed me. “Why did no one ever know about this? It’s right here in the open.”


“How would you ever have known to look, though?” Father Leonard said. “If Aaron Moore came to the orphanage as a foundling infant, the sisters probably assumed that he was unbaptized. If he has been recorded there, and has traced back his records to the orphanage for all these years, why would he look elsewhere? And if no one in Titusville besides his parents knew that he existed, how would anyone in Titusville know to search for him?”

“And if his father was really killed by Old Titus and the mayor, then no one but the priest ever knew.

“Until the DNA test,” I said. “It’s like this was hidden in plain sight all these years.”

“Father Walsh’s name is only in the registry for another two months after the baptism,” said Father Leonard. “Then another priest took over. So if he were gone, and A.M. the father was dead, and the mother was not talking, perhaps understandably in the circumstances, then there is no one left in town who even knows that there is a mystery of Aaron Moore to solve.”

Next.

Strange Plots 16

Previous

1933. Father was coming home that night from the city, and Lavinia wanted to make a surprise for him.

Father went down in Roanoke every few months to lay in supplies, things the general store in Titusville didn’t always carry or he thought it vanity to order from the Sears Roebuck catalog. Even though he would rumble in after dark, Lavinia would run out to meet him with the oil lamp, and together they would haul in package after package. Father would let her open a few that night and exclaim over the contents. The next day, everything would be sorted and stored in its proper place, and the farm would be set up until the next expedition.

He always brought her some treat, some chocolate or taffy, or a book, or fabric for a new dress. Once — oh joy! — he had even bought her a ready made dress, with its neat factory stitching and fashionable lines. Today she donned that dress and carefully rolled her braids over her ears to look as mature and respectable as possible. She was going to make Father a treat, and to do so she needed to ask a favor.

The walk into town was nippy on this late autumn morning, but in her jacket and hat she was snug as could be. Mature she may be, but she wasn’t too old to stomp leaves under her feet for the fun of hearing them crunch. She wasn’t afraid of the solitary road. She loved quiet, and peace, and being alone with herself. Thank goodness Father didn’t make her go to the high school. How could you learn stuck in a school, surrounded by other people? A desk by the window, a book in your hand, a room to call your own — that was happiness.

And yet, you couldn’t live life with your head in a book. There was the farm, and getting married, and having babies. To have babies you had to be married, and to be married you had to know a man you could love and cherish and… and make babies with. The facts of life were simple. She’d known them since she was a little girl toddling around the farm. Anyone knew how pigs and horses give birth, and anyone knew how they bred. Women, too, gave birth that way. It was not quite as clear how the rutting of dogs or bulls might be different as performed by a man, but there was time enough to puzzle that out when she’d met a man worthy of running her father’s farm.

For now, Father was the man about the place, and as he took such loving care of her and brought her gifts from town, she was going to do something for him. She was going to make him a pie. Not just any pie, mind you, though it was easy enough to make an apple or a custard pie. Those were fine in their ways, but they required a certain amount sugar, and sugar was so expensive and better used in preserves. Once, however, Father had eaten one of Mrs. McGrath’s meat pies, and had been forced to admit that it was as good as any he’d ever had. Lavinia had tried on the sly to imitate the filling, and had even bought several meat pies from Mrs. McGrath bakeshop to taste and examine, but she couldn’t quite get the proportions right, and she didn’t want to serve one to Father until it was just so.

But now there was no chance of tasting another pie. Mrs. McGrath was now Mrs. Sanders, and too elegant to run a shop. That was right and just for the mayor’s wife, of course, but it didn’t help if you wanted to recreate her signature pie. Mrs. McGrath-that-was had declared that her recipe was a secret that would go with her to her grave, but surely there was some way to convince her to share it with one person, or to entice her give even a hint that would help Lavinia make a pie that was just as good as anything Mrs. McGrath had ever turned out of her bakeshop. Anything a McGrath could do, a Titus could do better. Father had always believed that, and she was ready to prove it to him. How he would laugh when he realized what she’d done!

But it would be best if he didn’t realize entirely what she’d done. Lavinia was not to socialize with the McGraths, or speak to them, or even acknowledge them in town. Father had laid this down as a precept and followed it religiously himself. It had cost him some influence in town, since it was bad form to snub the mayor’s wife. But Father held his conscience as a higher authority than the esteem of men. Mrs. McGrath was a woman of sin, lawless even though she was now allied to the law. Perhaps she had repented of her destructive moonshining ways and her service to the vile drink that had destroyed brother Quintin. If so, she showed no sign of it with her vain dress and her tawdry hair of a color offensive to God. Lavinia privately thought that if God had given Mrs. McGrath her red hair, he must not find it so awful as all that, but it wouldn’t do to flout Father by saying so.

And so she was sneaking into town this morning, stealing in by back paths to avoid being seen, so that she could visit Mrs. McGrath (how hard it was to get used to saying Mrs. Sanders, when the hair was still McGrath!) without word getting back to Father.  Luck was on her side today. Automobiles rumbled, but none passed her. Sounds of morning fuss came from houses, but no one was outside to catch her as she slipped by. The first person she encountered at all was the Sanders’ colored man, raking the leaves in the front yard. Should she speak to him, or should she ring the doorbell?

He noticed her hesitation, and stood with his rake held respectfully before him. “Can I help you, miss?” he asked.

“I need to see Mrs. Sanders,” said Lavinia, and added, “Privately.”

“Of course, miss,” he said. “If you’ll follow me around to the kitchen, I can bring you right to her.”

And such a kitchen! Lavinia stood in humble awe while the man stepped into the hall to call Mrs. Sanders. Perhaps it was vanity to live in such luxury, but oh! the green pressed glass knobs! The linoleum floor! Lavinia itched to examine the modern range more closely, but it would not do to be caught prying like a silly schoolgirl when she needed to be shrewd and astute.

“My dear, what can I do for you?” Mrs. Sanders stepped into the room, as cool and powdered as a woman in a cigarette ad, not pink and flustered from a brisk walk into town. How did one address such elegance? But a Titus must be above such worldly considerations. A Titus must rise above the lure of the flesh both for the sake of holiness and for the sake of winning the prize. She must not fidget with her dress or pat her hair to see if it was in place. She must speak.

“Mrs. Sanders, I know this is unusual, but I hope you’ll pardon the intrusion.” Was her tone right? Just serious enough, without sounding servile? “I’ve come to ask a great favor of you.”

“A favor!” Mrs. Sanders’s languid eyes showed a spark of life. “How charming! Of course I’ll do anything I can to help you.” She took a seat at the kitchen table, and invited Lavinia to do the same. “But maybe your father won’t prefer that you take help from me, if there’s anyone else who can aid you.” She shook her head ruefully at the foibles and follies of men, and Lavinia caught herself smiling back.

“I don’t know if you will, when you hear what it is,” she said, trying to sit as gracefully as Mrs. Sanders had. “But you’re the only one who can help with this particular request. Mrs. Sanders, I want the recipe for your meat pie.”

“My recipe?” Mrs. Sanders seemed caught off guard by such a bold stroke. “Why?”

“Father is returning from Roanoke tonight, and I want to make the pie for him.”

Mrs. Sanders blinked for a moment, considering, and then her face relaxed into a gentle glow.

“I know your father has taught you well from the word of God.” She scratched a match and touched it to a cigarette as she took a long drag. “Perhaps you remember the book of Job, how the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. Right now the Lord giveth to me. I live a comfortable life, with a loving husband and a big house and my dear son. But there was a time not long ago when I had nothing. Your own father was the hand of God, humbling my pride by destroying the wicked instrument of my life of sin and killing my son. My only means of support was my old pie recipe. It’s my whole livelihood. Should the Lord taketh away again, I must be ready to support myself, and if I give you my pie recipe, how will I be able to compete with such a darling cook? Who would come to me anymore when dear Miss Titus can do what I do, but with the benefit of youth and beauty?”

“I’m sorry.”

Mrs. Sanders laughed. “I don’t say it to reproach you. I’m flattered that you want my recipe. But the answer must be no. I’m afraid there will be no pie for your father, and I’m afraid I must tell him that you’ve come asking me, since I’m sure you’re here against his wishes.”

“Not about the recipe,” said Lavinia in a small voice. “I am sorry for the death of your son. It was very wrong of Father to shoot him when he came to make peace. “

“To make peace?” Mrs. Sanders’s face was neutral, her tone flat. “It was put about that Allan was trespassing.”

“His only trespass was to reach his hand out across the gate. My brother told me. You must believe me, Mrs. McGrath.” In her haste, Lavinia was forgetting the proper name to use, but the woman sitting across the table from her did not seem to notice. “I would do anything to atone for his death, ma’am. To make peace as he tried to make peace.”

“Anything,” said Tamar, her beauty caught and suspended in a death mask. “Anything. Did you say that your father would be home tonight?”

“Yes, that’s why I want to make the pie today, while he’s gone.”

Lavinia began to grow frightened by her stillness behind the drifting cigarette smoke.
Then, suddenly as spring, her soft smile revived. “My sweet child, you shame me. I’m just an old bitter woman but you have a heart as fresh and pure as your pretty face.”

“Thank you,” said Lavinia, her alarm beginning to melt.

“I cannot give you my recipe,” said Mrs. McGrath. “I know you will understand that. But I will let you look at it.” She rose and went to a small dresser, taking a box from the top drawer. Bringing it to the table, she flipped through the index cards, selected one, and placed it on the table before Lavinia.

Sage even in her gratitude, Lavinia scanned down the card, trying memorize proportions and ingredients. Already a few of her flops began to make sense to her as she compared her efforts to the recipe. There was a tap on the hall door, and the colored man put his head in. Mrs. McGrath stepped into the hall, then popped back into the kitchen.

“Please excuse me for a bit,” she said. “I’ll be back in a few moments.”

A few moments were all Lavinia needed. When Mrs. McGrath returned, the card was sitting in front of her place at the table, and Lavinia’s hands were folded neatly in her lap.

“Thank you so much,” she said, rising. “I am so grateful to you. I must go to the butcher now and get some cuts of meat. I must get started if I’m to be done in time.”

“My dear, never!” Mrs. McGrath took her arm and led her to the icebox by the back door. “I have all the meat you’ll need here. Stay and mix up the pie here with me, and I’ll show you the right way to chop and combine all the ingredients. Do you have raisins at home right now? Do you have nutmeg?”

“Well…” said Lavinia, wondering if this constituted taking charity.

“Please,” said Mrs. McGrath. “Allow me this pleasure.”

Soon the meats and fruits were on the cutting boards, and a merry swishing of knives filled the room.

“Did you learn your cooking from your mother?” asked Mrs. McGrath as she deftly minced the meat finer and finer.

“No, ma’am. She died not long after I was born.”

“That’s the plight of women in this world. If a child is not taken from it’s mother, the mother is taken from the child. She does the work to bring it into the world, and then it’s no longer hers to hold and protect.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Mrs. McGrath laughed and shoved a flamelike lock of hair away from her cheek with her wrist. “You have no idea what I’m talking about, but you will one day, when you have children of your own. You want children?”

Lavinia blushed. “I’d like to get married one day, ma’am. A big family is a boon on a farm. And I’d like to have a little baby, to mother as I wish I could have been mothered.”

Mrs. McGrath gasped and sucked on her sliced fingertip. “This just goes to show me I’d better keep my mind on the task at hand. Wouldn’t you say? Are you ready to add the spices?”

Soon the filling was all assembled, and Mrs. McGrath produced dough from the icebox, and they rolled it out together, chatting about butter versus shortening in the crust and the best way to cut in the fat. In no time, a lovely pie sat on the counter, top crust embellished with cunning designs.

“Now you take that home and you bake it, and you come back and tell me how your father liked it.” Mrs. McGrath wiped her floury hands on the towel, content with a job well done.

“Thank you, ma’am. And perhaps,” Lavinia could not believe her own boldness, “perhaps I might come back and make a pie with you again.”

“Oh, my child.” The older woman laid her hand on Lavinia’s cheek. “I would like that above all things.”

The kitchen door swung open, and Mrs. Sanders’ son, a broad shouldered boy Lavinia had seen at church, banged his way in and then stood, tense in surprise at the sight of his mother and Miss Titus in the kitchen.

“And here’s Demetrius home early from school!” trilled Mrs. Sanders. “I tell you what, it’s going to be a long dusty walk home with that nice pie. Why don’t I have Aaron drive you home?”

“Oh, I don’t know…” said Lavinia.

“And that way nobody will see you walking with the pie, and your secret will be safe from your father.” A sunny smile lit her face. “And Demetrius will escort you, for propriety’s sake.” Demetrius jerked and stared at his mother, who laughed. “Such a shy boy around a lady. Demetrius! Run out to the garage and tell Aaron to bring the car out.” When he hesitated, his mother inclined her head toward the door. “Go on and tell Aaron what you need to do.”

Demetrius backed silently out of the kitchen at his mother’s command.

“Thank you, ma’am,” said Lavinia, taking up the pie dish. “You’ve been so kind to me today.”

“It’s the least I can do for such a lovely child,” said Mrs. Sanders softly. “Here, let me help you into the car.”

As Aaron drove off, Lavinia in the back seat and Demetrius next to her holding the pie, Tamar watched them from the back stoop, her eyes tragic. Then she sucked on her cut finger, went inside and shut the door.

Demetrius was not much company. He sat ramrod straight, without looking at her, and flinched if her elbow or knee jostled him. But Aaron more than atoned for Demetrius’s sulkiness, making Lavinia laugh all the way home with his stories and riddles and songs. He drove with skill, sometimes veering into a back road or a pasture path if they heard another auto approaching. “Got to keep your pie a surprise, miss!” When they came to the Titus gate, Aaron wouldn’t hear of Lavinia walking all the way down the driveway. “Service right to your door, miss!” he said as she shut the gate behind him and hopped back in. He maneuvered down the drive so gently that he made no tracks in the gravel or in the empty yard. Right at the back porch he came to a precise stop, and opened her door for her like a real French chauffeur.

“Mister Demetrius, you carry that pie in for her,” Aaron said. “Ain’t no lady should have to bear a burden with a gentleman present.”

Demetrius sat immobile in the car. Aaron opened his door his door too and stood looking down at him. 

“Now you treat a lady right,” he scolded with paternal kindness. "Mind you take that pie right in and set it on the counter!”

“Maybe she doesn’t want me to,” Demetrius said, in his slow way, finally looking Aaron in the face.

“But if she doesn’t get started on her baking it will be too late,” said Aaron with an edge of patience. “What time does your father come home, miss?”

“Not until after dark.”

“And you want everything to be ready and waiting for him! Mister Demetrius, do you hear?”

Still he sat. “I can’t go in that house with her.”

“Miss Lavinia, he’s just too proud to go into the Titus house!” Aaron chortled. “Won’t you ask him? He won’t listen to me today.”

Lavinia stepped to the door and laid a hand on Demetrius’s stiff arm. “Please won’t you come in?” she asked, smiling to put him at his ease. “Let’s make peace between our families. Won’t you at least have a glass of water with me?” She stifled a laugh as she caught Aaron’s wink from the corner of her eye. The sound of her mirth seemed to kindle something in Demetrius. He got out of the car, awkward with pie in hand, and pushed ahead of her to the door.

“Let’s go,” he said hoarsely.

As Lavinia opened the kitchen door and closed it behind him, Aaron leaned back against the car and lit a cigarette, cupping his hand against the sudden chill breeze.


Shortly before dusk, a car crept gently down the Titus drive away from the dark house, disturbing no gravel, and turned softly onto the road toward town. The mayor’s chauffeur was at the wheel, driving in his correct and unobtrusive fashion after fastening the gate securely behind him. In the back, hidden on the floor, was Demetrius McGrath, clutching the unbaked pie in his bloody hands.

“Your mother will certainly enjoy that tonight for her supper,” Aaron remarked. “It was clever of you to remember to take it.”

“Shut up,” came a strangled moan from the floor.

“Ought to sleep well tonight,” said Aaron, with no hint of malice. “Always do, afterwards.”

The only sound from the back was muffled wrenching sobs.

Previous

Strange Plots 15

Previous

I’d meant to try out my new supporting role, get into the spirit of being loyal and all, but when Vin opened the door to me I ended up smiling just from the sheer pleasure of him being there.

“I’m glad to see you again,” I said.

I stepped toward him, and for a moment I thought he was going to be very glad indeed to see me. But he pulled back, though reluctantly, and ushered me inside.

“Some of my aunts and uncles are here, and my cousins, and Grandma Kay.” He started to help me out of my coat, but held on to it. “I wish it wasn’t so cold out. We could take a walk down the driveway.”

“I’m for it,” I said, waiting for him to slide my coat back onto my shoulders. But he shook himself and hung it up instead.

“I’m just being a coward,” he apologized. “Anyway, it’s almost dinner time. Let’s go on in.”

The living room was still a pristine temple to holiday cheer, but the kitchen felt merry. Heather and two women who must have been her sisters were bustling between the stove and the island, transferring food from pots into serving dishes. Kay was setting the serving dishes on the sideboard in the dining room, but she took a moment to kiss me on the cheek.

“Get our boy to smile,” she whispered to me.

In the den and around the kitchen table were several teenagers, old enough to have been useful, who were all slumped over their phones. One or two looked up with mild interest when Vin brought me in. 

“This is Erin Ramirez, a friend of mine.”

Probably he didn’t call me his cousin because he had literal cousins right there, but I approved the change.

Vin’s aunts had to come over and check me out — good-naturedly, of course, but you know how aunts are. I declared my willingness to work, which put me one up on the teenagers. Vin’s dad, stepping away from the den where the uncles were worshipping at the altar of football, was thrilled, just really jazzed, to see me and offered me any drink in the house, including his own.

“Erin, I’m so glad to see you again!” squealed Heather, performing happiness. I immediately hoped (and was immediately ashamed of hoping) that those same words had sounded more authentic when I’d said them to Vin.

“Nice apron,” I said, as heartily as I could. “Someone cool must have given it to you.”

She smoothed the blue tartan over her hips with the flair of a 50’s housewife, but managed to refrain from patting her hair and lighting up a Virginia Slim. “Erin gave me this,” she announced to the room. “Did I tell you how she just knew exactly what I liked? And look, it has…”

“Pockets,” murmured one of the phone-wielding teens, not loud enough to carry to Heather. “Yeah, we heard.”

“Come help me set the table,” said Vin, steering me toward the dining room. “Everything is nearly ready, but we can put the finishing touches on.”

“What’s left to be done?” I asked, as I circled the table choked with china and glass already gleaming on the immaculate table cloth.

“Place settings, candles, centerpieces,” said Vin. “Finger bowls, fish knives, doilies, chalices, nutcrackers. Just the usual.”

“The usual? Maybe if you’re Queen Elizabeth…” and I halted as Vin, with a handful of place cards, burst out laughing.

“Fine, you got me,” I said. “Your grandma told me to make you smile, and I did better than that, so I win this round.”

“I’ll allow it,” he said. “Set those flowers on the table.”

Heather wandered in to inspect the proceedings. “Oh, Vin, you can’t sit Erin on that side of the table. She’s the guest of honor, so she has to sit here on my right. That’s the etiquette.”

“I thought she should sit down on this end of the table with Dad and Grandma and me, since she’s our guest,” said Vin.

“But I’ve already charted it all out,” said Heather, moving my place card to her end of the table. “See, that’s proper.”

Once she was out of the room, I picked up the card with my name. “Should I move it back, or it it going to make make your life harder if I mess with it?”

“It would make my life better if you sat by me,” he said. “It would make my life easier if Mom didn’t get het up about this sort of thing.”

“Why don’t we just eat in the kitchen?” I asked.

“I wish.”

Heather came back in. “You see, it’s a matter of etiquette,” she said, taking my place card and putting it back by the proper plate. “The guest of honor always sits by the hostess. Is that not how you do it at your family’s Thanksgiving dinner?”

I thought of the Ramirez fiestas, paper plates and plastic tablecloths that we wrapped over all the dinner mess and pitched at the end of dinner. “We don’t tend to stand on ceremony.”

“It’s just our tradition,” she said earnestly. “Some people would get really upset if we didn’t get the protocol right.”

I glanced at Vin. “It’s no problem.”

The teens were eating in the kitchen, but everyone had to gather in the dining room for grace.

“Teens first at the buffet!” said Heather. “While we’re all in the room, let’s go around and say what we’re thankful for. Dad, you start.”

Dan, at the opposite side of the table, beamed. “For friends and family and football!”

“This drink,” said Kay, raising her glass.

“For Madi’s successful surgery,” said Aunt Karen. People around table murmured agreement.

Friends and family were the theme, with few variations. A couple of the teens had to be funny (“I’m thankful for all memekind.”) but in general, familiarity bred content.

“I’m so grateful for another year of blessings,” Heather cooed, “and for new family in the new year.” She made meaningful eyes at me. The room buzzed, and even Kay raised an eyebrow at Vin, who sighed.

And now all eyes were on me. I tried to think past my irritation. If I said I was grateful for friends and family, I was basically confirming Heather’s insinuation that Vin and I were practically engaged. If I denied it openly, I made Heather look like a fool, and while that might give me a moment of satisfaction, she might take it out on Vin later. I raised my glass.

“I’m grateful for family too,” I said, “especially for Kay and all her ancestors.”

I didn’t know if that would settle the rumor mill, but it would gum up the works, at least. And Vin relaxed. He was brief on his turn. “For us,” he said, and tipped his glass to the whole table, which included me.

Once the teens cleared out, I got to serve myself first as the guest of honor. If it had been a free-for-all like Ramirez thanksgivings, I would have attached myself to Vin in line and just hung by his side, but we had to follow protocol and go around the table. Fortunately, Uncle Preston, on my right, was a Hokies fan, so we kept up a steady social stream of abuse of U.Va until we could get down to the serious business of eating.

“Is the cranberry sauce gone?” Heather asked, the last one at the buffet.

Everyone denied taking the last of the cranberry sauce, or any at all.

“But we did have cranberry sauce, didn’t we?” Heather insisted, looking around at everyone’s plates. “Who was supposed to bring it? It’s not Thanksgiving without cranberry sauce.”

“I was supposed to bring it,” I said, and was rewarded for my honesty with a tableful of silence, people fiddling with forks or napkins. “But there was kind of a mishap, and then I couldn’t. I’m sorry.”

Conversation at the table picked up with a determined burst of energy.

Heather seated herself next to me and spread her napkin over her lap.“That’s too bad about the cranberry sauce. It’s just that it’s our family tradition to have it every Thanksgiving.”

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I was working on it this morning. But it’s my family tradition to fight with my mom on Thanksgiving, and she dumped my sauce down the sink.”

Kay guffawed, and she wasn’t the only one.

“Oh, but you can’t make cranberry sauce the day of,” said Heather with concern. “It has to set up overnight at least, to gel.” She mused as she speared a piece of turkey. “So maybe it’s for the best. It would have been runny.”

“I know my mom will be glad she did you a favor,” I said.

“What about those impeachment hearings?” asked Uncle Hal desperately to the table at large, and the family settled down with real gratitude to a nice political squabble.

“But did you call?” Heather asked. “We could have run to the store and picked some up.”

“Stores are closed, Heather,” muttered no one in particular.

“I’m really sorry,” I said, hitting a Vin-like trio of apologies.

“Hey, it’s no problem!” said Dan expansively. “We’re just grateful for good food, right?”

“Excuse me, it is a problem,” said Heather, setting down her fork. “This was a perfect Thanksgiving dinner. Everything was perfect. But it’s now it’s ruined. It could be just any dinner, without cranberry sauce.”

“If it was just any dinner, hell if I’d be here,” Uncle Kev mumbled to Aunt Megan, who snickered.

“Babe, your turkey is amazing!” said Dan, now behind her rubbing her shoulders. “We literally only have turkey on Thanksgiving. That’s what people will remember.”

Heather got up. “Maybe I could go out now and get some."

“Heather, it doesn’t matter,” groaned Aunt Megan. “Dinner is great, we’re having a great time. Let’s keep it that way.”

Heather surveyed the room, her lips compressed. Then, with an effort, she shifted back into hostess mode and trilled her imitation laugh.

“You’re right!” she said, her tone pure Sweet ’N’ Low. “It doesn’t matter to anyone. I guess I’m just making a fuss about nothing. We don’t want to add your tradition of fighting with your mother to our Thanksgiving, do we, Vin? What do you think?”

“Maybe we have a can of sauce in the pantry,” he said. “Do you want me to go look?”

“Oh no, I’ll go, don’t bother getting up,” she purred. “But if I find a can I’m eating it all myself, haha!”

“Knock yourself out,” someone grunted at Heather’s back.

With her absence, the meal became comfortable. Some people traded seats, so I picked up my plate and shifted into Dan’s vacated chair over by Kay and Vin.

“Tell me about this fight with your mother,” Kay greeted me.

“It was really stupid.”

“Most fights are.”

“How about you tell me about your mom?” I said. “She’s much more interesting. Better yet, tell me about her mother, Lavinia.”

Kay shrugged.“ I’ll tell you what I can. I should have asked Mama more questions while she was alive. She didn’t talk much about her mother, but I don’t think it was because she was keeping secrets. I just don’t think she knew that much herself about her mother. Mama was raised by some Tituses who lived a little ways out of town. That’s one reason she ran off at 15, because she was sick of being the adopted daughter-slash-hired girl.”

“Eugene at the diner told us Lavinia was in an institution or a home,” Vin said, leaning in.

“Eugene!” said Kay, rolling her eyes. “He’s so full of hot air it’s a wonder he don’t float off the ground.”

“But he did know Helen,” I said. “They were about the same age. So it’s not surprising he should know a bit about her mother.”

“Why was Helen brought up by someone else?” Vin asked. “Why didn’t she live with Lavinia?”

“There was something wrong with Grandma,” said Kay slowly, pulling on ancient threads of memory. “I remember Mama saying once that her mother didn’t always remember who she was. And that she talked kinda funny because there was something wrong with her face. Mama got to visit her now and then, but I think Grandma died when Mama was fairly young, pneumonia or something. I got the impression she was never very healthy.”

“So she was in a home because she was sick?” I asked.

“No, it wasn’t just ill health.” Kay screwed up her brain. “What did Mama say about her? That when she was a little girl, she would go to visit, and give Grandma a hug, and she remembered Grandma nuzzling her with her face. But there was something…” She drummed on the table, trying to thump the memory loose. Across the table from me, Vin was lost in attention. Maybe he was trying to reconcile the photograph of the vibrant young Lavinia with the strange silent woman of his great-grandmother’s memory.

“She couldn’t move.” Kay’s face cleared as smoothed as the missing piece of memory finally fell into place. “She was paralyzed. That’s why she was in a home. It was all tied in together, the hazy memory and having to be in bed all the time.”

“That’s awful,” I breathed. “Poor lady. I wonder what happened?”

“Was it that she’d been in an accident? Or no, she’d had a fall, I think.”

Our reverie, part reflection and part turkey coma, was broken by one of the teens, a girl in leggings and a ridiculously short sweatshirt, who draped herself over Aunt Karen.

“Mom, Aunt Heather’s in the kitchen having a fit about her cake decorations,” she complained. “Can we leave already?”

“Hon, we haven’t even had dessert yet.”

“I don’t want dessert. I want to go home.

Uncle Preston pushed back from the table.

“I told you if she gets started again, I’m out,” he said to Karen. “You said it would be different this year.”

“Look, for Dan’s sake,” Karen pleaded. “It’s not his fault.”

“Anyone who would marry Heather gets what he deserves.” Preston turned to Hal. “I was thinking of getting home before the Cowboys game starts anyway. We promised ourselves we wouldn’t stay late this year.”

Hal fell in with this idea, and the two went off to the den to round up the teens, carefully skirting the kitchen. Karen rubbed her forehead in frustration.

“I tried,” she said to Vin and Megan, wearily. “I promised him this year would be different. I would have hosted, only Madi just had surgery. What was I going to do?”

“Hal didn’t even want to come,” said Megan, biting off each word. “The kids hate it here, and it’s Macy’s last Thanksgiving before college. But I didn’t feel like getting into it with Heather, and she was so excited about getting everyone back to the old house. Next year we’re going to Hal’s family.”

“We’ll go to down to Florida and see Mom and Dad,” said Karen. “Heather thinks she can manufacture the good old days, but it’s empty here without them.” She crossed around the table and hugged Vin from behind. “I’m sorry, honey. I wish we could stay longer, but you know how it is. Your mom doesn’t actually like having people around.”

“I know how it is,” said Vin, getting up and returning the hug. “Don’t worry about it.”

Once the decision to clear out had been made, the afternoon’s lethargy seemed to clear up miraculously. Both aunts squeezed Vin and told him how much the kids missed seeing him, although I hadn’t seen the kids pay any attention all afternoon to anything that wasn’t a handheld screen. The uncles joshed with Dan, who never seemed to take anything personally. Even Kay started making moves toward the door.

“I promised Stanley I’d stop over and see his grandkids,” she told Dan.

“Who’s Stanley?” I whispered to Vin.

“Her boyfriend.”

Somehow, with all the sleuthing into relationships of the past, it had never occurred to me that Kay might be seeing someone now. I had to remind myself that she was still a young 69.

And Heather was there too, floating through the crowd, chatting genially as if nothing had happened. If I hadn’t been around for dinner, I would have gotten the impression that everyone had enjoyed themselves immensely and were only leaving under duress.

“Are you heading out too, Erin?” Heather asked me.

The temptation to get out was strong, but I remembered how Vin had called himself a coward when he’d been considering walking outside with me, and I understood now what he meant.

“How can I leave before pie?” I said, and was rewarded by seeing a shock of hope shoot through Vin.

I wish I could say that being alone in the bosom of the family allowed me to get to know Heather, but it’s hard to bond with someone who’s so glossy nothing can stick to her. She played at being interested in anything I had to say. She laughed at my jokes, a nanosecond too late. Detailed anecdotes about people I’d never met, tartan apron carefully donned for a busy night of cleaning, studied little tilts of the head standing in for genuine engagement: everything seemed staged for the benefit of an audience, but I couldn’t tell if the audience was me, or her family, or the actual Heather sunk deep in the well of self-perception. Dan was delighted to play along, but each gesture and verbal tic drove Vin further into his own shell. I couldn’t blame him. Even I was exhausted waiting to see if the mask would slip, and if it did, what would be underneath.

Abruptly, Vin stood up. “Erin and I are going to take a walk now.”

Outside, bundled in our jackets, we crunched in November silence up the gravel driveway.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “Sometimes I feel like if I don’t get out I’ll drown.”

“I get that.”

“You were sitting right next to me, but it was like there was a wall between us, getting thicker every second, and I had this sudden fear that if I didn’t break us out now, there would be so much distance between us that you’d be entirely out of reach for good.”

“I don’t know that I’d put it so poetically, but yeah.”

“Each time I go home, I think, ‘This time I know how to deal with it. I know how to let it wash over. I know the parameters.’ And that’s what home is: somewhere you know the parameters. They may be good, or they may be bad, but you know what you’re dealing with. But then I come back, and the parameters have shifted. I never know what my mom is going to be. Is she warm and welcoming mom? Helicopter mom? Sporty mom? Even, god forbid, sexy mom. If she was even knew who she was, at least she’d be consistent, and I’d know how to play the game. But to keep things consistent, you have to stay away from her triggers, and those seem to change from day to day and minute to minute. And I always have to be on my guard. I don’t know if I even know how to let it down anymore. I mean, am I even capable of having a good honest relationship? I don’t know. Maybe I’m just lying to myself, thinking I have any business trying to start anything with anyone.”

“That’s the stupidest thing I ever heard,” I said, forgetting that I was supposed to be supportive. “You’re not starting just anything, and I’m not anyone. I’m me. Erin. I don’t want some random anything with you. I want to be connected to you. Entwined, tangled up, so we can’t be separated. Not as your cousin, not just as your friend, but as a woman.” I stopped in front of him. “So here I am. Connect with me. Learn my parameters.”

He wanted to, I’d swear it. He was right there within my grasp, but he just couldn’t break through that wall. Yet.

“You’re mistaken if you think you can’t put things poetically,” he said, back on his guard. “But how do you know I’m even capable of forming a connection you’d want? You’ve seen my mother.”

I wanted to pound some sense into his thick head. “You’re nothing like your mother, Vin.”

“How do you know?”

“Because you’re a real person.” My brain caught up with my mouth, and I sighed. “That came out wrong.”

“No it didn’t. You said exactly what you thought, and I know exactly what you mean.”

“Are you offended?”

“No.”

“Can I hold your hand?”

“Yes.”

We reached the top of the driveway and turned back in silence again, but this time the silence roiled up in a slow boil.

“When am I going to see you again?” I asked, back at my car.

“I’ll call you when I learn more about the family,” he said. “I feel like I can’t know who I am if I don’t understand how we fit together.”

“I don’t need a family tree to know who you are.” I wanted to throw myself at him, consequences or no, but another instinct told me to leave him wanting more. I opened my door. “Are you leaving now too?”

“I ought to go in and say goodbye to my parents, but I’d rather just drive away behind you.”

“Drive behind me all the way to my house,” I invited, but he just smiled.

I should have been paying attention to the the driveway as I pulled out, but instead I kept glancing in my rearview mirror to watch Vin let go the handle of his car door, straighten his shoulders and walk back to the house.

My parents had already left the Ramirez gathering by the time I pulled in, but the party was still in full swing. A few people howled, “Wassup, girl?” as I entered, and I howled right back at them. I’ve got my differences with my cousins, but they’re my people.

Grandpa Aaron was there, as always, reclining in a comfy chair by my Grandpa Ramirez, two old men letting the chaos wash over them. Grandpa Ramirez was inoculated again the noise by long years of exposure, and Grandpa Aaron enjoyed it as a sign that he wasn’t dead yet. I settled down in the old folks corner and imagined I was 85 years old, knowing that the life I heard all around me was my legacy.

Grandpa Aaron stopped pretending to sleep. “Missed you at dinner.”

“Missed you too, Grandpa.”

“How’s Kay?”

“Okay.”

“How’s Vin?”

“I’m working on him. How’s my mom?”

“She’s an idiot as always, and she won’t say she’s sorry no matter how much she wants too.”

I thumped my head back on the couch. “Why do I have to be the adult in this relationship?”

“It’s good practice for other relationships.”

I threw him the side eye, but he was settled back in the recliner with his eyes closed, a faint smile playing over his face.

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