Still dressed in the suit he wore to the funeral and not five minutes in mama’s house Cutts sought, found, and pulled down on the cord that hung from the trap door to the attic. Georgia stood behind him, black pumps off.
Cutts, what are you doing? I said. Georgia, what’s he doing?
Cutts climbed up the ladder that dangled from a square in the ceiling like a tired lattice tongue. A fine, dry mist of dust was shaken into the warm air of the hallway with each step he took. Georgia said the whole apparatus was going to work free of its old bolts and come crashing down. Cutts disappeared without a word into the square hole in the ceiling.
That’s his way, Georgia said,
I got something in my eye; Georgia took me over to the window and told me to look up. She folded her handkerchief into a pointed cone and removed it, a little black particle fallen from the attic.
There, said Georgia.
She told me to wash my face with cold water—my eyes were red from mama’s funeral. We could hear Cutts walking around overhead. Muffled, dull, like a thunder miles away in a stale afternoon, the way it plays around the perimeters of heat-lightning. That’s what his trampling around resembled. The thump of a chair, or perhaps a lamp, its globe chipped, its wire frayed, carried from upstairs with exaggerated weight and overtone. Georgia combed her hair. But when will this water ever get cold? I wondered.
She had been dying for years, of a variety of ailments. I nursed her through the days that led from one problem to another; during these last 12 months, however, the pain made her behave more and more peculiarly. My brother Cutts had brought his wife Georgia in September, all the way from Massachusetts. Mama couldn’t recognize either of them, and so she asked them to leave. Except for me, she never recognized anyone; not the neighbors, some of whom she had known her whole life, not the minister, not even Dr. Fraley whose own father had delivered her wailing into the world in the same house that stands three doors down on the block. Reverend Robotham and Fraley had each witnessed this kind of gradual lapse before, but Cutts took it hard (Ephram, you get back home, or else—
Something heavy dropped now above where I stood in the bathroom, the cool water cupped in my hands. It could have been the Victrola, the butter-churn, the cabriole-legged corner chair. How blue, how worn my hands have gotten, just look.
—Grace, show Ephram here to the door and point him in the right direction home, go on. And don’t forget to latch that screen.
But mama this isn’t Ephram, it’s Cutts.
Ma, it’s me Cutts, your son?
You got it, that’s it. Cutts. Me, your son.
Cutts, she said again, pondering.
Get me some ginger ale.
And yet when Cutts returned to her bedroom with her glass of ginger ale, she was frightening: I thought I told Ephram to get. Still here? You little: you get out of here.
None of us knew any Ephram.
She’s lost her mind, Cutts whispered hoarsely in the front room. Fraley’s wasting our money. How long’s this been going on?
I had never noticed how the vessels could stand up so tall on my brother’s forehead before that moment, tall and white as banana meat.
Cutts and I never saw each other after he and Georgia moved east, but I remembered that tone of his. It trembled at the edge of his teeth. Georgia understood Cutts’s voice, too.
Cutts, she said.
He scowled, she’ll probably outlive all of us.
In the front yard my gnarly crabapple trees were twirling their new leaves; so were the spring leaves in the birch, and the cherry, and the cottonwood.
Well, said Cutts, and backed away toward their car.
Georgia stepped forward, embraced me. Listen, Grace, anything you need, just write, or call, call collect, promise? Cutts?
But Cutts was already in the car; the luggage had never been taken out of the trunk, so I never got to see what brand it was. It was a good model of car, though. I don’t know what kind. But Cutts had made something of himself, that was sure.
Thank you, Georgia, I said.
You take care, darling.
She turned to go.
Mama? She doesn’t mean to be like that to Cutts. She’s that way to everybody.
And they left, not to be heard from until I wired them about mama’s death.).
* * *
During her last month the woman began calling for Desmond in the night. She had never concealed her preference for Desmond over Cutts. Desmond had been her favorite, her final-born, her glory; upon him she pinned an entire gamut of hopes. Desmond undoubtedly would bring fortune and respect to their family, a world should spread before his feet malleable as warm bog loam and accept in its passive surface whatever stamp he might elect to impress upon it. But, for all the substantial qualities attributed him by his devoted mother, Grace and Cutts’s younger brother Desmond was weak. As youths, Cutts allowed him to participate in the various escapades of the neighborhood gang, even though he was younger by several years than most of its members.
Lanky, proportioned like the reflection in a funhouse mirror, Desmond stood a head taller than any of the other boys. Gamely, he trailed behind the pack, loping, slouched, knuckles swinging at his sides like a tight row of bantam eggs attached to the ends of his fists. Under the proprietary wing of Cutts, Desmond pursued whatever follies the gang did, but less for the adventure in and of itself than for the treasured attention of his older brother. His wildness belied his weakness. He played a willing fool whenever called upon to do so.
If Cutts had his first taste of bourbon at 11, or his first cigarette, then Desmond accordingly had his by nine. The tolls of Desmond’s adolescence were an arithmetic function based upon Cutts’s own imperfections, needs, frenzies, to the exclusion of anything else. Desmond himself was not compulsive, but was caught as if in a vacuum that was created in the wake of his brother’s will. It was always just ahead of him, drawing him on.
Cutts knew it was for his approbation Desmond lived. He offered it only when he found it convenient or useful, when it fit into some specific scheme. If it suited Cutts, whenever any or all of them were in trouble, Desmond would be delivered up as the collective scapegoat. Out from under Cutts’s fickle wing he would come, tacit and willing to atone for some petty theft, a watertower east of Lincoln painted with obscenities, a broken forearm, a separated shoulder, a split eye.
In time Desmond had a worse reputation than Cutts, or any of the others. This is why when he broke this code of silence about what had happened to Grace that one August evening, sunk now with 25 other Augusts into anonymity, no one believed him.
After August Desmond went moody. He exiled himself from the gang of boys. He disappeared days at a time. He wouldn’t speak when spoken to. He died before his 20th birthday. We would never be sure what finally had happened. There was no looped belt nailed to a basement crossbeam, nothing as simple as that, no bridge off which he hurled himself. He simply tumbled down the stairs to the basement, opened his head on a flange where the railing had been detached.
Cutts found him first. Grace had been putting out breadcrumbs on the crunchy snow for late robins and meadowlarks. Mr. Beechel Gray, the butcher, took the call from Cutts and passed the telephone across the smooth white stone counter to Desmond’s mother.
* * *
The water, loosely cradled in my fingers, cooled my face. I soaked a hand towel under its thin lazy stream and, leaning forward over the shallow sink, while holding my hair up off my shoulder, ran the cold, wet towel across the nape of my neck. It trickled down my back when I stood up straight. I wrung the towel, folded it, replaced it on the rack.
Reflected in the mirror I was surprised to see Georgia leaning, arms crossed, lightly against the jamb in the doorway of the bathroom, looking at me with an expression indescribably odd. Quizzical, really. Her oval face, pretty and punctuated by sharp features, whiter than the veiny marble of the sink, was set off by her black dress and heavy, dark hair—more auburn than even mama’s had been.
She smiled, lips tight. That better?
I turned the water off.
See, I knew that’d help.
She remained in the doorway as I brushed my hair. She seemed … what? … amorphous? central in my little scape, but somehow unreachable, immovable, as if lacquer clouded the short space that washed lazily between us.
Didn’t mean to startle you.
Oh—and the bone handle made a neat clack as it was put on the basin ledge. Is Cutts still up in the attic?
Yes, god knows what’s so important he couldn’t even change out of his suit before he had to go up there clambering around in all that dust and cobwebs.
What’s he after? I would have begun, but Georgia made a sign for me to follow her, turned suddenly, and walked down the hallway in the opposite direction of the attic ladder, to the kitchen at the back of the house. When she turned around again to face me, the color in her cheeks and neck had changed; she was flushed. In the haggard afternoon light whose summer skies were gathering thunderheads in stacks of white and violet and green-gray out all the windows, her lips had gone ashen.
Can we talk for a moment? she asked, quietly.
Is it about the house, because if it is I won’t know what to say, Georgia. (Having literally forgotten her son’s existence, mama willed me her house and possessions.)
No no, something else completely.
Look, I know it’s a bad time, terrible time, to talk about things, but since you, we never see you, and Cutts has got to be back to work day after tomorrow, I just feel I have to talk to you now.
Georgia sat at the table in one of the highbacked cane chairs. The table was still cluttered with bottles of medicine, handwritten schedules for pill-giving and the administration of shots, as well as a week of dishes I had not been able to bring myself to wash. Georgia looked troubled. She fidgeted with a packet of cigarettes, drew one out, lighted it, inhaled profoundly.
About a year ago, I don’t know how to say this, about a year ago, a little over, I got a letter—well, not a letter exactly. It was from your mother.
Oh? How Georgia thought it were possible for mama, invalided these past few years, who only came out into the sunlight when minister Robotham and I carried her down into the backyard and lay her on a clean blanket next to the bed of snapdragons and cornflowers, to have mailed her a letter I couldn’t guess. I listened without questioning.
Since it was addressed to me, not Cutts, I opened it. It was the strangest thing. What was inside the envelope wasn’t a letter from your mother. It was a kind of document, like a pact, I guess you could say, and all written out longhand on this oatmeal paper?
The word paper traced an upwards arc, transformed itself into a question:
Georgia hoped that I would by this detail—oatmeal paper—be prompted into recognition of something she obviously would rather not have to address herself, put into words herself.
I said, I see.
Well, the handwriting was a child’s.
Cutts suddenly ceased his noisemaking. In a voice loud enough that it would carry upstairs, I asked Georgia: You like a little sherry? I think I could do with a little, myself. I opened the cabinet door, got out two of mama’s crystal vine-stemmed glasses and the Taylor’s amontillado which was her favorite, so pale, so tobacco yellow and strong, and brought them to the kitchen table. I could hear him at the farthermost corner of the attic, and then his silence again. I knew which barrel-topped trunk he was picking through now. It would take him half an hour to dissect its contents even if, as I suspect, he didn’t bother to replace what he’d removed.
It had to be years old, I knew, the way it almost came into pieces along where it was creased. Anyway, it was a pact—
The silence from Cutts’s periphery unnerved me but I thought:—Go on, let it happen, whatever happens, let him come down now, let him do us all the …
—between Cutts and your brother and …
Yes, and some other names, too. They’d made this treaty. It was, well—but, Grace: I can’t, well, what I want to ask is, is it true?
She had put the question to the reflective circular surface of sherry, stationary on the table before her.
Georgia, I’m sorry. I don’t understand what it is you want?
She glanced up at me in disbelief, her forehead a patchwork.
I thought:—What a lovely woman. Worry can sometimes be so becoming in a person.
You mean you don’t know?
This made me impatient, but just instantly, and then it passed.
* * *
That attic where everything was lost. And father downstairs, sedated. Dr. Fraley had gone home. Dr. Fraley had put his syringe, his morphine, his instruments, back into that black, scratched, and bubbled leather bag, and he’d gone home. Mama and me the doctor had left to stand by the bed to prop, reprop pillows, smooth the coverlet, gaze into his eyes clear and vacant as a monkey’s in a zoo. Dad not knowing where he was, pushing up with his hands outstretched as if something up on the ceiling threatened him, pushing and pushing it away. This strange farrago of sounds he would make so upset Mama she left the room. The light in the room, color of a peach pit. Eisenhower talked in his simple way on the scratchy radio, and made daddy happy. Evening. August. Back when. Kitchen smells.
Desmond? mama on the other side of the door hollered. Dessie. Then she returned, sat down on the bed, its springs complaining. Go, would you, Grace, and find those brothers of yours.
I ran outside into the radiant twilight. Fireflies already glittered, their green lamps stabbing the trees along the sidewalk. The druggist’s was empty, its row of stools with mottled leather cushions aligned forlorn before the long counter, seltzer and Coke spigots, ketchup bottles, salt shakers, the stainless steel malteds cup—
Not here … I know where they are.
—and all the movie posters I loved to stare at while I sat up to the counter sipping my cherry soda, especially the one for Lifeboat, all those courageous, desperate men and women huddled together, with the mad blue lithographed waves licking the prow of their doomed boat, and as I stared into an image I myself would easily slip inside, so that it was I who held in The Red Pony the red pony’s rein.
As I ran back along the uneven slabs of concrete that made the walk, the unmistakable image of those candid monkey’s eyes planted by the power of his sickness into my father’s head, piteous, liquid, as austere as the bead of mercury in a thermometer bulb, came to me. I knew where Cutts, Des, and the gang were hiding. Cutts didn’t want to see him, dad. Des would want whatever his brother wanted, no doubt, but he, too, ventured into the bedroom only when mama made him, to kiss his cancered father goodnight, or to say Goodbye before taking the bus over to Red Cloud to visit uncle Tune.
The fireflies stood out more now, disposed to teasing the cornfield, and hovering in the light draught crossing the lawns. I got back home, quietly entered by the side porch. Mama was still in daddy’s room. She was reading aloud,
… shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse,
and a Branch shall grow out of his roots,
and the spirit …
in a sing-song.
Once safely past the half-shut door, down the hallway, I groped for the cord hidden in darkness and could already hear them stirring upstairs in the attic. It was one of their sacred places. A crack of yellow light, excited by shadows, thrown from a candle flame, broke through to me when I pulled down on the cord releasing the ceiling ladder. The silence that accompanied this broken pattern of light seemed strange, and I had the sensation of being like Alice tipped upside down and dropped into a dreamy, maybe unfriendly, Wonderland.
I climbed the ladder, eyes fixed on each rung where foot over foot I placed my weight. I had never been up to the attic before. Why was it they were all so quiet? I wanted to look up but was afraid I’d lose my footing. I was too terrified to scream when hands and arms came down suddenly around my body and I was lifted away free into the pitch air, too shocked as my weight gave in, my legs kicking kicking, these strong strange fingers that hoisted me by my hair and my dress tight in under my neck just starting to tear and my legs and arms into the horrible with hands all over my down in but—
Someone whispered No, someone hit me.
* * *
Crazy old goddamn dead bitch. Jesus, what a pigsty. Sixty years with never so much as a tatty housecoat fed to the incinerator, never one single burned-out toaster tossed in the trash. Real hoarder. Here’s a milkcarton filled with plaster of Paris. Why? Here is a bird cage, cockatoos, canaries, we never had any, sight of a bird she’d be covered in hives. Allergic to everything, so’s sis, so was Des. And here this tittied mannequin, purse-lipped, bobbed nose, always a faithful mistress to us and how we loved her, so indulgent the little bitch, how many times did I? Little liver in the knurl and wham. Trinka, stiff staunch goddess nympho. Dressed her, undressed her. Real personality. Still has. Right now I could without half. Lighty with his heating pads, his magazines, his paraphernalia. Holy this place was for us, sacred and hallowed and one hell of a. Wonder did the old bitch ever wonder. Watch out the joist. O bike, tires the rubber hard, flat. King of hearts, jack of spades, grandma’s canasta cards still there on the rim, clothespins over the spokes ready to go snappety-snappety-snap. Crazy kids! Mueller with his half-arm, how’d he lose it? Born that way, maybe. That little nipple on the end of the stump, murder at tetherball. Menace to the prudes, freakshow. Wonder who, what he’s sticking it with right now. Might be pushing up roses, the Mule might. Skin white as a factory fresh soft ball. Those red basset eyes blown straight down the pike from Mommy, that sad old show, real guzzler. Like a barn, that one was. Me standing on the Mule’s shoulders, hands loaded with thorns, moonless night, peeking in at her naked as an elephant, fold on endless fold of flesh, bottle in one hand and cigarette in the other, sunk back in that armchair watching the black-and-white set. No husband from the word go. Poor old bastard Mueller. There she was, always alone, always the curtains undrawn. Old sow must’ve known, might have put the Mule up to it. Here’s the photographs, won’t look. The old man, won’t look. So sour-smelling, not sweet like mothballs, but this paper, these books, the mildew. Roof must leak. Somebody’s nest, tickertape, little mouse. What we need here is a little sharp cheddar, a trap and ping! Who was it we made eat the mothball soaked in his own piddle? Phineas. Omaha, lawyer now. Wouldn’t his wife love to know about.
Wake up, wake up, wake up, wake up.
Goddamn that little bitch … it’s not as … it’s got to be here somewhere. It never happened that’s what happened.
Dirty little bitch.
Why don’t we leave him be, Grace advised Georgia.
They had left the kitchen, carrying their sherry glasses back through the vagaries of corridors, windows shrouded in damask and undusted lace, through the stateness, the windings, for the deep veranda that ran the entire length of the front. Two phoebes started, shot from their mud nest ledged in the rafters. The dense, earthy air had begun to move. Miles out to the horizon a black bank gusted eastward, diligently following the columns of rain that preceded it, released from its nearest edges. They could see the storm, through the vined screen at the west end of the porch, out over the plumes of big-leafed oaks and cotton-woods, as it descended toward them. The birds and cicadas were silent.
Feel how quick this heat is breaking.
But Georgia said nothing; she watched the inscrutable face—severe, childish, intent—and marvelled at how few features Grace shared with Cutts.
It seemed to Georgia as if this face were wrapped in a transparent gauze, occlusively separated from the rest of the world, its desecrations, its filth. Grace forbore, was absorbed in the smallness of her own life, it seemed to Georgia. She rocked, lazing, in the porch swing.
Grace said finally: You have it?
Let me see it, then.
Georgia set her glass on the wicker stand. She pulled the small square envelope from her blouse cuff. Here.
Grace sat with the folded bit of browned paper in her lap for a moment, levelled her eyes at Georgia, who sat again. She unfolded it, and read expressionlessly.
What we done with Grace was law, it began.
With decisive, nimble movements she then refolded the sheet and laid it on the swing beside her. What we done with Grace was law, low-voiced, like a cough.
Georgia could hear her own breathing. The answers to the questions she wanted to ask had already come through Grace’s few movements and by the distant, injunction, What we done with Grace. She felt she knew the answers, but had to pose the questions in any case. Grace? What was it?
Abruptly, disconcertingly, Grace laughed: It was their precinct, their holy little … well, wasn’t it?
No; I mean, what happened?
—and as abruptly the laughter stopped.
Poor, ridiculous Georgia, please. What do you want from me? It was a lifetime ago.
But, then what are those other names.
Jesus, she said, and her eyes ran the length of the raingutter. They all just. They all.
Down another block someone honked the horn of a car.
Grace’s lips closed into a fine, straight line.
No, not Desmond.
Softly the rain began to report across the roof of the veranda, and in the grass and trees out before the house. Grace watched Georgia weep, drily.
* * *
Now I always liked her, always will. Way she helped me clear mama’s medicines, useless now without a patient, and to gather them up into a brown grocery sack, tie it with string and bury it under the other garbage in the tin can out in the alley so that none of the neighborhood children could rummage it up. Way she set to washing the dishes, while I dried, both of us dressed in our mourning blacks, sleeves rolled up to the elbow. Way she had held me in her arms, rocking gently, as the porch swing creaked. Way she had let me take her by the hand and lead her out into the steady, light rain, around the side of the house, where the hollyhock fell over itself in its own abundance, into the kitchen through the back porch. It was not a time to run into Cutts, was it? both of us in tears? and him in his rage at not finding it? And the way Georgia would never ask me whether it was I who sent the letter, and the way she would after all go back home with Cutts, because she felt assured that in the passage of time I had in fact forgiven him, and how she could feel this was true because it was I who insisted I had forgiven him …
But how the matter now would never come to rest inside her, how it would gnaw, how in the oddest instants it would come up, like a nausea, outrageous and insuppressible. How Cutts would never again be able to run his hands over her, push himself inside her. That was over now. And Georgia surely preferred knowing this truth about him. She would go on home with him, they would lie down at night after the long journey, but it won’t be Georgia asleep beside him in their bed. Not truly Georgia.
She standing next to me before the sink. Her long delicate hands pushing the dishcloth around the stained circle of a plate, staring hard into the water. A real sister.
And all the while the noise Cutts makes upstairs growing more and more violent. His cursing filters down like a shower in a nightmare where the rain soaks its victim though never gets him actually wet—however drenched in his own sweat he may be on awakening in his twisted bedclothes. Poor, poor Cutts, the way he would go on up there, looking and looking. Let him break every stick of furniture, every memento, every bit of family history in that badly-lit, hysterical attic.
Let him shout; let him grind his teeth.