Nightingale, that flies to France…
1926. Stowing his bags in his old room, Acton recognized it for what it had always been: no permanent abode, but a stopping place. An escale, the French would call it, as much as the room at the Manhattan Y where he had spent the night after his disembarkation. He looked through the mail his mother had stacked on his dresser; nothing yet, of course. But he hoped that in a day or two he’d have something to bring to show Aunt May.
Aunt May had been ill when he left, and the reports since weren’t good. “Naturally, you go home,” his landlady had said in farewell, “to see le sang de votre sang.” May was only an aunt by marriage, but she was more the blood of his blood than his own parents were. When he returned to the parlor, his father kept staring out the window, where the chestnut tree, just budding when Acton had left, was turning yellow. He had heard that winter crossings were stormier. “But no hurricane can keep me,” he thought, drafting in his mind a letter to Willard, back in France. “You have made me stronger than anything else. My only dream is to return that strength to you. Excelsior!”
“I have something to tell you,” his mother said, coming in with a cool glass of water. “It’s about May.”
It had happened yesterday, she said. She hadn’t had a chance to go by the house, what with looking after things. (She nodded in his father’s direction.) But from that moment Acton could think of nothing but the hour of Aunt May’s death.
She would have kept herself from asking for him. She’d have known how Eleanor, the widowed daughter she lived with, would take it. Acton’s father had been a success; even the bad luck of his stroke, in Acton’s senior year, had not sufficed to wipe that out. Since he saw the most of that branch of the family, on his visits to Aunt May, Acton had had to bear the guilt of Pop’s success. Though Aunt May might not have spoken Acton’s name, she’d have looked about the sickroom for him—”my boy,” as she called him when Henry, Eleanor’s younger brother, was absent, which was most of the time. Married now, he and his wife lived upstairs at Eleanor’s two-family, though he was as seldom to be found there.
“Ask when the service is,” Acton’s mother said when he left with the car key, “and if they’d like a nicer dress for her. She always liked my rose silk.”
Acton’s left hand cupped the wheel as if it were the back of Aunt May’s head. He had dreamt once that she had returned to infant size, he rocking her, consoling. Occasionally, on the sea voyage, he had imagined how she’d greet him after these six months. She wouldn’t ask about the Eiffel Tower; she’d likely never heard of it. She’d want to know if he had been seasick—she had once ridden the ferry to Nantasket—and how he had borne the frigid water (she had waded, once, at the beach). He saw her now in her hard cradle, wearing her midnight blue sack dress, perhaps the brooch he’d given her, her lips slightly parted to let out a silent cry: Why am I here? I don’t understand. His thoughts made the answering cry, May, May—not Aunt, only May.
When his cousin Eleanor opened the door to him, she nodded as if he had just stepped out for bread, then turned and called into the house, “A man!” If there were guests in the house, perhaps this was a better introduction than one of her usual observations: He’s in college, or writing books, or going to France, each a new charge in the criminal record.
She took him by the elbow and led him past the parlor—he didn’t look but somehow saw there was no coffin perched there–into the dining room, where she sat him down. In fact, only Barbara was there, Henry’s wife.
Eleanor went to heat more water for tea while her sister-in-law gave the account of May’s last hours—who had been present for her last word—who had seen the last breath or heard the death rattle—who had thought to close the eyes.
“Henry couldn’t go in at all. He took it worst,” Barbara said, looking up at the ceiling—in a sort of prayer, Acton thought, until he realized Henry must be home upstairs. Even she had been surprised at his reaction, Barbara said. When they came for the old lady, he was beside himself, He didn’t want to let them take the old lady away. It took a while to quiet him. He’d hardly slept, but this morning he had gone off to arrange things. He still seemed not quite himself when he returned. He was napping now.
“I guess it was a mistake to have sent him to Filer’s,” Eleanor said, coming back with the teapot and a piece of paper. “And when we found out what he’d done—well, we couldn’t get him to go back.”
She glanced at Barbara in a way suggesting that more might have been said. Acton could fill in the rest. Ruling Henry had never been easy. When Acton’s uncle was still alive, and Eleanor and Henry were young, they had lived downtown. One high school summer Acton had had a job nearby and often came for dinner before taking the trolley home, sometimes spending the night. He’d seen plenty of Henry’s temper then, heard the things he said to his father, and sometimes to Aunt May—watched the apartment door slam when Henry stormed out, heard the pounding when he was ready to return, whether because he’d forgotten his key or because he just wanted to roust them out of bed. They said Uncle Peter’s final heart attack came after one of the battles.
Eleanor put the paper next to Acton’s cup. “We don’t have this kind of money.”
It was a sort of contract, with descriptions written in on the blank lines—oak panelling, raised lid, ivory detail, silver fixtures, silk, Irish lace—and at the bottom a large figure in script itself twice as large as the rest of the neat cursive. Acton was reminded of the different contract he had imagined bringing Aunt May, since there was no telling if she’d live to touch the book itself. See? This is for one of the stories that you told me. You’ve told me so many stories.
A scraping sound came from above, then what seemed a series of coughs.
“Good, he’s awake,” Eleanor said to Acton. “You’ll need to ask him if he gave a deposit. It doesn’t say. I sent him with a blank check, but—.” She stopped and glanced again at Barbara.
Acton was silent, taking this in. The truth was that he wanted to run away.
“Of course,” Eleanor said, “they’ve got Mother. They took her yesterday at five,” she said, as if May had been kidnapped.
Acton drank two sips more of his tea before standing up. The women were murmuring among themselves by the time he reached the back stairs. There was a window halfway, and he paused to look out. A path lined with white-painted rocks led to the clothesline. Along one side of the yard a plot of zinnias against the plank fence was bordered with more whitened rocks. He chose to see instead the view from Willard’s rooms at Mère Pujols’s. Each morning before sitting down to write Acton opened the bedroom shutters to the strip of beach beneath, where the night’s catch was heaped on the sand, the black-clad women bargaining with the barefoot fishermen, the girls filling trays with sardines for the cannery. He’d watch, shirtless, pantsless, the sound of Willard’s breathing in his ears, as the nets were laid out to dry. Across the harbor, where the pastel houses were backed by vine-striped hills topped by the old fort, he’d once seen a funeral procession, the men and women walking behind a horse cart.
A dog barked from the other side of the fence. On family visits to Aunt May’s old apartment, his mother used to send him down to a still smaller space to play. He would press himself against the brick wall and watch as other boys tossed jackknives in a patch of dirt, argued and punched shoulders, or chased each other down the alley. Henry, a little older, mostly stood apart, smoking. Acton’s only hope was that they wouldn’t notice him, or that Aunt May would call to tell him there was ice cream. Sometimes she’d come down herself, motion to him to sit beside her on the stairs, and tell him stories.
The stories were about old times, reaching back to the Civil War; stories of uncles and grand-uncles, girls who might have been cousins or aunts. As he grew, he realized that her own children would not sit still for her stories; sometimes she’d start at the dinner table, but stop and take it up again only for him, while Eleanor did the dishes and Uncle Peter read his paper, Henry already out the door. He remembered his excitement the day a few months ago, sitting in the cobbled alley outside Mère Pujols’s, he got the landlady to sing for him as she shelled beans, translating the songs into French from the yet older language in which they were passed on. Aunt May had sometimes sung, too; the songs were their entertainment, she told him, before the radio. Mère Pujols’s songs were just like Aunt May’s–betrayals, early deaths, tragic coincidences–only, as he listened he was actually breathing the timeless air in which these things had once transpired, the air that had embraced him and Aunt May when they two were alone together. He hadn’t been able to explain it even to Willard—Willard, who had made it all possible, but joked that Mère Pujols’s humming was an offense to the ear. All the same; when Acton wrote, he felt it was that ancient air that he was breathing—just as, dressing for dinner on the ship, he had sensed the smell of Willard clinging to some of his possessions.
He had been changed by those days in France, just as the dusty patch of back yard at Eleanor’s was empty of the rude boys outside the old apartment, or of anything else for him to fear. Eleanor herself must have recognized the difference in him, the courage Willard’s love had filled him with. Just yesterday, at the publisher’s in New York, he’d held it near for strength. He closed his hands around it now and went up the rest of the way to see Henry.
The screen door at the top of the stairs was unlatched. The parlor was furnished with unmatched hand-me-downs. He turned at the sound of footsteps and got only a glimpse of his cousin in shirtsleeves—hair in his eyes, a loose tie around his opened collar—before Henry rushed forward and took Acton in his arms.
Acton felt as if he had been tossed a sack of flour, almost knocking him over. He couldn’t make his arms close around his cousin’s body. Henry mashed his bristly check against Acton’s face. Only then did Acton take in the words Henry had cried: “We’ve lost her!”
After a moment Acton pulled back, and Henry let him go.
“They took her away,” Henry said slowly. “I couldn’t help them. I couldn’t touch her.” He covered his face and began to make gulping sounds.
Acton put a hand on his cousin’s shoulder and guided him to the sofa. (“I was always afraid of him, you know why,” he would write to Willard, “but I can’t imagine it now.”)
Henry wiped his nose on his sleeve, and Acton set himself to talk. He spoke of the last time he had seen Aunt May, how happy she had been about Henry’s new job. Acton was half surprised at how easily he could stretch the truth for Henry’s sake: Henry’s boss had only taken him back for a second chance on the truck, and Aunt May had been more wistfully hopeful than happy about it. It was a good day for her, Acton said.
Henry listened, rubbing one knee. Acton came up with another memory or two, soothing the lion. He would never have thought that he could do it–but he saw it now: Henry had never been a lion. This was what Acton was learning to understand, as he had learned that Willard himself was not the god in disguise he’d seemed on his visit to Henry’s senior-year poetry class. Willard’s eye was supernaturally keen, as much for a bad line as for the “willowy crowd,” as he called the group of young men they had spotted, visiting Port des Anges, in their striped pseudo-sailor shirts. His savvy was unimpeachable in guiding Acton through his first publications, from his poems to the story in the Post. But more exciting than the feats Willard had coached him through, the heights he’d propelled Acton to—or even the completed manuscript now waiting in New York with Willard’s letter atop it—was the first moment Willard wept in his arms. Willard had been so hurt by past betrayals—the price he paid, he said, for always robbing the cradle—that he was certain Acton too would fall away. But Willard’s fear had only made Acton love him the more, and find his purpose. “Forgetting?” Acton had written more than once in the journal-letter he posted on disembarking. “I won’t permit it!”
In talking to Henry, Acton employed the gentle tone he’d kept to in that letter, even when the ship’s plunging in bad weather had made him certain death was about to take him, and half-hope it would.
“Eleanor is uncertain,” Acton said at last, “if Mr. Filer got a deposit.” Henry stiffened, but Acton held up a hand. “You probably told her, but she has so much on her mind.”
Henry looked around him. “I don’t know,” he said, frowning.
“She thinks she gave you a check,” Acton continued. “If it was me, I’d have put it in my wallet or a pocket.”
Henry felt his pants pocket, the thick hand like a paw rubbing the place where something good had been but then mysteriously disappeared.
“It doesn’t really matter,” Acton said, surprised at the tenderness he felt.
Henry shook his head. “I don’t know what I did.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Acton said.
Back downstairs, Eleanor told him he could pick up the trolley at the corner. “I don’t know how anybody parks downtown.”
“I’ll manage,” Acton said. He thought of all of them, Eleanor, Henry, Aunt May, now in his hands.
“Come back for lunch. We’ll never be able to use all this,” Eleanor said, shaking her head at the sideboard with its covered dishes.
He parked easily. Filer’s was primarily a furniture store, with a sideline in undertaking. Inside it was like a stage set, empty of people, the pieces arranged in a series of rooms defined by invisible walls. Acton took his stand between a parlor and a bedroom and cleared his throat.
Although he had seen no doorway, someone appeared at last from the back of the store. It was a slim young man with neat, wet-looking hair. The man smiled politely, extending a hand from a large cuff. His suit hung on him as if it had been borrowed. They shook hands, but the young man said nothing, only cocking his head.
“I’m here about my aunt,” Acton said. “Is Mr. Filer in?” It was clear enough that this wasn’t Mr. Filer.
“He’s out,” the man said. “I’m in charge.” His smile now showed more teeth.
“It’s about a contract,” Acton said, releasing himself from the other’s hold. To be clear, he added, “My aunt has passed away.”
“Oh, the bereaved,” the man said. Then, hoity-toity, “And I am speaking to—?”
“Her nephew,” Acton said, already thinking he should leave. But the young man turned and walked toward the back. Acton followed to a door that might lead to Mr. Filer, or even to Aunt May. Acton’s heart beat faster, but inside was only an office.
Seated before a desk, Acton gave up his aunt’s name. The young man began to pull out drawers and shuffle through papers. His cheeks were rosy, his eyebrows soot-black against his pale skin. A tip of tongue peeked out between his lips at mechanical intervals. “Here it is—yes?” The man handed Acton what looked like a replica of Eleanor’s contract.
“Yes, I see,” Acton said, “but the family has decided—.”
The young man held up a hand. “You know, any change and the deposit stays with us.”
“May I ask,” Acton said, without moving a muscle, “if there is a record of a deposit?”
The young man reached for the paper. He glanced at it, so quickly that he seemed to want to demonstrate not his care, but his carelessness. “Yes, indeed.” He rested his hand on the paper; the fingernails gleamed an unnatural pink.
“Mr. Filer—” Acton began.
“Mr. Filer is out,” the young man said. “I can handle everything for you.” He cocked his head again.
“It’s the understrappers you have to watch out for,” Willard had told Acton when they talked about his New York appointment. “Don’t let them keep you from the big man,” Willard said. Acton had now had practice. After leaving the editor’s office, it had taken a moment to nerve himself, but he had taken the elevator up instead of down, to the enclave of real power. He wondered now for the first time if that blue-eyed editor, younger in looks than Acton himself, was only an impostor like this boy, if somewhat better-bred. The editor had offered his regrets, along with fondest regards to Willard, then finally said, “A glass of water? It’s a hot day.”
Acton rose. “When will Mr. Filer be in?”
The impostor turned his head to look at a clock behind him. The shirt collar didn’t follow, so that he looked like the painted puppet he was. “At two, I expect.”
Now it was Acton who smiled; he felt his lips against his teeth. “I’ll be back,” he said.
“Suit yourself,” the puppet answered.
Henry’s wife greeted Acton at the door. Eleanor was resting, she said.
“It’s kind of you to go to all this trouble for them,” she said. “Of course, you’re family, too.”
Family, too: Acton thought for a moment of surprising Barbara by passing on some of the language with which Henry had favored Aunt May in his teenaged years. But he recognized it for an unworthy thought. Whatever torment Henry had brought his mother, she was free of it now; nor could Aunt May have treated Acton himself more like a son. Remember who you are, Willard had said once, even when you are alone. And Acton had done it. He had turned down the editor’s glass of water, nor had he let himself be intimidated, the manuscript now under his arm, by the bird-boned secretary guarding the big man’s office. Willard’s name had sent her scurrying. Once inside, Acton had seen that the big man was shorter than himself, and more nervous, with a sort of tic. As the man read Willard’s letter, Acton had repeated, in a voice as firm as Willard’s, the key point: “He’s been so happy with your company in the past.”
Willard had explained the strategy: that he would wait until Acton had a contract in hand before accepting their offer for his own latest, the one he called the blood-and-guts, the one built to sell. He’d let them twist in the wind, he said: that would be best for Acton’s book. And he was right. When Acton left, the big man had his hand on the cardboard box and thanked Acton for bringing it.
“It was my pleasure,” Acton said.
When Henry and Barbara came down for lunch, Acton said only that Filer wasn’t in, and he’d be going back. Henry didn’t look up from his plate until Eleanor asked if Acton had—she paused—seen her.
Acton shook his head, then asked Henry if he was sure it was Filer he had talked to. Who could say how far the red-cheeked poser might have gone? “What did he look like?”
“What do you mean?” Henry put down his fork. “He looked like what he looked like. I don’t know. Do you think—?” But Barbara touched his shoulder, and he stopped.
Eleanor broke the silence. “I guess they’ll want an obituary. You’ll know that sort of thing–Granny’s maiden name. Tell him we’ll have one day for the viewing. You and Henry can move the furniture.”
“I can get one of the boys,” Henry said.
Eleanor shook her head. “The sofa can stay. Nothing else is too heavy.”
Acton felt himself being looked at up and down. He couldn’t resist glancing in Henry’s direction, and he was sorry at once when his eyes locked on to Henry’s. That summer when he was sixteen, shelving at the downtown library and spending the occasional work nights at Aunt May’s, he’d shared Henry’s room. He was always in the cot long before Henry came home. Henry’s noise would wake him if he was asleep, but he had started keeping himself awake once he realized that Henry slept without a stitch. He would feign sleep until he was certain that Henry, in his undressing, was looking elsewhere. Then he’d open his eyes as long as he dared. Just once—the last time that he tried it—he was too slow. Henry saw him looking and rewarded him with an expression—somewhere on the other side of loathing—that he wore now.
“Sure, I’ll do it,” Acton said to Eleanor. “We can move it this afternoon. Please wait until I get back,” he said, with a nod at Henry. “It won’t take me long to fix this mess.”
If the puppet couldn’t fill his suit, Filer had no such difficulty. The shiny three-piece was well-tailored, though, so that it just escaped the tightness of a sausage casing. His voice had a breathy edge, as if from the effort of holding out his log of an arm to shake Acton’s hand. His eyebrows were not painted on, or they could not have moved as they did, rising in greeting, then contracting when Acton gave his aunt’s name, proving it really was Filer that Henry had spoken to. Finally, their grave calm was restored as Filer offered condolences.
Polite but stony, Acton said, “Perhaps your assistant told you of our conversation?”
The eyebrows went up slightly. “Won’t you join me in my office?” Filer said.
On this second visit, Acton was able to take the room in. A bookcase holding thick black binders was topped by an ancestral wedding photograph and a more modern portrait of a long-haired dog. Certificates hung on the wall, one with a state seal, others from assorted clubs.
Filer thanked Acton for coming in. “I’m afraid he—my assistant—left me uncertain about your wishes.”
“Yes,” Acton said, “our conversation ended before I had a chance to say.” He let this sink in. “My cousin, when he spoke to you, made some mistakes. I hope these can be rectified.”
He did not mention the puppet’s insolence, letting it rise from his words like smoke. The reward for his restraint came more quickly than he had hoped.
“Certainly,” Filer answered. “The young man you spoke to may have—” Filer stopped, then looked straight at Acton. “I would be grateful to hear your—your impressions.”
Filer touched his fingertips together in a gesture delicate as his words–a delicacy there was a sort of thrill in matching as Acton summarized the encounter and his surprise at the puppet’s manner of conducting business.
“Of course,” he concluded, “I may have been wrong.”
“Not at all,” Filer replied. “What you’ve said has been most helpful to me. I think we understand each other,” he added with a smile that left Acton momentarily unsettled. But then, after a deep breath, Filer grew serious again and said, “Now, I am at your service.”
True to his word, Filer put his hand on the contract at once, located the record of the deposit, then rose and invited Acton to follow to a room downstairs that Acton was relieved to find was full only of empty caskets, propped on skirted stands. Filer described the merits of each, allowing time for Acton to inspect them.
It was difficult to concentrate at first. The room seemed full of doors, and Acton could not help wondering what lay behind them. Besides, the choices among the polished boxes, swaddled in creamy fabrics, were bewildering. The only coffin he could recall seeing had been the one he spotted once from Mère Pujols’s window. It had looked far simpler, just unpainted wood. The town’s cemetery was small, the graves dug up for reuse, the cleaned bones relocated in a common pit.
Filer was patient with him, greeting every word that Acton spoke—question, opinion, or simple uncertainty—with strong approval, even venturing a few questions about Acton himself. Acton began to feel sorry for the man, with his harmless vanities—the jewel in his stickpin, matching his ring, the showily-groomed dog in the photo. His eager politeness was so poignant, as if his hours of waiting in his store left him famished for human contact, that Acton offered what he could, telling about the customs of funerals in France.
“Think of that!” Filer responded, a hand daintily posed at his chest. The gesture made Acton think again about the poor man’s geniality, bringing to mind one of Willard’s half-comical, half-rueful tirades about what he called The Life. They’d be after Acton, he said, with their perfumed dogs, their pinky rings. The puppet scion, too, appeared to Acton in a new light.
Back at the office, the replacement contract was drawn up. As Filer worked, he asked Acton more about Europe. Reserved now, Acton turned the question on Filer himself.
“Have you been?” he asked.
Filer shook his head, then gestured toward one of the framed certificates behind him.
“At the Rotary,” he said, “we take great interest in the world at large. We’re around the globe.” Filer paused his pen. Perhaps Acton would be interested, now that he was back, in looking in? It was a fellowship, Filer said, with a look that Acton looked away from. “Some of us get together after meetings.”
Acton did not explain his intent to return to France, once the advance came through, or make any other answer to this invitation. He busily gathered the new papers. When he lifted his head, he saw Filer proffering a small box to him.
“For your trouble,” Filer said.
Once he got to the car, Acton opened the box. It contained cards and envelopes, fifty at least, presumably to reply to condolences. Each card was embossed with a wreath, the design fairly tasteful—no lilies or lilacs.
Back at Eleanor’s, Henry and a man in overalls were standing in front of the porch. The stranger’s elbow rested on the porch floor, two bottles of beer beside it. He waved in greeting.
“Sorry, buddy,” he said as Acton came up the sidewalk.
“Thanks,” Acton said. Henry looked at neither of them. When Acton reached the stairs, the man said, “It looks sharp in there now.” Acton thanked him again.
“So you’ve been to the old country,” the man said.
Acton looked over at Henry, who drained one of the bottles and returned it to the porch.
“Yes,” Acton said. “Just back yesterday.”
“My father was from there,” the stranger said. “He was just a baby when he came over, but he always said he remembered the pretzels. Nothing like them over here, he said.”
“Probably so,” said Acton.
Sitting down to write at his old desk that night, he didn’t know how to start. The mail beside the brush and comb set on the dresser was just as he had left it, and, truth was, what he most wanted was to cry out, Why haven’t you written? He wouldn’t say it, of course. For one thing, any letter from Willard would have to have been sent before Acton had even left. As for going to Port des Anges to send a quicker cable, Willard detested that town more even than the Ohio hamlet he had grown up in. It was clogged with tourists, with that willowy crowd in The Life the worst of them. Willard could hardly bear to make the monthly trip there on the train to get his money.
Besides, Acton wanted to be positive for Willard. Despite his happiness at the publisher’s offer for his blood-and-guts—a happiness to be withheld from New York until they came through for Acton—the whole week before Acton’s departure Willard had lived in fear. It wasn’t just the imagined danger of losing Acton, but the prospect of Reynolds’s visit, the painter-composer-prodigy who had wounded Willard as no one else in his forty years had wounded him before. Reynolds was coming back, he had announced, to pick up the things he had left behind on his abrupt departure, some months before Acton himself arrived. Canvases were propped at the back of the wardrobe, and the bottom drawer was stuffed with old scores and odds and ends of clothes (his favorite striped jersey among them). “If you were only here,” Willard cried at his lowest, “I’d still have myself!”
The memory of that cry brought Acton his opening words
“I’m with you,” he wrote on a sheet of notebook paper from his college days, all he could find. “I’m in the room where I slept all the years before, but, really, I’m with you.”
His father was unchanged, he wrote. Beside his chair, Acton’s mother had placed the Saturday Evening Post with Acton’s old story, probably dusted once a week. If the book didn’t work out, she had said, it would be nice to have his help with Pop until something else came up.
“I feel sorry for him,” Acton wrote, “but, honestly, he didn’t say much more before than he does now.” At least there would soon be the book, Acton wrote, for further dusting.
Keeping it light, he told the story of the publisher’s. Then, as if turning a page, though still on the same blue-lined sheet, he wrote of Aunt May’s death.
“I don’t know how I’d bear it,” he wrote, “without the memory of our time. I think of that song of Mère Pujols’s about the nightingale (I know you hated the sound of her voice, but bear with me)—Nightingale, that flies to France, greet my mother, Nightingale (the line that gets you!), greet my mother but not my father, Who sold me in marriage. That poor girl, forced to watch the flock, exiled from her own country. Maybe it’s true that we’re all sold, as you once said. But we can sing about them! That bruiser Pau used to hum it, too.”
Acton pictured Pau, Mère Pujols’s son, whose forehead bore a fine line like a shaky pen stroke from the war. When Acton handed over the rent, Pau would look over his shoulder at Willard and nod, wholly unperturbed, wholly accepting. “What is not to be celebrated?” Acton wrote. “What is not to be mourned?”
“I’ve handled all the funeral arrangements,” he added, stopping at that.
Visitors were to be welcomed at noon, but Acton dropped by Eleanor’s beforehand with the flowers. He had saved more for her by having Filer scratch out the “woven floral blanket.” Acton paused before knocking. (“Foolish, I know,” he’d write, “as if, if I didn’t seen her, she wouldn’t be gone.”) In fact, the coffin hadn’t shown up. The parlor was as Henry and his friend had arranged it, easy chairs along with those from the dinner table pushed against the walls.
Acton and Eleanor arranged the flowers on side tables and window sills in vases, pitchers, and a couple of tumblers. Acton would have preferred poppies and forget-me-nots to the thick-petaled roses and gardenias that were all he could get at the florist’s–spending more than he wanted of his mother’s money. Still, they were better than the trellised trophies, suitable for winning racers, that Filer would have provided. Acton knew, because a truck from Filer’s had stood outside the store, loading up as he looked over the buckets. The puppet was there, too.
Acton hadn’t noticed him at first as one of the two men carrying out the trophies. But as he contemplated foxgloves, he felt bumped from behind.
He turned and saw Filer’s assistant, in a sort of smock, holding his burden awkwardly away from his body.
“Could you get that door, pal? Oh, it’s you!” he said. “Forgive me if I don’t shake hands. Pew, what a stink!” He cocked his head to show he meant the flowers. “I don’t usually do mule work, but somebody called in sick,” he elaborated as they walked toward the door. “They’ve got to be fresh every day. Customers wouldn’t put up with anything less, so he says.” The boy paused, his back holding the door open. “You wouldn’t believe some of the fusses they put up. They complain about everything.”
The boy winked at the last word. At least he’d heard about it, Acton thought, even if he’d kept his job. Though Acton made no response, the boy didn’t seem to want to end their conversation. He backed up further to let someone out.
“I heard you took the sister special,” the boy said. He smiled at what must have been Acton’s puzzled look. “The nuns can’t have anything fancy,” the boy explained. “But some of the customers go for them, too. You’re not the only one.”
He hugged his flowers closer to his chest, to free one of his hands. Acton was afraid he’d want to shake, but the boy only waved his shiny fingertips in farewell.
“Did my best for your departed,” he’d said. “So long.”
By the time the flowers were set out in the parlor, Barbara had arrived to help. Eleanor followed Acton to the door. In a low voice, she told him that, though Henry wasn’t supposed to work today, he had gone out somewhere.
“I’m a little worried about him,” she said.
When Acton returned at noon with his mother and father—they had wrangled Pop in and out of the car without much trouble—the visitors had started to gather. Acton didn’t see Henry; perhaps that was why, when Eleanor greeted him, there was fire in her eyes. She had something to say, but someone else was at the door.
Barbara was stationed beside the long, varnished box, set on chairs in the room’s center. Acton looked around for familiar faces. The pretzel man, in coat and tie now, stood by himself. Acton turned away to greet an old man he recognized, a friend of Uncle Peter’s.
“You’re the son?” the man said.
Acton corrected him, and they agreed that May had been a good woman. Their conversation gave Eleanor time to return to Acton’s side.
“If you ask me,” she said, pulling him close, “he owes us money.”
“Filer,” she said with disgust. “Making her look like a doxy. You can see.”
Only if I look, Acton thought but didn’t say. But even without looking, he knew it wasn’t her. This wasn’t him either; he wasn’t here. He and Aunt May sat on some back stair, she talking, he recording every word.
“I tried to fix her,” Eleanor was saying, “but I want that man to pay. Look at her.”
Eleanor turned him towards the coffin and placed a hand at the small of his back. Before she could give him a push, the sound of the door bell called her away. Barbara drew him next, with a beckoning hand.
“Was Henry out there when you came in?” she asked. “He said he’d be back by now.”
“He’s out drinking,” Acton imagined saying. He kept quiet, of course, only shaking his head. But the thought of those hard words gave his lips a sweet taste. He’s looking for a whore.
Then Barbara took his arm and brought him closer, whispering, “Eleanor’s upset, but I think she looks peaceful, don’t you?”
He didn’t recognize the dark green dress, undecorated with jewelry. The face was buried under powder so heavy no one could have breathed through it. The whole body looked weighted down, the arms slack. Below the elbows, a cloth was drawn up as if to keep her warm. The mask was expressionless, the closed lips reddened, though Aunt May had never worn a lick of paint. Perhaps that was what incensed Eleanor, though to him this wasn’t Aunt May at all, only an imitation–and a thoughtless one: the covering cloth rumpled as by a restless sleeper. Perhaps this was the result of Eleanor’s hasty fixing. He wouldn’t have thought to touch it if she hadn’t gone before. It wasn’t Aunt May, but if this was meant to honor her memory, it might at least be done with care. He was lifting the cloth when the commotion came from the front door.
“Are you happy now?” Acton heard the voice. “Isn’t there worse that you can do?”
It was Henry bellowing, his words addressed to no one in particular.
“Let me see her!” Henry cried at the parlor doorway “Jesus God!” he said once he reached the coffin. “Who did that—was it you?”
It was clear who he meant this time. Acton looked down and saw Aunt May’s red fingernails, the red of a woman in a magazine advertisement whose fingers clung to a cigarette, a bottle of cleanser–a red matching her lips, posed open, hungry with possibility.
“Jesus God,” Henry said again, then, as an afterthought, swung at Acton, who tripped and fell back into the waiting arms of Barbara and Eleanor.
As Acton brought his father up the walk later that afternoon, his mother stood on the front porch, reading something she had taken from the mailbox.
“Special delivery,” she said. “But the mailman wouldn’t leave it with nobody home.”
Acton attached his father’s hand to the railing and took the note from her. The mail could be picked up during business hours today, or delivered again tomorrow.
“But they’ll be closed now,” his mother was saying as he went for the car. “I’ll leave a note for him tomorrow before we leave.” Acton started the motor as he closed the door.
Willard: it was as if it wasn’t mail, but Willard in person waiting at the post office. Acton’s cheek, unmarked, hadn’t throbbed for some time, but as he drove he put up a hand to feel for a possible break. He hadn’t let himself be seen touching it all afternoon, sitting in the parlor after twenty minutes in the kitchen with a shard of ice. Without a word spoken, it was apparently agreed that he would stay seated, visitors approaching him like a royal presence. Henry had been exiled upstairs. Though no one spoke openly about the punch, late arrivals seemed to understand Acton’s new celebrity. He bore it with what might have been a prince’s sense of lethal power contained. Unmoving in his chair, he had time to consider whether the culprit had been Filer’s notion of beauty, the puppet’s stupidity, or his malice. By the day’s end, he had decided that it was the last.
Willard, see what they’ve done. Willard, haul me in, lift me up from these waters.
The sign on the front door of the post office, like the drawn shades, confirmed that it was closed. Acton tried the handle all the same, then began to bang on the door. He thought he heard sounds inside, perhaps footsteps approaching, from curiosity or taunting; but no answer came.
He sat awhile, back in the car. He was as good as halfway downtown now. He started up again.
Would you like to know what happened? he would say to Filer. Perhaps you could tell it to your Rotary, or that select group you meet with afterwards, in your striped jerseys.
Despite the pleasure in these thoughts he had a more practicable plan. I don’t want more condolence cards, he’d say. For my trouble, there’s just one thing you can do. Keep that puppet away tomorrow.
The lights were off in the show windows. There were people on the sidewalk, so he didn’t want to knock. He drove around back to the alley, where he found a loading dock, a garage, metal bins, and more doorways. Behind one of them might be the casket showroom; behind others, rooms for unholy operations. The bins might hold extracted organs; the drained fluids must be dumped into the sewer, to flow beneath the streets and sidewalks, under park benches where lovers sat canoodling.
He managed to sit through dinner, though not to eat. They all turned in early. The night warmed up instead of cooling. He opened the window and lay naked on the bed, thinking of Willard’s touch.
At Eleanor’s, the puppet was not among Filer’s men standing around the hearse. Inside, the coffin was closed. Henry sat between Barbara and the pretzel man. The man came over to Acton and said in a low voice that Henry was okay today.
“He doesn’t know what he’s doing sometimes,” the man said. “The ones who have heads on their shoulders, we’re the ones who have to take up the slack.”
This was by way of letting Acton know that he might not want to be a pall bearer.
“It’s just at the cemetery, anyway. They don’t want us amateurs tackling the stairs. But Henry wants to do it, so it might be better if you…”
Acton nodded. “There are more ways of letting go,” he’d tell Willard, “than I’d have imagined.” In fact, though, he had half feared taking that weight into his hands. Pop was fidgety this morning; it took the two of them to watch him. They made it through Eleanor’s minister’s speech, then waited outside while Filer’s men transferred the coffin. It was just as well Acton had given up the honor: when they brought her across the threshold for the last time, the closing of his throat was all that kept him from letting out a sob.
Chairs were set up beside the grave. He and his mother were motioned away from the front row, reserved for others. Acton took in nothing of the ceremony as he tried to keep his father from tampering with his catheter, and failed. The mourners were invited to toss onto the coffin the flowers they had Acton to thank for. Acton himself could not join in, busy with Pop. They were late, too, to the gathering back at Eleanor’s, having stopped at home for the old man to change his pants.
The note Acton’s mother left for the mailman had still been wedged in the front door. The thought of it made Acton patient as he sat or stood at Eleanor’s—his mother giving him a break from Pop—and listened as some woman spoke to him of her husband’s cousin, a girl who’d spent the summer in the pyramids and had stories to tell that Acton he would surely be interested in.
They got home early in the evening. The mailbox was stuffed with a big envelope that might have held a hundred letters. There was another envelope, too, of ordinary size but bearing a foreign stamp, and Willard’s name. It was hard to hold onto along with the larger package, whose address Acton did not have to read. By touch alone he had no doubt of the box inside it.
It was done up in red and white string like a box from the bakery. The knot was too tight to be untied. Having no knife or other weapon in his room, he pulled the string hard, crushing a corner. At least there was a note on top. He saw the words: opportunity, regrets, wishes. He didn’t dignify the sentences between by reading them. Then he picked up the letter from Willard, saved to help in the aftermath. The flimsy envelope opened more easily.
Reynolds was in the first sentence. Acton looked ahead and saw him in the next as well. He put the letter back into its envelope and put that into his pocket.
“I’m going out,” he said into the air. He let the screen door close behind him. He needed water, some expanse—a river, a pond, a stream would do—or a hill, or at least a rock rising from the earth like the curving back of an ancient creature.
As he walked, the houses gave way to the high school’s baseball field, flat and treeless. An island occupied one intersection, with a tree, a garden patch, and a bench, to be eyed by passing cars like fish in an aquarium. A bridge crossed the river to downtown, but by the time it came in sight he was too tired to reach it. Besides, when he sat down on a curb outside the public library, just closing, and pulled out the letter, he couldn’t make himself read it.
He didn’t read it until he was back home, sitting on his bed in the dusk, his clothes still clammy from his long walk. How could he have forgotten, Willard asked, Reynolds’s power over him? “I only know that I can’t let him leave,” he wrote. He was wrong to have expected Acton to save him. “I’m past saving—I told you so a hundred times.” Acton was well out of it. Willard had cabled to accept the offer, but hadn’t heard back as of time of writing, and Reynolds had some debts to clear up. “If you’re in communication with them, you might…”
Acton’s mother called through the door to see if he was all right. There would be no dinner, after the food at Eleanor’s. She asked if he had heard about the girl who’d been to Egypt.
Acton went for the car key. This time he got to the bridge. He parked below it, next to a lot where trucks were sleeping. He went as close as he could to the embankment. The water’s motion was hard to discern except where a sapling, half submerged, fought to keep upright against the surge. He watched until most cars had headlights on. He ought to be getting home.
But he couldn’t make the car turn left: it would only go over the bridge, continuing until it stopped at Filer’s. He parked on the street. The store was closed, but he knew now to walk around the block until he reached the alley. No one was there, every doorway shut. He put his ear to one that might have been the room of open coffins, like a cemetery at the resurrection. There was no sound. He climbed the short ladder to the loading dock. Behind the great metal door, he was certain, he heard them now, the coven, laughing, arguing, crooning, their ties loosened from their collars, stickpins awry. He knocked lightly at first, then louder, as the voice that announced his presence—”I’m here!”—grew from a whisper to a rasping cry.
Kenny Marotta is the author of A Piece of Earth (William Morrow) and A House on the Piazza (Guernica Editions). His stories have appeared in various quarterlies, including Virginia Quarterly Review, The Gettysburg Review, Western Humanities Review, and The Southern Review. He lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.