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Authors: Tess Thompson

Duet for Three Hands (10 page)

BOOK: Duet for Three Hands
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Chapter 10


t the lake house
, Jeselle sat on the front porch peeling potatoes, grateful for the cool shade of the awning. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the gardener, Fred Wilder, wearing his customary overalls and frayed straw hat, come around the side of the house. He carried a hoe and a bucket in his tanned arms. Near the magnolia tree, he paused for a moment, taking a pouch of tobacco from his pocket and setting a pinch of it inside his bottom lip. He leaned against his hoe like it was a dance partner and turned to leer at her.

She swallowed and quickly moved her gaze to the bowl of peeled potatoes in the bowl at her feet.

“You watchin’ me, girl?” He moved one side of his mouth in a sneer, marring his handsome face. Blond and green-eyed, his features were even, almost pretty. She guessed him to be a little older than Frances, although the harsh sun had made fine wrinkles near his eyes.

“No, sir. I’m peeling potatoes.” She lifted her chin a little to show him she wasn’t afraid.

He shrugged and spit into the dirt, mixing it with his boot before pulling a flask from his overalls and taking a long swig, all the while looking at her with those eyes that caused a chill to run up her spine, but she had her task and was more afraid of going back into Mama’s kitchen with unpeeled potatoes than staring down this half-stupid gardener. But she needn’t have worried. When he was done with his deep swallow of whatever was in that flask, he grabbed his bucket and sauntered back around the corner of the house.

, she arranged lilacs in a vase in the pantry. Mama and Mrs. Bellmont were talking softly, compiling a shopping list for the week’s meals; it would require a trip into Jasper, twenty miles away. As Jeselle set the final stem into the vase, the phone just outside the pantry door rang: two short rings followed by a longer ring. This was their ring. They were on something called a party line, which Jeselle thought a strange name since it had nothing to do with parties until Mrs. Bellmont explained that party also meant “a group acting together.”

From the crack in the pantry door, Jeselle saw Mrs. Bellmont pick up the earpiece and lean forward slightly. “Hello,” she said in her usual lilting, expectant way, as if she assumed it was someone she couldn’t wait to speak with. “Nate, is that you? Oh, darlin’, it’s good to hear your voice. Did the baby come? We’ve just been on pins and needles here, waiting to hear.” She smiled, waiting for good news, but in the next instant her face wilted. Her fingers came to her mouth. “Oh no, Nate. This can’t be.”

There were a few moments of silence. “Two days ago? Why didn’t you call sooner?” Then, another pause, and her hand moved to rest near her heart, cheeks flushing. “You’ve buried him already? What about the family plot?” Another pause. “Frances said that? Well, it’s simply not true. We would’ve loved him no matter what he looked like. He was family. I hope you know that.”

Mrs. Bellmont turned toward the butler’s pantry and put the palm of her hand on the wall, leaning over as if she were out of breath. “I see. Well, never mind all that, darlin’, you just have to come here for a couple months. Frances can regain her strength.”

There was another long moment of quiet. Mama leaned against the sink, facing Mrs. Bellmont, her bare arms crossed over her belly and her shoulders hunched over, as if bracing herself against a cold wind.

“Yes, fine, we’ll see you then. Goodbye, darlin’.” Mrs. Bellmont placed the earpiece into the phone and turned toward Cassie. “The baby died in Nate’s arms. A little boy. Something was wrong with him.” Her voice broke. “He could barely tell me. Crying.” She put her face into her hands. “Nothing worse than a man crying.”

Mama took her over to the breakfast nook and gently guided her into the seat. “Set a bit.” She took Mrs. Bellmont’s outstretched hand, patting it as she stared up at the ceiling.

Just then Whitmore came shooting into the kitchen from the veranda, hair damp with sweat. He stopped in the doorway. “Mother, what’s the matter?”

As if she hadn’t heard him, Mrs. Bellmont spoke, “Your sister and Nate are coming.”

“Really? That’s wonderful news, Mother. But why?”

“To recover from a shock,” said Mrs. Bellmont.

Chapter 11


hey arrived
at the lake house four weeks after burying their infant son. “Welcome home,” Whitmore greeted them as they walked into the foyer.

“This surely isn’t my home, little brother,” said Frances. “Pickens County, Georgia, feels awful small now that I’m a New Yorker.”

Whitmore shifted his weight from one foot to the other and shoved his hands in his pockets.

“Regardless, we’re happy to see you. Y’all must feel ready to drop.” Clare’s mouth pinched, and wrinkles made creases in the skin above her upper lip. Dark smudges under her eyes marred her perfect skin. She’d aged overnight, Nathaniel thought. Grief and worry had made their marks. “Can I have Jeselle bring you some sweet tea or cookies?”

He was about to decline politely when Frances interrupted, “Mother, we’d like separate bedrooms.”

Clare’s eyes widened, but whatever she thought of the request was quickly hidden behind her usual placid expression. “I’ll let Cassie know to make up your old bedroom for you.”

“We’re grateful to have a quiet place to come,” said Nathaniel. He darted glances at both Clare and Whitmore before looking at his feet. “Truly.”

“Wanna fish in the morning?” asked Whitmore

“I don’t know,” Nathaniel said.

“Well, I’ll wait for you in the morning and that way if you decide you want to, I’ll be here. All right?”

“All right.”

Whitmore crossed the foyer and pulled Nathaniel into an unexpected embrace. Whit’s blond hair smelled of sunshine. “Every morning I’ll wait.” He spoke softly into Nathaniel’s ear. “Until you’re ready.” Whitmore pulled away and ambled down the hallway toward the kitchen.

Nathaniel looked over at Clare. Tears made her eyes glassy. “Nate, none of us know what to do. And there’s…there’s a party here tomorrow night. It’s dreadful timing, and I’m utterly sorry, but I didn’t know about—well, the invitations went out months ago.”

“Nate can’t possibly play at the party, Mother, if that’s what you’re asking.” Frances stood at the mirror and dotted her neck with a silk handkerchief.

“My God, of course not, Frances. Nate knows I’m not asking him to play.”

Nathaniel looked over at his wife, catching her eyes in the mirror. “Actually, I’d love to play. I haven’t felt like it much since John died, as you can imagine.” He turned to Clare. “But it might be good for me. Give me something to work on. How about Gershwin?”

“Only if you want to.” Clare gazed at him for a moment before taking his hands. “Oh, my poor boy, you look like you’re about to collapse. Go on up to the room you stayed in last time. It’s all ready for you.”

“Thank you. I’ll see you all later for dinner.” Then he made his way, one foot in front of the other, hand on the rail, up the wishbone stairs to the guest room where he could be alone. As he closed the door, Frances’s voice reached him. “Did you hear him, Mother, talking about it like it was a real baby?”

He collapsed on the bed, kicking off his shoes and placing his arm over his eyes. Not only had he lost his baby son, his wife seemed to have disappeared as well. The woman he’d married had vanished, replaced with a girl he could not recognize—a girl who would no longer share his bed and who seemed to vacillate between vacant and hostile. He suspected she blamed him somehow for John, but he couldn’t know for sure because she refused to talk to him about it. All of which added to his grief and sense of isolation.

he next morning
, he awakened before sunrise and went to the window. Below, on the veranda steps, sat Whitmore, holding two fishing poles. Nathaniel rested his head against the windowpane. Always, he thought, these choices, these moments, when one decides whether to move forward from the pain or retreat back into it. Life over death. Light over darkness.

He dressed quickly, not bothering to shave or comb his hair. When he arrived in the kitchen, Cassie stood at the stove, stirring something in a large pot, her broad, strong shoulders straight and proud. “There’s coffee to take with you.” She pointed with her wooden spoon to a large mug on the table.

“How’d you know I’d fish?”

“Two kinds of people. Them that wallow in their own muck and them that keep moving. You and me, we’re the keeping moving kind, no matter we’re different colors. Terrible thing about the baby, Mr. Nate. Nothin’ worse than losing a child.” She turned from the stove. “Go on now. The boy’s waiting for you. I’ll cook something for y’all when you get back.”

“Thank you, Cassie.” He took the coffee and joined Whitmore on the steps. A glass jar of night crawlers perched precariously on the edge of the top step. Nathaniel picked it up and gestured with it toward the lake. “Think they’re biting this morning?”

Whitmore grinned and plucked a blade of grass near his feet. “Only one way to find out. Come on then.” He stood and held out a fishing pole. Nathaniel took it, and they crossed the lawn to the lake. The boards of the wooden pier squeaked under their feet. Near the edge, they took off their shoes and socks and rolled up the legs of their trousers before sitting side by side. The April morning light was soft. Slices of early morning sun glimmered through the branches of pines. Unseen birds made a discordant orchestra all around them. They perched their poles between their legs and dangled their legs off the side of the pier just inches above the water.

After a few minutes, Whitmore glanced over at him. “Fish must be sleeping late.”

“Guess so.”

Nathaniel stuck his pole between two slats of wood and sipped his coffee. Whitmore pulled his line in, checking the hook. The night crawler remained, hanging limp in a picture of defeat.

“I imagined him here, with us, fishing,” said Nathaniel.

“Mother, too. She talked about it sometimes. Many times.” Water bugs skimmed the lake surface, making rings. “She planted flowers that bloom in the spring. To remember him.”

“I figured he’d look like you. I don’t know why.”

Whitmore tossed his lure back into the water with a flick of his wrist. He held the pole loosely in his hands. “I was going to teach him how to row the boat. Y’know, when he got bigger.”

Nathaniel reached over and patted Whitmore’s shoulder. “Thank you.”

“For what?”

“For not pretending like it never happened.”

They were quiet again. A fish jumped in the middle of the lake.

“I’m still here,” said Whitmore. “To look after, I mean.”

“I know, and I’m grateful.”

fter breakfast
, Nathaniel bathed and changed his clothes. In the music room at the piano, he spent the morning working on scales and a Gershwin piece he felt appropriate for a gay spring party. The family and servants shuffled by the glass door, but he hardly noticed.

Near noon, Frances came in to ask if he would be joining them for dinner. “Mother says it’ll be served at twelve thirty.” She wore a light green muslin dress with gathered sleeves and lace around the collar.

“You look pretty. Come sit next to me for a moment.” He patted the piano bench.

As if she hadn’t heard him, she marched over to the table near the window. “I hate it here. When can we go home?” She picked up a vase, turning it in her hands.

“We just arrived.”

She went to the window. “Father isn’t coming until later.”

Nathaniel returned to the music sheet on the piano. “I’d heard that, yes.”

“Well, I don’t like it.”

“Don’t like what?”

“We’re just stashed here on the side of this godforsaken mountain.”

“It’s nice here. I felt terrible at the apartment. It’s comforting to be with your mother and Whit.”

“I want to go back to New York.”

He turned on the piano bench, facing her. “Frances, you need to rest. You’ve been through a lot.”

“I can rest in New York.”

“It might help if you found something to distract yourself with. Maybe a book?”

“How dare you! You smug bastard.” She hurled the vase at him.

He put his hands up to protect his face but was too late. The ceramic vase hit him in the forehead and then clattered to the floor, breaking in half. He blinked, seeing spots before his eyes as he felt the painful spot with his fingers. Sticky. Blood. “Frances, what’s the matter with you? You’ve hurt me.”

She knelt on the floor next to him and began to cry. “I didn’t mean to hurt you.”

The door to the music room opened. They both turned as Clare and Cassie ran toward them. Frances rose to her feet, retreating to the couch.

“What on earth happened?” asked Clare.

“The vase. Hit my head.” Nate dabbed at the wound with his handkerchief.

“Hit your head? How?” asked Clare.

Cassie picked up the two broken pieces. “This here was Mr. Bellmont’s mama’s vase.” Her eyes shot to Frances and back again to the broken vase in her hands.

Frances crossed her arms over her chest. “I dropped it.”

“Hold tight, Mr. Nate. I have something I can put on it.” Cassie left the room. Clare, using her own handkerchief, dotted at the perspiration on his forehead. “Does it hurt?”

“A little.”

Cassie came back with a small jar of white paste. “Made this from some roots and herbs. It’ll help it heal up faster.” He winced as she smoothed it into the gash.

“Cassie’s always digging around in the herb garden in Atlanta and mixing up potions,” said Clare. “She’s quite clever.”

“Like a witch from Macbeth,” said Frances.

“Frances,” said Clare, “how ’bout you get Nate some sweet tea.”

“Because I’m not a maid, that’s why.” She rose from the couch and walked out the door, slamming it behind her.

He looked over at Clare. She was at the window now, fussing with the tassel that held back one side of the curtains. “Nate, what’s happened between you two?”

Shaking his head, he took the cold compress Cassie handed him and put it against the wound. “Since the baby, she’s different. I’ve tried everything, but nothing makes her happy. She’s been drinking a lot. I don’t know what to do.”

“She threw the vase at you, didn’t she?” asked Clare.

He nodded. “But she just lost her temper. It’s nothing.”

Clare held his gaze for a moment before glancing at Cassie. “That’s what I said about Frank when it happened the first time.”

ate in the afternoon
, resting in his room, he was between a place of wakefulness and sleep when he heard the creak of the door. He rolled over and opened his eyes. Frances stood next to the bed, wearing nothing but a silky dressing gown that clung to her skin. Any remnants of the pregnancy were gone, her limbs slender and frail and her stomach nothing but a cavity between jutting hipbones. “Frances, you’ve gotten so thin. Try to eat a little today, won’t you?”

“I feel sick after a few bites.”

His head throbbed. With his fingertips, he felt the gash on his forehead. Darned if it weren’t already healing from Cassie’s magic potion.

“Nate, are you still angry?” She spoke in her high-pitched, baby kitten voice and knelt at the side of the bed. “I want to make it up to you. It’s been long enough since the hospital.”

BOOK: Duet for Three Hands
10.68Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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