Authors: Polly Horvath
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To Claudia Logan, my best friend
T WAS A DARK NIGHT
when I left my home in Hyannis Port. A social worker came to the door for me. My twenty-four-year-old babysitter, Tiffany, blond, recently dropped out of college and at loose ends, not terribly bright, but well heeled like most of the girls in this town, was too excited by it all to leave. She stood behind me while the social worker told me that my parents had been killed in a train wreck in Zimbabwe along with my aunt and uncle. That Jocelyn, my cousin, had survived and was on her way to my Uncle Marten's house in British Columbia. That he had been named legal guardian for both of us. Jocelyn was sixteen and I was fifteen, and he would take us in until we were old enough to go to college.
“Or whatever,” said Tiffany, who had decided to join in at this point, shrugging. Up until that moment she had been breathing on my neck adenoidally with her mouth open. Her breath felt as if it had condensed there, and when I put my hand up unconsciously to wipe off my neck I accidentally hit her in the mouth. She didn't yelp with pain or take a step back but continued breathing loudly as if in a trance, completely mesmerized by the recent developments and my sudden misfortune. I had a feeling that when she got home she would phone all her friends and say, “It was so cool, her parents were, like, wiped out, and this woman came and, like, totally took her away. And like, I get paid now from the estate. Isn't that totally weird?”
You would think that when you have just found out your parents have been killed, you wouldn't be thinking things like this, catty thoughts about your babysitter, that you would be beyond noticing, but although it's as if some part of you is suddenly unplugged, all your old responses stand you in good stead. You continue to be yourself, to think the sorts of thoughts you have always thought. Mean Meline.
The social worker had a kind face. She deftly got rid of Tiffany when she realized she wasn't going to be a comfort to me. She walked me through my options, letting me know that everything in the apartment was mine now. That my parents' lawyer would be taking care of details for me, along with my uncle. That she was only here to get me to British Columbia and that this could happen whenever I liked. Right now, in fact. She had looked into flights. We could fly tonight to join my cousin, who would be arriving in Vancouver the next morning, if that seemed like a good idea. Or I could stay on a few days in Hyannis Port. That I could take anything I liked or decide what I wanted shipped to me later. The rest the executor would arrange to have sold. I looked around the apartment. How did I know what to take into a future I didn't understand?
“Of course, your uncle has a house full of furniture. I have spoken to him. He has a bedroom already furnished for you. But if you'd prefer your own thingsâ¦”
I saw the rocker that I'd squeezed into with my mother for as long as we could both fit. I looked at my bed, just a piece of foam on a small platform. Then I thought of my mother's plate collection. How she'd hunted down Fiestaware. How she said over time it would increase in value. And her grandmother's silver in the drawer. What would she want me to save? Would she still think any of it was important in light of recent developments? All these things that were precious heirlooms. All these things that were here when she no longer was. All these things sheltered, kept safe, to be passed on, our history, I saw how they had no value at all. Everything that my parents had earned money to buy, that seemed so important, now just secondhand junk to be scattered, sold, thrown away. They hadn't marked my parents' place on earth. They hadn't been a parking space or an anchor. Because my parents, when they were gone, were gone.
“I don't want any of it,” I said and packed a bag and we left. We walked silently to her car and drove through the rain to the airport. While she bought tickets for us I thought that my father was right. He never talked about growing up. When I asked him questions he would say, “Why? What does it matter? The past is the past. People's lives are in chapters. This is the only chapter I want, this is the chapter I want to last forever and ever, the one with you and your mother.” My mother said it was a family quirk. That Jocelyn's father, Uncle Donald, when asked said the same. “Oh, I don't want to talk about that. Haven't we got enough to think about trying to keep our heads above water in the present?”
“Those boys,” said my mother, shaking her head. To her, my father and Uncle Donald would always be boys. I wondered if Uncle Marten was a boy, too. I'd never met him. He was the mysterious uncle. The rich uncle. The family iconoclast. The one who never visited. He had been the source of a lot of entertaining speculation around our dinner table on winter nights.
We'd light a candle and put it in the middle of the kitchen table. My father would drink a beer and my mother would knit and they'd tell stories. They both liked to speculate about Uncle Marten.
“Even though he was older than me and Donald, his head was always kind of up in the clouds, so we never expected him to be able to cope with the world at all, let alone get rich,” said my father. “We were always a little ashamed of his eccentricities, preferring books to girls or sports or the normal things boys did growing up where we were.”
“In a foster home,” I said, hoping to prod him into telling me more, but he wouldn't talk about that.
“Some of the time. Marten wasn't going to be a farmer or a fisherman or a pilot like me and Donald. Instead he surprised everyone by breezing through college in record time with several degrees, including an M.B.A. and a Ph.D., and becoming a stockbroker and making a huge amount of money. Then, when he was at the height of his powers and fortune, he quit selling stocks, which he always called a stupid profession, and bought an island off the coast of British Columbia and built a huge Victorian mansion, which none of us have ever seen or are likely to.”
But now I would. I'd like to tell my father this. For a long time I thought of things I wanted to tell my father or my mother but couldn't. There was nothing more final than that.
We boarded the plane and flew for a short time, then got on another and flew for a longer time, and as dawn came up got on a third. I looked out the window into early morning nothingness, and the social worker quietly turned the pages of her magazine, as if she must muffle even the noise of that so as not to disturb me. But I wasn't aware of grief so much as of the constant whirring of the plane. And I thought if I could keep that whirring going, I'd never have to be still, and if I never had to be still, none of it could land on me.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
My social worker checked us into the hotel in Vancouver. I almost fell asleep in the cab from the airport, but even through my fog I knew the hotel wasn't in a very good part of town. We went into downtown, bright and shining with mountains surrounding the watery edges of the city. The harbor sparkled, people trotted along looking busy, purposeful, alive, healthy, prosperous, right-thinking. Then we left that area and drove east and the buildings became derelict and dingy, and although we were still close to the water the prosperity took a nosedive. There were bodies in all the doorways: panhandlers, drunks, druggies, homeless. All of them slumped against buildings and doorways. As if legless. The social worker's nostrils swelled and she checked the address on her slip of paper twice when the cabbie pulled up in front of our hotel.
“Oh dear,” she said. “I think Marieâthat's the social worker escorting your cousin, she made the reservationâshe must not know the city very well. I'm afraid she put us all up in a very bad part of town.”
I didn't care much at that point; although my room was musty and mildewy, it seemed a minor point, considering, and I fell into a deep sleep and didn't wake up until dinnertime. The plan was to join Jocelyn and Marie for dinner, and then our social workers, their jobs done, would escort us to the helicopter pad where Uncle Marten had a helicopter service that he apparently used all the time. Sam, the pilot, would take us to Uncle's island, Marie explained as we all got back into a cab, deciding to check out and go to dinner with bags rather than return to this neighborhood.
“I'm so sorry,” said Marie when we had all seated ourselves self-consciously in the cab. “All the big hotels were full because both the boat show and the marathon are this weekend. The hotel
okay on the Internet. I didn't know how scummy the neighborhood was. You'd think they'd do something about getting those people off the streets. It's a disgrace having to thread your way among them.”
“Oh well, never mind, it was only to catch our breaths,” said my social worker. Her name never registered with me. The only reason I caught “Marie” was that my social worker was one of those people who have been trained to use people's names in every other sentence until you want to shriek, “Stop it! That doesn't work on me! I see right through it.” They never seem to get that it doesn't come off as friendly or kind, just technical.
I tried to smile at Jocelyn, whom I hadn't seen in six years. But she looked at me as if smiling had been a very peculiar thing to have done, and turned her head. I began to wonder if her social worker wore such a pinched expression because she had spent the last few days with Jocelyn. Over dinner Jocelyn said all the right things: “Please, thank you, yes, I imagine the salmon here would be very good.” Even given that the two of us were in a state of shock still, there was a cold collected reserve about her that our parents' deaths didn't account for. It was too practiced to be recent. It was too easy and natural. And, I thought, at a time like this it seemed to serve her well. It was like putting your emotions in an icebox, along with that severed head you told everyone you'd just found lying there. I studied her through dinner, searching for chinks, but could find none. The way she looked at me was the way you are always afraid someone will on those off days when your hair is dirty and your clothes seem particularly tatty and you can't think straight. And there was no giving you the benefit of the doubt. This, her look seemed to say, is who we both know you
are. But, of course, she had not expected any better from you, so it needn't ruffle
calm. I think it gave the social workers the creeps, and they fell enthusiastically upon each other and spent the rest of the meal talking animatedly, just the two of them, and leaving me to Jocelyn. Which is to say, leaving me to silence.