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Our Kind: A Novel in Stories
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It was one of those utterances that sparkled -- the very daring! Could you see us? Canoe shrugged, to be expected. After all, Canoe was our local recovering; it was she who left those pamphlets in the clubhouse next to the men's Nineteenth Hole.
Still, the very daring!
Canoe cracked her knuckles, lit a cigarette. We sat by her swimming pool absentmindedly pulling weeds from around the flagstones. The ice of our iced tea had already melted into water and it was too cold to swim, besides.
"It's obvious," Canoe said, blowing. "He's going to kill himself in less than a month. I don't want that blood on my hands."
He was someone we loved. Someone we could not help but love. A colleague of our ex-husbands, a past encounter. We had known Him since before we were we, from our first weeks in this town, early summers. We loved His hair. Golden. The color of that movie actor's hair, the famous one. Sometimes we caught just the gleam of it through the windshield of his BMW as He drove by. Sporty. Waving. Green metallic, leather interior. Some sort of monogram on the wheel. You've seen the license plate? SOLD. A realtor, but never desperate. Yes, He sold our Mimi Klondike's Tudor on Twelve Oaks Lane with full knowledge of her rotting foundation. But desperate? No. Just thirsty.
"Intervention," Barbara repeated. Canoe flexed her toes as if she had invented the word.
This a late summer day, a fallish day. Ricardo, the pool boy, swept maple leaves from the pool water, in this light a dull, sickly yellow. We watched him; we couldn't take our eyes off. Canoe interrupted.
"Actually, I shouldn't be the one explaining. There's someone from the group who's our expert. Pips Phelp, actually."
Pips Phelp? The lawyer? Pips Phelp?
We spoke in whispers. Who knew who lived in trees?
Besides, He might drive up any minute. He often did. You'd hear the crunch of His tires on the gravel, see the flash of blond hair behind the windshield. These times you'd dry your hands on your shirtfront, check your face in the toaster. You wouldn't want to be caught, what? Alone? You let Him in. He'd ask you to. He would stand at your door, behind your screen, wondering if He could. Of course, you'd say, though you looked a mess. If you were unlucky, the dishwasher ran. One of the louder cycles. If you were lucky, all was still -- the house in magical order, spotless, clean. He surveyed; this was his job. You never knew, He told you, when He might be needed.
You shivered. Him a handsome man. A man with the habit of standing close, His smell: animal, rooty -- your hands after gardening. His straight teeth were white, though He didn't smile that way. His was a better smile, toothless, brief, as if He understood He had caught you with more than a wet shirtfront. You obliged the suspicion. You were always guilty of something.
Still, you showed Him what you had done, were attempting. Recent renovations. Whatnot. A fabric swatch laid on the back of your couch. A roll of discount wallpaper for the powder room, shells of some sort. You'd been trying, you'd explain, to fix the place up. But things had gotten behind; the contractor's attentions divided, et cetera, et cetera.
He nodded, or did not. His was a serious business: assessing value. Worth.
Ricardo, the pool boy, served sandwiches. We had spent a few days per Canoe's instruction, contemplating the responsibility of our action: the absolute commitment, the difficulty, the discipline, the sacrifice. Esther Curran now sat among us. Someone had invited her. She was speaking of how He had shown her a Cape near Grendale Knoll after Walter's death, when she had believed she couldn't bear it -- the house, the reminders -- and how she, Esther, was no longer a beautiful woman. Here Esther peeled the crust off her sandwich and looked away.
We sat around her in Canoe's wrought-iron; it was too cold to lounge. The weather had suddenly turned, and the reason we sat around the pool at all was beyond us, unless it had something to do with Ricardo. We watched him receding toward the pool house then turned back to Esther.
This was the point, Esther was saying, though we may have lost it.
He had taken her hand. He had stroked it. He had told her of the possibilities. There wasn't much to be done -- the demolition of the Florida room, a few shingles rehung, refurbishing the kitchen. Think of it, He had told her.
We watched Esther with looks on our faces. We had never understood her. Rich as Croesus, she drove a Dodge and compared prices at the Safeway. Her husband, Walter, had died years ago, but she still referred to him as if he had run downtown for milk and would be back any minute. She allowed her hair to gray, her nails to go ragged. True, she had always been our eccentric -- an artist, she kept chameleons in her living room draperies and would often arrive at parties with paint on her hands -- but more than once in recent years, we understood, she had been escorted in the early hours of the morning, found wandering in robe and slippers on the old Route 32, luckily rarely traveled, for she could have been struck down as easily as a stray dog.
Now here she was among us.
"Intervention," she said, "is not a word of which I am particularly fond." Esther cut her crustless sandwich into nine even squares. "Walter and I are of the live-and-let-live philosophy," she continued, "but in certain unavoidable circumstances, such as the one we confront here today, I say, yes. I say, intervene." She picked up a square and we waited, thinking Esther might have more to add, but she simply smiled and popped it whole into her mouth.
"Frankly," Canoe said, this to Pips Phelp, who had convened the meeting and sat at the edge of us in a deck chair, "I don't want to hear about Him wrapped around a telephone pole. I wouldn't be able to live with myself."
Pips Phelp nodded. We knew him from the Club, one of a number of men who zipped by in a cart heading elsewhere, gloved hand guiding the wheel. He seemed to have little to say, too quiet for an interventionist, though Canoe insisted he was skilled in these matters. And we had read in the literature that we needed him: a leader, a discussion initiator.
"Understood," he said.
We agreed to meet the next day in the Safeway parking lot for a run-through. Pips Phelp would play His part. Did we understand fully, Pips had explained, that this would be tantamount to ambush? There would be little time, he said. He will fight you. He will want to flee. He will deny your accusations. You will have to talk quickly. Under absolutely no circumstance can you allow Him to leave the vehicle. (We had decided that this would be the place we'd find Him.) When it is over, one of you will get behind the wheel and drive Him to the Center. You will check Him in. It has been arranged.
Pips Phelp now sat in his Buick, the motor running. We saw him clearly though we pretended not to: This was part of the plan. We pulled in in Viv's Suburban and got out one at a time, no one saying a word. Canoe gave a short whistle and we circled the Buick, feeling the rush of the boarding-school escapade. What were we doing? Was anyone watching?
Pips Phelp pretended not to notice. He was a poor substitute for Him, truth be told. He sat there in a gut-hold against the wheel, his fingers strumming. He smelled of gum, or mints, of pretzels, of efforts to stave off tobacco. We knew him as a weak man. We knew him as a man who could be trusted. His wife, Eleanor, carried the look of the perpetually bored; his children were overachievers. You can only guess at the good-cheer stickers on the bumper of his Buick. He was a hedge trimmer, a leaf raker, a model-boat builder; he was a man who never thought of selling. Every spring along the borders of the driveway to his house -- a ranch just past the K&O Cemetery -- he planted red and pink impatiens.
"Pips!" This from Canoe, acting surprised, our signal to converge. Pips looked up, turned off the engine. "Canoe!" he said, our signal to open his doors. Canoe had already slid in the passenger side, yanked the keys from the ignition. Our hearts beat too loud, drumlike. We were not used to intervening.
"What is this?" Pips said. "What's everybody doing here?" His talent was not for acting. He sounded like a commercial you might see on late-night television.
"We're here because we love you," Canoe said. "We're here because we care about your life."
We flushed. Who wouldn't? We didn't care for Pips's life. We wanted Him. We wanted His smooth leather shoes, His argyle socks, His blue cashmere double-breasted coat. We wanted His promise of future appreciation.
"What are you talking about?" Pips said, shifting around to look at those of us in the backseat. Some couldn't fit and leaned on the windows. "What's the big idea?"
We laughed; we couldn't help it. "Please, Pips," Viv said to clue him in. "He'd never say 'big idea.'"
Pips gave us a look and turned back toward the windshield. He composed himself, a man of infinite patience, then shifted around again. "What's the meaning of this?" he said.
"The meaning," said Viv, "is concern. You are a sick person. It's not your fault. You can't help yourself. It's genetic. You need help. We're here to help you."
Some of us bit our fingernails.
Pips laughed like Bela Lugosi. "Sick? Me? What do you mean by these unfounded accusations. I've never felt better. I think you're sick. I think you are all suffering from a serious mental health problem."
This was going all wrong. No one sounded like a real person.
"What we're trying to say," said Judy Sawyer, but she didn't know what. Then came a long and awkward pause. Canoe sighed, audibly. "Come on, ladies," she said. "We've gotten off on the wrong foot." Then she opened the passenger side and got out, signaling for us to do the same. We did, as Pips Phelp waited, pretending, once again, that he had just driven up.
Know that we are a close-knit community. We've lived here for years, which is not to say that our ancestors are buried here; simply, this is the place we have all ended up. We were married in 1953. Divorced in 1976. Our grown daughters pity us; our grown sons forget us. We have grandchildren we visit from time to time, but their manners agitate, so we return, nervous, thankful to view them at a distance.
Most of us excel at racquet sports.
It is not in our makeup to intervene. This goes against the grain, is entirely out of our character. We allow for differences, but strive not to show them. Ours are calm waters, smooth sailing. Yes, some among us visit therapists, but, quite frankly, we believe this is a passing phase, like our former passion for fondue, or our semester learning decoupage.
We've seen a lot. We've seen the murder-suicide of the Clifford Jacksons, Tate Kieley jailed for embezzlement, Dorothy Schoenbacher in nothing but a mink coat in August dive from the roof of the Cooke's Inn. We've seen Dick Morehead arrested in the ladies' dressing room at Lord & Taylor, attempting to squeeze into a petite teddy. We've seen Francis Stoney gone mad, Brenda Nelson take to cocaine. We've seen the blackballing of the Stewart Collisters. We've seen more than our share of liars and cheats, thieves. Drunks? We couldn't count.
Still, He's someone we love. And, in truth, we love few.
Early the morning after our practice run, we met again at the Safeway. Canoe brought a thermos of coffee and we stood drinking from our styrofoam cups in the early cold as if at a tailgate. It did seem a game, the weather, football weather, changeable, ominous, geese honking overhead, flying elsewhere. A strong wind set loose shopping carts in random directions, as if they were being pushed by the ghosts of shoppers past. Coupon offers and flyers of various sorts blew about as well. Canoe suggested coffee cake, but we declined. We were, on the whole, nervous. We enjoyed our weekly stocking up at the Safeway; we kept lists. But to linger in its parking lot felt just shy of delinquency and a long way from Canoe's swimming pool and Ricardo's languid strokes. When we finally spotted Pips Phelp's Buick turning in, our spirits had undeniably flagged.
Pips didn't seem to notice. "Ladies," he said, slamming the door, getting out. "Top of the morning!"
Was this man always working from some sort of script?
"Why the long faces?" he said.
"They'll get over it," Canoe said. She dropped her styrofoam cup to the asphalt and crushed it, twisting her flat as if to stub out a cigarette butt. We watched, riveted. You do not need to tell us we were stalling. Canoe got into her Jeep and rolled down the window. "Understand," she told him, "they're not used to unpleasantness."
We have seen a lot, it's true, but know so little. How were we to learn? Years ago we were led down the primrose lane, then abandoned somewhere near the carp pond. Suffice it to say there is little nourishment here and the carp have grown strange cancers. When we look in their pond we see them beneath our own watery faces.
But think of the consequence: His disappearance.
We piled in as instructed. We buckled our safety belts. We turned to Pips Phelp, who stood in salute, and waved. Canoe gunned the Jeep. "Hi-ho, Silver," she said, and we were off, the plan to find Him come hell or high water, to drive to the limits of our town, to cover His turf. We watched Pips Phelp trail us in his Buick, his flaccid pink face in the rearview. We weren't nice. We made fun. We said how ordinary was Pips, how completely known. We said how He could flatten Pips Phelp with one fist.
"Kaboom!" Barbara shouted. And she meant it. "Kaboom! Kaboom!" She raised her fist and punched the air.
"Why the anger?" Mimi Klondike asked, as if intervention were catching.
Barbara shrugged. "Felt like it?" she said.
Esther, we noticed, didn't speak. She wasn't often of late among us, and now she might as well not have been. She sat in the back of the Jeep staring out the window, some kind of smock we wouldn't be caught dead in spread over her legs. She had letters in her pockets to people we had never met; her hair seemed unwashed.
"Esther?" Mimi Klondike said. "Why the long face?" Barbara smirked, but Esther simply turned toward us. She might have been smiling, or this might have been her natural expression. Beyond her, our country -- changing maples, stone walls, gravel drives, newly washed automobiles, children, horses, dogs -- passed. But we were looking at Esther.
"I was thinking how strange," she finally said. "I was thinking how strange to be alive." Then she turned away. We drove in silence; what else was there to do? Time passed and we thought our thoughts; we thought of Him. How He held a flashlight to our souls, our basements. How He checked for dry rot, carpenter ants, the carcasses of flying insects. In the darkness we saw Him searching, and we yelled down, Do you need a hand?
"Bingo!" Canoe shouted. She slammed the Jeep brake. "Bingo bango!"
We leaned in, looking. "What?" we said. "Him?"
Yes, there: Pinned to Louise Cooper's chemicled lawn, the sign: SOLD REALTORS, freshly hammered into the ground. Beside it his BMW, forest green, buffed as his nails, stood idle in Louise's drive, arriving or leaving impossible to say. Henry Cooper, on early retirement, had recently dropped dead putting the eighteenth green. We knew Louise had thoughts of moving to Captiva. Still, we felt the jealousy of His transferred affections. Louise? we thought. Her?
"Keep calm!" Canoe shouted, veering in. Our hands were in our laps, our feet pushed against the carpeted floor, braking. Mimi and Barbara ducked on impulse. The rest of us sat stock-still. We knew the plan: Pips Phelp would stay behind, at a distance, there if needed, ready to follow in his car to the Center, to do the necessary paperwork to check Him in. The approvals had been given, the gears were in motion.
Canoe parked the Jeep, jerked the emergency brake. This a stroke of luck, really. We might have found Him nowhere. We might have been too late. Now here we were -- sitting and listening to the ticking engine, watching the steam rise off the hood. The day seemed warmer, the gray breaking into blue, the sun a sudden glare. It shone off the chrome of His BMW, flashed in our eyes as if a badge He held up for protection. Was He there? Did we see Him?
Canoe got out. She slammed the front door and sauntered over. She strode, Canoe, the toughest among us. We kept quiet. We waited for the signal: two coughs followed by a hand clap. This would mean He was in the vehicle and we should proceed as rehearsed. Mimi, still ducking, rolled down her window so we could hear better, but what we heard was an ordinary day: a dog barking, crickets, a siren at the far edge of town. In it Canoe's boots crunched gravel; Canoe knocked.
It should be said that in recent months He had acquired a new BMW. The latest model. Understand Him as a leaser. In His profession, the importance of the vehicle is not to be underestimated. Every year He trades up. Still, the license plate remains: SOLD. The color, forest green. This one, however, has been slightly altered -- the windows blackened, as if a rebuke to our constant attentions.
But He cannot escape us. We know His comings and goings, His ring size. We know at the Stone Barn He orders Manhattan clam chowder, a cup, and a grilled cheese for lunch. We know His difficulty with languages, His general insecurity in all things pertaining to math. We know as a boy He watched the mayor hide the golden Easter egg then blatantly pretended to find it. We know He dreams of killing. We know He scratches himself in ugly places and picks His nose; that His breath is rank in the morning and He scissors black hairs from His ears and plucks His eyebrows.
We know this and more: His bad back, His quenchless thirst. He is our faithless husband, our poor father. He is our bad son, our schemer, our rogue. He is our coward in the conflict, our liar. He has betrayed all He has promised.
Still, we love Him.
"Must be in the house," Canoe shouts back to us. "Come on."
We go. We fan out. Our hearts taut drums. Our feet heavy. Canoe crouches ahead, then rounds the bend, breaking away from the cul-de-sac. We run after her and line up on either side -- Barbara at the far end, Mimi, the near. We cross our arms over our chests and wait. Canoe tries the front door. It's open. She pushes through. It is Louise Cooper's house, but it may as well be our own -- the powder room off the foyer, Louise's monogrammed hand towels. There's Ivory soap in the shape of shells, dirtied from her gardener's hands. There's a chandelier that's dusty, unused; unpaid bills on the secretary. A needlepoint giraffe, weighted with sand, holds the den door open. Here we'd find Louise's real life: her TV Guides, her tarnished tennis trophies, framed photographs of her children with outdated hairstyles. But we're not going there. We pause, instead, in the empty foyer. What are we listening for? What do we want?
And then we hear Him. He is speaking in a low voice, a whisper. It is a sound we'd recognize anywhere: the sound of Him prospecting. A cold call. Like the slap of waves in our ocean, like a salt cure. He wants something. He is asking. To all of us He has spoken in such a manner, kissed our fingers. He has guided us through our living rooms, His hand on the small of our backs.
"Shhhhh," Canoe says, as if someone has spoken. But no one has said a word. We simply stand at the bottom of Louise Cooper's staircase like bridesmaids waiting to catch the bouquet, but we are not bridesmaids. We are women near the end of our lives. We look up at nothing: the hallway, the bedroom doors.
Still, His voice is everywhere. Which room? Which direction? Canoe climbs. We follow. At the top of the stairs, we pause, waiting. Nothing. No sound at all but something just below the surface quiet. What? Something so familiar: a woman weeping? Our Louise? We walk down the hallway, pushing at doors -- there are so many empty bedrooms. This one simply light from the now-blue sky shining through its open windows onto the poplin spread, pulled taut, pillows fluffed as if Louise is expecting guests; the next one, the same. We move quickly. We hurry. We push on doors, we open closets.
We do not find her until the maid's room. She sits on a narrow cot among little artifacts -- a wire-cage mannequin, a yellow-painted dresser, a children's mirror. On the floor there is no rug. If we were barefoot we would be splintered, but we are not. We are shoed and zipped, buttoned and covered; this we notice because Louise is not. She is without a stitch of clothing, entirely nude.
She covers herself when we burst in, drawing her legs up and arms around to cinch them. She is a ball of flesh, Louise Cooper, leaking from the eyes. She does not need to ask to know our mission; she points, weakly, in the direction of a narrow staircase -- the back way. Esther takes the lead and we hurry, pell-mell, reckless. We sense there is little time and so we tumble down the stairs, our flats nicking the soft wood, our hands slapping cold walls. Released near the back door into the open -- the sudden fresh air, the sudden light -- we run. We tear. We might spread our arms. Fly.
We head out so fast our flats flapped off some way back, seven pair abandoned like fourteen blackbirds in a jagged line, our soft soles hopscotching gravel, rock, then the grassy stubble in the field behind the Coopers', Esther ripping the just-red stalks from their roots, Barbara and Mimi holding hands, running, Viv and Judy behind, Canoe in the lead. We must find Him, we know. We must intervene. We do not want Him wrapped around a telephone pole. We do not want that blood on our hands. We must save Him, mustn't we? We must save Him, quick.
But first, no. First, we must save ourselves.
Excerpted from Our Kind: A Novel in Stories by Kate Walbert. Copyright © 2004 by Kate Walbert. All rights reserved. Posted with permission of the publisher. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.