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The Puzzle Bark Tree
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It was Jemma who called Melanie to say she couldn't awaken her parents that Sunday morning. Jemma, who had lived with the Hammond family for the first twenty years of her employ and, for the last twenty, loyally took the train up from the Bronx every morning and then a cab to their house in Purchase, New York. She did this every morning save an occasional Saturday and Sunday when there was a church function or one of her friends or neighbors needed her assistance but, what with the snowstorm, she decided to check when the Hammonds hadn't answered their phone. Besides, Jemma thought, it was about time she pulled up the artificial tree from the basement and started decorating. The girls were coming for Christmas this year and that was only the day after tomorrow. The girls, Jemma thought. Grace and Melanie were women now with children of their own, but to her they would always be the girls.
Jemma knew the moment she stepped out of the cab that the Hammonds' house was too quiet. Two newspapers, wrapped in plastic, were jammed into the newspaper box. The blinds in the upstairs bedroom window were still drawn. The lamp did not glow from the living room on that pale gray day. At first, Jemma hoped it was the soporific hush that snowfall causes on a lazy Sunday morning and that the Hammonds were uncharacteristically sleeping. She turned her key in the door and flipped on the light in the vestibule. She called out their names and poked her head into the living room and saw it was, indeed, darkened and untouched.
Usually, Jemma found them sitting side by side in the living room, wearing dark, plaid flannel robes in winter and white-piped pastel cotton robes in summer. They would say good morning and make small talk about the weather. Remind her of a task that needed to be done that Jemma knew to do anyway after forty years. Jemma would roll up the blinds and open a window if the weather was temperate. She would place Mrs. Hammond's copper kettle on for tea and lay out her place setting at the dining table with a crystal bowl of sugar cubes, a china teacup, matching plate of wheat toast, and a small jar of marmalade with a tiny gold spoon. Lately, she put the newspaper's television guide next to Mrs. Hammond's place setting and circled the movies and quiz shows in red. She would right Mr. Hammond's TV tray in front of the television: a bowl of Wheatena, a glass of tomato juice, a cup of Sanka with saccharine that he shook from a small silver envelope. He ate in silence, watching the Dow-Jones trail monotonously at the bottom of the screen. There was no conversation at breakfast. Ultimately, Mrs. Hammond would take her place next to her husband on the sofa. They would watch the game shows and wait for lunch. Sometimes they played gin rummy or Scrabble. But Mr. Hammond had trouble with games lately. He had difficulty distinguishing the suits when he played gin rummy with his wife. He became confused with clubs and spades, hearts and diamonds. The shapes and the colors baffled him. Scrabble was even more daunting. There were too many words he couldn't remember. He stared at the jumbled letter tiles in the rack before him, pushing them about with his finger and shaking his head from side to side, stuck on the words.
When the girls were children, Jemma often carried Mrs. Hammond's breakfast to her room. "Your mama has a weak constitution," Jemma would explain as Grace and Melanie sat at the kitchen table eating their breakfast while their father hid behind the Herald Tribune drinking his Sanka. "She needs her sugar in the morning. Now you girls eat and I'll be right back to get you on that bus.
"It was easy for Grace and Melanie to believe Jemma. How could you not believe someone who wore shirtwaist dresses with gingham checks? Whose lips were polished with an amber gloss that looked like it might taste like apricot? Sometimes Jemma even painted her nails as well, a deep burgundy and, if the girls happened to be around when Jemma was doing what she called her beauty routine, she'd paint their nails as well. Jemma would sit the girls down at the kitchen table, their fingers dangling in bowls of soapy water. She'd push back their cuticles with an orange stick and file the tips into ovals. This is just like the salon, Jemma would say with the emphasis on salon's first syllable. And the girls would laugh and say that they felt fancy.
Once in a while their father would lower the paper that covered his face at breakfast and say something to his daughters. Something like, "How are you girls this morning?" or "Make sure you kiss your mother good-bye." He tried, at the very least, for the pretense of intimacy, of family. Awkwardly, but he tried. Though he was visibly uncomfortable in his own skin, unable to extend even the smallest offering of warmth as though it might scald him or, perhaps, scald those around him.
Jemma walked hesitantly up the stairs that early Sunday morning. She walked slowly, not with the surprisingly brisk pace with which her sixty-four-year-old legs usually carried her. She opened the Hammonds' bedroom door tentatively with a still-gloved hand and knew from the moment she saw them, side by side, motionless and emotionless, that they were gone. She let go a cry and ran back down the stairs. The heel of her boot snagged on a piece of loose carpet, causing her to trip, and she righted herself with the aid of the banister. Her hands trembled so rapidly she could barely dial Melanie's number (it never occurred to her to call the police) and still, not believing what she saw, Jemma told Melanie she was unable to awaken her parents.
Melanie and her husband drove the twenty minutes from where they lived, leaving their three-year-old twin boys in the care of a neighbor who, as Melanie always said, was like a grandmother to them. When Melanie and Mike arrived at the house that Sunday morning after Jemma called, they parked their car behind the old black Buick in the driveway. It was apparent that the car had not been used in days. The roof was covered with a crusty layer of snow; the windows were iced over. Jemma was standing just inside the open front door. The pewter chandelier in the entryway shone dimly. Several of the candle bulbs had burned out, making the old gold-colored grass cloth on the walls appear even dingier. Jemma's purple-and-red paisley scarf was tied under her chin, her dull red parka buttoned up to her neck. She clutched her pocketbook as though, at any moment, she was prepared to leave. Powdered snow had blown into the entrance hall and dusted the tops of her boots. As Melanie and Mike approached her, Jemma stepped outside onto the stoop.
"Jemma, you must be freezing, standing here with the door open like this," Melanie said, hugging her gently as if she might break.
"I don't want to go back inside. Maybe we shouldn't go inside," Jemma said, her eyes darting one way and then the other. "Maybe we should just let them sleep."
"It's okay, Jemma," Mike said, glancing nervously at his wife. "We're here now."
Melanie ushered Jemma back into the house and closed the heavy front door behind them. She started to call out hello and stopped, choking on the first syllable before the word could be completed. Despite Jemma's insistence that her parents were merely sleeping, Melanie knew there would be no answer. She knew when Jemma called that there would be no awakening. Melanie placed her coat over the banister, glanced at her father's old brown fedora hanging on the hook beside the mirror. She saw her mother's trench coat hanging next to her father's hat, her threadbare beige cashmere scarf tucked into the sleeve, the fringe dangling through the cuff. She turned the corner and stopped before the arched living room door. Jemma followed by Melanie's side, gripping Melanie's elbow tightly while Mike trailed a few steps behind them.
"Are they in their bedroom?" Melanie turned suddenly to Jemma, asking what she already knew.
"They are. I can't wake them," she repeated. Jemma's face appeared frozen. She appeared to mouth the words almost grotesquely, in slow motion, when she spoke.
Melanie looked at Jemma intently. She saw the coarse curls of gray that sprouted around her temples, the dark circles beneath her eyes that were prematurely rheumy with age. Melanie took Jemma's hands in hers and saw the darkened age spots and reddened thickening around her knuckles as Jemma's hands slowly closed upon her own in what she perceived as both a gesture of desperation and confidence. For a moment, Melanie pictured Jemma's fine-boned face as a young woman, her creamy mocha skin, her once jet-black hair sleeked into a bun at the nape of her neck. Her delicate fingers that nimbly threaded needles, sewed on buttons, hemmed skirts, braided hair.
"It's going to be okay, Jemma," Melanie said in a way that begged for Jemma's assurance, but Jemma only blinked back tears.
"Mel, maybe you and Jemma should wait in the car and let me . . .," Mike said, but Melanie clearly didn't hear him and he stopped speaking halfway through his sentence.
Melanie started up the stairs, stopped halfway, and came back down. She picked up the phone on the table by the stairwell.
"Melanie, who are you calling?" asked Jemma.
"The police," Melanie said.
"But, why?" Jemma almost pleaded. "Why should you --?"
Melanie interrupted her as the police answered. "We have a problem at Thirty-two Harvest Lane," she said. "Can you send a car?"
"What seems to be the problem?" the voice asked on the other end.
"I think my parents might be dead," said Melanie.
Jemma gasped, covering her mouth with her hand. "Melanie!" she cried. "Melanie! All I said was I couldn't wake them!"
"Jesus, Mel," Mike said. "Jesus. It's all right, Jemma." His arm was slung around Jemma's shoulder now, enveloping her.
"Their, um, housekeeper found them this morning," Melanie continued, raising her hand, wrist bent back, fingers spread tensely, to silence her husband and Jemma as she spoke. "She says she couldn't wake them up." And then, "No, I haven't seen them yet. Yes, the house is intact. No, my husband is with us. There is no evidence of a break-in. Yes, we'll wait outside."