Blydyn Square Review
Winter 2023 – Kenilworth, New Jersey
Winter 2023 – Kenilworth, New Jersey
All of us here at Blydyn Square Books hope 2023 has been treating you well so far.
We’ve got lots going on this year. Beyond celebrating the upcoming two-year anniversary of Blydyn Square Review, we’re putting the finishing touches on our self-paced writing course, which should be launching over the next couple of months. We’re also getting ready to launch an amazing charity walk challenge inspired by author James Brian Kerr’s book The Long Walk Home.
And we’re (finally) working on the first three titles in our upcoming line of books for kids and young adults. In fact, that’s where you, our loyal readers and writers of the Review, might be of assistance: We’re looking for an up-and-coming illustrator to create the drawings for one of our books, and we’ve decided to sponsor a contest to find just the right person.
It’s open to all, no experience required. We’ll share a portion of the text we’re hoping to have illustrated and contestants will submit their best artistic interpretation. The winner will receive a contract to illustrate the complete book and a cash prize. For more details, visit our website: http://blydynsquarebooks.org/event/illustration-contest/
So spread the word (or, if you’re an artist, give the contest a shot yourself!). Thanks for your support. Happy New Year—and happy reading!
Use the links below to jump to the different articles.
I’m the mother of two and an accountant by day. I use poetry as my creative outlet when I find the time. My other hobbies include reading and hiking. —Lisa Elways
We met and over time,
You became a dear friend of mine.
We shared inside jokes,
Deep secrets, and precious time.
Unbeknownst to me you held back,
Things I should have seen but couldn’t.
I was trying to teach you to trust,
Instead, you taught me why I shouldn’t.
Jennifer W. Boucher is a freelance writer who has been mistaken for a New York Times food critic on more than one occasion. Jennifer loves to cook and play tennis, and considers herself her own personal sommelier. She lives with her three children and their Boston bulldog in New Jersey, where she embraces the beautiful mess of it all. Follow her on Instagram @jboucher14 and linktr.ee/jwboucher14
Every time I used to go meet him it was in the same place: a quiet, upscale Italian restaurant right off of Park Avenue. Close enough to his hotel that he would never require a taxi and was always able to slip back to his room by 9:30. The owners and servers all knew him by name, yet gave him a wide, quiet berth. The table would be set just so, yet they would patiently stand by while he rearranged it to his liking. He would order the wine, a full-bodied chardonnay, either Far Niente or DuMOL. He was a self-made man who appreciated every luxury, yet also noticed things that other people didn’t. Any dish that wasn’t perfect would be returned with just a look, sometimes an exasperated sigh. Everything had to be the best.
There were rules, though. Dinner was always at 7:30 sharp and not a minute earlier. Wine could be poured at 7:00, but only if accompanied by a proper cheese plate that would need to include Havarti and brie. Mexican food was only for lunch. He would never accept the first table, and a table by a bus station or too close to other diners would be dismissed with a nearly imperceptible shake of his head. You would never sit first, as he would tell you where you were to be seated. Only then would he begin to relax, and we would start the process of getting to know each other again.
I always got dressed up for him. I wanted him to see me as the sophisticated and classy woman he thought I was, even if I was more comfortable in jeans. I loved making him laugh, and serious as he could be, our humor was quite similar. “Do you have a preference on wine tonight, sweetheart?” he would ask me. “I just can’t decide, I kind of love ‘dumol’,” I would immediately quip. I desperately wanted him to like me, to love me, and perhaps I tried too hard. When he didn’t show up more than once without a call or a reason, I was quick to reveal my anger and frustration, only to be swiftly reminded that he “doesn’t do guilt”. I started to build a protective shell around myself when I realized that maybe love was conditional after all. I hardened against exposing my heart to anyone, yet also realized that this is what I had learned to do my entire life.
We celebrated his birthday at the Four Seasons Pool Room. I carefully selected a black lace dress with dotted, Swiss cap sleeves. “You look beautiful,” he told me. And I basked in the rare warmth of his words. I toiled for weeks writing the perfect toast, knowing that of all the guests at the table, I held the advantage of longevity with him. He smiled at all the right parts and laughed when I teased him for his perfunctory ways. His eyes may have briefly misted over when I thanked him for his part in shaping me, for teaching me about elegance and the finer things in life. I thought that was what he wanted to hear.
We shared a deep and intense love of books. We felt like we read all of Harlan Coben together, though at different times in our lives. Sometimes he would call with a book recommendation, and that was all. I would hang up, disappointed that there was nothing more to say. I couldn’t help but wonder if his abrupt method of reaching out to me was a game or just a function of who he was and what he felt on a given day. Whatever the reason, it started to push me farther away.
One day he called me at work, during the start of a beautiful Memorial Day weekend. It had been quite some time since we had seen each other, and things were noticeably strained. I had grown moody and far less willing to acquiesce to his ways, to drop everything and run to our restaurant with only an hour’s notice. However, I still couldn’t prepare myself for what he called to tell me that day. He explained that there was another woman in his life and that she had asked him to choose between us. He chose her. He delivered this information as benignly as if he were reporting the weather. In all of our years together, I had never seen him walk back from a decision, so I was certain his words were final. I hung up, gathered my belongings, and ran outside to the cacophony of Seventeenth Street, crying hysterically. The gentle giant of a parking lot attendant at a nearby garage pulled up in someone’s Tahoe and immediately started serenading me with a Kelly Clarkson song at full blast, his version of a bear hug. “Here I am, once again, I’m torn into pieces…” In spite of my devastation, I started to laugh. I was stunned, shaken to my core, yet not entirely surprised. My shell hardened even more, and I vowed to never let another man hold the reins of my emotions.
Two years passed before I heard from him again, a call spotted with obligatory well wishes after I endured a tough shoulder surgery. I was sitting on the couch in my West Village apartment, hopped up on painkillers and dozing in and out to a Cameron Diaz movie I could never recall. His name looked unfamiliar and foreign on the screen of my phone. I wasn’t sure if it was the medication, a dream, or if he was really going to come back into my life. My aunt had stopped by to care for me, and gently coaxed the phone to my ear. “Here, just talk to him,” she said. With barbiturates on our side, we managed to have a mild and easy conversation. Of course, we were slow to warm, yet we always managed to warm.
Several more years passed, filled with awkward phone calls and missed opportunities, a jointly attended event here and there. We were cordial, polite. Always feeling each other out, but giving each other enough space, like strangers in an elevator. We never discussed our time apart, silently accepting that things would likely never be the same. But by then my shell had begun to soften. I had allowed myself to find and develop love elsewhere, and I didn’t feel the need to be afraid of the entire concept anymore. I had lived without him once, I could do it again. But I didn’t want to. The more I let my guard down, the more I understood who he was, that he was always nervous, too; that maybe it was him looking to impress me and not always the other way around.
I considered the restaurant we frequented over the years, and tried to understand the appeal. A no-name at best, with worn banquettes and blank-faced servers. A has-been trying to tread water in a consistently hot-to-trot city. It had since shuttered, which forced him to establish himself at a new place, a steakhouse just a few blocks in the other direction from the same hotel. I realized I was always so desperate for him to see me that I had actually lost sight of him. He needed comfort, routine, recognition. He gravitated toward the things he never had growing up on his own in Jersey City, and dropped anchor once he found them. I may have been the same person, but I was constantly growing and changing as a woman, and I was too hard to hold on to. I represented uncertainty more than creature comforts. The more I understood him, the more I loved him, and yet the less I felt the need for reciprocal love.
We finally reconnect one on one, after I have married and had children of my own. He’s awkward and uncomfortable in my house, on my grounds. I have promised him a home cooked meal: rack of lamb, potatoes au gratin, brussel sprouts with pancetta. Perhaps I am showing off a bit, but some things never change. He pushes to go out to dinner instead, where he can regain the control of the table, the atmosphere. My kids are seven, five, and two; surely, I’m unable to secure a babysitter at this late hour. I hope he understands, and that this time he stays. And he does.
I set the dining-room table with my wedding china. I pour the Far Niente that I had chilled all day, in hopes that it would be shared. My hands shake a bit as I carve the lamb, which comes out perfect. He fiddles with my place settings and ultimately takes my seat at the head of the table, which I find endearing. We slowly start to talk about the years that have passed. Where we went wrong, where we could have done better. We talk about our current relationships and what we wish could be different. We fall into our familiar banter and we laugh like our hearts were never broken over our respective behavior. Our humor is the same; it always has been and it always will be. Out of touch, yet somehow never out of sync. He holds my hand and reminds me that I am his soulmate, and that above all else, soulmates always find their way back to one another. I understand this now, in a way I was never able to before. After all, I am my father’s daughter.
Sean Patrick is a scientist and sonnet aficionado. Their work has appeared in Grand Little Things, Blue Unicorn, Lavender Lime Literary, Corporeal, Verum, and Boats Against the Current.
This brain’s no more than baggage:
a zippered case, a bit of gear;
inside a mess of memory’s packed,
its bulk amassing year on year
as item after item’s stacked:
some coffee-tarnished cotton cloth
whose glory days have come and went,
and there’s a tangle inside, too,
a bundle wrapped in leather belts
of sundries with a scent of you.
I hold tight to the things you left,
I lug them with me everywhere —
you left your own bag by the curb,
you vanished into empty air.
All that remained, a ticket stub,
the passage marked one-way.
I’ll join you there in time, I know,
but I carry you on with me today.
When my fare comes due, I’ll pay the price,
I’ll leave this bag of brains behind;
will I still know you when I depart?
Will the sight of you somehow remind
what’s left of my abandoned heart,
or must our luggage stand sole testament
to who we were before we went?
Maryanne Christiano-Mistretta is an international traditionally published author, award-winning journalist, and award-winning speaker. She’s a self-employed journalist, editor, blogger, ghostwriter, speaker, and non-union actress. Her website is: www.peartreeenterprises.com She resides in New Jersey, with her husband, Dennis, and their beloved cats. Aside from career, her interests include music, health, spirituality, and art.
That girl over there,
For death she ain’t ready,
Too young to see The Beatles,
But she saw Queen — with Freddie.
Of middle age, but still seems young,
Seems her life’s so full of fun.
Yet she hurts so hard, deep down inside,
So many dreams still unrealized.
You’re in a tough spot between life and death.
Far from youth, but elders shamelessly disrespect.
No matter what you’ve accomplished, what you did…
They still see you as a stupid kid.
Gets so far, gets pushed back some,
Don’t make it easy when friends die young.
Get back up and set to win,
Inspired by Tolle and Dispenza — again and again and again.
When Checca was 10 years old, she wrote, directed, and starred in her first play. While it wasn’t the smash hit she’d hoped, it kicked off her love of writing. By day she’s an analyst; by night (and early morning), a fiction and nonfiction writer. She is fueled by spicy food, Jane Austen, cooking shows, Diana Gabaldon, Rick and Morty, character-based plots, and books set in WWI. Follow her online: @FrankieSRivers — Twitter; @checcaaird — Instagram
I don’t get sick.
Not car-sick. Or sea-sick. And above all, and without exception, never ever, air-sick.
It’s a family of maladies reserved for the weakest amongst us. Those who, quite frankly, are only too eager to wear the transparent fabrication in a bid for attention.
A spoiled niece who “must” sit in the front seat, despite her short legs. An older brother who sprayed his porridge all down the backseat because the window was rolled up. I’ll never forget the look on Dad’s face as he dumped my brother’s clothes in a field off the hard-shoulder. Promoted to first-born in an instant.
So, how has it happened, with only fifteen minutes till touch-down, that my favorite tropical shirt has turned navy blue with sweat while my eyes are sealed shut in fear of another glimpse of my lunch?
My throat scorched from bile, the plastic smell of the old Waitrose bag my wife always packs, “just in case.” The taste of hot, foul humiliation.
I won’t do it. Matter and brawn under mind and brain. These are just teething pains. I’m out of practice since the pandemic, I tell the globule of sweat that races from between my ringing ears to my numb arse-cheeks.
The plane lurches, battered by fluffy clouds as if they are tidal waves. Our Cypriot Captain mumbles something snarky over the Tannoy about turbulence, but either he is speaking Greek or my ears have actually broken as all they can hear is a high trill that harmonizes with the engine’s whir like a tone-deaf choir boy.
Is this it? Am I one of them now? No longer able to read in the car or eat an ice-cream before a rollercoaster. No more sailing without those silly bands around my wrist and a silent prayer.
I’ve joined the tribe of lettuce intolerants and water junkies. At what point did everyone evolve into beached whales?
I hear the warbling sounds of my wife’s drinks order as she tries to make herself heard over the racket of the plane. I can’t make out what she wants, but I know it will be whatever the flight attendants haven’t stocked.
A cloud of gas erupts from between my clenched teeth, and terror shakes me as my breath no longer just tastes like the sour-cream-and-chive Pringles I munched while we waited for our gate number to be called. As my stomach folds and scrunches like a soiled sheet ready for the wash, my absent-minded snack is joined by the caramelized pork and fennel rice I ate for lunch. The two tastes fight on my breath, jealous sisters bickering over a new toy. Oblivious to how close it is to breaking.
I open my eyes long enough to catch a glimpse of my wife. She is surrounded by dancing stars as she pretends to read the in-flight menu, glazed-over eyes staring blankly at an overpriced cheese panini. Her freshly painted nails, island-blue—or was it blueberry smoothie—dig deep into the crinkles of her plastic bag. Maybe she unpacked it for herself. Maybe she’s also got a juddering seesaw in her gut and a striker’s favored foot kicking her behind the eyes. Probably not, but it’s something to hope for.
Just before I squeeze my eyes shut and continue the charade that I’m catching a few extra winks in preparation for landing, I catch a glimpse of Larnaca as it lounges along the Cypriot coastline. A holiday postcard framed by the streaked plane window. The window I demanded to be sat next to as my wife always sleeps half the flight anyways. Real ‘husband of the year” material. If I get through this unscathed, I swear I’ll be a better partner, a better man.
The cabin rumbles as if it’s missed a meal and my seat tilts forward: We are landing!
The oval canvas of sea and sky contorts into one of red earth and tarmac. Ugly rectangle buildings appear to my left, and the runway is so close, I could probably tuck and roll out of the emergency exit right now and only suffer a few bruises. Maybe a friction burn or two on the legs. Much more manly than the pale-green scales that cover my skin. The wings begin to unfold and the plane spasms as the landing gear is lowered. Just a few more moments ’til my stomach knows which way is down and equilibrium is restored.
I can feel the runway beneath the wheels as if it’s a river under my feet. Suddenly, the plane falters, tottering like an unseasoned funambulist. All at once it lurches upwards, away from safety and back into the sky.
“Sorry, ladies and gentlemen,” a voice booms from the Tannoy. “We’re unable to land due to an unforeseen flight request. We are going to make our way around and try again.”
“Try again?” I shout, ready to rouse the full weight of my British indignation. Instead, all my fierce righteousness manages to rouse is my stomach, and I find myself face first inside the dreaded Waitrose bag.
Thirty minutes and what feels like half my body weight in semi-digested food later, I stand behind my wife in the queue for passport control. My tropical-print shirt has been disposed of and I now wear the light summer jacket my wife was smart enough to pack in my carry-on. Having uttered nothing but soothing sounds since we landed, she looks at me now, eyes bubbling over with a joke freshly popped, and says:
“And you say cabin crews don’t take requests.”
Laurie Meyer has been writing poems and letters since childhood and she typically marks special occasions with a tribute. Upon retirement, Laurie joined a writing group to explore her creative aptitude. She believes in the power of putting words to the universe and wants her words to be unifying and inspiring. “Words Matter” is her first-ever published piece. Laurie lives in Edison, NJ, with her husband, Tom, and their Maltese, Ozzie. She has two grown children, Brittany and Chris, who have provided inspiration for much of her writing. Laurie is currently working on a children’s book.
I believe that words and tone matter,
and what I speak out comes back,
And it takes some careful reflection
on what it is that I want to attract.
If I want to entice civility,
I speak with words that are kind,
If I want to encourage honesty,
I speak with a truthful mind.
If I want to exhibit compassion,
I speak in a tone that’s humane,
I use words that are empathetic
to one’s suffering and pain.
If I want to foster unity,
I speak with a tone that’s embracing,
I make us all the solution
to the problems we are facing.
I want my words to inspire
I want my words to console,
I want my words, in some small way,
to make this country whole.
I want to respect all our differences
and highlight ways we’re the same,
I want to show love for this great country
to which we all lay claim.
I want my words to promote integrity
and my tone to spell sincere,
I want my words to motivate
and not embellish fear.
I want my words to have decorum
because I think that manners matter,
I want my words to be eloquent
and not provocative chatter.
I want my words to illustrate how
it is that words do matter.
Before pursuing a career in higher education, James J. Kimble held jobs ranging from frozen vegetable packing to assembling bicycles to teaching debate skills in Kansas. As Professor of Communication and the Arts at Seton Hall University, he is now a propaganda historian, documentarian, journal editor, exhibition curator, and Fulbright scholar. Visitors are always welcome at his personal website: jamesjkimble.com
The cashier smiles as she tells us that our ticket stubs
Are printed on recycled paper. I turn mine over and,
Sure enough, it was once a foreclosure letter.
Its typed words are impersonal: Seizure. Vacate. Removal.
Your stub is printed on the back of a funeral service program.
Stephen’s last name is cut off,
But his dates of birth and death are still on the page.
He was 13.
The whole city is buzzing about the new exhibit.
I can see why. It’s an old submarine,
A hulking presence in the cavernous chamber.
It is chilly to the touch, the naked steel a testament:
This is real.
People suffered and died behind these rivets,
Thinking of their loves and of their hatreds
And of their faults.
The display lovingly narrates the details —
A pointless war, a reckless maneuver, a careless mistake.
Then a sudden flash, and a swift descent into a watery grave,
With fifteen men still conscious, understanding their fate.
A cheerful placard notes that
The last one alive wrote a note to his mother on a bulkhead.
He wrote it in oil, and then in blood.
He asked for forgiveness.
We’ve seen most of the permanent exhibits before,
But we decide to go on anyway.
You’ve always been compelled to visit the Hall of Suicides,
And the Before the Vaccine display makes me emotional every time.
We pause before a diorama of a hunter
Cutting off his own foot to escape a bear trap.
Fun fact: He went on to found this very museum
Before dying of an unknown blood infection.
On the way out, we stop in the gift shop.
Amid the toy guillotines and the Donner Party tees,
There is a guest book with a red pen.
It invites our verdict, and you decide to reply.
How moving, you write, and how horrible.
This place always makes me aware of the
Suffering around us.
I’m glad that we were here to witness it.
Your task done, you catch my eye.
We move toward the exit, free once more
To dream and to live.
On the street again, the conversation turns to dinner.
We march with purpose
To the tune of the neighborhood beggars,
Shaking coins in their souvenir cups
Toward those who cannot see.
Dagny Randall is an editor and freelance writer, who splits her time between Pennsylvania and New Jersey. This is her first novel.
While Suzy wailed in the kitchen, opening and closing cabinets, obviously looking for some booze to drink, Mom told me the limited details of what she knew about Suzy and the dreaded bridge. Part of me had the terrible thought that we all might have been better off had she just jumped. Sure, I had a little flash of guilt—but just a little one.
“So what do we do?” I whispered. “We’ve got to get her down there for that interview or she’ll be with us the rest of our lives.”
Mom smirked. “At least you’re getting married. Eventually you’ll be living someplace else.”
Suzy burst back into the room, toting a rocks glass and a slushing bottle of some brown liquor. She sat down on the floor, put the glass on the coffee table, and poured herself a huge drink. As she raised it to her lips for the first sip, her body visibly relaxed. All I could think was: Alcoholic much?
We sat there in silence for a minute before Mom said, “Suzy? Seriously. Tell us. How did you get up here without going over the bridge?”
Suzy shot my mother a look, then threw back her glass and drained every last drop, then slammed the glass down on the table and threw her hands up in the air.
“Oh, I came over the bridge.”
Mom and I looked at each other, then looked back at Suzy and waited. It took a while, but she finally said, “Did you know that you can pull over at the base of the bridge and ask the people in the little house there to drive you over?”
I wrinkled my nose. “What little house?”
My mother turned to me and said, “I think she means the maintenance headquarters building. I’ve heard about this—they have people on staff who drive anybody who has a fear of bridges over and let them out on the other side.”
Suzy poured herself another whopper of a drink and lifted the glass as if making a toast. “Here’s to Mack the maintenance guy!”
She sucked down a long swig and let out an “Ahh!” Then she put down her glass and reached for the bottle again. Before she could pour yet another shot, I grabbed the neck of the bottle and tore it out of her hand. I held it, as if for ransom, on my lap and said, “Well, if Mack could drive you once, he can drive you again. You are going to that interview tomorrow.”
Suzy dropped her glass on the table with a crash and began wailing again, covering her face with her hands. Mom picked up the glass and swiped at the little puddle of spilled liquor with her finger. After a while, Mom said softly, “What if we go with you?”
Suzy stopped crying with one last sharp shudder and uncovered her face to look at Mom. “Really?”
Mom glanced at me but looked back at Suzy before she could see me roll my eyes. “Sure, we can take the day off work, drive you down there, and then we can have a nice lunch out to celebrate your new job.”
Mom peered at me, apology all over her face. “Okay?” she asked.
I sighed. “Yeah, okay.”
I stayed out of Suzy’s way for the rest of the night, hiding in my room with a book and wishing her out of my life. Mom came in sometime after it got dark, probably around the time I should have come down for dinner if I hadn’t chosen hunger pangs over Suzy frustration.
“What now?” I asked.
“I know it’s an imposition,” she said.
“That’s an understatement.”
“I know. So, while we’re at it, can I ask for another favor?”
I smirked. “Yes, you can shoot me, I don’t mind.”
“Nothing that severe. I was just wondering if Suzy could borrow something to wear for tomorrow. I don’t think showing up in those ratty sweats she’s worn every day since she got here is going to make a great first impression.”
I shook my head and let out an airy laugh. “Why don’t you just give her my credit cards and let her go on a shopping spree?”
“Come on, Madison. The nicer she looks, the sooner she’s out of here.”
I sat for a moment and thought about it. “Then by all means, borrow away.”
Mom slid open my closet and started thumbing through the hangers. Over her shoulder she asked, “Don’t you have a black pantsuit? You know, that one with the pinstripes?”
I sat up and put down my book. “Are you sure pinstripes are the way to go? They tend to be slimming, and if Suzy gets any slimmer, she’ll blow away on the wind. Don’t we want it to look like she’s capable of lifting something at least as heavy as, say, a paper towel?”
“Good point. How about this red suit?”
“Fine. But she’s not wearing my underwear.”
“Thanks, Maddie. You’re being very good about all this.”
“Hey, that’s me. Always a good girl.”
The next morning, when I came downstairs, Suzy was already dressed and analyzing her teeth in the reflection produced by the side of the stainless-steel toaster.
“Looking good,” I said.
She turned around, ran her hands over the fabric of my red suit, and sneered. “What is this, polyester?”
I huffed and walked back out of the room. Mom almost ran into me on her way out of the bathroom.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
“Now the bitch is actually complaining about the fabric of my clothes.”
“I know, I know, she can be trying. But let’s give her the benefit of the doubt today. She’s got to be nervous.”
I shook my head. “I’ve had my share of job interviews and I’ve never once attacked someone for helping me get ready. Face it, Mom. She’s a real bitch.”
Mom frowned. “Okay, okay. Let’s just try to get through this.”
We got into the car around eleven-fifteen, leaving plenty of time to spare so we would be sure not to be late. Between Suzy fighting me for the privilege of riding in the front seat and then her constant driving instructions as Mom chose the route we would follow, we knew it could be slow going, especially when we got to The Bridge.
Suzy started trembling a few miles before the (not even very big) bridge even began to rise up in the distance. From the back seat (I lost the rock-paper-scissors match Mom forced Suzy and me to play), I pulled out a black satin sleep mask and hurled it into Suzy’s lap.
“Put this on. Now,” I said.
Suzy turned the mask over in her hands. “I’m not going to wear this. It’ll ruin my eye makeup.”
“So will sobbing. Just put it on.”
She turned to my mother, holding the mask up as if it were evidence in a murder case. Mom nodded. “I think it’s a good idea.”
Suzy sighed and pulled the elastic loosely over her head, pressing the mask into place. “This is ridiculous.”
I wanted to mutter, So is making two people accompany you to a job interview, but I clamped my mouth shut and stared out the window. We were approaching the bridge now, and I was morbidly curious as to where Suzy had been when she tried to jump. As we sped over the span, I trained my eyes on the concrete sides on the opposite side of the bridge, knowing she would have been traveling on the northbound lanes of the highway that fateful day. Other than a few places with graffiti declaring eternal love for someone named Tashawna and a couple of crumbly looking holes in the concrete, I could see nothing that spoke of suicide. The bridge looked exactly like it always had all the times I had driven over it on trips to and from the shore. For a second, I wondered if Suzy had made the whole suicide attempt up. It would be just like her, trying to add some false drama to the pathetic story of her life.
Mom waited until we were safely past the bridge by at least a mile before she informed Suzy that it was okay to take off the sleep mask. Suzy tore the thing off her face and immediately swung around in her seat to stare back at the pale hump of the bridge as it faded into the distance behind us. I heard a shudder break up her intake of breath, and then she closed her eyes and sank back down into her seat. She didn’t say a word until we had arrived at our destination and Mom had switched off the ignition.
“I guess this is the place,” Mom said.
“Maryanne is supposed to meet us,” I said. “So let’s just sit tight and wait for her. We’re a little early.”
I looked at my watch. We had almost half an hour before Maryanne was supposed to show up. I glanced at the house where the old man lived and wondered if he was peering out from behind the blinds, wondering who the hell we were—burglars? Jehovah’s Witnesses?
“Maybe we should go get a cup of coffee or something,” I suggested.
We were saved by the sound of a clunky engine from behind us. An ancient Toyota pulled up to the curb and a petite black woman stepped out with a chic, curly bob and a tan suit (which, unlike my red suit, did appear to be polyester). She leaned over to squint into the rear windshield of our car. I waved and slid out the back door.
“Are you Maryanne?”
She smiled and offered her hand. “I am. And you must be Madison?”
I nodded. “Thanks so much for meeting us.”
I glanced back and saw that Mom was getting out of the car, but Suzy was sitting as still as a stone, facing stiffly forward as if whatever was going on behind her was decidedly uninteresting.
“I’m glad you came along,” Maryanne said. “I was hoping to get to meet you in person. I’ve never had a family member so devoted to helping out with someone’s case.”
I suppressed the urge to roll my eyes. “That’s me,” I said. “Very caring.”
Mom had reached us by now and she shook Maryanne’s hand. “I’m Wendy, Madison’s mom and Suzy’s cousin.”
“Great to meet you. Now, where is the woman of the hour?”
I looked back at Mom’s car. Suzy hadn’t budged an inch. I was torn over whether to scream at her or storm over and drag her out of the car by her ears. Fortunately for her, she suddenly popped out of the car and strolled over to us.
“You must be Suzanne,” Maryanne said, offering her hand, which Suzy pointedly did not take, instead wrapping her arms around herself as if she were cold. Maryanne flashed me a look, then shrugged. “Why don’t we go on in?”
“We’ll wait here,” I said, moving toward our car.
“Actually, I think Mr. DeLamiter will be interested in meeting all of you,” Maryanne said.
“Why?” I asked, screwing up my face before I could stop myself.
“He’s very family-oriented,” Maryanne said. “It’ll be good to give him a sense of where Suzanne is coming from, that sort of thing.”
Mom and I looked at each other and shrugged. “If you say so,” I said.
We all trudged up the walk and Maryanne rang the doorbell before opening the front door herself. The thought flashed through my mind that she was being unbelievably forward, but then I caught my first glimpse of Mr. DeLamiter and realized she had no choice but to let us in herself. The old man was not just sick; he was confined to a wheelchair.
Mom leaned over and hissed in my ear, “I thought you said Maryanne said he wasn’t handicapped.”
I shot an imploring look at Maryanne, but she just smiled then looked over at the man.
“Miss Crandall!” His voice was robust—a stark contrast to his thin frame and the spotted skin that hung off his face in huge floppy folds. To my surprise, he stood up under his own steam and embraced Maryanne warmly.
After they had hugged for a moment, she stepped back, holding him by the shoulders, and said, “I see you’re in a good mood today.”
He cast a broad smile across the room, letting it fall on each of us in turn. “Why shouldn’t I be? Today I get to meet my new family.”
This poor guy, I thought. He is so screwed.
“Now,” he said. “Which of you is Suzanne?”
Suzy had a strange look on her face and she wasn’t making a move to identify herself. I elbowed her in the ribs, which made her jump and let out a screech of phony pain. She turned to me and shouted, “What the hell are you doing?”
I felt myself blush, and tried to cover by smiling at the old man, who was beaming at us. “Sorry,” I said. “Mr. DeLamiter, this is Suzy. I’m Madison, and this is my mom, Wendy. Suzy is our cousin.”
He strode forward on sturdy legs that belied whatever illness seemed to be keeping him housebound and in (occasional) need of a wheelchair. He grasped Suzy by the shoulders, then leaned forward to plant a kiss on each of her cheeks, as if he were European.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Suzanne. I’m Richard DeLamiter, but you can call me Rich or Pop or whatever strikes your fancy.”
Suzy was staring down at her feet, acting even less sociable than usual. “I think ‘Mr. DeLamiter’ will do just fine.”
He grinned. “For now, for now, maybe. But I suspect you’ll soon think of me as your very own grampa.”
“Not likely,” Suzy muttered, forcing me to elbow her again. Luckily, DeLamiter seemed to be hard of hearing and just kept smiling and waving us all into the living room.
“Let’s sit down,” he said, sliding back into the wheelchair and pushing himself over beside the coffee table, where he had laid out a beautiful silver tea set and several plates of pastries.
I got behind Suzy and gave her a push. She stutter-stepped to the couch and sank down, looking glum as she eyed the pastries. I took a seat beside her, where I could monitor her behavior at close hand. Mom sat on her other side, and Maryanne sat down in an armchair near Mr. DeLamiter.
As the old man poured out a cup of tea for each of us, he said, “So, Suzanne, why don’t you tell me a little about yourself?”
“What’s to tell?” she said dully. “I need a job and you have one to give. Enough said.”
He looked up and smiled at her. Man, was this guy patient! “I really hope you’ll come to see this as something more than a job, my dear. I think we’ll quickly become as close as family.”
Suzy didn’t say anything. She just leaned over to grab one of the teacups and took a mighty slurp. We all sat in astonished silence—except for Mr. DeLamiter, whose face split into an amiable grin. “It sounds like you’re a woman who enjoys a cup of tea, my dear.”
“I’d rather have an Irish coffee, if you know what I mean.”
I thought I would die. It had never occurred to me that Suzy would be this rude in front of a total stranger, especially one she was supposed to be trying to impress.
Rather than looking shocked, DeLamiter clapped his hands together and leapt out of his wheelchair. “A woman after my own heart,” he said with a mischievous twinkle in his watery blue eyes. “I’ll be right back.”
Maryanne caught my eye and raised her palms as if to ask me silently what the hell was going on. I just shrugged and let my body fall back against the couch, exhausted under the strain of trying to manage Suzy and her outrageous behavior.
DeLamiter returned with a small, dusty bottle in his hand. With a flourish, he popped the top and poured a generous splash into Suzy’s cup and his own. He held up the bottle to the rest of us. “Anyone else?”
My mother shook her head. “Thank you, no. I’m driving.”
Maryanne was still too dumbfounded to say anything, so DeLamiter moved on to me.
“Damn straight,” I said, thrusting my cup toward him. “Fill ’er up.”
DeLamiter let a long pour of the brown liquor slurp into my cup before setting the bottle down and returning to his seat. He raised his cup and said, “To the start of a long and happy friendship.”
Suzy didn’t pause to clink her cup against his before lifting the rim to her lips and draining the liquid in a single gulp. She dropped the cup back down onto the table. “So, do I get the job?”
DeLamiter smiled. “Absolutely. When would you like to move in?”
Mom and I looked at each other and smiled, glowing with triumph. We had finally found a way to get rid of Suzy.
Twenty-five years ago
The man on the bridge had done more than just save her life. He had made her hungry to live again.
His name was Garrett Randolph, and he worked at the local Bloomingdale’s as some kind of executive. It was a glamorous job—especially when Suzy compared his life to her own—and he was more sophisticated and worldly than anyone she had ever met. From the moment she first laid eyes on him, she wanted to change her career (or lack thereof), her apartment, herself, whatever it took, just to be worthy of him.
That first afternoon, after he saved her from death on the bridge, he had taken her back to his home—a sprawling estate in Colts Neck where he lived alone in a massive and very quiet Tudor. He brought her into the kitchen and got her settled in a bright, cheerful breakfast nook, where he fed her berries and wine and regaled her with tales of his travels around the world, shopping for new merchandise for the store. He talked so simply, as if what he did for a living was nothing special, and the matter-of-factness of his attitude made her ache for a life like his, where everything was exciting and rich and fun. As she stared into his icy blue eyes, she saw an honesty there and she knew he would be the one to change her life forever.
When he took her home that night, they both knew that the woman who got out of his car and went up the steps to the garage apartment was lying on her deathbed. By the light of the next morning, Suzy would be a whole new person.
Fueled by the picture of Garrett’s face, smiling in the recesses of her mind, Suzy worked through the night, turning the trash heap of her apartment into a spotless and serviceable, if not particularly lavish, place to live. Three times during the night, she had to run out to the all-night grocery store to pick up more heavy-duty trash bags. In the morning, she dumped ninety-eight bags of garbage at the curb, and when she was done, she sat panting yet smiling on the edge of the freshly polished coffee table.
Once the apartment was clean, she set to work on herself. Popping open a bottle of shampoo that was sealed tight by age and lack of use, she washed her hair five times beneath water so hot it turned her skin blood red. Then she rubbed her body with scented soap and slid an ancient razor over the hair on her legs, which had grown so long, it could not accurately be called “stubble.” The dull, almost rusty blade cut her, but the sting of the hot water on her skin made her feel alive, and she continued to roll the razor across her body, up over her thighs, through the jungles in her armpits. When she was done, the floor of the shower was littered with bristly black hairs swimming in circles around the drain. She grinned as she let the water run over her, rinsing away the last traces of soap. Toweling dry, she breathed deep, fascinated at the sensation of cleanliness, which felt like something she had never experienced before. She stared at her reflection in the mirror and there, beneath the puffy layers of fat that had built up over the past several years, she saw, for the first time since she left Roman, the woman she used to be.
Before her hair had even had time to dry, she pulled on a billowy sundress—one of the few things in her closet that was likely to fit, despite her increased girth in recent years—and climbed in her car. She stopped at the local stationery store and spent a small fortune on notebooks and pens. Cradling her purchases to her bosom like a beloved child, she giggled. She was suddenly, powerfully, alive, and in her arms she held the seeds that would grow into her future.
She drove home, and as she pulled into the driveway, she noticed her parents standing at the base of the steps to the garage apartment, staring in bewilderment at the mountain of garbage bags piled up on top of and around the two overwhelmed trash cans.
“Suzy,” her mother said, hesitant. “Is everything all right?”
Suzy couldn’t help but laugh as she swept her mother up into her arms, not minding that the new notebooks were being crunched between their bodies. “Mommy, everything is just perfect.”
Without another word, she ascended the steps to her apartment and by the light of the chandelier over the kitchen table she began to write, quickly and feverishly, feeling as if she were finally being reunited with a lover after a war or illness or some other kind of long separation. The smoothness of the paper beneath her fingers was more sensual than the touch of any man. She wrote until her hand cramped, and even then, she kept up her ritual, scrawling almost illegibly with her left hand when her right could no longer function. The pain was glorious. She thought she would never stop, unless sleep overtook her when she least expected it.
And it did. She hadn’t realized that she had fallen asleep until the ringing of the phone startled her awake the next morning, when the sun was shining brightly—too brightly for it to be as early as she thought it was—through the window.
Still groggy, with the acrid taste of sleep in her mouth, she picked up the phone and said hello. The voice that greeted her from the other end of the line felt like honey in her ear—and she didn’t even care that the simile was cliché.
“Good afternoon, my dear,” Garrett said.
She rubbed her fingers over her eyelids, squinting at the clock on the wall. “Is it afternoon already?”
Garrett laughed. “It’s been afternoon for close to three hours, sweet thing. What have you been doing?”
She smiled. “I’ve been writing.”
“Ah, I knew from the first glance that you were an artist.”
“I don’t know if I’d qualify as an artist, but I’ve always loved to write.”
“And when will I be permitted to read your latest masterpiece?”
She bit her lip, twisting the phone cord around her finger and watching as the tip of the finger turned a deep purple.
“Is something wrong, Suzanne?”
“No, not exactly. It’s just . . . no one has ever asked to read something I’ve written before.”
“Well,” he said. “Then I’m honored to be the first.”
That night, he took her to dinner at a hip, dimly lit wine bar somewhere in Manhattan—she was too enraptured with him to pay much attention to the address. Across the table, she watched in agonized anticipation as he pored through the pages of poetry she had deemed the best of her work, old and new.
He took his time, holding each page of writing up to the candle on the table and reading slowly, moving his lips as if savoring the weight of her words. He said nothing until he had finished the last page and placed it neatly at the top of the stack. Then he reached over, grasped her hand, and brought her fingers to his lips.
“This,” he said, “is the hand of a true poet.”
As she beamed at him across the table, it struck her that she had been wrong back there on the bridge—he didn’t really look anything like Roman. And that was good. Where Roman had had shaggy, wild black hair that he was forever brushing out of his mossy green eyes, Garrett kept his hair longish but neat, somehow perfectly arranged in linear angles over his pale blue eyes. As soon as she noted these physical differences, she felt a sea change happen in the depths of her gut, in the warm and tingly place from which physical attraction stems. She surrendered to it, and by the time their first dinner was over, she was firmly convinced that Garret, with his pale, almost translucent, white skin and his eyes that flickered between fire and ice, was and always would be her “type.”
Over the next few months, he showed her things she had never known existed—tiny art galleries tucked inside dungeon-like alleys and coffeehouses where the air was thick with smoke and genius. She accompanied him on business trips, to the Caribbean, Mexico, and even to Europe, where she saw the sights of Florence and Paris, as she had always dreamed of doing, had she been able to afford the price of the air fare. And through it all, he held her at a respectful distance, always renting separate rooms for each of them. She had never imagined there were still men out there who believed a good relationship was too special to rush.
Huddled beside him in a Venetian gondola, reading a book of Yeats under a flashlight, Suzy looked into his eyes and saw her future twinkling there. She knew with all that she was that Garrett would be her next husband, or rather, the only husband who would ever count. In that moment, she let Roman go, without so much as a twinge of nostalgia. Her destiny lay here, in the arms of Garrett Randolph.
With Garrett, she was finally the woman she had always wanted to be. She wrote with passion and energy, leaping out of bed at the first rosy hint of dawn, eager to see what the day had in store for her. Never before had she seen life like this—so full of possibility—every day packed with the fullness of potential.
Her writing took on a new brightness, a gaiety that she had never injected into her poetry—not even during her childhood, before the weight of responsibility and sadness had settled over her. Garrett made her more than happy; he made her see herself as an artist, as a writer, and as someone worthy of being a part of his world.
For the first time in her life, when she read over her work, she bounced instead of cringing, smiled instead of crying. She understood, of course, that it wasn’t yet good poetry—but gradually it was turning from purple into something like a shade of pink.
Up from the mist that hung like cotton candy
over the blue meadow where we once made love
there rose a fairy
or a leprechaun
or perhaps it was a beaming Buddha.
I fell to my knees in the dewy field of daisies
and I covered my face in shame.
I heard your voice like an echo,
like the cheerful clink of crystal,
and I wondered where you were.
with its smile like the Cheshire Cat
reached down to stroke my hair
“He waits for you by the birch in the lane,
with his heart in his hand
and your name on his lips.
Go now, and meet your destiny.”
I watched the Buddha fade away,
split into a million rainbows,
reflected, refracted, in the brilliance
of the light bouncing off the surface of the diamond
you gave me the last time we met.
On winged heels, I tore through the brush,
refusing the distraction of the Buddha and his golden apple.
I found you standing there
beneath the crisp yellow leaves
of the flaky white birch,
with your heart in your hands
and my name on your lips
and a vision of our future.
Even her parents loved Garrett. And after Roman, Suzy could hardly believe how lucky she was. People in love always said their lovers were angels dropped from heaven, but in Garrett’s case, it seemed almost literally to be true. He had appeared as if from nowhere when she was most desperate to be saved. She spent her days tingling with the electricity of true love and the satisfaction of doing work she loved—hardly caring that no one but Garrett ever read her poems and she was still, when it came down to it, unemployed by any social standards. The only nagging fear the ate away at her perfect happiness was the cold ball of worry that someday, somehow, Garrett would be wrenched out of her life. She knew it was unlikely; their love was more real than anything she had had with Roman. She couldn’t imagine Garrett leaving of his own volition. But there was always the icy hand of death waiting off stage to steal the one thing that made her happy—after the day on the bridge, she knew that all too well. She watched Garrett’s every move. It tortured her when she saw him eat something unhealthy or if he drove even a little bit too fast. She was on constant guard against the little accidents that might snap her happiness in two if given the opportunity. She was prepared for any tragedy—except the one she never even considered.
It happened some six months after the fateful day on the bridge. Winter was making its gradual return. The nights were black and crisp, and Garrett loved to load his fireplace with fragrant pine logs and lie back on the lush red carpet, sipping brandy and perusing Suzy’s latest poetic offerings. She would lie on her back with a velvet throw pillow clutched over her chest, close her eyes, and listen as Garrett read aloud her words in his rich, syrupy voice.
“Did anyone ever tell you that you should be doing radio advertisements instead of buying ties in bulk for Bloomingdale’s?” she said with a smile.
Lowering his voice a notch so it touched a part of her spine that made her quiver, he said, “Every day, my sweet. Every day.”
She sighed. The crackling fire, the wavy light bouncing off the dark-paneled walls, the amazing man at her side: There had never been a more perfect moment than this. She rolled over to face Garrett and held his hand between both of hers.
“Garrett,” she said softly, suddenly feeling too shy to look into the flashing light in his eyes.
He kissed her palms. “Yes, my sweet?”
She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Why don’t we get married?”
As the words left her lips, she suppressed the pang of regret that sprang up at the sound of a sentence so similar to the one she had said all those years before to Roman. She squeezed her eyes closed, forcing the image of Roman away from her thoughts, trying to remember that this was not Roman, this was Garrett, and there was a world of difference between the two men.
She had no idea how right she was.
A long moment passed, and when Garrett made no response, she opened her eyes and peered at him through the firelight.
“What’s wrong?” she asked. “Did I scare you? I didn’t mean anything… We don’t have to…”
Garrett gently pulled his hand back, letting it fall into the shadows between his knees. Alarmed, Suzy jerked herself up to sit facing him with her legs crossed, and stared at his eyes, which he kept averted.
“Garrett, you’re scaring me. Please. Tell me what’s wrong.”
He shook his head, staring blankly at the empty space on the carpet between them.
She seized his wrists. “Tell me,” she said. A flash of understanding jolted through her spine. “My God, are you married?”
His lips twisted into the semblance of a smile and he raised his eyes to meet hers, but only for an instant. “No, no. Nothing like that.”
His brief smile reassured her and she leaned over to press her lips to his knuckles. “Then what?”
He let out a long sigh, then dragged his eyes up from the floor and met her gaze. “Suzanne, I thought you knew. I’m gay.”
The words hit her eardrums and reverberated over and over until the echo was so loud, she couldn’t bear the original sound anymore. She clamped her hands over her ears.
“No, no, no,” she said, her voice a frantic, high-pitched monotone. “This can’t be happening.”
She jumped to her feet and slapped on the overhead lights. In the glare of the chandelier, a ghostly shadow fell over Garrett’s face. He suddenly looked like two men in one, and she realized that was exactly what he was.
He looked down at the floor. “I’m sorry, my sweet. I never realized you didn’t know.”
“What in the name of God are you talking about? How was I supposed to know? We’ve spent virtually every waking moment together for six months. We’ve been all over the world. We’ve cuddled under the covers. How can you be gay?”
“We never made love,” he whispered.
She turned and began to pace, her bare feet making swishing sounds in the deep pile of the carpet. “I thought you were a gentleman. I thought we were waiting for just the right moment. I thought—I thought we were waiting until we got married.”
“I’m sorry, Suzanne. I’m so very sorry.”
She spun to glare at him, huddled in a ball on the floor. “You’re sorry? Is that all you have to say to me? My God, it was all a lie!”
He turned his face up to look at her, and there were tears streaking his cheeks. “It wasn’t a lie. I do love you, Suzanne. I love you very much. But—I can’t—I just can’t be with you that way.”
She couldn’t catch her breath. She was panting now, like an animal, and she couldn’t make herself stop. She turned away from him and ran for the door.
He leapt up to follow, pressing the door closed with his palm so she couldn’t leave.
“Don’t go,” he said. “We can still be together. You’re the best friend I’ve ever had.”
She laughed, a hysterical whinny that hurt her own ears. “Friends? I don’t want to be your friend. I don’t ever want to see you again.”
“Suzanne, please . . .”
She pushed his hand away and tore open the door, fleeing barefoot into the black ink of the night.
Just like that, she was gone. It didn’t take us long to forget what it had been like to have her with us. By the end of the first week without Suzy, we were smiling almost naturally, lingering over coffee in the morning like we used to do before her presence forced us to rush out into the world harried and unfulfilled. Best of all, we were sleeping soundly without the worry that one of her middle-of-the-night “emergencies” (like running out of cigarettes) would drag us out of bed.
I was able to start spending more time at Scott’s, since Mom no longer needed me home as a buffer. In this new climate of relaxation and hope for the future, Scott and I set a wedding date, giving ourselves only three months to get everything organized. I guess I was still just a tad paranoid: I had always told myself that I would have a short engagement, so as not to give the guy too much time to reconsider. We officially declared February first our wedding day, and I begged my mother not to let Suzy know. She had completely taken over my engagement; she was not going to commandeer my wedding, too.
We should have known it was too good to last. Once Suzy had infiltrated our lives, we should have realized we would never truly be free of her again. The woman was like a virus—once inside, she lay dormant, waiting to reemerge when the time was ripe to do the most damage. So it shouldn’t have surprised us when we got the call, not even a month after she had left to live with Mr. DeLamiter, that she needed to come back to stay with us.
Mom was the one who answered the call on her cell phone. I knew immediately by the way her cheeks drained pale that it was Suzy on the other end. Mom caught my eye and frantically groped for the speakerphone button so we could both deal with whatever this latest crisis might be. Suzy was in hysterics, barely able to catch her breath. Of course, I knew, it was almost certainly just an act.
“Okay, okay,” Mom said. “You’ve got to slow down and just tell me what’s wrong.”
Before I could stop myself, I cried, “Good Christ, she killed him!”
“Madison!” Mom yelled.
“Madison? Are you there?” Suzy whimpered. “I need you to come and get me.”
“Oh, fuck,” I muttered.
Mom was the one who shushed us and got us both to be quiet for long enough for everyone to understand exactly what was going on. “Okay,” Mom said. “Now you’ve got to tell us. Who’s dead? Mr. DeLamiter?”
I heard Mom take a deep breath, and I envied her self-composure. I would never be that cool under pressure. “All right. What happened?”
Suzy burst out sobbing again. “I don’t know. I just woke up this morning and when I came out to help with his breakfast, he was lying there, right on the floor, dead.”
Mom’s voice was so slow and patient, it was as if she were talking to a two-year-old. “All right. Now, are you sure he’s dead? You checked for a pulse?”
“No way! I’m not touching that dead body!”
I had to burst in. “How do you know he’s dead if you won’t touch him, you moron? He could just be passed out.”
Mom broke in. “Madison, shut up please. Suzy, she’s right. You need to feel for a pulse. Go over to him now and feel either his neck or wrist. And don’t use your thumb; it has its own pulse point and might throw you off.”
“I am not touching a dead body,” Suzy protested.
“Oh, for Christ’s sake, I’m going down there and feel his neck myself,” I said.
“Shh!” Mom was starting to lose patience. “Suzy, you have no choice. You have to check for a pulse, and you have to call 911. Can you do that, or should I hang up here and call for you?”
“How about if you come down here and feel the dead body and I’ll just call 911?”
Mom let out a long breath. Shit, did she have the patience of a saint. “It’ll take us over an hour to get down there. If he’s still alive, that could be too long to save him. You have to just buck up and do it.”
Suzy let out a primal cry, and then there was a thud.
“Suzy?” Mom asked. “Suzy, are you still there?”
I strained to listen to the fuzzy nothingness at the other end of the line, to try to discern whether Suzy had actually set down the phone and gone over to the poor old man, who by this time, was likely to be dead, even if he had been alive when she first found him. For a long while, there was nothing but silence and the vague static that you only notice when you’re not actually talking over the phone. But then there was a gulping, yelping sound followed by a loud swoosh, and then Suzy was back on the line.
“He’s dead, I’m sure of it.”
Mom nodded. “There was no pulse?”
“There was nothing. And he’s cold and stiff and waxy.”
“You idiot! He can’t possibly be stiff yet! How the hell long has it been since you last saw him?” I shouted.
“Madison, shut up! Suzy, okay. Okay. Now you need to hang up with us and call the police. Can you do that?”
Suzy snarfled. “Yeah.”
“Okay, then. You call 911, and we’ll leave right away. We’ll be there in about an hour, okay? Just sit tight.”
“Yeah. Yeah, okay.”
As Mom ended the call, I lost it. “Are you fucking kidding? Why do we have to get involved in this? She probably killed him herself!”
Mom shook her head. “I really wish that weren’t a possibility.” She picked up her coffee cup from the kitchen table, swirled it around, then threw it down her throat like a shot of tequila. She looked at me. “Are you coming with me?”
I sneered. “Wouldn’t miss it for the world. Just let me get dressed.”
When we got to Mr. DeLamiter’s house, Suzy was sitting on the front steps with her arms across her knees and her head down on her arms like she was napping. She didn’t even bother to look up when we pulled into the driveway. We were standing right in front of her before she deigned to acknowledge our presence.
“Oh,” she said, glancing up and blinking hard, as if not expecting to see that it was daylight out. “You’re here.”
“What’s going on?” Mom asked. “Have the paramedics been here already?”
Suzy squinted. “Paramedics?”
“Yes, the paramedics. The ambulance?”
Suzy laid her head back down on her arms. “No, they haven’t been here yet.”
I shot a glance at Mom. “Did you call 911?” I asked.
Suzy didn’t bother to raise her head when she answered: “No. Was I supposed to?”
“For the love of God!” I shoved past her and into the house, where poor old DeLamiter was lying on the floor in the hallway between the kitchen and his bedroom. Although I didn’t relish touching a dead body, when I saw him there, I knew instantly that Suzy had never actually checked for a pulse like she said she’d done, so I squatted down beside him, reached over to press my fingers against the side of his neck, and squinched my eyes closed as I waited to feel nothing.
Mom came running in. “Is he dead?”
I pulled back my hand and looked up at her. “Yup. Poor old guy. Living with all that crazy must have killed him. I suspect we’re not far behind.”
Mom flashed a fake scolding stare before she pulled out her phone and dialed 911. When she hung up with the dispatcher, she sat down next to me on the floor beside the body. “I can’t believe she didn’t call the police,” Mom said.
“Yes, you can. And so can I.”
“I guess I was speaking in generalities. I can’t believe anyone would let the person they’re living with—the person who rescued them from homelessness—lie on the floor for God knows how long and not do anything.”
“I can believe anything you come up with if we’re talking about Suzy.”
The screen door slapped open and Suzy stood on the threshold, leaning into the house but refusing to actually step inside. “He’s dead, isn’t he?” she called.
“Yeah,” I yelled back. “Thanks to you.”
“I didn’t kill him.”
“I guess the autopsy will decide that, huh, Suzy?”
The three of us stayed where we were, not speaking, until we heard the sirens of the police car and the ambulance that followed almost immediately behind. The police officer who came in first removed his hat and came over to stare down at DeLamiter’s body.
“So,” he said. “What happened here?”
“Good question,” I said under my breath.
Mom stood up and pulled the officer aside, whispering to him. I went into the living room and glared at Suzy, who was now hovering inside the living room, but staying close to the front door, probably so she could make a quick escape if necessary.
The paramedics came in with a stretcher, took a perfunctory glance at DeLamiter, and loaded him up for the trip to the morgue. The police officer dragged Suzy over to the couch and ran through a litany of questions, most of which she hedged rather than answered. Mom and I did our best to fill in the blanks, but having arrived over an hour after Suzy had discovered the body (at least, we hoped she had only “discovered” the body), we had very little useful information to contribute.
The officer was eventually able to wrangle the name and phone number of DeLamiter’s daughter out of Suzy, and he assured us he would take care of notifying the family. Then he turned back to Suzy and asked, “Do you have somewhere you can stay?”
She blanched. “What do you mean? I live here.”
With a patient half-smile on his face, the officer explained that there would have to be an investigation into Mr. DeLamiter’s death, so the house would be off limits for at least a few days. Suzy turned red and fumed as she paced around the room. “But I live here. It isn’t fair to kick me out of my own home.”
“I’m sorry, ma’am. But it’s procedure. Once the investigation is complete—”
I had to break in. “She doesn’t actually live here, officer. She just worked for Mr. DeLamiter. Now that he’s dead, she’s out on her can.”
“I see,” the officer said, scribbling something down on his pad. “Ma’am?” He looked back at Suzy. “Do you have a place to stay?”
The sigh that came out of Mom’s lungs sounded like the tail end of a hurricane. “She can stay with us.”
The officer took our address and phone number, so he could get in touch with Suzy in regard to the investigation. Then he escorted us out of the house, past the criminal investigators who were pouring inside.
We rode in silence most of the way back home. It wasn’t until we were in our own neighborhood that Suzy came out and said, “I didn’t kill him.”
From the back seat where I had been forced to sit, I saw Mom roll her eyes in the rearview mirror. “Of course not,” Mom said, although the tone in her voice didn’t match her words.
We pulled into the driveway and piled out of the car. Mom and I walked with our heads down, our limbs flopping sluggishly. We were the walking wounded. We both knew exactly what would happen the moment Suzy got comfortable in our house again. This was all starting over again, as if Mr.
DeLamiter and Maryanne the social worker had never existed. It was a disheartening prospect.
The three of us lived in an uneasy silence for the first few days after Suzy’s return. I think Mom and I were trying to pretend it wasn’t happening, and Suzy was waiting for us to get used to her enough before brazenly trying to run things again. A couple of days after DeLamiter died, the police cleared Suzy of any wrongdoing. Apparently, the old man had had a stroke on his way to the bathroom that morning. Even after his death was ruled natural, I couldn’t help but suspect that Suzy had found some way to kill him without getting caught—maybe by poisoning his food or putting something lethal into his shampoo. Not that I thought she was smart enough for that, though I certainly thought she was crazy enough.
The bigger news broke about two weeks after Mr. DeLamiter died. Suzy received a phone call from a man who said he was DeLamiter’s attorney, requesting her presence, along with her family, at the reading of the will. Suzy bounced around for days after that call, whistling and hugging herself when she thought we weren’t looking. Occasionally, she would mention in passing what she planned to do with the vast sum of money DeLamiter must have left her.
I found it hard to believe that the old man had actually liked Suzy enough to leave her part of his estate, if he even had one. But the fact that she was needed at the reading of the will clearly implied she was mentioned. I just kept shaking my head, wondering at the injustice of the world.
We drove her down to the lawyer’s office on the appointed day (forcing Suzy to wear the satin sleep mask as we crossed over the dreaded bridge yet again) and sat quietly among the black-clad, sad-faced people who must have been members of DeLamiter’s family. I recognized his daughter from the photographs he had in his house, but the other people must have been nieces and nephews, or maybe just friends there to support the grieving daughter.
Mom and I sat in the back of the room, trying to be inconspicuous. We tried to get Suzy to sit with us, but she informed us, a little too loudly,
“Obviously, he thought of me as family, so I’m going to sit with the rest of the relatives.”
It wasn’t worth an argument, so Mom and I just shooed her away and huddled together, rolling our eyes at how much of a fool Suzy was making of herself.
The lawyer droned on for over half an hour, naming dollar amounts and family heirlooms to be distributed to the various people gathered in the room. Suzy waited with obvious impatience, tapping her foot and yawning loudly each time the lawyer came to a new name that wasn’t her own.
Finally, the lawyer came to the portion of the will that involved Suzy. He took a deep breath, glanced once around the room, then read: “As to my live-in companion, Suzanne Lieurance, I have created a special provision within this document. Although I bequeath no sum of money to Suzanne herself, I wish to leave a portion of my estate, in the amount of twenty-five thousand dollars, to Suzanne’s cousins, the mother and daughter whose names I do not recall, who accompanied Suzanne to my first meeting with her. Having lived with Suzanne for a while myself, I can only imagine the torture they must have endured having her as their houseguest for an extended period of time. I realize that this money will not undo the damage Suzanne has done, but I hope it will give them some pleasure, in repayment for their great personal sacrifice in protecting the rest of the world from Suzanne.”
I literally had to whack myself on the side of the head as I heard the words the lawyer read out. Several members of Mr. DeLamiter’s family spun around in their chairs to stare, first at us, then at Suzy, whose jaw was hanging open like she was a character in a Saturday morning cartoon.
When the lawyer had stopped speaking, there was a long, tense silence in the room. Finally, Mom said softly, “Are you serious?”
Suzy leapt to her feet and shouted, “Yeah! Are you serious? This is outrageous!”
The lawyer just shrugged. “That’s what it says here. Mr. DeLamiter revised his will to include this provision several weeks before his death.”
Suzy rushed up to the desk at which the lawyer was sitting with the legal papers in front of him and tried to tear the pages out of his hand to look at them herself. “I don’t believe this,” she said. “Not for one second. Is somebody playing a joke on me?”
DeLamiter’s daughter stood up. She had a strange smile on her face. “If this is a joke, it’s not on you, Suzanne. We’re his family, and we had no idea he was doing this.”
My mother got up. “We aren’t going to accept the money,” she said. “It’s just not right.”
DeLamiter’s daughter turned to look at us. “Yes, you are. If Daddy left it to you, then you must really deserve it.”
Suzy threw up her hands. “What is going on here? Am I having a nightmare? What about me?”
I chuckled. “What about you, Suzy? Is it really so difficult to believe that somebody thought you were a horror to live with? Is it really such a leap of the imagination?”
Suzy’s eyes looked red with her fury. She clenched her fists, shook them helplessly at her sides, then stormed out of the room.
Mom and I shook our heads at each other, struggling not to laugh out loud.
After we had signed the necessary papers and shook hands with Mr. DeLamiter’s daughter, we headed outside to the car, where Suzy was sitting stiffly in the passenger seat. I leaned over and whispered, “Do you think we can use the money to ship her off to Siberia or someplace?”
“I’m just hoping that this will make her mad enough to want to leave on her own.”
“Wishful thinking, Mom. Wishful thinking.”
Twenty-four years ago
I never knew
there’d come a day
when you’d not be here
in my way
I always thought
you’d live forever
but now you’re dead
and gone to Heaven.
Suzy had hardly recovered from the shock of losing Garrett to homosexuality when her father, Ken, fell ill. He had always been so healthy, it took everyone he knew by surprise. At first, they all thought it was just a bad cold, or maybe a bout of pneumonia. When the doctors, with their stern, sad faces, came into the waiting room at the hospital and informed Suzy and Ivy that it was terminal lung cancer, the words bounced off them like grease on Teflon. It just couldn’t be possible.
Of course, Ken knew it—even before the doctors took all those vials of his blood and sent him to lie beneath those strange, whirling, pounding machines. Somehow, death always seems to make its coming known to those who are waiting for it. And Ken had been ready to go for a long time. Watching his daughter sink into an ever-worsening depression and seeing his wife’s fruitless efforts to pull Suzy back to the land of the living had become too much of a struggle. It seemed easier, he thought, to surrender to the blackness than force himself to stand by and watch, helpless, as the people he loved hurt themselves and each other.
Of course, he couldn’t tell them that he was grateful for the diagnosis. Ivy, in her typical domineering fashion, bullied the doctors into providing her with the names of specialists, whom she then manhandled until they agreed to look into experimental treatments for which Ken might be eligible. Ken just lay in the hospital bed, sipping his beef broth and slurping down Jell-O, letting his wife do what she needed to do before she could come to terms with the undeniable fact that nothing could save him.
Suzy just sat in a chair in the corner of the hospital room, watching in petrified silence as her mother flew back and forth from doctor to doctor and nurse to nurse, making demands and scolding when the quality of care Ken was receiving did not meet her exacting standards. Suzy didn’t say a word—not to her mother and, especially, not to her father. She was too afraid, though she wasn’t sure of what. Everybody died. Naturally, she knew that and even understood it on an intellectual level, but that didn’t stop her from waking up in a cold sweat, panting and whimpering when the thought entered her psyche that someday she would no longer exist. Sometimes the fear of death would strike her so hard that she would leap from her bed and race around her apartment, as if she could somehow outrun the trap of her body and in that way escape the cold cruelty that she, too, would die. Now that the reality of death as it was coming for her father, she couldn’t believe that she had once stood on a bridge, intending to die. She could hardly recall what it had felt like to be willing to leave this world. Now, as miserable as she was, most of the time, all of the time, she couldn’t imagine not being alive. Nor could she imagine someone she loved—like her sweet, mild-mannered father, who had always put her needs and those of his mother, everyone’s needs., before his own—dying and not being part of her life anymore. She stared at her father as he sipped his coffee and smiled over the rim of the cup at her, and she envisioned the light of life draining from his body. She had to look away.
When her mother forced her to leave the hospital, if only for the night, Suzy went back to her apartment and sat at her kitchen table, writing by nothing but the tiny nightlight over the stove. As she wrote, she was visited by ghosts—her own, her father’s, the evil spirits of people she had never even known. They swirled around her, gave her chills, made her run to the window and then to the door to check that she was alone; they sat at the base of her spine until she had the nagging sensation that someone or something was hiding in her apartment, ready to attack when she was least expecting it—a thought that compelled her to peer under the bed, beneath the couch, into the black depths of the closet, until she was sure (even if she was not so sure) there was no bogeyman here. Writing down the things the demons whispered seemed like the best way to make them go away, but instead, the more she wrote, the more they set up camp on her shoulder, watching over her, guiding her pen, keeping her awake long past the point of physical exhaustion. In the mornings, when the light returned and she woke in a puddle of sticky drool atop the wrinkled papers on which she had scribbled all night, never realizing she had dropped off to sleep, she stared in wonder and a little bit of terror at what was written there. The voice was not her own; at least, it was no voice she had ever recalled using before. It seemed almost as if the spirits were channeling through her, taking over her body, making her a prisoner of the night and of literature, and then throwing her down, spent, when they had no further use for her. She never showed anyone the poetry or, more accurately, the non-poetic rantings that appeared on the pages in a mysterious handwriting that looked like the chicken scratch of a doctor . . . or perhaps a serial killer. Not that she had anyone to whom she could show her writing, not since Garrett had disappeared from her life.
It hadn’t been Garrett’s choice to be exiled from Suzy’s world. He had called and written and sent buckets of flowers, begging her forgiveness and emphasizing that her talent deserved to be nurtured—if not by him, then by whoever else was available. “You are too special,” he wrote, “to be alone. Do not keep your talents to yourself. The universe deserves to know your voice.”
But it was too painful even to think about Garrett, so she burned his notes, erased the messages he left on her answering machine, and after wistfully accepting the first few deliveries, began to refuse the local florist’s offerings. After a while—and, to his credit, it was a long while—Garrett finally gave up, leaving Suzy alone in the quiet solitude of her apartment, with only her parents and occasionally the pizza delivery boy for company.
So she had only her own eyes to examine the bizarre nighttime ramblings of her soul—or was it the soul of an uneasy spirit? Either way, the words she found in her notebooks, on the backs of envelopes, even once carved with a pen knife into the surface of the kitchen table, disturbed and excited her at once.
There is a burning
a hot, crackling flame
behind my weary eyes,
in the tightness of my throat
choked by unshed tears,
at the base of the emptiness
that should have been my soul.
There is ice
blue-hot and scalding
at the edges of my spine,
curling around me and twisting
until all that I am is a shell,
a mangled piece of petrified failure.
In the yellow-white light of morning
I turned to you
and you just turned away.
In the blue black veil of night
I looked for you
but found myself alone.
By the flicker of a single candle
I polished the blade of a silvery knife
I admired my reflection in the shimmering steel
before I plunged the blade under the cushiony rise of my breast.
You’ll be sorry someday
when they tell you I’m gone.
You’ll sit in your chair—
the ragged rattan on your mother’s front porch—
and you’ll try not to remember.
You’ll wish you could stop,
stop calling to mind
the velvety skin at the small of my back,
the slender ring of navy blue
around the iris of my eye,
the chaos of autumn that bursts from my hair.
You’ll realize I was beautiful
and you’ll hate the person you’ve become.
I know this, know it well,
because right now I am sitting
with my legs tucked tight beneath me
on the ragged rattan on my mother’s front porch
and thinking of you.
I can’t stop picturing
the fierce plane of your bristled jaw,
the greasy glint of the cowlick in your hair,
the spidery red of your cheeks when you’ve had too much to drink.
I realize you were beautiful
and I never even knew it.
Sometimes she contemplated the notion of editing the poems into some sort of organized form and submitted them to publishers or to magazines for consideration, but then she remembered that she had no talent, that the only people who had ever believed in her were the lying bastard Roman and the deceitful charlatan Garrett. She could not trust their assessments of her work. They were not worthy of trust. So the poems simply piled up until her apartment began to resemble the disheveled mess it had been in those terrible days before she had met Garrett on the bridge.
Then her father died.
It didn’t take long from the doctors’ first pronouncement to his demise—a matter of weeks, not even months. Ivy clung to his hands, shouting and imploring alternately, trying to exhort him to live, if only for her sake and that of his daughter, who was becoming more and more lost by the minute. Maybe he felt guilty, but the release of knowing he would no longer have to worry about his family had to have been the stronger pull, and he quickly allowed death to swallow him like quicksand.
Left alone in the house and the world, Ken’s wife and daughter stared at each other as if they were strangers, as if Ken’s steadying presence had been the only thing holding them together and reminding them that they were family. As soon as the funeral was over and Ken safely sent to his eternal rest, Suzy and Ivy went their separate ways, only meeting on rare occasions as they passed in the driveway on their way to their separate appointments.
They came together only at the reading of the will, in which, to no one’s surprise, Ken left the house and the bulk of what money he had to his wife, setting aside a sizable inheritance to support his daughter, whom he knew would have nowhere to turn once he was gone. It had been his intention to provide enough for her so that she could go back to school or at least find a place to live, away from her controlling mother, where she could finally find her own way in the world. Instead, Suzy spent the money on notebooks and pens and the cartons of ice cream on which she subsisted. The money was gone within a year, and Ivy refused to give Suzy more when she came down to the main house with her head hanging down in shame to beg for help.
“You’ve proven that you can’t manage money,” Ivy said. “I’m not going to give you anything. Not until you can show me you’re capable of fending for yourself.”
Suzy sank to the floor, covering her face with her hands. “What do you want me to do?”
Ivy smirked. “Get a job? Get a degree? Get a husband? For Christ’s sake, Suzy, anything. Do anything. Just do something besides hide in your room scribbling and eating. Do something.”
Suzy retreated, ashamed, and spent a few hours wondering if there was any hope. Was there anything she could do? Was there any place she could go? Without friends, without the kindness of family, where was she supposed to turn?
It was not inspiration that sent her out of the apartment one morning and put her on the road toward the shopping mall. It was desperation.
She had once loved to shop. She had spent hours—and more money than she could count—buying clothes and jewelry and—at least recently—notebooks. Surely there was someplace at the mall, that mecca of consumerism and hope, where she would fit in. It was her last chance.
End of Part III—The final installment will appear in the next issue of Blydyn Square Review.