An Excerpt From Apricot Brandy
By Lynn Cesar
[ Information on Apricot Brandy
At long last, on a cold golden
October afternoon, Karen Fox came home. The tires of her pickup crackled down
the long gravel drive, around the bend, and there it stood: the big old
two-story house, her childhood world.
A broody brutish old house,
Karen thought, with its thick-pillared porch, deep eaves, and gabled windows
that resembled hooded eyes. Crouched like a gate-keeping troll, it dared her to
enter the orchard beyond it, dared her to open its door and step into the first
sixteen years of her life.
Karen killed the engine and
propelled herself out of the cab. She faced the house which she could enter for
the first time in nineteen years, but it was no use. After all her furious rush
to get here, on freeways, highways, county roads, speeding from sun-up to high
noon, it all came to this. She could not climb those porch steps, could not
open and walk through that heavy black door.
It stunned her, the power this
house still had over her. She felt like her face had been slapped and the
breath punched out of her, to stand so helpless against her fear and grief.
Dazed, she looked around her and saw the plum trees in their ranks.
She would look at the orchard.
It was hers now and she could at least do that. Turning away from the house,
Karen walked past the packing sheds and up along the first of the picking
lanes. She went up to where a rank of oaks screened the orchard from the county
Here it was, the vantage she
had liked as a kid. You could see acres of plum trees descending in gentle
undulations. When she was ten or so she would perch here and gloat over the
green wealth of her universe, the braided leaves, all gemmed with purple fruit.
She drew a half pint from the
back pocket of her jeans and took a pull. As she drank, her forearm showed the etched
muscle fifteen years of swinging a framing hammer had put there; her posture
showed strong shoulders in her loose Pendleton and breasts large for her
leanness. The sun, just declining, picked out the first wisps of gray in her
loosely ponytailed blond hair.
She licked whiskey from her
lips and addressed the trees. "This is a goddamned shabby turn-out, men! Look
at you! Like a bunch of savages! Degenerates!"
After Mom's death, three years ago, Dad had not pruned nor picked them.
The trees were spiderish in the gold light, crooked and hairy with untrimmed
shoots and suckers, the lanes between them full of weeds and fruit-rot and
clouds of flies. The scent of the decay touched her nostrils and, somehow, it
filled her with memories of fear. Would she never understand Dad's crime
against her? Would she never be free?
Groping for a gesture of
defiance, she thought of a game she and Susan liked to play. They would sit
around drinking wine and talking to one another like characters in a romance
novel. Draining her half-pint with a flourish, she flung it out into the
"Now, at long last," she
declaimed to the trees, "the comely Karinna Foxxe was the mistress of all she
surveyed! She stood alone on the crag, a bit long in the tooth, perhaps, but
with her willowy limbs and her swelling bodice, still a striking figure of
Womanhood. But as Karinna gazed upon her new domain, ample though it was, she
felt there was something lacking, something hauntingly absent from her grand
estate! For where, oh where, was He?
He who had so benevolently ruled this Fairy Kingdom of delight? Where, oh
where, was Dear Dead Dad?"
Shouting this, her voice broke
and she wiped away unexpected tears. "How she and Dad had haunted these verdant
acres together, these nooks and bowers! But now, though she harkens, Karinna
hears no sound of Him!" More tears came, so hot and sudden. "Oh, my plummy
troops! Oh, my poor bedraggled army! Dear Dead Dad, your general, is no more!
It seems he blew his fucking head off!"
It hit Karen then for the first
time: though she had shunned Dad for twenty years, she had all along hoped to
hear his voice just one more time. To hear him grieve for what he had done.
The breeze shifted, wrapping
her Pendleton around her like a shroud. She looked skywards and saw a
magnificent red-tail hawk,Aeia female by her great size,Aeicrucified against the
flawless blue. Karen's mind was lifted to the raptor's viewpoint and she
remembered what a wide green world surrounded her, all the hills and groves and
silver streams of Gravenstein County. Outside this place, outside these acres
which still held her heart staked to the earth, there was a another world. One
filled with peace and joy. There was a whole life to be lived, if she could
just be free.
Back along the oaks she
walked. There was the house and Karen tried to imagine she had been able to go inside it
after all, imagine she was in there right now, in Mom's kitchen, maybe, where
all the warmth her childhood held could still be found. Looking out the windows
into the back yard, where Dad's private fruit trees stood, the ones for his
brandy. But no, not till she knew through her own eyes that Dad was truly and
So back she drove through
hours of sun-washed terrain, seeing again the bright red barns and white-railed
fences she'd passed coming out. Bales of hay studded just-mown fields, each
bale casting the same parallelogram of shadow. Green slopes were dappled with
harlequin herds of black and white cows.
But when night came and the
towns became sparse islands of light in the long darkness, she stopped for
another bottle of bourbon and drove drinking it. Pretty soon she felt
simplified enough by the booze that she could pull off to a thinly-neoned
country motel, crawl into a bed, set the TV screen flickering with murky shapes
to keep her company in the dark, and deeply, simply sleep.
Karen woke late, got a six-pack for the road and fired up the truck with a brew between
her thighs. She came into the metropolis' web of freeways just when they were
starting to clog with afternoon traffic. The mortuary lay deep in the old
downtown. She had picked Chapel Grove from the Yellow Pages three years ago,
when Mom died. Had told Dad's old army buddy, Dr. Harst, who'd called with the
news, that Dad could send Mom's body here, that she did not choose to come any
closer than here to Gravenstein County, or to Dad himself.
Three nights ago, when Dr.
Harst, weeping this time, called and told her of Jack Fox's suicide, she'd
given him the same directions.
The mortuary was an extensive one-story structure, in dirty pink stucco
with a pseudo-Spanish fa/ssade. The last direct sun had slipped off the building
and was retreating across the parking lot. Freeways on their colossal pillars
surrounded it on all sides, their rivers of traffic snoring and rattling
through orange smog that was just beginning to be tinted with violet. Karen
thought of Dad's so-different world, the one he'd never seemed to want to
leave, save for a tour in Viet Nam, and later, in Central America,thought of
the orchard with its cool, creaky country silence, its long corridors of
shadow . . . .
Old Dad was a plucked root now for sure, warehoused amid monoxide and
endless traffic. He was stacked like cargo in this downtown depot, "You're
boxed and docked, old man. We say this one goodbye and I ship you to the
But, at first, it was like
yesterday all over again. She couldn't step forward, couldn't approach the
mortuary's pompous fa/ssade, her legs cold and sluggish. And, Karen didn't really
have to go through with any of this. She could tell that bitch on the phone
just to burn him and send her the paperwork. Then head back to Frisco. From
there, she'd sell Dad's house and all the ground it stood on.
Yeah. Back to San Francisco.
Back there, things were really swell. Tongue
'n' Groove Carpentry limped along on what sub-work Karen could
scrape from a few old friends. More often than not, Karen's partner Susan was
paying all the rent. And meanwhile Susan had to go on living with Karen Fox as
she was, right here and now, and as she had been all her adult life: a
drinking, brooding grief-maker.
There was no other way, she
had to face Dad, to tear her heart free of him.
Walking towards the entry, Karen tensed in anticipation of the
opposition awaiting her. This business of viewing Dad, dead by his own shotgun,
had been hard-won and had taken a good deal of almost-shouting on the phone two
False columns ennobled the
walls of the wide reception chamber, where a thick carpet of doeskin hue
obsequiously received her feet. A beautiful black woman sat at the gleaming
barge of the reception desk. It had been an older white lady three years ago
when Karen had come here to see Mom. This woman was helmeted with lacquered
hair and had sloping, bird-bright eyes.
"How may I help you?" That
lilt, the help almost 'elp. This was the musical
voice, Haitian or something, Karen had encountered when she called.
"I'm Karen Fox." With a lift
of her eyebrows, she referenced that telephone chat. There was a pause between
them, the woman's slightly dreamy smile seeming to recall that conversation
Karen had said, "I'll have to
see the body, of course, and then I want it cremated right away."
"Miss Fox," this woman had said solemnly. "It's not a good idea to view
the deceased. His condition is very severe."
"Miss. You think I'm just
gonna take the word of strangers
that he's really dead?"
"Miss Fox, we can assure you.
You can be absolutely sure. Absolutely."
"Miss, you're not listening.
The body is released to me.
And what I'm telling you to do,
is to arrange for me to have a last look at him and then burn him, in that
"Of course we wish to follow
your instructions, Miss Fox, but this is a very unhappy thing you are choosing. . . ."
It had gone on from there, back and forth. All of that echoed for the
two of them now as they took each other in. The woman's hands lay gracefully
crossed on the desk blotter. Such polished, pointed fingers she had. Something
in the way those hands lay crossed told Karen that the woman was still not
willing to concede. "Ms. Fox, will you please permit me to say something to
you? Your father's death is absolutely real. Again, absolutely. But when you do this, regarding his terribly
damaged body, you make it more real than it ought to be. You are endangering . . . your
peace of mind."
Karen had to laugh at that. Her peace of mind . . . "I'm very sorry. I
know you're trying to be kind. Please, just tell me the room."
Though smiling again, the
woman did not look like a particularly kind person when she answered. "You go
left down that farthest corridor and turn right where it ends. It's room 311."
Her eyes had an ironic glint: a fool had been warned and had chosen as
expected. "And if you would just sign this release for the cremation, please?"
"Gladly. As soon as I've seen
him, you can burn him. I don't want the ashes."
Karen passed the entryways of
tasteful parlors and viewing rooms, but at the far hallway, all glamour sharply
ceased. A many-doored white corridor stretched to either hand, its garish floral
carpet short-napped and much-trudged. She turned left. This was a sizeable
building. Someone whispered behind her. She turned. The hall was empty. She
walked on. In the land of the dead, of course things whispered. A dark man in a
long white lab-coat emerged from around the corner ahead and walked serenely
towards her, the open coat delicately flaring as he came. He was Latino, his
sculpted Mexican hair veined with grey. Had an elegant black suit under the
lab-coat. He paused by a flight of stairs that led down to a lower floor and
let her come up to him.
"Are you Ms. Fox? I'm John
Rubalcava." He had a hard smooth hand like oiled walnut, a calm face carved of
the same material. "You are going to view your father?" A quaver of hesitation
Karen looked at him for a
beat, trying to convey non-aggression. "I have to say goodbye to him. Think of
it that way."
"You have to know that he is
dead." Offering her own words back to her, spoken to the Haitian on the phone.
"I have to see, Mr.
"I respect your courage, Ms.
Fox. But you know, all the looking in the world doesn't change death. It
remains what it is, stare as you will. You must excuse me. I'm so very sorry
for your loss."
Rubalcava's step got strangely
lively as he descended the stairs, which led down to a remotely clangorous
region. Things faintly slammed, stainless steel clashed and a sneaky chemical
whiff came up from that stairwell. He spun gracefully round the turning and his
coat flared almost festively. The wings of it had reddish-brownish smudges here
The transecting hallway down
which she turned was even more behind-the-scenes, more frankly funky. The walls
bore waist-level skidmarks from gurneys and the loud floral carpet was balding
in spots. That muted clangor she'd heard from belowstairs was audible up here
as well and the smell was stronger too, that haunting, industrial-strength
Another door: 311. She stood
in front of the door like she was staring it down. She muttered, with all the
sarcasm she could muster, "Karinna Foxxe had come at last to that last doorway,
beyond which lay the last remains of that dark, unknowable man, who had for so
long. . . "
Oh, just fucking do it.
The first shock was the
different carpet; again floral blobs were the pattern, but these screaming-loud
in cobalt, marigold and scarlet. The floor's ugliness filled the whole bare
cube of a room. Its only contents,Aeithe gurney along the far wall and the
plastic-sheeted oblong shape it held,Aeiseemed to float upon the Hell of color.
For an instant she thought it impossible to take these last few steps, but then
found herself crossing over to him with the weightless, unwilling compliance of
a commanded child.
Here he was.
The body was tightly scrolled
up in the kind of tough white plastic she'd seen on construction sites. Its
cocoon, like the wrapping of a bouquet, was flared open at one end to display
Dad's neck and head, and at this flared end, the plastic was smudged and
spattered a muddy red.
Still the commanded child, she
leaned over him. Take a good look at
me, Karen. Look at the last thing I have to show you.
The dome of his head had been
blown out and his brow shattered. That he had been shortened was how it kept hitting her, a hideous
joke had been played on him, taking four inches off his height. How he'd
towered, when she was small! Now his eyes were wider-spaced by the fissured
brow and the left eye seemed to strain upward, disbelieving, at this ragged
crown of bone he ended in. His jaw gaped, the hinge blown. Most of his upper
teeth had left him along with his brain.
Leaning there, breathing his
aura of refrigerated decay, Karen could not help but pity this obscene
vandalism to a man once so handsome.
It's me. Karen.
She had foreseen pain in this
moment, but she hadn't foreseen that its cruelest edge would be love. The first
years, when he had been Daddy, when she had been weightless and safe in the
crook of his arm, had sat in his lap for stories,Aeihow he seemed to love to read
to her!,Aeihis chest her trusted backrest and a favored bed if she should drowse.
Somewhere down in its root, her heart still held these things, was partly made
of them. As she discovered this, the cruelty of what he'd later done to her
stunned her, seared her as if it were brand new and her first blood not dry
from it, while at the same time, she yearned like a little girl for the loving
father she had lost.
Resting both hands lightly on
the gurney's side-rail, she leaned down to kiss his cheek. If she ever hoped to
find that earlier undamaged part of her, she had to say goodbye to all of him.
Cold putty took her kiss,
stubble nibbling her lips like frost crystals, chilled putrescence filling her
nose. She straightened slowly, eyes still searching him, searching herself for
the seam where this man's life left off and her own life, whole and inviolable,
could at last begin.
Her left wrist felt the clamp
of an ice-cold hand, a crushing grip and freezing to the bone.
Explosively she wrenched free
and spun around. There was no one else in the room. All her nerves were firing
in a cascade that drained out the bottoms of her feet and into the floor, while
the floor itself was plunging, plunging into the earth. She stood in the same
room, but suddenly it was deep, deep underground, unreachable from the world
Dad lay there, mummied by the
plastic, limbless, yet surely it had been his hand upon her wrist, just the way
she had felt it in her youth, when he dragged her down to the fruit cellar,
deep in the earth then, as she was now, in this deep hell of color and
She backed away from the gurney, taking slow steps, to show she still
defied him, did not flee him. She tried to face him down as she withdrew. She
closed the door behind her and leaned against it, rubbing her wrist to erase
that grip it still remembered. Karen stood in perfect silence, all subterranean
sounds were gone.
It seemed impossible to tread
the swollen blossoms of the corridor's carpet, but she had to walk out of this
nightmare. She lurched and staggered, till her legs came back to her. What
festering wound had been revealed in herself? For the first time in her life,
she had hallucinated. What had been torn in her brain, to bleed madness into
her thoughts? Dad was finally gone, but was it only to leave her forever
damaged by the booze he'd cursed her with?
No one appeared in the
corridors, the Haitian's gleaming desk stood empty. She stepped out into the
last light of the day and was glad, the hugeness of the city around her a balm.
Glad to be above-ground, as if the city might erase that room from her mind,
the growl of traffic replacing its awful silence. Standing down there in that
room, death's antechamber, confronting what she had confronted...after all, who would
not have gone a little crazy?
"Karen Fox," she said with
quiet determination, "is going to be all right." But please dear Jesus,Aeishe
started, still unsteady, across the parking lot,Aeihow could that be her last
vision? Dad in his spectacular death, printed on her mind's eye. His crime
against her scorching her heart. If she did not find strength and defiance
somewhere, she would come away even more broken, even more crippled.
The door of a white pick-up
opened as she passed, one of those new oversized brutes, and out stepped a
tall, lean man in a deputy's uniform. A clipboard and shades, even in the
declining light. As he moved to intercept her, Karen had a qualm of
He confronted her and took off
his shades. "Hello, Karen."
"Marty Carver." A gulf of
years had just been bridged. Marty's hair and his tufty eyebrows, like two
vertical brush-strokes, were dulled to ginger from the red they'd been in high
school. The plump mouth, still smug, was set in a chin a bit squarer now,
somewhat pouchier underneath.
"Are you on an official mission, Marty?" Karen noticed that his armpatch
said Gravenstein County Sheriff. He would have stayed in their hometown and he
would be a cop. "You're a long way from home here."
"I've got some errands of my
own, but I'm here for you too. This is kind of a personal gesture, Karen. I
called to find out when you'd be here. You didn't show yesterday, so I stayed
over. I wanted to let you know personally about the Medical Examiner's Report."
"You mean the autopsy
"That's right. It's a sad
thing of course, but I thought you'd be reassured to know that there was no
foul play. Definitely a suicide. GSRs on his right hand."
"And those are?"
"Gunshot residues." He showed
her some stapled sheets on his clipboard.
She noticed the signature. "Dr. Harst filled this out?"
"He's been our County M.E. for
fifteen years now."
"Of course. He called me about
Mom, before." Army buddy Harst, weeping on the phone three nights ago, had been
a comrade-in-arms whose life Jack Fox had saved in combat. Marty was also Dad's
old friend, though a generation younger. As a teenager, Marty had, in some
wordless way, idolized Dad. Dad's tour in Viet Nam, and afterwards in Central
America, seemed to have something to do with it. Marty had done a lot of hired
work in the orchard throughout his and Karen's high-school years, though at
school he'd never pursued any personal acquaintance with her. But near the end
of their senior year he'd begun making a big deal to Mom about wanting to take
Karen to the prom. Poor Mom knew that no one else had asked her daughter, that
her daughter was set on not going at all. In the end Karen accepted for Mom's
sake. She brought a flat of bourbon in her purse and got rowdy on the
dance-floor. When Marty managed to get her out to the parking lot, she smashed
the windshield of his car with her bottle.
"Well, thank you, Marty. It
was very thoughtful of you. But you know, there was never a doubt in my mind
that he killed himself."
This made something flare in
his eyes and Karen realized she'd meant it to. Did he guess her accusation of
his hero? Had Marty maybe, even as a kid, sensed her father's crime?
"You know," he said, "I wonder, Karen. After your Mom died, I made it a
point to call and check in on your Dad every couple weeks. Did you ever call
him once that whole three years? I didn't get the feeling that you ever did. I
got the feeling you were just too busy with your lesbo friends out in San
Francisco to give a damn."
Karen smiled. For a couple
years after leaving for the coast forever right after high school, Karen had
now and then come back to visit Mom. Always at some diner in the county seat,
Gravenstein, twenty miles from the orchard, but still within Mom's driving
range at her timid, invariable thirty-five miles an hour. Karen had brought an
early lover on one visit. Both had more than a few drinks in them. Marty was
there with some scared, docile girl. Karen had taken her lover to his table and
introduced her at length.
"Hey, Marty. You just don't
get it. I haven't called, I haven't talked to my old man for twenty years.
Do you understand what I'm saying?" She had
laid the ugly truth right there, just one question away from good old Marty, if
he dared to ask it: Why not?
Real anger now in his
yellow-brown eyes. But he didn't dare. Put his shades back on. "Your life, your
"My life, my orchard." She was
furious now, enraged he'd backed away, hadn't let her spit it out, and she
grabbed the handiest thing, remembering how Marty had always loved the orchard.
"You know, I think I'm gonna have some fun with that orchard. I think I might
just burn it down tree by tree."
He didn't even nod. She'd got to him though, she could tell by the way
he almost slammed his truck door closing it.
As he drove off, and she stood
there waving after him ironically, it hit her. If Dad, with half his face, were
not to out-face her, and drive her down into fear and pain for the rest of her
life, she had to go into
the house after all. Had to go back home and face it all again, till she had
faced that bastard down and, once and for all, thrust him and his crime down
into the earth, and finally set her spirit to mending.
After meeting Karen, Marty killed some time in the city till
Dr. Harst should arrive. A uniform meant something whatever jurisdiction you
were in, and he drove like it. Smooth, peremptory, decisively claiming his
He liked the city's decayed
old core. Lots of heavily-grilled mom-and-pops, run by ragheads and slopes. He
liked immigrants--they kept their heads down and worked.
They were usually easy arrests, too, and too poor for anything but Public
Defenders, so they kept his production level high at the Gravenstein County
Why did winos like to camp
behind dumpsters so much? Because they knew they were trash, Marty guessed. He
could've gotten a ninety-day bit for public disturbance out of every one of
these people. The city had too much real crime and the police, no doubt, had a
harder time beefing their budget out here than Marty did back in Gravenstein.
People in rural county seats knew each other and how things ought to be run.
They worked together.
Marty wished he'd worn his
civvies when he passed the porn shops. He'd had a good piece of Helen this
morning, after the boy left for school, but you could never get it just right
with Helen. If you tied the ropes too tight she'd start to whine and nag and
break the mood. He was forced just to accept with his wife the more fictional
degree of bondage and make the best of it. When he returned to the mortuary, it
was dark. Among the four or five vehicles left in the lot, Dr. Harst's old
dirty, battered, olive-drab station wagon had arrived. The doctor's big baggy
profile was visible behind the wheel. His head was slightly cocked, as if he
were watching something very distant.
The old man had gotten
distinctly dreamy, since Jack Fox shed his mantle with a Last Supper of
double-ought. Harst and Jack Fox went way back, to those jungles in Nam and
Central America. My God, wouldn't that
have been something! Marty honored them both for it, honored them still, but
this was no time for dreaming. He and Harst had an appointment, a
"Hi, Doctor. How was your
drive down?" Looking down through the window at him, watching, behind the thick
glasses, those pouchy old eyes, yellowish like tarnished cue-balls, coming back
from far away....
"Hello, Marty. The drive was fine." Such a bleak little smile, saying
that. The old man looked like a cartoon vulture; with his weak jaw, the puckers
of his face flowed right down into those of his neck. A man who'd aged a lot
more severely than his lifelong friend Jack Fox had done before his death. But
Harst straightened and flashed a sharper smile. "It's time to join our friend."
They walked together toward
the mortuary, Marty slowing his pace to match Harst's limp so that their
advance was measured, almost ceremonial. This difference in their gaits made
Marty realize what a crossroads this was for both of them. With Jack Fox in the
earth now, the relationship between him and the doctor was going to change.
They pushed open the great
front door and Marty slipped his shades back on: it felt right. Funereal. The
wide carpeted spaces were deserted. Beside the reception desk, a gurney
gleamed, supporting a bulky blackness--a thermal body bag. They stood in the silence
beside this plastic sarcophagus till Dr. Harst said, roguishly, addressing the
body bag, "We'll have to haul ass on this, won't we, Jack? Have to get you back
while the frost is still on the pumpkin, so to speak?" And laughed. Marty
resented the old man's impiety with this powerful corpse. Envied it too. Harst,
so much closer to him, could get away with it.
It was strange to wheel Jack
Fox out under the big-city night. Rolling him across the asphalt, the body bag
seemed like Jack's spacesuit for crossing an alien wasteland, on his voyage to
reach the dark earth and deep roots that were to be his new mansion.
"I've cleared the back of my
wagon--" Dr. Harst began.
Marty's nostrils flared at the
sight of that old wreck. "My truck bed's better, Doc--we can secure him better
there." The doctor was so dreamy-clingy about Jack Fox's mortal remain...and might have
thought so himself...for
he acquiesced at once. They bungied Jack Fox snugly in Marty's truck bed.
All the way back out to Gravenstein County, Dr. Harst's eyes
clung to the only love of his long life, a cocoon in a truck bed that was
dancing through traffic ahead of him. More than once those red-rimmed eyes
leaked tears. Oh Jack. How long we have shared the same world! It was
everything, for me.
The doctor's grief at the loss
that lay wrapped in that bundle filled his heart. He was in mourning. But in
another part of Dr. Harst's mind there was calculation and the ant-like first
tickles of fear. Now that Jack had moved on, was the doctor's own term near?
But, as always, Harst forgot
calculation and came back to his tears. Forty-five years of almost hopeless
love. At least there had been their friendship, unfaltering friendship.
Dr. Harst had seen Marty's
distaste for this old station wagon. He'd never know the reason the doctor
still drove it. It was because Jack, with the power upon him, had taken him
into the back of this old wagon--pulled off on a dark country road--and sodomized
him there, for the last glorious time in Dr. Harst's life. Again, his tears
The motel room
offered one towel, one micro-bar of soap, one plastic glass, one blanket, one
dim TV that got three channels, and one picture on the wall above the TV--a
trite sad-clown print, very dusty. Except for the tiny nook of the bathroom,
this room was very near as bare and square as Dad's room this afternoon.
She hadn't chosen the motel with this penance in mind, but instead
for the liquor store one block away. A brisk walk down a boulevard of sleepless
traffic, a brisk walk back, the crisp fracture of a half-pint's seal as you
twisted its head off...nd then solace.
Karen lay and sipped and watched the news
with the sound off, the blow-dries making their pretty faces--how long now? Soon
it would be too late to call Susan. She had to call Susan, but sipped again
from her spiked Seven-Up and put it off. From time to time she glanced up at
the clown print. When it hung too long at the periphery of her vision, the
vague smeared face hinted at a more dreadful one. And as she watched, her
fingertips traced her wrist. She should not be drinking. Not ever again.
Because her wrist which had been gripped...was sore now to
her touch. Her wrist which she must have gripped. Her wrist which
she had gripped...though she so clearly remembered
both her hands resting on the chrome rail of the gurney when that cold clench
had had melted every nerve in her body.
Except, of course,
an alcoholic "clearly remembering" was an oxymoron. She should not be drinking.
Not ever again.
The thing was, there was still tomorrow, and the orchard, and the
house to go into, and what she had faced in the mortuary had settled nothing,
had laid no ghosts. The thought of going into that house was as frightening as
it had ever been, going in and staying there. And she had to stay there without
drinking, facing everything and beating it cold, if she was to free herself at
last and forever. So she should flush this bourbon and start not drinking here
But she took another pull of bourbon and wryly thought that
perhaps the real reason for her drinking was, if she ever got totally sober,
she would finally realize she could never quit
Must call Susan or drive herself crazy. She dialed. It was picked
up so quickly, Susan must also be in bed, snatching the receiver from the
"Yeah, hon, it's me. Calling from the land of the dead and the
dead-tired." Trying to take the edge off things, sound amused about her
"You saw him, huh?"
"I saw him. He--" a giggle rose up in her "--he's a lot shorter
than I remembered him."
She could hear Susan trying to join her
laughter, but not really succeeding. Susan would be waiting to get past the
bravado and closer to her lover's pain. It irritated Karen. She didn't want Susan to get closer to her pain.
So she added, abruptly, "I know I mentioned it before and said I
wasn't going to, but I think I do have to go back to the place, deal with
it face to face. A couple days, maybe, is all I'll need...but I have to. I'm sorry."
"Hon," Susan began, striking a note that gently urged they get to the
heart of their feelings. This was a flashpoint between them. How angry Karen
had let it make her in their earlier days. But Karen had learned since then how
wrong an angry answer was. "You've got to forgive me, Karen. I've got to say
this. Will you let me?"
"Sure. It's nice just hearing your voice."
"You shouldn't do this alone! Move back in there alone! You
don't need to. Please let me be there with you and help you through it. You
were defenseless when you lived it; now you have an ally."
Karen imagined it: she and Susan bedding down together in the dark of
that house, Susan's lovemaking voice singing out in the silence of those rooms,
"Sue, if I can't do this alone, it's not facing him. Not by our rules. And he'll
never leave me then. He'll just keep eating me hollow. But maybe, after just a
little while, maybe things will look different...." Thinking to herself that maybe even this
was too much to be yielding and with half her heart whining Yes! Be with
me. I can't go in there alone!
"Your rules? His and yours?"
"Don't ask me to make sense, Sue. It's just that to face it I have
to relive it and I lived it alone. Mom just refused to know."
"...You'll call me tomorrow when you get there?"
"Tomorrow afternoon, yes. Tomorrow afternoon or tomorrow night."
She might not be up to talking to Sue right away. She was damned sure going to
arrive there in broad daylight, though.
And she did. It was in the blaze of noon that her tires sizzled up the gravel
drive again. And, amazingly to her, she was bone-sober. She took her foot from
the gas and let the truck coast to a stop, confronting the house once more.
Sitting bemused, Karen was amazed by what she had just accomplished. Waking
before sunrise, she'd jumped out of bed, peed, washed, and changed, flung her
things in the duffel, the duffel into the truck and roared onto the freeway.
It was whoosh all the way. An off-ramp down to a liquor store just
ahead? Whoosh. It sank behind in a blur. Pure onrush had kept her
panic bottled. (You can't go there sober! You can't go in there with your mind
naked!) But now here she was, sober in fact.
What had she done? Had she lost her mind?
Momentum. It was her only hope. She flung her door open and surged
from the truck. Jumped up those steps (worn round-edged by the years) up into
the Stonehenge shadow of the massive porch roof, her key already out. She
stabbed it into the lock like a dagger, shouldered open the heavy-boned door,
and plunged into the dimness where armchairs, armoires, tables, door-frames,
crowded her eyes with their ancient, intimate anatomies, sending through her a
ghostly rout of childhood days and nights.
All urgency vanished. She stood there accepting what had dawned on
her yesterday: that she had already been living here all along, had never lived
anywhere else. All the fear and pain and ancient sweetness that breathed from
every door and wall and chair around her now, had been the air she breathed
every day of her life.
Moving slowly, she began to engage the place. Downstairs first.
She pulled back the curtains, opened all the blinds and windows. Checked the
closets, meeting in the hall closet a twelve-gauge shotgun propped in one
corner, not surprised that Dad would have more than one, as the police must
have the one he'd used on himself.
The kitchen, its sunny utility porch...
These were Mom's domain and brought Karen warmer memories. Her big stainless
steel sink was on the porch in her canning nook with its worktable and shelves
of jars that breathed out an aura of luscious jams and jellies. And here by the
pantry door was her chopping table, its whole top a heavy cutting board which
whispered a breath of tomatoes and onions and beef, precursors of Mom's stew.
It was harder to go upstairs, to those bedrooms and closets. She
did little more than look into Mom and Dad's bedroom and her own, but in Mom's
sewing room she lingered. It echoed with all Mom's years of patient--maybe
desperate--labor, as if she sometimes had to work down her fear of what might be
happening to her daughter, stitch that fear down tight and fold it away. She
had to have feared, at least...hether or not she'd
successfully avoided knowing? All the silence Mom had suffered here. Pity
filled Karen's eyes and she wiped them angrily with her knuckles.
She went back downstairs. The dining room, the living room, the
hallways--all had become Dad's in the three years since Mom's death. There were
even more hand-guns and rifles showcased on the walls than she remembered. There
were other beefy hand-guns in unexpected drawers, like that of the telephone
table and the silverware drawer of the dining-room breakfront. And booze of
course, even more booze than before. Bottles of quality whiskeys and brandies
occupied every sideboard and end-table, occupied the mantel over the big
And here was the door, the one to the basement. Standing before
it, Karen tried for some bravado and declaimed, "That dark-browed, masterful
figure, that brooding, elemental man might now be gone forever from this earth,
but Karinna Foxxe felt his presence still in the long, echosome halls and
chambers of Foxxe Hall!" It fell flat. It didn't work without booze in her to
bring it off.
She toughed it out and, though cold to the bone, she opened the
basement door and stepped down, experiencing that same twinge she'd felt here
so long ago as Dad shepherded her past this point: up there was Mom's kingdom,
there in the kitchen with its warmth and good smells. Down here, where Karen
had to go, was Dad's much darker world.
The basement was unchanged. When she was six, it had been a
half-spooky playground, gloomy in the corners with spiders and racks of big
weapon-like tools, but basically safe because there was Daddy at his bench,
fixing things, making life work right for all three of them. When she turned
fourteen it became a true dungeon, where Dad grotesquely punished and shamed
her ignorant body with his own.
Still, one level deeper was a place that was worse than this: the
fruit cellar. Its door was at the basement's far end. Why were the times he'd
taken her down there the most frightening?
Do it and be through the worst.
She opened the
door, switched on the one yellow bulb, then sank down the steep wooden steps
into the deepest part of the house. The close air was honeyed with preserves.
The shelves of dark jars breathed a complex sweetness just bordering on
spoilage. These jars had walled her on either side when she was sprawled
beneath Dad's weight and though it was Mom who had filled them, there was no
help from Mom in those moments and her bright jars just blindly stared at
Karen, reflecting her fear.
But there was something else about this place that had made it the
worst place of all. Something about its being down at the level of the roots of
the orchard. As Dad rooted in her, she felt them all around her, just outside
the buried walls, those millions of greedy roots reaching toward her like
sharp, hairy fingers...
Karen had come all the way home now.
Hello, again. It's me.
When she came outside the sun was already halfway down the sky. It
shocked her. Well...ight was just going to have to be
faced. While the light was good, she'd explore the orchard, for the orchard
itself was one of the witnesses to her long-ago destruction. This army of trees
in which the house stood, their roots reaching beneath the house. The bigness
of their silence had always been a part of the house itself for her, a part of
its scariness at night when she was small.
She got in the truck and set it to rolling slowly down the lanes.
The weedy, draggled trees looked best in this slanting light--burnished,
bursting with foliage and fruit. Their battalions rode the gentle,
down-trending slopes of the land. The whole spread sank towards its southern
boundary. She saw it now ahead, down there near one end of the huge
plastic-cocooned compost heap: Dad's shed, his study and distillery in one.
Maybe she'd been wrong. Maybe there was a
worse place than the fruit cellar, though Dad had never taken her there in his
shed. Karen had rarely even been inside it.
For a while she rambled left and right down the harvesting lanes,
dropping southward a lane at a time, glimpsing the shed now and then through
breaks in the trees, until she found the nerve and the anger to take the next
turn straight down to it.
A faded plywood shed with a raked tar-paper roof. A big old
'fifties Chevy pick-up crouched under a shelter built off its side. That gray
brute of a truck... With a shudder--of fear, of course,
but also fascination--Karen walked to the bangy old screen door. She pulled it
open a few inches and let its spring pull it back to the jamb with a soft clap.
Way up there at the house on certain quiet summer afternoons,
lying in the grassy yard where Dad's personal fruit trees grew, Karen could
hear this screen door bang from almost half a mile away. Flopped on the grass
with some comic books, Karen might be absorbed, only half hearing the far faint
summery stir of the ocean of leaves around her. Mom was gone into Gravenstein for
shopping and the girl, restlessly trying to get at the gist of one of those
encyclopedic Superman thought-balloons, might be only remotely aware of the
wide-scattered outbursts of birds or the wandering hum of a bee.
Then, far out across that sea of leaves, would come that remote
this door. The minuscule distinctness of it, a micro-noise of wood clapping
wood! This the child could hear as clear as thunder. Dad had gone down to the
shed some hours ago. If he went down, he stayed drinking till dinnertime.
Except some of those times when Mom was gone somewhere. Would she hear the
microscopic truck next? Firing up to come up here?
...Yes, there it went. So faint to be so
unmistakable! But already that young girl knew how quick its roar would grow as
big as life, its tires come clawing to a stop at the yard's edge, Dad booming
from the cab, "Karen, get over here to me! Double-time, girl!" And if she was
not quick enough, he would grab her wrist and haul her up aboard...
Half-consciously Karen touched her wrist and found again last
night's tenderness, though lessened, it seemed. If only that memory of being
gripped were fading, were not still so stark, like madness, in her brain. Of
course, it was only memory she had felt in that mortuary room--the memory of
what had happened here.
Only? What was the difference between a delusion like that and the
full-blown DTs? Oh please, please don't let my brain already be that crippled
by alcohol. Oh that son of a bitch. That cruel black boar.
She yanked on the screen door and shouldered the inner door open.
She was surprised by how well she remembered this interior, though
it had all been so much neater, those few times she'd glimpsed it as a child.
Dad's desk-and-armchair corner, with all its miscellaneous freestanding shelves
and files walling it in, was now snow-drifted with papers, magazines, and books
in sagging stacks. The other half of the space was occupied by the still. The
benches and sinks, the trellises of copper tubing, the domed copper cookers,
the cooling fans stationed along the coils, the little bunged kegs of oak--all
looked orderly as ever, but dust-heavy cobwebs extravagantly festooned them.
She took a few steps towards the desk. Crowded with so much else,
there was still a place on it for the brandy cannon, its muzzle aimed at a
forty-five degree angle at the cobwebby roof-joists. A cut-glass howitzer that
She turned back and stood looking out through the screen door.
As a child, most of Karen's visits down here didn't bring her
inside. She would trot down across the acres in the late afternoon, important
and pleased with her errand, admiring the gold light on the swelling plums. She
would knock at the screen door and call, "Daddy! Mom says dinner is in one hour
From inside, his preoccupied, cheery voice. "Okay, Punkin! I'll be
What had happened in those years that came after? Those years when he
would step out of this shed and go up to find his daughter? She shoved open the
screen door, stepped out, and let it clap shut behind her. And stood there
looking up towards the house. You could just see the tops of Dad's prized
brandy-trees in the back yard, the peaches and apricots under which his
daughter lay reading. Because Dad, after the door banged, always stood looking
for a moment, didn't he? Because there was always that uncertain interval
between the far, tiny door-noise and the miniature engine-growl that followed
Yes, she was sure he had stood here, eyes probing that green
skyline for her, for that faraway long-ago girl. Stood staring here and
thinking...hat? Could she ever know? Perhaps, if she
could, it would kill her to know it. That brutal shit! He had murdered her
heart here, buried it here so many years ago. Now all that she had was his
sickness, but none of his reasons.
She snatched open the screen and slammed it wildly three times
back against the shed wall, as if she could shatter it. Then she went back into
the shed and flung herself down into Dad's big tattered leather armchair bought
at some yard sale before Karen's birth. At first she thought she was going to
root through his books and papers, search there for some fragments of his
thoughts, but she found she had eyes only for the brandy cannon.
It was a long-spouted two-gallon jug of thick faceted glass,
notched to rest on an axle between two wheels of carved wood. The neck of the
spout was wreathed with an almost indecipherably fine-cut design, something
with perhaps a dragon in it. It was filled only and always--filled now--with
Dad's own hundred-proof apricot brandy.
Karen reached and plucked out the glass stopper. A gust of Dad's
breath stung her eyes and nose, soft and stunning, a vaporous smack in the
face. For an instant his huge weight crushed down on her again, smothered her
smallness in that sweet stink of poisoned apricot.
"You really messed with me, didn't you, Cannon?" Her voice was
breaking, hot tears were sliding down her cheeks. "You shot me full of holes."
This was what she had come here to face. Right here. To hell with logic,
resolutions. This was the demon she had come here to wrestle.
No less than three dusty glasses stood near. She plucked the least
sticky one, polished it on the tail of her Pendleton. She pressed the cannon's
muzzle down and poured it--a generous tumbler-sized glass--full of gold. And she
took it down in a breath, in three long golden gulps.
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