The Genuine Article
It’s his common name, he suspects, that keeps him camouflaged. According to Wikipedia, “Chris Carter” could be a screenwriter, a synthesizer player, a honcho in the music biz, a politician in New Zealand or one of numerous sports figures—his favorite being the slugger who led the American League in strikeouts with 212, a heroic number of misses. A search engine offers umpteen more options, and even if you narrow the term to “Chris Carter murder,” you come up with myriad possibilities. It takes a long while to find the real ex-him, the guy who spent 16 years in jail for killing his stepmother when he was 14. It was a small-town sensation more than three decades ago, covered by a local newspaper that didn’t go digital until long past the turn of the millennium. You have to plow deep into the archives of the state court system to locate the case.
He still lives in the same state, in a city just 200 miles from the crime scene, and though he briefly considered changing his name, he stuck with the old, tarnished one. He believes in facing the truth, he tells himself. Yet right now he’s struggling with the need to reveal his story to the woman he suddenly loves more than he thought himself capable of loving.
He tries to reason himself out of a confession. Does she really have to know? Haven’t many decent people, even celebrated ones, maintained disguised identities? Arguably he didn’t have an identity at 14—that, to a large extent, was the problem. He had little sense of himself until age 37, when he could put two degrees after his name: a B.A. in psychology and an M.S. in occupational therapy. He got a job in a rehab clinic helping patients relearn to write, to use a telephone, to maneuver a wheelchair. This is who I am, he realized then. I help damaged people. In his view, he has nothing in common with a scared, reclusive kid who was found to be clinically depressed but still capable of distinguishing right from wrong, so why can’t that juvenile-tried-as-an-adult be omitted from his resume?
Of course, Penny in no way resembles the damaged people at the clinic. A third-grade teacher, she tells warm, amusing stories about her students and her own 12-year-old daughter. In one incident she related to him, her daughter threw a fit over a cell phone, demanding an ultra-expensive model with a fashion designer’s nameplate. Penny just laughs about the way she cajoled the girl into a compromise.
Once Penny learns Chris’s story, will she worry he can’t handle a situation like her daughter’s meltdown? Will she expect him to snap out sometime and smack the girl in the face? He’s certain he’d never do that now. He has hard-won perspective, he assures himself.
The thing is, as a 12-year-old—or 14 in his case—you lack perspective. You’re trapped in the narrow present, convinced the truths of your life will remain fixed forever. The sense of helplessness overwhelms you. That is how he explains to himself what happened.
Elmira. The name itself used to set his teeth on edge. He never liked her and couldn’t fathom why his father had married her. She was not a bad or mean person but incredibly annoying. Loud. Big and running to fat. Prone to orange sweatshirts and pink slacks. An atrocious cook who kept the house stinking of cabbage and grease. Always jabbering. Intrusive. The kind who’d throw open his bedroom door to insist he come watch something funny on TV, even if he was listening to the new Def Leppard album and reading the best sci-fi thriller ever written. Even if he’d told her he hated sit-coms. Even if, maybe, he had a hard-on under the sheet. Or else she’d carry on interminably about the need to make friends in ninth grade, though it was a huge county-wide high school where the seniors yanked his curly hair in the hall and the teachers struggled to remember the name of a nondescript little kid with mediocre marks.
Yet, for the sake of his father, he worked hard to get along with her. Both Walter Carter and Elmira Stearns were middle-aged by the time they got together—he 51, she 49—and each had one child and no other surviving relatives. Elmira’s husband had left when their daughter Marly was four. Chris came from a marriage that likewise ended when he was four, but more dramatically because his mother jumped off a bridge in the final act of a longstanding depression. Neither remaining parent dated much, and their wedding, when Chris was 12, may have cured a wretched loneliness for both. Which didn’t mean that Chris and his new stepsister had to like it, but Marly was lucky enough to escape immediately to college. He was stuck.
Before Elmira’s arrival he had done fine without a mother. Day care and then afterschool programs kept him busy, and he had an instinctual knack for blocking memories of the lost parent. He kept only a blurred image of a sticky feminine presence who would hug him tight while weeping into his hair. In his mind this became an unpleasant tableau that reeked of tears mixed with deodorant and sweat—and lurking behind those odors, the specter of mental illness and death. Naturally he wanted to stay free of that.
In many ways, having only one parent, an abstracted and half-oblivious father, proved an advantage. No one pestered him to be home at a certain hour or to eat the carrots in his lunch box. He could make sure there were no carrots in his lunch box. Moreover, Chris got to watch raunchy TV shows that his peers caught only in glimpses, and the music he listened to was never censored, his father having no clue about the lyrics.
To be honest, Chris had occasional moments of rage in those years, usually directed at a female who put too much pressure on him, the worst being the time he hit a teacher and a fellow student. This happened during a paired learning activity when his partner, smarty-pants Randi with her squeaky voice and long pigtails smelling of fruity shampoo, interrupted his oral reading with a niggling correction every five words or so. He finally screeched at Randi, and when the teacher intervened, pulling him back into her body, he cuffed her on the knee. As the teacher let go, Randi stuck her face in to say he was acting stupid, so he smacked the girl’s nose as well, cracking it. But he was only six when that happened, in first grade, and after several sessions with a school psychologist it was written off as a bad temper tantrum, perhaps exacerbated by the teacher’s clumsy restraint. He apologized to the teacher and Randi. No other incident required medical or psychological intervention.
When Elmira was forced upon him, Chris tried his best to get along, and in the early going he succeeded. As long as his father was healthy, she had a focus for her hectoring. She could nag Walter about lawn care or drafty windows or his favorite ratty flannel shirt; she could demand to know why he wasn’t eating the barbecued short ribs made with her aunt’s best recipe, though he’d told her multiple times he couldn’t abide fatty meat. She’d once owned a shop for antiques and collectibles and now amused herself with flea markets, so the house Walter brought to the marriage was soon overstuffed with Hummel figurines, vintage cake plates and once-popular brands of dolls and teddy bears. Walter accepted this junk with an occasional sigh, probably glad of the excuse it gave her to travel around the region. He was a workaholic anyway, spending late hours at his machine repair shop where he dealt with antiques of a different sort: sputtering lawn tractors, sewing machines, industrial vacuums. In Chris’s interpretation, his dad labored especially long hours to avoid Elmira—and the overwork contributed to the stroke.
With his stepsister off at college, Chris was the only resource Elmira could call on when, a week after Valentine’s Day, Walter crashed to the bathroom floor after breakfast. Chris was the one who phoned the emergency line while Elmira screamed and tried to revive her husband by slapping and poking. Later Chris had to interpret the doctors’ messages when Elmira was too upset (or too stupid, he sometimes thought) to understand. He ordered pizza late at night for both of them. He cleared the table and did the dishes while she phoned the nurses’ station for the seventh time in four hours.
All in all, he acted mature beyond his years, and he was proud of himself for that. But when he escaped to his room for some welcome relief, it felt like his world had broken its anchor. His bed with its old plaid comforter drifted aimlessly on a vinegary sea, bumping against a murky cloudbank overhead.
On the second day Walter woke up and said a few words in a slurred voice. Despite this progress, Elmira’s anxiety continued to make her foolish, unable to understand the nurses or find her way to the cafeteria. Though Walter needed to sleep, she babbled at him till a nurse eased her out of the room. Chris steered her around the halls, her fleshy forearm wedged into his side, her wide hazel irises swimming spasmodically like fish caught in a trawl. That night she demanded he sit with her on the couch, watching game shows, sitcoms and prime-time soap operas for distraction. Until then he hadn’t realized how preposterous Dynasty could be—a show to which Elmira was addicted. Though she had only picked at her dinner, she ate a pint of ice cream while the psychiatrist seduced the oil tycoon’s daughter. He imagined he could see the fat of her arms ballooning.
On the third morning Walter had a second stroke, and then another in the afternoon while Elmira squeezed his unfeeling hand in the ICU. Both Elmira and Chris were outraged at the hospital and doctors for not forestalling these attacks. But at 7:00 p.m., when the lead neurologist offered a grim prognosis, they were too overwhelmed to yell or weep. They headed home, and Elmira’s erratic driving on the ice—heavy throttle mixed with heavy brake—nearly killed them.
She chattered for the rest of the night: Reasons the doctors could be wrong. Evidence of Walter’s strength, such as the time he’d lifted a lawn tractor off his foot. Speculation about the side effects of medications whose names she mangled. Misinformation about the patient’s blood oxygen level. Specialty hospitals where he might be transferred. What he would want them to do if he could speak. Whether he had blinked that afternoon.
She phoned her daughter at college, for the fifth time since Walter’s collapse, and talked for 45 minutes, Chris hoping all the while that Marly would get the message to come home. But three times he heard Elmira insist that Marly not interrupt her studies unless, unless … (sobs choked back).
He did want to be the family stalwart, to provide the emotional support Elmira needed. Introverted kids don’t get much chance to be heroes. But gloom started to close over him, and around 10:30 he hid again in his room, where the cloudbank above the bed darkened and pressed down tighter. The carpet rolled like waves. Four times Elmira burst in on him, asking hysterically if they should do this or that. There was nothing to do but wait, he tried to tell her. She couldn’t hear that.
After her final intrusion, he whapped his head on the wall until he got dizzy. He cried a little and let his resentment blow into a silent storm. When he slept at last, he dreamed of running down an endless hospital corridor. The walls closed in and there was no escape from that infinite bone-white tunnel.
In the morning, staggering out at 6:30, he found her smearing the mail from the past two days around the coffee table. Had she slept at all?
“Any news from the hospital?” he asked.
“I don’t know what bills he’s paid,” she whined. “$76.80 for gas, should I take care of that?”
“You don’t have to do anything today,” he advised, still reaching for wisdom, but the effect was muted when he tripped on one of her recent purchases, a Shirley Temple doll that had tumbled off the mantelpiece it shared with four of its siblings.
“Be careful of that!” she yelped. As he dropped into an armchair, she retrieved the wayward moppet, brushed it off with care and set it back on the mantel next to a scalloped cake plate and a 30-inch imitation grandfather clock with a Mickey Mouse face. Then she came over and hugged Chris, smushing his nose into her flabby shoulder. Her bathrobe smelled of old sweat and years of too-sweet perfume. “You’re being so brave,” she moaned, “I wish I could be as brave as you but I can’t get my head straight, it’s just too awful.”
He strained to catch his breath against the saggy upper-arm flesh that engulfed his face. Bile rose in his throat and the room turned brown. The lamp by the couch had a sickly orange halo around it. If Dad never came home, he thought in a panic, there’d be no one to save him from this. He’d be trapped here for years until he could make a break for college.
This wasn’t bravery, it was despair, the worst he’d ever felt. He remembered his mother’s solution—where was the nearest bridge?
“We should get some breakfast,” he muttered, beginning to pry himself out of her grasp. When he slid out of the chair toward the mantel, the motion was more abrupt than he intended, and she teetered, thrown off balance as he jerked away and stood up. To cover this maneuver he chattered, “Did you eat anything yet? You need to keep up your strength.” He had the stomach-turning sense that his words were as empty as the dialogue on Dynasty.
Recovering her balance, she stiffened and trembled at the same time, like a twitchy marionette. “Oh!” she said. “Oh!”
“How about fried eggs?” Though he was far from a good cook, he thought he could manage, unlike Elmira, not to shatter the yolks. The thought of eggs made him queasy, though.
“I see,” she moaned. “All right.… I shouldn’t.”
“Shouldn’t have breakfast? Yeah, you should. Would you rather have scrambled?”
Now she turned away and refused to catch his eye. “You can’t be expected,” she stated in an almost haughty tone.
“Hmm? Expected to what?”
“To do … what needs to be done here. To help me.”
“Huh? What have I been doing?” he snapped. She was offended because he jostled her while trying to get away? How idiotic!
“I’m skipping school again today to go to the hospital with you,” he went on angrily. “I’m missing a biology test. I’ll help with the bills if you think they have to be paid. I’m going to cook the eggs. What else do you need me to do?”
In spite of the edge to his voice, both his words and the emotion behind them seemed random, as if someone else were feeling and talking while he asphyxiated from hopelessness.
“I have to call Marly,” she declared with an imperious tilt of the nose. “My daughter. She cares about me.”
Though bringing Marly home was exactly what he’d wished for, he barked, “Are you saying I don’t care? With all I’ve been—”
“You’ve never,” she said in a mix of whine and scorn, “treated me like your mother. For two years, two years, two whole years I’ve been just an interloper to you.”
“That’s not fair!”
“It’s true!” She advanced on him, shaking a finger in his face, assaulting him once more with her perfume. He wobbled, dizzy and fully nauseous now, trapped in the huge pungent presence of her.
It was fight back or drown, and he reached wildly for anything to save himself. By evil luck, the nearest object on the mantel wasn’t one of the Shirley Temples. It was the heavy cake plate made of Depression glass with a thick pedestal. It shattered in his hand as it smashed her face, and when she toppled, her head bounced like a melon on the floor.
Two days later, while Chris dozed in a jail cell with his lacerated arm bandaged, his father also died.
* * *
Though Chris was not accused of meaning to kill Elmira, the attack was characterized as malicious and intending harm, leading to a charge of murder in the third degree. Represented by a court-appointed lawyer who, he later realized, did a lackluster job, Chris pleaded guilty. It was an era of strict, inflexible punishment, and he had no urge to defend himself or mitigate his fate. When he saw Marly among the spectators in the courtroom, he felt her taut-lipped stare was worse than anything the law could do to him.
In those half-awake moments when he relived the final scene with Elmira, it gave him the shakes. But when a court psychologist asked about it, he couldn’t bring much emotion to the conversation. Did he “feel sorry” about his actions?—sure. Did he “regret” them?—yes. Elmira did not deserve her fate. But regretting what he had done didn’t mean wishing she were still alive; indeed, it was hard to feel anything for her personally. Whether that made sense he didn’t know, and he couldn’t explain it to anyone. Overall, his remorse was like a lump he carried in his abdomen, the way a wounded soldier bears an irretrievable piece of shrapnel.
Oddly, his prison experience had a few benefits. Over the 16 years inside, he earned his high school equivalency degree, and he acquired useful skills such as rudimentary plumbing and carpentry. Most important, the prison doctors prescribed medication for his depression, and he became a more even-tempered person.
He also had his initiation into sex, and that was not so pleasant. In his first prison he was molested by older boys, and in later years, in adult facilities, the aggression turned into rape on two occasions. Infuriated, he fought back, enough to land himself and others in the infirmary, but after the second incident he realized his rage did no good. He decided to control, or at least manage, the derangements evoked by the brutality of prison. Gradually he discovered a paradoxical freedom in helplessness, peace in desolation. He read books about Zen and began to practice his own version of meditation. As much as possible he kept to himself, engaging neither with other inmates nor with the staff.
He also developed, not a strong identity, but a certain feeling of personal integrity based mostly on what he did not do: he did not steal from other prisoners, gamble, snitch to the guards, use drugs, tell routine lies or spit in people’s stew. He never denied his guilt, criticized his sentence or even spoke of such matters. While serving his full term, he never sought parole.
He had grown into a man of average height with a rounded, almost chubby face that made him look younger than his actual years—ironically as if life had forgotten to mark him. His hair remained curly, dark and thick. Only his habit of looking to the side, away from people’s gaze, suggested a painful history.
After his release from prison, he went to college, got his degrees, went to work—luckily the state did not demand a criminal background check for jobs at outpatient clinics—and by that point he understood Elmira better. An aging, scared, weak, hysterical woman who had no escape from her terrors: in a way she’d been trapped as much as he, and perhaps she had truly loved the husband she was losing. Grasping that, he felt an abstract pity for her. Yet this softening never led him to contact Marly, whom he’d left as alone in the world as himself; she was one judge he could never confront.
Today the shrapnel remains, that guilt that forever marks him, and so does the ghost of his own hopelessness. In his time behind bars, even while being raped, he had never felt so desperate as when he faced living for years with Elmira. How appropriate, he thinks, that the weapon was Depression glass, and how unbearable it would be if that desolation ever returned.
* * *
As it turns out, it’s love that brings the hopelessness back, along with a ridiculous, contradictory optimism.
Working a 6:30 to 2:30 shift at the clinic, he stops at a coffee shop on his way home, where he browses news and sports sites as a way to unwind. This is better than heading straight to the isolation of his small apartment. Penny similarly relaxes with a mug of cocoa between sending her students home and picking up her daughter from afterschool sports. Among the regular customers who occupy tables in mid-afternoon, they are the only ones over 40, perhaps the sole people over 30. They begin to nod to each other over their electronic devices, and eventually they chat.
As they share their interests and bits of their histories, he mentions where he got his undergraduate and graduate degrees without revealing that he started in his thirties. He talks seriously about his job and the people he helps. He tries to make his life sound interesting, and he concentrates on not letting his glance duck away.
Like him, Penny wears no wedding ring. A short, slender woman with winter-pale skin and slivers of gray in her dark hair, she went to a much fancier university than he, and evidently didn’t have to work her way through as he did, but there is no pretension about her. When she purses her lips in concentration, lines crease her cheeks, and for him these marks of age add to her appeal. Sometimes he’s panicked in her presence, but they grow friendly, with subtle signals that they both look forward to these not-quite-chance meetings, and after several weeks they get together for a movie on a Sunday afternoon.
In the dark of the theater he sweats like a 14-year-old on a first date. In point of fact, this is his first date in more than a decade. During his college years, surrounded by women half a generation younger than he, his attempts were undermined by multiple layers of self-consciousness. He was too old, too inexperienced, too criminal. Just once did he get a girl into his bed, and then he was astonished and insulted by the way she left as soon as they were finished. He couldn’t understand what had gone wrong, and the notion that nothing had gone wrong was even more unsettling. It seemed better not to try again.
Since leaving the university, he has pursued no one until Penny. He has never used online dating sites, partly because they would invite exposure, but mainly because, in an environment where people routinely lie about themselves for little reason, he would find it particularly despicable to lie for a big reason. There is some comfort—cold comfort, to be sure—in telling himself he doesn’t meet the qualifications for sex, whatever they may be.
Thus he’s relieved when his and Penny’s arms touch only once during the movie, by accident. That night, however, alone in his apartment, he gets frantic with yearning. His legs shake. His thoughts skitter. During the 93 minutes of the movie, with no more incitement than the occasional faint noise of her breathing, he has leaped from interest to infatuation to all-out romantic drunkenness. In prison he learned to subdue sexual cravings, but now they make him as helpless as he was in all-out depression, and this terrifies him. At the same time he realizes how absurd he is. Hopeful, hopeless, he can’t predict what he’ll do next. Jump out the window? Send a jokey text to the phone number she gave him? Guzzle beer until he falls asleep?
Though he tries to subdue his excitement with meditation, his mind refuses to empty itself of images of Penny’s face and arms and imaginary visions of her hidden parts. Giving up on Zen, he searches online for information about her, turning up only dry details about her job and education that he already knows. He wonders if she’s tried searching his background, and if so whether she’ll persist long enough to unearth his secret, which he pictures glowing gaudily in the dark recesses of the Internet. He feels desperate and alive.
For the next three days he avoids the coffee shop, and when he turns up at last on Thursday, he is clumsily apologetic. Though Penny seems to accept his vague excuses, he wonders what she really thinks. He spills coffee on his shirt and pretends that a passerby bumped his arm.
* * *
Squishing theraputty onto Mr. Pochowski’s middle two fingers, Chris instructs him to spread them apart with as much force as he can.
“This is for the ladies, huh?” says the elderly stroke victim.
“It’s for everyone. It strengthens the muscles and improves coordination.”
“Foreplay,” says the old man in the chair, wiggling his fingertips. “What they like, no?”
His eyes glint up at Chris, who laughs. Here at work, Chris feels easier and more relaxed than in any other setting.
“Our focus right now,” he tells the patient, “is your activities of daily living, and if that’s the activity you’re most concerned about …”
“I have a reputation to keep up, I’m countin’ on you to get me back in action, Chris.”
“We’re working on it. As hard as you can, now, move those fingers.”
“What about you? I don’t see no ring, you playin’ the field? You aren’t gay, are you?”
Chris blushes. “No.”
“You got a girlfriend?”
“Come on, pay attention. Back and forth, please.”
“How ’bout that gal Amber at the front desk, she’s cute, boobs like pumpkins. She says how can I help you, I say, how’s about you come over my place tonight?”
“You have not said that to her. Both your arms would be broken by now.”
“I’m sayin’ she’d be a good one for you. I bet you can handle her.” With his free hand, Mr. Pochowski does an excellent imitation of squeezing a breast.
Chris laughs again. “I don’t know,” he demurs. “I have enough trouble with patients like you. I’ll give you a sheet of exercises, and I want you to do them three times a day.”
“My theory is, you gotta strike while you can. These women today, they don’t need us no more. They got jobs. They order babies from Guatemala. If they ever feel a tingle they can’t satisfy, they get the electric gadgets from Amazon.”
Chris shakes his head in mock dismay. “Mr. Pochowski, you are a character.”
“That’s what my last wife said.”
* * *
The next week, while munching biscotti in the coffee shop, Penny claims that her grandmother’s paella recipe surpasses that of a famous downtown tapas bar. Chris says “Hrmmm,” in which she detects a note of skepticism, leading to a spontaneous invitation to cook for him, after which she bites her lip and looks surprised at herself. But remembering Mr. Pochowski’s advice, Chris seizes the offer before she can retract it.
Actually he has never been to a tapas bar. Nor has he been to a woman’s place for dinner, and he agonizes about what that means. Does a private meal in her apartment suggest sex afterward? He feels as if his knowledge of social conventions dates not from the previous century when he was sent to jail but from a century before that.
If she does want sex, will it be obvious he has practically no experience? His lust at the prospect overshadows his terror, but he’s apprehensive about going to bed with her under a false pretense—the pretense that she’d still want to associate with him if she knew who he was. If he tells her afterward, will she be overwhelmed with disgust and hatred? But he doesn’t dare tell her before because he’ll lose the chance.
How long, he calculates, can he keep his secret? Say he lives to his father’s age, 53—that’s only seven years from now. At work he’s maintained his facade longer that that, though admittedly no one at the clinic aside from Mr. Pochowski has an interest in the lives of the therapists.
It’s not deceit if you simply omit certain facts, right?
At last, on a Saturday night, this 46-year-old conflicted 14-year-old drives to the condo address Penny gave him, bearing a bottle of Spanish Garnacha that he has spent half an hour choosing in the liquor store. It has taken him even longer to pick the right clothes from his collection of nondescript chinos and cotton shirts. It is within four days of the 32nd anniversary of his crime.
The doorman phones upstairs, directs him to the elevator. The apartment door is opened by a large, top-heavy blonde woman in her sixties, wearing dark tan slacks and a long-sleeved yellow blouse. “Hi, Chris,” she says.
“Uh?” he pants, suddenly sweating under his winter coat.
“I’m Penny’s mother. Marlene.”
He then remembers that Penny had said, “You may get to meet my mom,” an enigmatic comment that barely registered at the time. But the main source of his confusion is that Marlene is the full name of his stepsister Marly. This woman doesn’t look like Marly, but her hair and body type give her a strong resemblance to none other than Elmira.
Confronted by this weird combination of the mother he murdered and the sister he orphaned, he has to fight an impulse to bolt back to the elevator, and it takes several seconds for him to notice the hand Marlene holds out. He shakes it gingerly. “I’ve heard a lot about you,” she adds. “Come in.”
At this point he hardly perceives the dashing of his romantic hopes. As he steps in, he’s awed by the size of the living room and the prosperity implied by the contemporary sectional sofa, bronze lamps, Oriental rugs, shining parquet floor.
“Excuse the mess,” she says, “we don’t get many visitors.” Her proprietary air suggests that the apartment belongs to her rather than Penny. But why would Penny invite him to her mother’s home? Do they both live here?
“Um, this is a beautiful place, I don’t see any mess.”
“My papers—I had to bring work home from APP.” She waves at a neat stack on the coffee table. “I’m just putting it away.”
“Adult Probation and Parole. I’m director of the anti-violence units. We fight recidivism with mountains of paper,” she smiles. “And the more the system is computerized, the more paper we produce.”
Parole? Though he never applied for parole, his gaze rotates like a trapped firefly. Routinely the state board reviews major cases before a prisoner is let out, so won’t she have seen his records? She said she’d “heard a lot” about him—but she let him in the door—what does that mean?
If the combination of coincidences were merely astonishing, Chris could scram. But the situation feels surreal, almost supernatural. He’s been captured again, set up for exposure and punishment by powers far beyond his control. In his mind he hears a metal gate slamming.
After taking his coat to a closet, Marlene says, “Penny’s in the kitchen.” The apartment is so vast he can’t make out the way to the kitchen. As he hesitates, she scoops up her papers—which he’s convinced contain a summary of his own case—and marches down a hall, calling out, “Robin, Robin, our guest is here.”
A couple of minutes later, while he stands rooted in place, a skinny dark-haired girl pokes her head out of the hall. “Hello,” she says, grimacing.
This must be Penny’s daughter, but he can’t manage to speak before she disappears again.
Marlene clumps back in. “Where’s that girl? I told her to come out of her cave and say hello.”
He summons all his courage to pretend everything is normal. “She did. She said hello. Just that.” He tries to smile wittily, and Marlene offers a wry version of her granddaughter’s grimace.
“Well, our family isn’t always so rude.” She takes the bottle of wine that he has been strangling by its neck since he entered. “This looks good, thank you. Come, let’s find Penny. Last I saw, she was hacking tomatoes with a bread knife. I gather she’s tricked you into believing she’s a good cook.”
“No, she … I mean, she said it was her grandmother’s recipe.”
“Grandmother on her father’s side. I think the talent has skipped recent generations, but Penny may surprise me yet. I’m always willing to be surprised.”
As they approach the kitchen, two things at the periphery of his consciousness grow dominant: a rich oniony tomatoey seafoody smell and the pounding rock of an old album by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Penny, her face moist and hair disheveled, is beating a wooden spoon on the paella pan in time with the music. “Oh no,” she cries when she spots Chris. “I didn’t hear him come in. I’m not ready.”
“Turn down the music!” Marlene cups her mouth in a mock-yell. “Don’t splash that sticky broth on my stove!”
Penny punches a button on the stereo and then grins lopsidedly. “Hi, Chris.”
He looks at the gleaming wood cabinets, his knees trembling. “Hey, Penny.”
After this awkward start, the evening smooths out. Penny, though clearly nervous, is talkative and funny. Chris, though convinced Marlene has the goods on him, controls his alarm enough to chat with a semblance of normality. At any moment the truth will burst into view, but the quietude he learned in prison comes into play. After all, if he’s about to be denounced as a fraud, what more is there to worry about? Only his stomach runs riot, and he must exercise strict control over potential belches and farts.
At one point Marlene says privately, in semi-apology, “Sorry if I’m intruding on your evening, Chris. But when Penny mentioned this guy she met in a coffee shop, I was so skeptical I had to stick around to see if you were the genuine article. I don’t believe in coffee shops as social centers.”
Again he wonders—she hasn’t yet dug up his case, but she does guess he’s far from a genuine article? Or she has and she knows?
The meal turns out to be excellent. In a spacious dining area adorned with contemporary paintings and lit by a chandelier of rounded glass balls—very modern-looking, he thinks—Marlene eats heartily, Penny and Chris politely, and 12-year-old Robin picks at her plate. Marlene, speaking with an air of expertise, praises the wine Chris brought, and after that bottle is finished opens a Syrah, which she pours liberally for herself and him. Rolling it on his tongue, he tries to discern whether it contains truth serum.
The pinkish wine glasses, Marlene says, are what’s left of her mother’s set of Depression glassware—“pretty stuff but cheaply made”—and she nods as if he should grasp the significance. He shivers and drinks more to steady himself.
Penny tells a story about her students on Valentine’s Day, when she gave each one a handmade, personalized card. One boy was so embarrassed at the sentimental note from his teacher that he wouldn’t look at her the entire day. “He was so funny. ‘Davey, Davey,’ I kept saying, ‘where are you? Is your mind here on Planet Earth? Hello? Earth to Davey!’ Finally one of the girls told me his problem. How she guessed I don’t know, but I think she was jealous because she has a crush on him.”
“That is so juvenile,” comments Robin.
“It was just a few years ago you were in third grade, honey,” Penny reminds her. “You needn’t act so superior.”
“But that kid is stupid.”
“Davey? No, he’s one of the brightest in my class.”
“Anyway it’s all dumb. The Valentine’s bit. Hearts and flowers and cards and chocolate and shit.”
“Language, Robin, please.”
The girl, who has disdained all ingredients of the paella except two shrimps wiped clean of sauce, throws her fork down. “Everybody knows it,” she declares. “Shit, shit, shit. What Planet Earth is all about.”
“Okay, stop,” says Penny. “You cannot sit with us at the table if you’re going to be rude and obnoxious.”
“Thank you!” the girl shouts, and while stalking away she flings her cloth napkin behind her. It lands in the paella serving dish.
Penny looks stricken. “I’m so, so sorry,” she says; “this is inexcusable.” She hastens after her daughter.
Marlene sighs and raises her eyebrows as she plucks the napkin out of the food. “I’m afraid my granddaughter’s kind of unpredictable. More wine?”
Already lightheaded, Chris motions a negative, but Marlene refills his glass anyway.
“I should tell you …” She pauses to consider, drinks again, then goes on, “… they haven’t had an easy time of it, these girls. Not that I want to scare you or anything, you already seem nervous. Still, you shouldn’t be … drawn into a situation—” She takes a deep pull at the Syrah.
“I’m not,” he says, “I mean, not scared of that.” He gulps and then hastens to set the proper direction. “It’s just I, uh, feel for Penny, whatever’s going on with Robin, it’s a difficult age. I wasn’t an easy kid myself.” He angles this mixture of sincerity and smokescreen toward Marlene’s left shoulder.
“Well … it snuck up on them, in a way. Abuse can start like that. Isolated incidents, fights, it was easy to find excuses. At least for Penny it was.”
“Sure,” he agrees, bewildered.
“Until the final time. She’s never told me how it began but it ended with him ripping clothes off her in front of the girl, and then he smacked Robin when she tried to intervene.”
He’s stunned. “Oh. God.”
“I’m talking about …”—Marlene stares at him now over the glass, eyes grim, lips moist, her large head swaying, and he tries not to look away—“I shouldn’t be telling you this, but I want you to be careful with them both … I’m talking about my ex-son-in-law.”
“Hrmmm.” Chris’s throat clogs from the congestive effect of outrage and sympathy.
“But the girl makes excuses for her father, Robin does, you know—complicated feelings. In spite of my knowledge of the court system, it’s taken a lot of lawyering to keep him away, and Robin resents it.”
Trying to frame a response, he mumbles into his plate. Aside from protective impulses toward Penny, he’s feeling a sudden affinity for the girl who has been nothing but rude to him, and now there’s another ghost in the room, his 14-year-old self who wants to share with Robin their mutual anger and despair. He takes an uneasy drink of wine, but instead of calming him it makes his brain fuzzier and his stomach jumpier.
“I’m telling you,” Marlene goes on, “because you’re the first, after three years, to come in here and make her think she can start a normal life again. Is it time yet? I don’t know. So … just a word of caution. I don’t want them hurt anymore.”
Marlene’s head continues to sway, from emotion or alcohol, and Chris now perceives part of her role here: to clue him in that her daughter and granddaughter are damaged people. Which, paradoxically, makes him feel less awkward and afraid, because he knows about damage and has been trained to deal with it.
“Penny’s father,” Marlene murmurs, “had a touch of it too. But he didn’t dare lay a hand on me or my children. Sometimes I suspect all men have it in them, you know?”
The “it” remains unspecified, but her direct gaze across the table, with the dark knowing pupils swimming in an ocean of greenish brown, takes him back once more to those she represents. He doesn’t hate Elmira now, he realizes, he can meet her glance. And Marly’s too. In fact he’s drawn to them both. Pulled deep into those eyes, he sinks woozily into the full physical presence of this mother-sister-judge. Is it her perfume he’s smelling now, drifting over the wine and seafood?
This may be the moment. In his eerie state, suspended between two points in space-time, his head swaying in concert with Marlene’s, he begins to frame his apology, though he doesn’t know whether his tongue is still under his control.
Penny’s return breaks the spell. “Robin’s going to bed early. She admits she’s not fit right now for civilized company. She says she’s sorry, Chris.”
Yanked back into the present, he’s disoriented. He blinks while he parses Penny’s words and reminds himself how to speak. “No problem,” he manages to say. After a gulp of wine he adds, “I get it … where she’s coming from.”
“Yeah?” Penny looks from Chris to her mother and senses something. “Wait. Mom, have you been talking about us?”
“No,” says Marlene.
“A little,” says Chris.
“Shit,” says Penny, “to quote my daughter. Why couldn’t we have dinner without exposing our psychopathology?”
“It’s not like that,” Chris assures her. This persona of his, the one that goes on talking like a normal person, amazes him.
“Relax, honey. Have another glass of wine,” says Marlene, taking another swallow herself.
Scrunching her lips, Penny examines the table. “There’s—I guess we’re done with the paella, with or without a napkin in it—there’s dessert, and coffee if you want it. I’ll clear the table.”
“I’ll help you,” he says, standing. “But before dessert, I—” He takes a deep breath, almost snorting in his intensity. Is this really Chris Carter who’s talking? “First … first, I’ve got a story to tell you. About stuff much worse than throwing a napkin. And worse”—he catches Marlene’s eye—“worse than any kind of … what you said.” Out of a delicacy that seems bizarre under the circumstances, he refrains from uttering the word abuse.
“Is this about your own family?” Penny looks troubled, the lines in her cheeks deepening. A strand of damp hair has stuck to her forehead.
He has an overpowering urge to hug her, which would not be appropriate, so he stumbles as he gathers dishes. “I should say right now,” he mutters, his voice stiffening into formality, “how much I’ve enjoyed this dinner with you both … because, because when you hear me out, you may not want to offer me dessert.”
“Huh?” Penny wonders. “Why wouldn’t we … ?”
Chris straightens with a stack of dirty plates at his chest. “We’ll find out if I’m, quote, the genuine article.”
“The what?” says Penny.
“Right.” Marlene sends him her parole-officer gaze, blurred by alcohol. “We’ll get to the bottom of everything. But dessert is only imitation New York–style cheesecake from the corner deli. Not genuine at all, so you can have it regardless. As long as—watch out!—you don’t drop my good china. Careful!”
With shaky hands he juggles the dishes to the kitchen until they slide safely into the sink. He turns to see Penny behind him, watching him rather than the plates, and he has to suppress an anxious fart.
“You have me intrigued,” she teases.
He produces a tilted, jittery grin, which he thinks is genuine.
About the Author Sam Gridley is the author of the novels THE SHAME OF WHAT WE ARE and THE BIG HAPPINESS. His fiction and satire have appeared in more than fifty magazines and anthologies. He has received two fellowships from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, a Wallace Stegner Fellowship from Stanford University, and several honors from magazines. He lives in Philadelphia with his wife and neurotic dog and at the website http://gridleyville.wordpress.com/
This story was first published in HR 84. It was the winner of the Ian MacMillan Awards.
About the Artist Rebecca Pyle is both artist and writer. This summer she helped complete an almost endless gold-and-green mural full of Celtic knots and dragons on a stucco wall in Salt Lake City; many years ago she was a set painter for a theater company in Kansas. See artwork by Rebecca Pyle at rebeccapyleartist.wordpress.com.