The old servant held the light in Richard’s face and would not take it away until he made sure Richard would get up. “I think you should take this call, sir,” he said in a serious voice. “It’s your mother. I think something has happened.” The light quivered against the wall then as the servant retreated.
That’s how it began, the scandal prominent people around our proud little town will not mention to outsiders unless it is seen they are about be accepted by the town. Then the whispering begins. Some people lived here for years and never hear one word breathed about it. Others know everything within a month or two, especially how awful Richard treats his own mother to this day. Hurts her with details about the event whenever he can. There is just no end to it really, for although the family is prominent, Southern as cotton, it isn’t exactly noble. Not at all.
That was fifteen years ago that the call came in the night from his mother. It was about Richard’s wife. And his brother. Two people who hated each other to such a depth they seldom spoke even at Christmas. Now they had been found smashed together, killed in a car crash. Everyone was in unspeakable shock. These two people loathed one another so much the family had to be careful not to include them in the same gatherings. So no one could explain what they were doing together in a car speeding eighty-five miles an hour down a Boston thruway, six hundred miles away from home. Henrik, Richard’s brother, was supposed to be in Chicago at the time, and Richard’s wife, Windy , was supposed to be in California. Eyes opening then, eyes looking to one another. Eyes filled with terrible wondering thoughts.
Richard had taken the phone then to hear his mother’s voice, distraught and sobbing, but angrily screaming for Richard to come and explain, as if he knew something. As if he were to blame. It was wrong of her of course. He’d been wounded and rattled by his mother’s accusation which hurt him the more as he drove towards her----in the dark, out of the quiet suburb where he lived with his wife, the woman they said was dead, but whose night gown hit his eye when he turned on the light, hanging there in her bathroom, along her silky bathrobe, her pink house shoes with the little heels and silly feathers that blew around when she walked. He remembered glancing at these objects in disbelief, thinking the phone call might have been a nightmare.
But then he was on the lawn of his parents’ house, the big stone mansion that overlooked the great Mississippi where the family had made its fortune in the river boat shipping business even before the Civil War and the surrender.
Cars were parked in a haphazard way, as if the drivers had jumped out before the motor was shut off. His uncle’s black Mercedes. The Judge’s car. The Pastor’s. His sister Mandy’s sports car. The house was packed apparently. Through the window he could see his mother’s shape, her white hair and bent shoulders hulking about the room on her walker. She was sixty and a stoke victim. She looked up when Richard opened the door and shouted an obscenity at him.
Someone offered him a drink. Everyone was drinking something. “She’s not in her right mind, Rich. Be good to her about it. They’re flying the bodies home in an hour,” they told him. They told him other things too, quickly, but his mind went back to his mother, what could she mean, blaming him for this? What had happened anyway?
“Oh, you didn’t know, did you? You dumb.....! Everything always did go over your head, didn’t it? You! You have caused your brother’s death!” And she actually raised her walker and tried to shove it against his legs before collapsing and weeping, “Oh, Henrik! Henrik , don’t leave me, son! Son, son, don’t leave me in this awful world with nothing but a stupid fool like your brother here. Get out of my sight, Richard! Get out of my sight!”
And Richard had left then. He was visited immediately by his sister, Amanda, and other relatives who tried to comfort him. Then they tried to get his secrets. They suspected at first that he was lying when he said he had no notion of Wendy and Henrik. They realized his innocence. So maybe his mother was correct after all and he was just a simpleton, a stunted personality. For how could he not know? How could the others not know either? No doubt, bit by bit, a picture of the two would be put together in their minds. Henrik was a few years older than Richard. Had never married. He was a secretive man, pale and round faced with his black homburg and expensive overcoats, with that look of edgy forbearance about him he’d inherited from his mother.
Henrik had opposed Richard’s marriage, everyone now remembered. The woman was “Not Ricky’s Type…”, and somehow the woman learned of this and was never friendly to Henrik.
“You don’t want to put on weight like Henrik,” she once said to her husband so the others could hear, a remark Henrik had found hilarious. And there were several other inconsequential remarks she had made about how strange his brother was. “Did he always have his nose in a book, even when you were kids? Why does he try to speak Russian when I am around, just to show off I think?"
There was another time Windy had been disturbed by Henrik. Actually so troubled that tears rose in her eyes. “You know what your brother said to me? He said you look like someone who will die young. Die young! What a thing to say to someone! He must be crazy. I don’t want to be around him too much, Richard. He’s not like you. Not nice and sweet. I’ve never liked people who are like that, always thinking about death and watching others, but never really living. I feel sorry for him in a way, but I’d rather not be around him too much. I hope you will forgive me?”
Yes. He remembered her saying that. “He said you look like someone who will die young. I hope you will forgive me.” And then, the more enigmatic statement, "I really don't mind the scars." But that was all. He racked his mind for other clues. The entire family racked its mind, but they could find nothing to connect the two other than their violent death.
Perhaps they had not even been lovers? Maybe it was something else? Who could say?
One day Richard was drinking. It was the day the old servant died, the servant who had held the light in his face. It caused the death of Henrik and his wife to come rushing back to him, and with it a cruel longing that flooded him with the desire to say something to his mother, to cut her down when she attended the old man’s funeral. He heard she had bought new clothes for the occasion, a hat with a rose on it. She was seventy-five now, a vain and still handsome old woman. Richard had avoided her since his wife’s death, and she hardly minded it seemed. Henrik was her one pride.
He did not know what he might say to her. He thought he would go over the papers concerning the fatal accident once more, which he often did in his dark moods. With the papers spread, he noticed suddenly for the first time the name of the highway patrolman who’d written up the report. Samuel Miller. In his drunken sorrow, Richard wondered about Patrolman Miller, this man who had opened the door on his wife, found her in the arms of his brother.
He thought of something he should have done years ago. He’d contact the man. Yes, it would bring Richard closer to the event than he ever expected just to hear the cop’s voice. He located him in Quincy. He was retired now. Richard apologized for the disturbance, but it had to do with his brother. An accident. Could the patrolman possibly go back fifteen years and try to remember that wet snowy morning?
It didn’t take the officer long. He remembered the accident vividly he said. Richard’s heart pounded.“I just wanted to know what they looked like.” Richard said. “Were they holding each other, maybe like they were asleep. I’ve always wondered. Did they look happy?”
What the hell are you talking about? They were smashed together like a jelly sandwich. It was disgusting. The most disgusting accident I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen a lot. Something more should have been in the report, but you know. I guess sometimes we try too hard to do the right thing.. ....nevertheless there’s something else that should have been in the report. The woman was wearing handcuffs. You know—handcuffs?
“Yes, I know handcuffs. What in God’s name are you saying? That she was handcuffed to the man? I never heard anything about handcuffs on my wife.”
“That’s because I took the cuffs off. She was handcuffed to a chain around the man’s fleshly middle. I remember how the chain almost jerked him in half. You know what handcuffs mean? Bondage. Disgusting sex practices. Scandal for the family. I knew from the car and the driver’s license that the man was a big lawyer…so I decided to save the family. I thought they were man and wife. Same name, you know. I told the man’s mother all about it. Yes, I told her several times for she made me repeat my descriptions, but I’ve always wondered if I did the right thing.”
Richard hung up. He was crying, but later on as he was dressing to leave for the old man’s funeral, he felt better, even cheerful. “Jelly sandwich,” he whispered to himself, fixing his tie, his lip curling, thinking of his mother. Handcuffed . Forced to ride with Henrik, that’s what. He had forced her! No doubt about it, kidnapped her! His thoughts ran on about his mother, the evil liar! The old lying bitch, protecting Henrik to the end. Henrik the pervert! His lips cured in deepermalice. Then his hands fell to his side, and he stared at his reflection in the mirror. “His fleshly middle!”
Windy had said, “Don’t get heavy like Henrik," And Henrik had given a big laugh at this. Why had he laughed? Why had his laugh made his wife’s face go pale? His lips moved in a slow cold suspicious whisper. “His fleshy middle.” He knew he should not think like this. Should not torture himself. He walked about the house.
The maid was in the old servant’s room, packing things away when she called out, “Too many funny things around this place!” There before him, the woman had pulled out a drawer full of handcuffs. “His old father was a jailer!” Richard exclaimed. “Those are heritage things. But toss them. Get rid of them.” His heart was racing again. The old servant had been Henrik’s man before Windy bought him away to come work for Richard. Why? Why had she done that? Best to let sleeping dogs lie.
But then again he had never seen lying dogs sleep, although his mother no doubt believed they did. His mother now in her new dark straw hat with a rose bouncing and nodding from the side, up in everyone’s face with her great tragedy. Richard would say a few words at the funeral himself.
He would say something like, “And as we all know, we are handcuffed together in death as well as in life.” He’d say that as his eyes moved over to his mother. “Let’s see you cover that up with your hind paws.” He would say to her. And so he did say it. And she answered, her face strange beneath her jaunty hat, answered in a slow deliberate drawl, several sentences which did not reach our ears.
HUNGER, Roxane Gay THE MARSH KING'S DAUGHTER, Karen Dionne LOVING DAY, Mat Johnson THE SECRETS SHE KEEPS, Michael Robotham HILLBILLY ELEGY, J.D. Vance SUNBURN, Laura Lippman THE SISTERS CHASE, Sarah Healy IN A LONELY PLACE, Dorothy L Hughes
Patricia Abbott is the author of more than 125 stories that have appeared online, in print journals and in various anthologies. She is the author of two print novels CONCRETE ANGEL (2015) and SHOT IN DETROIT (2016)(Polis Books). CONCRETE ANGEL was nominated for an Anthony and Macavity Award in 2016. SHOT IN DETROIT was nominated for an Edgar Award and an Anthony Award in 2017. A collection of her stories I BRING SORROW AND OTHER STORIES OF TRANSGRESSION will appear in 2018.