Coming June 2018, from Unsolicited Press
At first, Lavinia thought Mel was joking. Mel was never not joking. That rubber snake in the freezer last Christmas, during their annual open house. Her husband, Chip, knew he’d put it there. He also knew how Lavinia felt about snakes. She didn’t scream or even gasp when she discovered it, flaked with ice, lounging on a bag of frozen peas. She wanted to take it into the living room and toss it into Mel’s lap. That would have served the smartass right.
But she couldn’t. Mel was Chip’s best friend.
She might have understood what Mel was trying to tell her on the telephone if his words hadn’t been punctuated by sobs. She’d never known him to be a drinker, but supposed he could have started out of the blue. Some men wept when they hit the bottle, right? Potter, her ex, surely had. That was later, though, near the end of things. Back when he thought he was still secure in her affection, he’d been affable when drunk, sometimes singing as he hauled her to her feet for a quick spin around the kitchen, always when she was paying bills or going over the children’s homework. He just couldn’t stand to see her working, which was funny because she worked all the time, back then, at least.
She quickly decided that Mel was sober, that the sobs were a put-on to enhance the joke.
“You can cut the crap Mel; I’m hooked. I’m just standing here waiting for the punchline,” she said.
She’d taken the call in Chip’s study. The enormous windows were crystal clear because they’d just been washed. Lavinia insisted on clean windows when the weather warmed. The winter had been brutal even for upstate New York, full of lake-effect snow, and spring came late and gloriously. Then, all of a sudden, the trees made a wall of green. There seemed to be no glass separating her from the yard, as if she could simply put down the telephone and step over the low wooden sill and escape. But the sky was angry that day, and thunder boomed in the distance. There had been flashes of light, and Lavinia found herself wondering vaguely if Chip was enjoying his golf game despite the threat of rain.
She then understood that Mel was talking about the weather, too, and the storms rolling through. He wasn’t making a joke. He was trying to pull himself together in order to deliver his news plainly, so that Lavinia would understand.
Chip was dead. Struck by lightning on the ninth green.
Lavinia sat down in the chair by the heavy, solid desk, the chair he’d sat in himself only that morning.
“Are you sure?” she asked.
The police were on their way to her now, Mel said. He called to prepare her, to spare her the shock. He was on his way, too. She needed him. She needed friends and family around her. Would she call her children? Did she want Mel to call them?
“No,” she said, and hung up.
She thought of Chip’s beautiful son, Ethan, out in Berkeley. And of the two other sons in Texas, whom she’d never met. They would have to be told. Would they come to the funeral? What kind of funeral did Chip want? They’d never talked about it. Chip was-had been-eighteen years older than she. Seventy-one was a good age to think about your final arrangements. Cremation or burial? She wondered how much of him was left after the lightning got him.
“Zap!” Lavinia shouted.
She was alone in the house. Alma, the housekeeper, had gone out. Lavinia was troubled that she didn’t remember exactly where. Alma had said. She always said.
Of course, Lavinia’s eye fell immediately on the photograph of Chip, just inches from her elbow. It was an old one, taken when he still had most of his hair, when he wasn’t jowly, before the bifocals that were always perched on the top of his head. She supposed he kept the picture to remind himself that he’d once had a bit of dash, though it always struck her as odd. Not vain, necessarily, just sort of desperate? She couldn’t imagine wanting to see how she used to look. The past was the past. Nothing to cling to, or wish to have back.
She put the photograph face down on the desk.
“You and your goddamn golf,” she said.
He’d been obsessive about the game, yet was always over par. They’d talked once about aging, fading passions-his way of apologizing for losing interest in sex-but his love of golf never waned. Now it had killed him.
She covered her face with her hands. The scent of her perfume let her depart the moment. The doorbell ended that calming blankness her mind had found in the floral notes on her wrists.
The police officers looked as young as her own sons-late twenties, early thirties. Their sympathy seemed genuine. When they said what they’d come to say, the shorter one, standing closer to her than the other, extended his hand in case she felt faint, got wobbly, collapsed in a heap. Her footing stayed firm.
CPR had been tried, they said. She wondered by whom. Surely not Mel.
“What about the clubs?” Lavinia asked.
“His clubs. Will they be returned?”
The officers didn’t know. Was there someone they could call for her? Someone who could come over?
Just then, Mel arrived. He entered the circular driveway so fast that his tires chirped. Lavinia and the officers were standing in the open doorway. As Mel hustled his round little self up the brick walk, rain fell. He pushed past the officers.
“Oh, Lavinia, my dear!” he said and embraced her roughly. She allowed his touch only for a moment, then stepped away.
The officers left. Lavinia went into the living room, her favorite room in the house, and sat down on the new white leather sofa. She pressed her palm to the smooth surface. It was untroubled and sleek.
Mel joined her and took her hand.
“A terrible tragedy,” he said. His eyes were rimmed with red. He looked awful, all mashed up. But then, he never looked too good. He sobbed. He dabbed his nose with wadded up Kleenex he must have had in his other hand. Lavinia didn’t think he’d taken it from his pocket.
“I think we should pray,” he said.
“I’ve got a better idea.”
She stood, and for a moment felt as if she might lift off the ground and rise through the ceiling and the rooms above to meet the open air, still alert and roiling with storm. She went to the wooden cart next to the wall of built-in bookcases where many colorful paperweights were displayed. She had bought every one, right there in Dunston, from an old high school acquaintance who’d set up a little atelier after surviving breast cancer. She couldn’t remember the woman’s name. Her face was clear, though. Long, with a bent nose. She had a cynical manner because her husband had left her during her illness.
Lavinia poured two glasses of single malt scotch. She had acquired a taste for hard liquor over the past few months. She could hold it, too, something Chip had remarked on lovingly more than once.
Mel took the glass she gave him. He drained it. The experience seemed to stun him. Lavinia sipped hers slowly, so that it might approach her softly, gently.
She patted his hand, and he leaned against her desperately, clumsily, the way a scared child does. She put her arm around him without a second thought, the response was that ingrained. But when his lips found hers, tasting of liquor and salt, she pushed him back.
“Get a grip,” she said.
Mel sat up, once again in his own space.
“I told him to be careful. We could all see the lightning. The caddy told us to take cover under the tree,” he said.
”You’re not supposed to stand under a tree in a thunderstorm.”
Mel nodded miserably.
“Look, why don’t you go home for a little while? Take a shower, get something to eat. I’m okay, really. And Alma will be here any minute.”
“It’s too sad there, without Sandy.”
Sandy was Mel’s pet parrot. She’d taken flight the week before. The cleaning lady left the cage door open. Why, Mel couldn’t say. She was usually so careful. Maybe she wanted to get back at Mel for something. He’d told this story with his usual mirth, imitating the way the cleaning lady walked, bobbing from side to side, saying he knew Sandy wasn’t far, just out exploring the natural world, and would come home when she realized no one had quite the elevated vocabulary Mel did.
“She might be by now. You better go and see,” Lavinia said.
“I’d rather stay with you.”
She stood up. Mel did, too. He followed her reluctantly to the front door, where he clearly longed for another hug.
Lavinia shook her head at him. She waited until his car left the driveway, then returned to the living room and had more of her drink. She took the half-empty glass to the kitchen. She’d call the children from there. She couldn’t stand going back into Chip’s study.
The thought came brutally, and with so much force that she had to sit down. The house, and everything in it, was now hers. Chip had made sure of that. She didn’t get all his money, though. There were the three sons to consider first. But she’d have enough. She knew the details of the will inside and out. They’d talked it over many times. He’d wanted the discussion, not she. She never saw the need. She was no gold digger. She married him because he came along at a time in her life when she was looking for a way out. Sure, money helped, but it wasn’t what drew her to him. She was caught by his calm, steady nature, his genuine kindness, and the clumsy, heart-felt efforts he made with her children. She hadn’t made him happy, and she understood later that he hadn’t really expected her to. He needed his life to have meaning. She provided it.
She should call Angie first. Angie was thirty-two, her eldest. Angie had grown fond of Chip because, after being an angry teenager and young woman, she’d found a gentle vein of forgiveness for the man who’d replaced her beloved father. She and Potter were still close. Angie had a rare trait. She could see one’s flaws, yet overlook them.
Angie would be at work now. She wouldn’t mind the interruption, certainly not for such important news. Yet Lavinia suddenly couldn’t bear hearing her voice.
She picked up the phone. For a moment, she couldn’t remember the number she’d called so often. Then it came. The phone rang five times.
“Hello?” Potter said.
She hadn’t called since Christmas. They’d talked a lot the autumn before, when Lavinia was tearing her hair out about Maggie and Marta, their twin girls, who were living the high life in Manhattan and up to no good, Lavinia was sure. Potter’s wife wasn’t happy about the long and frequent conversations. She suspected, rightly, that their children were not the only subject they discussed.
“About an hour ago.”
“Holy crap. What are the odds of that?”
Another pause followed. In the background on Potter’s end, there was a loud, mechanical sound.
“Hold on. Mary Beth’s sanding drywall. I’ll move outside,” Potter said. The noise lessened. “Okay. You want me over there?”
“Give me twenty minutes.”
“No, it’s okay.”
“Really. I just wanted to let you know.”
”You call Angie?”
“Not yet. ”
“Do it now.”
They hung up. Lavinia put the phone in its cradle. She wandered back to the living room. She sat on the creamy sofa.
The tears welled.
Why couldn’t you have been like that before?
If Potter had been firm and decisive, acted like a man, not a child, everything would have been different.