the healing muse

Volume 5, 2005

Co-conspirators

Gary Weinstein

?She'd said yes. She actually said yes, Nathan Heinz murmured to himself, still holding the phone, her voice still faint in his ear. The feel of fortune washed over him.

I'm sixty-one for God's sake. Look at me, he thought, smiling, stunned. Time slowed, expanding to touch all things. He glanced at his hands. The cacti in the eastern window glistened with pink flowers and framed a view of the Poughkeepsie high-rises beyond, graced with spring bloom, dogwood and magnolia.

"Very much," Lily Woodrow had just told him. "Yes, I'd very much like to see you for lunch again."

The May breeze pushed through four broad, southern windows. Nathan's yard glistened in the late morning sun and cloudless blue. Lily's words and a swirl of memories moved inside him. The happiness he felt was wholly unfamiliar and unsettling. Be careful, he told himself. Contentment has its shadows.

He revisited their small conversation. Yes I would . . . very much. His heart quavered. The garden by the front walk was bordered with hyacinth and daffodils, some with a triple crown of exquisite beauty that seemed to wave back at him. It's all right. How many springs had he and his former wife Allana rejoiced and argued over the perennials? The complicated dance of marriage, like a flame fighting the wind.

He looked throughout his home. Thirty-one years here and now his life was changing out from under him. He was leaving. The last one of his family out. Lily's affirmation, now, atop the prospect of moving left Nathan lightheaded. He felt unmoored. The great bulk of his life lived inside these walls was offered up now for recollection; he and Allana raising their three children, their countless comings and goings, the growing up and the tears, the loving and fighting, the nights asleep safe and dreaming, awakening, their meals and friends and loved ones all known to this house—the numberless moments that compose a family's life all passed.

And the last three years so laden with sorrow. How it had rent Nathan and Allana when Mark, their middle child, had lost his life with three others in a senseless bus accident, caroming over a Pacific coast road edge in California.

Lost his life. . . . was killed. . . . The words never leave. Death robs one of certainty, of even knowing with what words to think or speak.

For certain, however, in ten days the movers would arrive to haul everything out, and he'd be the last one out.

Allana had months ago settled in her own apartment and was apparently happier than she’d been in many years.

"I can bear to look in the mirror again," she'd told him. A month from now he would be sweltering in the Texas sun, living just blocks from his daughter Lorraine in Austin where she had invited him to live. Tracy their youngest was somewhere unknown in the Algerian countryside on an extended escapade from which she rarely wrote. His family was grown and dispersed, each settled solitarily in the world. The remnant of parenting within him checked for their whereabouts and their well-being and marveled that his children were grownups. And he thought of Mark.

He whispered a soft greeting to Mark's portrait on the mantle, a tiny ritual he promised himself to uphold, and heard his own voice with faint strangeness. He needed ground, something in the present, something anchoring, something future oriented. Friday he would see Lily again.

Their first lunch had lasted almost three hours. Without one glance at the clock the afternoon had just flown. They'd both felt the amazement of it and laughed. To think, they worked in adjacent offices for more than eight years and had seen one another many times: passing in the lobby, in the vestibule, by the fountain, or packed together on an elevator. But in the last three years or so Nathan had only hung his head, his eyes to the ground, unseeing, in the endless gloom of losing Mark. Three years of days in which Nathan had felt little reason for living except that he found himself still alive for his daughters. Slight greetings and elevator doors held for Lily, but Nathan unseeing. Allana moving out and Tracy in North Africa and his loneliness compounding and no one mattering.

Those last three years yielding, imperceptibly, to the moment on their way out one evening last month, when he'd felt alive enough again to greet Lily, to say hello and accept her invitation to Saturday lunch.

Lunch had gone well, and he thought she'd even looked at him with some affection. I'm in my sixties, for God's sake, he chided himself. Look at me, wondering and worrying like a damned teenager.

Her story consumed that afternoon as he'd listened and forgot about time. He'd wanted to tell her about Mark and about Tracy and Lorraine and so many things. He'd even brought a photo of Mark and the sweet letter from Lorraine inviting him to Austin. But these precious items were still in his pocket when he returned home.

Lily had told Nathan of her daughter Bonnie's unfathomable distance, how Bonnie had cut herself off from the family for reasons Lily could simply not grasp. Bonnie, her beloved, had severed ties without warning, without explaining.

"I'd like you not to call me," she'd told Lily four years ago this past November, just before Thanksgiving. "Doug and I won't be coming for Thanksgiving. We won't be seeing you. For a while, Mom. A long time, really, I don't know. . . . " And then trailing off.

Lily, had been lost for words, anguished, "What are you saying, Bonnie? Why? What? Honey!" A blur of floundering talk is all Lily remembers any more, she told Nathan. What remained, what stung so terribly was that from that point and ever since, she had neither spoken with her daughter, nor ever met her grandchildren, who, born soon afterwards, were now two and three and a half years old.

Lily told all this without tears, though Nathan was certain she'd cry at any time. "I cried myself out years ago," she said. "You would not believe how much someone can cry." But he did believe and told her. "It certainly meant the end for my husband and me. We lasted less than a year once Bonnie cut herself off. The heartache, the baffled, tormented blaming and wrangling we went through."

They shared remarkably like circumstances: losing a child and the catastrophe of divorcing. In moments, he was sure, he'd find the chance to tell her his story, but it never occurred. In a way, she was speaking for them both without knowing it, and so he remained quiet.

"It was as if Bonnie wished us dead or to think of her as dead. To this day I find it senseless. I have no better understanding of it now, Nathan, than I did at the beginning. But as a mother I would not accept it. I couldn’t, you know? I could be sick with grief for only so long.

"Eventually my anger surfaced. Until then I was only behaving the way Bonnie had wanted me to. I'd felt empty and paralyzed. I finally realized I'd be God damned, you know? I began to do things I never thought possible."

For months, beginning last summer Lily said, she would just drive by her daughter's house on weekends, on evenings. Just to see. Just to be near. She would park outside the cul de sac, sit, and watch. Obscured by trees, the summer dusk allowed light. "Bonnie and Doug had no idea what car I was even driving by that time. My anonymity worked. I watched through the tinted windshield for hours. I raked my life for clues to Bonnie's walling off of herself. All through August and into the early autumn I watched, you know: Bonnie waving to neighbors, chatting on the cordless, bringing in groceries. Scooters and balls and the little girls on the smooth driveway, the dollies and balls on the lawn. All the things that fill the days of young parents."

"It was entirely strange. I felt as if I was looking into my past, watching myself mothering Bonnie as a toddler, or even watching myself as a toddler. I turned my life over for clues. It is one of the hardest things I've ever done, and yet I couldn't not do it."

Soon thereafter Lily brought binoculars and could suddenly make out her granddaughters' faces, their fine toddler hair and glistening eyes. Some of the younger one's earliest steps. It was as though, disembodied, Lily stood among them, a ghostly, undetectable presence. Mouths and faces moving to unheard words.

"My grandchildren," I would whisper to myself. "Bonnie, sweetie, I still love you. It's me, your mom. I'm right here," I would say, tears on my cheeks and blurring the eyepieces.

In late autumn they retreated indoors. For months Lily was vexed. Phone calls long ago were useless, their number changed and unlisted. She paced, awaiting an idea, an avenue to action.

"When it finally came to me, it took my breath. I remember sitting down, dumbstruck at my inventiveness," she told Nathan across their empty plates and half sipped mugs of coffee gone cold.

"I had tailed them many times. It was like a bad TV show, Nathan!" she laughed. "Or like Hitchcock—remember in Vertigo, you know, the spooky way he follows that woman for days, and she has no idea. The whole damned thing feels dreamlike. Even talking about it with you. . . . Jesus, I've been stalking my own daughter!"

She looked away for a moment of passing disbelief, then swiftly returned, eyes upon him.

"I knew where the girls went for day care. I'd watched them get dropped off. One morning I went in after Douglas had left. I asked whether the Center accepted volunteers. I was told yes, and to apply, so I did. They told me they would be pleased to have a woman my age. I fibbed and said I was semi-retired and needed a new involvement. It was too easy. A week later I was working there."

"I flexed my hours at work," she pulled in breath and puffed her cheeks to breathe out. "For just over a month now I've been there, two mornings a week. They placed me in a room just one door down from the girls."

She rested and allowed the air to move around them. She looked at Nathan over her hands now woven together prayer-like and held to her lips.

The diner had emptied out. Cars hissed on the street out front. Three o'clock April sunlight filled the front windows. He would know a lot more about this Lily Woodrow and himself in another minute. She radiated a sense of knowing this as well. Are you ready for me, Nathan?

"Last week I talked with the older girl. We were alone in the children's bathroom. Her name is Clara. I helped her dress and with her hair. I was touching her and looking so intently at every little aspect of her." Lily was speaking carefully now, with details, wanting to get it right.

"The angle of the sunlight pouring through the bathroom window, the radiant sparkle in Clara's hair, the fragrance of her clothes, the shape of her fingers reminding me of myself. Touching her for the first time, ever, in my life."

"And then yesterday I sat with them both during lunch and recess—Shawne and Clara—helping them with their food. Afterwards I held their hands and we talked."

"No one knows, Nathan. No one has any idea who I am. I'm just this friendly older woman who helps out. I'm no one. I have this feeling when I'm with them, that at any moment someone will discover me, swoop in and wrestle me away. But I also know that's not true. I sit with them, and I tremble, and I see myself in their little faces."

Tears welled, finally, though she was looking nearly though Nathan.

"I think about taking them," she said suddenly, resolute again.

"Just gently taking them. Holding their little hands and walking them out to my car and going. It's crazy. I could never. It's . . . " she searched for a word, her hands waving and vibrating in mid air " . . . just nuts! To even think like that, but I do. It occurs to me. When I'm sitting right there with them, I think, 'I could just take you home with me, you sweet, little lovey babies. You belong to me. Do you know who I am? Wouldn’t you like to know your mommy’s mommy?' I want to say to them, 'I want to know you. . . . Will you come with me?'"

There are moments you do not spoil with words. Nathan sat very still.

"That was this morning, Nathan, just before I came here."

Cars outside. Half-sipped mugs. A radio way back in the kitchen.

"What do you think I should do, Nathan? Really. I wonder what you think."

His mind fairly raced. Lily leaned back comfortably, sadly, finished, and held her cold mug in both hands to her chin as a reflex as if to hide her mouth. Careful what you ask for, he thought, and it amused him for a passing instant, buying time.

She looked at him and looked infinitely far away in turns as she awaited his thoughts. It was a kind of non-question question she had put into the air. Again, Hitchcock, he thought. Strangers on a train. They could conspire.
He could be her hero. Really win her heart, this woman for whom his heart and feelings stirred. He would drive the getaway car. No plates. They would speed off to his cabin in the Adirondack foothills. A clean operation without trace. He saw it all in an instant.

That had been last week. And now she wanted to have lunch with him again. To tell him more. To find out what he'd decided, if he’d decided.

He tried picturing it. The two little girls. Himself, the stranger at the wheel. Lily triumphant. The newspapers, the trial, the television, the buzz.

Big, big trouble. Yes, very much.

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