Chapter Fourteen – The Sick Rose
Nothing ever happens the way you expect. Roy, acting normal, a little cold perhaps, never sought the alibi prepared so carefully for his delectation.
The slow week sped up; now they were driving in tandem to Babe’s house, Jarod steaming up ahead. Persey hated leaving Digger at the kennel, but dogs were not welcome in Babe’s bell jar of a mansion. Time itself was banished there. Eager to ask Babe about Bruce, Persey had pushed for the trip; and now she was stuck with Jarod too, because according to Roy, the “grieving widower” could not be left alone.
Persey certainly didn’t want to ride with Jarod, so the game of “drive it like you stole it” the two men played must be Persey’s fault.
This was the genesis of her driving phobia, she thought, sitting white knuckled and braced against the door. Neither man could bear a vehicle in front, and Jarod wasn’t above turning on his bar lights or riding the shoulder to gain an advantage. Conversation was hopeless; she could barely bring herself to open her eyes.
She practiced deep breathing while Roy bounced the truck into the breakdown lane at eighty miles an hour. Remonstrating would only make him worse and if they got into a wreck it would be her fault for distracting him.
She was so relieved to find herself in one piece Persey was actually happy to see Babe’s house up ahead. Babe’s house, and the development it pinnacled, were quite a sight. Twelve palaces on interlocking man-made lagoons represented the apex of Roy Senior’s life achievement. Babe often said that it was the perfect house that broke her perfect marriage. She meant it as a cautionary tale, against, presumably, reaching for that final upgrade. Not that she ever tried to dissuade anybody from making the same mistake; it was to her advantage to get that signature on the dotted line. If she lived alone in a five-bedroom, six- bathroom house, no doubt her clients saw it as a monument to success, not failure.
In spite of Roy’s best offensive moves, Jarod pulled into the driveway first and was standing on the path with his hostess as Roy and Persey parked. Roy turned his back huffily on Persey as if his loss was clearly her fault. He was the one encumbered with human luggage conspiring to slow him down. Burdened only by a bottle of wine and a paper cone of flowers, Jarod floated free.
“What kept you?” Jarod teased.
Roy took off his cowboy hat and hit his friend on the shoulder with it.
“I had to let you win. You know how Persey PMS’s.” In a high voice he mimicked her: “Roy, that’s just too fast.”
“Yeah,” Jarod agreed, swaggering in his “Fuck Fear” t-shirt, “We had air.”
Wearing an Opium-perfumed caftan of gold and silver tissue, Babe rushed out to greet them.
“Thank God you’re safe, Bryan,” she said, reaching for a hug. There was an awful silence as the blood drained from Roy’s face and exploded into his eye- sockets. Terrified, Babe covered her mouth.
“Oh, I’m sorry, Roy,” she whispered nervously. “It was a mistake. I know you hate that name.”
He jerked his head away from her, sinews jangling in his neck. It was Jarod who rescued the moment. He chose that second to deliver his gifts to Babe so he could slide both arms around his buddy’s shoulders.
Persey was awestruck at this demonstration of his power. Nobody else could have touched Roy just then. Roy was basking in Jarod’s envy. He relaxed and smiled.
“Water view from every room,” said the developer’s son. The Bad Moment was averted. Roy lifted out his wife’s luggage and Persey rescued the crockpot of lamb from the front seat.
“Let me get that for you, sweetmeat.”
Muscles bulging, Jarod seemed more than willing to arm-wrestle her for it. She wanted to smack him, but Babe was watching so she allowed him to win. They walked together up the crazy-paving towards the house.
Babe could talk and walk at the same time.
“See what a big success your flower bed is, Roy? Roy dug up all those nasty dead rhododendrons for my birthday, and planted all this blue salvia. I added the birdbath. Of course the birds won’t come this close to the house – it’s really just for show. What do you think, Persey?”
“Gorgeous,” said Persey, deliberately echoing Jarod. A word as good as any, and Babe accepted it unironically. She contemplated this strange evidence of Roy doing anything for his mother. Was this Bruce’s real gravesite? Could Roy have told any version of the truth when he bragged to her about his kill?
That would be the final joke on poor Babe; two childless sons in a death struggle, the loser locked forever beneath her perfect lawn. Persey poked the dirt with her foot. Was Ned searching Roy’s storage locker while Bruce moldered beneath his mother’s sod? If Bruce was finally dead then all the deaths would stop. But if Bruce was really gone, why wouldn’t he leave Persey alone?
Impatiently, Babe seized Persey’s shoulders, branded her a “slowpoke” and scuttled her along.
“I’ve got so much to show you,” she burbled.
In the front hall Persey caught Jarod by surprise and wrested the crockpot back. Jarod surrendered, smiling into Persey’s eyes as if they had a secret, playful understanding. Roy whisked his friend upstairs to see his room.
Babe was well prepared as usual. The table was already set and the food prepared in advance. Persey plugged in the crockpot and centered it on the serving cart. As usual, Babe followed too closely, invading her daughter-in-law’s space, nattering on in her pressured speech. She behaved like a woman who never saw other people, but Persey knew that wasn’t the case. Maybe it’s me, thought Persey. She saves things up to tell me. Maybe she has to be so different around her “marks” that taking off the professional girdle produces an explosion.
Babe set Jarod’s modest wine on the buffet and began inserting his flowers into the centerpiece, the casually acquired daisies — probably from a convenience store — looking ridiculous among the calla lilies.
“I want to tell Jarod I’m so sorry about his devastating loss, but under the horrific circumstances I don’t know if it’s even polite to bring it up. I mean, why remind him? On the other hand, I wouldn’t want him to think I’m cavalier about his feelings.
But considering how it happened, what can one possibly say? I know what it is to lose someone you love, but in that awful way…and also—“ she hissed the words – “they were getting a divorce. So how does one handle that? I may be the only person here who fully comprehends the pain of losing someone you’re so angry at. It doesn’t make it better, it makes it worse. Because you can’t take back the things you’ve said. You’ll never be able to –“
“I really need to take a shower, Babe,” said Persey. “Then I’ll be right back down.” No point waiting for a break in Babe’s monologue because one never, ever came.
“You go,” said Babe dismissively. “Cleanse yourself.” Presumably she knew what it was like to sit in a car with Roy.
Persey hurried through the marble foyer, up the chocolate and yellow Chinese stair carpet, past huge shellacked paintings of shorebirds frozen in driftwood frames, only to stumble over Roy and Jarod hunched conspiratorially at the top of the stairs. They admired not the lagoon view, but the doorjamb displaying Bruce’s and Bryan’s heights throughout the years. This was one of Babe’s most annoying affectations. For Pete’s sake, they were identical twins – why set them against each other? To hear the doorjamb tell it, Bruce was taller. Persey didn’t buy it. Did he stand straighter, wear different shoes, or was Babe just trying to drive her second son crazy?
“But you didn’t grow up here,” Jarod protested.
“They brought the wood from Germany,” said Roy.
Jarod stroked his chin in admiration. “My family torched the place where I
grew up,” he said. “Nobody gave a shit.”
Persey had to push past them to get to her bedroom.
Interior decorating was Babe’s greatest pleasure, her area of self-appointed expertise. She considered all rooms should be “done over” every three to five years and was beginning to nag Persey to change her house, just when she felt it was perfect. But Babe was less interested in what people actually liked than in what they ought to like. And she turned all the family’s memories into artifacts.
To Persey’s mind, this curator’s approach sabotaged memory without enhancing it. The stories Roy told of his childhood hardly matched the atmosphere of showcased baptismal suits and framed sports trophies. Too bad Babe refused to listen to the facts about anything; it certainly took nerve to discuss the truth with her. She was “truth-blind.” Still, Persey had to try.
Babe even took the time to update Bruce’s room, allowing none to stay there. Jarod would be given the Chinese room, sometimes called “the Lacquer Room,” because it fell to anyone Babe was trying to impress. Quite a showpiece if dragons didn’t give you nightmares. Most importantly, it had its own bathroom, whereas Roy and Persey had theoretically to share with Bruce. But so far at least, Bruce had never shown up to claim his rights.
Maybe Roy liked his room. He sometimes seemed almost proud of his mother’s rather tarty taste. He carefully monitored his “Wall of Triumph”—the endlessly reframed photographs of childhood and wedding, newspaper catalogues of sporting and business accomplishments, checking to see what was. different. God forbid anything should ever be taken away. Accretion – never diminution — was the only possibility. This wall contained Persey’s favorite photograph of Roy, the last in a series of diving stills. Here his nineteen-year-old face the way she had first seen it, erupting from the water with open eyes. Wet and reborn, it was the picture of her husband that she carried in her heart.
Roy’s room was now outfitted in deep blue fabric and embossed maroon leather. Babe considered these “masculine” colors. The pale colors Persey preferred caused Babe to needle Roy, as he’d “lost” that argument.
A new and rather strange pelmet was suspended over the headboard, as if for minor royalty. On Roy’s night table stood a close-up of Babe herself, a flattering glamour shot in a malachite frame carefully positioned to be the last thing Roy saw before turning off the light. Persey smiled. She knew Roy wouldn’t allow it to remain. In fact, Babe would be lucky if, during the course of this visit, it didn’t end up smashed against a wall.
Persey hastily unpacked, laying out a long black chiffon skirt and a short black velvet top on the bed. Babe made a fetish and ritual of dressing for dinner. Circumstance called for black on black. The funerals were not yet over and perhaps never would be.
It was Persey’s plan to be the first one ready, the better to have a chance to explore Bruce’s room. Roy would think she was just avoiding him, as she had all week. If Bruce lived on – if his mother knew — wouldn’t there be some kind of sign?
She was in the shower when the door opened and Roy stepped inside. He turned his back on her and began soaping himself, not her as he usually did. Why the hell was he mad at her? Was he angry that she didn’t like his friend? She should be the one withholding and furious. His advent meant it was time to get out of the shower. From this point on, it could only make her dirtier.
In front of the mirror she twisted her hair upon her head, sprayed Bal a Versailles haphazardly at herself and dressed hurriedly. Didn’t matter what she looked like for this crew. The only finishing touches were her opal dinner ring and a breastplate necklace. Because the bathroom door to Bruce’s room was mirrored, it felt like stepping through the looking glass to enter his domain.
Bruce’s “Wall of Triumph” was a lot smaller and contained no information about his rape conviction.
The color scheme was olive leather and dark green fabric, but Persey sniffed out a half-hearted quality in the decorating. Could Babe finally be tiring of the Legend of Bruce? The emotional upkeep must be horrendous. The curtains were drawn and the room smelled musty. In spite of Roy’s bragging Bruce lacked a water view. She waited three beats but no Bruce uncoiled to spring at her. Were the twin sleigh beds some kind of subtle acknowledgement of the reduced emotional needs of sex offenders? Or a formal reminder of Bruce’s supposed age at death?
The beds were made, but clearly hadn’t been slept in, and the mattresses were still encased in crackling plastic. Either Bruce was still a bedwetter or Babe must know her son would never come home. No place would be set for him at the table tonight. Persey peered into dusty wall displays of riding bits and spurs. Had Bruce really used these – on horses or people – or had Babe just picked them up at auction? To her, the past was only the way things should have been.
The closet was packed with boxes, marked, “Hockey”, “Christmas” and “Swap.” Babe, the packrat, ever acquiring. Wasn’t hoarding a disease? Persey felt smothered by all this junk; in a raging fire, who would know what to save? There was no distinction between the vital, the memorable, and the weird. Under Bruce’s bed was a box marked “Broken”. Persey pulled it out in case it might contain Bruce himself. But it was filled with shattered plates, dismembered lamps, anonymous bits of wood. Only a broken person saves broken things.
Sitting on his bed, she closed her eyes and tried to summon him up, but the room itself was dead. She felt closer to Bruce in her own house, anywhere but here. Bruce had gained a reputation for doing exactly what he wanted, so, what did he want? She tried to imagine him climbing the stairs in darkness, coming to reclaim his heritage. Would he tiptoe so as not to wake his mother, or would he saunter like a conqueror?
Bruce was gone; this room was now a junk repository. Hadn’t its previous incarnations been more youthful? She recalled school pennants and rock posters.
Was this present somber sadness a final acknowledgement that Bruce was dead against all the hopeless wishes? Was Babe giving up?
Perhaps — revolutionary thought — Babe was secretly just as glad to get rid of Bruce as his brother was. It must be a relief to rid oneself of policemen and probation officers. Now who was there to interfere as she molded Bruce’s image to her own? Only Bruce himself, he who had asserted his real personality in the most decisive way.
Was this where he was supposed to have hanged himself? Some detective I am, thought Persey. I can’t find out the basic facts. Cops loved lies — the more stories to check the better — but she herself had no appetite for Babe’s falsehoods. Perhaps she could borrow Ned’s approach; be a buddy. Don’t let them know you think they’re mutant. Let Babe ramble on; accept her confidence, be her friend. That was one thing the woman who had everything didn’t have.