Bones to Ashes 1
BABIES DIE. PEOPLE VANISH. PEOPLE DIE. BABIES vanish.
I was hammered early by those truths. Sure, I had a kid’s understanding that mortal life ends. At school, the nuns talked of heaven, purgatory, limbo, and hell. I knew my elders would “pass.” That’s how my family skirted the subject. People passed. Went to be with God. Rested in peace. So I accepted, in some ill-formed way, that earthly life was temporary. Nevertheless, the deaths of my father and baby brother slammed me hard.
And Évangéline Landry’s disappearance simply had no explanation.
But I jump ahead.
It happened like this.
As a little girl, I lived on Chicago’s South Side, in the less fashionable outer spiral of a neighborhood called Beverly. Developed as a country retreat for the city’s elite following the Great Fire of 1871, the hood featured wide lawns and large elms, and Irish Catholic
clans whose family trees had more branches than the elms. A bit down-at-the-heels then, Beverly would later be gentrified by boomers seeking greenery within proximity of the Loop.
A farmhouse by birth, our home predated all its neighbors. Green-shuttered white frame, it had a wraparound porch, an old pump in back, and a garage that once housed horses and cows.
My memories of that time and place are happy. In cold weather, neighborhood kids skated on a rink created with garden hoses on an empty lot. Daddy would steady me on my double blades, clean slush from my snowsuit when I took a header. In summer, we played kick ball, tag, or Red Rover in the street. My sister, Harry, and I trapped fireflies in jars with hole-punched lids.
During the endless Midwestern winters, countless Brennan aunts and uncles gathered for cards in our eclectically shabby parlor. The routine never varied. After supper, Mama would take small tables from the hall closet, dust the tops, and unfold the legs. Harry would drape the white linen cloths, and I would center the decks, napkins, and peanut bowls.
With the arrival of spring, card tables were abandoned for front porch rockers, and conversation replaced canasta and bridge. I didn’t understand much of it. Warren Commission. Gulf of Tonkin. Khrushchev. Kosygin. I didn’t care. The banding together of those bearing my own double helices assured me of well-being, like the rattle of coins in the Beverly Hillbillies bank on my bedroom dresser. The world was predictable, peopled with relatives, teachers, kids like me from households similar to mine. Life was St. Margaret’s school, Brownie Scouts, Mass on Sunday, day camp in summer.
Then Kevin died, and my six-year-old universe fragmented into shards of doubt and uncertainty. In my sense of world order, death took the old, great-aunts with gnarled blue veins and translucent skin. Not baby boys with fat red cheeks.
I recall little of Kevin’s illness. Less of his funeral. Harry fidgeting in the pew beside me. A spot on my black patent leather shoe. From what? It seemed important to know. I stared at the small gray splotch. Stared away from the reality unfolding around me.
The family gathered, of course, voices hushed, faces wooden. Mama’s side came from North Carolina. Neighbors. Parishioners. Men from Daddy’s law firm. Strangers. They stroked my head. Mumbled of heaven and angels.
The house overflowed with casseroles and bakery wrapped in tinfoil and plastic. Normally, I loved sandwiches with the crusts cut off. Not for the tuna or egg salad between the bread. For the sheer decadence of that frivolous waste. Not that day. Never since. Funny the things that affect you.
Kevin’s death changed more than my view of sandwiches. It altered the whole stage on which I’d lived my life. My mother’s eyes, always kind and often mirthful, were perpetually wrong. Dark-circled and deep in their sockets. My child’s brain was unable to translate her look, other than to sense sadness. Years later I saw a photo of a Kosovo woman, her husband and son lying in makeshift coffins. I felt a spark of recollection. Could I know her? Impossible. Then realization. I was recognizing the same defeat and hopelessness I’d seen in Mama’s gaze.
But it wasn’t just Mama’s appearance that changed. She and Daddy no longer shared a pre-supper cocktail,
or lingered at the table talking over coffee. They no longer watched television when the dishes were cleared and Harry and I were in our PJs. They’d enjoyed the comedy shows, eyes meeting when Lucy or Gomer did something amusing. Daddy would take Mama’s hand and they’d laugh.
All laughter fled when leukemia conquered Kevin.
My father also took flight. He didn’t withdraw into quiet self-pity, as Mama eventually did. Michael Terrence Brennan, litigator, connoisseur, and irrepressible bon vivant, withdrew directly into a bottle of good Irish whiskey. Many bottles, actually.
I didn’t notice Daddy’s absences at first. Like a pain that builds so gradually you’re unable to pinpoint its origin, I realized one day that Daddy just wasn’t around that much. Dinners without him grew more frequent. His arrival home grew later, until he seemed little more than a phantom presence in my life. Some nights I’d hear unsteady footfalls on the steps, a door banged too hard against a wall. A toilet flushed. Then silence. Or muffled voices from my parents’ bedroom, the cadence conveying accusations and resentment.
To this day, a phone ringing after midnight makes me shiver. Perhaps I am an alarmist. Or merely a realist. In my experience, late-night calls never bring good news. There’s been an accident. An arrest. A fight.
Mama’s call came a long eighteen months after Kevin’s death. Phones gave honest rings back then. Not polyphonic clips of “Grillz” or “Sukie in the Graveyard.” I awoke at the first resonating peal. Heard a second. A fragment of a third. Then a soft sound, half scream, half moan, then the clunk of a receiver striking wood. Frightened, I pulled the covers up to my eyes. No one came to my bed.
There was an accident, Mama said the next day. Daddy’s car was forced off the road. She never spoke of the police report, the blood alcohol level of 0.27. I overheard those details on my own. Eavesdropping is instinctual at age seven.
I remember Daddy’s funeral even less than I remember Kevin’s. A bronze coffin topped with a spray of white flowers. Endless eulogies. Muffled crying. Mama supported by two of the aunts. Psychotically green cemetery grass.
Mama’s relatives made the trek in even larger numbers this time. Daessees. Lees. Cousins whose names I didn’t remember. More covert listening revealed threads of their plan. Mama must move back home with her children.
The summer after Daddy died was one of the hottest in Illinois history, with temperatures holding in the nineties for weeks. Though weather forecasters talked of Lake Michigan’s cooling effect, we were far from the water, blocked by too many buildings and too much cement. No lacustrine breezes for us. In Beverly, we plugged in fans, opened windows, and sweated. Harry and I slept on cots on the screened porch.
Through June and into July, Grandma Lee maintained a “return to Dixie” phone campaign. Brennan relatives continued appearing at the house, but solo now, or in sets of two, men with sweat-looped armpits, women in cotton dresses limp on their bodies. Conversation was guarded, Mama nervous and always on the verge of tears. An aunt or uncle would pat her hand. Do what’s best for you and the girls, Daisy.
In some child’s way I sensed a new restlessness in these familial calls. A growing impatience that grieving end and life resume. The visits had become vigils, uncomfortable
but obligatory because Michael Terrence had been one of their own, and the matter of the widow and the children needed to be settled in proper fashion.
Death also wrought change in my own social nexus. Kids I’d known all my life avoided me now. When chance brought us together they’d stare at their feet. Embarrassed? Confused? Fearful of contamination? Most found it easier to stay away.
Mama hadn’t enrolled us in day camp, so Harry and I spent the long, steamy days by ourselves. I read her stories. We played board games, choreographed puppet shows, or walked to the Woolworth’s on Ninety-fifth Street for comics and vanilla Cokes.
Throughout those weeks, a small pharmacy took shape on Mama’s bedside table. When she was downstairs I’d examine the little vials with their ridged white caps and neatly typed labels. Shake them. Peer through the yellow and brown plastic. The tiny capsules caused something to flutter in my chest.
Mama made her decision in mid-July. Or perhaps Grandma Lee made it for her. I listened as she told Daddy’s brothers and sisters. They patted her hand. Perhaps it’s best, they said, sounding, what? Relieved? What does a seven-year-old know of nuance?
Gran arrived the same day a sign went up in our yard. In the kaleidoscope of my memory I see her exiting the taxi, an old woman, scarecrow thin, hands knobby and lizard dry. She was fifty-six that summer.
Within a week we were packed into the Chrysler Newport that Daddy had purchased before Kevin’s diagnosis. Gran drove. Mama rode shotgun. Harry and I were in back, a midline barrier of crayons and games demarcating territorial boundaries.
Two days later we arrived at Gran’s house in Charlotte.
Harry and I were given the upstairs bedroom with the green-striped wallpaper. The closet smelled of mothballs and lavender. Harry and I watched Mama hang our dresses on rods. Winter dresses for parties and church.
How long are we staying, Mama?
We’ll see. The hangers clicked softly.
Will we go to school here?
At breakfast the next morning Gran asked if we’d like to spend the rest of the summer at the beach. Harry and I gazed at her over our Rice Krispies, shell-shocked by the thundering changes rolling over our lives.
’Course you would, she said.
How do you know what I would or wouldn’t like? I thought. You’re not me. She was right, of course. Gran usually was. But that wasn’t the point. Another decision had been made and I was powerless to change it.
Two days after hitting Charlotte, our little party again settled itself in the Chrysler, Gran at the wheel. Mama slept, waking only when the whining of our tires announced we were crossing the causeway.
Mama’s head rose from the seat back. She didn’t turn to us. Didn’t smile and sing out, “Pawleys Island, here we come!” as she had in happier times. She merely slumped back.
Gran patted Mama’s hand, a carbon copy of the gesture employed by the Brennans. “We’re going to be fine,” she cooed, in a drawl identical to that of her daughter. “Trust me, Daisy darlin’. We’re going to be fine.”
And fine I was, once I met Évangéline Landry.
And for the next four years.
Until Évangéline vanished.