Just like when I heard the terrible news about our parents and the news years later about Grandma Arnold, I didn’t cry immediately. Something inside me wouldn’t let me understand what I was being told. The words kept floating away like tiny bubbles caught in a breeze and bursting before I could bring them back. Nevertheless, I knew. Deep inside, where I went to find love and hope, where my best dreams were on shelves waiting to be plucked like books and opened during sleep, a cold, dark realization boiled and threatened to spill over and into every part of me. I fought it back, but it was oozing in everywhere. Despite my effort, I knew I would be soaked in the dark sadness in moments and be unable to deny it.
We had retreated to the lobby in silence, Grandpa resting his large right hand over the back of my neck and me clutching his shirt with my left hand. We needed to keep touching each other, comforting each other.
We sat on a pair of chairs facing the exam rooms. He held my hand and stared ahead; his face had never been more stone-cold. Somehow all the noise around us seemed to disappear. It was as if I had lost my hearing. We were waiting now to learn about Myra. She was having an X-ray. Would she die, too? Suddenly, my grandfather looked up. The doctor he had first spoken to was out in the hallway again, this time talking to a nurse. Grandpa rose and walked over to him. I couldn’t imagine what he was asking, but whatever he said interested the doctor. Moments later, he was leading my grandfather back toward the exam rooms. I saw them disappear around a turn. Maybe Grandpa was finding out about Myra, I thought.
I certainly didn’t move. I didn’t know if I could even stand. My legs were still trembling. I was afraid to look at anyone, even though I could feel people staring at me. Had they heard about Willie? Were they waiting to see me crumple up in uncontrollable sobs? Some looked terrified themselves.
For some reason, I began to wonder what my friends were doing at that moment. Were they planning lunch, watching television, talking on the phone and giggling about silly things? What were Willie’s teachers doing? Was anyone else anywhere thinking about him? How tense was the atmosphere around my grandfather’s estate? Was anyone laughing or smiling? Were they all holding their breath, waiting for a phone call? Did someone call the hospital?
I looked at a little boy who was holding his mother’s hand and had the thumb of his other hand in
his mouth while he bounced against her. Most people avoided looking at one another. A look might bring bad news. Everyone’s eyes appeared shut down, as if they had turned to glass.
Finally, my grandfather came back around the corner, obviously having realized he had left me sitting there. He beckoned to me, and I hurried to join him. Maybe what we were told was untrue. Maybe Willie didn’t die after all.
“They’re putting a cast on Myra’s left arm. It was broken, and she has three fractured ribs, a few bruises, and a slight concussion. It’ll be a while,” he said.
Our concern was no surprise. Myra was part of our family now. Grandpa Arnold and Grandma Arnold’s housekeeper of many, many years, Myra Potter became our nanny the day the terrible news arrived from Italy. She had also been a nanny for my mother and her younger brother, Uncle Bobby. A business associate of my grandpa had recommended Myra, who had been working for a Lord and Lady Willowsby in London. She came to America to work for my grandparents after Lady Willowsby died and Lord Willowsby moved to Cornwall to live with his son and daughter-in-law. Neither Grandpa nor I could imagine the house without Myra. She treated everything in it like her personal possessions and was, according to my grandmother, “more protective of it and your grandfather than I am.”
Myra was barely five feet four but had gray-black eyes that seemed to double in size when something annoyed or angered her. She had a habitually stern, lean
face on which smiles seemed to bubble up from some hidden place whenever she permitted them. I knew the maids my grandparents had were terrified of her, most not lasting more than six months; the grounds people, the gardeners, the pool man, and anyone who came onto the property to do any work made sure she was happy with what they were doing, even before my grandpa had a look at it.
“But what about Willie?” I asked now, hoping to hear a different answer.
He shook his head. His face was still ashen gray. When my grandfather was deeply upset about something, he seemed to close up every part of himself through which rage or emotion could escape. The steam built up inside him and made him look like he might explode. The only indication came in the way his hands and lips trembled slightly. Anyone who didn’t know him well would probably not notice or would notice when it was already too late, especially if he was angry. And then, as Grandma Arnold used to say, “Pity the fool who got his engine started!”
Grandpa Arnold was always the biggest and strongest man ever in my eyes. He was six feet three and at least two hundred twenty pounds of mostly muscle. He owned one of the country’s biggest trucking companies. He had been a truck driver himself, and because he hated the long days and weeks of separation from his family, he had put together his own company and built it to where it was today. It was even on the stock market now. I had no idea how rich my grandfather was, but to most people who knew us, he
seemed to be the richest man in the country. Wherever he went, people practically leaped out of their skin to please him.
He put his hand on my shoulder and then brought me into a hug. We stood while nurses and doctors went around us as if we weren’t there, which made it feel more like a dream.
“Come on,” he said when he stopped hugging me. He took my hand and led me down the hallway to another room, where a nurse and a doctor were working around a very small boy. Despite the scary-looking equipment and the wires and tubes attached to him, the boy didn’t even whimper. He didn’t cry, and unlike any other child his age, he didn’t call for his mother. He was lying there with his cerulean-blue eyes wide open but looking as glassy and frozen as the eyes of the worried people in the lobby. His pale face seemed to be fading into the milk-white pillow, making his flaxen hair more golden. I thought he looked like a fallen cherub, an angel who had floated onto the hospital bed and was still too stunned to speak.
“What happened to him?” I asked, sniffing back my tears.
“They say he was poisoned.”
“With arsenic. They don’t know if it was done deliberately or if he was eating something meant for rats.”
I grimaced. I was close to heaving up everything I had eaten all day as it was.
I looked up at my grandfather and saw something
different in his face. The terror, anger, and horrible sadness that had been there from the moment we had driven off to the hospital suddenly were gone, replaced with this look of awe and interest I had seen in him only occasionally since my parents’ deaths and especially since Grandma Arnold’s death. He always seemed impervious. It was as if he had a new limit to how deeply he would smile or laugh and how tightly he would hold on to the reins of his curiosity, especially about people. He did what he had to do for Willie and me, but I couldn’t help feeling that he was moving about robotically most of the time and that we were very dependent on Myra to care for us.
I waited a moment to see what my grandfather wanted to do now. Why were we looking in on this little boy, anyway? How would this make what happened to Willie different? There was nothing that could make it any better.
“He was dumped off here,” my grandfather said, his eyes still fixed on the doctor’s and nurse’s actions around the boy.
He looked down at me. “Like the doctor told us when we first arrived, someone brought him to the hospital and left him without giving any names or telling what had happened. They said it all happened so quickly that no one could do anything about it.”
“But what does this have to do with Willie and Myra, Grandpa?” I asked.
He looked at me but didn’t answer. He just looked
back at the boy and nodded as if he heard someone else speaking.
“Where is Willie?” I asked, sounding annoyed. Why didn’t my grandfather take us to Willie’s room instead of this little boy’s room? Was he already too terrible to look at, his face distorted by death? I wanted so much to look at him, to touch him. Maybe if he knew I was there beside him, he would come back to life. I still believed in miracles.
“They’re taking him to a place in the hospital where he’ll be until the funeral director comes for him,” he said. Now his voice was thinner, his throat closing up. His lips and hands had that tremble again.
The word “funeral” brought an intense rush of heat to my face. I felt like a blowup of myself losing air quickly. My body seemed to be sinking in on me, collapsing.
“No,” I said, very softly at first, so softly that Grandpa Arnold didn’t hear it. It was all taking a firmer grip on me. “No,” I repeated, much louder. He turned and looked down at me. He was still holding my hand. “No!” I screamed, squatting and pounding my hands against the sides of my body. “No! Willie can’t be dead! No!” The nurse and the doctor stopped working on the little boy and looked at us.
Grandpa reached down and lifted me up. I realized immediately how silly that looked, a sixteen-year-old girl picked up like a child half her age. To him, it was just the natural thing to do, I guess. For a moment, that took my breath away.
“Shh,” Grandpa said, stroking my hair. He lowered me and then he turned with me, and we headed back to the lobby to wait for more news about Myra.
I slumped over in the chair, my head resting against my grandfather’s shoulder. My emotional outburst had drained me of so much energy that I didn’t think I’d be able to get up on my own when the nurse came to tell us Myra was ready and we could take her home.
I felt Grandpa’s strong arm around my waist. He literally lifted me to my feet. Then he took my hand. The nurse, a woman who reminded me a little of my mother, put her hand on my shoulder and stroked my hair.
“I’m so sorry about your brother,” she said. “You have to be strong for everyone now,” she added.
Strong for everyone? What language was she speaking? How could I be strong for anyone now?
Tears were frozen in my eyes. I thought I probably looked as comatose as that little boy with the flaxen hair. We walked back toward the exam rooms, where the nurse led us to another exit. Myra was in a wheelchair. An attendant was waiting to wheel her out to Grandpa’s car.
“She’s under some pain sedation,” the nurse told Grandpa.
Myra looked terrible. Her eyes were mostly closed, there was a bad bruise on her left cheekbone, and her mouth hung open as if her jaw had been broken, too. The cast looked twice as big as her arm. Looking like this, a way I had never seen her, she
seemed much older to me and quite small. I wondered if she knew about Willie. As the attendant wheeled her out with the nurse accompanying them, I tugged on my grandfather’s hand.
“Does she know about Willie?” I asked.
“Not yet. Wait,” he said. He rushed forward to help get her into the backseat.
The nurse gave my grandfather a prescription for Myra’s pain medication. He took it and then nodded for me to get into the backseat with her.
“Don’t let her fall over or anything, Clara Sue,” he said. “She’s very unsteady.”
Myra groaned and opened her eyes more. “Where’s Willie?” she asked me.
I didn’t have to say anything. My tears did all the talking.
She uttered a horrible moan, and I put my arm around her and buried my forehead against her shoulder. Grandpa drove off silently. I lifted my head quickly and looked back at the hospital.
We’re leaving Willie, I thought. We’re leaving Willie.
Myra cried softly in my arms as we rode back to Grandpa’s estate. Everyone came out when we drove through the opened gate. Jimmy Wilson practically lunged at the car, and when Myra was helped out, he lifted her in his arms like a baby to carry her into the house. I could see that everyone had heard the news and had been crying. The person who would take it almost worse than me was our cook, Faith Richards. No one spoiled or loved Willie more than she did.
Myra was becoming more alert. “Put me down. I can walk!” she cried. “Don’t be ridiculous.”
Jimmy paused in the doorway and let her down gently. She glared at him, trying to be angry about it, but anyone could see she was putting it on.
“Got your bed all ready, Myra,” My Faith said. My grandmother used to refer to her as “My Faith,” and Willie and I did, too.
“I don’t need to go to bed.”
“You need to go to bed and rest,” Grandpa said sternly. “No back talk,” he added.
It was the first thing he had said since we left the hospital. Myra took one look at him and started to head to her room, which was next to My Faith’s at the rear of the estate. Then she paused and looked at me. I knew she didn’t want to be alone, and neither did I. I hurried to her side, and we walked through the wide hallway, past the kitchen and into the corridor that led to her and My Faith’s rooms, all the while not looking at anyone. I was afraid that if I looked at any of them, I would burst into hysterical sobs.
I was in that place between a nightmare and just waking up, this time fighting against waking up but also pushing away the nightmare. How could all of this be happening to us? How could any of it be?
We lived in Prescott, Virginia, a community thirty-five miles northeast of Charlottesville that seemed to have been created for millionaires. If you were a resident, it was easy to believe you lived in a protective bubble, which made any misfortune happening to you
or your neighbors seem impossible to imagine and even more impossible to accept.
“Fires don’t kill rich people, you know, love,” I heard Myra tell My Faith one day. “Rich people don’t go to jail. Rich people always get saved in the best hospitals by the most expensive and brilliant doctors. Maybe rich people go to a higher class of heaven when they die, and they’re always supposed to die in their sleep without pain, don’t you know. That’s how Lady Willowsby died. She closed her eyes, began dreaming of biscuits and tea, and never woke up.”
Myra concluded, “That’s in the English Constitution, passed in the House of Lords.”
“Ain’t that the truth, I bet,” My Faith said. They both laughed about it. I was always intrigued by how easily My Faith could get Myra to laugh. Except for Grandma Arnold and Willie, she was the only one who could.
It didn’t surprise me that I recalled that conversation so vividly at this moment. I had heard this before my parents died, and I believed we were all so special that nothing bad would ever happen to us. Everything seemed to tell us so.
Before our parents’ fatal boat accident, whenever Willie and I visited our grandparents, we went to bed soaking in security and comfort. New toys and bedding with images of our favorite cartoon characters were always in the immaculately kept rooms reserved for us. There were children’s movie characters on the wallpaper. There were dressers and mirrors so shiny and clean that they looked just bought, carpets as soft as
marshmallow, and curtains on the windows that looked like the curtains that opened and closed on theater stages. When Myra opened our curtains in the morning, we half-expected to hear music and see a puppet show.
Willie and I imagined we were sleeping in a castle surrounded by high walls and moats, a place that evil creatures and nightmares could only glance at from the outside and then move on from, never daring to enter and certainly never daring to touch us while we were here. Maybe it was all my doing. I wove stories of knights and dragons, always ending with us being protected. It was important to me to be sure my little brother was safe and unafraid, especially after our parents died.
But it was easy to create such a fairy-tale view of the world when you lived in Prescott. Almost every house was a custom-built estate with a minimum of five acres, walled in with elaborate stonework, tall hedges, or high scrolled gates. When we drove by one, I would tell Willie it belonged to this prince or that princess. Some estates had small ponds on the property, and all had foliage and fountains, flowers and bushes designed by well-known landscape artists.
In late spring, there was a competition to determine who had the most beautiful grounds, and the prize was awarded at the public park. People dressed up as if they were going to the Kentucky Derby, and there were musicians and singers, and a few dignitaries made speeches that Myra said were so full of soap that if we looked closely, we’d see bubbles coming out of their mouths. It helped keep us interested.
Willie loved attending, even when he was barely three. There were balloons and ice cream, and circulating among the attendees were magicians, jugglers, and clowns. Myra said it was Prescott’s version of Covent Garden in London. People came from everywhere, even those who lived outside of Prescott. There was always an impressive trophy for the winner. Grandpa had won twice in the last seven years. We did have the most impressive estate.
Because of the restrictive zoning, there were no apartment buildings in Prescott, no middle-class people, and especially no low-income people sleeping here unless they were in-house employees. All the residents were influential business and political people who had, through those zoning ordinances, made it almost impossible for anyone of more moderate means to build a home and settle in this small community. They were also able to keep all fast-food restaurants out. The only businesses approved within Prescott’s borders were convenience stores attached to gas stations. The restaurants in Prescott that “didn’t raise the king’s eyebrows,” as Myra put it—and there were only six—were all gourmet places with chefs who graduated from prestigious culinary institutes. Some Prescott residents were investors in these restaurants.
Rich people and people splurging on dinners for special occasions came from miles away to the restaurants in Prescott. All of them were in beautiful buildings. The moment you walked into one, you knew you were going to spend a lot of money. They all had immaculately dressed waiters, waitresses, and busboys
and maître d’s who knew most of the customers by name.
What wasn’t perfect in Prescott?
However, I had heard a joke about Prescott that a newspaper reporter told my grandpa at the landscape competition. The reporter joked that the nondenominational cemetery should be entered in the contest, too, because it truly was the most beautiful property within its boundaries.
“You do more for the dead here than you do for the living, Mr. Arnold,” he said, “and you don’t get paid for it until you join them.”
He wasn’t wrong. The burial sites and the monuments were as carefully designed and as full of restrictions as the houses of the living. Myra said that the trees and the landscaping, the fountains, and the chapel looked like they were all part of a property owned by the British royals or something: “You’d think you had entered Buckingham Palace.” Graves were dug only at night so it appeared as if the ground simply had opened up with perfect proportions to gently accept the newly departed the following day. I even heard Myra tell My Faith that you practically needed an invitation from the Queen of England to get in.
But, as my grandpa and I now too painfully understood, being rich, even as rich as we were, really didn’t bring us immunity from tragedy. Everyone knew that was true, but here in Prescott, there was an attempt to get back at death by creating a cemetery so elaborate and attractive that a popular joke outsiders supposedly
cracked was “Prescott residents are dying to get in there.”
Well, Willie hadn’t been, I thought, and neither were my parents or Grandma Arnold.
My Faith and I sat with Myra until she fell asleep, and then My Faith rose quickly and said she had better get into the kitchen and start to prepare food.
“I’m not hungry. I’ll never eat again,” I said.
She smiled and stroked my hair. “You will, darlin’,” she said. “But we’ll need food ’cause all your grandpa’s friends will be comin’ to pay their respects as soon as . . . as they know,” she said, and walked off, mumbling about how quickly bad news can travel.
I sat there. Of course, she was right. I remembered how it had been after the news about my parents spread and especially after Grandma Arnold died.
Our house, a Greek Revival mansion, had already been indelibly stained with the weight of those tragedies. Willie’s death was just going to make it all darker, heavier. Already, to me, there were shadows now where once there had never been. I sat fixed and afraid to leave Myra’s side, because I was sure the vast rooms would seem terribly empty to me, despite the elaborate and expensive furniture and large classical paintings on the walls. From now on, voices would always echo, footsteps would hang longer in the air, and in a few hours, people would be whispering. Maybe they would never stop whispering.
Myra moaned in her sleep. I looked at her, afraid to touch her because she had been so broken. Maybe she hurt all over now. I certainly did. I rose slowly,
confused about where I should go and what I should do. I really was afraid of the house, afraid of how much smaller I would feel in it now that Willie was no longer to be with me. No matter how annoying he could be sometimes or how demanding of attention, he was still like the other half of me.
I left Myra’s room and walked slowly back to the kitchen to look in on My Faith. She and one of the maids were working quickly to prepare dishes, sobbing and dabbing their eyes as they worked. They paused when they saw me, but I walked away. I didn’t want to be any part of that or even admit to myself that it was going on.
I thought about calling Lila, but just the idea of doing something I would normally do sickened me. The world should have stopped. Clocks shouldn’t be ticking. No one should be working or playing. Certainly, no one should be laughing, anywhere. I walked past the living room and paused at the doorway of Grandpa’s office. He was behind his desk, his big, strong hands pressed against his temples, and he was leaning over and staring down at what I knew was his favorite picture of my mother. I couldn’t speak. I just stood there. Finally, he looked up and realized I was there.
“How’s Myra?” he asked.
“Good. I had Jimmy go for her medicine.” He sat back. “I called your other grandmother,” he said. He always called my father’s mother my “other” grandmother. He never used her name, which was my name,
Sanders. She was Patricia Sanders. “She’ll be coming with her sister Sally to the funeral. Seems that’s the only time we ever see her, eh? Funerals,” he said bitterly. “Death has had a feast here.”
He had his hands clenched into fists. I didn’t know what to say. He looked like he would spring up out of his chair and start swinging at anything and everything. I supposed the expression on my face softened him. He unclenched his fists and stood.
“My secretary, Mrs. Mallen, is on her way here. She’ll oversee what has to be done. Your uncle Bobby is on his way, too,” he said, but not with much enthusiasm.
I looked up with more interest. Both Willie and I loved Uncle Bobby, but Uncle Bobby and Grandpa had never really gotten along as well as a father and a son should, and I don’t think it was only because Uncle Bobby didn’t want anything to do with the business Grandpa had created.
In looks, he resembled my grandmother more than my grandfather. He was tall and lean, with much more diminutive facial features. He had my grandmother’s sea-blue eyes and her more feminine high cheekbones. My grandfather was burly, muscular, someone who would be cast faster as a bartender or a bouncer than as the owner of a multimillion-dollar business, often wearing a suit and tie.
From what I knew, Uncle Bobby was always more interested in music and dramatics than in running a trucking company. His goal was to become a Broadway choreographer. Currently, he was on the
road with a new production, a revival of Anything Goes. My grandfather had attended some of his performances in high school but never any in college and only went to a Broadway show my uncle was in because the whole family went. Grandma Arnold and my mother followed Uncle Bobby’s career but were careful not to talk about it too much in front of Grandpa. Most of the time, he would simply get up and walk out of the room.
“You’d better go upstairs and rest a bit, Clara Sue,” he said now, and started around his desk. “I’ll look in on you later when I return.”
“Where are you going, Grandpa?”
He paused. I could see he was debating what to say. “I have to go to the funeral parlor,” he began. “Then I have to go back to the hospital.”
“The hospital? Why, Grandpa? Are you going to see Willie? I want to go, too.”
“I’m not going to see Willie,” he said. “There’s nothing more I can do for Willie.”
“Then why are you going to the hospital? To pay a bill?”
He almost smiled. “No,” he said. He pressed his lips together for a moment like someone who was trying to keep words locked in, and then he said the strangest thing. “Your grandmother wants me to go back.”
“For that other little boy,” he said. He had the strangest expression on his face, stranger than I had ever seen. “She was with me the whole time. She comforted
me about Willie, but she practically whispered in my ear when I looked in at that other little boy.”
“The poisoned boy?”
“Yes, the poisoned boy.”
“No one can be more traumatized than that little boy.”
I could feel my eyelids narrow. Rage that had been subdued under wave after wave of heavier grief was rising up. Grandma Arnold used to say that Willie and I were the most traumatized that children could be because we had lost both our parents in a terrible accident.
“He has no one, Clara Sue,” Grandpa said, seeing the confusion and anger in my face. “You remember how your grandmother felt about grief-stricken children. There’s no one here for him—or anywhere, it seems. I’m going to make sure he gets the best medical treatment.”
I knew in my heart of hearts that this act of kindness was something to be proud of my grandfather for doing, but it just didn’t seem like the right time to be doing anything for anyone else. Everyone should be doing things for us now.
Suddenly, I hated this strange little boy. Why would anyone blame me? I wanted to devote all my energy and strength, and I wanted Grandpa to devote all of his, to mourning my brother. I didn’t want anyone else stepping onto his stage, his final place in our lives. Willie deserved every moment of our attention. Worrying about someone else’s child, especially that of someone who didn’t care about his or her own child, denied my brother what he deserved. But I could see
that Grandpa was determined to do this—and all because he believed my grandmother had appeared like a ghost and whispered in his ear?
Where did this come from? My grandfather wasn’t a particularly spiritual man. He wasn’t one to believe in miracles of any kind. It was my grandma Lucy who had persuaded him to go to church occasionally, and after she died, he wouldn’t go to any church except for funerals and weddings. If anything, the tragedies in our lives had made him more cynical. He was always impatient with the minister’s “stock talk,” as he called it. “They don’t know any more than we do about why this world is the way it is,” he often mumbled, maybe more out of pain than anger.
I shook my head. Tears began to well up in my eyes. I thought I might start screaming again.
Suddenly, he put his hands on my shoulders and looked firmly into my tearful eyes. Then he took my right hand firmly into his left hand. He was gripping so tightly that he was on the verge of hurting me, but I was afraid to move.
“Do you realize, Clara Sue,” Grandpa whispered, “that the same hour your brother passed, this little boy was brought to the emergency room to fight for his life? That means something.” He repeated it in a whisper, looking past me as if he was talking about it with my dead grandmother. “That means something.”
It would be a long time before it would mean anything remotely close to what he was suggesting to me.
The truth be told . . .
I never wanted it to.