MOLLY HAD BEEN to exactly four funerals before, one for each grandparent. She didn’t know if that was a lot of funerals for a girl of sixteen. But she knew this one was different. Emily and Elaine had already been dead for over three weeks, and there was no hint at all of their earthly remains, assuming there were any left. And, of course, Emily and Elaine had not been old people at the end of full lives, but a young girl and her mother.
“Such a tragedy,” everyone kept saying. It had been repeated so often that Molly now heard the words as if they were capitalized: Such a Tragedy. She had expected to hear plenty of that today and had steeled herself against it, hoping not to become a bawling wreck. What she hadn’t expected was what people were saying about Emily and Elaine once they got past the Such a Tragedy part.
“We’ll never see her learn to ride a bike!” Emily’s grandmother sniffed, then started sobbing outright and hid her face in a handkerchief before someone helped her back to her pew. Molly sat there thinking that Emily had already learned to ride a bike the previous summer. It had been the Bicentennial so they’d purchased red, white, and blue “Spirit of 76!” tassels for Emily’s bike handles. Didn’t this woman ever talk to her granddaughter on the phone? But then she felt mean. After all, Mrs. DeRochemont not only didn’t get to see her granddaughter learn to ride a bike, she would never get to see her ride a bike, ever.
Probably they’d missed so much because they lived all the way over in California, which had to be a very expensive long-distance call. And who was she to judge? All her grandparents were dead. They had excuses.
But her sense that things were off just got worse when they started talking about Elaine. They kept referring to her amazing talent, to her great promise as a poet and painter. Molly had worked for Elaine Asken as a babysitter and mother’s helper for four years, but she’d had no idea she ever wrote poetry, and she’d never seen her paint anything other than the bathroom – a nice sky blue.
Her mother looked as perplexed as she was. Their small town did not lack for artists. Molly’s mother was one herself (the infamous Cassandra Carmichael – yes, that one). She wasn’t shy about bringing it up, either. So how could something like this have never come up in neighborly conversation?
Back at the Asken house, now crowded with mourners trying not to chat too cheerfully over the food, Molly caught her mother examining pale David Asken with suspicion. Her mother had always seemed to like this young family across the street, to consider them the right sort of people, not too old-fashioned or Republican or anything. She particularly approved of the fact that Elaine had a job, teaching English at the local public high school. Now, however, Molly could tell that she suspected Dr. Asken of oppressing all the art out of his wife.
Molly thought it was more likely that her mother had oppressed any mention of art out of Elaine. Cassandra had hit the big time with an installation called Puberty, which had included a life-sized sculpture of Molly, twelve at the time, constructed entirely of tampons and feminine napkins – unused, thank God. This had been such a big hit that her mother had moved on to a series of papier-mâché portraits of women’s private parts she called Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose. Worse, her mother always made sure the local media knew about her new shows, and they delighted in giving full coverage to her exploits.
All this had often made Molly want to curl up in the fetal position in her bed rather than go to school. People assumed Shadbrook was an enlightened town because it was so close to UMass and the other colleges – and plenty of academics did live there. But the other people, the locals – farmers and factory workers and custodians and groundskeepers – wouldn’t be caught dead pretending to like contemporary art. At Shadbrook High School the kids had saluted her mother’s first show by passing her sanitary supplies in class and calling her Tampon Girl. She was grateful when her father took pity and got her transferred into a local boarding school as a day student. At Shadbrook Academy the rich kids thought it was cool to have a mom who was so open-minded about, like, sex, and Molly tried to act as if she thought so, too. She’d already learned the hard way that betraying embarrassment in high school was like jumping into a shark frenzy with a vein open.
But Molly was not particularly open-minded about sex. She was still only sixteen, and she had never felt an overwhelming urge to exchange bodily fluids with any of the boys she knew, even the ones she considered cute. And she didn’t appreciate it when someone assumed she must be hot to trot just because her mother had a bunch of giant vulvas lined up on a shelf in her studio.
Today, though, she was less the crazy feminist artist’s daughter than she was the bereaved babysitter of the dead girl. People were giving her the same watery smiles they were giving Dr. Asken – in her case, probably because her eyes were still red-rimmed with tears from the service (so much for not bawling), or perhaps because she was helping out at the house and therefore seemed to hold some kind of official family status.
Mr. and Mrs. Pizarelli from next door tapped on the glass door off the deck and began to slide it open. Although the Asken house faced busy Federal Street, the driveway was off quiet Brinkley Street, facing Molly’s mother’s house. Only salesmen and Jehovah’s Witnesses walked all the way around. Mr. Pizarelli bore a huge pan wrapped in aluminum foil while his wife carried a homemade layer cake high up before her like a sacred offering. Molly knew they were going to want more recognition for their efforts than they could get from her, so she quickly went into the living room and pointed Dr. Asken’s sister, Denise, toward the new arrivals.
In the living room, two women she didn’t know were examining the large oils hanging there and Molly suddenly realized that they must be Elaine’s, since they were signed EDR. The two largest paintings were color studies more than anything, but a few were more representational – impressionist scenes of shells or sea oats and dunes. It was the kind of stuff her mother would dismiss as too conventional – sofa art, she might call it, with a sniff.
Molly jumped when Denise grabbed her elbow and steered her towards the kitchen. Although she lived in Minneapolis, Denise had been staying here at the house since shortly after the crash, watching over her brother while he recuperated from his injuries. She leaned in towards Molly’s ear and murmured, “How do you think it’s going?”
What made Denise think she was any judge? “Fine, I guess.”
“I was hoping David would get more involved, but I’m afraid he still has a long way to go.” She sighed unhappily.
After three weeks in the hospital, Dr. Asken still had one arm bandaged all the way from the hand to the elbow and hanging in a sling. The other hand wasn’t bandaged anymore, but it was scarred with pale, puckered trails like birthday cake icing. At rest it curled in on itself like a claw. Except for those injuries it was not really obvious from looking that he had survived a terrible plane crash. There had been fourteen survivors out of eighty-three passengers – or eleven, really, since three had since died from their injuries.
Molly assumed Dr. Asken was suffering – how could he not be? But today, when she’d dared to look, she was mostly struck by how he seemed to not really be there at all.
“Do you think you could stay for a while this afternoon and help me clean up? I’ll pay you, of course.” Denise’s plump face had managed to take on a hollow look, and she had a fine sheen of perspiration over her upper lip. She’d been shepherding people to and away from her brother, putting out food, refreshing drinks and supplying gory details to people who surely already knew what had happened but wanted to hear it all over again from a more authoritative source.
“Yes, I can stay. You don’t have to pay me.”
“Oh, aren’t you sweet.”
Molly sensed a faint touch of contempt there. Did Denise think she was some kind of provincial idiot? But although Molly could use the money, it hadn’t been her primary motivation in her relationship with the Askens for a long time.
This house had been her refuge from the general chaos at home as well as impassioned monologues about the beauty of the female body and the political importance of the female orgasm and other things she just didn’t think a girl should have to discuss with her mother. She had loved Emily because she was a sweet little girl who worshiped her, and she had loved Elaine because she was predictable and steady and kind. She’d loved coming over here into the tranquility of Elaine’s blues and greens, the houseplants that didn’t die from neglect, the sense of order and peace. Just stepping in the door was soothing.
But it was not Elaine and Emily’s house anymore; it was just Dr. Asken’s. And Dr. Asken – Dr. because he had a Ph.D. and taught science at one of the local women’s colleges – had never been anything more to Molly than a tall man with hair just long enough to make her father frown, a man who occasionally appeared, looked mildly embarrassed, and paid her.
In truth, she was not really entirely comfortable that she had been hired to work as Dr. Asken’s housekeeper for the rest of the summer.
She quietly dodged around people in the living room, collecting glasses and dishes, doing her job. But when she was loading the dishwasher and recognized Emily’s favorite juice glass, the one with Cookie Monster on it, she felt tears rise again. She dashed out the door to the front porch, where she could slip down onto the old wicker sofa behind the lilacs and try to get a grip.
Moments later, her mother stuck her head out of the front door. “Oh, there you are,” she said. “Are you all right?”
Molly nodded and gave her a surly pout, desperate to head off any serious attempt at comfort. It would only make her cry.
Cassandra sat down next to her and took out a cigarette. “I wonder why she stopped painting,” she said. She took a drag and blew out smoke in a long stream.
Molly coughed. “I wonder why you started smoking.”
Her mom blew out another long stream, and Molly wondered if maybe that was why she had started smoking – the opportunity it provided for dramatic pauses.
“I used to smoke before I got pregnant with you.”
“So you won’t mind if I start now, either?”
Her mother cocked an eyebrow at her and offered her a cigarette.
Her mom smiled. “I didn’t think so.” Another stream. “What do you think of Elaine’s paintings?”
“I didn’t realize they were hers. I like the colors.”
“I see indications of real talent.”
Molly frowned. There was no way would her mother would have said that if Elaine were still alive. Her mother generally dismissed all but most the radical of her contemporaries as “bourgeois hacks,” and there was nothing in Elaine’s work that suggested revolutionary tendencies. Molly said, “Elaine was the warmest, kindest woman I’ve ever known.”
Her mother stubbed out her cigarette and tossed the butt into the lilac.
Molly thought it took a lot of nerve to toss a butt into a grieving man’s front garden, but then she realized there were no ashtrays on the front porch. Elaine would have thought to put some around. “Let me get an ashtray for you,” she said, and stood up.
“Don’t bother, I’m going home. Are you coming?”
“Denise asked me to help clean up.”
Her mother snorted. She’d taken an instant dislike to Denise. “Well, good luck with that.” She went back through the house, no doubt to do another round of condolences on her way out.
Molly twisted around to peer through the living room window, curious to see how Dr. Asken would react to the second, parting handshake from her mother. People in the room stopped what they were doing to watch her. Molly’s mother was not a beauty – she was a tiny woman, with unusually short, spiky hair and a face that was more interesting than it was pretty – but people did watch her, even people who didn’t know how notorious she was.
But Cassandra Carmichael didn’t get even a flicker of recognition from Dr. Asken. It was the same as the first time he’d shaken their hands, after the service – like someone going through motions he didn’t even know he was making.
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