I've never been much of a traveler, particularly not to places under the sun's fiercest gaze. So it was with a will borne of some strange and ungovernable desire that on a midwinter day I flew from New York to the Caribbean island of St. Clair.
Ssss. Lady. Whereyouwannago?
Stepping out from the terminal at the Thomas P. Rose Airport, I was instantly enclosed by a clutch of taxi drivers jostling one another for my fare. The little concrete building stood open-faced to the road, and everywhere vacationers in bright cotton and baseball caps hustled about, shouting to each other Over here, Bill, this guy says he can take us above the clackety clack of idling shuttle buses. I tried to press forward but collided with a rolling suitcase that slammed against my knee, missed only a beat, and continued smartly on. Out in the sun, the noonday heat rose and shimmered like grease in a pan.
"Someone will be picking yah up," Lou's sister had said when we spoke the day before, ringing off before I could get more detail. I looked around at the circus of people and felt a flutter of nausea. My face, caught in the reflection of a car window, was tense as a drum. After what must have been ten abject minutes bobbing around in the chaos of island reception, I retreated to a shaded bench and began searching my bag for a pair of sandals.
A sad, familiar noise, the rattle of pills against plastic, came from somewhere beneath my clothes. Oval and blue as robins' eggs, the pills were meant to soften a spur of anxiety that sometimes went for the base of my skull. I'd taken one and slept, badly, the night before, and again on the airplane, only to wake numb and blue under the blast of the air-conditioning system. In the tropical air, my medication hangover plus the two layers of wool I wore were making me feel smothered. I cursed aloud, and a woman seated next to me inched down the bench.
It was then --- barefoot, my bag half unpacked --- that I heard my name. A tall, chestnut-colored man with a precise flat-top hair-cut had planted himself before me, blocking out the sun. I stood up quickly and felt myself wobble as the blood rushed from my head.
"You Adelaide?" he said, looking not at but past me and jingling the keys in his pants pocket.
The smooth planes of the man's face were interrupted by two tight, walnutlike bunches of muscle in his jaw. I pushed my belongings back into the bag and extended my hand, but the airport PA system just then crackled to life, drowning out my response. Ladies and gentlemen, flight forty-three to St. Thomas with continuing service to San Juan will now begin preboarding at gate two. Passengers with small children Ignoring me, the man took my bag and walked away. I followed, shoeless, as we weaved through a chorus of gaily dressed young women holding up signs for Sandals and Club Med. Picking my way along the hot graveled road, I nearly lost sight of him. At last, on a narrow grass divider, I caught up as he stopped for traffic. His face wore the expression of a man willing himself to be alone.
"I'm sorry. I didn't catch your name," I said as we moved off again.
"Derek," he answered.
Derek; an adult face to go with the name I'd once worried like a rosary. As a little girl, I'd imagined meeting Lou's boys a hundred times, had fashioned them with thoughts and personalities as if clothing imaginary dolls. None of my fantasies had resembled this sudden, brittle truth.
The seats of Derek's car were small and close, forcing me to tuck in my elbows so he could shift as we got under way. Sweat streamed down my back. Timidly, I flapped the hem of my sweater for relief, not daring to remove anything else in the tight space of the car. Perhaps meaning to be helpful, or not, Derek flipped a switch and an infernal blast of air spewed from the vents. I sat back and tried to act relaxed.
The car lurched ahead and soon we were careering along a wrecked main thoroughfare that hugged the southern coast of St. Clair. It ran like a ribbon through tattered seaside villages, opening up to sandy inlets with pink hotels, and giving way here and there to a long view of a busy Caribbean harbor town. On Derek's side of the car, the lee side, sugarcane fields ran ragged to the green hills of the north. The line between quaint and calamitous wavered with each bump and turn in the rutted road.
Feigning interest in the scenery, I managed at last to get a good look at Derek. His skin was several shades lighter than his mother's, but the features were eerily familiar. The fine, curved etches around his mouth reminded me powerfully of Lou and, for a second or two, took my breath away. I thought of her dipping her wrist in my bathwater and pausing in silent contemplation. I tried not to stare.
"When's the service?" I asked, finally, after we'd traveled a long mile in silence. The question cast a harsh glow on the ordeal ahead, a picture of which hung for a moment like a scrim between us. Derek clenched and unclenched his jaw.
"Two days' time."
"That's good," I said. "I mean, it's all a lot to handle, I'm sure." Just ahead a goat was coming down off an embankment and into the road. Derek swerved to avoid it, never taking his foot off the accelerator.
"It's just terrible what happened," I added, pitching my voice to a near shout as Derek threw the little car into low gear. He braked and, without any indication of having heard me, made a sharp turn onto an unpaved side street. On either side of the road, drab houses of cinder block and tin lined up in slack rows, one or two decorated with dirty curtains and window boxes. Halfway down the block, at a peeling yellow door, we came to an abrupt halt. Derek left me and went inside. I got out of the car to pull off my sweater and, in the sanctum of that momentary eclipse, wondered just what the hell I thought I was doing there.
It was just past dawn when my mother had called with the news. My bedroom was still dark, save for a wan spoke of winter light barely grazing my dirty window. She spoke quickly, wedging her words in before I could look at the clock.
"Good morning, darling, it's Mom. Sorry to wake you, I just thought you'd want to know Louise died." My mother had a tennis partner named Louise, a tiny woman whose face-lifts had had the strange effect of making her look beaten up. For a moment I thought of her and could not imagine why Mom would call me with this information. We're not close, my mother and I. Not in that way. I'm not the person she would look to for comfort.
"June, you remember June, she called first thing. Isn't that dear? She's still with the Rubinsteins."
It was then that an image of Louise, as familiar as my own thumb, first appeared. Not my mother's friend, but Lou, my Lou. Dressed in her Sunday clothes, she was walking straight as a rod down my grandmother Edith's looping driveway, toward church.
"How?" I asked, lying still beneath the covers.
"You remember she couldn't swim?"
"Well, it seems she drowned."
My mother paused. The upset I heard in her silence rattled me. She wanted me to ask for details. She would have liked, I'm sure, to simply talk with me. And I did want to know more, but I was too far gone, too deep in my campaign of truculence to make the long march back.
After a moment, she continued.
Here we were, then, playing our parts.
"She hadn't been doing well, physically, for some time. Something about her heart, I think. The night before, her sister put her to bed but, in the morning. Well. Oh, Addy, I think it was just awful. They couldn't find her, if you can imagine. Someone, two boys, I think, discovered her body a mile or so down the beach. She was dressed as if she were going somewhere."
I could feel my mother straining through the telephone wires, trying to make contact with me. The phone itself seemed water-logged with her need. I worked to put all the pieces together in my sleep-bent head.
"Isn't that the oddest thing?" she said, her theatrical voice now in its upper, excited register. When I said nothing, she exhaled and regained herself.
"Anyway. I just thought you ought to know."
"Thanks for calling," I said. "I appreciate it. Really."
"How are you feeling? Can I do anything for you?"
"Nope." I reached over and banged on the radiator, which sometimes helped to draw the heat up from downstairs. "I'm fine."
"Well, OK then. Love you," she said, her last words trolling along hopefully.
I lay in bed and felt the world zoom into excruciatingly sharp focus. A garbage can rattled. Two dogs barked. A dark, ineffable thought coiled, hissed, collapsed. I'd been sick recently, and undone more than I cared to admit. The virus had flattened me physically, but beyond that another, more persistent and scarier, germ had spread. Whatever it was had rattled my self-confidence and made me uneasy, as though someone or something were always at my back. I got better, but I wasn't the same. I felt hunted, and haunted. That morning, when my mother's news reached me, I had the distinct sensation that I'd at last been caught.
I told my boss that there had been a death in my family. "Dreadfully sorry, Adelaide," she whispered, tucking her head down with perfect English reserve. Since I'd been out sick --- my first leave of absence in four years with the museum --- I'd detected an almost fearful courtesy from Emmeline. She gave me a wide berth, rarely checking on the progress of my work and encouraging me each day to go home early and "have a lie down." She'd even tried to pass on to someone else the painting I was restoring, evidently suspicious that the little predella itself was the cause of my undoing. But I'd refused. I needed in some insistent way to see the job through. When I decided to go to St. Clair for the funeral, Emmeline offered me as much time as I needed.
A screen door whined and banged shut as I got back in the car. From a cluster of bougainvillea Derek emerged, balancing a small boy in the crook of his arm. The boy, four or five years old, wore a baseball cap and red sneakers. Derek held him with casual pride, and the boy giggled and squirmed in his confident grip.
"This is my son," he said brusquely, as he lowered the boy to the ground and opened the back door of the car. "Cyril, this is Adelaide. Now get on in."
Derek walked around to the driver's side. I watched the boy as he twisted himself onto the floor to get at a plastic dump truck. When he sat up again, he looked frankly into my eyes.
"My granmumma died," he said. "She drownded."
"I know," I replied. Was I shouting?
"She was a great friend of mine," I ventured again, more quietly. Cyril nodded and ran his dump truck along the vinyl seat beside him. Derek backed quickly down the street, then peeled out again on the main road.
"Wow. He looks just like you did," I said to Derek, taken by the resemblance.
For the first time, Derek looked directly at me. His eyes, like a Rousseau tiger's, reflected the light. They prohibited investigation.
"How do you know?" he asked.
He turned his attention back to the road.
"She had them up in her room."
The road snaked north, pulling away from the coast and up a mountain pass. Every few miles, a group of weather-beaten houses appeared in a small cluster, and here and there men sat about under the high sun doing what looked to be nothing. Derek turned on the radio. A disc jockey spoke rapidly in the local dialect, and I felt the hair rise suddenly on the back of my neck.
Lawd, look me gwan on in dis kotesi kotela ya catch me happosite, an anyway me needin to mek dis girl her supper
Lou, on the phone, and me with an ear bent to the musical notes of her voice, suddenly in a language entirely other --- French inflected, a word or two I'd learned in school. The sounds come out happy and loose, like dropping change.
Her voice seemed to come from somewhere inside the car --- the vents, the speakers --- then just as quickly disappeared, fluttering out the window into the warm air. I was tired, surely. Not myself. I fixed my eyes back on the road and we rode along, the three of us in our separateness, northward through the lush hills.
All the Finest Girls: A Novel
- Genres: Fiction
- hardcover: 288 pages
- Publisher: Little Brown and Company
- ISBN-10: 0316890804
- ISBN-13: 9780316890809