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Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Good Daughter (Never Burns Down Anything You Can See), Kristen Hamelin Tracey

People in Leyden still remember, if they are old enough and happen to think about it, the day that Lou Jefferies and her Homecoming date set fire to the old gazebo. It was an accident (or so they said), the pair of them still drunk after the Homecoming dance, not noticing where they discarded their cigarette stubs. When they were found by the local fire department, shivering on the banks of the duck pond in the town park, laughing hysterically, Lou was wearing a long dress shirt and not much else. Her blue silk dress had gone up in flames with the gazebo.

And the library in Leyden still has a microfilm of the October 26, 1963, issue of the Worcester Herald, which contains a copy of the Leyden local section, the one whose front-page article described the fire. You can even see a photo of Lou as she was then, after someone had gotten some clothes onto her. She's broad-nosed and short and freckled, and still laughing. And that's what Ruth Grady always remembers most about looking at that picture with her sister Laura when they were teenagers (right after they finally heard the unexpurgated version from a drunken uncle, the version where the dress burned): she remembers the wide-open smile on Lou's face.

These are the other things about Lou that Ruth remembers from her childhood: That she married Bart Teller and was known as a Good Mother. That she served peanut butter and jelly sandwiches after school, no crusts, instead of Oreos or celery sticks like the other mothers. That she was plump in a welcoming, soft kind of way, and would hug you to her pillow of a bosom if you skinned your knee, which Ruth was always doing when she climbed trees in the backyard with Lou's younger son. And that Ruth once fooled around with the younger son after her own Homecoming dance, strictly second base things, when she was too plain and awkward to get a date, and he too pimply.

And Ruth's father still has the Homecoming Queen crown that Ruth's mother wore to dance with him that night, the very night of the fire, just eight months before he went off to Vietnam. It is packed away in the small basement of his house in Leyden, which is evenly divided between the possessions of dead people and the discarded paraphernalia of Ruth's father's career as an encyclopedia salesman, which took up the majority of his time until twelve months ago, when his wife died.

And people in Leyden still wonder about Bart Teller, with whom Lou settled down, long after the ashes of the fire had settled, and for whom she raised two fine boys and a strange frail girl. They wonder if he knew what kind of a woman she was. They wonder why he died, although they have some theories, chief among them:

that he had speculated some cash, a lot of cash even, and failed. That would explain the inheritance, which was lower (or so it was rumored) than you might have expected, and would explain the cheapness of the funeral and in particular of the casket, which everyone could tell was just pine.

that he had been dallying with one of the shop girls, coarse lasses who worked behind the register at his pharmacy, and had been caught by Lou and been so terribly ashamed of himself that he literally couldn't stand it. Though people felt this was much less likely than

that he had found out about Lou and some man, for whom she'd been planning to leave him and ditch the kids. That he had simply been in despair over losing the woman he loved, but that he accomplished one thing by his heroic death, which was to persuade – nay, force – her to stay with her sons.

And the oldest Teller son, who found his body, still remembers the smell of the garage when he walked in, which was like rotting pumpkins. He does not, so clearly, remember Bart's face the way it was at that time, purple and distorted, with a gray tinge at the Melanie-Griffith lips, but he does remember, because it was closer to eye-level, the shape of the urine stain on the crotch of his father's nicest gray wool trousers. He does not remember a note, but that's because there wasn't one.

And people in Leyden are still surprised that Ruth's father and Lou are engaged so quickly, though not as surprised as Ruth, who is also angry. They're not so surprised that they won't come to the engagement party, but they're looking forward to gossiping more about it later, by email (for the savvier of the older generation) or by phone or at church. They're not so surprised that they're not happy for the recent widow, but they wonder what he's thinking, when his first wife was so beautiful, and Lou is so decidedly not; though of course that doesn't matter much, when you're nearing seventy, because no one is beautiful then, and even his first wife, particularly during the last stages of her lung cancer, was no treat to look at either, after all these years on earth.

And Laura, who lives just a few blocks away with her husband and sons, still thinks Ruth is silly to be so angry about this. Why should people be in love after nearly fifty years of marriage? If Ruth's marriage had lasted longer than two years, she might understand that it's more about partnership than love. (Which Ruth thinks is more a coping mechanism than a philosophy of marriage.) If Ruth lived as close to Dad as she did, and saw him day in day out, she might realize he was a handful and Lou's practically a heroine for taking him on. Basically, Laura thinks Ruth should see the whole thing for what it is, a marriage of convenience, or loneliness, and not for what it is not, her business, or some kind of personal betrayal, or evidence of a grand affair, the long-sought explanation for their mother's lifelong melancholy and Bart Teller's mysterious suicide.

And Ruth, who drove up from New York by herself this morning and will stay the night with Laura before going back home tomorrow, is still tempted hourly by the Nembutal zipped into a side compartment of her purse, which was acquired wholesale from a kind friend. Yes she once kicked the habit, and no it has not completely died after the kicking, no, but simply laid down its head in wait. Yes she would like to get through today without any chemical help, and no she's not sure she can. She tells all this to Laura, who thinks she's being a damned coward and should hold her shit together for once in her life.

And Ruth, who's now managed to hold down her real-estate job for four years, which is a record for her, is a little insulted by this comment. She is insulted, also, by the fact that Laura doesn't seem to be thinking at all of their recently departed mother in all of this – let alone their father, let alone everyone else in this town, who knew their mother, and knew how beautiful and kind she was. Rather everyone is shaking the hand of Lou Teller and kissing the cheek of Lou Teller and beaming happily at the periwinkle-colored blue rinse of Lou Teller, and no one says, maybe she is the reason for this family's unhappiness.

And yet Ruth still doesn't take the Nembutal.

And the older generation of Leyden who are guests at the Grady household are still consuming Heineken and pigs-in-blankets the way they did twenty years ago. And many of Ruth's contemporaries do likewise, because they have always been there in Leyden, and are used to living by Leyden's ways. Instead of Heineken, Ruth and Laura drink from one of the lonely bottles of Yellowtail Chardonnay; the nicer rosé that Ruth had brought up here from a Manhattan wine store disappeared hours ago. They see their father taking a beer, another beer, another. The tenseness of this passes from one of them to the other not by anything as concrete as a word, or even a look, but, because they are sisters, by a bodily tremor that travels through each of them like a wave.

And Ruth's most genuine plans and the plans closest to her heart still tend to fail, such as her plan to give her dear father a toast, because though she is angry he is the last person left on this earth who welcomes her unconditionally, and he is therefore her home. Nevertheless, because of the Chardonnay perhaps, or because she didn't eat before coming here in a sad recurring attempt to punish herself for not being loved by her ex-husband anymore, or because her anger is of a type that stifles, rather than shouting, she cannot do it. Instead she breaks down, sets down her glass, and excuses herself to the bathroom, running away from all the people with their uplifted half-empty green bottles, their wrinkles, their strangely sympathetic faces.

And Ruth's father still drinks too much, even with Lou around, and he still likes to sing old songs when he's drunk, songs he learned when he was a soldier. That's how Ruth finds him when she gets out of the bathroom (where she did not, whatever Laura might think, take the pills that she desperately wanted to take, but instead called her sponsor and cried a little more): he's singing. “I love my wife yes I do yes I do,” he hollers, terribly, winking at Lou. “I love the hole she pisses through. I love her tits-diddly-its-diddly-its, and her nut-brown arse... hole... TOO!”

And the people of Leyden who have gathered in the Gradys' living room are still talking about it, when Ruth and Laura emerge from tucking their father into bed – where he looked up at them, at Laura who was never angry about Lou, and at Ruth who still has not forgiven him, and said to Ruth, “You always were the good daughter.” They're talking about their host and what a hero he was, back in the war days, and how you have to make allowances. And they're talking about Louisa Jefferies Teller, and how something about her always drives perfectly fine men over the edge.

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