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June 17, 2024

Transitions 57

By Sand Pilarski

Fifty-seven: Secrets

You know that if I say this in public, people will be all over us in seconds. But the fact is, I have never known anyone as engaging as you, or as comforting as you, or as beautiful as you. I don't want to make our friendship a public spectacle for the paparazzi to swoop upon; but I don't want to hide our relationship, either.

I have no choice about going to Europe to see Mother and my siblings. I wish you could come with me, and you know they all wish you would be there, too.

You told me you thought there was no room for you in my world; I would refute that -- if there is no room for you, it's only because you don't want the room. That is your choice, and all of us can respect that.

I wrote that, and was satisfied with it; it said what I wanted to say, and put the ball in Rachel's court. But did I sound like a pompous ass, so to speak? A literary hound making words a craft rather than a communication? I had doubts, and no one to whom I wanted to show my words. At 8 pm, I was satisfied with my choice of words. At 10 pm, I thought that the last paragraph was too challenging, too accusatory. At midnight, I woke up and was glad I hadn't sent the draft to Rachel. At 4 am, I woke and wished I had sent something so that she didn't think I had just forgotten what she said.

At 7:30 am, I was on the bus, headachey with lack of sleep and breakfast, for which I had had no appetite. When Rachel boarded the bus, she looked at me with something like fear in her eyes. I moved myself closer to the window, letting that gesture be an invitation. If she chose to move on by, I wouldn't be too humiliated.

She sat beside me, not meeting my eyes, not saying anything for a while. Four stops from school she said in a low voice, "I'm sorry for what I said to you yesterday. It was mean, and shitty ... I'm just jealous of you going away ... so far ... and I'm ... afraid you'll find someone who will make you forget me."

I picked up my knapsack from the floor and plunked it across our laps. Under its cover, I grabbed her left hand in my right and held it. "Hurt my feelings more than a little bit," I muttered. "Mostly because it's not true, because I can't get you out of my mind for more than about five minutes at a time. No one is going to make me forget you, why do you think I would?" I felt my face turn red, but whispered on, "I know this is going to sound really dumb, but I think I love you, Rachel."

Her electric blue eyes met mine with a startled look, then she ducked her head, letting the dark curls hide her face. "My mother told me I'm too young to know what love is."

"My adults say the same thing," I said. "But I have to consider: my Uncle John knew that he was in love with my Aunt Sully the first day he met her, even though she despised him at first sight. And my father fell in love with my mother over a conversation during a university fund-raising dinner. And my Uncle Bodie fell in love with my mother the first time he saw her, even though she was married to my father at the time." I raised Rachel's hand from under the knapsack, and raised it to my lips, kissing her wrist, smacking smooches up her arm as I pushed the sleeve of her sweatshirt up. "It must be in my blood to be impetuous."

Rachel screeched with sudden laughter and shook me off. "Get off me, you idiot!"

Her face was as red as mine had been. We were of one mind.

The hearthroom of my mother's suite had yielded no hidden journals that my father might have written and secreted away. All of the bookcases were well-dusted by staff, and all the books touched the backs of the shelves. No journals were hidden behind the books.

John looked grim and determined. "He hid that last journal behind books in his office, where he knew no one would come in to clean and move things around, unless he was there, right?"

"Yes, I remember that he didn't allow anyone in there unless he was in there, too. But we found nothing else of his writing when we searched there."

"Where else would he have been able to keep stuff totally untouched by the house staff?"

"I don't know. The bedroom, maybe, but Staff would have been in there to clean and change bedding, at the very least." Aunt Sully looked like a thunderstorm building; she was protective of all of us. Exploring someone else's private abode must have been hard for her to accept.

The bookcases in the bedroom were as clean and dusted and in order as any in the house. We didn't need to look in the dressers or vanities or the bathroom, because Mother would have remembered that there were journals in there and told us. I had a quick pang at the heart that she might have found journals after Dad died and just thrown them away, not understanding how much they would mean to me.

John and Aunt Sully went into the walk-in closet, which was easily the size of my own bedroom. Double clothes-racks lined the walls, and a double-sided bench erupted from the back wall, with shelves of shoes, largely empty. Mother wore flat loafers almost all the time, if she wasn't in hiking boots or barefoot. She said that high heels were an advertisement for sexually oriented messages, that they caused a woman's posture to scream "Gimme a testosterone man!" I knew enough about her reactions to the subject to avoid bringing it up to avoid a heated lecture, as did my siblings, so the sight of the shoes-rack actually caused me to avert my eyes. Thus I missed the clue that John caught.

"Look there," he muttered. "A crack in the molding. And an angled scratch under it." He put his hand to the molding and it swiveled under his push, allowing the section of wall to click and rustle to reveal a gap in the back of the closet.

The panel moved easily under a shove. There, before us, was not only a secret opening, but a secret staircase down, with a tiny passage barely wide enough for a person to get by. I remember my father being big, so he, if he had traversed this stair, would have had to have done it sideways.

"Where the hell does this lead?" John asked.

"It's got to go down by the old ballroom somewhere," Aunt Sully said. "Where are all the flashlights?"

We got three, and began to descend the staircase, John first, as he told us old ladies and kiddies had to be safe, insulting both of us. After only a few steps, he flipped a switch, and dim light bulbs in bare sockets lit the way. "Jeeze, this wiring looks like the junk in my grand-dad's apartment in Brooklyn when it got condemned!"

Porcelain sockets, strung together with wire, held small electric bulbs that dimly lit the descending stair. At the bottom was a small room, dry and windowless, with a chair, a thin bedframe (with no mattress or springs) and a wide bookcase filled with dusty, leather-bound books. A largish bin in an alcove under the stair had a wooden hatch door on it.

I pulled out one of the books, opening it at random.

My wife insists that we leave for Vancouver immediately. Why she and my mother cannot come to any kind of agreement on any subject is beyond my powers of comprehension. Claire constantly complains that my mother is persecuting her, while Mother wrings her hands and says that she is doing everything she can to make Claire feel at home. I have no way of knowing how they interact when I am not in the house, not when their personal accounts are at such odds.

Nor can I afford to stay in the house all day and be their referee.

"This is Grandfather's journal!" I cried. "He's talking about Grandmother in it!"

John, in the meantime, had lifted the lid of the rough-boarded bin. "Holy crap," he said. "Look at this."

The bin wasn't really a bin, but was another entrance, with more narrow stairs leading to a brick-lined tunnel, shored with boards and posts -- but forming one side of the narrow tunnel down was a three-shelved structure, packed with cloth bags, filled to bulging. A notecard on the bags, in ornate lettering, said, "This is for when you have no other options." It was faded, but legible. One of the bags had split a little, allowing a fine crumble of gold to escape.

"That's all gold dust," John said, sitting down on the dirty floor outside the passage. "Even if you guys weren't rich, you'd be rich."

"No, wait," I crowed, "Here's one of my dad's journals! It says, We held another fund-raising dinner here for the University tonight. We had scallops with watercress seared across the top, and rice pilaf with lemongrass and béchamel sauce. I get so tired of what is so-called 'good food.' How I wish for a homely meal of ham and potatoes and onions, drenched in broth, with biscuits on the side. I don't think I've tasted that since I was a little child."

"This is where he hid his journals!" Aunt Sully cried.

"Okay, you guys are all nuts," John said from the floor. "I find bags of gold dust and you're just interested in diaries."

"The gold dust ... has been here for a long, long time," my aunt said. "And we still have other options, so ... wow for the gold, but we've hit the jackpot in terms of knowledge! Look at these shelves! The Reich family archives!"

I wanted to stay down there and go through each volume page by page, but I couldn't. We were leaving for Europe the next day. I knew my siblings would be intrigued by the report of a secret passageway, but I also knew that they would be far less interested in the journals than in the gold. I vowed to myself not to mention any of it, and hoped that if John or Aunt Sully told them about it, it wouldn't induce any of them to come home early.

Article © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
Published on 2010-07-05
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