In the downstairs study, Bodie and Jesse were cuddling on the big leather sofa. "Take a hike," I said to Bodie, and he grinned and extricated himself from his lazy-eyed wife.
"I'm going to find something to eat," he said.
Jesse sighed and watched him leave the room. "How does that man manage to pack in six meals a day and stay so skinny?" she asked.
"I don't know," I admitted. "Maybe it's the testosterone."
Jesse put a pillow over her reddening face.
"You're very obvious," I told her. "You're like a sex-crazed teenager."
"Shut up, I am not."
Laughing, I gently recounted to her the events leading up to her children's expulsion from their private school. Bodie was right: he'd been able to head off her rampage. Sex was apparently not just generative (capable of producing babies) and not just unitive (fun for the couple) but also therapeutic. (Duhh.) Jesse absorbed my report of Owen's confession to his crimes as though it was a listing of tomorrow's menu.
"You know, the kids have asked about their names before and I never gave it any thought," she said. "I'm such a crappy mother, I'm so sorry for them. I told them the national origin of the names, but not about who they were named after, because I knew they would never meet them, and so, what was the point?"
"The point is that Charles is rapidly becoming only a mythical figure in their lives. What do you remember from when you were six? Nothing, or little. Me, too. Howabout nine years old? What do you remember? A few incidents, but not much more. The kids need to remember their dad. He was a good daddy to them, and they shouldn't have to say someday, 'My father died when I was small and I don't know much about him.' And they shouldn't have doubts about their paternity."
"Why would they have doubts? Because of some jealous schoolmate's slander?"
"Because their father isn't here to reassure them. The only person who can attest to their lineage is you."
Jesse rolled her eyes at the ceiling. "God, what am I supposed to do, remember the dates of their conceptions? And then have to try to explain what 'conception' means to a nine-year-old? 'Mommy and Daddy got a couple sperm and an egg or two to square dance together in Kelso, Scotland in August of uhh ... 1989 and made you kids.' I can just see Michel asking the chef if he could have the eggs from the refrigerator, and is there any sperm in the house so he can make little brothers. I can't do it, Sully."
"Kelso?" I asked. "Kelsa is named after a city in Scotland?"
"Charles was visiting friends in Scotland and I was dragging around Europe waiting for my dig team to get their act together. We met there for a few days. We were going to name the twins Kelso after the town, and Michelle after an older sister he had who died before he was born, who had been named after Charles' grandfather, Michael. But then we thought that Michel and Kelsa sounded cuter -- and Kelsa did have a little tuft of red hair already, while Michel's was black, like Charles' father's was when he was young." She smiled a little, her gaze turned inward.
"I didn't know that," I said, feeling a twinge near my heart, like a sigh of relief mixed with a leap of delight that Jesse had been romantic enough with Charles to want to commemorate a town where they met for love. "But Jesse, that's exactly the story you should tell the kids. They'd love it. What about Oesha, and Owen? I know Marca's named after our father."
"When I was in a field class in Ethiopia during my university days, I was down in a trench dusting earth away from a find of bones and jewelry when the walls of the dig collapsed and covered me. My instructor, Oesha Gebeheyu, dug my face out, and then kept digging until she reached my chest and I could breathe. I was panicking, I couldn't make my chest expand to draw breath -- I thought that I was going to die! She saved my life! I told her that if I had a second child, I'd name the child after her; I knew that I'd name my first child after Dad. I lost track of her after graduation, but I kept my promise.
"Owen was named after the professor who nominated me to the University's field team. He made it possible for me to leave Port Laughton on archeological assignments and earn my advanced degrees at the same time. He also introduced me to Charles at a fund-raising dinner."
There was a light knock at the door of the study. "Can I come back in yet?" Bodie asked.
"Yes, but only if you know the password," I said.
"Gamay beaujolais," he said, holding up a bottle of the French wine. In his other hand he held a tray piled with olives and cheeses.
"You're in," Jesse and I said in unison, and I went to the sideboard to get some glasses. "Where's Andersol?"
"Reading poetry with the kids."
"Poetry?" asked Jesse. "What poetry?"
"A book of limericks and funny poems for children," he said. "I foresee repeated Poetry Nights in the near future." As he settled his feet on the coffee table on a pillow, he asked, "So did you two hash everything out?"
"No," Jesse said immediately. "Sully wants me to tell stories about Charles to the kids, and I don't want to."
I frowned, in spite of the bright fruity taste of the red wine. "You mean you don't want to tell the kids the stories or you don't want the kids to hear the stories?"
"I used to absolutely hate it when our mother would tell the same damn stories over and over. I don't want to do that. I'm sorry, Sully, but I'm glad that old vampire is dead. There, I said it, now I'll go to hell."
"Oh, don't go to hell just yet," I said tiredly. "You don't have to tell the stories over and over, just when the kids have questions."
"I hate telling stories. I like the idea of cultures that have a designated village story teller. A historian, if you want to think of it that way. But I'm not one of them."
Bodie raised his eyebrows. "Sully, you actually know more about Charles than Jesse does. You know more about me and Andersol than even Jesse does -- yet," he said, smiling down into her eyes. "You've been with the kids more, so you know them more. Maybe that makes you the family story-teller."
"Really," said Jesse. "And you're certainly the only one who can get the family stories from Claire. She treats me like I'm some kind of tick."
"It's not a case of being a good story-teller," I said, feeling like I was trying to roll an open barrel of water uphill. "It's about preserving what's important to the kids."
Jesse stared at me, her grey-green eyes glowing. "Yes, I agree! But it's not about me being the perfect mommy, it's about what they need that I've never been able to provide! Why are you trying to make me into you?"
I was horrified by her question. Was that what I was trying to do? While she had been gone, I'd filled in without even thinking about it. I'd been an authority figure, a family member, a nurturer, an educator. I'd been an outlet for the kids' hi-jinks, and a bulwark of their religious heritage. Jesse had been their mother, and that was about it. That she loved them, I had no doubt. That she wanted to be anything more than that -- was not obvious.
"I'm not, Jesse, don't paste our mother's face on me just because I look like her." My glass was empty, but my stomach felt hot, and I had no interest in another glass of wine. "I'm beat. I'm going to go rescue Gabe from the kids, let him out back -- the rain has stopped for a while -- and then go to bed."
"Don't be pissed at me," Jesse said as I stood.
"I'm not. Honestly. Goodnight, my loves."
After many hugs and clamorings from the children for me to hear new limericks, I took Gabe outside to the dripping landscape and let him pee on everything. We retired to our bedroom, and I sat in the dark with the window open, listening to the returning rain showers, thinking about the evening.
Once again, the children had learned that they could control their destiny by acting as a team. Once again, Jesse had sidestepped her responsibility as a parent in my favor. I'd hoped Bodie would back me up. He and his sister Andersol loved The Five, I'd no doubt of that. But dammit, shouldn't the mother be telling the stories of their father?
I was feeling crabby, and resented the year. It was 1999, and because the media kept harping that civilization would grind to a halt because computers didn't know how to handle "2000," we had an estate pantry packed with three months worth of food, 10 cords of dried wood for the fireplaces sitting in the yard, and a staff jittering and whispering about Claire's absence and her declaration that if the world was coming to an end, she'd rather be in Tuscany. Sitting in the dark, I just wanted to have Mary LeMay next door so that I could sit in her kitchen and bitch about my sister, but even had I stayed at home for the holidays, she would not have been there. She and her cronies from the parish had planned a 'slumber party' for the new century at the someone's farm, figuring if there was a breakdown of society, that would be the place to be, with well water, food animals, garden vegetables. I hoped the Riverton police were patrolling our street; who else would be gone for the momentous date, leaving houses empty?
In all probability, they had the police department on extra shifts, even in Riverton. Mary LeMay's son couldn't even come out to California for his usual Christmas vacation, the New York Police Department being on high alert for crazies this year. If he was here, he'd probably just have jumped on the bandwagon with Bodie, anyway. Men.
Or maybe not. I remembered that he had been annoyed when his mother began keeping company with her friend Mr. Albert; come to think of it, I didn't know off hand when his father had died and left Mary a widow. Was it when he was still a kid, or after he, too, had joined the police force? Did he remember his father well? What kind of stories or reminiscences did he like to hear -- and what sort of thing did he not want to hear? Somehow it just figured that the first time I actually wanted to talk with him about something, he wasn't here.
I could go into my study and turn on the computer and see if he was online, but it would be after midnight in New York. Maybe in the morning. I shut the window and crawled into bed. Gabe jumped up to lie at the foot of the bed against my feet, a massive comforting warmth.
I was sleeping in the room that I had first had as a child, down the hall from my parents. I was lying on my left side, with my right hand peaceably savoring the rise and fall of John's chest as he slept beside me. I sat up in the bed abruptly; feeling John beside me was impossible because he was still in New York! Something was moving under the covers in the corner!
I leaped out of bed and watched in horror as the covers began to move more vigorously. What was in my bed? A snake? A rat? A giant cockroach? The movement began to approach me as I stood on the cold linoleum floor. I backed out the door, and went down the hall to find my mother in her bed, reading to Jesse, who was five years old again. "Mom," I said, "There's something in my bed. Will you come help me get it out?"
"This happens all the time," my mother said to Jesse, shutting the book in exasperation. "Don't worry."
I was ashamed of wanting her help, so I went back to the room by myself. The movement had resolved into two lumps making their way to the edge of the covers. I steeled myself to run if necessary, but what emerged was beautiful. "Never mind!" I called out to Mom, who hadn't shown up to help me, anyway. "They're just moths!"
But they weren't moths to flutter frantically about the room, they were huge, graceful butterflies with wingspans of about a foot and a half. The top wings of each were green, the new green of spring, shading into shimmering golden-yellow. Their bottom wings were a glowing purple, and I thought them exquisite. They fluttered down the stairwell to the hall below; I followed them, into waking.
I opened my eyes to see a clear morning sky outside the windows. My heart felt full and comforted and hopeful from the images in the dream. How beautiful the butterflies were! And how delightful that the beginning horror had changed into something fantastic, symbols leading me away from fear and into wonder. I picked up my notebook from the bedside cabinet, pulled the pen from the cover and began to write, trying to remember the whole dream before it faded.
Gabe sat bolt upright on the bed as I jumped, startled and gasping. What the hell was my subconscious mind doing, putting John LeMay in my bed?