The complete short story, originally posted as a serial in 3 parts
Oh, dear Lord, this is the flattest place on earth…
Cherie turned off I-70 with great reluctance, rumbling up the exit ramp in her rusted MG, leaving a trail of smoke behind her as black as her mood.
Amos was about as uninspiring a town as could possibly be imagined. Here, the endless monotony of horizontal skyline was only briefly interrupted by a massive, white grain elevator and the tall, stone steeple of a Catholic church, a few hundred homes sprawled out in grid fashion from a wide, cobbled main street edged by brick fronted businesses in varying stages of economic death. From her position atop the exit ramp, Cherie could see the sprawl of a sparkling new Wal-Mart, a Casey’s, a newish Motel 6, and in the far distance, a water tower bearing both the town’s name and a most striking resemblance to the Tin Man’s head.
Whatever Amos was, it was going to have to do, she decided, mentally squashing her instinct to go for Option B: Floor it and head for the Colorado border, maybe take up with the circus… Her faded red Midget gave a shudder as she ground the gears trying to pop it back into first, reaffirming her fears that its transmission was in its death throes. It would never in a million years make it, and so she was stuck with Plan A: Dear Old Dad.
Rumbling past the Wal-Mart and into town, Cherie, while not coming to the point of completely absolving her mother for having fled the man twenty years ago in the dark of night with infant in arms, felt for the first time in her life a commonality with the work-obsessed parental unit she referred to as Mom.
Mom had done well, earning her PhD in Psychiatry after relocating to the east coast, clawing her way up the professional ladder with a child in tow, forging new territories for herself in Psychiatric journals and speaking at national seminars on the vast and varying shades of schizophrenia. Mom, the renowned expert in mental illness, had provided as richly on the monetary front as could be imagined, all the while remaining a virtual ghost in her own household. Life was too busy for tears and it was too hectic for long conversations about periods and boys and the angst of growing up.
And so Cherie had learned independence.
The two women had got along astonishingly well for most of Cherie’s life, though whether because of or in spite of the emotional distance between them, she was never entirely sure. In any case, there was no malice or rebellion involved when Cherie abandoned her academic scholarship to Brown in her third year in favor of travelling with a repertoire theatre company as make-up artist. Week in and week out of Midsummer Nights and Punch and Judy was infinitely preferable to weekends spent in the library among the stacks.
Cherie, for all her academic brilliance, had a short attention span.
“Just like your father,” her mother had said. “He never followed through on anything either.” Mom dropped a few bills onto the table between them and snapped her Vuitton bag shut, regarding her daughter with cool brown eyes. “Next thing you know, you’ll be shadow boxing with your ego and drawing up conspiracy theories on the backs of unpaid bills.”
She had watched her mother draw on her long, white cigarette and wondered what sort of client would willingly pay for such a prognosis. “It’s just for one summer,” she offered in defense. “We’ll be visiting summer camps and doing theatre workshops for underprivileged kids and all. It’s not so bad as all that…”
Her mother exhaled slowly and said nothing for a long moment, a moment that stretched into an entire year. So, when the phone rang last week, Cherie had been surprised to hear Mom’s voice on the other end of the line.
“He’s dead,” she said simply. No preamble, no apology.
“Your father, of course. He’s left you the house.”
House? What house?
“You’re going to need to go out to Kansas and settle things there,” said her mother sharply.
Cherie was silent for a long time, shocked and confused in equal measure. She did not know what to say, much less how to feel. “Oh,” was her only reply. It was the best she could manage.
“I can’t help you, you know,” Mom said. “I can’t go back there. I just… can’t.” There was the faintest catch in her mother’s voice. It was the closest Cherie was going to get to either apology or understanding, but she accepted it nonetheless. This was Mom. It was the best she could do.
Cherie navigated her way down Main Street and turned left by the school, heading on up a short hill to the outskirts of Amos. She was pleased to find that, in spite of its barren appearance from the interstate, the little town boasted tree lined streets and row upon row of pretty neo-Victorian refurbs nestled in amongst matchbox ranch-style houses, most of which were nicely kept. The Bermuda grass was still brown from winter with odd, thick tufts of dark green just beginning to make an appearance, but she imagined it was quite a pretty place in the summer. Well, between tornadoes, anyway.
At the end of Sycamore Street stood a low slung, post rock ranch set among tightly trimmed shrubbery and impeccably maintained lawn, a postage stamp of deep green flanked on all sides by yellow lawns only just beginning to emerge from winter. Whatever her father’s failings, yard work was not one of them.
In the end, it was the yard work that had killed him. Her father, a man completely and utterly unknown to her since infancy, had dropped dead of a heat stroke tending this lawn on a Tuesday afternoon. He had been discovered on Friday by the UPS driver, trying to deliver a new microwave. The driver, finding no one to answer the door, was intending to leave the package in the shed out back when he stumbled across Old Dale’s body, half cooked under the unseasonably intense March sunshine. No foul play was suspected… it was an open and shut case for the coroner, and poor Old Dale had passed secondary to heat stroke and dehydration.
If Old Dale had been a mystery to Cherie, he was no less a mystery to the residents of Amos. He had lived more or less a hermit’s existence, his modest lifestyle financed by proceeds from a patent he held on a specialty bit used in oil drilling equipment. In his heyday, Old Dale had been something of a mad scientist, a genius, actually, before the voices in his own mind took over and drove his wife away.
Everyone in town agreed. Old Dale was crazy. Harmless, yes. But absolutely, certifiably crazy.
She recoiled at the very word, having spent a lifetime being told that, “Crazy is a term used by ignorant people who have no education in mental illness.” And perhaps that was true. It was always puzzling to her that this sermon was endlessly preached by the same woman who had fled her own “crazy” husband all those years ago. For all the thousands of hours she had spent understanding mental illness in other people, she had spared precious few understanding Old Dale.
Cherie sat in the driveway and fingered the house key in her hand, the key to a lifetime of memories she knew nothing of, and she began to cry for Old Dale. Was it foolish to mourn a man she never knew? Or was she mourning the fact that she had not known him? Who are you? She wondered.
The wind picked up, and she considered briefly whether to pull the roof closed. Cherie decided almost immediately against it. She opened the door got out of the car, looked up at the darkening sky and thought, “Let it rain.”
Cherie dragged a hand across her cheek, dashing away the unwanted tears that fell for her father, a man she had never known nor had ever really wished to.
Well, at least, she had not wished to for a very long time. Any childish curiosity she felt for him had been squashed in its infancy by her mother, snuffed out before it could set fire to anything.
“Forget about him,” Mom had repeated on so many occasions it had become the mantra that accompanied each shy request for information.
Cherie had wondered how she could possibly be expected forget someone she couldn’t remember. Still, the spectre of her unknown father haunted the first twelve years of her life, an itch in her subconscious that begged to be located and addressed, scratched, satisfied.
“Where did you meet?”
“What did he look like?”
“He looked like you.”
“What was he like?”
“He was a scientist – an inventor.”
“Why did you leave?”
Ah, now that was the question that was never properly answered. Mom, alongside her doctorate in Psychiatry, held a Masters in Passive Aggression. For her curiosity, Cherie was generally punished by days of virtually unbroken silence, her mother having retreated behind the bland mask of watchful tolerance reserved for all her patients.
But Cherie was not fooled; there was pain behind her mother’s dark eyes.
Their one and only emotionally heated discussion about her father had ended badly. Very badly. It was on the eve of Cherie’s thirteenth birthday. She was growing up, entering her teens. Surely… surely now was a time she was adult enough to know about her father…
“Oh, for heaven’s sake, Cherie, stop being so melodramatic.” Mom lit a cigarette and held it between shaking fingers. “He’s mentally ill, darling. Not just a little, but seriously, seriously ill. Trust me when I tell you he wouldn’t want you to know him.”
“But what was he like?”
“I told you. He was an inventor…”
“No, that’s what he was. What was he like?” Cherie, usually so calm, so cooperative, was in the throes of hormones and frustration. Her voice had risen to unacceptable levels. It may have been a top floor apartment, but they still had neighbours.
And just like that, the mask descended and Mom became Dr. Kessler, to Cherie’s eternal agitation. Her mother narrowed her eyes and leaned against the refrigerator. She tapped her ash into the sink and observed her daughter coolly. Dr. Kessler was silent for a long time. “He was… like you,” she said softly, matter of factly. Like it was no big deal that she was like her father, the schizophrenic.
Cherie, heart pounding and implosion imminent, cast one final volley her mother’s way. “If he was so awful, then why are you still married to him?”
Dr. Marie Kessler exhaled, stubbed out her cigarette on the granite countertop, turned and backhanded her daughter, a great, hard slash across her right cheek. The blow knocked Cherie to the floor. Her mother was breathing hard, but recovered with creditable speed. “You,” she said at last, slowly, calmly, “will never mention your father again.” She bent from her waist and lifted Cherie’s chin with her forefinger. “Do you understand?”
She met her mother’s eyes, calm, dark, clinical eyes that seemed not to notice the welt rising on Cherie’s cheek, and all thoughts of mutiny were effectively quelled. “Yes,” she said. “I understand.”
Of course, she did not understand. Nevertheless, the issue was settled: Cherie’s interest in her father died an abrupt death that night. It was the one and only time in her life that her mother had struck her.
Cherie stood teary eyed in the driveway of Dale Kessler’s house. Old Dale. Dead from heat stroke at 68. She found herself wondering at the tidy yard and the precisely trimmed hedges. Each blade of grass seemed to stand to attention, even now, at least a week since their last trim.
Leaving the top down on her MG, Cherie made her way up the front steps, turning the key over and over in her hand. She noted the yellowed newspapers littering the porch and wondered if Dale would have approved, making a mental note to ring the Daily News and have them discontinued. The black letterbox, on the other hand, was completely empty, though she had no idea who had been collecting his mail. She opened the screen door and slid the key into the deadlock.
In that moment, Cherie felt a pang for her mother as strong and as sure as the breath in her own lungs and the heartbeat pounding in her ears. The ghost of her mother crossed the threshold and down the steps behind her, a young woman with black hair flying, her infant daughter clutched to her chest. Cherie turned and faced the street down which her mother had fled all those years ago, her eyes mentally tracing the footsteps she would have taken.
Her mother. So strong. So capable. So…
But of what?
Angry, she could see. Disillusioned, unhappy, discontent; all of these made sense.
Still, as she envisioned her mother running down Sycamore street in the black of night, something told her with absolute certainty that Marie Kessler had been frightened. This was a new thought altogether.
She looked back to the door, where her key remained unturned in the lock. The wind picked up just then, catching the screen door and slamming it backward on its hinges and against the side of the house, startling Cherie out of her musings.
Her heart pounded as she reached for the key, turning it until she felt the lock release. All she had ever wanted to know was within her grasp, and yet now she had the strongest desire to run in the opposite direction.
The door swung back into the stale, hot darkness of her father’s house.
“Oh Mom,” she said softly and to no one, “Mom.”
The salty shock of adrenaline prickled the insides of her elbows and the backs of her wrists, but she pushed herself forward on watery knees, scarcely breathing. Cherie stepped over the threshold and onto the cool mosaic tiles of the foyer.
Cherie flipped the wall switch, grateful beyond measure that the power was still on.
The small foyer was suddenly bathed in the meagre glow from a dusty, orange pendant light. To her left and to her right and all the way down the hallway were piled newspapers and journals waist high, tidily stacked, but like the light, the floor and the olive green shag carpeting, covered in dust. From their yellowed pages and the few dates she could see, Cherie guessed these stacks had been here for at least twenty years.
She glanced back over her shoulder and out the open door to the tidy yard beyond, now glowing unnaturally green in the yellowish cast of the oncoming storm. The contrast between Dale’s outer world and his inner could not have stood in sharper relief.
Entering the hallway, Cherie stopped and looked around. “Mom,” she breathed, turning a full circle in the corridor. “Mom…” For she was here.
Her skin prickled at the images, the thousand eyes so familiar and yet unfamiliar smiling back at her. The walls were papered with photos of her mother, some in frames, but most of them simply snapshots attached to the wall with shiny silver tacks, layer upon layer in tidy rows from the space where the stacks ended and nearly up to the ceiling. The photos, documenting a decade of married life, only ever showed a single subject: Marie Kessler. Her mother.
Cherie felt drawn to one in particular, the largest photo. It was of a smiling bride in a short white veil and mini dress reclining across the hood of a long brown Pontiac convertible. She held a small bouquet high above her head and looked set to toss it at the camera, a camera held by her father, Cherie guessed, if the expression in Marie’s eyes was anything to go by.
She had loved him once. That much was clear.
Yet, Cherie had great difficulty reconciling this image of her mother, slim, young, beautiful, yes, but clearly impulsive and full of joie de vive, with the mother she had grown up with, Dr. Marie Kessler, the very embodiment of self control. She felt a lump grow in her throat, and was overcome by unspeakable sadness for the loss of that smile, that joy. That image of her mother, happy.
“Mom,” she said again, softly, tracing her finger along the photo, drawing a line in the dust. “Mom…” she whispered brokenly. In the whole of her adult life, she had never longed for her mother’s presence so keenly or so absolutely.
The woman in the photo was utterly and absolutely foreign to her, and Cherie found herself wondering for the first time just which of her parents had broken first, which had collapsed and changed, for they both had. Her father had retreated behind the cloud of medically treated psychosis, and her mother had run away and immersed herself in her career.
But at what point had her mother broken? Because this smiling and happy woman with the laughing eyes, the one flirting with the camera, was not a woman she had ever known.
This Marie Kessler was as dead to her as her father was.
Cherie needed time to process it all… to grieve for both of her parents. But now was not the time.
Leaving the hallway with some reluctance, Cherie moved further into her father’s house. The hallway opened into a large, open plan living and dining room, stacked waist high as had the hallway been with journals and magazines and newspapers. A dining room table stood buried under a mountain of paper, stacks and stacks of typewritten pages several feet high. A couch and two chairs sat amid the stacks of magazines, unused and inaccessible. They faced an empty corner of the room where perhaps a TV had once stood.
It was not a large house, Cherie decided. There was the black pocket of a hallway leading off to her left, and a kitchen to her right. And though the curtains were firmly drawn everywhere, light filtered into the living room through fly specked sheers covering the patio doors at the rear of the house.
Cherie slid her hand along the wall for the light switch, and it was here she encountered the first indication of her father’s temper: A ragged hole punched into the sheetrock just to the left of the switch. Turning on the light, she found that there were more. Many, many more.
Where the TV had occupied a corner, she could now see the glint of glass shards laced through the carpet. It would seem her father’s TV had met an untimely end.
Her mind’s eye formed a vivid image of a man, a tall man with brown hair like her own, distraught, moving through the dusty confines of his home with a claw hammer and a voice in his head. Her mother… she could see her, clutching a baby and looking for a place to hide.
A wave of nausea swept over her then, unbearable, uncontrollable. She ran to the kitchen sink, retching into the waste disposal. She turned the faucet on, and a blessedly cold blast of water burst forth, washing away her breakfast and the sweat on her face. Cherie rinsed her face and scrubbed her eyes, willing the images away.
She caught sight of the microwave. The reason her father had a new one delivered. The reason he was discovered by the UPS man, three days dead of heatstroke, a bloated corpse baking in the back yard…
The handle of a hammer protruded from the blackened front of the microwave.
Shock sent Cherie backing away from the clear evidence of what she was fast coming to know, recoiling, sweating and feeling the panic rising once again to overwhelming proportion. She had to get out of this house. She was suffocating. She did not want to know more. Could not bear to see more, but her bowels had their own agenda. Her immediate need to empty them was a priority not to be ignored.
Hurrying down the hallway toward the bedrooms, Cherie blindly opened one door after another until she located the bathroom. Switching the light on, she scarcely noted the broken strip light hanging by one bracket, the mirror with its neat hammer hole in the center or the spiderweb of cracks.
She noticed the clean toilet. She noticed the clean tub, and was sick again in the wastebasket.
More water. More rinsing. More… she choked out a sob into her cupped hands and curled over the sink, letting the water course over her ear, her neck. The cold water ran down the sleeves of her blouse and pooled under her elbows. Still, she let it run, for how long, she didn’t know.
By the time she emerged from the bathroom, carefully avoiding the mirror and its split screen reflection of her anguish, Cherie noted it was getting dark. The first pellets of hail began falling then, striking the roof and the south facing windows with increasing strength, first two, three, then ten thousand all at once, spurred on by a fierce clap of thunder followed by another. Suddenly, the house was alive with the noise of the storm, the staccato tap of hail gradually giving way to a downpour.
Her car. Oh, God – her car!
She started to head back outside, but never made it that far. Through an open bedroom door, Cherie saw something she had not seen in 23 years and which she did not remember. Yet, here it was, draped in pink and littered with butterflies: Her bed. Her nursery.
Cherie’s legs gave out at that point, and she slid slowly down the doorframe and onto the floor. From this vantage point, she spied a lone baby bottle, dusty and long forgotten, half concealed by the bed skirt of the crib. It was as if she had never left.
She knew then. She knew. Still, her mind demanded proof.
Her eyes travelled slowly up the white legs and rails of her crib, up to the broken canopy top and the hammer marks smashed into the wall and she knew. She knew at last the answer to her question. To all of her questions.
She thought she heard her mother’s voice, but it was lost in the rain. Cherie closed her eyes and leaned into the doorframe, listening to the rain and the thunder.
“Cherie! … Oh, God, Cherie!”
She looked up, and in the dim light was her mother, drenched and wild eyed. “Cherie…,” she said brokenly,. “I got here as quickly as I could…”
“I thought you weren’t coming -”
“Sh, never mind that,” said her mother. Marie Kessler sank slowly to her knees and, for the first time in a very long time, wrapped her arms around the wet shoulders of her daughter. Looking over Cherie’s head, Marie caught sight of the bottle under the crib. Her face crumpled and she began to weep softly, burying her face in Cherie’s hair. “Baby,” she said, planting a kiss there. “My baby…” Marie rocked her daughter in the dark nursery as the storm raged on.
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