And, as if cued by a strange, microsecond injection of hallowed silence, the annunciating ding slammed into every rattled nerve on the 66th floor as the elevators doors parted.
Every eye was alert but no one looked as Tass Reynolds flared from the alcove and without sneering either to the left or to the right, strode through the hustle and bustle of every hand busy, every mind focused, and ignited the corner office with a explosion of corporate urgency that reverberated throughout the floor. Her mouth was already tightening into a grimace as she barked orders to Carla on her right heel and even shorter commands to a man who had suddenly materialized on her left.
Still, it had gone well. So far this morning, there was no Tass eruption. No screaming. Nobody fired. The legally blind confectioner who ran the candy-cum-news lottery stand in the lobby had earned his daily fiver out of a communal warning pot to which the entire office contributed to monthly.
The office joke was that Tass had a voice that could scare a fart out of a mummy. "Carla," she barked. "Board meeting in nine minutes. Author presentation at ten. Galleys on my desk." Carola nodded and hurried back to her desk. Tass spun into her office but within seconds, flashed her door again."Taylor. Your butt in here, NOW." A clerk appeared, handed Carla a sheaf of papers and then dodged a train wreck with Taylor as he arrived and she scurried away.
Taylor almost ran into himself as Tass suddenly blocked her door again, forcing the man to stand like a supplicant in the hallway while she dressed him down. "Taylor, where the hell are the numbers on Nun’s Revenge? We have a CEO looking up my butt in eight minutes and we’ve got eight titles on the winter list that aren’t even in pages. Do we have a See-Sell Sheet on that Iranian Death Sub story? Get it, NOW!"
"NOW" was Tass’ mantra. From where she stood, everything was now. Eight best sellers in three years and there was only one way to do that—hustle. Tass watched Taylor as he fled into the sea of cubicles and then vanished. Her eyes swept the room. Everyone working, or pretending to, everyone dedicated to her mission, or pretending they were. And not a single one of the bunch could come up with a good story idea if it fell out of a hearse and crashed into their complacent, dull little funerals.
She turned and walked back to her desk. All of these people, she thought. Editors, marketing, clerks, assistants. All of them following whatever instructions and requirements that were demanded of them. She punched a speed dial number. "Jerry. Tass. I read the pitch letter. Too smaltzy. Nobody likes tearjerkers anymore and every Tom, Dick and Harriett belongs to a dysfunctional family where some yahoo is dying of some disease nobody ever heard of. Tell the President’s wife to write a children's book. Put an animal in it. I don't care what kind of animal--anything but a friggin' leapfrogging unicorn. Something fuzzy. And round. That I can sell. Yeah. Later."
Tass grabbed the stack of reports she needed for the conference and headed out of her office. Carla leaped to her feet, phone in hand as Tass swept past. "Urgent call," Carla said quickly.
Tass half spun around. "Don’t have time." Damn, she thought. A $5 million book deal on the line and the selection committee meeting in five minutes and the backstory was sucking bilgewater. "Tell the A-hole I’ll call ‘em back."
"It’s your brother. Rich. He says he has to speak to you."
Tass's mind raced. Double damn. What now? Nursing home raising its rates? New tests for Mom? Rich had power of attorney. What a wimp. "Tell him I’ll call him back in an hour."
Carla cupped the phone, her face stressed. "He says it’s an emergency."
Tass grimaced, grabbed the phone and dumped the reports into Carla's arms. "Here, these. Get the H-Os from Taylor. Put everything in the conference room. Anybody shows up before I get there, tell them I’m on the way. Here let me have that."
Tass grabbed the phone. "Rich. Mother all right?"
"Hi, Sis. Yeah, mother’s fine. Well, as fine as she can be. I heard the ruckus. You must be awfully busy." Tass was momentarily caught off balance. Rich’s voice was softer than usual, low and husky.
"Yeah, well, somebody’s got to take care of business. As much money as takes to keep this family going. Shoot. I don’t have a lot of time here."
Rich muffled a coughed. "I just came from my doctor, you remember, Dr. Adams. I had some tests last week. I’ve been so tired lately. I’ve been drifting off. Different times."
Christ. What now, AIDs, HIV? Was that it? More money so he could slough off and write his stupid short stories. "What do you need? Help? Maid, full time nurse or what?" Tass braced for the usual liturgy. I need you to come down for a few days. There’s a lot to take care of. The farm. Family business. Insurance. Blah. Blah.
She honed her response. Rich, I’m sorry. We’re in a critical business phase and I can’t take time off. I can send you more money. Whatever you need. You can hire some people.
"The doctors found a tumor. It’s cancer. My esophagus. They want to operate."
Tass straightened. "Has it spread?"
"They won’t know until they operate."
"Saturday. I think you should be here."
"Saturday? Holy crap. Today is Tuesday." Tass tapped her teeth with the phone. Labor Day coming up. She and Todd were spending the weekend together in P-Town—their special motel room near the tip of the cape, the only straight couple with standing reservations. OK. She was leaving early Thursday afternoon anyway and staying out until Tuesday. What if she flew down Thursday night? Could she even get a flight to Asheville at night? Hell, she could always fly to Charlotte and rent a car.
"Let me handle it. I’ll figure it out and give you a call. Do what you have to do. Don’t worry about me. I’ll be there."
Except for the ticking of the grandfather clock in the downstairs hall, the house was quiet. Everyone was asleep. Tass pushed her homework aside and sat on the edge of her bed. She had taken a bath, put her hair up in curlers, and sneaked a small glass of Sloe Gin from the bar. It was only Wednesday. Two more nights until the sock hop at the high school. Harry Simpson would be there. He was a senior and she a junior, but he acted like he had noticed her.
Tass slipped from bed, went to the closet and opened the hope chest. From beneath a bundle of lace napkins, she selected a paperback romance novel, stuck it in the pocket of her bathrobe and padded down the hall to the bathroom. The door was closed. She waited for a minute. Should she knock? She might wake up everybody in the house. She put her ear to the door and listened.
Breathing. Heavy breathing, panting, rhythmic. She peaked through the keyhole. She recognized Sissy’s underwear but it wasn’t Sissy wearing it. Her brother was. WTF? Tass was looking at Rich’s back. He was standing by the bathtub, preening in Sissy’s pink panties and a matching pink bra.
Oh, my Gawd, Tass thought. He’s wearing girl’s underwear. She could not believe it. Payback time. It was like fate or something. She pulled a bobby pin from her hair, stuck it between the jam and striker plate and twisted the knob open. She stepped inside and shut the door behind her. "Caught you," Tass announced.
Rich gulped, jumped, started to stand, turned his head in panic, and seeing he was trapped, collapsed on the toilet and reached for a wash cloth, then realizing it was too small for his predicament, grabbed a towel and frantically tried to cover himself.
"I saw what you were doing," Tass smirked. "I’m telling."
"No, please," Rich pleaded, tears already welling in his eyes, "please don’t."
"What you’re doing is a sin. I’m telling Mom," Tass said.
"But I wasn’t hurting anybody," Rich said.
"You’re hurting God."
"Then tell God and leave Mom out of it."
"No, fair is fair," Tass said. "You told Mom I was the one who ate Sissy’s candy. You didn’t have to do that. I got in a lot of trouble. Now it’s your turn to get the belt."
"You made Sissy cry," Rich said. "You stole Sissy’s candy and you made her cry. It’s not the same. You know that. I wasn’t hurting anybody. You made Sissy cry."
"You think Sissy is going to want to wear her underwear ever again when she finds out how you icked it up?"
"Then don’t tell her," Rich pleaded. "Can’t you do this for me? Put your seatback up. Just this once. Please? We’re about to land. Miss."
Tass jerked awake. The jet engines were powering down, the plane throbbing in its descent. Tass had slept almost the entire time during the plane trip. Asleep. And dreaming. "I’m sorry to disturb you, Miss. We’re about to land," the steward was saying. "You need to put your seat back upright. Any trash?"
Rich was at the bottom of the escalator in the Charlotte Douglas International Airport’s baggage claim center. He was thinner and paler than Tass remembered. He was also slower. She embraced him. His hug was weak.
"Can I help you with your luggage?" he asked.
"This is all I have," Tass said, shrugging. "I travel light. Is the car far?"
"No," Rich said, leading the way. "I parked in Short Term."
"So what’s the schedule?"
"Well, tonight. Sylva, of course. I have the house ready. Tomorrow, we’ll go see Mom."
"How's she doing?"
"Not any better, but, knock on wood, not a lot worse either. Pretty much the same, still dead from the waist down, no feeling, no control, but her mind is as sharp as ever."
"Like her tongue?"
Rich ignored the bait. "Well, you know Mom. Sometimes I think the only thing that keeps her alive is attitude. She has good days and bad days. Sometimes she’s mean, thinks we’re trying to kill her. Sometimes she’s perfectly reasonable. You never know. After all, she’s eighty-eight years old. She goes in and out."
" Don’t we all," Tass said. "What about your friend?"
"David? He moved out. Last year. We had a bit of a falling out."
They were outside now, the late night air cool with the damp of an earlier rain. She produced a pack of cigarettes, extracted a slender cylinder and lit it. Rich didn’t say a word but she read his eyes. "Yeah, still. But don’t worry, I won’t smoke in the house or car. I meant Saturday. The schedule. What time is your operation?"
Rich stopped and lowered his head. "It’s been postponed," he said.
Tass froze. "Postponed? When? I called the hospital Tuesday and made all the financial arrangements. They had you down for Saturday."
Rich cringed. "We postponed it Wednesday."
"Wednesday? Two days ago?" Tass sucked on her smoke and blew out a cloud of anger. "You mean I made this trip for nothing? You postpone your operation, don’t tell me about it, and now I have go back and then come back here all over again when you reschedule? You know what I gave up to be here? I had plans, big plans. I think my friend was going to pop the question this weekend. Crap. Why didn’t you call me?"
"I was afraid you wouldn’t come," Rich said. ‘You didn’t come when Uncle Charlie died. Sissy and I had to deal with that. And then you didn't come when Sissy died either."
"Oh, yeah. Throw that up to me. I couldn't make it for Uncle Charlie's funeral. Besides, you told me the doctors wouldn't Mom go either."
"I know, but Sissy?"
"I was in St. Moritz, a sabbatical. I would have had to rent a car, drive to Zurich, catch a plane to New York, fly to Charlotte, rent another car and God only knows I wouldn’t have made in time for the funeral and anyway, I had a big meeting in Paris in two days on a major international book deal, which, by the way, was the book deal that got us the contract that earns us the money to pay for all this."
"Still," Rich said, raising his eyes to look at here. "I wish you could have--." His voice trailed off.
"I'm here now," Tass said. "For Mom, for you; the operation."
"Well, like I said, we had to postpone the operation," Rich repeated, his eyes dropping. "There were other tests, they came back inconclusive. The doctors said we need more definitive results to plan the operation. It doesn't look good."
"Oh, my God, Rich, I’m sorry. I don't mean to put on the spot this way." Tass tossed her cigarette into the gutter. "I’m such an ass. Not even half an hour off the plane and already we’re fighting. It’s my fault." She parked her carry-on and put her arms around her brother. "Surely, there’s something we can do. I’ll call the doctors myself. I know people. We can do something. I know we can do something."
She felt Rich’s arms tighten around her, a strange feeling, her brother hugging her, one hand patting her shoulder, the other squeezing her waist. "Thank you," he whispered. "Thank you, Tass."
She heard the tears in his words.
In years past, they might have talked all night, but not that night. Both were exhausted from the drive to Sylva from Charlotte. Someday, there had to be a direct flight to Asheville. Tass told Rich she preferred their mother’s room instead of the one she had as teenager and Rich had simply nodded. Thank God there were clean sheets in the linen closet. She gave Todd a quick call but he didn’t pick up, so she left a message. Since she couldn’t make it, he was taking his two daughters from his previous marriage to P-Town for the weekend.
Rich awakened her with a cup of coffee and a glass of orange juice. She tried calling Todd again. No luck. She took a quick shower while Rich prepared a small basket with a few hard candies, a small bottle of lotion, and a bar of dark chocolate. He put the basket and a blue, dime store notebook in the back seat.
The drive to the nursing home in Asheville was about an hour from the family farmhouse in Sylva. "I’m really sorry I couldn’t make it when Sissy died," Tass said as they turned onto the drive leading to up to the converted mansion.
"That’s all right," Rich said. "I understand."
"How did Mom take it?"
"I never told her," Rich said.
"I wasn’t sure she could handle it, what with her depression. The doctors weren't sure either."
Tass stared at her brother in disbelief. "I don’t believe this. Didn’t Mom notice that Sissy hasn’t been around lately?"
"I told her Sissy was off on another of her Save-the-World trips, helping some Indians in a South American village. Like before when Sissy went to Africa on that water thing."
"Yeah, she nearly died from malaria."
"She did die from malaria."
"Yeah, later. Good deeds have a way of catching up with you. You know this is stupid, don’t you? We have to tell Mom that Sissy’s dead. She deserves to know. And what about your operation? You can’t keep that a secret forever. Damn it, if you don’t, I will."
Rich parked the car and leaned over the steering wheel. It was only mid-morning and he was already tired. "Can’t we just visit with Mom today? You haven’t seen her in awhile. We can always tell her later. Please, can’t this wait? Just this once."
Tass shrugged and leaned back. Damn, she needed a smoke. "OK. This is totally wrong and I don’t agree with it, but I’ll let it slide for today. Today only, then we get righteous. Now, how in hell do you carry off this fiction that Sissy is still alive?"
Rich retrieved the notebook from the backseat. "Sissy writes Mom a letter every week," he said. "Mom can't see all that well so I read the letters to her. Mom loves these letters. She tells me what to write back, and then she waits to see how Sissy answers."
"So, you’re one writing these letters and pretending to be Sissy?"
"You must really get a kick out of that," Tass said, not bothering to hide the snit.
Mom wasted no time on preliminaries."Oh, it’s Her Majesty. Come to see your old mama, have you? Checking up on your inheritance?"
"Hello, Mom," Tass said, leaning over and giving her mother a hug. "I love you, too."
"Not enough to come see me or even send me so much as a postcard. All your fancy trips. Rich told me what you do. Sissy writes me every week. Such a wonderful daughter. She knows how to love her mother." Tass refrained from saying that it was her job that paid for the nursing home, kept up the farm and financed Sissy’s humanitarian escapades all around the world. "You’ve got that look on your face, Tassie. I know what you’re thinking,"
"Mom, I have responsibilities," Tass said.
"You have family," the old woman huffed. "You should have come sooner, when Charlie died. A sister should come to her brother's funeral."
"He was your brother, mom. My uncle. You know that."
"Whatever. You know what I mean. You just should have been here."
"Well, I'm sorry, Mom, but I couldn't. And, anyway, the doctors wouldn't let you go to the funeral either."
She instantly regretted her words. Rich winced, but it wasn't just that. Her mother moved like a snake. The sick old woman semi paralyzed from the waist down launched a clenched grasp that sprung from the bed like startled rattlesnake and dug fingernails into Tass's arm.
"I wanted to go," the old woman said. "You didn't."
Tass put her hand on her mother's hand and squeezed. "I'm sorry," she said. "I know the doctors said you couldn't go. It's not your fault. It's the sickness. Your body is a prison. I know that, Mom. Believe me, I know. But, you have to understand, I live in a prison, too. A different kind of prison, yes, but a prison just the same. I wish—I wish, I, I, don't know. I don't what to tell you. Somebody has to pay for all this. The money's got to come from somewhere. What the hell am I supposed to do?"
The old woman relaxed her grip. "Family," she said. "Family. Family comes first."
Tass nodded. "Family," she repeated.
"Mom, I brought you a basket," Rich interrupted. "Hard candy, dark chocolate and some of that buttery lotion you like to put on your hands."
"Never mind that," Mom said. "Did we get a letter from Sissy?"
"We did. Came in this morning. Picked it up on the way here. Haven’t even read it myself." Rich opened the notebook and thumbed to the letter. "Here it is," he said. "It starts off : Dear Mommy and Brother Rich. I have just come back from a trip down river and …" Rich paused. "You know, Mom, since Tass has come all the way from New York to visit you and me, why don’t we have her read this letter?"
"I like the way you read letters."she said, crossing her arms on her chest.
Tass put her hand on her mother’s arm. "You know, Mom. I would really love to read the letter. It would make me feel closer to you, and to Sissy, too."
"Oh, all right. Just so somebody reads it. I ain’t getting any younger."
Tass took the notebook. Rich had very carefully printed each word by hand. Tass swallowed and began reading. "This is the letter from Sissy. She writes: 'I have just come back from a trip down river and I have a wonderful story to tell you. There’s a little girl there who …'"
They got back to the house a little later than they expected, but Rich said it was fine. He fussed around for a bit preparing scrimp scampi for dinner and set a small, but elegant table. Even centered a late blooming rose in a slender, antique vase. His crowning touch was a bottle of Chianti which because he like it chilled, he had put in the refrigerator before they went to the hospital.
Neither one of them felt like talking much, Tass soaked some garlic bread in olive oil sprinkled with pepper and oregano, and heaped it with shrimp. Rich toyed with his dinner for a while, nibbled at the salad and then announced that he was tired, that he had to go to bed. Tass said she would clean up and gave him a hug and peck on the cheek.
There was a bottle of Madeira in the cupboard, so Tass poured herself a glass and set up her laptop. She had a ton of email to work through. Todd called a little after eight and they talked for an hour. He said his daughters were really enjoying the last few days of summer vacation. He said P-Town missed her. She said she missed P-Town.
The old roll top desk was in the same corner of the parlor her father had converted into a library half a century earlier. She moved aside the blue notebook that Rich had left there and looked at the stack of bills. Rich obviously had fallen a bit behind in paying everything on time. She found the checkbook and looked at the balance. It was fine. All of her deposits were dutifully recorded.
Tomorrow, she would update the accounts.
She opened the notebook with Rich’s letters. For over a year, Rich had written two letters each week, one to and one from Sissy. Curious, Tass started to read. Each letter was a thread entwined in a skein of fantasy and reality, yarns both worsted and polished, spun of pathos in a writer’s mind. It was late when she reread today’s letter and the ending, "I love you, Mommy. See you soon, Sissy."
Tass, the editor, turned the page automatically. The end. Only, it wasn’t. Instead of a blank page, there was another letter. Rich had written another letter, a letter for next week.
"Dear Mommy and Sister Tass.
"I couldn’t believe my eyes this morning when I looked up and . . .."
Oh, no, Tass gasped, jumping from the chair. She took the steps two at a time, tearing down the hall and pounding on Rich’s door.
There was no answer.
"Rich. Rich." She opened the door and rushed inside. Rich lay on top of the covers, an empty pill bottle by his side. He was already dead.
It was Sunday before Tass drove back to the nursing home. Dr. Adams confirmed that Rich had learned Wednesday that the cancer had metastasized. Stomach, kidneys. And there another complication. Rich was HIV-positive. The operation wasn’t postponed. It was canceled. The doctor gave Rich some pain pills and cautioned him against overdosing. It was all the doctor could do.
Tass had no choice. She had to tell Mom. Rich’s funeral was tomorrow. Poor Rich. Dead. Sissy, too. Tass brought the notebook with her to show Mom the truth.
"Oh, it’s you. I thought you’d be back in New York by now."
"Why do you say that? You know I love you."
"No, I don’t. You’re not like Sissy. Or even Rich. They love their mother. Where is Rich? Is he coming?"
"That’s what I’m here to talk to you about. I’m afraid I have news."
"Go ahead. Kill me."
"You want to kill me, don’t you?"
"No, Mom. I don’t. There’s something here you need to know." Tass opened the note book with the incriminating letters written not in Sissy’s hand, but Rich’s, and skipped directly to Friday’s letter.
"You’ve got that look on your face again," Mom said. "You’re going to kill me."
Tass sighed and looked down at Friday's letter, the one Rich had ask her to read, her finger rubbing the teardrop-shaped stain blurring the "I" in the words, "I love you, Mommy," and that last pathetic promise that no one would ever keep, "See you soon, Sissy."
Oh, what the hell, she thought. Just this once. Tass signed, turned the page to the new letter, a letter like all the others, written in Rich's hand, and began reading.
"Dear Mommy and Sister Tass.
"I couldn’t believe my eyes this morning when I looked up and saw my brother Rich paddling up to the dock here at the village. He jumped out of the boat, ran over and gave me a great big hug and a kiss. Surprise, he said. And he brought presents. All the Indians in the village were so excited to . . ..
"Ow!"The sharp, needle pricks of pain raced up her arm. "Mom!"
Just like before, the old woman had reached out and grabbed her arm. Her head was raised, her eyes squinted. "Stop," she commanded. "Stop, Tass. Now."
"I know the truth, Tass." Her head fell back on the pilow. "I know the truth," she repeated. "Rich didn't take off for some Indian village in South America. Rich is dead. And Sissy isn't there either. She's dead. They're both dead. Dead and gone."
"Rich wrote that letter, didn't he? Such a good boy. He was a good writer, you know. Made up all those letters from Sissy. You know, he almost sometimes had me believing those letters."
Tass stared at her mother. "You knew? You knew Sissy was dead?"
"I couldn't tell Rich that, could I? It would have killed him. Your brother was so fragile. I had to pretend, didn't I? To keep him alive. Give him something to live for. Nothing wrong with playing along now, is there?"
"He thought he was writing those letters for you," Tass said.
"Yeah, well," Mom said. "We all believe what we want to believe." The old woman scrunched up her face and crunched back her neck. "Did you look after Rich?"
"The funeral. The doctors told me had the cancer. Like Charlie. Like me. Rich didn't want to tell me, you know. But I knew. The cancer. I didn't know if you would come this time or not. I had to know. You didn't come for Charlie. Or Sissy. I didn't know. But you did. You came. A sister has to come for her brother's funeral. Did you do it? Make the arrangements?"
"Tomorrow. In the family plot," Tass said. "Next to Sissy and Daddy. Do you think you might--?"
"I already ask. They said there's no way. But you're going to be there. A sister has to be there for her brother."
"Maybe I can hire an ambulance, or something. I can try."
"It's all right, Tassie. You'll be there. You can tell me all about it. Anyway, I'll be there soon enough myself. You might want to take a picture. That spot by your daddy. You're still keeping that for me, aren't you?"
"Mom, I don't want to talk about--yes, of course."
"I'm fine, Mom."
"No. Not that. I mean, there's a spot for you, too, isn't there? Next to Rich and Sissy?"
"Yes, Mom. There's a spot for me, too."
"What about the letter?"
"The letter that Rich wrote. The letter from Sissy. The one he wrote for you."
"He didn't write it for me."
"Honey, he wrote all those letters for you. Ever last one. Now, you want to read the one you started to read a while ago? You want to read it to me?"
Tass looked down at the letter in her hands. It was crumpled. She smoothed it out on her lap. Damn. She should have figured it out on her own. Tass brushed the corner of her eye and started to read.
"Dear Mommy and Sister Tass.
"I couldn’t believe my eyes this morning when I looked up and saw my brother Rich paddling up to the dock here at the village. He jumped out of the boat, ran over and gave me a great big hug and a kiss. Surprise, he said. And he brought presents. All the Indians in the village were so excited to . . ."
Copyright 2010 by Daniel E. Speers