Magda wafted into the kitchen, her open robe, with its pink peonies in a turquoise silk sea floating behind her, revealing a pearly-white satin short set and long tan legs. She was waving her hands as if she’d just had a manicure.
“Look, Granmagda, Aunt Rachel is braiding me.” Amy twisted her head with a grin at her grandmother, so Rachel had to lean forward not to lose strands of ribbon and hair.
“What a glorious day for a funeral.” Humming, Magda poured coffee and buttered toast. “No?”
Rachel choked, spraying coffee into the air. “Only you, Momma.”
“Thank you, darling.” Magda blew Rachel a kiss.
“Amy, as soon as Aunt Rachel finishes your hair, you need to come up and get dressed.” Clarissa dumped what was left of her coffee down the drain and put her mug in the sink.
“Now.” Magda sat, smoothing the linen placemat. “What time shall we go?
“Rachel and Amy and I are stopping at the house first. Glenna and Tim said they’d pick you up on their way to the cemetery. At noonish.”
“How was the party last night, Clarissa?” Magda was pouting, Clarissa knew, because she wasn’t going to the house too. “Funeral Eve, whoever heard of that?”
“It was fine.” Clarissa sighed. Wilder’s words to her after Alden had toasted the future echoed through her head.
“You’re a sly one. I’ll give you that.” Wilder had leaned in closer, hissing into her ear. “Be careful, Clarissa. Be very careful.”
Rachel put an elastic around ends of Amy’s delicate braids, stuck some sprigs of lavender between the strands and gave Amy the hand mirror.
“Wow. Thanks, Aunt Rachel. Look, Mom.”
“Momma, Clarissa has some news.”
“News?” Magda perked up.
“Nothing important, Momma. Nothing that can’t wait.” Clarissa frowned at Rachel and left the room with Amy waltzing along behind her.
“Pretty, isn’t it?”
”Yes,” Clarissa thought as she watched Sheila, it was pretty. The brick house at the top of the hill on grounds maintained in that old-money way so what you see is nature without flaws. Late afternoon in early autumn, the sun casts a roseate spell on the marsh to the west. Early morning sees the sun rise over the pond, lighting the way for swans gliding through cattails.
“This life you fell into,” Sheila said.
Clarissa stood mute, watching, and waiting while Sheila wrote the check. Keep away money, she explained. “Wilder asked me to. Offer you this. If you would consider.”
“Yes?” Clarissa asked.
“If you would consider not. Marrying Alden.” Sheila handed her the check, face down. Even the most cringeworthy gesture can be coated in courtesy.
“Just consider it?” Clarissa took the check.
Clarissa left the room going the back way, through the bathroom, to the living room, where she knew Wilder was, because Sheila said so, and where, therefore, she figured Rachel would be and she wasn’t wrong. Leaning against the doorjamb, she waited for the unfolding of whatever scene Rachel had chosen.
“Text or email?” Rachel asked, looking up from her phone, playing with the ends of her long hair.
Wilder looked around as if she might be talking to someone else, even though they were the only people in the room.
“Do you think it’s kinder to break off with someone by text or email?”
Rachel sat at the other end of the sofa. Her long legs stretched out, so her feet almost touched him, and he was right up against the arm at his end. He cleared his throat and shifted in his seat. Clarissa almost felt bad for him.
“I mean a text, well that’s quick, right? Why draw it out? But he is a serious person, you know. Takes himself seriously. So maybe an email would be nicer. More formal. He could use it later.”
“Use it later?” Wilder seemed to surprise himself by responding. But then, drawing responses was Rachel’s thing. Clarissa was bad enough, she knew. Rachel was beyond the pale.
“Oh, didn’t I say? He’s a writer.” Rachel smiled at him like one of his sons might have, all innocence and trust. “Hey. I bet you know him. John Fothingay?”
Clarissa knew that Rachel knew that Wilder did, in fact, know John Fothingay. They’d gone to Groton together. Decades ago.
Wilder glowered at her from his end of the sofa, no doubt hoping she’d get the message and leave him alone and sat up straighter as if pulled by that string in the top of his head yoga teachers always talk about.
“I don’t want to hurt him, but I do think it’s time to send him back to his wife.” Rachel sat fidgeting with the fringe of the cushion in her lap, like she was pulling petals from a daisy. “Yes, I think he’d like an email better. I mean writers… they like things drawn out and wordy, don’t they?”
She sprung from her end of the couch, beaming, and swooped at Wilder, like the proverbial seagull, kissing him on the cheek. “Thanks.
“Who knows? Maybe he’ll write a poem about me.” She skipped from the room just as Clarissa waked in the other door.
“Rachel, round up Amy, would you? We’ll three be riding to the cemetery with Alden.”
“Good morning, Wilder.” Clarissa crossed the room holding up the check Sheila had written her in a short princess wave. “Just one more little secret?”
Wilder squirmed, glaring at her, more prey than predator this time, as she tucked the folded check under her blouse, into her bra, and picked up a stack of mail from the table under the window. She flashed him a smile as she walked out of the room.
The morning sun warmed the dining room and cast an elegant light on the finger-friendly delicacies artfully arranged on fancy china platters and plates. Lead crystal decanters of wines and whiskeys sparkled on the sideboard. Clarissa poured a generous glass of scotch, thought better of it, and put the glass down, and poured herself a glass of white wine instead.
“Finally,” Alden said coming toward her, “you’re here.”
Clarissa sighed and had to agree that yup, here she was.
Before Alden could respond, Rachel and Amy were in the room laughing like little kids.
“Look, Alden.” Amy twirled, holding her skirt out and raising a beaming face. “Aren’t I pretty?”
“You’re a delight.”
“I am?” Amy looked at Clarissa.
“You are.” Clarissa wrapped Amy in a hug, took a sip of wine and handed the glass to Rachel. Always obliging, Rachel finished it off.
“Are we ready?” Alden looked at Clarissa. “Are you- “
“We are,” Clarissa said. “We definitely are.”
They took the beach road to the cemetery, a road so familiar Clarissa could have driven it blindfolded, but today, sitting up front with Alden driving, with Rachel and Amy playing I Spy in the backseat, it felt different. It seemed strange.
Glenna, Tim, and Magda were already at the cemetery when they arrived. Alden was swarmed by mourners before he was out of the car, leaving her, Rachel, and Amy to fend for themselves. Thank God.
Magda rushed over but wasn’t quick enough. Alden looked back at Clarissa like a helpless child. She smiled encouragement and turned to Glenna. “I have to talk to you.”
Glenna nodded at Tim, miming instructions the way long-married people do. He nodded ‘understood,’ took Magda and Rachel by the arm and called for Amy to lead the way.
“Wilder got to me, it all got to me and me, uh, I told them that Alden asked me to marry him.”
“And they all think I’m going to marry him.”
“Amy seems cheerful enough.”
“She didn’t hear.”
“You haven’t said anything to her?”
“I know. We better get to the grave.”
“What are you going to do?”
“I don’t know.” She and Glenna walked through the newer section with its hard-cut and polished stones and ebony obelisks to the old cemetery yard, filled with granite markings, hand-carved angels on lichen-covered stones, where the Duncans and Smythes and other founder families were laid to rest.
“You’ll be the people whose stories took us to the beach and back.” Rachel had said that morning when Clarissa told her what she’d gone and done the night before. “You remember.”
Clarissa did remember. Squeezed into the back seat between grumpy Glenna and little Rachel, hot vinyl sticking to their bare legs, off for a day at the beach, their momma making up stories about the fancy houses all down the road. Their father, silent, looking out the window, knew every house on the road, every family, but he wasn’t one for stories, their papa.
Was he looking out the window at those marshes the day he drove off the road and smashed into a tree? Was he looking away or was he looking right where he was going?
“You know what you’re doing?” Glenna asked her as the approached the small group standing around, but not too near, a little square hole.
“Maybe,” she said.
“Does Mama know?”
“Shit,” Glenna said, then covered her mouth, looking to make sure no one heard her.
Don’t sell yourself short, Grandmother Duncan had said to her.
Why sell me at all, she’d responded. She could still see the sadness in her grandmother’s face.
“Friends,” the minister began, holding a beautifully crafted wooden box in his hands, and looking at the circle of faces waiting expectantly. “We are here to…”
Amy took Clarissa’s hand, squeezing it once. She squeezed twice. And so they played through the eulogy, the prayers, until one by one, starting with Wilder, they all tossed a handful of soil onto the box that held Emyline’s remains.
“Mom.” Amy tugged at Clarissa after they’d paid their respects. “The guy said that was Alden’s mom in that box.”
Clarissa tried to remember what she’d been told when she was six, when her grandfather died, and went to her first funeral, but Grandfather Duncan had been buried whole in a white casket with brass fittings. Not quite the same to explain. Anyway, who would have taken the time to say anything to a kid.
“How did Alden’s mom fit in that little box?”
“It’s just the essence of her.”
“Remember when we made maple syrup with Gramma and Grandpa?”
“It’s like that.”
“Oh.” Amy took Clarissa’s hand again. “Weird.”
“Yeah,” Clarissa whispered, walking to the rich man’s car, a ring on her finger, promises in the air. “Weird.”
- : literary beach read