Beloved(14K)

Beloved

Chapter 1


"Do you think she's really dead?"

"Man, we don't even know if she's in there." The boy reached out a grimy hand and laid it gingerly on the closed lid of the gleaming casket.

His pal--younger, cleaner, better behaved--sucked in his breath. "You're not supposed to touch it!"

"What's she gonna do? Open it and come after us?" The older boy's voice was defiant; but he glanced around furtively, then rubbed away his smudgemarks with the sleeve of his jacket. "Come on, let's go. It looks like we have to take their word for it."

Watching the two from her seat in the front row of folding chairs, Jane Drew tried not to smile. You never should've kept their baseballs, Aunt Sylvia. Fifty years from now they'll still be saying you were a witch.

The kids made a run for the door around a plain-dressed woman, who promptly collared the younger one.

"Walk. This is a place of respect."

The boy squirmed out of her grip, then walked briskly the rest of the way out. The woman, sixty and bulky, shifted her handbag from her right forearm to her left and glanced tentatively around the room, taking in the closed coffin, Jane, and the two visitors chatting quietly in the back.

Jane went up to the new arrival. "I'm Jane Drew, Sylvia Merchant's great-niece," she said with a smile.

The visitor stuck out a well-worn hand. "How do you do. I'm Mrs. Adamont. Adele Adamont. I work at the A & P where Mrs. Merchant shopped," she explained. "I wanted to pay my respects because, well--" She nodded to the empty chairs. "You see for yourself. When a widow has nobody, this is how it ends up."

Surprised by the islander's bluntness, Jane said something dutiful about her great-aunt having outlived most of her friends.

"Oh, no; she never had none, not that I recall," Mrs. Adamont said evenly. "Everyone on Nantucket knew that. They say her husband died in the First World War; I suppose she never got over it. She was always one to say good morning, but never one to stop and pass the time of day. She was funny that way. How old was she?" the woman added.

"My aunt had just turned ninety. The last two years were hard for her," Jane volunteered. "She didn't like living in a nursing home, away from Nantucket."

"I did wonder why she decided to go into a home off-island. Was she all right--you know--up there?"

"Sharp as a tack," Jane said, taken aback again.

Leave it to an islander to think anyone living on the mainland must be insane. Jane racked her memory, trying to remember whether her aunt had ever mentioned a Mrs. Adamont. But the visitor was right; Sylvia Merchant had had little interest in other people. In the nursing home she'd reminisced about her house, and her garden, and the two cats who'd shared it with her. Books were important to her. So were movies: She'd had a VCR in her room, and her own copy of Casablanca. But as for friends and neighbors ....

"She did give me zucchini from her garden once," Mrs. Adamont said, as if that were reason enough to pay her last respects. "So then you're all there is for family?"

"Almost," Jane answered, drawing herself up to her full five-feet-seven, trying to make up for lost relatives. "There's an elderly cousin no longer able to travel. I have a sister living on the west coast, and of course my parents; but unfortunately they're in Europe right now." Not that they'd come in any event, Jane knew. Other than an occasional exchange of Christmas cards, there'd been no contact between her parents and Sylvia Merchant for decades.

Mrs. Adamont looked Jane up and looked Jane down and Jane's first thought was that the pale grey suit she was wearing just wasn't funereal enough.

"I see. You're the one who'll be getting the house, then."

Jane blinked. She was thirty-three; a career woman (even if an unemployed one); and reasonably sophisticated. Hosting a wake shouldn't have been a daunting social challenge--but this portly, plain-spoken visitor wasn't making it easy.

"As a matter of fact ...."

As a matter of fact the cottage was Jane's now. She'd found that out just two hours earlier from her aunt's attorney when he picked her up at the ferry.

"Oh, you don't have to say if you don't want to, dear," Adele Adamont said, seeing that Jane was reluctant to talk about it. "Everyone will know soon enough. You're not staying at Lilac Cottage, are you? The place does need work. Well, never mind. All in good time. Let me just say my good-byes to poor Sylvia. She had a long life, and--despite all the silly gossip--who's to say it wasn't a good one?"

Mrs. Adamont wrapped her coat around herself a little more snugly and approached the coffin. She bowed her grey head and murmured a short prayer, ending it with the sign of the cross, a kind smile for Jane, and a purposeful exit. She had done her duty by the deceased.

The two women visitors in the back--elderly sisters who had no idea who Sylvia Merchant was but who never missed a wake in town--left shortly afterward. For the next hour and a half Jane sat alone in the second row, her heart steadily filling up with sorrow, unwilling or unable to believe that no one else would be coming.

Finally, ten minutes before the end of the wake, someone did show.

He was a few years older than Jane and had the look of a man who's had to juggle his schedule ruthlessly to find the time to break away. He nodded to Jane and walked directly up to the casket, where he stood for a moment of quiet reflection.

As for Jane, she could hardly keep from staring. He was the first person under sixty that she'd seen all day, tall and good-looking and handsomely dressed, with an air of quiet confidence. He was, she knew at once, a man of some success.

But she was not prepared for the look that she saw lingering on his face as he turned to her: a look of pain and intensely personal grief. His eyes, a startling blue, were glistening. A much-loved son might look like that, or a grandson. It threw Jane off completely. Surely Aunt Sylvia should have mentioned this man; even Aunt Sylvia ....

He looked away briefly, and when he turned to Jane again, his face was composed. It was a handsome face, chiseled to near-perfection and framed by dark hair.

"I'm sorry to barge in so late," he said.

Jane had become so used to the thick sound of silence that she jumped a little. "Not at all; I'm glad you've come," she said, as if his showing up made a quorum. "I'm Jane Drew--"

"Sylvia's great-niece. Of course. I'm glad to meet you at last. Phillip Harrow," he said, taking her hand in his. I'm sorry about your great-aunt, Miss Drew," he said softly. "Ninety is a wonderfully long age, but a hundred and ninety would have been better still."

Somehow Jane didn't want to argue with him, didn't want to admit that just a month earlier her aunt had slammed her tiny fist on the bedstand and shouted, "I'm ready to go, goddammit!" So Jane nodded and said simply, "Yes." She added, "How did you happen to know my aunt?"

"She was a neighbor. She--"

Just then the funeral director, his lips pursed in sympathy, appeared in the entryway; it was time to close up shop. Phillip Harrow acknowledged him with a somber "Evening, Fred," and turned back to Jane. "I'm leaving the island tonight. I'm sorry--I won't be attending the funeral," he said, his voice low with regret.

Jane was sorry, too, though for a split second she wasn't quite sure why. Because I want someone else to be there, she decided as she shook Phillip Harrow's hand good-bye. I want someone else to care.

Harrow began walking out, then stopped suddenly and turned. "Will you be staying on Nantucket past tomorrow?"

Jane smiled and lifted her shoulders. "I don't know ... maybe a day or two ...."

His blue eyes--piercingly, hauntingly blue--settled on her for a long, long moment. And then he, too, smiled and shrugged. "I thought ... well, good-bye, then."

And Jane was left to wonder what it was he thought.

*****

There were seven people huddling under seven umbrellas at the funeral. Jane knew only one of them: her mother. Gwendolyn Drew had flown from London to Boston, caught an air shuttle, and, much to Jane's astonishment, arrived at Prospect Hill Cemetery right in the nick of time.

"I had to come back to the States early and it wasn't that out of the way," her mother whispered over the eulogy. "And after all," she added with a sigh, "Sylvia was family."

The morning was wet and cold; Jane felt pierced through to her bones. But her mother faced down the weather with a kind of noble indifference, as if she were waiting in her BMW at a red light in her beloved San Francisco.

How does she do it? Jane wondered, not for the first time. Her mother couldn't possibly have got more than a couple of hours' sleep, even in first-class. And yet here she was, fresh and poised and uncomplaining. Every highlighted hair was in place, the belt of her trench-coat was tied exactly so. The makeup she wore was perfectly applied and unstained by tears.

Jane's eyes, on the other hand, were puffy from weeping, her nose bright pink from blowing. She'd forgotten to open her umbrella at one point, and now her long auburn hair was plastered to her face in dark wet ringlets. Yesterday it hadn't sunk in, but sometime during the night she realized it: Aunt Sylvia--funny, eccentric, shrewd Aunt Sylvia--was gone.

The minister finished with a short prayer and offered his condolences. The service was over; the small gathering began breaking up. Gwendolyn Drew took her daughter aside with a look of loving horror.

"Darling, you look positively awful," she said, peeling a wet strand of hair from Jane's forehead. "Would you rather skip lunch and go to bed, and I'll be on my way?"

"No," Jane said quickly. She flapped open her big wet hanky and blew one more time. "I'll be all right. I don't know what's come over me ... I knew Aunt Sylvia was ready to ... but I never knew she cared enough about me .... Oh, mother ... she left me Lilac Cottage."

Gwendolyn's eyes opened wide. "She did? That is a surprise. I assumed the house would go to an animal shelter or some such. Well!" she said, lowering her voice in deference to the one other mourner who remained. "That really is a surprise."

The mourner, whose back was to them both, was a solidly built man with shaggy hair. In one hand he held a big black umbrella; the other was jammed into the pocket of his canvas jacket. As they watched he took something from his pocket and tossed it into the open, still-empty grave. His profile was grim as he turned and left without acknowledging them.

There was a finality in the man's gesture that made Jane say, "I guess we should go."

She touched her fingers to her lips and blew a kiss gently in the direction of her aunt, then fell in alongside her mother. But at the grave's opening she stopped, attracted by a small red spot of color in the dirt at the bottom. It was a rose, tiny and exquisite and impossibly out of place in February, in a grave.

The two women moved on.

*****

They had lunch in town at the Crowninshield Saloon, a casual bar and restaurant with a scrubbed wood floor that was popular with the locals and one of the few that remained open all year long. At her mother's insistence that she eat something, Jane forced down a bowl of hot kale soup, a Portuguese speciality that took away some of the chill that had plagued her since the night before.

Her mother had a chicken salad and a glass of Perrier. Her mother always had a chicken salad and a glass of Perrier whenever she was in what she called "a place like this."

"Nantucket. What a desolate place to live," Gwendolyn said, staring out at the rain pounding the bare windows. "Fog ... rain ... penetrating cold ...."

"Mother, you live in San Francisco," Jane said, recovering her sense of irony. "You have fog and rain and penetrating cold."

Gwendolyn Drew gave her daughter a good-natured grimace. "Yes, but we're open all year. We also have compensations: opera and ballet, museums and theatres, not to mention charity balls for all of them. But here! What does one do on this ... this rock?"

"One sits by the fire, just as we're doing now, and warms one's buns."

"One gets rock fever."

"I wouldn't."

"Jane. If you're thinking what I think you're thinking--don't. You couldn't possibly afford to keep Lilac Cottage as a weekend retreat. You have no job. The property taxes alone--"

"I didn't say I was keeping it," Jane answered defensively. She hated when her mother acted like her father.

"I should hope not. This inheritance is an absolute godsend. You've been living on your savings for six months now; how long could you have gone on? The mortgage on your condo alone ... and what about your father?" she said suddenly. "When he learns about the inheritance, of course he'll want you to sell." She brightened. "You can go back to school and retrain; law school maybe--"

"Mother, I'm not going to become a lawyer just because dad's one. And I like being a graphic designer. This downturn can't last forever. I'll get another job. Eventually." She spread a hard pat of butter so viciously onto her slice of bread that it fell apart in her hand.

Her mother circled her daughter's wrist and said soothingly, "Don't blame me, darling. Blame the economy. Blame the advertising sector. Or better yet--blame your father," she said with a smile. "He's not here; he'll never know."

"Oh no, mother, I blame you" Jane said, only half kidding. "You stopped having kids one boy short. Think how much easier my life would be if dad didn't look to me to carry on his tradition of workaholism. If you'd had a Neal Drew, Jr., he could've been the lawyer."

Her mother shrugged and said, "Well, it's too late now. Anyway, we've been all through this. If you don't want to be pressured by your father, you should find yourself a nice rich man and settle down with a family. Like your sister."

"Those are my choices? Law school or marriage? This is practically medieval," Jane said, throwing her hands up and rolling her eyes. It was an overly dramatic gesture, she knew; but she wanted to irritate her mother, and being melodramatic in a public place was a quick and easy way to do it.

Her mother gave her a sit-up-properly-and-eat-your-food look. Jane went back to her Earl Grey tea.

"I feel really guilty about the house. What will Lisa say?" Jane murmured, wrapping her hands around the tea mug to warm them.

"Your sister is married and financially secure. She won't begrudge you your cottage. Besides, she didn't spend a summer with Sylvia."

"I only spent a month."

"And she didn't visit her in the nursing home for the last two years--"

"It wasn't that often," Jane said sadly. "Not often enough. I wish I'd known before then that Aunt Sylvia was willing to see me."

"Well, what do you want to do? Give it back?" her mother said, exasperated.

"I'm beginning to think so!" It seemed an incredible act of betrayal, having to sell the cottage her aunt had loved so dearly.

"Sweetheart." Her mother's smile was meltingly tender, the kind of smile a mother has for a daughter who's tried to tie her shoelaces for the first time. "Before this windfall there was no way you would have survived without your father's help, sooner or later. We know what a fiercely proud brat you are; wouldn't you rather have the help from Aunt Sylvia than from your stubborn, domineering father? Who, incidentally, loves you more than life itself?"

"Well. Once you put it that way ...." Jane made a little sound of frustration and gazed out the window, chewing on the inside of her lip.

"It's stopped raining," her mother said, glancing at her watch. "I just have time to make a quick run out with you to see the place--"

"Look!" Jane cried, pointing out the window. "There's the guy who threw the flower in the grave!"

He was sitting in the driver's seat of a rusty, dark green Ford pickup with "J & J Landscaping and Nursery" painted on the door panel. His expression was as grim as ever, which cast a malevolent shadow over the craggy, weathered features of his forty-ish face. He looked like a man capable of anything.

"It's hard to imagine him carrying a tiny rose in his pocket," Jane murmured, frowning. She was absolutely put off by the man.

"No mystery about that; Aunt Sylvia must have been a client," her mother said as she dropped her VISA card on top of the check. "She had to have needed help keeping up the property at the end."

She signalled for a waiter to square up the bill. "Rain or not, I'm looking forward to seeing your Lilac Cottage. As I recall from an old photo, it's an adorable place with lots of shrubs and flowers. We'll have to be very clever marketing it, especially in this economy ...."

"Hmmm." But Jane wasn't listening. Her attention was fixed squarely on the driver of the pickup, who'd rolled down his window and was yelling across to someone she couldn't see.

"I want the burner, you moron!" he shouted. "Bring it over!" He threw the truck into gear and tore off down South Water Street.

"Charming," Jane's mother remarked, slipping her credit card into her wallet.

"People never shout in San Francisco?" Jane asked dryly.

"Not where we live," her mother said without a trace of irony. "That's the trouble with an island: there's nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, from these types."

Gwendolyn Drew was of the Miss Manners School of Snobbery. As far as she was concerned, you could be rich, or you could be poor. You could be educated, or you could be not. But you had better behave, or you were nothing at all. Jane smiled to herself, shook her head, and slipped on her coat. "Ready, mother?"

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