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Tim Watt

Blood Memory

Jay Haraway dressed for church. He was going to meet his sister who believed. She had the right need, and she liked to wear hats. After her teeth had been capped and polished, after she had recovered enough after they had come and burned the house and punched her mouth and bruised her vagina, and after her husband had left, she returned to Mount Safety, permanently, and to church with ultimate fervor. They always sat in the front in the center pew. Jay liked to kneel. He felt it was the only appropriate position.

He wore a coat and tie and pressed chinos and polished shoes because he did not want his sister to think he was only doing this for her. He wanted her to believe that what had happened to her had also made a believer out of him. There could be no doubt.

He practiced his scales while he was adjusting the knot of his tie, and he wondered why he always seemed sharp ascending and flat descending, and why he could never sing with any bodily force, with any momentum. Unlike his sister, for example, who always sang as if trying to outdo the choir from soprano to alto to the gray-haired tenor with the sloppy chin. She sang with her hands clasped to the top of the pew, and her blue hat tilted atop her head, and her knuckles white, and all the hymns from "Hosanna in the Highest" to any benediction memorized and waiting, like confessions, for expression. She brooked all the difference with her voice.

And Jay memorized the program, and the page numbers of each hymn, psalm, and Bible reading. This way he always had the book open to the appropriate page before the reading or singing began. It was his way of saying to her, "I'm here with you." It was his way of making sure he was there for her.

When the offering plate was passed down their pew, she dropped the envelope in, without a flourish, as if giving was or should be as natural as flinching. He did not know how much she gave. But quantity did not seem to be relevant to her. Giving was her crucial ritual, her opposing gesture, and sometimes she let her son, whose arm had been badly burned, drop the envelope in. He was ten. His name was Riley. He sang softly the offertory hymn and Anna cried. The church was almost empty. When she looked at her son, Jay knew that she had felt everything. That she was feeling everything. He wanted to hold her in his arms, but he was the younger brother, and besides, she would not have let him.

Her name was Anna and she tried to forget. But Jay knew when she was remembering by the amount she drank, and, following, the accent she acquired. She would sit at the table with a bottle of red wine and a glass in her hand, and her son Riley propped on her lap. She still had style. This would be at the Cabin, the nice and quiet restaurant where the wealthy people in town went after church, or a funeral, or a wedding, or a child's graduation, or the rise of the market, or its fall. Jay would drink too, but he would not drink as much as his sister, who drained glass after glass and began to smile. Her face would flush and the accent would begin. At first it would be a lilt at the end of the word, dear, which was a word she did not use when she was sober. Then, after another bottle had been opened and begun, the accent would influence more and more words, and then entire sentences, until she spoke as if it really were her voice.

The accent was mostly British of some kind, with occasional slips into Ireland, Scotland, and the South of France.

Jay wondered if she was aware of the accent or its slips. This was when he would start to drink more, too. To catch up. She might speak of all the meetings she still had to have with her gynecologist, and the way the gynecologist always seemed to linger between her legs like an anthropologist on a historical dig. When she talked about this, the other patrons of the Cabin tried not to look. But when they did, they had sympathy, or something, for her, and perhaps for him. They would gaze as if witnessing the end of an era. People in town knew the Faulk family, and they knew the Faulk family was one of the first families of Mount Safety, and they knew the Faulk family had once been great, and they knew the Faulk family had a problem, which had affected the grandchildren, Anna and Jay, even if they were both educated people. And they all knew about the awful thing that had happened to her. Jay wondered if they knew about the other awful things, and if they did, if they thought of the other things as awful.

Once, about a year after it had happened, they went to the Cabin for dinner. Rain had come very suddenly that afternoon. People watched it from their wrap-around porches and discussed the coming possibility of a rainbow. The pavement steamed. The heat relented. The street was without traffic, and the stalks of flowers and vegetable plants glistened in gardens. A boy splashed in the puddle beside the post office with his arms held aloft and spread, and his head tilted back and his tongue extended and reaching for rain. Jay had the windshield wipers on high. They drove down Market Street, the main street of town.

Anna said, "Do you think heavy rains can put out a forest fire? I wonder." She wore pearls and a red evening dress. Riley sat on her lap. He leaned up to the dash and traced a stream of water that slid down the windshield until the windshield wipers wiped it away. He wore a blue summer suit with a blue-checked shirt and saddle shoes. He sat back against her comfortable chest.

"I don't know," Jay said. He switched on his blinker. "I've seen pictures of firefighters in the rain."

They sat at a table in the corner beside the big window that offered a view of the parking lot, and behind that, the Conestoga River that was rushing and muddy. Jay sat across from the window and gazed at the far bank of the river where overhanging trees and their leaves dripped with rain. When the wind came, the leaves flapped and the branches bent. Anna ordered the wine.

Riley said, "Shirley Temple, please." He sat on his mother's lap.

The waiter, a clean-shaven man, leaned over and smiled. He said, "You mean a Roy Rogers."

Riley said, "Shirley Temple, please."

The waiter peered at Anna.

"He means a Shirley Temple," she said.

The dining room was lit by candles and a dim chandelier, and it was almost empty. A few other couples, a distinguished man. Glasses clinked faintly and silverware sounded against plates and bowls. The waiter had a white cloth draped over his sleeve. He poured a taste of wine in Anna's glass. She said, "I don't need to taste it."

They finished the bottle without having opened the menus. They ordered another, and also food. Riley ordered a plain hamburger on white bread. He fidgeted on his mother's lap and then nestled his head against her neck. The accent began.

She said, "Dear, would you fill my glass?"

Jay filled her glass. He ordered a Scotch to keep things even.

"I want to tell you a story, dear."

The sky was darkening and there was no moon. Jay thought she was going to talk about the house and the things that had happened there. He was prepared. He wanted to hear about it. Riley was asleep or his eyes were closed. The river looked dark, and the trees on the far bank stood in silhouette.

"What are you looking at?" Anna said.

"The trees look like ghosts," Jay said.

Anna turned her head to look at the trees. She drained her glass.

Jay ordered another Scotch. He ordered a double. "You wanted to tell me a story," he said.

"Oh yes, a story about Neddy."

Ned was her former husband. He'd moved far away. Texas maybe, or California.

"OK," Jay said.

Anna ran her hand through Riley's hair. She stabbed her baked potato with her knife and the butter seeped out. "OK," she said. "Neddy, that bloody fool." Her accent had expanded to every word. It was British mostly. "In New York, dear. A few winters past, you might remember that winter."

"I do," Jay said, because he knew he had to.

"All the blizzards. The city ran out of salt. It was difficult enough." She poured herself the last of the wine. The waiter returned. Jay nodded to the bottle. It hurt him to hear the accent.

"All winter Neddy had been going out at night. He would come home for dinner, and then he would return to his office, to work. He said, `It's crunch time, honey.' He could have at least gone all the way and said `darling.' Regardless, one night just after Christmas, when Neddy had gone back to the office, I decided it would be wonderful fun if Riley and I watched a video at home and made popcorn, and drank ice-cream floats with root beer. But I simply could not find my keys, anywhere."

"I'm sorry," Jay said.

"Yes, well. It occurred to me the next morning that I always, always leave my keys in the dish on the lazy Susan in the front hallway." Her face was flushed.

The dining room was quiet, and the only remaining customer was the distinguished man who ate a bowl of ice cream and sipped a cup of coffee and read a book that was open on his thigh. The candlelight from the candle on his table flickered across his cheek. It was night.

Jay stared out at the trees on the opposite bank.

"He was stealing my keys, Jay. And it was not in the least because he was not sure which automobile he wanted to drive. They both had snow tires. They both had heat. They both had snow tires and heat."

Riley nestled against his mother's neck. She ran her hand through his hair. His hair was blond and curly. Jay stared out the window. "Do they still look like ghosts?" she said, and began to laugh.

"I can't see them," he said.

"Then they have most likely gone from appearance to actuality." She knocked over her glass, but it was empty and it did not break. Her accent was total and it influenced her locution. "Oh, dear," she said. "Should we?"

"I'm fine," Jay said, by which he meant drunk. She stood her glass on the table. "Neddy didn't trust me, Jay. He didn't trust me . . . I often wonder if he took the keys with him even when I wasn't home. Say, whenever. Say, when I came out here. Say, when those men came and did all those things to me in front of my son." She knocked the glass over, intentionally, to the floor. "Then his suspicion was prophetic indeed, wasn't it? Dear Neddy, dear dear Neddy." She stared at Jay. She cradled her son's head in her hand.

Jay did not know how to respond. The only thing he could think of was, "Neddy is a bastard," but that was not sufficient. There were the others, but he, she, and Riley didn't have names for them. They couldn't say, "Well, so-and-so is a mean and evil bastard." All he, she, and Riley could say was "they." And "they" was a category for anyone.

She woke Riley. His summer suit was wrinkled. "Riley," she said, "wake up, dear." Riley squinted his eyes as if he did not know who spoke to him, and pressed his face harder against her neck. "Would you be a dear and take him for me?"

"Sure," Jay said. He was fine. "Of course." He walked around the table and lifted Riley, who was not a baby, from Anna and her comfortable chest. Riley squirmed. Riley said, "My arm," and closed his eyes and pressed his face into Jay's chest. Jay held him in his arms and returned to his seat. "He'll be fine," he said with a little bit of an accent himself. "We'll be fine."

"Well then, I suppose I should attend the ladies' room." Her accent wavered. She stood and fell back against the window, and the window quivered. Her strands of pearls bounced against her chest. "Ooops," she said. Jay noticed his glass was empty.

The distinguished man closed his book and rose to leave.

"I've been sitting for so long," Anna said. She shook her hair and ran her hands down her hips. "It was bound to happen." She crossed the dining room with her hands reaching out for tables and the backs of chairs. She faltered for a post in the middle of the room. Jay did not look at her anymore. He felt Riley's warm breath against his neck. He held the child. He stared out at the trees that he could not see.

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