There were throngs of new widowers around town that year. It was as if these men had spawned in the marshes along the Hudson, then shambled into Poughkeepsie fully grown and quietly dressed, to occupy offices in obscure firms and live along quiet streets of slate-roofed Tudors and Capes. I would spot them at the supermarket, at the new chain bookstore. Their principal field mark was an all-over grayness, as if these men found the conventional spectrum to be unseemly. Judging by the five or six I dated, they were a relatively harmless bunch, by which I mean they didn't have their meat hooks out, and I'm not complaining.
Weston Clay was the most promising of them. Once I got past the gray veils I could appreciate the firm jawline, the long eyelashes of a pretty schoolgirl, and a build that tapered down from swimmer's shoulders. Wes was a history professor at Vassar. He had lost his wife, Billie, to a rare ailment she'd picked up while accompanying him on a sabbatical year in Cambodia.
I didn't know Wes then, but her death seemed to have softened him up for a schoolboy crush. While browsing the Internet one lonely evening, he had happened upon an Internet tribute site devoted to Helene Lystra, a B-movie actress of the late forties. An obsession with her came over Wes like the flu. He began collecting videos of Helene's movies, most of them shot on budgets and schedules so tight that her fans, Wes among them, mistook the work for film noir. Faux noir, as Helene herself would describe them in interviews years later.
Wes had been thrilled to learn that Helene was still alive, her address given as a nursing home just outside of town. That's how Wes and I met, on our visits to Helene, he to sit before a mute icon and I to watch the dissembling of my employer and best friend. I had been Helene's personal secretary ever since dropping out of Vassar nearly forty years earlier, and I continued to live in Bride's Haven, her old stone fortress of a house overlooking the Hudson Valley.
Wes and I would leave the nursing home together and stop off at a diner. I enjoyed getting disoriented on caffeine and looking across the table at his well-composed face, listening to his reasonable speech. His features were so perfectly symmetrical that I'd find myself glancing from one side to the other, the way your eye restlessly scans a sheet of postage stamps for some variation.
When friends asked about this new man in my life, I found myself inventing personalities for him in order to make my accounts more interesting. A brooding Rochester, a Woody Allen nebbish. A complex man of many facets. In fact, Wes had revealed only one facet that I could name. Pleasantness. An earnest and intelligent pleasantness, maybe even a radical degree of pleasantness. But that was meager stuff to offer the dear people who held some hope that I, Dulcie Ann Moken, sixty-one, might finally fall hard for a man, hard enough to marry.
After Helene died, Wes and I began meeting for cocktails and one of Helene's videos at her house- my house, now that it had been willed to me. We liked to match our drinks with our movies. I'd mix up whatever the cast happened to be knocking back. If it was Contagion, we had Gibsons; for Dicey Dame, Old Fashioneds; The Hebridean Horror called for a single-malt, neat.
I started making trouble for us, there on the sofa in the chill glow of the television. Like a shy pet, Wes's free arm had gradually developed a familiarity with me, and I discovered to my dismay that I felt annoyed. I went through the corny displays of boredom with which women fended off skinhounds in old movies. Exaggerated yawns. Repeated glances at my watch.
And yet beneath the briar patch of my irritation was an as-yet-unplumbed well of longing for a man, perhaps this particular man. As Helene says in What a Butte, her only Western, "My nether regions are willin', but my head says, 'Whoah!'"
Wes persisted, sweetly if not ardently. I had to wonder if Helene was the real draw. He loved to visit Bride's Haven and wander through the hushed rooms where she had spent the second half of her life. He was childishly delighted whenever I picked him up in Helene's Jaguar convertible. He seemed almost worshipful when I gave him a stack of Helene's old stills, her cleavage either deepened or airbrushed away depending on the whims of the publicity department.
Wes lived in the groundskeeper's cottage of an old cemetery. The curving driveway was lined with ferns and old statuary, the worn faces as featureless as bars of soap. The house might have been cute, given a lighter touch with the decor. Heavy drapes created a perpetual twilight, and the walls were painted the maroons and greens of contused flesh. I entered this sanctum like an ambassador from the world of the living, feeling inappropriately loud, perky, and for all I knew, smelly. Each room was monitored by a dozen or so formally posed photographs of Billie, looking wanly attractive. And, through some Darwinism of the dead, Helene's portraits were appearing where Billie's had been just the week before.
"Quite a gallery you've got going here," I remarked. We were in the living room, Wes had yet to offer me a cocktail, and I was unsettled by having all of those perfectly mascaraed eyes gazing at us.
Wes must have thought I was feeling left out. "Oh, you'll be up there on the walls, no question," he said.
"I guess I'm not in any big rush to join the club," I told him.
Wes stopped by my house with a file of old papers. He spread the contents over the breakfast table with a flourish and seemed to be waiting for a response. A pleasantly fusty smell came off the things as I picked through them. There was a timetable with the delicately scripted logo of a railroad. "The Delaware, Lackawanna and Western," I read aloud. There was a receipt for Fundocks' Tourist Home in Bramling, New York. A single room, six nights at three dollars a night. Plus eighty cents for ice. "Made out to a Henrietta Lancaster," I said. "That sounds like a name Helene would use on the road to avoid a lot of attention. She'd use a hell of a lot of room service ice as well."
"So, Dulcie, you'd agree that we have something of a mystery on our hands."
"Our mystery being--"
"Well, look at the dates."
"Nineteen fifty-four. A couple from early fifty-five."
"Correct," Wes said, nodding like a schoolmarm. "Which would place Helene where? According to Sullen Star, that out-of-print biography, she walked off the set of a cheesy film--"
"Shangri-la Nights," I said. "They tarted up some lake in the Poconos to look like Kashmir, if you can believe it. Little plywood houseboats, a painted backdrop."
"Exactly. And Helene supposedly ran off to her place in Sicily for a year in seclusion."
"Don't I know it," I said. "I was stuck here at the house to deal with a cranky coal furnace. Plus a maid who suddenly developed an allergy to dust. While Helene nibbled capers and artichokes at her place outside of Trapani."
"Wrong, Dulcie. I mean, you've got evidence right in front of you that says Helene was in upstate New York. Talented as she was, she couldn't have been in two places at once."
"Wes, there's absolutely no need to wave your hand around like there's a pointer in it."
"Sorry. It's just that I was so sure you'd want to know. Some writer has been up at the library archives, researching a book on the queens of film noir. A Priscilla Vernor, author of some slim thing on Veronica Lake, I think it was. Anyway, she was pawing through Helene's papers and David, a friend of mine up in archives, noticed she was on to something. He called to alert me, and I thought you'd be, well--"
"Fascinated? Swept back in time?"
"Well, yes. You were the victim of deceit. Helene vanished. Don't you wonder why?"
I unfolded the Lackwanna timetable. The station names seemed made up, like the towns in a Nancy Drew novel. Fiskville, Crawdon, Bramling. "You know how much I cared for Helene," I said. "We probably were the happiest couple of spinsters in the whole damned Hudson Valley. But does that mean I want to go around exhuming her little secrets? No thanks."
I was about to give Wes a conciliatory smile, when something caught my eye. In the margin of the timetable Helene had jotted down the name of a taxi company and a phone number, along with the words suet, soot, and suit.
Wes pointed to the script. "Her handwriting?"
I nodded. There was no mistaking it. The first I'd seen of those precise loops was the note inviting me to be her secretary. Helene had moved to Poughkeepsie to take a position as lecturer in Vassar's theater arts department, and she needed someone to handle her correspondence, her travel planning, her household staff of three. I met her while serving tea at a faculty social, and I must have mentioned something about being at loose ends after graduation that spring. A week or so later, the job offer came in the mail. I moved into the maids' quarters of Bride's Haven. And I was still there after Helene's death, preferring my monkish room to the suites with their view of the Hudson Valley.
"Maybe this is the pedant in me," Wes said, his chin tucked down in an apologetic manner that just missed being endearing, "but I'd love to see where this paper trail might lead us. To connect the dots-- train times, hotel addresses, period newspaper accounts, an interview or two--and see if they don't take us to Helene's missing year. My idea is we beat the hack author to Helene's secret. Then we sort of scuff leaves over the evidence. To obscure whatever went on back then so that this Vernor character can't sensationalize it."
Wes rubbed his hands, noticed what he was doing, and dropped them to his sides. "Dulcie, here's what I've been thinking. Let's say Helene was pregnant."
"You can say whatever you want, but Helene liked to joke that she produced fewer eggs than a rooster."
Wes was wordless for a moment. I had shocked him. "That remark doesn't sound worthy of Helene Lystra," he said.
"You met her when she was eighty-one, Weston."
"All right, but just let me try this on you. A pregnancy wasn't that easily aborted back then, would you agree? And a child out of wedlock would've made it impossible to revive her slumping career. Giving her no choice but to withdraw from the world to give birth." Wes shrugged, his hands palms up, as if to suggest the truth couldn't be more obvious.
"And not tell me? You're saying Helene spent the rest of her life here at Bride's Haven and didn't drop a hint? You underestimate our relationship, Wes. The two of us were tight. We had the mother-daughter thing and the best-buddies thing going for us. Sure, we dated, but we couldn't wait to get back home and sit at this very table and discuss the guy--."
I went on in this fashion for a good minute, insisting that a platonic, same-sex relationship could be multi-dimensional and rewarding. I'd delivered the same message so many times over the years, to family and old friends, that it must have sounded like a stump speech. As I spoke, I was picturing a little girl- I didn't even consider that there might have been a son-- with Helene's complex gray eyes, exquisitely formed nose, and auburn hair, scampering about the fields of upstate New York.
Wes was gathering his papers. The little smile on his face suggested he knew he'd hooked me, that I was intrigued. "So, indulge me a moment," he said. "If there was a child, he or she would be, what, what-- about forty-five?"
That gave me a jolt. I revised my image of the missing daughter to that of a woman in midlife. Tall, with an actress's assured way of moving across a room. Marked by the crow's feet that, on Helene, somehow had the effect of chrome chevrons on a sporty car. Possessed of the slightly weary aspect that Helene would slip on in public like a pair of sunglasses.
"And if nothing else we'd have a pleasant drive through a sleepy part of the state," Wes was saying. "We can take my car. Unless you think Helene's Jaguar would be up to the trip."
I pictured myself looking in the shop windows of Fiskville or Crawdon or Bramling and glimpsing the reflection of Helene's daughter in well-cut jeans and a workshirt. Guessing she has been identified, she ducks down an alley. Back stairs lead to an apartment, tidy and spare. On a table by a floor lamp, there is a typewriter. The woman is a lawyer's secretary by day and spends her evenings writing field guides to native orchids and obscure mosses--.
When Wes had gone, I fetched a highway map from the car and located the string of improbably named towns. We would need at least two days for the trip. Meaning a night in a little railroad hotel, if such things still existed. Make that two rooms, I'd pointedly tell the clerk. Adjoining, I might allow.
I packed a cooler with sandwiches and beers and put it in the back seat of the Jaguar, then picked up Wes. I drove, he navigated. It took us a couple of hours to reach the railroad track Helene had traveled decades before. The rails were rusted and wobbly. They meandered through the countryside as if they'd lost their sense of purpose. The air was thick and humid, making the hilly farm country look as flat and unconvincing as the background in a Renaissance painting.
Our first stop was Port Anne City. All the remained of the city, if it had ever been one, was a string of ancient sway-backed houses looking fiercely cheerful beneath their pastel vinyl siding.
"Wow, some port," I said.
"There was a canal through here at one time, so technically--"
"Well then, some city." To my own ears I sounded liked a bratty third-grader, refusing to be impressed by anything on a school trip.
Wes folded the road map with what appeared to be exaggerated patience. "Dulcie, the clues, when we find them, aren't likely to hit us over the head. A whiff, perhaps. Something glimpsed out of the corner of the eye."
Wes got out of the car and waded into the trackside weeds. He was wearing a crisply ironed khaki safari suit that Helene would have enjoyed mocking. She was unsparing of my escorts, as she called them. She chatted with them while I got my coat and purse and in that short time would have inventoried their failings. A lazy eye, a hint of pyorrhea. An ego like a house of cards, an annoying tendency to preen. I came to see men in the same way-- as flawed prospects. A couple of cold fish, we were known as, back before less-savory terms came along.
Across the tracks, several cows had spotted Wes and were approaching as far a strand of barbed wire would allow. They regarded him calmly on his walk back to the car.
As we drove off to the next station down the line, Wes sat silently picking the burred seeds off of his outfit. He seemed downcast. It was as if he and Helene and had arranged a trackside rendezvous and she stood him up. "Life is loss," he moaned at some point, followed by a theatrical sigh that made me want to laugh. Then I recalled the cows along the track. Couldn't I try offering Wes an unthinking, bovine sort of acceptance?
Wes directed me to take a left, another left, then still another. We seemed to be traveling in a circle. And Crawdon, when it appeared, looked exactly like Port Anne City from the opposite direction.
"Are you sure this is it?" I said. Kindly, and not as a challenge.
Wes muttered something unintelligible as he got out of the car. We hadn't had anything to eat that morning, and it occurred to me that hunger might be contributing to his funk. I turned in my seat and opened the cooler. The ice was melting, the sandwiches were afloat in their plastic bags, and my nose was tweaked by the unsavory reek of school lunchbox. It was only then that I noticed our overnight suitcases, tucked behind the seats. They looked like boxy, scaled-down representations of two lovers. Buoyed by that happy sight, I selected a couple of sandwiches and went looking for Wes. He was on the far side of an old warehouse, examining a small piece of rusted metal.
"Whatcha got there?" I asked, handing him a sandwich. "The remains of Helene's bustier?"
Wes ignored the question and lifted the top slice of bread to examine the insides.
"Scungilli and souse," I told him. "Sorry, but I was clean out of PB and J."
"You can't be serious." Wes gave the sandwich a sniff and, apparently satisfied that the filling was tuna salad, took a tentative bite.
I started in on my sandwich. Daintily, as I had learned to do around Wes. It seemed that gusto was not a quality he prized in women, and I occasionally remembered to oblige him. Helene and I had gotten rather slovenly over the years, dispensing with utensils for entire meals. We'd even knock back our Manhattans and Martinis straight from the chrome shaker, the liquid so cold that it made a small ache just above the heart.
"According to the timetable, she would have passed through here at 11:20 AM," Wes said between bites. "Just nine minutes ago."
"Just nine minutes with a few decades thrown in."
"And there was that odd little phrase she'd jotted down."
"Right. Suet Soot Suit. Like she was working on a crossword or playing Scrabble. Which she wouldn't have been, hating that sort of thing."
"Law suit," Wes said. "Maybe she was in legal trouble."
"Or zoot suit," I offered. "Maybe she skipped town to find a good tailor."
"Hardly likely," he said. "But suet is a byproduct of the butchering process. Maybe her sojourn had something to do with meat."
"You can't be serious, Wes." And so on. We continued free associating back in the car, succeeding only in irritating each other.
Cherebusco amounted to a siding in a nest of blackberry canes. Wes showed no interest in the place, so I got out of the car to stretch my legs. The blackberries were pale green nubbins, but I spotted some fully ripe wineberries and filled the two sandwich bags I found in my pockets. Helene and I would go berry picking each summer, it having been an important kid's chore on the farms where we grew up. In good berry years at Bride's Haven, we baked pies and used the surplus to make murky cordials that would stay corked until Christmas.
Wes shook his head when I offered a bag of berries. "Nibble one as a sacrament," I said. "Helene loved berries. They're practically the embodiment of her. We sit here and eat berries, and she is reborn." Silly talk, but around Wes there was no such thing as a throwaway remark.
"I wish it were so simple," he said with a rueful smile. "As a historian, you never really go mano-a-mano with your quarry. You peer down through the layers. Like when you're a child, skating. You get on your hands and knees and look down through the black ice to glimpse another world--"
"Funny, I thought you grew up in Nashville," I said. "I thought that to you, Weston Lee Clay, ice was something clinking around in a julep cup."
That was caustic even by my generous standards. I bit my tongue, hard enough that I yelped and tasted the metal of blood with the berries.
Of South Corfu nothing could be seen but a mobile home park, an old one in which the trailers looked like chubby space ships. There was a swath of Herb Robert growing in a hollow, and I got out of the car, alone, to pick some. The little flowers were just the right size to make a bouquet for the ashtray.
"Nice?" I asked, trying to get some response from my sulking companion.
"You picked them in Helene's memory? Sorry, but it seems we've missed her. It was foolish of me, thinking I would find something of her out in this blasted wasteland, in these addled towns."
"But I think you were on to something, Wes. That she came here to have her child, quietly, like a cat with her litter in a closet. Helene is gone, but what about the kid?"
"Everything seems so remote today, Dulcie. Just like paper research. I've spent my entire work life creating séances with the past. It can feel very immediate and convincing, for a while. 'A virtual group grope,' is the way somebody in the department described what we do, and I thought at the time he was trying to be amusing."
"Perhaps he was trying to make a point, amusingly," I offered.
"I'm not interested in interpreting mixed messages," Wes said grandly, ushering in another twenty miles or so of silence.
Mimm Junction still had its prim depot, but the building was now a kennel surrounded by a corral full of snarling dogs. Alford consisted of three large brick houses, nearly identical, like a trio of well-turned-out Victorian sisters. I got out of the car, crossed the tracks, walked down the short stretch of buckled sidewalk, and stood before the houses. They would have been inhabited when Helene passed through, but now their tall windows looked blankly out over the cornfields. No curtains, no sign of life within. Porch floors with holes punched through their rottenness, broken tree limbs perched atop roofs. The trim on each had been repainted at some time, only as high as the painter's extension ladder would allow. This demarcation looked like a waterline, as if the houses had witnessed a great flood that carried off their inhabitants. "Helene," I said out loud, experimentally. "Helene." The sounds didn't carry in the heavy air and felt more like thoughts than speech. "Helene?"
Some relationships operate with the playground mechanics of a teeter totter: to the extent that one partner slumps emotionally, the other is boosted upward. Here was Wes, glum as I'd never seen him, taking no notice of the passing farms and forest-topped hills, the maps and guidebooks and handwritten notes pooled around his feet. Whereas I felt as though we were driving back through time, so that our weekend mission might restore Helene to her healthy, youthful self.
Wes began fiddling with the Jaguar's radio, eliciting shrieks and whirs and comically disconnected shreds of country music. It was a short shelf-life marriage . . . Gone, long gone with some other one . . . This blowed-out heart . . . . To my knowledge, Helene had never listened to country, but she looked as though she might have sung it, with her large eyes, cute nose, pale skin, and lots of hair.
I began to cry, in a manageable way, keeping it to fitful snorts so that I could still see the road. Wes tentatively patted my knee.
"That's the first time you've touched me all day," I said.
"You've forgotten, Dulcie. I adjusted your barrettes. When we put the top down. Here, you need a tissue."
Late that afternoon we put the top up against a rain squall. The storm passed through in a hurry, rocking the car like a gentle amusement park ride, then left us with a clear sky for what was left of the day. Cute, cartoonish clouds careened about as if enjoying the last half-hour before bedtime. The low-angled sun caused the countryside to look almost surreally fulsome, the hills bulging as if about to burst into a fourth dimension. Rounder than round, realer than real. As we drove, the landscape's forms shifted like scrims and curtains, revealing remote farms and tiny settlements that a moment later would be occluded by another hill. I realized I was leaning forward in my seat, from suspense about what we might find around the next curve. Suet Soot Suit. The radio was off now, Wes appeared to be napping, and the words sang to me as I drove.
It was sundown when we reached Vanskoy, yet another pocket of insolvency and deferred maintenance. Wes started off along the tracks, head down, looking remarkably like a kid straggling home with a bad report card.
I went the other way, past a neglected string of houses with gingerbread trim hanging off them like soiled doilies. The fields to either side of the tracks were sloping down to a wooded valley of some sort, and soon I was even with the tops of the tallest trees. "Helene, oh Helene!" I called out. Just to be silly, and not in a gloomy Picnic-at-Hanging-Rock sort of way. "Come out, come out, wherever you are!"
A trestle came in sight, its girders the color of dried blood in the light of the setting sun. I stepped out onto the trestle, waiting for a sensible voice in my head to tell me to turn back. There was nothing between the ties now but blue air and then, far below, a sheet of fast-moving water, bottle green except where rocks tore it into white strands. I paused, allowed a spell of vertigo to pass. The air was cooler here, remarkably so. And fragrant, almost perfumey, like a woman with plans for the evening.
The rapids sent up an unending shout, and entwined with the sound there was the thread of something intelligible. Wes, it might be, calling my name. I went on, arms out for balance, kicking each moss-covered tie to make sure it would hold me.
If Wes calls for me again, I'll jump. A childish sort of self-dare, but it resounded in my head like a command. Was I capable of giving in to a wacky impulse? From below, the river roared like an excited crowd. I imagined my portrait on the walls of Wes's living room, joining those of the other women. My feet kept shuffling on, like a couple of eager Scotties out for their evening walk.
I made it to the far side of the trestle. My clothes were damp and my heart was beating so hard that my head bobbled. But I was delivered, I was safe.
I balanced on a rail. These parallel lines of steel were a conduit to Helene's daughter. Who would be awed by my description of Bride's Haven. And incredulous when I offered to share the place with her. The house, grounds. The impressive stock portfolio, too. Fifty-fifty. We would coexist as effortlessly as her mother and I had done.
Suet Soot Suit. And a taxi's phone number. If she was pregnant, she might have needed a ride to the baby doctor, a Dr. Suit.
By twilight, Bramling looked substantial and well kempt. Just now its citizens were in the process of folding up the place for the night. Homeowners disappeared into sheds with their lawn rakes and pruning loppers. Shopkeepers cranked up canvas awnings. Prim as a picture. We got a red light at what appeared to be the town's lone traffic signal, giving me a chance to look over an old brick hotel.
"Taproom," I said, reading a neon sign above the side door. "A beacon to the weary. Should we stop in?"
Wes followed me up the steps to the hotel lobby. It appeared to be empty except for a couple of old leather armchairs and a rack of brochures for area amusements, most of them having to do with caves on the mom-and-pop scale. Krystalline Kavern. Dubb's Secret Grotto. Wes dropped his bag on the floor with a conspicuous thump, and a young man's head appeared above the desk. He was prettily handsome, along the lines of Alain Delon. With what Helene used to call farmer's arms: as attractive as a couple of reclining odalisques, the biceps breast-plump.
"One night, two?" the clerk asked. He slid the car magazine he had been reading under a pile of papers. His smile, a slow and spreading thing, turned his little-boy dimples into manly creases, which placed him in his early thirties at least. His eyes were as intricate as old cut-glass doorknobs. Something about his artless expressions and gestures told me that he wasn't aware of his good looks. Hadn't learned to put them to use. Maybe Bramling was a town without mirrors. I looked around the sparely furnished lobby and saw none.
"Do the rooms have mirrors?" I asked, a question so peculiar that it made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. The clerk's smile faded, recovered. As I looked at him, waiting for a response, I realized that I also was suffering from zero blood sugar. The good wackiness I'd been enjoying had abandoned me. My hands were shaking, my voice unsteady. And I hadn't noticed what sort of accommodations Wes had asked for. He was trudging up the stairway without me, looking like Willie Lowman after a day of few prospects.
Suet Soot Suit popped into my head.
"By any chance," I said, "would you know of an obstetrician by the name of Suit? As in 'three-piece'?"
The clerk shook his head, still smiling. "Odd name, but you come across it. Hereabouts, now and then. You sick, or--"
"Or expecting?" I stood a little straighter. "No, doing just fine, thanks. And one more thing while I'm bothering you with odd questions. Would the old hotel registers still be around, going back to, say, nineteen fifty-four?"
The clerk reached into the desk and pulled out a sturdily bound book.
"Right at your fingertips," I said
"Well, this woman asked for it a couple days back. You folks all on a treasure hunt of some sort?"
"Something like that." I began paging through the register. "This woman, did she hang around town long?"
"Nope. Asked me to book her a room at a motel that night down in Norwich. That's the last we saw of her."
I scanned the names for October. "Here it is. Lisa Strata. Kind of a joke name my friend would use. A single for three nights. Giving her enough time to find something more permanent in town. Would you happen to be familiar with a tourist home run by the Fundocks?"
"Bramling doesn't have a tourist home I can think of. And nobody named Fundock, far as I know."
We stood there smiling. It wasn't a scene that could be stretched indefinitely. "Food," I said, gesturing towards an arched doorway marked Caboose Lounge. I raised an imaginary cocktail glass, pinky out. "Drink."
I put the odds of the handsome clerk following me wistfully into the cool, dark taproom at one in ten thousand, and he did not. The place apparently was deserted, although a line of wood booths extended around a corner and I couldn't be sure.
I took a stool at the bar. The backbar was done up like the end of a caboose, with little curtains in the windows and a couple of glowing railroad lanterns on either side. A remarkably small woman appeared through the door. Tiny but well proportioned. Fetching in a snug tanktop, her nipples the size of garden peas and as insistent as staring eyes.
"I'm Taffy and I'll be your server." Her voice was surprisingly sonorous, as if a robust woman had done a voiceover. "And your bartender and your only chance for company, looks like. This town goes to bed pretty early. Giving me loads of time to think up the worst possible bartender lines."
"Such as, 'I can write poetry but don't.' Taffy laughed. Rounded eyes and small teeth and a porcelain complexion gave her the look of an antique doll. "My brother said you might be wanting something to eat."
"Brother?" I leaned forward, squinting. In the low light I could now see the faceted jewels of her irises and an open smile that made me think of farms and big family kitchens.
"Half-brother, actually." The woman must have offered me a menu because there was one in my hands. After the standard hamburger variations it listed sauerkraut squash soup, sauerkraut salad, and chocolate sauerkraut cake.
"Remarkable," I said.
Taffy was tying on an apron that reached her toes. Picture Nova Pilbeam, the cute woman-child in Hitchcock's Young and Innocent. "I should explain," she said. "You've landed in the sauerkraut belt of the Northeast. Coming into town, did you notice the fields with their nice pale green rows? That's heads of cabbage, headed for the vats."
A seismic tremor was making the bottles on the backbar jiggle musically. Thunder, some ways off. And like one frog answering another, a freight train blew for a nearby crossing.
"Do you have anything potable that might go with the cake?" I asked.
Taffy thought for a moment. "Milk wouldn't do it, for sure. But, ruby
port--" She held up a bottle and when I nodded, poured me a glass. Then she went back into the kitchen and came out with a slice of cake and a book. It was a copy of Sullen Star.
"Where on earth did you dig up that relic?" I asked.
"Library down the street. Some writer was here asking about Helene Lystra and I got curious. You've read it?"
"I've read it, but only because I'm in it. Towards the end. I'm Dulcie Ann Moken. The devoted companion, I think I'm described as."
"Wow. Right. There's a lot about you."
"A modest role. In the book as well as in life. Helping her out was the only job I've ever had. She died just last year, you know."
"I saw that, looking her up on the Internet. I'm sorry."
"That's okay. Helene had a good run. With one possible wrinkle. It seems she came through here on a train. While everybody thought she was hanging out in Sicily. If you could look up Sicily in the index and read what it says--"
Taffy thumbed through the pages. "I guess this is it. 'Riddled with self-doubt and convinced that her star was dimming fast, Miss Lystra booked a slow boat to Naples and attempted to resuscitate herself with the wines and no doubt the obliging rustics of the Sicilian campagna.--'"
"I hate that, the way biographers reduce a person to a bundle of appetites. Anyway, it's my guess that she came here to have a kid out. Out of wedlock. Telling no one."
Thunder rumbled melodramatically and the lights above the bar flickered.
"Oh, man," Taffy said. "I should go around and hand out flashlights to the guests upstairs. All three of them, not counting you. But I'd rather pour myself a port and talk. So, you're here looking for clues?"
"That's how the day began for Wes- the man upstairs- and me. But when we didn't find any real evidence, Wes- he's a history professor- plunged into this vocational sort of depression, I guess it would be. Whereas I'm hot to see where the trail goes. I keep flashing back to Helene as she was back in the fifties. Fiery, funny, just plain great to be around. Or maybe it's Helene's child I'm closing in on. Who'd be about the age Helene was when she disappeared. I'm probably delusional from driving around all day with the wind in my face, but I get the sense that the daughter, if it was a girl, is living somewhere around Bramling."
Taffy raised the aperitif glass to her nicely curved lips, and in her hand it looked like a dollhouse goblet. "Wouldn't flabbergast me," she said. "There's this local saying, 'Born in Bramling is buried in Bramling.' My friends talk about the town like it's a vortex, some horrible spiral pulling them back in."
"I meant to ask. Have you ever heard of a doctor named Suit? I'm not sure of the spelling, but there's a chance that Helene was looking for him."
"I remember people mentioning an old veterinarian by that name, when I was a kid and we had horses."
"Would he deliver children, if the need came up?"
"Oh, you'd hear about a vet doing that, if the mom was living way out and the snow was too deep for the regular doctor. And then the family would have to put up with people asking, 'You got your heifer started on hay yet?'"
"So there's a chance this vet named Suit--"
"--could be the man you're looking for, but I imagine he would have died a good while back. So, you're thinking Helene gave birth, then went back home and just resumed her life?"
"Seems that way. You'd guess an experienced actress might be able to pull that off without anyone realizing what was going on. And I'm assuming Helene's child grew up not knowing who her mother was, because the heirs didn't include anyone who could have been a family member."
Taffy squinted her eyes and tapped her forehead, looking like the young Bonita Granville in one of the Nancy Drew serials, about to hatch a plan. "You might check birth records down at the county seat in Norwich."
"That's probably where the writer was headed. We could go there on Monday, if Wes is up to it, but for now I'd like to just walk around town with my eyes open. Helene was so striking that you'd think her child would be marked in some way. The daughter might even be a mom with teenagers, I suppose. Who knows what I'll find?"
"If you want to stay a while, you should take the bridal suite off the side of the hotel. It's away from the tracks, there's a big bay window, and you'd each have a bathroom."
"Well, Taffy, there's just me. What I mean is, Wes and I are friends. Or, we were until leaving Poughkeepsie this morning. I barely recognized the sad guy who walked into the lobby with me. All day long he was coming out with, 'Life is loss,' and 'They are forever out of reach.'" Kind of like a doomsday preacher, but without any zip to the delivery."
"So, he knew Helene well?"
"Only as an old woman in a nursing home. Although you'd never guess it because his house is full of photos of the two of them."
"Sorry. And Billie, his wife. She went with him to Southeast Asia a few years ago. Returned home feeling ill. Overnight some vital gland liquified."
"So maybe the man upstairs-- Wes, I mean-- hoped to make some kind of contact with Helene today, and when that didn't work out he slipped back into thinking about his wife. Most people are like that, it seems. Something shakes them up-- finances, an accident, even winning the lottery-- and they revert back to a default mode, to an earlier way of being."
"Gee, pretty nifty analysis. You should do this sort of thing for a living."
"I do some investigating." Taffy topped off our glasses of port.
"I see. Professionally, or--"
"Observation, evidence collection. Up in Utica, Syracuse. I have a wardrobe of preteen outfits that allows me to snoop around without anybody noticing- except a preteen, of course, and I avoid the little bastards like poison." Taffy laughed easily, and I joined in. Dreamy and languid from the port and cake, I leaned on the bar, watching Taffy go through her bartender's precise tasks with small, deft hands.
"A case might not require it," she was saying, "but I like to come up with my own ideas on what's going on and why. Which means learning something about that earlier version of the person. Wes as a married man, for example. I've begun to think we're all walking around with our own doppelgängers just out of sight. They're always there waiting for a chance to come back in and take over. Which could be good, like an artist who connects with the kid-like joy of drawing and painting. Or it could be bad. Slipping back into some yucky dried-out skin you'd sloughed off years ago."
I shivered, suddenly conscious that my skin felt stiffened from riding around in the convertible all day. There was an enormous clap of thunder. The lights dimmed, then went out altogether. Taffy disappeared in the darkness and the beer coolers whirred into silence. Behind me, venetian blinds chattered with a cool rain-scented gust.
I said, "You know, at first glance I imagined you might be connected to Helene. That you might be the daughter. Of course, there's no way you could have been born in nineteen fifty-five, I guess it would have been. I mean, is there? Or, how about a granddaughter, which would make it nineteen eighty, maybe eighty-five--"
Taffy's laugh, when it came in the dark, was a wispy warbler song. Not at all like Helene's throaty chortle.
I laughed, too. There was the sound of water in a sink, joined outside by the first spatters of rain.
"You still there?" I asked.
"Yes," Taffy said. Then, closer, "Yes, right here." Her face materialized before me as she lit two candles and placed them in brass holders. She put one candle on a tray, along with the bottle of port and our glasses. "And now," she said, handing me the other candle, "let's head upstairs and check out the bridal suite."
# # #
Suet Soot Suit
This story was adapted from my as-yet-unpublished novel, Helene Lystra. By choosing an older female narrator, I hoped to somewhat disengage my ego from the first-person voice. The piece appeared in The Southern Review.