By the middle of May both the house on Lake Waseka and Megan were looking much better. Even several visits from Louise couldn’t bring Megan’s spirits down as she anticipated the summer, and Louise definitely tried to put the kibosh on their plans. Louise steadfastly insisted she would not join them. If they wanted Grandma Berkey at the lake, they’d have to find someone other than Louise to deliver her.
There was very little left to do in the house and Charley went ahead of Meg to see it done. John had agreed to help Meg pack, make sure she had her medication and drive her and her luggage north to the lake. He wanted to be there on weekends whenever possible. There were just the finishing touches, things that Melissa had offered to take care of but Charley wanted to do herself. In fact, Melissa had come close to begging, but Charley insisted. Charley’s hands-on involvement in fixing up the place had been pretty limited and she looked forward to adding the accessories she’d shopped for in the city. She had fluffy towels, crisp sheets, thick rugs, soaps and creams, place mats and napkins, comforters and down pillows. She bought a set of eight wineglasses and as many tumblers and cocktail glasses.
After putting her new purchases in the house, Charley lit off for the nearest large grocery to stock up, looking forward with great longing to the summer days when the farmers would begin to put their fresh vegetables out on roadside stands.
She settled in, smoothing sheets over the mattress in the master bedroom, shaking out and putting down fluffy rugs in bathrooms, in front of the door and kitchen sink, beside the beds. The new down pillows almost hugged her back when she squeezed them. Everything was in place before the sun lowered in the sky and she took a glass of wine onto the porch, sat in one of the chaises with her feet up and began to do what Megan had been doing—remembering the summers that were filled with laughter and fun.
It wasn’t hard when she focused. When it was just them—the girls—it was carefree and filled with pleasure. It wasn’t harmonious every second, of course. Six little girls could squabble and bicker, especially when the rain forced them inside, but their conflicts were short-lived. They just enjoyed the heaven that escape to the lake provided. They loved to spy on their mothers late at night. Getting caught was almost as much fun as the spying, which never turned up much besides gossip about their marriages. They had swimming races and diving contests. Since they spent so much time in the lake they hardly ever took baths. In fact, they washed their hair in the lake. Aunt Jo would give them a bottle of shampoo to take to the lake every few days. They had an old outdoor shower at the boathouse but they used it sparingly because the water was freezing.
Her cell phone rang and she held her breath when she saw it was Michael. She prayed they wouldn’t fight. “Hi,” she said. “I was just thinking about you. I just got here this afternoon. The place is all put together and I’m by myself.”
“Where’s Meg?” he asked.
“John’s bringing her in a few days. I wanted to come ahead, make sure it was clean and comfortable and stocked with healthy food.”
“John’s okay with her spending the whole summer at the lake?” he asked.
“He’s planning to come on the weekends. But how are you?”
“Ready for the semester to end,” he said. “Listen, I hope you’ll take this as good news. Eric was able to get a slot in an exchange program at Cambridge. He’s coming with me in September.”
“Oh, Michael,” she said. “Is he happy about that?”
“He’s ecstatic. Of course, all he can talk about is the fact that he won’t be staying with me. He’s planning on staying in a student flat. But we’ll be in the same city. And I’ll be able to check on him.”
I wonder where I’ll be, Charley thought. “Both of you gone? I don’t know if I can stand it.”
“Charley, you’re gone,” he reminded her. “You can come with us, you know.”
“You know that depends on a lot of things, mostly Meg.”
“And how is our Meg?” he asked.
“She’s looking so much better. And she’s stronger. I’m filled with hope. But she’s thin and still needs two naps a day, so...”
“I’ll bring Eric in the summer,” Michael said. “In fact, I can’t wait.”
At least he didn’t say he’d send Eric. “I wish you could see it right now,” she said. “School isn’t out yet so the lake is still quiet. You can hear a fish jump now and then. Someone will whistle for a dog or maybe shout the dog’s name. No speedboats but the occasional putter of a motor on a bass boat out in the big lake. It’s so peaceful. Restful. Good for thinking.”
“I’m sorry Meg’s illness was what took you away, but after the shitty way your year started out, this might be just what you need. Has Louise reared her ugly head?”
Charley laughed. “Oh, yes. She tried saying she wouldn’t allow us to come here, but when Meg said she’d have to call the police and arrest us, she tried other tactics. She won’t be joining us. We’re not at all sad about that. But guess who says she’s coming? Hope. She says so, anyway.”
“She says she’s not sure if she’s ready for that much reality.”
“It might be just the two of you all summer,” Michael said.
“I’m perfectly all right with that idea,” Charley said. “Being here alone I tried to remember all the good things that happened when we were children. That’s what Meg’s been doing. It turns out it’s not that hard to do. I’m remembering so much.”
“Too much?” he asked. Because of course Michael knew about that summer romance that went awry, leaving her an unwed mother.
“Actually, I’m remembering that last summer more kindly now. Do you know what never occurred to me at the time? In fact, it didn’t occur to me until very recently. My summer love who ran for his life when he found out my grandfather was a judge—he might’ve been afraid of a statutory rape charge. I was sixteen. He was nineteen. We both lied about our ages. And he said he was from the city, but I heard from one of the other waiters that he wasn’t—he was a local kid. If I’d been near here when I found out I was pregnant I could’ve tracked him down, but I wasn’t, and then they sent me away. When I made contact with Andrea seven years ago, all I could tell her about her father was that he was nineteen and he’d said he was Mack but that wasn’t his real name.”
“You could ask around now,” Michael said.
“You think he could still be around after twenty-seven years?” she said. “Maybe after I’m here a little while.” But what she didn’t want to say, what she couldn’t quite say, was how she still found it so embarrassing. She was made to feel humiliated by the way she was sent away. Thinking about facing the locals to say there was a man out there who should know he has a child who was now twenty-seven, married, with children of her own, was intimidating. Yes, the sophisticated talk show host might be able to spit out something like that in the big city, but out here in the small farm towns, facing old-fashioned Methodists who went to church every Sunday was different. Feeling like a fool had always been her weak spot.
But she vowed she would try. After she got used to the idea.
* * *
The next day Charley put her iPod in the speaker bay she’d brought along and, to the comforting strings of Vivaldi, she folded freshly laundered towels and put them in the linen closet. She hung two fluffy yellow towels in the bathroom. It had been such a relief to sleep amid smells of lemon oil and pine needles rather than the motel’s economy disinfectant that bore a ghastly resemblance to cheap talc.
She went to make a pot of coffee. Just as she turned on the machine she caught sight of something out of the corner of her eye. She was drawn to the kitchen window for a closer look. There was a young girl sitting across the lawn in one of the freshly painted chairs that Melissa had put out in the yard. She had a small suitcase on each side of the chair. For a second Charley almost felt like she was looking at a memory; the girl’s hair was stringy, her jeans ratty, her T-shirt ragged and grayish, her jacket a cheap, dated corduroy. With a closer look, she realized it was not a girl, but a woman. A small, familiar woman.
“Krista,” she whispered. “What the hell?”
When they were little girls, aged one through six, they looked like towheaded clones, but as they grew older they each took on more individual characteristics. Charley was tall, her face angular, her hair a dark auburn, while Megan was only five-three and when she’d had hair their mother had called it dishwater blond. She hadn’t seen Krista in a long time, a couple of years since she’d visited her in prison. In fact, Charley had only visited her a handful of times the whole twenty-three years. But from the distance of one hundred yards she looked the same as she had the last time she’d seen her, her brows thick and straight, her hair that nondescript and shapeless brown, her mouth harshly set. She was Megan’s height and probably didn’t weigh a whole hundred and fifteen pounds.
Charley wondered, not for the first time, what kind of baggage prison would leave Krista with. She could have visited her more often. But she hadn’t. The whole experience of visiting Chowchilla had been so horrid.
It was odd the way she sat out there, watching the house. What was she doing here? Meg had sent her a note telling her the lake house would be open from June through August but it wasn’t yet June. And Krista was supposed to be in prison, for God’s sake. Last Charley had heard, she wasn’t even eligible for parole.
It was sunny but chilly outside. Charley shivered and found her heaviest sweater. She turned on the oven to begin to warm up the place, then on the spur of the moment opened a can of biscuits, tucked them into a pan, covered them with butter, sugar and cinnamon and popped them in the oven. But the cold air, smell of coffee and hot cinnamon biscuits and sounds of music hadn’t drawn Krista to the porch.
Well, Charley decided, she’s having trouble with this. So I’ll have to bring her in and get her story, find out what she expects of me. I’ve done that for a living for years.
Charley tucked a woven lap blanket under her arm, poured two steaming cups of coffee and went out into the yard. Krista watched her cautiously as she approached but she didn’t move. She neither rose to greet her cousin, nor did she bolt.
Charley knelt before her, placing both coffees on the ground. She unfurled the blanket and wrapped it like a shawl around Krista’s shoulders. Then she placed a warm mug in Krista’s hands. “Krista, why are you sitting out here? Did you escape?” she asked.
“Really?” Charley said with a sarcastic laugh.
Krista’s lips moved into a smirk. “Once I got here, I realized you might not be happy to see me. I was giving you a chance to send me away.”
“Why would I do that?”
“Because I’m a convicted murderer, maybe?” Krista replied with sarcasm of her own.
Charley put on her impatient interviewer face. “I know you didn’t murder anyone, Krista. How’d you get out?”
“A miracle. Some big-shot lady lawyer got me out. I stopped believing something like that was possible a long time ago.”
“That’s a relief. I’m glad I don’t have to harbor a fugitive.” Krista made a face and Charley smiled. “Wanna come in? Or you wanna sit out here by yourself?”
“So you’re okay with this, then? Me being here?”
“I’m not afraid of you, Krista. I think in all fairness I should be asking you if you’re okay with me being here. We haven’t even talked in a couple of years. And I wasn’t able to do anything to help you. Aside from some letters, I was hardly any support to you while you were in prison...and I knew you didn’t deserve to be there.”
“Oh, I don’t even think about that, Charley,” Krista said slowly, getting to her feet. “I mean, first of all, I did deserve to be there—just maybe not for the reasons they said. And second, I wasn’t much help to you, either, as I recall. I don’t think you had it that much easier than me.”
Charley’s head slowly tilted to one side as she listened to Krista. This woman had just come out of twenty-three years of hard time while Charley had been considered a minor celebrity making lots of money. Yet she had sympathetic words for Charley. It was almost unheard of that anyone would express such a kindness to her, especially a member of her family. That her success had come at great labor and sacrifice was irrelevant to most people. She was unaccustomed to genuine concern for her feelings.
She bent to pick up one of the two small suitcases. “How’d you like a nice hot soak in our new bathtub?”
“That would be so cool,” Krista answered. “You just have no idea how cool.”
* * *
Charley gave two taps on the bathroom door before entering. The bubbles were high, nearly covering Krista’s head. Charley picked up the empty coffee cup and replaced it with a new one. “This is Amaretto Crème,” she said. “With a little dollop of whipping cream on top for good measure.”
“I don’t drink.”
“It’s just the flavor—no booze. Krista, I have to say something quick before I lose my nerve. And I don’t think there’s any way to preserve your dignity when I say it.”
“Go ahead, babe. I don’t have hardly any dignity.”
“I peeked in your suitcase. The stuff you brought with you...your clothes. The underwear and jeans? It’s no good. You have to let me replace it all for you. With new stuff.”
“You don’t have to do that.”
“Yes, I do. Orphans in third-world countries have better underwear than you. I’ve spent more on lunch...many times...than it would cost to buy a few new outfits for you to wear this summer. And you’ll need a bathing suit.”
“Gee, we were all girls at the last place I lived, so when we went to the beach, we just skinny-dipped,” Krista said, laughing harshly.
“Maybe some nightclothes. You obviously don’t need nightclothes or robes or slippers in prison.”
“Shower thongs, Charley. Not slippers.”
“Well, you need slippers and beach thongs. Flip-flops.”
“Charley,” Krista said.
“And we’ll get you a decent haircut in Brainerd, if you like.”
“This is so much how I pictured you, Charley. A perfectionist. Throwing money at everything.”
“Please, I don’t mean to hurt your pride, Krista. I just want to help. I want you to be comfortable and feel safe. Don’t deny me the pleasure of—”
“Oh, don’t worry, I won’t deny you your pleasures. I don’t do things to hurt myself anymore,” Krista said, raising her arm high above her head and watching the soap suds run slowly down. “Spend as much on me as you want, Charley.” She laughed. “I didn’t have time to stop at Victoria’s Secret on my way out of Chowchilla. And my beautician was all tied up.”
“Who cut your hair in prison?” Charley asked.
“Whoever could be trusted with scissors. It was usually a guard. But we did have a little beauty shop there, if you use the term loosely.” She sank down in the tub, letting the water and bubbles cover her head. She rose up again. “Way loosely.”
“Well, for right now you can wear some of my stuff.”
This made Krista laugh. “Really, Charley, I can get by for the time being. All right?”
Charley left the bathroom and came back directly with some underwear and and a pair of soft white socks. She dangled them toward Krista, then put them down on the closed toilet lid and left.
“Charley?” Krista called. “When do you expect the phone to be hooked up?”
“Couple of days. Why?”
“I haven’t called my mom yet. I never really believed I was going to get out so I didn’t tell anyone what was happening. I just came straight here.”
“I have a cell...you can call her whenever you want...”
“Maybe in the morning, then. And, Charley?” The sound of the drain gulping bathwater accompanied Krista’s yelling. “I have to check in with my parole officer in Grand Rapids...it was the best I could do... Do you suppose...?”
“I’ll take you there myself. I’ll be your sponsor here.”
“I don’t think I need a sponsor. But, Charley? Oh! Oh, Charley! Oh, my God!”
Charley rushed to the bathroom. There stood Krista, her skin pink from the hot water, wearing Charley’s cotton underwear and matching undershirt. Bright soft whites. Krista was running her hands up and down her sides, over her little rump, around her hips, over her little breasts. “Oh, Charley, these are the most wonderful things I have ever had on my body!” she said with reverence. “I will never take them off!”
“Yeah, well, I think that’s what happened to the last ones.”
* * *
They had to share a bed, Charley told her, because they had only the one mattress so far with two more being delivered. And there was only the one heating pad to keep them warm. Fortunately, there were plenty of quilts and comforters and pillows. “Just like our mothers used to do,” she said. Charley took the flavored coffee and hot cinnamon biscuits to the bedroom on a tray and they nibbled and sipped while they talked.
“Tell me what prison was like,” Charley said.
“Oh, not now,” Krista said, sinking back against the down pillows. “Just let me smell and feel these things. Charley, your life is so rich, do you know that?”
She picked up her coffee cup, warming her hands with it, and smiled. She did know. She worked hard for it—she appreciated every moment of it.
“Do you smell all these smells? The lotion and pine and linen and soap...soap that isn’t lye, I mean. The dirt and the lake and the...the...furniture polish?” she asked.
“Yes. And varnish,” Charley said. “I had the hardwood floors sanded and varnished.”
“There’s paint and wallpaper paste and lemon oil.” She closed her eyes and twitched her nose in the air. “There’s vanilla somewhere, some sweet-smelling cleaning fluid. The smell of brand-new muslin and ages-old cotton...what a great combination.”