Split Estate

A Novel

Charlotte Bacon

Picador

Excerpt

In April, the second woman jumped. “It happened again,” was all Cam told Arthur.

“Oh God,” Arthur said into the receiver. He had his palm on his forehead; the light angled in a golden wedge across his desk, his papers. Dust sharpened to particles of gray diamond. The news about Laura had created the same terrible brilliance. He’d also found out by phone, and again the day, which had been pressing steadily forward, had snapped as inevitably as bad rope.

“Mrs. Van Buren,” his son said. “The mother of this kid in eighth grade.” He was trying hard to school his voice to calmness. “We knew her.” A face swam into Arthur’s mind. Someone in a plaid taffeta shirt at Christmas parties. Cheeks round as plates. “I’ll be right there, I’ll leave now,” Arthur said, gathering pens, fumbling at the lock on his briefcase.

As he swayed uptown on the subway with all the other dark-jacketed men, New York seemed a failed, grimy detour. Arthur had rarely felt more than lightly tethered here. Laura, another transplant, had also appeared bemused to find herself in the city, surrounded by its particular abundance. “The Philharmonic,” she’d say. “We could go to the symphony,” as if it were a slight surprise that this resource existed so close by.

New York had merely been the setting in which Arthur tended his family and earned the money that kept them housed, fed, sustained. A stage, while the real life, the secret life amid his wife and children unfolded in a maze of jokes and dinners, moods and arguments, a life tied not so much to location as to gesture, scraps of memory, the shape of the kitchen taps, and the quality of light in the bedroom.

But then Laura had jumped, and the one part of the city about which he’d claimed intimate knowledge proved to be fatally unfamiliar. He never said “after Laura died”: “jump” was the verb his mind selected, as if the soft exhalation of “died” were too tranquil or passive. “Jump” was all decisive, smashing action.

New York, city of water, was in the end a bad match for a person raised in a desert. But in Wyoming, where he was born, he’d be able to keep an eye on his children. They would need to be driven to and from school. In Callendar, they’d be unable to slip out of his grasp below the city’s surface, lost in its knots of tunnels. They’d have no use for cell phones out there where towers stood miles from one another. Lucy, his mother, a consummate watcher, would join him in this dry vigilance. Despite weather dedicated to extremes, its guns and rattlesnakes, the West at that moment seemed a safer place to raise children. Mostly, it was a spot that held less of Laura and more of Lucy, who had chosen to wind her life into one small town. It was not that Wyoming hadn’t changed, but it was where what was left of his family had decided to be a known and visible part. His name scratched the dirt there.

Arthur had lived in Callendar until he was fourteen and went back every August to visit Lucy, who still owned a house among the miles of fence parceling the rounded land to squares, amid falcons and meadowlarks, elk and sky. He knew this was at best a partial image. Golf courses now carpeted scrubland, condominiums and box stores bulked into the narrow valleys. Even so, he had been edging his way toward a return since Laura’s death. He would take his children back this summer; they would stay for at least the fall. An advertisement offered him a chance to repair a torn earlobe. The doors sprang open at Lexington and Eighty-sixth Street, and he and all the other whites leaped to the platform.

Aboveground, the light was full, wet, soft, far greener than the day in October, near Halloween, when his wife had launched herself from a tenth-story window and landed on the canopy before finishing her fall to the sidewalk. She’d left no note. Again and again, he raked through the details of that morning. He could picture Laura flicking a match to make the unreliable pilot light burn steady. The bones of her wrist pressed like triangular pearls against the skin as she poured orange juice. Nothing different. Nothing as it had not been for month after month. He’d allowed himself to think her well. Some balance for the moment achieved. There’d been no special look the day she died, no extra pressure to her touch. As if the thought to leave had struck her for the first time a little later that day, as casually arrived at as a choice of shoes. But little was casual with Laura, not shoes, not notes, not anything.

At the apartment, he found Cam balled on the sofa, his long body nearly swallowed in velvet. A piece of furniture that Laura used to say ate change, magazines, cats. “But we don’t have cats,” their daughter, Celia, would say, insisting on literal truth to a mother who preferred the curve of story over bald accuracy. Now, with Laura gone, Cam said from the cave of the cushions, “They’re going to think she started it. People will think it’s her fault.”

Arthur sat on the arm of the sofa and noticed how worn the treads of his son’s sneakers were. He would take him this weekend and buy three new pairs. Arthur touched his son’s ankle and its breadth and hair surprised him. When had Cam developed the foot of a man? “Buddy, can I get you something?” Cam shook his head. Arthur saw that lint had gathered in a fine pelt below the coffee table. The apartment smelled as if they had already left, as if it were already empty. Nearby, perhaps across the hall, a neighbor started to fry an onion. A radio was switched to news, and voices spoke above the static of the day’s  events.

Celia would be home any moment, and soon they heard the click of the elevator in the hall, the sound of her feet. The light slicing the blinds caught her glasses and reflected a pair of burning disks. She jerked back from the doorknob; she hadn’t expected them. Always alert to any indication of change, she’d told Arthur nothing had appeared strange to her either, the morning Laura died. She’d seemed the same as always, a little tired, a little distracted, Celia said. Arthur had understood. You never knew. There was a great deal he hadn’t known about. Opening the bathroom cabinet in early November to find aspirin, he’d found himself fumbling instead among his wife’s medicines. The pills made cheerful clicks in their plastic tubes. She hadn’t taken any in weeks. He could not have determined the precise ratio of rage to sadness as he crushed the vials to orange fragments beneath his heel. She had seemed well, he kept telling himself. Her hands smelled of fixer, a sign she was working, a sign that she was fine. She had bought new lenses. There’d been no need for special vigilance. But apparently there had.

“What happened, Dad?” Celia asked now. “Why isn’t Cam at practice? Why are you home?”

“This woman jumped,” Cam said. “Mrs. Van Buren.” His voice was rough, as if from disuse. Celia dropped her book bag. The impact made the aglets of Arthur’s laces jump and tap the tooled leather of his shoes. Laura had taught him that word years ago. She had enjoyed how specifically names attached themselves to things. It seemed incredible to him that someone could care that much about a slender bit of language, a piece of inconsequential metal, and then decide to leave. “Arthur,” his mother had told him one bad night, “you have to remember that when Laura was happy, she loved the world.”

“Jesus,” Celia said, moving out of the banded light. “It’s catching, I knew it was catching.” Out of the sun, her eyes were huge below her glasses. She refused contacts. Her father worried no one would ever ask her to dance. “But I’m not a good dancer,” Celia had said.

As the day faded, Arthur ordered Chinese food. Laura had been frugal, hating the waste of plastic forks and wads of napkins that arrived with takeout. When she could be coaxed into it, she saved the duck sauce in a corner of a kitchen drawer, which was crackling now with the packets. Since Laura’s death, nothing prevented them from eating like this most nights. It was one of their more obvious betrayals. Arthur used the novelty as a bribe. He could lure his children to dinners during which he could watch them for signs of despair. Calzones, he would say. Thai tonight, and they would abandon friends and schoolwork and the computer and sit with him at the table and eat greasy, delicious food and talk of very little.

The cartons left damp squares on the white cloth, and the humidity might have damaged the wood below. The children spooned heaps of fragrant rice onto their plates. They were silent as they ate, Cam and Celia deft with chopsticks. Arthur’s resolve to leave New York wavered as he watched them at their familiar places at the table. But as he began to talk, the spell he wanted to cast on them netted his own imagination instead. The blunt, unpeopled land. The single area code. Animals and wind. He knew he was leaving out a great deal. And they were less susceptible to western dreams than those who had tried in part to live them. His voice was the voice he hoped for in opposing counsel, one of hollow, ringing confidence. His argument was thin as well. Still, he could feel unwinding in himself a fiery thread of desire to be done with city life, looped instead around something fierce and open.

The children stopped eating. He always thought of them this way, as “the children,” in a brace, inseparable, the word he and Laura had always used, lumping them together. They’d arrived only a year and half apart and looked so much alike, hazel-eyed and lanky, their mother’s genes stamping them more firmly than his own. But Arthur had seemed to miss the interval between their childhood and this new stage. They had learned to hold their height. At fifteen and seventeen, they were on the brink of a self-possession most adults did not have. Yet they were still learning to conjugate verbs for languages used in countries they had never visited.

“Have you talked to Lucy?” Celia asked. When the children were little, Lucy had asked that they call her by her first name; “Grandma,” she said, made her feel prematurely withered, and soon Arthur, too, was on a first-name basis with his mother. Celia nudged a noodle around her plate. Cam was churning a plastic sack of soy sauce to brown froth.

“Not yet,” Arthur admitted. He had no idea what Lucy would say. She had come when Laura died, and it was clear as always that she had no patience for New York, for its urgencies and glossy surfaces. She had stayed three weeks, been effortlessly competent. Cam and Celia had followed her like anxious cats. But living with Lucy, not just for part of the summer, but living with her rules, her chores, would be something else entirely. “She’ll be glad to have us. We can start with her. We can see how it goes.” He felt none of the casualness his words aimed to capture.

Cam leaned back in his chair, squeezing the soy sauce as he did so. “You think that’s going to solve it, Dad?” he said, though he obviously expected no response. He pressed the packet so tightly that it burst with a soft gush on the white tablecloth. “That is one lousy idea.” He made no attempt to arrest the stain. He sat there holding the small empty sack. Celia looked down, at the table, at her food.

Arthur watched the dark spot assume first the shape of a ragged quarter moon and then a hand with missing fingers. His son’s rejection rang in the air. He thought, I must remain calm. He had had to for so long—the compromise arrived at in his marriage, vestigial wildness traded because reliability was what Laura required. But now something scandalously direct and unparental emerged, as if a feral dog were loose inside him. He said, “You know why I want to go? Because I can’t stand walking past that part of the sidewalk. And now there’s another one. I cannot watch that all over again.” It didn’t matter that he’d spoken slowly and not in anger. He’d spoken in raw wonder at the extent and tenacity of his own pain, which he had tried to mask from his children—fruitlessly, it turned out.
 

Excerpted from Split Estate by Charlotte Bacon. Copyright © 2008 by Charlotte Bacon. Published in February 2008 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Published by Picador in January 2009. All rights reserved.