July 31, 2013

Sneak Peek:  Secrets & Sins

Kenosha, Wisconsin, March 2010
Julia, wearing a surgical gown, sat up in bed in her cubicle in the preoperative area of the local hospital, a cell phone held to her ear. “I love you, too, Melvin,” she said to her husband of fifty-four years. “And I’ll be back home just as soon as they discharge me. All right, sweetheart.” She held the phone in front of her and clumsily depressed the End button with a finger bent from arthritis, then handed it to her eldest daughter, Faye. “Thanks, dear. I promised your father I’d talk to him before they put me under.”
Faye shuddered. “Mama, I wish you wouldn’t use that expression. It’s creepy.”
“Oh, come on. You know what I mean. It’s only a colonoscopy. You’re a nurse, for heaven’s sake.”
Robin, Julia’s younger daughter, chimed in. “When you talk about being put under, Mama, it sounds like you’re about to be buried.”
“In that case allow me to clarify,” Julia said, laughing. “Before they put me under anesthesia, not in the ground. It’s only a colonoscopy.”
“Good morning, Mrs. Cheeks.” A nurse greeted Julia as she pulled aside the curtain and entered the cubicle. “I’ve got a pill for you to take to put you to sleep for the procedure.”
“I’m all set,” Julia announced. “I figure the sooner they get started, the sooner I can get home.” She swallowed the pill with a sip of water, then leaned back on the gurney against the pillow. “I do hope Scott will get to the house and sit with your father,” she said, obviously worried. “He’s not there yet.”
“He’ll be there, Mama,” Faye assured. “And Daddy’ll be all right if Scott is a little late. His Parkinson’s isn’t so bad where he can’t manage, and I know he might be a little forgetful, but it’s not like he won’t remember why you aren’t there, or to forget to turn off the stove when his egg is done.”
“Yes, I suppose you’re right. I’d just feel better if I knew he weren’t alone in the house, so I hope Scott doesn’t let me down.”
“He probably just had a date last night or something,” Robin offered.
Julia sighed at the thought of her only son. “Yes, I understand he has a lot of ‘dates.’” Her droll tone made it obvious that she considered ‘date’ a euphemism for ‘bed partner.’ Sometimes I think the older he gets, the more irresponsible he becomes. I can’t believe he left a wonderful wife to go out and sleep with a different woman every night of the week. He should come to his senses and beg Lynn to take him back…not that she’d take him after the way he treated her. All I can hope for is to live long enough to see him settled down with some other nice girl.”
“You’re not going anywhere, Mom,” Robin said. “And as for Scott, he’s just having a midlife crisis.” She grunted. “I guess he and Avaughn started theirs at the same time.”
For a moment silence hung heavily in the air. The topic of Robin’s ex-husband, whom she’d divorced after fifteen years of marriage once she learned he'd been having an affair, remained a sore subject. They managed to be civil to each other while forced to share their house by economics, but once Robin learned that he’d gotten his girlfriend pregnant, relations between them had swiftly deteriorated. Robin had struggled unsuccessfully for years to conceive, and news of her ex’s impending fatherhood sent her, at forty-seven, into a depression as severe as the one she’d had throughout her thirties while at the height of her infertility.
Finally Julia spoke. “I’m really uncomfortable with the idea of the two of you sharing that house after your divorce,” she said. “It can only lead to trouble. Why don’t you move back in with Daddy and me, Robin?”
“I can’t do that, Mom. “I’d still be responsible for half the mortgage and utilities. If I’m not there, it’ll be like Avaughn has an invisible roommate. He’ll be able to entertain his baby mama, even move them in.” She made a face.
“In other words, he won’t have any incentive to sell the house,” Faye concluded.
“Exactly. And I’ll be stuck indefinitely in a part of my life that’s over.” Robin patted Julia’s leg through the thin blanket that covered her. “Don’t worry, Mom, it’ll be fine.”
Julia sighed. “I don’t know why you two had to buy that big house by the lake anyway.”
“Because it was what I wanted,” Robin replied softly. “I felt I deserved to get something I wanted out of my life.”
“Of course you do, dear. I didn’t mean to suggest otherwise.”
“I know you didn’t.” Robin knew she’d been feeling a little sensitive lately. It had everything to do with her upcoming forty-eighth birthday. Her life had taken a cruel turn in the last year, and if that wasn’t bad enough, in two years she’d be fifty.
She looked at her mother curiously. “Shouldn’t you be getting sleepy, Mom?”
“I feel fine. Now, tell me why you’re smiling like that. I already know it’s not an offer on the house, but you seem a little cheerful about something.”
Robin smiled. “I can never hide anything from you,” she said affectionately. “The girl who’s organizing my class reunion told me last night that one of the guys asked her about me. I haven’t seen him since our twentieth reunion ten years ago, and even after all that time he was still the best-looking guy in the class. Of course, I was with Avaughn, so all I could do was admire him from a distance. But he was single then, and he still is.” Robin’s eyes shone. “So even though the reunion isn’t for another two months, I’m kinda excited at knowing he asked if I was coming.”
“Sounds promising,” Julia said.
“Still single at forty-eight? Has he ever been married?” Faye asked, a suspicious undertone in her voice.
“I don’t know,” Robin admitted. “But I’m sure he’s not gay.”
“You can never be too sure.”
Robin bristled. “Listen, Faye, there are plenty of men who get married and have kids and then come out. Some men just aren’t the marrying kind.” She thought for a minute. “Does anyone think Al Pacino is gay?”
“Or what’s-his-name?” Julia contributed. “Shirley MacLaine’s brother.”
“Warren Beatty,” Faye supplied. “He’s married, Mama. Has been for years, although he was about my age when he finally said ‘I do.’ And to a much younger woman.”
“Well, I remember when he was a notorious ladies man. Not surprised he married someone a generation younger.” Julia grunted and mumbled, “These old men are always chasing after young tail.”
Faye thought it odd that her mother seemed so annoyed about older men marrying younger women—it wasn’t as if her father had a roving eye—but her thoughts were with Robin. She glanced at her sister, who was still seething over her remarks. Robin’s divorce had made her super-sensitive these days, but any woman with a lick of sense would be suspicious of a forty-eight-year-old man who’d never been married.
She decided to change the subject. “Mama, I can’t believe the pills haven’t knocked you out yet,” Faye marveled. “Most people don’t last two minutes after taking that pill.”
“Just call me Superwoman,” Julia boasted. “Seventy-six years old, and invincible.” She focused on her younger daughter. “This young man you had a crush on in high school. Do I know him?”
“No, but you’re probably familiar with his family. They’re pretty prominent in the communities on both sides of the lake.”
“What’s his name?”
“Pace. His first name is Vernon.”
Julia’s eyes grew wide, and then she slumped forward, eyes closed.
“Mom!” Robin cried out, alarmed.
“It’s all right, Robin,” Faye soothed, her fingertip pressed to Julia’s throat. “It’s just the sedative kicking in. She’s got a strong pulse.”
Robin lowered her chin to her chest. “It was more than medication, Faye. Did you see that wild look in her eyes?”
“She probably realized that, in spite of all that bragging she did, that she was about to pass out. Of course, if she did that without the sedative, I’d be in the hall screaming for a doctor right now,” Faye said with a laugh.
Robin joined in. “That’s a relief. For a minute there, I thought she was reacting to hearing Vernon’s name.”
“Just a coincidence. I mean, how crazy would that be?”
The nurse brushed aside the curtain and stepped into the cubicle. She confirmed Julia was asleep and informed the sisters that she’d be transported to the procedure room at any moment now. “Come on, Robin,” Faye said, “They’re about to take her in. Let’s go to the waiting room.”
Julia saw vivid images in her sleep. There she was, fifty-five years ago, a young woman of twenty-one, shaken from the sight of what instinct told her were Vernon’s feet sticking out of that rolled-up rug in her father's office. Scenes from both before and after that pivotal moment replayed themselves.
She didn’t mention a word of what she’d witnessed to anyone...not the next day when she sent a message to her mother...not when she talked to her boyfriend, Melvin, the next day, not even at the hospital when Lorraine mentioned how Vernon’s family members said he’d disappeared. The Paces, and Lorraine as well, believed he’d skipped town to avoid being arrested for assault or worse, since Lorraine’s injuries resulted in the death of her fetus. Then she kept hearing Robin saying, “His name is Vernon Pace...Vernon Pace...Vernon Pace.” She could still hear the name when she opened her eyes.
Julia dreaded seeing her daughters. She remembered being shocked to hear Vernon’s name, but nothing after that. Damn that anesthesia. Had the alarm she felt shown in her face? If it had, Faye and Robin were sure to ask about it.
She smiled weakly as her daughters noisily pulled aside the curtain and approached the large cushioned chair where she sat upright.
“Welcome back, Mom,” Faye said with a smile.
“You feeling all right?” Robin asked.
“Maybe a little sleepy.” Julia’s words came out slightly garbled. “What happened to my teeth? I don’t remember taking them out.”
“Robin and I were on our way to the waiting room when the nurse said she’d forgotten to have you remove your dentures,” Faye explained. “We called out to you and tried to wake you up, but you were out like you’d just been punched by Floyd Mayweather,” she added with a laugh.
“Finally, Faye put on a surgical glove, reached in your mouth, and took them out,” Robin concluded. “It was pretty funny, almost as funny as the anesthetic putting you to sleep so suddenly. Mom, why’d you look so funny when I told you Vernon’s name?”
“Did I? I don’t remember.” She paused. “But since you brought him up, tell me, is he part of the family who owns all the funeral homes?”
“Yes. Do you know the Paces, Mom?”
“I know of them. One of my friends from high school with used to date one of them.” Julia sought to change the subject. “So tell me, does this young man work in the family business?”
Robin nodded.
“Wait a minute,” Faye said through the beginnings of full-blown laughter. “This guy you’re so looking forward to seeing at your reunion. He’s an undertaker?”
“Yes…what’s wrong with that?”
Blood rushed to Faye’s brown face, making her complexion brighter, and she dissolved into uncontrollable mirth that shook her entire body. “What’s wrong with that? Come on, Robin. It’s bad enough to see dead people, but this man touches them. If you don’t care where your man’s hands have been, you might as well start dating a gynecologist. They make more money.” She laughed once more.
Julia, momentarily forgetting her dilemma, joined her, then, seeing Robin’s distress, gestured for Faye to stop as she struggled to regain composure. “Robin, we don’t mean to laugh.”
“No, we don’t,” Faye said through a giggle. She cleared her throat. “We really don’t,” she repeated, this time sounding more convincing.
“There’s nothing wrong with making a living by burying people,” Robin said indignantly. “It’s a decent, honest living. Besides, before you call someone else’s profession disgusting, Faye, maybe you should look at your own. You spend all day treating skin ulcers and wounds. Is Godfrey ever reluctant to touch you because of where your hands have been?”
Julia sat back, for once content to listen to her daughters bicker as Faye rushed to her defense and that of her husband. She knew that Robin, sensitive about her inability to conceive and living in an incredibly stressful situation, was a little envious of Faye’s long and stable marriage and the two daughters she'd raised. Normally Julia would attempt to bring a halt to all the fussing, but this time she sat back in her bed and became lost in two very pressing concerns.
Her first was for Robin. Like Faye, Julia found the whole undertaker thing a little distasteful, but if Robin didn’t mind, she certainly wouldn’t object. But the fact that this younger Vernon was a member of the large Pace family and had obviously been named for his late uncle unnerved her. The Vernon she’d known was a ladies man who couldn’t keep his penis in his pants, and well on his way to becoming a drunkard as well. What type of man was his namesake? If he was anything like Vernon I, she didn’t want him anywhere near her child...and the fact that the child in question was almost forty-eight years old made no difference.
As much as Julia wanted happiness for her baby girl, she already worried that a relationship between Robin and Vernon Pace had the potential to bring out the secrets she’d worked so hard, and for so long, to conceal. Even her late mother, God rest her soul, had gone to her grave not knowing the entire truth, only the part of her father’s betrayal that he’d been unable to conceal. That betrayal haunted Julia for years and had kept her from fulfilling her daddy’s deathbed wish. After all this time—Roscoe Scott had died in Nineteen Ninety-Five—she’d stopped thinking about it, was no longer haunted by it, and when she said her final goodbye to her father as his casket was lowered into the ground in the Mississippi town where he’d been born, at last she felt she could put the whole sordid mess behind her. Only one person still alive besides Melvin knew the whole truth...and Julia never expected to see that person again.
But all that might change if anything serious developed between Robin and Vernon’s namesake. The entire Pace family, whether they lived in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, or Wisconsin, knew what transpired less than a year after Vernon I’s murder, and if they weren’t suspicious of Roscoe before, surely that changed after his subsequent action. Roscoe, to his credit, had done such a masterful job of covering his tracks that they had no proof. But if the Pace family were ever to find out that Robin was Roscoe Scott’s granddaughter, all the Scott family secrets could spill out like ketchup out of a bottle.
Julia always presumed that both sordid secrets would die with her and Melvin. It just wasn’t fair to be threatened with exposure after over fifty years.
But if anything of substance did develop between Robin and Vernon II, how on earth was she supposed to keep the truth from coming out?