Sample of ‘Blackbird Fly’

Prologue

 

She didn’t want the summer to end. She wanted it to go on, full of flowers, wine, olives, and — possibility. 

Yes, possibility, that thing she was so afraid of. Now she hungered for it, she lived for it. She rolled onto her stomach and put the pillow over her head. 

Was it possible to hide from your own life, from the prescribed steps, the set-in-stone trajectory? Was it possible to, say, change your name and live in France and be a completely different person, one your parents wouldn’t recognize, someone carefree, a nature girl, a bon vivant? Was it possible to forget the people you leave behind, those who nurtured and loved you, those who made you who you were? If you wished, wished, wished hard enough, would your fairy godmother, or an ogre-ish old widow, give you a string of magic pearls that would transform you into somebody who could do such a thing? A woman who could decide absolutely and exactly what would make her happy, right there, on the spot, and then actually do those things, without compromise or regret? 

She sighed under the pillow. How old do you have to be to stop believing in fairy tales? 

Because she didn’t think she’d actually reached that age.

 

Chapter One

 

On the day Harold Strachie died New York City struggled to slough off the lingering chill of winter and he struggled with his spare tire. Twenty pounds had crept up on him, without his consent. He gulped down the usual double-double espresso to get the juices flowing. The early morning was dark and echoing, his only company garbage trucks and young people jogging, their feet slapping the sidewalk, oblivious to middle age.

Getting fit was a bitch. Walking from the train or subway was the extent of his exercise up until now. The extra pounds made Harry feel old at 54, someone who had lost control of his own fate. He refused to let his champagne belly keep him down. He would be muscular, strong, a master of his universe. Confidence was everything. 

He’d spent the night in the City as he often did when his deals were soft. For several hours before the markets opened he would work while the office was quiet, researching trends and companies, so he was ready to pounce. But he didn’t feel too cat-like climbing the seven flights of stairs to his office, his new daily workout. He stopped on each landing to catch his breath. 

In the empty lobby, he fumbled for the light switch and swayed on his feet, woozy. Cold sweat ran into his collar. He blinked, hung up his coat, and sat down. If he’d had a picture of his family on his desk, which he didn’t, he would have picked it up. His boy — so smart and tough and, yes, awkward at 15, but he’d grow out of that and be better for it. And his darling girl who looked so much like him with dark curls and mournful eyes. He wished he’d stolen into her bedroom this morning and ruffled her sweet hair.

A horrible squeeze of his chest made him grab his shirt. He gasped, waiting. As the tightness eased, he saw his daughter again, ten years from now, in makeup and mini-skirts and all her innocence lost, and he felt the pain again, harder. 

Black spots floated before his eyes. He sat back in his chair, trying to relax. Christ, this wasn’t good. He shouldn’t have had that espresso. If this was heartburn he’d be buying antacids. 

The squeezing lessened. He’d get an appointment with his doctor for later in the week. He could already see the smirk on the doctor’s face when he told him to stop being such a nervous nelly. A moment of calm. The office quiet was soothing. He took a light breath and blew it out.

Harry clicked on his computer. As the reports streamed in he clicked through prices, checking analysis. The sweat on his forehead began to dry. Just another day, he thought. Then, the last, the worst — the pain seized him again, and the black spots grew and merged into one.

 

Chapter Two

When something shatters, when whatever you’re attached to ends, definitely, the moment rises up like it’s been hanging there for years, a lead balloon waiting to drop with a heavy thud into your life. All that living leading to this exact moment in time. Where has fate been hiding? Doesn’t matter. Here it is. Here it is, by God.

Merle stared at the phone, heavy, institutional beige. She’d arrived at the Legal Aid offices in Harlem a few minutes before. She was still wearing her boots. She hadn’t touched her coffee. 

He was dead. Harry. Husband. Deceased.

She felt the air move around her, solemnly, gently, as if she was a pile of ash a strong breath might blow away.  Outside her office voices filtered in, the chatting of colleagues, the insistent tone of an angry client evicted from her apartment. The sounds grounded her, the endless litany of troubles to be untangled, emotions to be soothed, hands to be held. Just the name Legal Aid — aid was so basic, so important in this hard world — made her warm.

Here she was necessary. Here she did good in the world. 

Her little world, so ordered and sane. Her nest, every twig in place. The selfless lawyer, fighting for the homeless and disenfranchised. The charity work on her days off, boring or annoying at times but always fulfilling in the end. Tomorrow there was another  luncheon, a benefit for African orphans organized by her sister. Francie was so excited about the celebrities, a baseball player, a talk show host, that she had lined up. 

No luncheon now. Merle knew she should make a list of what tomorrow would look like but the murmur of the office captivated her, the buzzing like a hive, as if she’d never really listened before, never felt the ordinary blessing of her colleagues and their routine. 

“Merle?” One of the law fellows stood in front of her with a quizzical look on her face.

The receiver was still in Merle’s hand, making a noise. Laura took the phone and replaced it on the cradle. Merle swallowed, frowned, and stood up.

“I have to go.”

“Oh,” Laura said, fluttering the way young people did. When had she started thinking of new graduates that way? “Your appointments? Mrs. Elliot is waiting, then — ” She stopped, seeing Merle’s face. “Sorry. I don’t need to tell you that.” 

“I’m sure you can handle them, ” Merle said, putting her coat back on. It was still damp with morning rain. “I have an emergency. I must go.”

“Oh,” Laura said again. “Can I help?”

Not unless you can bring a man back from the dead.

* * *

Of her four sisters, the one she wanted at the hospital was Annie. It was sad, really, that Stasia was her second choice because she was so strong and capable.  A magazine editor these days — not the lawyer she’d trained to be but no one blamed her for that — and damn good at it.  An organizer, a do-everything gal. She and Merle lived close together in Connecticut but they were so different. Merle and Annie, her oldest sister, shared an intangible something. In this emergency Merle never thought of Francie or Elise; they were younger and if she had to say so, a bit shallow, despite going to Whitman Law like their older sisters. Someday they would lean on Merle, the middle child. They would need her like she needed Annie. But Annie lived too far, in western Pennsylvania. You had to be practical. 

Stasia came, promptly, and held Merle until she didn’t want to be held. Dried her tears, called everyone. She made the lists that stubbornly jumbled up in Merle’s head. She was so efficient.

In the end Stasia arranged the funeral, wrote the obituary, talked to everyone for Merle. Arranged flowers, watered flowers, threw away flowers. Arranged meals, heated up meals, threw away meals. And so, when it was time, two weeks later, for the visit to Harry’s lawyers to hear his will, there was no question which sister went with Merle.

* * *

Deep rugs, old oak, leather-bound tales of mishaps and bad decisions and the appalling nature of life: The Law Office.  With eyes closed Merle caught the smell of the time crumbling, the fruitlessness of human endeavor, of — mortality. Well, it was on her mind.

In the law you could change lives, you could make a difference. You learned the rules then you bent them. But justice was a slippery devil. Hard to quantify, impossible to hang on to. She concentrated on the endless rows of dusty books, not justice, searching the shelves for the earliest court records. New York District Court, 1878. Harry’s lawyers, and his father’s before him, were a very old, very white-shoe firm, not unlike Byrne & Loveless, firm of her misguided youth. 

Harry. She couldn’t stop thinking about him, now that he was gone. Trying to remember little things, it was hard. She hadn’t really noticed him recently, besides his dry-cleaning and a cocktail party or two. She stared at his suits in his closet, lined up the oxfords he would never wear. He wasn’t in the best of shape, never had been, with that paunch and double chin. He hadn’t told her but apparently he had a plan to get healthy by exercising, or at least climbing stairs. 

Genius, that Harry. 

She gripped the arms of the chair, trying hard to picture him the first time they met — the day she made partner at Byrne & Loveless, at the bar after the party after the celebration. She tried to remember the feeling of being valued, loved, feted. All she could remember was barfing in the women’s room. And Harry taking her home.

When he told the story he was the gallant knight, swinging the limp princess over his shoulder. She may have knocked into him coming out of the restroom. Yes, that was it. Almost fell down and he saved her from cracking her head.

Out of the blue, the question boomed inside her head: What-what. What? What?! It was back, like a disease never quite cured. She hadn’t heard it for weeks, that little voice that plagued her. These last weeks everybody knew what was what: Harry’s dead, that’s what. Shut up. She looked out the window and silenced it.

Stasia sighed and looked at her watch. The lawyers were keeping them waiting. At the funeral Stasia had surprised everyone by sobbing, loudly. Strange, since she never cared that much for Harry. She thought he didn’t love Merle enough, and told her so one famous Christmas in front of a roaring fire before she knew about the baby on the way. Maybe that’s why she cried at the funeral. 

Merle’s cell phone vibrated in her slacks pocket. Tristan’s school calling. She went into the hallway. Trouble. The Headmaster (unbelievably they still called him that) would put the boy on the bus, if she agreed. She sighed, closed the phone. Back in the office she shook her head at Stasia: not now.

Harry’s ancient lawyer, who he’d called The Geezer, was shouting in the hallway. The door opened and he shuffled in with a younger man who introduced himself as Troy Lester, a partner. The old man, eighty-five minimum, Landon McGuinness the Third wore neatly-pressed gray flannel almost as ancient as he was.

His thick glasses perched on a beak no doubt less prominent when his cheeks had flesh. The younger partner, Lester, was close to their age but bald on top like the geezer. He was obviously the old man’s right-hand everything.

McGuinness peered at them, his eyes magnified behind his glasses. “Which one of you is Mrs. Strachie?”

“That’s me, sir. Merle Bennett. Strachie,” she added, though she didn’t use Harry’s name. “And this is my sister, Stasia Bennett.” 

McGuinness cleared his throat noisily and began in a sonorous voice to outline her future. Stasia was taking notes, thank god. The house is mine. Paid off thanks to mortgage insurance. Harry only rented his apartment in the city so nothing there but some junky furniture. Life insurance. Good. How could she not know about life insurance? Do you get that in one lump sum? Do you pay income tax on it? She would ask when he finished. 

Silence.  The geezer sat back in his chair and folded his hands. 

“But —?” Had she blacked out and missed a section? Harry was an investment manager. He set up a trust fund for Tristan, he had stock funds, pension plans, all sorts of retirement plans. 

She couldn’t speak.

Stasia could. “That’s it? Where’s the pension fund? And the trust fund for the boy?” Landon McGuinness III blinked at her, mouth agape. Stasia leaned in and shouted: “Where is the boy’s trust fund?!” 

Troy Lester, standing at the old man’s shoulder, squirmed then tried to hide it with a smile. “The good news is that Mr. Strachie set this up so it won’t have to go through probate. You’ll have the proceeds of the insurance within thirty days and the deeds will be changed quickly. The joint accounts stay the same, of course — ”

Merle sat forward. “But he told me he set one up for Tristan years ago. A trust account.”

“Not at this law firm,” McGuinness said, smacking his lips.

“Could it be with someone else?” Stasia asked. “At a bank?”

“Harry did all his legal work here. His father too. ”

Troy Lester cleared his throat. “The addendum,” he muttered.

McGuinness blinked. “Oh, yes. A special addendum.” He shuffled papers on his desk and batted off Lester’s help. 

He found the paperwork and held it at arm’s length. “I bequeath to my wife, Merle, because of her love of old houses, the property in Malcouziac, France, a house and real estate surrounding.”

The sisters sat in stunned silence. Stasia looked at her. “Do you know about this?” Merle felt float-y, disconnected from the room.  Her ears buzzed. Who were these people?  I’m watching an old Perry Mason re-run. Harry will be alive at home when I get there. We’ll squabble about dinner. We’ll listen to each other snore. 

She pinched her arm. Nothing changed.

The old man was saying in his clear and not-very-aged voice, “Harry inherited this house from his parents when they died. You knew his mother was French?” Merle nodded, unable to speak. A house in France? 

“It’s in the Dordogne,” Lester added brightly. “Southwest France.  A small town. Very picturesque, I hear.”

“A villa? Could it be worth something?” Stasia asked.

“No acreage, I understand. No vineyard. Sorry.”

“Is there a photo or map or something?” 

Troy Lester looked at the old man. “We’ll see what we can find. Maybe Harry kept something in his own files. You could check.” 

He called in the secretary and asked for the file on Harry’s father, Weston Strachie. They waited in awkward silence.  Merle worked over her cuticles. She didn’t feel like she would float away anymore, now that she had both ankles wrapped around a chair leg. Be practical. He’s dead. This is what happens when people die.  She was nothing if not practical. Life would go on. Sometimes you just had to remind yourself. Merle felt the hard rock in her chest press against her ribs, making it hard to breathe.

The secretary returned and handed a slim brown file to Lester. He leafed through the papers before handing it to Merle. “I don’t think we’ll need this anymore. There’s some old paperwork, work Mr. McGuinness did for the elder Mr. Strachie years ago, as well as the obituary. Your husband’s parents died together, in a car accident in —” He glanced again inside — “1954.”

Harry was four. That was all Merle knew about his parents. He never talked about them, probably didn’t even remember them. She glanced at the faded newspaper clipping, then at the letters behind them: a description of the property in French, and correspondence about Harry’s father’s wine and spirits importing business. 

She thanked the lawyers. She felt a powerful need to get on with things, to make lists, to organize. To silence the what-what?! in her head. At the café down the block she sat with her hands wrapped around a coffee cup. Her mind began to put things in columns. But Stasia looked furious, her color up. “I knew it. I knew it. Where is his pension fund?”

“He liked to play the markets.”

“You think he lost it all? No way. He had something stashed away, he must have. Away from the hawk-like eyes of Landon McGuinness the Turd.” They smiled. “You need to go to his office. Maybe that’s where Tristan’s fund is.”

Merle knew nothing about that part of Harry’s life. She’d never wanted to. It reminded her of corporate law, the open greed, the phoniness, the back-stabbing partners. But obviously a little more attention to the financial aspects of their lives would have been, well, practical. Maybe she wasn’t as practical as she thought. 

“Is Blackwood paid for?” Stasia asked.

Tristan’s prep school. “The first half.” He would be arriving on the bus in an hour. “He got in a fight at school. They’re sending him home.”

“Poor kid. Maybe he just needs some time with you.” Stasia patted her hand. “Public school isn’t that bad. And there’s Country Day. It’s college I’m worried about. The good schools are ruinous.” 

One of Stasia’s obsessions, getting her children into A-list schools, the Ivies and near-Ivies, and paying for it.  

“Stace, did you know something was going to be funny with the will?”

She sighed. “He was rich when you married him. Those are the ones to watch.”

Harry had it all when they met, downtown loft, swank corner office, Fortune 500 clients,  summer lease in the Hamptons. But that was 20 years ago, the boom years when he’d been doing investment banking.  A familiar guilt crept through her: all the money she spent on the Connecticut house, the pool, landscaping, windows, kitchen, carpet — anything to make the house warm and welcoming. All a waste, a failure. And now he mocked her in his will: ‘Because of her love of old houses.’ Had he thought she’d done all that remodeling because she loved crumbling foundations and roof rot? 

Stasia took her hands. “You don’t deserve this. He didn’t. He was a good man, an excellent father. You didn’t do anything but love him, Merle.”

She felt her chest cave in. The words hit her hard: Love him. Love. What was it? The realization came in a flash. She hadn’t loved Harry, not at the end.  It was hard to admit. Her reflection in the window as he must have seen her last — haggard, gray, pale. Did he know? Did he care? She couldn’t remember when it stopped, it had been dying for so long. I didn’t love him. The realization filled her with something not quite like sorrow: a feeling of shame, of neglect.

And yet. Now you are free.

Merle shook her head to cancel the words. This was no time for happy thoughts. She’d just buried her husband. Whether he loved her, whether she loved him — it no longer mattered.  He was gone. She could get a new job if necessary. She had marketable skills. She had the house, and the life insurance. Tristan would go to college on that. Her life before he died, the busy-ness, the calendar full of appointments, the new drapes, charity auctions, even jogging, all now seemed like filler in a hollow life. Her life, one she didn’t even recognize. 

Stasia put on a smile. “So what about this house in France?” 

A house in France: it only sounded romantic.  “Thanks for coming, Stace.”

* * *

Tristan’s bags lay in a heap in the hallway. A television blared upstairs. Merle turned on lights in the dark house, following the sound to his room. The door was open, which might be construed as a good sign. Still, she knocked before stepping inside.

His room still had its semblance of order from his months at school except for the giant television he had dragged up from the family room. Harry had forbidden TV in his room so this was no doubt a message. It perched unsteadily on a tiny side table from the living room. Cords criss-crossed the moss green carpet. Last summer he had picked out a new bed and desk, along with the beanbag chair in bright yellow faux suede where he sprawled now. He didn’t look as cheerful as the egg-yolk chair, not with the black eye.

“I hope the other guy looks worse,” Merle shouted, perching on his desk chair while a scantily-clad blond gyrated on the screen. Music thumped through the furniture.

A pale but strong boy whose face had hardened into a man’s in the last year, his complexion was never bright. Thin, dark whiskers sprouted at the point of his chin; his Gallic nose was so like Harry’s. His brown hair was hanging in his eyes — he’d lied about a haircut in March and no one cared when he returned for the funeral. At fifteen he was six feet tall, four inches taller than his father and five inches taller than Merle, a strapping lad as his grandfather said. His legs stretched over the beanbag in rumpled khakis and on his size-12 feet, old-school Adidas. His right eye was purple and swollen shut.

“Do you want to talk about it?” He shot her a one-eyed glare. “Let’s eat first then. Pizza?”

She made the call from the kitchen then turned on more lights. The house lived in perpetual shadow, surrounded by enormous oak trees and blue spruces, and protected by deep, overhanging eaves. Square and solid with dark wood trim, it sat back on a respectable suburban street that screamed ‘lawn freaks.’  Sixteen years ago, when she was pregnant, it reached out to her, speaking the language of security, family, and roots with its pre-war homeyness. But when winter came it was dark and depressing with thick trees and small windows. She painted the rooms bright colors but it didn’t help. She hated it before a year was out but she never told Harry. He had been against Connecticut. He loved the city, the restaurants, the theaters, the music. The suburbs were sleepy, boring, bourgeois. But he sold the loft for her, downsized to a walk-up apartment he laughingly called a pied-à-terre. A few years ago he’d sold it and rented a small studio near his office for nights he worked late. 

How could she tell him this dreary house had been a mistake? It was impossible. She bought high wattage light bulbs.

She stepped onto the flagstone patio. April usually filled her with hope, the promise of sunlight and warmth.  Another winter gone. The white dogwoods lit up corners of the yard, the cherry tree on the edge of the patio dropped pink petals. The petals were brown now, rotting in puddles. A chill rose up from low end of the yard, bringing with it the heady sweetness of hyacinths. In April she could forget about the mistakes she’d made, the problems, the silence, the darkness. Except for this year. Tristan had gone back to school three days after the funeral, yes, probably too soon but what he wanted. How could she stop him? 

She took a deep breath of moist evening air. If she could focus on her financial needs, hers and Tristan’s, she could see her way out of this mess. Grief — or guilt? — is a horrible thing. She couldn’t define her emotions any more. Her mother said grief was a ‘me feeling,’ feeling sorry for yourself. Harry is at peace now, Bernadette said, not hurting or sad or missing you. Helpful, Mom.

Harry had taken a chance, something he felt he was good at, and married her four months after the night in the bar. They just clicked, that’s what everyone said—they just clicked. What did that mean anyway? Click on/click off? It didn’t matter. She kept saying it to herself: It doesn’t matter.

So now she would gather all the information she could, then make a plan. Grief —  or fear — lodged in her chest like a rock, making it hard to breathe. Information, planning, numbers would lift the rock, and her life. She would attack this problem like a case at work, as if she was homeless, living on the street. She would find shelter and security. She would sort it out, get things back on track. She was a big believer in the power of her will. Plus she was practical, like all of the Bennett girls. Even Elise, just finishing law school after a series of resort-area jobs in Aspen and the Virgin Islands that their mother called “perfectly understandable play time,” was practical. Law was something that fed on that, nuts and bolts, rules and regs, law and order. No sad romantic notions, just the facts. Well, she had no romantic notions, sad or otherwise, not any more.

The pizza came, thick with cheese and pepperoni, smelling of cardboard box. She took it up to Tristan’s room, with paper plates, napkins, Pepsi. He set the box in his lap, let her take a piece. 

The peculiar loneliness of the only child sometimes broke her heart.  If Tristan had a sibling to share his grief, he would be better off. If she had another child to focus on, he would be better off. But because she couldn’t have any more children — Tristan himself had been a surprise to her doctors — here they were, a twosome  locked in battle, fighting their way out of this blackness together. 

“Did you put anything on your eye?”

“Bag of gel.”

“Who was the culprit?” He squinted with his good eye. “The guy who socked you.”

“Just an asshole. One of millions at Blackwood.”

“Right. It was in the paper. They’re calling it a public health crisis.”

He grunted and stuffed another piece in his mouth, washing it down with soda. 

“So they tell me two weeks, is that right?” 

“There’s a letter in my backpack. They want me to see some quack. But I’m not doing it.” A frightened, belligerent look crossed his face. 

“Did this asshole get suspended?”

“I guess.” He looked at her. “It was Lancaster.”

“Billy?” Tristan’s best friend. Or had been. “Billy hit you?”

“I hit him first.”

“Ah. Good thinking. Catch ‘em unawares.”

“Ha ha. You aren’t Dad.”

Merle felt her stomach drop. That was Harry’s line. Catch ‘em unawares, along with other moronic pointers on fighting that he bragged were from his years on the streets. A family joke. None of them believed that Harry had been a bare-knuckle street fighter. Not with being short, pudgy, and better suited to foie gras and martinis. 

“Sorry,” Tristan said. “I mean, I know you’re not.”

He must have seen her picking at her cuticles, the delightful new habit that made her hands look like a battle zone. A twist of his lips indicated a teenage smile. He laid a hand on the top of her head. A big, warm, greasy hand. 

“It’s okay you’re not Dad. Really. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

* * *

The Widow. She read about them in the newspapers,  heard about them at parties: wives of fallen soldiers, firefighters, policemen, executed criminals. Men whose lives had meaning, whose deaths were heroic or justified.  But Harry was no hero. Just a middle-aged man trying to fleece the world.

The concept of ‘widow’ was semi-romantic, at least in novels. The curse of adolescent reading, dozens of gothic romances she chewed through in her teens where the heroine mucks around in a creepy old mansion, looking for treasure and true love. Annie or Stasia read them then handed them down. They all saw themselves as that brave girl, searching for love. How young they were.

And now she was the widow. Not the heroine. The widow was usually a crazy old bat. Merle remembered one of the first gothics she read, ‘A String of Pearls.’ The widow was scary for having lived alone for years pining after her dead husband, but generous to the naïve but plucky slip of a heroine. The wild-haired crone gave the girl a string of pearls that helped her survive the storm that battered the mansion and turn the smelly stable boy into a perfumed prince, or some such drivel. 

Merle lay on her bed staring at the ceiling, wishing someone had magic pearls for her.  Instead of being the slip of a girl she was the scary old widow with crow’s feet and bunions. How had it happened? Just yesterday she was sixteen, with dreams. And now, no Harry — but was that so bad? That little voice returned: Now you’re free.  She hadn’t loved him. Why was that so hard to accept?

If she was honest with herself — and why bother with the truth when it causes wrinkles, constipation, and other joys of adulthood? — she’d stopped loving him a long time ago.  Maybe the week after he’d saved her from a concussion on the restroom floor. Or maybe when he forgot their first anniversary and worked late. This was no gothic romance. There was no magic moment when the spark went out. Maybe it was just a shallow flame after all, not the raging fire they imagined drew them to the altar.

What had she loved in him, all those years ago? She scrunched up her eyes and tried to think back. He was generous, he’d given her flowers unexpectedly, diamonds from time to time, this house she hated. For a man driven by money he wasn’t stingy, not at all. Except perhaps with his time. The only time they went out together was for business. That had been his way for years. And she had never complained. 

She got up and stared at herself in the bedroom mirror. Her dark hair was streaked with gray, and stringy. The mascara she’d put on for the meeting with the lawyers had smudged. Her lips were thin and cracked. She closed her eyes and tried to take a deep breath. The rock was lodged there, but somehow a tiny bit smaller. For an instant she saw a glimpse of herself when all this was over: attractive, smiling, lovable. And younger: how was that going to happen?  Wake up, Merle.

The doorbell rang. She rubbed her cheeks, and marched to the door, eager to pounce on another cheesy casserole or gooey dessert. Betsy stood on the porch in her clogs and barn jacket. Faithful friend and cheerer-upper, Betsy had been stopping by each evening, when she knew things grew too quiet.  They had been friends since their kids were in preschool, and still jogged together once in a while. As Merle made them both herbal tea, Betsy’s eyes turned toward the thumping ceiling. 

“He got in a fight at school.  I probably sent him back too soon.” Merle set down her cup. “I heard the will today.” She summarized the inheritance, such as it was. 

Betsy’s eyes widened. “Wait — no trust fund for Tris?”

“I guess he never got around to it.”

The word hung in the air: Bastard. “But what about you? Will you stay at Legal Aid?”

“For the time being. I’ve been trying to think. Do you know anybody else whose husband died young like Harry?”

“Well. You remember Margo Willoughby. She was about forty-five when Gus died.” Betsy bit off her next sentence as they both remembered Margo had flipped out, treated herself to a bad face-lift then married a guy who owned a strip club in New Jersey. 

Merle drained her tea cup and smiled. “Time to perfect that cannoli recipe?”

* * *

She took the file Troy Lester gave her to bed. The obituary for Harry’s parents was something he’d never shared. Despite his material generosity he hadn’t really been the sharing type, always buzzing off to his meetings and reading endless financial newspapers. He’d rarely sat down in the kitchen to chat like she’d just done with Betsy. Had he ever seen this clipping?  

New York Herald Tribune. March 2, 1954.

Weston Montgomery Strachie and his French bride, Marie-Emilie, died tragically on a rainy night as they returned to their home on Long Island from a romantic outing in Atlantic City. Their auto skidded off the road on a curve and struck a large oak tree that has claimed the lives of more than a few drivers over the years. Husband and wife were pronounced dead at the scene. They leave behind their four-year-old son, Harold.

Weston, 37, was a devoted husband and father. He met his bride in France after his Army service during World War II.His business as a wine and spirits importer brought him frequently to the country. They married in 1947, and their son was born several years later. They moved back to the United States in 1952, settling in Levittown.

Marie-Emilie, 26, who preferred to be called Emilie, will be remembered as a sunny, lively girl, a devoted wife and mother. She will be sorely missed by all who knew her.

Weston is survived by his loving sister, Amanda Wilson and her husband, Sylvester, who have opened their hearts and home to little Harold, and by his mother, Louise Strachie, of Buffalo. Marie-Emilie is survived by many relationsin France.

There was another, smaller announcement in the Times. The only new information was Marie-Emilie’s maiden name, Chevalier. Merle reread the Herald Tribune obit; it had the touch of Aunt Amanda, last seen in a dinner plate hat at Harry’s funeral. After Sylvester died she traveled the world with friends from her days as a dress buyer at Macy’s. 

“Marie-Emilie Chevalier,” she whispered aloud. Was she really sunny and lively, or was that just Amanda’s drama? Merle closed her eyes. She’d missed having a mother-in-law, all these years. Amanda had played the part but not exactly, not being the maternal type. Merle tried to imagine Harry as a little child, round and smiling, playing in the fields of lavender — the way she imagined the French countryside, bucolic and fragrant.

The bass and drums of music videos thumped through the ceiling, bringing her back to the present. She put the obituary aside. Like so much in the past, it didn’t matter. Not any more.

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