Thursday, September 24, 2000
South Congregational Church was rapidly filling up. Sabine Heartwood eased herself into a pew beside Moe Condon, the editor of the weekly Pennywise Paper and her boss. It was a tight squeeze and Sabine felt a little awkward as her rump touched the massive thigh of her curmudgeonly employer. South Congo, as everyone called the church, was a living antiquity; excepting the electricity in the ornate hanging chandeliers and central heating, nothing was different about the church than when it was built in the early eighteenth century. White-painted pews with shellacked coamings, a simple preacher's lectern to one side of the plain wooden cross at the front of the nave, massive multi-light windows -- open now to allow in the slight breeze, a faint lick of which tickled the back of Sabine's neck, ruffling the loose curling hairs not caught up in her twist.
Sabine nodded to Moe, and he patted her hand in an uncharacteristic show of solidarity. The town had lost an icon and they all felt the loss. No, Beatrice Danforth had been more than a static icon, she had been Moose River Junction's matriarch. The overflow crowd at this funeral was testimony to a life well lived. Influence, imperiousness, expectation. She was the last of her kind. Everyone at the wake last night had used those words, or ones similar. She was the last of her kind. Born with the century, living long enough to have witnessed wars and depressions, foolish politics and personal loss. Stoic, uncompromising Beatrice had indeed been the last of her kind. She'd witnessed the zenith of her town's heyday as it moved from agrarian to industrial, and then its inevitable decline as one by one the small manufacturies closed, and subsequent exodus of her town's youth to the siren call of city successes. The most personal of these was the departure of her only grandson, Danforth Smith.
The organist, hidden from sight in the loft above and behind the congregation, played a soft, sorrow-evoking prelude. Sabine smoothed the fabric of her dark blue silk dress and let her eyes rest on the pearl gray wall in front of her. The sunlight streaming in through the wavy, ancient window glass created an odd illusion of shapes against the wall, bending and blurred in such a way that she could make out faces, as if the light was exposing the crying out of spirits who once worshiped here. Nonsense, of course. Churches were seldom haunted. Sabine half-closed her eyes and let the images shift, shadow and light playing against the pearl gray, revealing to her alone the sad visages of perpetrators of cruel punishments. Sabine blinked to dispel the vision. There had been cruelty dealt out in the name of God within these marvelously preserved walls. Once a woman had been condemned to death for accusing a prominent citizen of rape. They had turned it against her and the magistrates, using these holy spaces as a court, had banished her from the fledgling town of Windsorville. Banishment, into what in those days was surrounding wilderness, was tantamount to a death sentence. As clearly as a photograph, Sabine saw the woman's face in the wall. "Stop it." Sabine widened her eyes to throw off the trance.
"What did you say?" Moe had been talking with his wife, to his right.
Sabine hadn't meant to speak aloud.
"Oh, just a little prayer." She blushed, annoyed with herself for letting the spirits so easily catch her attention. All of her life, Sabine Heartwood had felt the cold spots, sensed the disturbances, and heard the wind in still places which revealed the presence of the lost. As a busker, a street performer, her mother, Ruby, told fortunes, reading Tarot cards or tea leaves, or palms. When it became evident that Sabine not only had inherited her mother's small gift of second sight, but also had an enhanced psychic capacity to sense the mysteries beyond the knowable world, Ruby had imagined a ghost-busters-style mission, traveling cross country in their lime green Volkswagen bus. "Imagine it, Beenie. Heartwood and Heartwood, "It's Not Your Imagination' Spiritualists and Psychic Communicators."
It had been their largest bone of contention. All Sabine wanted was to be normal. Which is why she'd come to Moose River Junction. To live like a normal person. To have a regular job, a permanent home, and people she could call friends. The ordinary things everyone else took for granted were the things her mother's peripatetic lifestyle had made exotic and charming in Sabine's eyes. She looked around the airy room, taking satisfaction in picking out all the familiar faces. There was Greta Sutler, and her boyfriend, Arnie Sokolowski. Over there, also checking out familiar faces, was Lynn Miller, Sabine's closest friend in Moose River Junction. Sabine wiggled discrete fingers at her friend. Her coworkers from the Pennywise Paper, Teddy and Balto, were standing in the back of the room, looking odd in their Sunday best. Sabine was so much more used to seeing them in their rumpled workaday state. Had they known Mrs. Danforth? Had all these people really known her? More people than ever filled a town meeting crammed into the church, Moose River Junction paying final homage to the last of its aristocracy.
The prelude was over and the congregation ceased their soft, respectful murmuring. The only sound now was the slow footsteps of the pallbearers flanking the solid cherrywood coffin. Behind it followed Beatrice Danforth's prodigal grandson, Danforth Smith. Holding him by the right hand was her surviving offspring, her late-in-life, developmentally challenged son, Nagy. Beside his tall nephew, Nagy looked more gnomelike than usual. Like everyone else, he seemed out of context all dressed up in a dark suit hastily altered to fit his stumpy legs and short arms. His grizzled gray hair had been flattened into submission. As he drifted by Sabine, she felt the palpable confusion emanate from him. He'd had half a year to understand this was going to happen. And yet, as clear as speech, Sabine knew that he didn't really understand that his mother was dead.
The pallbearers brought the casket on its wheeled bier to a dignified stop, and the organist began the introductory measures of the opening hymn. Sabine let the words sink deep into her voice, laying them against the memories she had of Beatrice Danforth. A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing; our helper he amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing....Admittedly, she'd known her only a little, but that little seemed enough for the sorrow Sabine felt at the old woman's passing. Sabine and Moe had worked on the obituary with Mrs. Danforth. Like everything else the dying woman did, she planned the details well in advance. Of all the good works she might have listed, from trustee of the library and founder of the historical society, to second soprano in the Windsorville High School Glee Club, class of 1921, patron of the small art museum, mother and grandmother, it was her ownership and love of the Palace Theatre which Beatrice wished to be her best-known legacy. "Tell them all about Frederick Danforth and how he built the Palace for me."
The Palace Theatre, an Art Deco-style house that might hold 350, not counting the long-disused balcony, now dusty and threadbare. The only movie house in town. At one time, the Palace was Moose River Junction's entertainment capital. Vaudeville, live theatre productions, then, finally, simply movies. Sabine preferred it, with its full sized screen, to any multiplex she'd been in. At least at the Palace, the rococo decorations were original. And Nagy was there to make sure you took your ticket stub. Poor Nagy, a child yet in a middle-aged man's body. He looked somehow even more vulnerable dressed up like he was today. Sabine watched his nephew Dan lay a comforting arm across his shoulders.
When Dan Smith took her hand yesterday at the wake, Sabine had felt his tiredness; layered within it, she sensed a disappointment, which felt to her a separate thing from the grief he displayed in the quick, "Thank you for coming," murmured as he held onto her hand. Noting the absence of his girlfriend last night and now at the formal service, Sabine intuited the source of this disappointment.
The locals had been all abuzz with the return of Dan Smith. And when his sylphlike girlfriend showed up now and again, the buzz became a clamor. With Moose River Junction being just to the wrong side of the popular Berkshire destinations of Lenox and Tanglewood, and down a little from the tourist-thick Mohawk Trail, there was little to attract celebrities. Karen Whitcomb, though not quite a bona fide star, was, nonetheless, as close as the town had ever gotten. It seemed, if you listened to the gossip in the Blue Moose, that everyone had loved her in Six Pence for Sorrow and Sir Westover's Victory, two British films that had played at the Palace several times over. Karen had that dewy quality beloved in film ingenues. Nothing hard or dirty about her. Even when she swore on-screen, she did so with a peppery charm. Frankly, Sabine didn't know what all the fuss was about. To her, Karen Whitcomb was interchangeable with any other twenty-something starlet moving up from a Broadway chorus line to her name below the title. Well, it didn't matter what sort of actress she was; she didn't make it to her putative boyfriend's grandmother's funeral. And he looked like he could use the company.
Looking at the two men alone in the front pew, Sabine hoped that they were taking comfort from the words spoken solemnly by the minister.
For the last ten years, Dan had been away. Away. That's what they called it around here. He thought he was making a life in New York, but to these old friends, he was simply away. His life in New York seemed so removed from his small-town boyhood. The people he knew there were of the present. Scarcely anyone spoke of their lives before New York; everything was immediate and forward moving. Not like Moose River Junction, not like Gran. Here history was a living thing, evidenced by the very plaques on the church's foyer walls, commemorating people and events no one still living remembered.
As a child, his bedtime stories were drawn from family legends. Beatrice's tales of Indian kidnappings and bad blood between opposing branches of the Windsor family kept him with his head under the covers on many a night. Sometimes Dan felt as if keeping away, keeping in New York, helped lighten the weight of ancient history and modern secrets. Back within the valley, where nearly everyone knew him or his grandmother, or who his parents had been and what had happened to them, the east bore down on his shoulders like a burden.
Six months ago, Gran had conceded that she was dying. At age ninety-five, it was simply the acknowledgment that something was, indeed, greater than her drive and her controlling will.
He'd gotten the call on his cell phone, in the back of a cab.
"Danforth, I need you to be here, to take care of details and the business. And Nagy."
"What's the matter? Are you in the hospital?"
"Of course not. And I won't go there."
"Are you sick? Have you fallen..?"
"Danforth. The time is come for you to come home and take up the reins."
"Look, I'll be home this weekend." Dan snugged his phone against his cheek and dug out his Day-Timer. Every day presented a clutter of meetings and appointments leaking across the month, heedless of weekends. If he moved the site visit to very early on Saturday and begged off going with Karen to her friend's gallery opening in the Village on Saturday night, he could fly into Bradley International Airport in Windsor Locks, rent a car, and be in Moose River by Saturday afternoon.
"Danforth. I'm almost ninety-six; I may not have until Saturday afternoon." Beatrice's imperious voice had thinned in the last decade -- the voice that commanded attention at town meetings and demanded fealty from the staff at the theatre she had taken over at her husband's death. It was also the voice that had consoled him, chided him, raised him up to manhood. Whenever anyone asked him to describe his grandmother, Dan always said "crusty."
"Gran, what exactly is wrong?"
"That bastard Doc Phillips says I have cancer."
Dan felt the blood leave his face. At her advanced age, very little would be done. Mostly because she wouldn't stand for it, even if her frailty allowed it. Alone in the back of a New York City cab, Dan felt the implosion of impending grief. She'd raised him. Loved him. She'd swallowed her disappointment when he refused to take over the theatre from her, in that callous way of youth, demanding to make his own way, follow his own desires. Never mind that she had no one else to give it to without letting it out of the family. Never mind that it was Nagy's life.
"Okay, Gran. Hang on and I'll be there soon." Dan pressed the end button and sat staring out at the passing street, Day-Timer still open, cell phone still in his hand. As often as the abstract idea of her death had crossed his mind, Dan was amazed at his naïveté faced now with the concrete fact. He had thought that it would be sad but that he would be okay. He truly hadn't expected the pain.
Being in the film industry had given him a view of life as mise-en-scene. The scriptwriter bending to the will of the director, everything and everyone in their places. And then Beatrice Windsor Danforth had called him home. Since that day, Dan felt that he was working blind. The scriptwriter of his life would not give him a rewrite. He was without a director, and the actors in his life would not listen to him. Worse, the script called for all the conceits of It's A Wonderful Life. He didn't want to be here, yet he couldn't abandon his responsibilities.
Dan kept his eyes on the place just in front of the altar. He didn't want to make eye contact with anyone, especially the minister, fearful that he would be unmanned by this outpouring of sympathy. Nagy's hand in his was sweaty, and he felt his own perspiration mingle with his uncle's. The September heat wave had become the stuff of legend. A week of unrelenting eighty and above. Not more than a warmish breeze off the hillsides to leaven it, warm even at night. And yet, Gran had been cold. He'd wanted to buy her an air conditioner, but she wanted another blanket. He'd sat in that room for days, the windows closed, the air so still you felt as if you could touch it, move it aside like a curtain. Downstairs he could hear the sounds of the neighbors, bringing dish after dish of casseroles and lasagna. Sometimes stifled laughter would reach his ears and he would smile, wishing he could be down there, mingling with whoever was taking care of "things" today, of Nagy. Of himself.
Dan let go of Nagy's hand and patted his back. At once he felt the absence of Karen and bit back the resentment. She'd been there, on and off, to help where she could. Not that there was much she could do, she was shy of Gran, a little nervous with Nagy. Her chief contribution had been reminding him that he had another life, one not filled with dying grandmothers and challenged uncles. One in which he was climbing determinedly upward.
Hopefully, he'd worked his last stint as first assistant director. There were murmurs that his work had caught the eye of a producer and his name was on the lips of those who could raise him from glorified grunt work to top dog. It helped, though he hadn't planned it, that he squired around one of New York's most interesting new faces. Karen Whitcomb, on the verge herself of moving from the stage to the big screen, was more than arm candy. Talented, bright, beautiful, she was in the same place he was career-wise. As she was one good film away from stardom, so he was one project away from a solid reputation as a director.
Except that he'd disappeared for six months. A very detrimental career move. Karen, however, had gotten a call to audition for Redford.
"Of course you have to go," Dan had insisted, relieving Karen of having to look bad. In his heart, he knew that there was no way she'd jeopardize this opportunity, no way she'd choose being by his side at this moment over a career move of this magnitude. He couldn't blame her and wouldn't put her in the position of feeling even the least guilty about it.
"Dan, if you're sure." She'd covered the tiny cell phone in her hand, and it occurred to him that her agent was still on the line.
"I'd go if it was me."
"Marty, I'll fly out as soon as I can get to an airport." Karen covered the phone again. "Dan, where do I fly out of? Logan or Bradley?"
Upstairs Dan could hear the shuffle of black shod feet, the funeral director and his associate carefully bundling the frail, tiny form of Beatrice Danforth into a body bag. "Umm. I don't know. Logan."
Dan dragged his attention back to the moment and opened his hymnal as the organist played the introductory measures of "The King of Love My Shepherd Is." The choice of music had been Gran's. As had been the selection of daisies and freesia, peonies and late roses. "No funeral flowers for me. I want garden flowers, the sort the flower guild picks for Sunday services."
She'd been pretty strong at first, and until late April he'd gone back and forth between New York and Moose River Junction, clearing his calendar Friday through Monday. Then, as the cancer took a firmer grip on her, he stayed. And, as the months passed, it seemed to Dan as if the town had taken a firmer grip on him.
Without meaning to, Dan glanced past Nagy to the coffin. Such a large box to hold the tiny remains of Gran. She had never seemed so small to him until that day he came back and she was standing in her kitchen, apron tied around her waist, a waist still so tiny, the apron crossed itself in the back. Beatrice had looked a long time at him before speaking, as if she was unsure he was actually there.
"It's about time."
He'd bent to embrace her and all at once understood that though she loomed large in his history, she was truly a little scrap of a woman.
Arthur Bean, in his dual capacity as old family friend and unofficial town leader now got up to give the eulogy. Arthur had been quick to recruit Dan back into the volunteer fire department once it became clear that Dan would be in town for a few months.
"You were a good fireman before you got to be an all-high-and-mighty city boy."
"I haven't put out a fire in nearly ten years."
"Then just drive the truck."
That was the first, and perhaps deepest, hook into him. Arthur knew that Dan Smith would be hard pressed to say no where the volunteer fire department was concerned.
Arthur's message was short, filled with the accolades Beatrice Danforth had earned after a lifetime of service to the town, and even a little humorous. Dan smiled, glad that his fire chief had been willing to do the eulogy. He couldn't think of anyone he'd rather have had do it.
At last the service was over, and Dan and Nagy followed the casket back up the aisle. Dan felt the hands that reached out to pat his shoulder, nodded his head in gentle acknowledgment of the support, stopped along the way for quick hugs from his old teachers and former teammates.
As he reached the last pair of box pews he noticed Sabine Heartwood standing there, her brown eyes glittery with sympathy. Looking at him as if, beyond his natural grief at his grandmother's passing, she understood what difficult decisions awaited him.