THE MCDANIEL HOME IS AN OLDER RANCH-STYLE RAMBLER that Ian and Linda have occupied most of their marriage in an average suburb just outside the Bay Area in Santa Rosa. Inside the master bedroom is a queen bed made-up in a quilted duvet cover and throw pillows and it’s been slept upon. Photographs of Ian and Linda loiter on a dresser. There’s another of a child on the nightstand. Just down the hallway on the right is a closed door behind which is a bedroom. On the left is the hall bathroom in shadows. The short hallway empties into a living area that opens to the right to reveal a kitchen, a great room in the rhetoric of tract home sales. There is no tungsten glow inside this bungalow, no amber light to warm this sterile silent interior, nor the hum from the refrigerator’s compressor to add any indication of living in this living area, except, then, the sound of a key penetrating the deadbolt lock on the front door. The bar clicks back into the tumbler. The knob turns and the door pushes in. It is Ian after his walk from the cemetery to this house where he finds it nearly impossible to enter as if its atmosphere requires an emotional space suit.
IN THE GATED COMMUNITY SIDE OF TOWN, Pamela Reagan also enters through a door in a home where the square footage of its great room alone would swallow the space of the McDaniel’s rambler. High ceilings with pristine plaster accents, Italian tiled surfaces and marble floors framed in a bamboo parquet, and walnut trim that cases doors. Pam is in her second thirties, her early sixties, though for anyone it would be hard to tell. She’s trim from a quotidian active routine and sharp from a career of critical troubleshooting. Inside the door she lights on the entry landing in her gardening attire, a retired pair of tennis shorts, an orange tank that darkens her tanned shoulders, and clogs carefully inspected to keep the compost outside. She descends off the entry into an airy and bright reception room, its meticulousness the only thing common to the McDaniel living space. Pam moves through it to the kitchen, lays her gardening gloves on the granite counter and gets iced tea from the stainless built-in.
IAN OPEN HIS REFRIGERATOR DOOR to expose its usual cooled fare along with a nearly empty bottle of wine. He grabs it by the neck and stares, remembering the last time it was removed from the fridge only three days ago. That was when Linda poured a glass to the brim and drank. She exhaled, shuffled to the couch and sat at one end on her haunches and finished the rest. Ian sat opposite her on the divan and waited for her to speak. She filled her glass again. By her side on the end-table were papers. He said nothing to encourage her because he knew this wasn’t going to be good though what she was about to say was still a surprise. Denial used to be one of Ian’s default responses; denial of her unhappiness, denial of his having anything to do with it.
“I have to stop this,” she said. “Stop being with you. I stopped a long time ago, though you kept going on, without me, and I think I’ve held you back.”
“I love you,” was all he could say back to her. It wasn’t an excuse, it wasn’t justification, it just was for him. He loved her and he hated her to be so incredibly unhappy.
“Till death do us part,” she ended his sentence. “That’s all we have in common with each other. I don’t love you, Ian. I don’t love. That died along with Ginny five years ago. I thought it would come back. It didn’t. There’s nothing.” She set the papers on the divan between them and slid them to Ian. “You just sign above your name on the last page.”
The tragedy in Linda’s death was more manifest in her living. Raised in the monotheistic culture of Mesa, Arizona, she agreed with the premise that a woman’s value is determined by her maternal prowess, her domestic savoir-faire and her ability to please. She was certain in her heart that her daughter’s condition at birth was caused by something she did or didn’t do during the baby’s gestation, making what she had to do to care for the child a constant reminder of her assumed physiological failures. She would then compensate with herculean efforts in feeding, bathing, playing and engaging without any standard indication of a mother’s efficacy, giggles, smiles, and coos. She created parameters of certainty that couldn’t be violated, dialing in a daily care routine that eliminated most anything else in her living. She turned down respite, denied herself any luxuries that most would consider simple habits and sacrificed herself to the point of obscuring her identity. And when her daughter died – her sole purpose in living – her self-perceived failure as a mother worsened.
Over the course of their daughter’s life Linda had to become a second breadwinner and insurance provider, but what little financial relief this gave her family was overwhelmed by her guilt in not being there to guarantee the routine of care despite Ian’s own vigilance. When she got home from work she would assume the watch, relegating sleep to twenty-minute naps on the bus back to work.
She and Ian rotated shifts to reduce the use of a babysitter. They saw little of each other except in passing, snuffing out any other love save the practical kind they had in caring for their daughter. All the expectations of her upbringing that promised a certainty of happiness wound up dying in her declarations of not being good enough, not being mommy-enough, nor wife-enough, nor even woman-enough without the ability to love. Asking Ian for the divorce was an indication of her final failure of which Linda had tragically had enough.
AT THE CEMETERY the casket holding Linda’s remains finally descends into the vault with no one to witness it save the operator and the driver of the truck. The woman has left her spot by the stone lamb. No one tends to the final phase of interment who doesn’t have to since in its recognition, like suicide or infant mortality, is the admission of an end, a certain existential realization that few want to face, even in a cemetery. Ian did not break the rules after all.
The operator has laid out two-by-six planks parallel to each other from the service road to the open grave on which the truck driver backs the rig on to and stops short of the subterranean vault, its lid suspended from the girder beam, swinging again from the stop. The driver gets out and operates a control that moves the lid out on the extended beam over the grave. The winch slowly lowers the lid while the driver guides it into place, the concrete ridge of the lid slipping, grinding a bit into the recess of the vault and seals with a certainty and finality.
The tractor operator removes the green covers from the front row of seating and folds the chairs and stacks them. He rolls back the Astroturf and stacks the rolls next to the chairs and in doing so reveals the other grave marker adjacent the new grave. The full name and dates now appear, VIRGINIA McDANIEL, DECEMBER 6, 1990 – OCTOBER 10, 2001.
The front loader dumps soil over the vault. Sod is rolled out over the tamped earth of this new grave. The men finish their landscaping without speaking, framing out a four-inch deep setting for the new headstone. They struggle with the monument and place it in the middle where it waits for fresh cement to permanently mark the grave site that now waits for Ian. With everything in place and tidy, they mount their vehicles and drive back down the service road, the diesel idle of the tractor peaks a bit to get the torque to turn the big tires and then settles back to a quiet cruise as it goes away, passing the woman from the infant grave who is walking towards the fresh grave.
Her curiosity brings her to the framed headstone. The sod still needing to settle into the earth outlines the space beneath it. She turns her gaze and reads the adjacent grave, settled in with its worn marker, and tries to find some meaning in the implied relationships etched in the stones.
THE OBSCENITY IN THE OPULENCE of the Reagan home is offset by knick-knacks of humanitarianism. There’s a crystal statue of a newborn, a certificate of appreciation, a photograph of a mother and infant in some third-world context. They are all diminished in a room this big. As conversation areas go this one echos with noise despite the soft surfaces of the facing sofas and the runner on the coffee table. Pam is as lost in the room as the furniture. She wanders through it looking at angles, from the entry, from the kitchen, from the egress to the bedrooms, and she stops. Out comes her phone.
“Office,” she says, and the device chimes as it obeys and dials.
The reception of the South Highland Women’s Center buzzes. The waiting room seating is missing its vacancies that make term pregnancy even more uncomfortable. The receptionist is busy at the window of the business part of this office, leaving the phone to ring. Elaine, the Center’s office manager, picks it up.
“South Highland Women’s Center,” she answers.
“It’s Pam,” she hears through her headpiece.
“Hi, Pam. Gray’s with a patient right now. Can I have him give you a call?” It’s an exchange that has transacted a thousand times reduced to this shorthand. Pam knows the drill. “Would you please? This Elaine?” She pauses. No small talk nor pleasantry exchanged. “Thank you, Elaine. I’ll be on my cell,” and the call disconnects. There’s something palpable about the exchange, a dissonance in both their tones.
IAN PICKS UP THE WINE BOTTLE and pours what’s left into a glass and empties it with one swallow. He steps away from the kitchen, walks past the empty divan and stops at the entry surveying the great room from corner to corner. He crosses its breadth just to the opening to the hallway and he examines the structure of the wall, the one that encloses the hall bathroom. He runs his hand along the corner, the junction of the hallway and the great room, up as high as he can go, almost to the ceiling, and there he pounds on it as if he could tell whether or not it bears the weight of the ceiling trusses. He bangs on the wall with a closed fist as he walks down the hallway, listening to the percussions, nothing out of anger, more out of assessing his next home improvement project. At the end of the hall he wanders back to the master bedroom, pounding again. And he stops. His ankles make snapping sounds in the shift of his weight, the turn of his direction that takes him back to the hallway to the closed bedroom door. He turns the knob and lets the door swing and then wanders the rest of the house, letting the air within the room mix with the rest of the space diluting its aroma. Smell has the closest and quickest neurological connection to memory and Ian has learned over time to allow this room to breathe before he enters it.
Pam wanders the rest of her home as well. Her phone still in her hand, she circles the space and looks at the bare wood floor from all the angles and how it diminishes the furniture. And her cell rings.
Doctor Gray Reagan is alone in an exam room wearing scrubs and a smock, his Bluetooth device lit in his ear, his phone in his hand. He’s in the later sixties, the new fifty for him. His schedule in obstetrics is less kind to his waistline, but anyone would be hard pressed to think him out of shape. He’s gregarious in his disposition, a man women love and trust, not just because he delivers their babies, but because he’s also the father-figure fantasy to most of his patients, not having any children of his own. He’s that nice of a guy.
“Hi, Love. You called?” His tone certain and gentle, a deliverer, a guide, his best interest placed in his patients with room for his spouse. He stows his phone and walks and listens to Pam. He passes through the business office and drops a patient file into a holder without the conscious thought of it.
“I have two deliveries scheduled in the morning and we have a tee-time tomorrow afternoon,” he reminds her. “Sunday would be better.”
Adorning the walls of the office hallway are snapshots of newborns and mothers, thank-you cards and birthday photos of one year-olds, a history of the past year. Not all of these were patients of Doctor Reagan, his center has two other OBs, but he’s certainly the patriarch of the practice, the physician of preference. He stops outside an exam room and retrieves a file from a holder on the wall beside the door. He continues into the Bluetooth, “I have four this afternoon and I’m into my last exam.”
Gray raps on the door lightly and immediately goes in. A third-term mother is on the exam table, draped in a blue paper gown. A nurse is finishing her vitals.
“That’ll be good.” He smiles to the woman on the table and taps on the Bluetooth device, an indication he’s talking with someone who is not in the room. He opens the file and reads, and talks, “I haven’t had lunch today. Gotta run. Okay,” and he disconnects, his full attention now given to his papered patient.