Home > Count the Ways(9)

Count the Ways(9)
Author: Joyce Maynard

As things were—in real life—there was nobody to talk to about what happened. The people she used to have, with whom she might have discussed losing her parents, were the parents she’d lost. But the larger truth was that she couldn’t have talked to them about it anyway. Martin and Vivian had died that night, but they had been largely absent forever.

It was just Eleanor then. One other distant relative somewhere in the Midwest that she’d met a couple of times when she was little. No grandparents.

She’d made the trip home to Newton by herself; her father’s law partner, Don, picked her up. She’d met him a few times over the years, at her parents’ annual cocktail party, where her job was passing the hors d’oeuvres, but didn’t recognize him when he came up to her at the train station and, a little awkwardly, offered what passed for a hug. From there they went straight to the funeral home.

Later that weekend she’d made her way through the rooms of their house figuring out what to do with all their stuff. Only she couldn’t figure it out. How was a not-quite-sixteen-year-old supposed to begin taking apart a house full of furniture and clothes, books, records, papers, photographs, ski equipment, tax returns? All the odd things that nobody talked about: Her father’s underwear and a collection of Playboy magazines from the sixties. Her mother’s diaphragm. The liquor cabinet containing six different bottles of whiskey, ten of vodka; the clock over the television in the family room: No drinking until 5 P.M. Every number on its face a five.

Eleanor knew people whose parents viewed their children as the center of their universe, but that was never how it was in her own small family. She had friends whose parents barely spoke to each other and never touched, might even have slept in different bedrooms, but never missed their children’s games or band concerts. In Eleanor’s world, it was nothing like that. Her parents had already been together almost twenty years when she was born, and it had always appeared to Eleanor that they never fully got over viewing her as something of an interloper in their private world.

She could remember, from earliest childhood, the cries coming from their bedroom, late at night, a strange and confusing combination of what sounded like wild joy and injury. Her father’s eyes anytime her mother walked in the room. Her mother’s eyes meeting his. Herself, off in the corner with her colored pencils, close to invisible.

Thursday nights, watching Dean Martin—the two of them with their martinis. Friday afternoons, happy hour at a bar they liked at Coolidge Corner. Sunday mornings, she understood not to disturb them in bed till after ten o’clock, and used to watch the clock, waiting. “Adult time,” they called it. This took place not only Sunday mornings, but at dinner, too, when her mother put on one of her silky lounging outfits and the two of them shared their bottle of wine, and if Eleanor was quiet, she got to listen in to their conversation. Sometimes alone in the living room, they put on Mantovani records and danced. Eleanor could have set the drapes on fire when they were dancing that way. They wouldn’t have noticed.

Other times she heard her father’s voice, loud and angry. They were crazy about each other, but sometimes, they were just plain crazy.

Somebody would throw something. Somebody threw something else. Then came the sound of breaking glass. Their voices, saying terrible things. Then—not right away—the laughter. Then their voices were quiet again. Then the sounds from the bedroom.

This was the part to the story nobody mentioned at the funeral. Nobody spoke about Martin’s drinking, or how Vivian had matched him, drink for drink. Cocktails after work every night. Bloody Marys on Sunday mornings, and other mornings, too, often. Wednesdays. Mondays. You name it.

None of the people who’d come that day—men who knew her father from Rotary, or golf, or the law firm where he practiced, women who’d done volunteer work with her mother—would have recognized this other side of the two of them that Eleanor had known. The angry dad who tore through the house one time, cursing, because he couldn’t find the TV Guide. The one who, when the liquor store was closed one night, drove to five different convenience stores to find a particular brand of whiskey. The one who, when she asked him if he could not have so many drinks when her friend Marcy came over, sent her to her room. After, she could hear him tearing around the kitchen, ranting to her mother. Can you believe? Our daughter thinks I’m some kind of alcoholic bum. At some point in the evening he had torn into her room and grabbed her colored pencil set, which she was always careful to keep organized by color family. He threw the open box against the wall, pencils flying in all directions.

Eleanor had a word for times like those, when one of her parents—sometimes Martin, sometimes Vivian—spun out over the edge. She called it Crazyland. They didn’t live in that place all the time, but you never knew when they might go there. It was always just around the corner.

Eleanor never told anyone about Crazyland, but the fact that she had been there—witnessed it, anyway—was why she didn’t invite Marcy or Charlene for a sleepover, ever. Knowing Crazyland was always nearby made her try to be very good all the time, to keep her parents from going there.

Looking back on the house where she grew up, it came to Eleanor—later—that she had seldom seen her parents completely sober. Her father’s drink of choice, Jack Daniel’s on the rocks. Her mother’s, a Manhattan.

The accident that killed them had been a head-on collision, and all anyone said at the time was that there must have been ice on the road. Maybe the tread on their snow tires was not the best.

But Eleanor could guess why it was that their car had crossed over into the other lane that night. They would have stopped at their favorite bar on their way home. One of their many favorite bars.

They must have loved her. That’s what parents did. But it had been their idea, not Eleanor’s, that she go to boarding school, and although they seemed sad when they dropped her off that first time, Eleanor couldn’t help but notice a sense of relief underlying their farewells. “We’ll see you at Parents’ Weekend,” they said, but they didn’t make it.

After he picked her up and brought her home, the law partner, Don, told her she could leave everything till the summer, when school got out. But when school got out, and Eleanor returned to Newton, it was no easier to figure out what she was supposed to do with a houseful of the possessions of two dead people who in many ways she barely knew. In the end, somebody called in a company that ran estate sales, who promised to empty the house by July, so it could go on the market.

Eleanor spent an afternoon alone there. “Pick out what you want, honey,” Don told her. She started making a pile, but at the end of an hour the things she’d set out filled most of what had been their dining room. Where was she supposed to put all of this stuff, anyway?

In the end, Eleanor walked away with her father’s clarinet, her old cereal bowl decorated with Beatrix Potter animals, a dress of her mother’s from the fifties, and a pair of velvet pants that weren’t even her size. She took the photograph albums, of course, though it would be a few years before she opened any of them, and when she did, she was struck by how many photographs there were of Martin and Vivian, how few of herself. Judging by the slightly off-kilter way in which the images had been captured, she guessed she had served as her parents’ photographer. Anyone else, leafing through the album, would have no way of knowing that Eleanor had been along on those trips at all.

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