Returnings

The town bore only a passing resemblance to what I remembered. The old church was still there- I wondered if people still worshipped in those same pews Mrs. Tremblay had gifted to the church so very long ago. When I had paid my visit to Jeremy’s grave more than a month before I had done no more than drive through- I had known then that the land was wrapped up in a dispute so I had come cross-country from a neighboring community. Still, there were enough familiar things and I found the Historical Society easily enough.

The building was easily a hundred years old and not well suited to its purpose as a museum of sorts. This had been some sort of a meeting hall, but I could not be certain, as it had been built long after I had left. The door was unlocked so I entered and found a table by the inside of the door with a small basket labeled “Donations Welcome” the sole decoration. There did not appear to be anyone about. I dropped a few hundred dollars in the basket and set out to explore, making enough noise to ensure that anyone inside would eventually take note.

It was typical fare. Flags, documents, war memorabilia, some pictures, pieces of furniture, all of it documenting the passage of more than two hundred years: the town was older than that- perhaps the oldest pieces were stored away some place. Still, it was somewhat unsettling to be wading through pieces of lives that I might have touched so long ago. Things were familiar by their type and form, but nothing that I might point to and say “I remember that.” Then I entered the main hall.

I felt it before I saw it. Everything in the room was so very, very familiar. There was furniture from the south parlor, the large dining table, my harpsichord… so many things that had been ours. I turned and froze, for hanging on the south wall there was a portrait of a young woman, decked out in Victorian splendor, her hair piled high in scarlet curls and ringlets… me. Jeremy had commissioned that portrait on our tenth wedding anniversary. The artist had paid particular attention to the eyes…

“Mesmerizing, isn’t she?”

I turned to face the woman who had spoke and saw her start nearly as badly as had I. She was older; perhaps fifty or sixty, with dark hair going gracefully gray worn in a very modern style. Her blue eyes were open and friendly, though somewhat startled and there was something about the shape of her mouth and the angle of her jaw… I had to stop myself from commenting on it as her gaze tracked back and forth twice between the portrait and my face.

“I… I believe she was my great-great-…” the lie refused to fall gracefully from my lips, but she interrupted me as I stumbled on it.

“Oh, Lord, I believe it! Just look at the eyes, my dear!”

“Not to mention the hair, of course.” I smiled then, back at ease now that the moment had passed. “I am Genevieve Baker.”

“Baker? Oh! You’re the one who’s got Josh in such an uproar!” She laughed then and the sound passed in to and through me, calling up memories- young Catherine at her wedding, her laughter as she danced with Jeremy. I was in control of myself now, none of this showed on my face. “I’m Sarah, Sarah Jameson,” she turned towards the back of the hall and called out, “Edna! Edna, come and see who’s here!”

“I’m out front!” came a dry, yet sprightly voice, then an elderly woman appeared in the entrance to the hall. She was small, and clearly closer to one hundred than to eighty, but she was spry and her eyes were clear. In her left hand she wielded a cane that certainly had to be a mere prop for her stride was brisk and her gait even. In her right hand she waved a clutch of bills. “Somebody dropped five hundred dollars in the… Oh! Oh my word!” She stepped closer and looked me up and down, just radiating a mischievous delight as she grinned and said, “Well, it’s a good thing I didn’t bump in to you alone in here- I’d have figured I’d finally had The Big One. And that straight hair does nothing for you, dearie.”

They offered me coffee- we sat at a table in the kitchen at the rear of the hall and they both began asking and answering questions. Edna was Edna Carstairs. Josh was her eldest son, Joshua, and co-executor of the McAllister Trust along with his mother. Sarah was Edna’s niece. Edna and her late sister were the great-granddaughters of young Catherine. I felt somehow lacking in the presence of these women who knew their ancestry and their family histories, where I was forced to lie and in turn keep my stories simple and boring. Despite this Edna seemed fascinated with my story.

“And you had no idea about the trust, or your connection to this place until you found Elaine’s diary?”

“That’s pretty much it, yes. Oh, I knew a little about the family history, but it wasn’t until I found her diary and the legal papers that I had any idea what had happened. Even then, the diary only covers the year 1843. I assume she kept a yearly record, but I’ve not found any others.” Another lie- I had all twelve volumes, but this was the only one I could safely share with anyone.

“Did you bring it with you?” Sarah asked, “I’d love to see what it has to say.”

“I don’t have it here- it’s back at the hotel, but I’d be happy to let you look it over after I’ve met with Joshua. I’m assuming he’ll want to see it as well.”

“Oh, don’t let yourself be too concerned with my son,” Edna commented, “he’s really in no position to argue with you and he knows it. Truth is the trust is nearly bankrupt. He couldn’t afford to put up a fight even if you were a fraud.”

“Perhaps we shouldn’t talk about…”

“Oh, piffle! It’s not a secret. Lawyers should never try to be investment brokers. We sank a lot of the trust’s money in to Internet stocks- lost it all. Since then with the town putting the squeeze on us we’ve barely kept up with the taxes. We tried to take a mortgage on the property, but the trust’s got no income to speak of…” Edna trailed off, but I could see the wheels turning in her, thinking about the money in the donation basket. Somebody who dressed so nicely and could drop five hundred dollars in a charity basket on a whim might just be in a position to ease some of the financial stress. She smiled again. “Does my son know you’re in town?”

“I called his office when I checked in to the hotel, but he wasn’t in…”

Both of them laughed at that and Sarah said, “Oh, he’s in, he’s just avoiding you. He’s afraid you’re somebody the real estate developers dug up to try and break the trust…” At the same time Edna was digging through her bag and finally produced a cell phone, which she opened up and put to her ear.

“Joshua? It’s your mother. I’m at the museum with Sarah… yes, I know you’re busy, but I need you to come over right away… Now don’t be like that… I’m not getting any younger and you’re wasting my time and I haven’t got a lot to waste so stop complaining… of course, dear, I know… now don’t dawdle…” She folded up her phone with a sigh, “Don’t misunderstand, Jenny, he’s a good man. It’s just that he seems to think all the problems in town are his personal responsibility.”

Joshua Carstairs arrived within a few minutes. I was seated at the table having a second cup of coffee when he walked in and spied his mother over by the sink. He was tall and handsome, and quite distinguished looking with his thick silver hair and ruggedly lined face. His voice was quite warm and resonant- it must have been quite a boon to him in court.

“Okay mother, I’m here, now tell me what’s so important that I had to hang up on Jim Kelleher up in Boston?”

“Ah, talking with your spy? And what did he have to say? But you might want to turn around before you answer that…”

Joshua turned and stopped for just a second when he saw me, but no longer. Then he smiled and stepped forward, extending his hand. “Miss Baker, I presume?”

I rose and took his hand, smiling as openly as I knew how, “I hope you understand this was not my idea- I had planned a more formal meeting.”

“Oh, don’t worry. I know my mother’s handiwork when I see it. I had intended to call you after I, uh, finished conferring with my colleague in Boston.” He took a seat and Edna brought him a cup of coffee, after which she and Sarah departed without another word.

“Don’t be embarrassed. You’ve done your research, and I’ve done mine. Perhaps we should just lay out our cards and see where we stand?”

“Directly to the point, I like that. Okay, Jim Kelleher seems to feel you’re a legitimate heir, and now that I’ve seen you I certainly agree. You’re obviously not after any money, not with your bank accounts. So tell me: why are you here?”

I sipped at my coffee and read him for a moment. He was unconcerned, actually relieved, which was good. His curiosity was certainly piqued, but he was absolutely unaffected by my looks or demeanor. He had a wedding ring and unconsciously fiddled with it- a thoroughly married and honest man.

“You and your family are well-off, but the trust is broke. You can’t afford to keep it afloat and you can’t get financing. Four years, perhaps five and you’ll have to default on the taxes and be forced to dissolve the trust and sell the property.”

“That sums it up nicely, yes,” he sighed, “I’ve considered selling some of the pieces in storage, both to raise cash and save money- museum quality storage space isn’t cheap. But that would be little more than a stopgap measure, and mother would never permit it in any case. Now, you haven’t answered my question.”

“No,” I smiled, “I haven’t. I am not entirely certain what I want to do, but I think I’d like to help save the house. Once the pressure is off we can discuss the future.”

With that we agreed to leave any further discussion until the next day when I would present the trust document I possessed, just to make everything legal. Edna and Sarah rejoined us, having been not-to-secretly listening outside the door and the afternoon ran in to evening as we talked about the past and they filled me in on all the details of the family’s history they had collected. I had so little to offer them I again felt embarrassed, but Edna soaked up every little scrap I offered and was clearly eager to see the volume of the diary.

The next morning I met with Joshua at his office and we signed the various papers that made me an official beneficiary of the trust. I had already made arrangements with my bank so we were able to make a transfer of funds to the trust’s operational account- not a lordly sum, but enough so that Joshua could make the next few quarterly payments without having to liquidate any more of the trust’s dwindling stock holdings.

The remainder of that day I spent with Edna and Sarah, first letting them pour over the diary I had brought with me. Sarah was in heaven- it was filled with all sorts of minutiae regarding the daily activities of the family, both the children of the household as well as the activities of the other adult relatives and their families. Edna was quite please as well, but there was something overriding her happiness at having this piece of her family history in hand. She questioned me repeatedly about what I thought of this passage or that and I had to be very careful to avoid offering anything even remotely detailed, particularly when either of them got some piece of information egregiously wrong. Edna seemed to delight in having an outsider of sorts past whom she could run her historical narrative.

We took lunch together at a local restaurant and they took great pleasure in introducing me to any who happened by. After that Sarah drove me up to the house, Edna choosing to sit out that trip, as she was not up to “traipsing through the wilderness” that day. I had been there just a few weeks before, but it was enjoyable still, as Sarah was able to tell me where work had been done, what had happened to the barn and stables (a fire in 1956), and other details. The house had not been lived in since 1951, but the family had used it as a reunion spot for twenty or thirty years after that time. It had not been sealed up for good until 1985, which explained why it was not in far worse condition.

Sarah and I returned to her home in the early evening and I prepared to take my leave. I would be driving back to Boston the next day.

“So soon?” Edna complained, “I was hoping tomorrow Sarah and I could take you up to see the family plot- Catherine and her husband are buried up there, you know.”

“Oh, why go up there? You haven’t made that trip in over ten years,” Sarah protested, “and I can’t take you- I have to go in to the city tomorrow.”

Edna looked at me and I could feel her anticipation. I smiled. “I could stop by in the morning- I wouldn’t mind visiting the graves if that’s what you would like. I can leave for home after lunch.”

That night I was actually quite pleased with how things were going. I still had no firm idea what I would do beyond helping the family keep hold of the property, but I was already considering making some major investments to restore the house and the surrounding land. Perhaps we could move the Historical Society’s museum in to the house itself- the town had a tourism industry of sorts. A restored Victorian era home might make a nice addition. I took some time to review my cash status and see where I could gain liquidity without drawing too much attention. Then I started packing for the trip home. I hesitated over my pistol- I had been carrying it illegally for the past two days and it seemed silly to do that given the circumstances, but I am always reluctant to have it out of reach in situations like this. I do not like guns, and that makes me very, very serious about them. In the end I left it in the bottom of my purse. When I got home I would lock it up again.

I went to sleep that night with a smile on my face.

One Response to “Returnings”

  1. The following comments are as they first appeared on the old BlogSpot/Haloscan system. –ZM

    “I had a feeling that I belonged.”
    – T. Chapman, “Fast Car”
    Dishman | Email | Homepage | 11.18.03 – 1:56 pm | #

    “You can always come back, but you can’t come back all the way.”
    -B. Dylan, “Mississippi”
    Mr. E. | Email | Homepage | 11.19.03 – 2:07 am | #