Pam Lewis Perfect Family: A Novel

ISBN 13: 9780743291453

Perfect Family: A Novel

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9780743291453: Perfect Family: A Novel
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Devastated by the drowning death of his twenty-four-year-old younger sister, William investigates the suspicious circumstances surrounding her accident and opens a Pandora's box of family secrets, including a dangerous fact that his mother has hidden for a generation. 75,000 first printing.

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About the Author:

Pam Lewis's short fiction has appeared in The New Yorker and other literary publications. She lives in Storrs, Connecticut.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter 1

William

Fond du Lac, Lake Aral, Vermont

At exactly three-thirty William Carteret parked beside his sister Pony's car at the lake house. He'd been driving since two, and now the sun was falling behind the mountain, and everything -- the house, the lawn, the shore, and half the lake -- was in shadow. A stiff wind was kicking up whitecaps on the water. A handful of sailboats scudded quickly, their small white sails crowded together as they headed for the last race buoy.

William stretched and walked down to the water, as he always did first thing. Someone was still on the beach on the opposite shore, where they had the afternoon sun. He envied them over there, the Nicelys, the Garners, the Wrights, and their neighbors, for the long slow afternoons filled with late light and the lazy wane of day. Here on the Carteret side, they had the early-morning sun, and if you asked William's father, Jasper Carteret III, he'd say they were better off because of it, that being on the western shore meant being early risers; it meant being industrious, disciplined, and, although this was not spoken, superior.

William turned and headed toward the house, a big old gray dowager of a place, three stories tall. The house looked tired. It needed a new roof, a thought that depressed him because it would mean an assessment from his father. He and his sisters -- Pony, Tinker, and Mira -- would all have to pitch in to help pay for it. Pony wouldn't be able to come up with her share, so he and his other two sisters would have to carry her again. Maybe he'd bring it up with her while he was up here, or maybe not. Probably not. There was no getting blood from a stone.

Something in one of the upper windows caught his attention, an orange shape moving to one side of the pane. "Pony?" he shouted, and immediately she was plainly in view, waving to him. Had she been there all along? Watching him? Something was going on. She'd called him that morning and told him in that rapid-fire way she had that he needed to come up to the lake, and it had to be today. She had the place all to herself. Well, she and her son, Andrew, who was only a baby. But the point was, no Daddy, no Tinker, no Mira. Pony had just come up and let herself in, and they didn't even know about it. "So there!" she'd said, meaning she'd blown off the whole sign-up sheet, the careful summer schedule that Tinker had come up with after their mother died.

She vanished from the window. A moment later, the screen door flew open, banged against the side of the house, and slammed shut. Pony came at a run, a blur of bright orange T-shirt and white shorts across the lawn, her long dark red hair streaming behind.

"Oh, Jesus, William," she said, wrapping her arms around his neck. "You came."

She was the youngest of his three sisters, his hands-down favorite. She was lean and tall, and she had the kind of energy that made her light as air. She hugged him, freed herself, hugged him again. She had a broad face, high cheekbones, and a perfectly straight and slightly prominent nose; it was the kind of nose, their father said, that came from generations of breeding. Her eyes, though, those were the main thing about Pony. Big hazel eyes always alert, always taking everything in, eyes that darted quickly and constantly.

"Wouldn't not." He glanced about, looking for evidence of someone else, but saw nothing.

She took a step back, taking him in, grinning. "Come inside. Andrew's taking a nap." She dragged him by the hand across the lawn to the porch and into the cavernous living room with its three big faded blue couches arranged around a massive stone fireplace where the last coals of a fire still burned. The baby's toys were scattered across the floor. William recognized the orange Tonka truck that had once been his, and Matchbox cars, also his from childhood. Even some of the girls' dolls were in evidence. Andrew's clothes and diapers were stacked in piles on the furniture; the room held the dismal smell of baby and sour milk.

"Looks like a tornado came through," he said.

"Voice down." Pony pointed to a crib in the corner, where the baby was sound asleep.

"I'll put my stuff upstairs," William said in a whisper.

The upstairs was like the downstairs: Pony's hair dryer lay in the sink, still plugged into the wall. Andrew's rubber toys were piled in the tub, and towels lay on the floor. William checked among the items on the vanity to see if there was a guy's razor or aftershave. He was 90 percent sure this was about a new boyfriend. But there was nothing belonging to an adult male on the whole second floor. He could hear Pony singing downstairs. An Elvis Costello tune, "Alison."

When he went back down, she was banging things around in the kitchen. She switched to whistling. The baby was awake now in his crib, looking blankly up at William, his face creased and moist from sleeping on his blanket. He was a cheerful little guy with very blond hair. When he saw William, he opened his mouth and wailed.

"What should I do?" William called out.

"Nothing. He's just hungry." Pony hoisted the baby out of the crib and went back into the kitchen, where she gave him a bottle, then blitzed around, the baby on one hip, making sandwiches with her free hand.

"So what's the deal?" William said. "Why am I up here?"

She stopped what she was doing and turned to look at him, cocking her head as if she saw something surprising in him. "All in good time," she said.

William went to the porch. A wind was blowing up the lake from the south. Overhead, the trees rustled, and from the lake came the hollow clank of the barrels under the raft as they were lifted and dropped.

A shout from next door caused William to look over at the Bells' place, partly visible through the trees. William's father still resented Dennis Bell (Dennis père, Jasper called him snidely) for buying the land from him eight years earlier and for the house Bell put up. William's father had sold only seventeen feet of water frontage, which was intended to force the Bells into building farther back, where the lot widened and where the house would be hidden among the trees. But Bell had put up an A-frame tight to the shore. It was a big triangle of a house with kelly-green trim, the only one of its kind on the lake, its cedar shake roof sloping all the way to the ground.

Every spring the Bells talked to William's father about blacktopping the right-of-way they shared, and every year William's father said no. The year before, a crew of guys had shown up and paved the private section of road that forked off the right-of-way to the Bells' house. William's family had contempt for the pristine condition in which the Bells kept their driveway, as if their own eroded two-track were a cut above.

Two shiny SUVs, a silver and a red, were visible through the trees. The Bell kids had Daisy rifles, and William thought he saw Denny, the youngest (Dennis fils), in the woods between the two houses. He was probably shooting squirrels. When Andrew got older, that would be a problem. Just as when William had been a kid up here, Andrew would have too much time on his hands by the time he hit eleven or twelve, and if the Bell kids or grandkids were shooting, Andrew would want to shoot, too. But that would be later. Nothing to worry about now. If William's mother were still alive, she'd be over there right now talking to Mrs. Bell, asking politely if she would please keep the boy from shooting off his gun. And then she'd come back to the house, distressed because Anita Bell would have said something like "Oh, what's the harm?" That was how the Bells were, casual about important things. William's father had called the police on them once, which had done no good. It wasn't against the law to shoot off a Daisy rifle on your own land.

The door creaked behind William, and Pony was there with Andrew still slung on one jutted hip. She lowered him to the floor in front of William. "Watch him for a sec, will you?"

Driving up from Connecticut, he had felt sanguine. That was the only word for it. The day was clear. The road was empty. He'd done eighty, sometimes ninety, all the way up 91 and not a single cop, not even north of Greenfield, where there were almost always speed traps. He'd had this idea that he would sit on the porch at Fond du Lac and work, something he'd seen in The New York Times Magazine once, an ad for booze showing a guy with bare feet propped on a railing looking out at the ocean, laptop open, rum drink at the ready. William eyed the baby, who sat on the floor like a lump, staring up at him. He was apparently easy as kids went, or so Tinker, the eldest of William's three sisters, always said. Tinker said Andrew would sit wherever he was put and stare at something until something else -- his toes or a piece of lint on the floor -- got his attention, and then he'd stare at that for the next half hour. She always followed that up by talking about how her own daughter, Isabel, who was eight now, had been lithe and quick at Andrew's age, the implication being that a restless child was brighter. It was another way for Tinker to cut Pony down to size. Tinker needed to step on Pony just to feel even.

William had been six when Tinker was born. Mira had come a year later and Pony a year after that. Three damp little animals. Their mother was always attending to them -- feeding them, burping them, changing their diapers. The house smelled all the time. He stopped having his friends over because of the blast of steamy baby smell that always hit him when he opened the front door. As his sisters grew older, Tinker, an officious, chubby little girl, rode herd on the others, parroting their mother about what they were allowed to do or not do. Their rooms were down the hall from his, and he could always hear her bullying her little sisters.

But then Pony had broken off and sought out William's company. She used to hang out in his room and lie on his bed while he struggled through his homework. She had questions for him. Lots of questions. Are God and Santa Claus the same person? Yes. ...

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