"Nobody walks the knife-edge of hilarity and heartbreak more confidently than Pelletier."―Richard Russo
In her exquisite new novel, acclaimed author Cathie Pelletier presents a witty and refreshingly candid portrait of grief, intergenerational conflict, and the impact one person can have on those he loved.
Bixley, Maine. One year after Henry Munroe's fatal heart attack at age forty-one, his doting parents, prudish wife, rebellious son, and wayward brother are still reeling. So is Evie Cooper, a bartender, self-proclaimed "spiritual portraitist," and Henry's former mistress. While his widow, Jeanie, struggles with the betrayal, Henry's overbearing mother is making plans to hold a memorial service. As the date of the tribute draws closer and these worlds threaten to collide, the Munroes grapple with the frailty of their own lives and the knowledge that love is all that matters.
With her trademark wry wit and wisdom, Cathie Pelletier has crafted an elegant and surprisingly uplifiting portrait of the many strange and inspiring forms that grief can take in its journey toward healing.
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Cathie Pelletier was born and raised on the banks of the St. John River, at the end of the road in Northern Maine. She is the author of 11 other novels, including The Funeral Makers (NYTBR Notable Book), The Weight of Winter (winner of the New England Book Award) and Running the Bulls (winner of the Paterson Prize for Fiction). As K. C. McKinnon, she has written two novels, both of which became television films. After years of living in Nashville, Tennessee Toronto, Canada and Eastman, Quebec, she has returned to Allagash, Maine and the family homestead where she was born. She is at work on a new novel.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Henry had been gone a year now, but Jeanie would never forget the moment he died, how the bed became lighter, his soul floating upward like a white balloon. She felt it, as though someone's hand had pressed down on the mattress, indenting, then releasing it again. A guardian angel, maybe. But Henry didn't believe in such stuff. "I believe in the IRS," he liked to say. "And I believe in staying one foot ahead of the bastards." Jeanie knew now that death was faster than the IRS because Henry Munroe had disappeared from the breakfast table, the supper table, the leather recliner, the bathroom, the workshop in the garage. He had disappeared forever.
But that morning he died, maybe the very second it happened, Jeanie had felt a tremor of movement in their bed, a quick shudder. Henry's heart! was her first thought. Henry having a heart attack had been a worry for months, ever since the doctor told him his cholesterol was dangerously high. But Henry had refused to change his diet of fast-food burgers and greasy fries. Jeanie could monitor what he ate at home, but each time he walked out the door Henry was a free man, responsible for his own behavior. And this had been his handicap.
They'd been married for twenty-three years, and that was Jeanie's next thought. Twenty-three years. She opened her eyes then and saw the thread of dawn uncurling along the windowsill. Without looking, her own heart fluttering, she reached a hand over and touched the side of Henry's face. It was cool, damp almost, and beneath the skin there was a stiffness, as though boards were there holding up the frame of his body, the shell of his life. A fresh stubble of beard had grown during the night, his body still trying in its primitive way to protect his face from the elements. But his body itself had been the enemy, or at least it had turned into the enemy, storing all that cholesterol in its arteries. "Henry?" Jeanie had asked. "You okay?" When he didn't answer, didn't move, didn't even breathe, she had reached for the lamp on her nightstand and snapped it on. Then she picked up the phone and quickly dialed 911. "My husband's had a heart attack," Jeanie told the distant voice who answered the call.
And that's when the truth washed over her, her eyes filling quickly with tears. All the time she gave directions to the house, gave her name and then Henry's, she didn't look at him once, there on his side of the bed, as if he might be sleeping in late as he often did on lazy Sundays. Jeanie thought that if she looked at Henry, especially when she said the words, "I think he's dead," that this would make it true. It would seal his fate. And she didn't want to do that if there was still a chance. They could work miracles these days with all that fancy technology. That's what she kept reminding herself as she waited for the ambulance, as she listened to the kind voice on the other end of the line telling her, They'll be there soon, Mrs. Munroe. Stay on the phone with me. Try to be calm now. They could even bring people back from long, winding tunnels, folks who had clinically died. And Henry was young, not yet forty. Maybe they could still save him.
Jeanie had lain back on the bed, phone still to her ear, and put her head on Henry's stiff arm. This was the way they used to sleep in those first, sexy years of marriage. It occurred to her that this might be the last time she would be able to do so. In those minutes before they took Henry Munroe away, she wanted to get all of him that she could. She wanted to imagine that their lives were just beginning, that those seconds left between them were little lifetimes. She tried to think of what Henry would say about this scene, if he could see it, if he were hovering up at the ceiling somewhere, looking down. Just the notion of it would make him laugh: Jeanie, of all people, being appointed by fate to find her dead husband first. Jeanie, who was afraid of spiders, and the dark, and of any suggestion to stray even slightly from the missionary style of lovemaking in all those years of their marriage.
It would take time, Jeanie knew, that morning she lay next to her dead husband, tears running down the sides of her face and onto Henry's cold arm. It would take time. She had given answers to all the questions she was being asked about her husband, questions that seemed so distant from the man himself-no pulse, no heartbeat-questions she answered without checking his cold wrist, without putting her ear to the silent drum of his heart. She knew the answers. And as much as she tried to stay there in the present, she couldn't stop her mind from rushing ahead, from giving her a glimpse into the rest of her life. Yes, it would take time to get used to certain words and phrases: My husband died last month. Widow. My husband has been dead for five years. Beneficiary. But that's how it was when they'd gotten married, back in 1980, the same year Ronald Reagan became the fortieth president of the United States, and Jimmy Carter took Rosalyn and went back to Georgia. Jeanie had said the new words and phrases then, learning them easily as the years unfolded: We've been married just a month. Husband. We're celebrating our fifth anniversary. Wife. The words and phrases of change. And that's when it occurred to her that she would have to break the news to the kids. Lisa now lived down in Portland with her new husband. And Chad, poor Chad, was still only fifteen and worshipping every move Henry made.
Jeanie had wanted to tell the woman on the phone other things about Henry Munroe, that morning he died. "He doesn't have a heartbeat, but he's got a sense of humor that won't quit. His favorite food is spaghetti and meatballs. He stills listens to the Beatles, and he loves the Red Sox almost as much as he used to love me." Those were the things you should know about a person before they leave the earth for good, at least as Jeanie saw it. You should know the important things about them, to prepare them for their journey, the way Egyptians put the items a king loved in his pyramid so that he could still enjoy them. If Henry had been an Egyptian king, he probably would've wanted Evie Cooper in his pyramid. That way, the two of them could row down the Milky Way for all eternity.
It was only after she had heard the wail of the siren in the distance, imagined the ambulance careening past the shade tree on Elm Street, imagined it cutting the corner on Webb Drive, its red light splashing around and around inside the glass dome, as if someone were shaking a jar full of blood, that Jeanie put the phone back on its cradle. She turned her head so she could look once more at her husband's face. Already his skin had begun to turn a grayish blue, and his eyes seemed to be searching for something on the ceiling. They were open and unmoving, the way he stared at baseball players during the World Series, or hockey players in those last seconds of overtime. It was probably how he stared at Evie Cooper's breasts that first night he saw her at Murphy's Tavern, back when the affair started. Jeanie had found the receipt from the Days Inn, room 9, which Henry had forgotten to destroy. Habit did him in, for Henry always kept his receipts for tax purposes. I believe in the IRS, and I believe in staying one foot ahead of the bastards. Jeanie had cried then, too, a full week of pans being banged about in the kitchen sink. But all Henry had said was, "Is it that time of the month already?" And for too many nights to count, she sat in front of the TV for an old movie, falling asleep on the sofa rather than next to Henry in their warm bed. But Henry, being a man, had taken the gesture at face value. "You fall asleep again watching movies?" was all he had said the next morning. That's when Jeanie decided not to tell him what she had found, not yet. She would gather her evidence for divorce court, would do her homework, prepare her case. And for weeks, she had done that. She had stockpiled the receipts, even those from the local IGA for bottles of wine and bouquets of precut flowers. She had smelled the perfume in his shirts, had noted the way he always put on clean underwear just to go to Murphy's and watch baseball with Larry. And then, when she was finally ready to lay the deceit at Henry's feet, she had opened her eyes to what would be the last day of her life with him.
It had been twelve long months, and yet it seemed only yesterday that she heard the ambulance shriek into the driveway, excited voices filling the yard. That was when Jeanie Munroe leaned over and kissed her husband's cold lips for the last time, at least in their marriage bed. She wanted to say important things, the things a person hopes to say in times of crisis, she wanted to say, Sweetie, go to the light. Go to that bright tunnel. Do you see your grandmother waiting for you? Take her hand, Henry honey, it'll be okay. But that's not what Jeanie had said to her dead husband. When she heard the medics thumping on the front door, anxious to get inside with their marvelous technology, anxious to bring another stray soul back from a warm tunnel of peace and tranquillity, Jeanie had looked over at Henry's blue face and blue lips, his wide-open baby-blue eyes, and she had whispered, "Why did you do it, Henry?" That was when Jeanie Munroe finally admitted the truth, her stomach muscles cramping with tension, her breasts aching, her heart hurting her more than she had ever imagined. Henry's dead! And that's when she knew that what she had felt on the mattress, pushing it down gently so that Henry could fly up, up, and away, was guilt, that barnacle that had attached itself to Henry Munroe the very first time he ever opened the door of a motel room and then stood back so that a woman other than his wife could sashay past him.
But now Henry Munroe was free. Guilt had springboarded him into eternity.
All night long Larry Munroe lay on the bottom bunk with his eyes open, in his parents' house on Hancock Street, in the same room where he and his brother, Henry, had spent their growing-up years. Their mother had bought the bunk beds at Selman's Hardware, back in the summer of 1967, the Summer of Love. Five-year-old Henry, being the younger boy and used to getting his way, had claimed the top bed that day. Other than some nicks and scars embedded in the wood, the bunks had held up well, considering the Munroe brothers were known to be rough-and-tumble boys. Now Larry lay on his old bunk and listened as wind woven with rain tore at a shingle on the roof.
It was the shingle's welfare that kept him awake, and not the violence of the storm. The shingle and the memory of how Henry had been afraid of storms and lightning. And that's when Larry wondered if Jonathan was safe, in his new home in Portland, with Larry's ex-wife and her boyfriend. He decided it was best not to think of Jonathan. And so, with the tunnel of his left eardrum pointed upward to the ceiling, listening, Larry had taken the side of the shingle. This also helped to keep his mind off his father, Bixley's current postmaster. And the knowledge that his mother would be beating upon his locked door by eight o'clock, demanding that he open it, his father standing behind her with a doomed look on a face born to a legacy of worry. And Larry had not thought about his dead grandfather, Bixley's previous postmaster, a stern man with a sterner upper lip. Or his great-grandfather, Bixley's first postmaster, a man Larry knew only from the portrait that still hung in the Bixley Post Office, just above the counter where customers addressed letters, licked stamps, and tried to steal the postal pens from off their rickety chains when no one was looking. Larry Munroe came from a long line of mail carriers, men who saw the enemy in hail shaped like golf balls, in sleet twenty feet wide and laced with ice, in snow that crippled plows and capsized towns, in torrents of rain that swept terrified cows and pigs downstream. These were ancestral men who knew well that their reputation lay in a single, haphazard hurricane. Larry Munroe came from a generational army of mailmen, one that stretched from the turn of the previous century until now, to the turn in Larry Munroe's own life. A long line, and yet he would be the first to bring disgrace to the honorable profession.
As the storm intensified, and no matter how hard he tried, Larry couldn't keep his thoughts away from his younger brother, one of Bixley's former mailmen. At times, when lightning turned the sky and yard a dazzling white, he thought he saw the mattress above him move, as it did in those childhood days when Henry would wake in the midst of the storm. A small foot would dangle over the edge of the upper bunk until it found the ladder. A leg clad in cotton pajamas would be followed by another leg. And then the boy would appear, Henry, climbing down to walk the perimeter of the bedroom, to comfort himself until the cracks of lightning and the booms of thunder had subsided. Sometimes, he would abandon his pride and ask, "Hey, Larry. Can I sleep with you?"
But there was no more Henry. He was dead, a year now.
It was just before daybreak that the shingle lifted loose, free as a raven, and flew away on the wings of the storm. Only then, with pale streaks of dawn on the horizon, did Larry Munroe roll onto his other side, close his eyes, and try to sleep.
At seven thirty, Larry was already awake, before his mother would begin knocking on his locked door, asking if he was ill, if he had taken a sleeping pill too many, if he had forgotten to wind the clock, if he had forgotten to set the clock, if he had forgotten to plug in the clock, if he had forgotten the damn clock altogether. And then, when she had exhausted her supply of possibilities, she would turn to his father, throwing her hands up before her face as though they were doves, the necks broken, useless white things attached to her arms. She would step aside and let the one with the long, worried face give it a try.
Before the knocking would begin, Larry had reached a hand down and felt about on the floor for his mailbag. There it was, the brown leather pouch lying by his bed like a crumpled deer. He lifted the flap and grabbed several letters at random. He placed them carefully on his chest, stacking them in a neat pile before he selected the first one. An electric bill for Tom Peterson, on Mayflower Avenue. Larry tossed it onto the floor and picked up the next. The Howard F. Honig College of Nebraska was replying to Andy Southby's application for admission. Larry smiled at the notion of any sensible establishment accepting Andy into its midst. This must have been the fiftieth letter of application that Andy had mailed out since February, the first ones being addressed to universities that Larry had actually heard of. By June, Andy had begun petitioning any college he could, including the Nashville Diesel Mechanic School. But even they had denied his presence, for Larry had seen the thin-lettered and prompt reply they had sent back. Besides, if Andy had been accepted, Larry and the rest of the regulars at Murphy's Tavern would have heard all about it. Now it looked as if the revered Howard F. Honig College-whatever the hell that was-was rejecting the boy as well. At least the letter felt lik...
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