The Family Sign
written by: James Gabriel
They drove in silence. The only sound above the hum of the engine was a rattle that came from the passenger side door when they hit rough patches in the road. Celeste drove with her evening gloves on which she never did due to an irrational fear of the slickness of the gloves impeding her ability to turn sharply when she needed to most. Tonight was different, she hadn’t given it a thought when she got in the car, did not notice the absence of touch, the feel of the vinyl on her skin or the pinch of the key as she turned the ignition. The only thing that pierced the veil of thought was the whine of the seat belt warning when she started the car. They had recently passed the seat belt law and she knew she should be wearing it but looking at the small red torso, bisected by the image of a safety belt she ignored the warning. She looked over at Marvin, eyes closed yet not sleeping. His head listing to the right. His salt and pepper whiskers shaking with the car.
Marvin’s head bobbed with the rhythm of the road. He caught the sound of the rattle in the passenger door quickly. The door vibrated loudly on potholes but underneath that was a steady low shaker sound that ran in synch with the rotation of the tires. It had a catchy rhythm that stuck inside his head like an ear-worm: tha-thunk-chi-chi/tha-thunk-chi-chi. He resisted the urge to bob his head along with the beat and tried to relax, letting the road carry him along.
The estate was only four miles from the ferry and they arrived at the gate quickly. Marvin’s eyes opened and Celeste slowed the Buick down as they passed a sign that read: “Ballineen” in gold lettering mounted on wood. She sped up the path. As they turned towards the estate they saw ten or so cars parked on a large gravel drive. Celeste glanced over at her husband who merely pointed at an empty spot which she proceeded to pull into. She killed the engine and they both sat looking at the vast expanse of land revealed only by the light coming from the windows of the manor.
Without speaking, Celeste grabbed her purse and Marvin opened his door. They walked up the drive to the front entrance which was open. Stravinsky and idle chatter filled the air.
Marvin and Celeste were escorted to the main hall. There were enough people at the party that the couple was not openly acknowledged by any of the guests. Standing in the large entryway Celeste suddenly felt like lint on an ill-fitting suit. Marvin walked towards a server in the corner and swiped a glass of sparkling wine, handing one to his wife and downing the other one in his hand as the glass touched her fingers.
“Did you know?” Celeste asked her husband in a low voice.
Marvin shook his head and scanned the room. He was the only pediatrician in the village and had seen a few of the couples that were mingling during house calls over the years. Now they paid him no mind. Their children with measles or chickenpox; the Andersons, standing in the corner had a boy, Willie/Billy or something who had lodged a penny in his nose. None of their offspring were here now so Marvin served no purpose, the differential attitude he was normally greeted with was as absent as their children.
When she walked in heads turned. Rosemary Cravath carried herself with effortless grace. A carefully placed hand, a courteous nod, and a slight knowing smile greeted each guest as she passed them on an indirect path to Marvin and Celeste.
She extended a slender hand out to Celeste which she took gingerly.
“I hope asking you to come tonight was not too much of a bother.” Mrs. Cravath said, turning to shake Marvin’s hand.
“Not at all” Celeste answered.
“Dr. Karlin,” Mrs. Cravath said, “I’m sure you wouldn’t remember but you treated my oldest, John when he had the mumps.”
“I do, Mrs. Cravath,” Marvin replied. “Although I don’t recall our meeting then.”
“We did not. I was in France at the time.” Mrs. Cravath paused and looked at a section of the room where the wall met the floor. Marvin’s eyes followed to the spot. “Alma,” she said, the name finally coming to her, “was John’s nanny at the time, she would most likely have been the person with whom you dealt.”
“I see,” Marvin said.
“You have put quite a test to my memory, Dr. Karlin.” She said, nodding to herself. “Let me give you both a tour.”
Marvin and Celeste looked at each other.
“That would be wonderful,” Celeste said. She saw that all eyes in the room were turned towards them with an intensity that was bordering on impolite. Celeste slid her arm around her husbands and left the party with Rosemary Cravath to explore.
They walked the garden, Mrs. Cravath slightly ahead of them. Soft lights along a gravel path led the way. She did not say anything to either of the Karlins. Celeste finally broke the silence.
“How is Mr. Cravath fairing?”
Mrs. Cravath turned her head slightly, nodding to acknowledge Celeste’s concern. “Not well I’m afraid. He can no longer speak and has been confined to his bed.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Celeste said.
“I have a good friend at Sloan-Kettering,” Marvin added. “I could give him a call.”
Mrs. Cravath raised her hand. “I appreciate the concern, Dr. Karlin. My husband is now quite beyond a state where the qualities of a physician would make a difference.”
The garden led out to a cliff overlooking the Atlantic. Rosemary Cravath stopped just at the end of the path to let the couple pass. Celeste thought about how many times she must have given this tour. How many times she had stood at the edge of the path, just at the edge, to reveal the wide Atlantic, lit by the moon as if it were a gift she was presenting. Celeste’s hands shook and she opened her purse for a moment to give them something to do.
“Do you come out here often?” Celeste asked, trying to hide the tremor in her voice.
“Not as much as I wish. My husband’s illness…” Mrs. Cravath turned back towards the house. Marvin has seen the same look on the faces of his patients over the years. An almost superstitious feeling that veering too far away from an ill family member might exacerbate the illness.
“I hear you have an amazing library,” Marvin said.
“We do.” Mrs. Cravath said, her eyes giving a slight flutter. “Would you like to see it?” She did not wait for an answer, merely turned towards the house and began the walk back.
Denny laid on the couch. His right arm draped over his eyes and his left, in a sling, was holding two fingers of scotch. The condensation from the ice ran down the glass and onto his hand. The room was quiet and he could hear the faint sound of his watch ticking.
“This is the main library.” Mrs. Cravath said, opening the door. Denny shot up and off the couch. The scotch spilled down his leg.
“Fuck!” He yelled.
Denny glanced up and saw his mother and the Karlins standing in front of him. He froze. There was a long silence as everyone took each other in, the Karlins had not seen Denny since the inquest.
“Denny.” Mrs. Cravath said. “Language.”
“Sorry, mother.” He replied.
“We didn’t know you were in here.” She said, looking back at the couple and then her son.
“I was just…resting my eyes,” Denny answered, finally breaking eye contact with the Karlins and patting his wet pant leg.
“We didn’t mean to frighten you.” Mrs. Karlin said, her voice seeming too loud for the room.
“You didn’t,” Denny said. “I just…wasn’t expecting anyone.”
Dr. Karlin stepped forward. “Denny –“
“Why don’t you get yourself changed and join the other guests in the sunroom, Denny?” Mrs. Cravath interrupted.
“Yeah,” Denny mumbled.
As he walked past Dr. Karlin he had to slide around him. People usually moved for Denny and the fact that the old man didn’t budge tweaked him. As Denny slipped past he looked at Dr. Karlin but noticed his eyes weren’t focused on Denny’s, they were focused on the sling.
As Denny closed the door he heard his mother say, “This is the larger of the two libraries, the second –“
He walked up the stairs, his heart pounding, each step an effort to keep from collapse. He walked into his bedroom and shut the door. It was only then that he realized the empty glass was still in his hand. He let it fall to the floor, wiping the cold water and traces of scotch onto his shirt. He looked around the room absently, unsure of what to do. The bed felt too far, he slumped to the floor and laid down. The carpet felt good against his cheek.
He didn’t know the girl. There were so many people on the boat that night. Sailing to the shore and back. After they hit the rocks everyone had forgotten about her, just because he was steering the boat, because his family was rich now they expected him to have all the answers. He opened his eyes and fixed them on a chip at the base of his chest of drawers. He had three scotches before Mother and the Karlins barged in and he was wishing could now reclaim the fourth that was soaked in his trousers.
A dark thought quickly occurred to Denny. Dr. Karlin was looking at his sling. Did he use the wrong arm when he spilled the scotch? He couldn’t remember now. He tried to keep his paranoia at bay by getting up off the floor.
Denny changed slowly and tried to figure out how to stay away from the party. The thought of hanging around a bunch of his mother’s old friends, nodding and smiling, pretending that nothing had happened gave him a sick feeling in his stomach. His family was too powerful for open condemnation and Denny at the moment wished he was stupid enough to not understand silent judgment or had the courage not to care.
He stepped out into the hall wearing a clean change of clothes and realized he could sit with his father and wait everything out. No one could blame him for that, it might even seem understandable. He smiled at his cleverness and walked towards the end of the hall where his father was being kept.
The smell of brandy and old leather had long since been replaced by the smell of rubbing alcohol and slow death. The smell sickened Denny but it was better than being downstairs. Denny stood over the nurse who was reading a book and coughed quietly to get her attention.
“I’m sure you’d like a break,” Denny said with a smile as the nurse looked up.
The nurse merely nodded and slipped her book into a knitting bag. Denny stared out the window until he heard the door close behind him.
He sat at the foot of the bed opposite his father, watching him sleep. The cancer had stripped away any semblance of a person he didn’t know that well to begin with. Denny wondered what it was like, to know you’re dying. That this is the last bed you were going to lay in, the last room you would be in, the last ceiling you would see over your head. He nodded to himself as if he had made some final resolution about that matter.
He got off the bed and walked towards the bookshelves he wasn’t supposed to go near and pulled a book from the shelf that he wasn’t supposed to read. Denny looked over at his father, half expecting the old man to start yelling at him. His father was still asleep, Denny looked down at the pages not really reading them, he let his eyes blur until the lines became a distant horizon of black and white swimming in a haze. He let his eyes refocus and tore the page out of the book. His father didn’t stir. Denny folded the torn page, slipped it in his pocket and walked back towards the bed.
He sat by the bedside and squirmed against the body heat still absorbed in the chair. Denny tried to imagine sitting here all day and taking care of the corpse in waiting that was once his father. The door clicked open and his mother walked in her eyes resting on Denny sitting in the nurse’s chair as if that was exactly where she expected him to be. She always had a way of figuring out every scheme and deceit he conjured with an omniscient quality that he found infuriating.
She leaned against the door and bore her black eyes into the back of her son’s skull.
“What are we doing in here?” She queried.
Denny looked back at the bed and raised his hand towards his father. “I thought I’d sit with father, keep him company. The nurses here are fine but I feel like it’s good to just sit.” He trailed off, letting his hand drop onto his lap.
“Look at me, Dennis.” His mother said.
Denny turned towards his mother’s expressionless face.
“You will go downstairs and have dinner. You will sit by my side and be a good host. You will not engage in conversation with the Karlins and you will not make eye contact with them. Do we have an understanding?”
“I promised I would protect you, did I not, Dennis?”
Denny looked away again. They were getting too close to talking about it. The sick feeling in his stomach returned.
“This is a very delicate matter we find ourselves locked into, young man. The slightest misstep here and we could wind up in a completely different situation. Do we have an understanding?”
“You go down and I’ll be there as soon as the nurse comes back.”
Denny got up from the chair and walked past his mother quietly shutting the door behind him.
There were four circular tables arranged around the room, placed before large windows that laid out the garden Marvin and Celeste had been in only an hour earlier. Marvin looked at his watch while Celeste continued to cross and uncross her legs. He’s so close, Celeste thought, staring at the boy with the floppy blonde hair sitting catty-cornered from them. Celeste watched him nod politely and smile. He did not look at either of them during dinner although Celeste caught Mrs. Cravath glancing at them on several occasions and once even nod in her direction. Celeste made small talk with the people at their table while trying to avoid making conversation with a particularly loud and odious man from Connecticut.
Celeste looked at her husband’s untouched plate. His eyes had not come off the table since the boy had entered the room.
“Maybe after,” Celeste said.
Marvin didn’t look up from the table.
She put her hand on his forearm. “Maybe after everyone is gone. So there isn’t a scene.”
Celeste could tell that her husband had sunk into a depression. These moods came and went after the news of their daughter’s death and the inquest. He always managed to pull himself out from these episodes with an ease and resolve that Celeste admired and wished she had. She always saw her husband and men in general as quiet and internal yet at the same time so shallow, everything, even their silence carried so close to the surface of things.
She watched the boy get up and leave. Celeste waited for a few minutes. She excused herself and asked for the whereabouts of the powder room. She followed the boy’s path until she came to a closed door and heard running water coming from inside. She hesitated, resting her hand on the knob and applying just enough pressure to know the door was locked. Celeste looked over her shoulder to an empty hallway and waited in the shadows. The door opened quickly and the boy came bounding out.
“Denny,” Celeste said quietly from the dark.
The boy jumped at the sound of his name and took a step back.
“I’m sorry, Denny. I didn’t mean to scare you.”
“Of course.” He said, trying to gather himself. “If you’ll excuse me.”
Without thinking Celeste slid in front of him. Denny stopped and took another step back. They stood there for a moment in silence. She felt the sweat on her palms slowly soaking into her evening gloves.
“I was wondering – “
“I really must be going.” Denny interrupted, trying to step forward.
Celeste slid in front of him again. He stopped and stared at her blankly. He’s not sure what to do, she thought, this might be my only chance.
“Can you tell me…” She said finally, her body pitching forward slightly both arms loosely waving forward. Celeste struggled to finish the question.
Denny could see the glint of tears even in the shadows of the hallway.
“Mrs. Karlin --” He said.
Celeste’s words finally came tumbling out. “Was she happy? Was she having a good time at the party? Did she laugh? Was she funny? Did she smile? What did she say to you? What did you say to her? What did she say before she died? Do you remember?”
Denny didn’t say anything for a minute. He began to speak and his voice cracked, a strange strangled squeak came out of his throat.
“Excuse me.” A polite voice said from behind Celeste. Denny looked over his shoulder to see Stephen, their butler standing just behind Mrs. Karlin.
“Yes, Stephen,” Denny said after a hard swallow.
“Madame requests your presence, Master Dennis. There are several guests departing and she wishes that you bid them farewell.” The butler looked over Celeste’s shoulder making no mention of the shaking woman in front of him.
“Of course, Stephen.” Denny replied. “You will excuse me, Mrs. Karlin.”
Denny walked past her and down the hall. His padded footsteps fading away from her. Celeste felt a darkness creeping into her vision, having enough wherewithal to grip a table before slipping into unconsciousness.
A waiter came to get Marvin twenty minutes later, leading him back to the library where Celeste was laying on the same couch where they had seen the boy earlier in the evening.
“Are you all right?” Marvin asked as he sat beside his wife.
“Yes.” She nodded, taking a sip of water that one of the waiters had given her.
Marvin touched his wife’s face. She had been crying.
“Are you sure?” He asked.
Celeste smiled. Her husband always had a way of lowering his head and looking at her from under his brow, which she jokingly called his “doctor look”.
“I’m fine.” She said. “I just got a little light headed and one of the waiters was kind enough to let me lie in here for a moment.”
“Let me get you a drink.” He said, rising and walking over to the cart in the corner.
The door opened and Mrs. Cravath walked in just as Marvin finished pouring a brandy for his wife. Dr. Karlin stopped long enough to see her look at the drink in his hand.
“She fainted.” He said, gesturing with the drink towards his wife he walked back to the couch.
Celeste sat up quickly and adjusted her dress. “How embarrassing. I’m so sorry Mrs. Cravath.”
“It’s fine.” She said, with a slight smile.
“Don’t apologize to her,” Marvin said as he handed her the drink.
“Marvin!” Celeste said, surprised by his rudeness.
“Dr. Karlin is quite right, Mrs. Karlin. You do not owe me any sort of apology.” Mrs. Cravath said. Marvin noticed she stayed by the door, hovering just at the edge of the light in the room.
“We had an agreement.” Marvin blurted out. Celeste watched him put a trembling hand in his pocket.
“Yes,” Mrs. Cravath replied, “we did have an agreement.” She paused and put her hand back on the doorknob. “But as you can see my son is not quite up for speaking on that particular subject at this moment.”
She opened the door and turned before leaving.
“Perhaps another time.” Mrs. Cravath did not wait for an answer, she just closed the door behind her.
Marvin and Celeste looked at each other. She finished her drink and Marvin helped get his wife back on her feet. They opened the door to find a butler standing in the hall holding their coats which they accepted with a nod. Walking out to the car with only the sound of crunching gravel to accompany them.
Marvin opened the passenger side of the car and knelt down, tapping the side of the door.
“What are you doing, Marvin?”
He didn’t look up. “I’m trying to find the rattle.”
Celeste glanced at the estate one last time, seeing the silhouette of a lean figure standing at a window on the second floor. She knew it was the boy. She wondered how much damage a fall from that window would cause. It wouldn’t be enough to kill him, not yet, maybe break his legs.
“I can’t find it,” Marvin said.
“We’ll have to take the car into the dealership.”
“They’ll rip us off, I’ll find it.” Her husband said, climbing into the car and closing the door.
Celeste started the car and drove back down towards the main road, passing the back of the family sign.
“Stop the car,” Marvin said.
“What?” Celeste asked.
“Stop the car,” Marvin repeated. Celeste slowed the car to a stop. He turned off the engine and pulled the keys out of the ignition.
“What are you doing?” Celeste asked again as her husband climbed out of the car.
“Just stay here.” He said.
Celeste sat behind the wheel and looked out at the dark road. She heard a pop behind her and glanced in the rearview mirror just as Marvin closed the trunk. Celeste saw a flashlight turn on and move in the opposite direction, up the road and back towards the house. She rolled down the window.
“Where are you going?” She called out.
Marvin said something but she didn’t hear it. Celeste rolled up the window and turned back towards the road. Sitting there for a few minutes she waited, watching a mist fall back against the headlights carried by a light breeze. Then it began to rain. Celeste turned her head and looked out the back window. She didn’t see Marvin or the flashlight. Celeste knew she couldn’t sit on a dark road all night with the headlights running. The battery would die.
Grabbing her coat from the backseat and pulling it over her head she made sure the car was unlocked before she closed the door. She gazed down the dark road and started walking, with each step it felt as if the rain was coming down harder. The road was dirt and Celeste began to walk slower as she felt her heels sinking into the newly created mud.
She finally caught the light hovering in front of her, slightly above her head. Celeste couldn’t see her husband but thought she caught the traces of a dark figure moving in the dim light. She saw the light shift and shine on a wall, the closer she got she saw that it was the sign in front of the estate. Celeste heard Marvin yelling.
“Come on you son of a bitch!” He bellowed.
When she reached her husband she stopped to watch him. Marvin’s feet were half sunk in the soil, the lenses of his glasses were spattered with water, the flat end of the tire iron wedged under the “B” of the sign.
“What are you doing?” Celeste asked.
Marvin was either ignoring her or didn’t hear. “Come on!” He said as he pulled the tire iron. There was a loud wrenching sound as the letter on the wood pulled loose slightly.
“Ha!” He exclaimed, slipping over to the letter, Marvin began to pull with his bare hands.
“Marvin!” Celeste yelled. The moment he looked over his shoulder at her she wished she had not said a word to him. Even with fogged lenses hiding his eyes she could see the look on his face and it broke her heart. He wiped the water from his glasses and beard.
“They owe us, Celeste,” Marvin said, his voice barely audible over the downpour.
“I know they do, baby.”
They stood there for a moment in silence. The rain not washing the grief off their bodies so much as soaking the skin, two waterlogged grief filled bodies.
“What can I do?” Celeste asked after a pause.
“Hold the light.”
She walked over to the flashlight, slowly sinking into the soil and picked it up.
“Shine it here,” he said, pointing to the underside of the “B”.
The rain stopped just as they began walking back to the car. Marvin cradled the “B” under his arm and steadied Celeste with his other hand as they navigated the slippery path. He opened the back seat and set the letter down. They sat for a wordless minute before he started the car. Turning on the headlights, catching a fog that began to roll in as they drove down the lane onto the main road, heading into a wind that came off the shore that would clear the fog by early morning.