It was technically still spring, the end of May, and the residents of Peoria, Illinois, were experiencing the first hint of what was usually a stiflingly hot summer. The three Cates sisters walked the mile and back to Sunday church services for as long as the weather was mild and the spring flowers remained in bloom. This morning, as usual, they did not walk exactly abreast. Rebecca, the eldest, led by a few paces. A large, light-skinned woman, she strode vigorously enough for her legs to make a swishing sound against the stiff fabric of her skirt, strands of gray-streaked hair escaping from the bun wound loosely under her wide-brimmed hat. Her fitted jacket outlined her large bosom, defined a surprising waist and the fertility-goddess dimensions of her hips.
Claudia, the middle sister, walked crisply but without the advantage of Rebecca's low-heeled pumps. She artfully placed one yellow-heeled foot in front of the other, in the manner of catwalk models. Her shoes matched precisely the color of her shantung suit. Slender, erect, and regal with an amazing instinct for style, she followed slightly behind Rebecca, her veiled cloche not quite concealing her strong, interesting features. Her veil, falling over her wide-set black eyes under thick arched brows and just beneath her slightly hooked nose, provided her with intended mystery. Sensing beads of moisture on her nose, Claudia removed a jewel-encrusted compact from her purse, powdered precisely, and returned it.
Rebecca, observing from the corner of her eye, smiled, then shifted her glance to Gracelyn, the youngest Cates sister. Round and sensual, Gracelyn at fifty had an ebony cherub's face with smooth bark-colored skin. Sauntering unevenly in a loose-fitting royal blue jersey dress, a matching sweater tied at her neck, she took in the landscape and good-naturedly stopped to hail a non-churchgoing neighbor bending over her garden.
Their community knew them as Reuben and Mattie Cates's daughters, female scions of the utterly respectable and monied Cates patriarch. Reuben had held his own with the nearby white businesses, putting in innumerable hours poring over catalogues and stocking his small department store with high quality, yet affordable brands. Mattie Cates had had an eye for what ladies wanted: thread, lampshades, a variety of colored stockings. The couple's astute synergy had resulted in stable profit margins year after year.
That morning, the women sat in their usual place, the sixth pew back at the First Baptist Church in Peoria, the church they had grown up in. As children, they had filed in in front of their parents, who sat together next to the aisle. The seating arrangement never varied. It was always Rebecca, then Claudia, then Gracelyn, the intractable birth order they preserved in their various rituals as adult women.
Rebecca Cates, the spitting image of Reuben in her coloring and girth, listened carefully to what was coming from the pulpit. Reverend Wilson and his wife, Julia, had come to Peoria four years back when the previous pastor, Reverend Simmons, died from a massive heart attack. The girls had grown up with the elegant, erudite Reverend Simmons. His sermons were metaphysical, uplifting, and not overlong. However, Reverend Wilson was longwinded and a relentless purveyor of moralistic instruction. His bent these days was to remind women of their submissive role in the church and in the home. Rebecca surmised that this effort followed a scandal involving the leader of the national church organization. The man was discovered to have a mistress, upon whom he lavished considerable church money, including bestowing upon this woman a waterfront cottage. The situation was kept hush-hush until the man's wife discovered the infidelity, traveled to the resort cottage on Lake Michigan, and set it afire. Both the black press and the white press went wild, following the case. Congregations could not look the other way; women condemned this and other ubiquitous male behavior in a louder voice than at any time before in the history of the church.
To move things back to normal, Wilson offered a steady procession of wicked and wily women chronicled in the Bible. The preacher intoned: "...Job remained faithful to God against all odds. Even his wife encouraged him to curse God. But Job said to her, 'Are you crazy?'"
In previous weeks it had been Jezebel, Delilah, the deceitful Tamar, and Timothy's railings against women whose sole purpose was to corrupt as many men as possible.
Rebecca wondered if she was the only one in the congregation observing the pastor's wife, Julia, while all this was happening. Julia piqued her curiosity, because more than once Rebecca had found the small woman staring at her. The first time this happened, Reverend Wilson had praised his wife from the pulpit, calling her soft-spoken. Julia's eyes darted to where Rebecca was sitting, searching her face confusedly. The second time Julia's gaze fell on Rebecca, Wilson spoke fervently about keeping the marriage vows in sickness and in health, and until the parting imposed by death. Rebecca wasn't sure at first whether Julia was friend or foe, but her overriding instinct told her the somewhat nervous woman was seeking her approval. She was in any case nonthreatening, not that there was any way she could have threatened Rebecca. Julia was never present at the male-dominated meetings of the trustees and financial committees of the church to which Rebecca was customarily invited, along with her large checkbook. But Rebecca did encounter Julia at church dinners, socials, and concerts often enough to assess her. When Rebecca and her sisters attended these functions, Julia went out of her way to speak to them. Rebecca observed that when this happened, Wilson, whose eyes were frequently upon his wife, frowned noticeably. The Cates sisters thought Julia friendly and naturally pretty, though they described her in their chat as regrettably unadorned, with lifeless hair, scant makeup, and the most minimal pedestrian jewelry. She seemed a part of the background, much like the obsolete piano kept in the church basement's dining hall. Julia, Rebecca concluded, acquiesced to her husband in every way, was loyal to him, and content to be the wife of the pastor. Other than that, there did not seem to be too much bubbling underneath her surface.
After the scandal in the national church organization subsided, for the most part the women of the church were again sanguine, playing their roles as cooks, choir members, and ushers and doing most of the busywork of the church. None protested when Reverend Wilson urged his women parishioners to triple their fund-raising efforts by increasing their bake sales, flea markets, choir concerts, and special-occasion teas. When he announced he would table a proposal for a church day-care center until the following fiscal year, the women complied with his stated priorities. They deferred to and fussed over a succession of young male seminary students assigned to First Baptist at Wilson's request. They accepted the authority of these men half their age whose tenure at the church would be only temporary, and they paraded their unmarried daughters before them. A young woman seminarian was assigned to the church shortly after Reverend Wilson became pastor, but she left without explanation after only a few months into her appointment. From the pulpit, Wilson decried what he called a lack of tenacity in some young people.
Rebecca listened halfheartedly to Wilson's Sunday morning tirades, footnoting what might be done to rid the church of his leadership. But for now, the Cates women had more pressing matters to address and they had to be pragmatic. Wilson would have to be neutralized in their current scenario.
Each of the Cates sisters had felt for a time that her husband should be put away where others could take care of him. The sisters had married men only slightly older than themselves, but these men, who had been no match for their wives in their unusual vigor, strong constitutions, and mental energy, were all in decline. Rebecca's husband, Jake, suffering from brain damage and forgetting the tasks appropriate to daylight, burned toast in the middle of the night. Claudia's intemperate husband, Timothy, stopped work on a modest pension, was awake for half days only, and when not drinking, shaking. Gracelyn's Bernard was bedridden with a sinister bone cancer and moaning constantly.
Lucy Sims, a nurse attendant, was on hand every weekend from Saturday morning to dusk Sunday to tend to the sisters' ailing spouses. She made rounds at intervals, opening the door to each bedroom, bathing and feeding Bernard and checking Jake's elimination, then locking the doors behind her. She made certain Timothy ate something when sober, and when not sober, removed his clothes, cleaned up any vomit, and sponged him down with a wet cloth. She left copies of the Peoria Call, Jet Magazine, and National Geographic in the men's rooms. Afterward, she locked each one's door again and headed downstairs for the next meal preparation.
Lucy was a good nurse -- kind, efficient, and able to control each of her charges. When Timothy was not shaking too badly, Lucy steered him and Jake down the back stairs, holding each man's arms carefully, and took them out into the backyard to sit for an hour in the sun. She read short stories to poor Bernard when his moaning lessened and allowed him to concentrate.
After Lucy exited the Cates mansion Monday morning of each week, Rebecca, Claudia, and Gracelyn threw themselves into the care of their men. Following Rebecca's lead, Claudia and Gracelyn gritted their teeth and did their allotted tasks superlatively, one sister taking over for another when burnout resulted from the grueling round-the-clock duties. Visitors to their home were impressed with their work ethic, how busy they were during daylight hours. On a typical day, Gracelyn prepared meals for the invalids, Rebecca scheduled doctors' appointments and computed insurance deductibles, and Claudia went to the pharmacy for medications and ran other errands. Visitors who were themselves caretakers knew especially what the sisters faced daily. They understood the endless planning and work required in a situation that would mean life or death at any moment a mistake was made. They understood the discipline and dedication that must underlie a commitment to sick persons, maintained despite the sameness and unpleasantness of the work from day to day. They understood the danger to the well of exhaustion, frustration, and despair should they sense their utmost efforts were unable to thwart the persistent deterioration of their charges. They knew what it took to cherish the sanctity of life enough to wrestle with the gravity of life eroding.
As their husbands' health worsened, the Cates women vacated the second-story bedrooms they had shared with them. Rebecca and Claudia dispersed themselves to the third story of the large house and Gracelyn occupied the attic, which she had begun to imagine vividly as her writer's garret. Throughout the day, the ministering of multiple medications kept the women rotating their trips up and down the stairs to Jake's and Timothy's rooms. Timothy was invariably hung over and frequently passed out. Only in the evening did he summon enough sobriety and strength to exit the house. At any hour of the night also, the sisters might hear Jake wandering downstairs, or Bernard's moans. Though usually awakened, they did not always bestir themselves. Only the smell of something left burning on the stove or a draft from the front door hastily closed and now swept open in a gust of wind would bring Rebecca or Claudia to her feet to investigate. Gracelyn would answer Bernard's muffled moaning and go downstairs from her attic space to adjust his pillows or see that he had enough blankets. Though the disruptions were frequent, the sisters decided against Lucy's method of locking the men in to prevent them from harming themselves.
"Jake knows this house like the palm of his hand," Rebecca told her sisters. "If he wants to wander around, he'll be safe enough. And if he lights the stove, the smell will hit me. I don't think we should lose a good night's sleep over it. Dr. Turner can't give Bernard any more morphine than that drip allows, so we just have to let him holler. Gracelyn, I wouldn't even disturb him; just try and rest your mind until that pain passes."
"It's hard to lie there and hear him suffer."
"I know it is, honey child."
"But I'm just so tired at the end of the day."
"Of course you are. You need your sleep. You can't do a thing for him rest-broken, and he most likely doesn't know if you're there or not, he's so far gone."
Gracelyn nodded weakly.
"Timothy is going to get to town and find some liquor whether we lock his door or not," Rebecca continued. "That skinny man is spry, and I don't put it past him to go out the window and climb down the trellis. Other than that, it's no use having him bang on the door in the middle of the night causing a commotion. We have to get our rest for our own sake, as well as for the menfolks'. We can't do everything round the clock, day in and day out. And what we can't do, the Lord will." As always, Rebecca's dictum was followed by her sisters.
The Cates women maintained a pristine order in the house, enabling the sick and the well to coexist. When Lucy returned on Saturday morning to relieve the sisters, she never found anything amiss in the men's cleanliness, nor were their pharmaceuticals ever in short supply. She commented often to her neighbors how circumspect the Cates women were as caretakers, and mused along with them how difficult it must be to care for chronically ill menfolk.
With Lucy in charge of their men, Sunday after church for the Cates sisters was long and pleasurable. Once home, they enacted their weekly ritual of cooking a massive dinner and talking up a storm while eating it. Immediately following the second course of their meal, they collected baskets of threads, yarns, and fabric scraps and removed themselves to the sprawling front porch of the mansion, where sunlight filtered like quicksilver through the railings. Seated in wicker fan chairs painted a spring green, they worked studiously on crochet, needlepoint, and piecework and continued the conversation begun at the dining table.
Today, Rebecca, eyes steeled and staring straight ahead, paused from probing and twirling a wooden crochet hook into the deep burgundy rug yarn of her project. Earlier in the day, when she and her sisters had strolled home from church service, her mind had begun to churn with thoughts about their husbands. Rebecca moved a sweat-soaked lock from her brow, smoothing it back in place so it would not moisten her clear gray eyes.
"We've all borne a heavy burden. For myself, the Lord has shown me a way to turn it over to Him."
"Turn it over, that's what He wants us to do," said Claudia, her eyes riveted on her embroidery. She would not lead the discussion but would second Rebecca's opinion.
Gracelyn did not speak at first, but she caught Rebecca's drift and nodded her head to show support of whatever Rebecca deemed appropriate when it came to turning troubles over to the Lord. As she waited for Rebecca to clarify the issue at hand and identify the "heavy burden" they had each borne, she sensed the discussion would flow less from spiritual insight than from expediency. That was fine with Gracelyn. A grasp of purely ethical considerations was never enough to sway her from consensus with her older sisters.
"Well, that is the Lord's way," was her amendment.
A low-register moan cut through Rebecca's thoughts. The sound came from the second story of the house where two of the front windows had been raised and the shutters flung open to receive the light spring air.
"That one doing poorly today," was Rebecca's succinct comment.
As if to accompany the moan, in the next few moments the women heard a series of thuds against the hardwood floors inside. Claudia Cates's head shot up from the tiny lavender stitches she was making on her linen square, her concentration broken.
Gracelyn Cates dropped her fabric scraps and sucked the bubble of blood from her pricked finger.
"I'll go inside, make sure Lucy is all right."
"Lucy's fine. You just sit still so we can talk."
At Rebecca's instruction, Gracelyn lowered her half-raised body and sat back down in her chair.
And so the talk began. Rebecca characteristically led things off.
"You know the Lord's been good to Jake, keeping him alive after his head accident; and I just believe the Lord wants to take him over altogether. That Sacred Lamb Rest Home up in Springfield is a nice clean place, and they would have him in church service every afternoon. He's been a good husband to me, and I want the best for him right now. It stays on my mind that he could hurt himself when my back was turned, wandering around confused like he does."
Claudia and Gracelyn listened carefully. Here was the standard supplied by the indisputable leader of their now matriarchal clan. But they needed Rebecca to say more. With the blueprint laid, they would both be able to follow suit. To their knowledge, Jake's offenses throughout his marriage to Rebecca were in no way comparable to their own husbands'. In fact, he was mild mannered and seemed to have a great fondness for his authoritative wife, even while tolerating her unmasked adoration of her father.
Rebecca's marriage to Jake had been perfunctory and unrelated to her ideas of womanly fulfillment. Her father was the man in her life, brilliant, dynamic, demanding. Rebecca was very much like him, strong and spirited, optimistic, sharing a physical resemblance and a passion for family. Mattie indulged the bond between her firstborn and her husband, actually relieved that her husband had another sounding board, since his bold energies had consumed her own fragile ones for years. Rebecca, however, more than matched his stamina, could keep up with his grandiose outlook and, by the time she reached puberty, had begun to echo it.
Reuben was interested in dynasty. When Jake, then a young man in his twenties, came calling on Rebecca, a year out of high school and home from college for spring break, Reuben assessed him quickly. He had finished Illinois Normal in accounting and begun working as a clerk for a white-owned banking establishment. He seemed bright and ambitious, albeit not too interesting. When her father mentioned to Rebecca that this young man would fit well into the family, Rebecca was happy. Jake's slight physique and pleasantly intense dark eyes excited her. She was not suited to a man who would dominate her, nor did she want someone she could intimidate. Jake seemed the right balance. They could talk for hours about people, politics, and the places they both wanted to travel. After their marriage, they made love often.
Jake was steady. He intended to make the most of his good fortune in landing Reuben Cates's eldest daughter. When he began working with the Cates family business following Reuben's stroke, he came to work early and left late. Growing up poor, Jake hungered for the acceptance that marrying into Peoria's elite would afford him, and even had illusions about ultimately owning the prosperous business.
When first wed, Rebecca and Jake took a road trip together every summer, venturing as far as Los Angeles one year. Entranced by the sparkle of sunlight sweeping wide clean streets, Rebecca spearheaded their visits to tourist sites, commandeering her husband early in the morning.
"We'll head over to the university today. I hear it's a big place, and I want plenty of time to find the greenhouse. Then, why don't we visit the Hollywood lots and see about going to one of Papa's game shows."
Jake acquiesced in his usual way with a brief nod of his head. He liked the welcome they received entering and exiting their hotel, where they had obtained a lush suite, including a kitchen, as Rebecca was not a restaurant enthusiast. He knew their car, a Mercedes sedan, meant something in this milieu when they drove up the first time and the valet came to park the car. Pleased as he was, it was not difficult for him to agree to Rebecca's wishes.
The evening before they left, Jake mentioned to Rebecca that his mother's distant cousin Betty lived in one of the suburbs and he would call her so they could visit the woman, a retired schoolteacher. Rebecca, already in her nightgown and curled up in the oversize bed, after yawning sleepily, told her husband, "Well, let's make sure we know exactly where we're going. Better get directions from the desk."
The next morning, Rebecca informed Jake that he needed to go see the relative alone, since she had developed a headache from swollen sinuses. Jake said sympathetically, "Must be the air pollution out here." He left shortly after.
During their drive home when it was Jake's time at the wheel, Rebecca hoisted the snapshots she had taken with her camera, examining each and ordering them for their scrapbook. "How was Betty? Did you have trouble finding that address?" she asked.
Jake replied offhandedly to his wife's query, "No, honey, everything was just fine. I'm sorry you didn't get to meet her. She was quite a gal."
In late August, Rebecca noticed a burning discharge coming from her vagina. She douched for a week with white oak bark, thinking that the heat and humidity had irritated her. After the second week, when the secretion continued unabated, she left the house with Jake early Saturday morning, dropping him at the store and telling him that she was going to look at antiques in Springfield.
She arrived at the Springfield clinic, an anonymous woman. The diagnosis of syphilis left her dazed. On her way back to Peoria, she stopped at a pharmacy for her penicillin prescription, and, standing at the counter, felt, for one of the few times in her adult life, truly embarrassed.
The rage hit during the rest of her drive home. The cold and intense feeling alarmed her. This was the first time she had felt such out-of-control fury. She pulled off the road to the shoulder and tried for several minutes to breathe deeply. Then her mind began constructing a balance sheet, first randomly, then methodically. A guttural sob escaped her.
Rebecca arrived in Peoria just as Jake was closing the office. She pulled up to the curb alongside the bank building and waited for him to come out. He had known she planned to be back with the car by the end of his workday, and was waiting inside the lobby. He waved excitedly upon seeing her, and came out immediately to open the passenger side of the car for her so that he could drive them home. Rebecca walked heavily around the elongated front of the elegant car and slid past Jake into the seat. Jake threw his attaché in the back and proceeded down the town's broad avenue.
"Do we need anything before we get to the house?" Jake asked his wife, thinking how he hated to settle in at home, only to remember they were out of toothpaste. "Did you find any antiques today, honey?"
Rebecca spoke quietly. "Is your syphilis taken care of?"
Jake gasped, the car swerved, and he abruptly put on the brakes. He steered the Mercedes to the side of the road and cut off the engine. He turned to look at Rebecca, his expression alternating between astonishment and belief. He continued to stare at her resolute profile but said nothing.
Rebecca continued to speak softly. "I have it, so you must have it. Get it taken care of, please."
The prostitute Jake encountered coming back from cousin Betty's a scant three blocks from their posh hotel had been a small woman, not any taller than five feet one. She was wearing a purple satin dress and had a purple netting shawl thrown over her delicate shoulders, and even with the three-inch purple satin-covered heels she wore, she was like a doll, a delicate princess needing protection. As soon as he saw her, he was drunk with desire, and after making love to her, he paid her double the price she quoted.
Jake, in the now-suffocating air of the Mercedes, remained tongue-tied for several minutes. There was no way he could deny to Rebecca that he had contracted the disease. He thought illogically that Rebecca was too noble to contract anything so vile. During their marriage his infidelities had been sparse, taking place two or three times a year, and always with someone from out of town. In his mind, it was no big deal. He sought variety and didn't feel that he was betraying his marriage vows, because the women were so unlike Rebecca.
"I'm so sorry, Rebecca; I am so sorry. I'm just a man."
Rebecca did not respond.
"You know, it's hard on a man to be faithful to one woman. But I don't know what I would do without you."
Rebecca had already made up her mind to stay with Jake. Though ill and weak, Reuben was still intent on his daughters' bearing offspring. Rebecca accepted this as a duty, and after Jake's presenting her with written clinical evidence of having been treated, she continued making love to her husband, separating the honest affection she had felt previously from her considerable carnal needs.
Rebecca's periods stopped coming four months after she was diagnosed. When she went to be examined again at the Springfield clinic, the physician told her she was sterile because she'd had the disease without symptoms for so long. Rebecca felt immense loss and disbelief that something so important to her could be snatched away. For several weeks she was unable to rally her energies. When she did, she threw herself into her prize-winning orchids, showing them at the country fairs around the Midwest, and even had an invitation to travel to France. She told no one about her infertility. She reasoned, it would just worry Reuben and Mattie and perhaps lead to questions she would not want to answer. Though she knew Jake wanted offspring, whenever he brought up the subject, Rebecca revealed nothing about her condition. As far as he was concerned, Rebecca felt he didn't deserve to know one way or the other.
Reuben Cates's daughters had maintained separate residences with their respective mates and adapted to the state of wifehood as best they could. But eventually, after decades of marriage, they all returned to live in the massive homestead built by their father, Reuben. It was as though they had been on loan temporarily for breeding, but actual bonding with their mates was not envisioned.
Rebecca and Jake moved back into the homestead when Reuben had his first stroke and Jake took over management of the store. Jake was efficient and turned a good profit, so that when a hundred-pound carton of Indian Mist perfume spray collapsed a neglected shelf and cracked his skull, causing brain damage, Rebecca was able to sell the store and amply support Jake, herself, and her elderly parents.
Some years later Claudia Cates returned home to help Rebecca care for their mother, Mattie, whose good health had not lasted much beyond her husband's final stroke. Claudia reasoned that Rebecca had done her share by tending to their father and her husband after he became a half-wit, so that she would come and assist now that their mother was ill. It was an easier decision for her to move home than it would have been to surmount the confusion she felt at her husband, Timothy's, drunkenness and repeated unfaithfulness. When Timothy became regularly dissolute and unreliable, she decided to abandon her lifestyle and move back home. Some part of her thought that a relatively stress-free life living in the Cates mansion would give her and Timothy a second chance at meaning. It would certainly provide her love within the bosom of her family. As she culled her thoughts, there was no doubt left in Claudia's mind that now her place was with Rebecca and her ailing mother. Rebecca's strength was the bulwark she required to subdue the chaos in her life.
Unlike Rebecca and Gracelyn, who were wed in church, Claudia had embarked on married life with an outdoor wedding and reception at a posh Bloomington country club. Reuben's money secured the all-white establishment with little protest from the membership. Mattie took her elegant daughter to Chicago to shop for a trousseau for the August wedding. Claudia was outfitted with a slim-fitting ivory dress with a beaded bodice and circular train. Mattie had decided a display of the family's wealth would be appropriate, since Timothy's mother was from a prominent Chicago family, and his father was a successful lawyer. Reuben indulged his wife's dreams of a grand occasion, knowing such a wedding would compensate for the humble ceremony the couple had themselves undergone years before.
On the day the date and locale were finalized, Mattie talked excitedly to her husband at bedtime about the preparations.
"Reuben, you know they're all pretty girls, but Claudia is our swan."
"Well, yes, that's fair to say," Reuben responded. "I never did see Rebecca in all that frilly nonsense, and Gracelyn is going to follow just what Rebecca did. It'll be good for Claudia's shyness, get her out in public."
For Claudia, the preparations were exhausting but exciting. With her mother's help, she attended to the most minute detail, anxious for Timothy's family to see her in the best light. They appeared to her extremely well bred, and she did not want them to think of the girl marrying their handsome son as a country bumpkin. Claudia's new in-laws were duly impressed by the ceremony. As she and Timothy pulled off in their decorated limousine, Claudia noted out the back window that her new mother-in-law pressed Mattie's hand while talking animatedly.
Claudia's dread of her husband's touching her began that day. She turned abruptly from looking at the tableau of family and guests they were leaving behind when Timothy shoved his hand down her dress and grabbed her breasts.
"Timothy! The driver!"
"He's getting paid to drive, not look at us. I'm sure he's seen worse."
Timothy went on for a few seconds, fondling her roughly until she could dislodge his hand from inside her fitted bodice. Then, leaning into her, he licked the arch of her neck and began sucking noisily. Claudia recovered from the shock and summoned enough strength to push him hard against the door on his side.
"Stop it! Timothy, please."
Timothy, surprised at her strength, leaned against the upholstered side panel and assessed his new bride.
"Her first time," he informed the driver and grinned rakishly at the mute, expressionless man. When Claudia began to gasp, hysterically clenching her throat, he watched her silently. As soon as she regained her composure, he spoke to her.
"You're my wife now, and I can have you whenever I get ready. Tonight, you'll see what a good man you married, and you'll be grateful."
Claudia, stunned and speechless, watched her husband warily as he pulled a flask from his inside pocket and swigged down a few gulps. He offered it to her, and when she looked blankly at him, tucked it away again. He wore a slight smirk on his face and seemed to forget her for the rest of their ride to the Cates mansion. Claudia went upstairs and changed into her traveling clothes. She later remembered feeling numb in the hours before their flight headed for Tijuana, where they honeymooned. Escape seemed unthinkable, her sense of duty clear, despite her muddled thoughts.
That evening, seated across from him in their hotel dining room, she watched the handsome man, whom she had thought of as shy during their courtship, down shot after shot of bourbon.
"You were damned pretty in that dress. You looked like an angel." Timothy's good humor had not yet waned. But the more drunk he became, the more his sweet talk disintegrated. He muttered the words "pussy whipped," "goddamn hobitches," and "tight-ass cunts." Claudia was insulted and embarrassed, even though there was no one around to witness the exchange.
Afterward, as they walked together toward the elevator, he staggered slightly, and she placed her arm around his waist to steady him. He jerked away from her and in the process almost lost his footing on the gleaming marble floor of the hotel lobby. Arriving at their room, Claudia felt anxious about not being able to subdue whatever coarseness the liquor was unleashing in him. Timothy managed to remove his jacket, becoming momentarily entangled in one of the sleeves. This done, he awkwardly grabbed his wife, steering her backward until she fell onto the queen-size bed. Not knowing what was to come, Claudia's instinct was to lie unmoving beneath him while he groped her, then fumbled at his zipper. Gradually, without success, he sighed once, then began to breathe heavily, lying still on top of her. She knew then that he had passed out and began to get free of his weight. Standing, she looked down at him and, shaking her head, began to right his still figure awry on the bed. This was the first of a ritual they would act out for the next three decades of their marriage.
Claudia did not resist Timothy's entreaties to her when he was sober. Rather, she steeled herself for the ten minutes or so that their lovemaking lasted. With only the vaguest notion of what constituted gratification, and no actual experience, she never made demands, nor did he ask if he was pleasing her. When other women talked about making love with their husbands, their experiences of rapture did not register with her. Beginning with their wedding night, Claudia did not enjoy sex with Timothy because of his drinking. Early on in their marriage, she made her disinterest clear. The couple settled into a pattern of cordial estrangement, talking minimally at the dinner table about household concerns and family news. Sex was something Claudia did not really miss, but she did miss the respectability she had had as a Cates daughter, and she had fully expected that to be enhanced by marrying and being a wife. So, when women began calling the house asking for him, they would bicker. When sober, Timothy smoothed things over ably, telling her she was the only woman he could ever love.
"These women, they just want some attention," he said. "They don't mean anything to me. We can't let it come between us. You're a lady, Claudia, and I can't always get you hot when I need to."
Claudia took Timothy at his word and wondered secretly that she might be deficient somehow in her womanliness. She buried her fear of being frigid and halfheartedly consented to his philandering. She was never able to talk to him about his drinking without his bringing up that her coldness was at the root of all their problems.
Ultimately, Timothy functioned as Claudia's escort to the lavish galas of Chicago's black uppercrust. In this milieu, Claudia kept very busy with parties, club meetings, and volunteer work. She had a pleasant circle of friends scattered throughout Hyde Park. These women were married, indifferently for the most part, but the shared discussions over their designer wardrobes, their Wisconsin and Michigan summer homes, the schools chosen for fractious children, and the rotating decoration of their lakeside apartments fueled a closeness dependent on each's respective place in their elegant, cloistered world, a world unknown to Peoria.
It was hard for Claudia to come back to the town full of people she grew up with, an excruciating dislocation, causing her to feel and behave oddly. She misinterpreted the requirements of local decorum because she had forgotten them. Her tastes and worldview were tainted by her Chicago years. She had to get used again to rising early, even though for the life of her, she couldn't imagine what was so urgent about the sun coming up. She was easily bored with church-related social activities, but had to attend. A repeated absence by any member of the Cates family would be too conspicuous. Claudia was strange, and despite her effort to do otherwise, she seemed to signal to her native community that she had no wish to conform. She desired apparently to remain as she was, in plain view of her neighbors, but out of reach.
Timothy came home with Claudia, thinking that Rebecca's money would make life easier and his access to it would attract more women. He was wrong; Rebecca fully expected him to work.
Gracelyn Cates experienced true passion. She married Bernard, a man she met at college. He was handsome, sensuous, and intended to teach English. They shared a love of literature and books, as well as each other. Their first five years together were bliss. But during this time, unknown to Bernard, Gracelyn had been writing a novel. He had no idea his wife, who had majored in home economics, was as skillful at crafting sentences as she had been at decorating their home and arranging their garden. She sent it off and received more than one offer for publication. Bernard was unable to reconcile himself to his wife's success as a published writer. His own writing had been curtailed by a rigorous teaching schedule. He withdrew from her emotionally in the face of her achievement. Her physical loveliness still held him bound, but he maintained a silence at home, and over a period of months Gracelyn lived with his torture of her, taking refuge in her garden. After her early success, she stopped her own writing regimen in an attempt to save their union. But she began to write again, secretly, during trips to the library, carefully hiding her work in their home when she returned. Again taking up her passion provided her with a glow she believed had been permanently lost. Still, she tread lightly around Bernard all those years, making certain he understood he was more important to her than her craft.
Gracelyn got used to walking on eggshells, taking pains to do or say nothing she thought might displease her husband. All the while, her longing for him was unabated. She prayed that their love would rekindle and they would resume the tenderness she had known for five years with him. After awhile, when this did not happen, Gracelyn, tense and unhappy, began to eat excessively. Bernard's response to her increased appetite and weight gain was to call her "Piglet."
Gracelyn fought her intuition that Bernard's professional envy had unleashed a desire to destroy her, but she continued to write in secret. One Sunday afternoon during a midterm break, Bernard discovered her manuscripts, hidden in the dining room beneath leather-bound scrapbooks in their breakfront. Leafing through each page to get the sense of it, it dawned on Bernard that this was Gracelyn's work. There were stories, poems, and worst of all, a new novel, unfinished.
"Gracelyn!" he commanded furiously, "Come in here!" Standing before her, he waved the thick mass of pages in front of her face. "Why have you done this? Why can't you just be my wife and be satisfied?"
Bernard continued, visiting insults upon her and irrationally attacking her womanhood. Gracelyn stood before him for long minutes in silence, then suddenly moaned and wrapped her arms around her belly. In a swift motion, she crumpled to the floor and began writhing. Bernard stopped his tirade, stunned and silent as the stream of blood flowed from beneath his prostrate wife.
After Gracelyn's miscarriage, Bernard was kinder to her. Noting this, and still hopeful of regaining his love permanently, Gracelyn began talking to him about moving to Peoria. Living in the Cates home would ease the pressure on Bernard to earn a living, she reasoned, and he could write full-time and catch up to her own success. At first he resisted, but with the possibility of artistic fulfillment and ego redemption dangled in front of him, he consented. Once they arrived in the town, Bernard threw himself into his own writing, isolating himself in an attic office in the Cates home for long periods. He did not welcome interruption. It was clear to Gracelyn that it was more important for him to outdo her than to resume his love for her.
Gracelyn lost her husband to his work. They made love occasionally; otherwise Bernard was distant. Gracelyn knew he used her body only for physical release, and that the spiritual union she once felt with him was no more. But she continued to hope. When Bernard contracted a terminal bone cancer, it was hard for her to think of him leaving her for the next life. In fact, she could not have missed him any more than she already had.
It was left to the sisters now to put their men away without scandal, and in the aftermath they looked forward to becoming each others' primary companions, as they had been when they were growing up. Without their husbands, their yearnings for a new lease on life could be realized. Each knew the mission had to be accomplished delicately. They had seen the way other women in the town absolved themselves of men who for years had not been able to make love to them, and who now could not dream or discuss doing anything with their lives, other than to survive the misery of their remaining days. The right places had to be found, not too remote and not too near, with good reputations, and expensive enough so that their community would know they had done right by their ailing partners.
The Cates women needed to be careful not to arouse suspicion of wanting to start their lives over, freed of partners who made them miserable, had not fulfilled them, or who could not have measured up to their father in the first place.
"We're losing the light," Rebecca noted after the women completed a second hour of piecework and conversation. "Let's go in; I need to pay Lucy before she takes off."
Copyright © 2004 by Ruth-Miriam Garnett
So begins the powerful, empowering journey of three women who decide to get a fresh start on life -- and embark upon a plan to place their men in care facilities.
Daughters of a prominent African American family, Rebecca, Claudia, and Gracelyn Cates are ready to leave their ailing husbands -- no match for their wives in their unusual vigor, strong constitutions, and mental energy -- behind. And if they play their cards right, the Cates sisters will keep their good names intact, despite the Old Testament rantings of their Baptist pastor and relentlessly gossiping neighbors in their small-town world of Peoria, Illinois.
Claudia, instructed by eldest sister Rebecca to be more outgoing, enchants her parochial neighbors with her urbane chic. Gracelyn stages a Sunday school play about Harriet Tubman. And when Hillary Clinton appears at a churchwomen's tea party they're hosting, the Cates sisters establish themselves as indisputable leaders of their community. United in their purpose, the Cates women transcend the hand fate dealt them and find themselves anew...with the possibility of midlife romance. An unforgettable story of love, loss, and sisterly devotion, Laelia is a tale about the ties that bind and liberate us all.