SADIE WASN’T A BAD GIRL. When she was little she played church, flattening soft bread into disks, singing the hymns from stolen paper missals: Our Fathers chained in prisons dark, were still in heart and conscience free, how sweet would be their children’s fate, if they like them, could die for Thee. She set up carnivals and lemonade stands, collected pennies for UNICEF on Halloween. She bought a tree to be planted in her name in a forest purged by fire. She included everyone in her neighborhood games, even the irritating younger siblings, even the girl, Sally Frobel, who was clearly a boy, and the boy, Larry Schuster, who was clearly schizophrenic. They were cast in roles like the frog in her production of The Frog Prince or the dead boy in her Haunted Woods. She understood, perfectly, what was expected of her—and still, when it came to Francie Bingham, none of this applied. She was feral, unequivocally vicious, like a girl raised by the mountain lions that occasionally slunk out of the wilderness of Massacoe State Forest, between the swing sets and the lawn furniture, into the tended backyards of her neighborhood.
It was May when it all started, and the seventeen-year cicada nymphs (genus Magicicada) emerged from the soil to shed their skins on window screens, in shrubs and trees, and unfold their new wings. The air was still sharp and the forsythia waved its long arms of bright flowers. The bluets opened on the pasture hillsides like white carpets. The apple blossoms dropped petals onto the dark ground like snow. Sadie Watkins was twelve, nearly thirteen, and she and her friend Betty Donahue had begun stealing their mothers’ Salems and Virginia Slims, hiding them in clever places in their bedrooms. Sadie had taken off one brass finial and slipped the cigarettes into her curtain rod. At prearranged times they’d retrieve them to smoke in the woods, but one day they put on the clothes from Sadie’s basement first: her mother’s pleated plaid boarding school skirt, a cocktail dress. They put on her old winter coats, alligator pumps, and black patent-leather sling-backs. They went out walking in the woods behind Sadie’s house, pretending they were someone else. They were too old for dress-up—this was their last fling. They put on the clothes and assumed other personalities with accents.
“Blimey, this is a steep path, I say.”
“Where are we headed? Isn’t that the clearing, darling?”
Two years before, when Sadie had been ten, she’d devised the game of Old-Fashioned-Days House. They’d studied Connecticut history in school that spring, and she’d created a diorama in a shoe box—a scene from the Pequot War that dramatized the Pequot abduction of two girl colonists in a miniature canoe she made out of white birch bark. Her teacher’s mention of the girls’ kidnapping had been the one vivid thing among the names, dates, and details of the lesson, and Sadie knew it had to do with the shadow of Laura Loomis, who had been a year older than Sadie when she disappeared, a girl who resembled her so closely everyone thought they were sisters. In school, Sadie often imagined the empty seat in the sixth-grade classroom that would have been Laura’s. At home, she scrutinized the photo of their Brownie troop lined up on the school blacktop, she and Laura posing at either end like copies of each other—never destined to be friends. For her diorama she’d drawn the girls on the white cardboard that slipped out of her father’s new shirts, their faces etched with terror as they glanced back to their cabin on the shore, their blond hair blowing long and loose behind them. Her teacher had raised her eyebrows at the scene but couldn’t deny her the grade of E for “Excellent” she taped onto the back.
Sadie had been intrigued by the strife of the colonists—cooking over an open fire, fetching water, growing corn in rocky soil, the threat of animals and untrustworthy Pequots and Narragansetts. She admired the women for accomplishing their daily tasks in long skirts. If they were going to play Old-Fashioned-Days House, she told Betty, they had to dress the part. Sadie’s mother, who had grown up a poor girl with a single mother in New York City, often returned there now to shop lavishly and had the best cast-off clothes—Chanel, Halston, Diane von Furstenberg, evening gowns in satin and chiffon, strapless, layered with tulle, brocaded and beaded, dresses they slipped on over their flowered panties. The gowns dragged the ground, and they had to diaper-pin them around the waist to get them to fit. They held the skirts in their hands and became Colonial women picking their way across Sadie’s muddy backyard.
By that time their parents’ mandate that they stay out of the woods was heedlessly ignored, even though the tragedy of the Loomis girl—who’d lived on a street that did not connect to theirs—was fresh and the questions surrounding her fate still unanswered. The woods had always been a place of imaginative games, the source of legends passed down from their grandparents, who as children might have encountered the old Leatherman, a kindly beggar fed by townspeople who lived his entire life outdoors. The girls wandered the woods behind Sadie’s house in the long dresses, mindless of any threat. They hiked up to the old Latimer cemetery to place flowers on the children’s graves, adopting the names on the stones for themselves: Prudence, Electa, Rebekah, Abigail. They used paths the boys had begun to tame and trample riding their bikes, pulling wagons loaded with stolen plywood intended for forts. When fall arrived and it grew cold, they used Sadie’s basement as their house. Sadie had the little kids bring in large stones, and they stacked them against the wall into the semblance of a fireplace. They had tarnished sterling candelabra, and they stole candles from Sadie’s dining room buffet, matches from the kitchen drawer. They learned to knit, and they sat beside the pretend fire in their dresses, their needles clicking, the pipes rushing water overhead. They’d play out the story of Snow White and Rose Red. From upstairs would come the smell of a roast in the oven.
The last time they’d played the game had been that winter when Sadie was ten, on a gray day threatening more snow, the old snow still on the ground. The game had begun to lose its allure, and the participants had dwindled to Sadie; her best friend, Betty; and that day, Francie Bingham, who’d come to Sadie’s front door to drop off her mother’s Avon brochures. In a rare move Sadie’s mother called Sadie up from the basement and told her to let Francie play. When Sadie widened her eyes and protested, her mother reminded her of how little she asked of her, of her comfortable house, her multitude of friends.
“Some children aren’t as lucky,” her mother said. She wore a nearly floor-length red dress, a gold necklace. Her hair was long and blond, and once Sadie had overheard her teachers talking about her at school.
They’d been in the cafeteria last year during the chaos of a rain-day pickup, and Sadie had missed her bus. Her mother had driven up to school to get her, had walked into the cafeteria and been spotted by the two teachers—one of them Sadie’s teacher, Mrs. Susskey, reviled by the students, and the other her young intern.
“Oh, she’s like Julie Christie in Doctor Zhivago,” the intern said.
Mrs. Susskey glanced over to where Sadie’s mother was making her way through the crowd of children, heading in their direction. Neither teacher knew she was there for Sadie.
“More like Sharon Tate in Valley of the Dolls,” the older one said, her voice filled with resentment.
By the time Sadie’s mother had reached them and taken Sadie by the hand the older woman’s face had reddened and become blotchy with her mistake. “You didn’t tell us this was your mother, Sadie,” she said, her voice falsely sweetened, and for the rest of that year, even though Sadie couldn’t really interpret the woman’s comment, she’d lived in fear of her retaliation.
Standing in the dining room, with Francie Bingham waiting, hopeful, in the foyer, Sadie worried her mother would launch into the lesson of her own childhood—her forced attendance at St. John Villa Academy, a Catholic boarding school for girls, with its stern nuns and cold tile dormitory walls. But instead her mother glared at her and told her she would lose her television privilege if Francie wasn’t included. So, Francie, two years Sadie’s junior, was allowed to be the younger sister, a role that required she remove her glasses and attend to Sadie and Betty like a maid. They’d been knitting, but Sadie had grown tired of it. “Let’s pretend our husbands are out hunting.”
Betty always followed Sadie’s lead. “Oh, I do hope they stick to the paths, Electa,” she said.
Francie Bingham eyed them both. She wore a Halston gown—black sleeveless crepe bodice, chiffon skirt decorated with a spray of pale-colored leaves. Her chest was freckled, and she shivered and tugged her shawl in tighter. Earlier, she had argued and won the dress from Sadie, who’d chosen it first and given in when Francie said she would just go home.
“They know the woods well enough, I daresay,” Sadie said.
Their needles clicked. The basement was dim. The candles flickered.
“You should set the table, sister,” Betty told Francie.
“We don’t yet know what they’ll be bringing,” Francie said.
“Methinks they will bring something,” Sadie said. “Unless they are lost!”
Sadie dropped her knitting—a square of green wool that would never amount to anything—took the candelabra, and stood in front of the sliding glass doors that opened out onto the backyard. It was dusk, and the shadows thickened in the trees. The ground was white, pitted with footprints from the day before when they’d gone sledding and come in the sliding basement door to take off their boots. Brambles dotted with hard, bright berries edged the woods, their barklike stems gray and tangled. “We should go look for them, Rebekah,” Sadie said.
Francie gasped. “Out? Into the wilderness?”
Betty jumped up. “I’ll get our wraps.”
These consisted of Sadie’s mother’s old coats, smelling of mothballs—camel’s hair, tweed, herringbone. They slid the door and the cold air hit their faces, filled with the scent of fires stoked with newspaper and kindling. Spires of smoke marked the sky. Sadie took the candelabra, and she and Betty stepped across the frozen yard, their dresses and coats dragging. Francie remained by the basement doors. Sadie turned to look at her.
“Why aren’t you coming, sister?”
Francie’s face was pinched. Her resolve to follow the parents’ rule made Sadie and Betty all the more aware of it. “We can’t,” she said.
“Our husbands may need our help!” Betty said.
Sadie knew that either prospect—going into the woods or staying in the dank basement alone—was terrifying to Francie, her hesitation a ploy to prevent them from going, and she turned to continue across the yard.
“Never mind her,” Sadie said. “She can stay behind and tend the fire.”
At this, Francie quickly relented, and the three girls headed into the woods, the main path leading up, the smaller paths heading off into an overgrowth of young saplings, and birch, and hemlocks shagged and heavy with snow. Their breath came out in clouds. They wore the pumps in patent leather, snakeskin, and pink satin, the toes stuffed with tissue. The incline proved difficult to manage. The candles flickered and went out. From this vantage spot the lights in the Hamlet Hill houses glowed yellow—desk lamps in bedrooms upstairs where kids did homework, sconces in carpeted stairwells, chandeliers in dining rooms, brass Stiffel lamps in living rooms and dens where fathers read the remaining bits of the Sunday paper and watched football on television, bathroom lights flicking on and then off after some child examined her pimple in the mirror, garage lights where mothers sought a screwdriver to fix a loose high chair. The houses were spacious, made with cedar shingles and painted clapboards and bricks, surrounded by landscaped beds of juniper and rhododendron. Their yards met each other in rolling hills and dips, occasionally marked by lines of shrubs or pine or forsythia. The kitchen windows were steamed up from cooking. The girls could see Mrs. Battinson opening cabinets, taking down plates. They saw the Schuster boys watching television on the couch. Sadie’s house was dark save the one dim bulb over the stove.
“I think I see our husbands,” Betty said.
“That is them, isn’t it?” Francie said. She cupped her hand to her mouth and called out into the woods. “Halloooo!”
Sadie stifled a laugh and glanced at Betty. It wasn’t proper to break character. “Oh, be silent and still,” she chastised. “What if it’s a bear!”
Francie squinted without her glasses. “Is something coming?”
Sadie looked out into the woods, through the brambles, past the big hemlock. There was someone there, a shape, waiting, not moving forward. “It’s a stump,” she said. “Part of an old tree, likely that one hit by lightning a few summers nigh.” She kept her eyes on the shape. It wasn’t a bear. She felt something tense in her, a quickening she would feel only a few times later: when she lost control of the car she was driving at seventeen; when she felt the sharp stab, then the dull slip of her first miscarriage at twenty-six.
The tree stump moved then. It took a step and a branch snapped. The girls huddled together, a bundle of fabric. The shape—not a tree, not a bear—seemed to be moving in their direction. Sadie, clear headed, clever, whispered, “Methinks we should head back.” Betty’s hand tightened on hers. Sadie stared, transfixed, at the moving shape. It lumbered, not in a bear way, but in a tall-man way. She thought, Pequot, but didn’t dare say it. She felt the specter of Laura Loomis urging her to run. Betty tugged her down the path. “Move, move, move,” she said. Francie saw the two of them moving away from her, and she turned to follow them and tripped. The man in the woods wore a camouflage jacket, a brown, broad-brimmed hat.
“Why doesn’t he call to us?” Francie said, her voice bright with alarm. “Why is he walking this way?”
They could hear his footsteps now in the frozen snow, the crack of branches in his path.
Sadie felt the fear rise. She was the first to kick off her pumps and run, and Betty and Francie followed, all of them running, the silent man somewhere behind them. They reached Sadie’s backyard and the sliding glass door, crying now, panicked. They got inside and locked the door and continued on up the basement stairs, and then up the stairs to the second story, where they flung themselves onto Sadie’s bed, Francie repeating, “I told you, I told you.” Her mother came to the door and knocked.
“Girls,” she said. “What’s going on?”
Sadie glared at Francie, who seemed on the verge of telling. “Nothing,” she said. “We’re just playing.”
“We’re sorry, Mrs. Watkins,” Betty said. Her face was smeared with tears, but now she was laughing, giggling. Sadie’s mother made an exasperated sound on the other side of the door.
“Be good,” she said. They heard the ice in her glass and then her footsteps retreating down the carpeted hall.
The hems of the dresses were torn, snagged with brambles, filled with snow that melted onto Sadie’s bedroom floor. Their feet were raw and red and Sadie gave them pairs of the woolen socks she wore ice-skating. They were afraid to go back down into the basement for their clothes, but then Sadie went, flipped on all the lights, and grabbed everything, her anger canceling out her fear. In the light from the overhead bulb the basement world was transformed: the old couch with its doilies and torn upholstery; the warped drop-leaf table and mismatched chairs; the books, their spines broken and boards faded. They had dropped the candelabra on the path, left the shoes somewhere up there, too. When the snow finally came—a big storm that had them home from school for three days—she imagined these things buried under the weight of it, and then later, in the spring, when everything melted, she would picture moss growing over the shoes, the pink satin becoming part of the ferns, the pokeweed, the green world inhabited by salamanders and cottontails and the occasional snake. She would remind herself to look for the items they’d left on the path but become distracted by other things—the romance novel she was writing (The Governess), guitar lessons at the community center (“Greensleeves,” “I’m Leaving on a Jet Plane”), a job as a mother’s helper (i.e., indentured servant). Two years passed in this way, and she forgot about the game, about Francie, the difference in their ages making her too young to bother with.
At least until that May, when, bored and nostalgic, Sadie and Betty once again donned the old dresses and slipped out the basement door. They stayed off the main path and picked their way through the woods, by then a familiar place composed of young and old trees. A brook ran through it parallel to the houses, filled with brownish-looking foam that may have been the result of the DDT misted over them each summer. The planes would drone overhead while their parents sipped whiskey sours, and the children lay on their backs in front-yard grass like unsuspecting sacrifices.
“Oh, lovely, I’ve gotten my shoe wet,” Sadie said.
“Look at that, the hem of your skirt is muddy.”
“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.”
They walked along the brook’s bank, and Sadie slid down the side in her high-heeled shoes and toppled into the water. The brook wasn’t very deep, but it was fast-moving, its bottom a variety of smooth stones, and Sadie struggled to stand. Betty watched from the bank, strands of her long, chestnut-colored hair covering her face, doubled over laughing with her hand between her legs. Pee streamed down onto the trampled jack-in-the-pulpit, wetting her chiffon skirt, probably dribbling into her pumps. Sadie felt the icy water soak into her coat. They were too busy laughing and peeing to notice anyone nearby. If it had been a boy they’d have been embarrassed. But it was only Francie, with her doughy cheeks, and her intelligent eyes dark behind her glasses. She looked at them laughing, and Sadie sensed a sort of yearning in her face. But her watching only made them laugh harder.
“You’re going to catch something from that water,” Francie said matter-of-factly.
When they’d first met Francie in elementary school, she had been consigned to the kindergarten playground. She’d carried a blue leather pocketbook and was always alone. Drawn to her oddness, Sadie and Betty often broke the rules to sneak over to talk to her.
“What’s in your pocketbook?” Sadie would say.
Francie’s lips would tighten with wariness. “None of your business.” Her hair was cut short in the pixie style mothers foisted on girls too young to have sense enough to refuse. Francie was thinner then, dollish looking, the tortoiseshell glasses heavy on her face. Sadie and Betty laughed at nearly everything she said, most of it mimicked from a grown-up and strange coming from her mouth.
“Why can’t you just be nice and show us?” Sadie said.
Francie knew that she should be nice, and she did like the attention. Finally, one day she undid the snap of the pocketbook and opened it up. The girls looked into its depths. There was a small change purse, the kind they made during the summers in recreation craft class when they were little—an imitation leather heart, stitched together with plastic thread. Hers was blue to match her pocketbook. She also had a handkerchief, a tiny pink one, and a bottle of Tinkerbell perfume. Sadie reached her hand in quickly and grabbed the change purse before Francie could snap the pocketbook shut. Francie’s face hardened like Sadie’s mother’s would when Sadie forgot to make her bed.
“Give it back,” she said.
“I’m not taking it,” Sadie said, dancing off a ways. “I’m just looking. I’ll give it back in a minute.” She opened it up and looked inside. Francie had quite a bit of change in the purse—silver, not all pennies. Sadie and Betty glanced at each other. This would buy a few packs of gum, or the little round tin of candies they loved, La Vie Pastillines, in raspberry or lemon. So they talked Francie into giving them the money. They would bring her a tin of the candy, they said. For weeks after, Francie would stand at the low fence that separated the playgrounds, small and resolute, waiting for them. That, too, had become a game. “She’s there, she’s there again,” Betty would say. They became practiced at avoiding her, except for those rare times she showed up at the door of one of their houses and their mothers told them to include her.
Sadie climbed out of the brook and stood dripping on the bank.
“Why are you wearing dress-up clothes?” Francie asked.
Sadie would admit later that the question annoyed her. For a moment, standing there in the wet coat, she felt as if she and Francie had switched places, and Francie had become the older girl entitled to make disparaging comments. If Francie hadn’t seen Sadie fall into the brook, if she hadn’t asked about the dress-up clothes, spring would have simply progressed into summer, and nothing of the business would have ever transpired. Maybe Sadie would have seen her riding her purple bike in lazy circles at the end of the street, but that shapeless figure of her wobbling on her Schwinn, those annoying plastic streamers spraying from each handlebar grip, wouldn’t have prompted it. While Francie’s appearance at the brook that day was purely accidental, Sadie’s desire for revenge was not, and the plan to retaliate sprang from her surprise at the younger girl’s ability to guess at her own shameful longing for childhood.
“Go away,” Sadie said. “We’re meeting someone and we don’t want you around.”
She took out the cigarette she’d hidden in her coat pocket. Only a bit of it was wet, and she straightened it out and lit it up. She held the lighter up to Betty, who took out her own cigarette and leaned in to the flame.
Francie’s eyes widened. “Who are you meeting?” She took a careful step closer, pretending their smoking wasn’t anything out of the ordinary.
Sadie put her hands on her hips. Her coat opened, revealing the shape of her new breasts beneath the dress’s bodice. “A boy,” she said.
They held the cigarettes out in the vees of their fingers.
“What boy?” Francie asked, suddenly wary.
“Hezekiah,” Sadie said. “You don’t know him.”
Hezekiah, a name she’d seen on an old cemetery stone, one used for the husbands in their games (Hezekiah, dearest, bring home a nice fat rabbit for stew).
“He lives on the farm there, over the hill,” Betty said, catching on quickly, flipping her long hair back over her shoulder.
Francie’s eyes narrowed to where Betty pointed beyond Foothills Road, to the rise of Filley Farm’s pasture. Francie had been young when Laura Loomis disappeared, but Sadie felt sure that like all children in the neighborhood, she’d been warned. In the intervening years they’d reclaimed the woods and pastures—the parents’ vigilance, and the punishment for infractions, had lessened. The curving asphalt streets that cut through the countryside, their slate roofs and storm doors, their porch lights and decorative landscaping, were, to the parents, all reassuring aspects of safety. Instead, Sadie knew Francie was remembering that winter day and the man in the woods, the crunch of his footsteps, his anonymous menace.
“How do you know him?” Francie asked.
“We found his letter,” Sadie said.
“A letter?” Francie asked, well aware that this was something mailed from one house to another with the proper postage. A letter had requirements they mastered in penmanship class: heading, salutation, body, complimentary close, signature. Sometimes, a postscript. A note was hastily scribbled, passed between popular girls in the dull hour of American history. And then Sadie told her it was none of her business. “Isn’t that your mother calling?” she said. “Are you supposed to be here?” She and Betty continued on through the woods, taking the path along the brook. They could hear Francie behind them, following them, wanting to believe what they told her was true.
Sadie knew that this was typical human behavior. She remembered the UFOs that circled the neighborhood one summer evening, flashes of silver and iridescent violet panning across the night sky, bringing them out of their houses to marvel—parents with cocktails and cigarettes, children in cotton pajamas, everyone poised on their own wide sweep of perfect grass. Francie crept behind them and they pretended they didn’t notice her. They put out their cigarettes on a rock, and they saw her bend down and retrieve the butts, like evidence or talismans. She followed them up to the next road, and then to the dead end where a strip of old barbed wire separated their neighborhood from the farmer’s field, where beyond the asphalt curb Queen Anne’s lace bloomed and twirled its white head, and cows lowed and hoofed through muddy grass, around stones covered with lichen. There at the foot of the cedar post was one of these stones, and Sadie pretended to lift it, to pocket something in her mother’s heavy coat that she carried slung over her arm. Francie took it all in at a distance, her white face round with pleasure, while they pretended they didn’t see her.
Years later, Sadie would not be able to say what made them revel in deceit. She might have blamed it on something pagan and impish, the fields and woods surrounding them a sort of pastoral landscape. There was the farmer riding his tractor; the newly planted corn emerging to shake its tassels, all pleasant and bountiful; the smell of manure seeping through window screens into kitchens and bedrooms, awakening in them a sort of misplaced disgust. But mostly, it was easy, because Sadie wanted the deceit to be true. She wanted there to be some mysterious boy—some Hezekiah—who had been watching her, in love with her from a distance. She’d imagine that out beyond the bay window, on the street that wound higher up the hill than hers, a boy with sweet wispy hair and lips that were always half smiling was watching. He saw her walk up the driveway to catch the school bus. He saw through the new spring growth of foxglove and pokeweed and fern, through those bright little shoots on the elms. From the fallow fields, white-sprayed with bluets, she could almost hear his sigh, his gentle breathing, and smell his sweat—coppery, the mineral smell of turned earth.
The Longings of Wayward Girls
September 22, 2002
SADIE FIRST SEES HIM ON a wet September evening, not long after she lost her baby—a stillborn girl. She has a cold, and the damp and the falling leaves all compound her sorrow. He is a boy she knows from childhood, now a man filling his truck at the local gas station. The few streets of their old neighborhood that wound together were built on his family’s farmland. He lived in a midcentury modern house at the top of Sadie’s road. It was fieldstone and glass, built by a famous Harvard architect and reached by a long curving drive with iron gates at its entrance. On the gatepost was a plaque that announced the place, ceremoniously, as Wappaquassett. Sadie finds the adopted Algonquian place names in town ironic—Mashamoquet, Susquetonscut, Quinnatisset; “big fish place,” “place of red ledges,” “little long river.” The early settlers of the 1670s may have well understood their meaning, but they now signify parks and country clubs and shopping plazas. Despite this, the name on the Filleys’ gatepost has always seemed authentic to her—“place covered with rush matting”—as if the land was named and rightfully given over to Filley ancestors by the original inhabitants. The grounds of Wappaquassett included a barn and an in-ground swimming pool, the only one in the neighborhood of 1960s Colonials and split ranches.
Sadie watches the man at the pump in front of her, gassing up an old truck, and remembers him as a swaggering boy, rakish, tall, dressed in wrinkled khakis, his private-school tie always askew. She tries to convince herself he was just an older boy who smoked cigarettes, who kept himself at a remove that only made him seem alluring. But she cannot deny the way her heartbeat steps up when she recognizes him, the romantic hero of all her childhood games. He is taller, broader, yet as he reaches back to replace the nozzle she notices his old fluid way of moving, the shake of his head to clear his eyes of his hair, still the same shaggy brown and long over his collar. As she watches he looks up and sees her, his face registering shock, and then a confusion that he struggles to hide. She waves, and he seems to collect himself and calls her by her old name: “Well hello there, little Sadie Watkins.” He tips his head back and laughs, something she senses with disappointment is forced. They stand under the awning in the bright fluorescence, and nod and smile.
“You thought I was Laura Loomis,” she says.
Through the years Sadie has lived with this misapprehension. As a child with her mother people would spot her and call the town police, and Officer Crombie would appear in the Youth Centre children’s store, rolling his eyes. It incensed Sadie’s mother to have her daughter confused with a missing girl, but Sadie had read the newspaper articles and imagined being the object of the steady, enduring love the Loomises revealed for their lost daughter. Lately, new age-progression images have appeared in the paper, and Sadie is once again scrutinized, accosted by strangers. Saying “I’m not Laura Loomis” has become second nature.
But Ray seems more confused by her admission. “Who?”
Sadie laughs. “I thought you may have mistaken me for someone else.”
Ray’s smile seems pasted on. “Actually, Sadie Watkins, you look a lot like your mother.”
She is flooded with memory—a bright rush of images that occur beyond her control: Ray Filley and her mother at the Filleys’ pool that last summer, her mother laughing, and Ray dipping his head to speak to her, a gesture so intimate Sadie, as a child, felt compelled to look away.
“It’s Stahl now,” she says, hoping her voice won’t betray her.
She never moved out of Wintonbury. She stayed and married and he left, and occasionally she’d hear from other people about things he’d done, or places he’d been, his life a blur of activity at a distance from her. Until she saw him just now she had nearly forgotten him.
His recent return makes him a stranger to the town, an outsider who would have no way of knowing about the baby she just lost. For the first time in weeks she doesn’t have to endure looks of sympathy. Instead, they laugh about the town and its history of assorted characters: the drunk, Waldo, who can still be spotted pedaling his ancient bike through the center; the teenagers who race their cars along the stretch of road between the tobacco fields; the priest, a volunteer fireman who took young boys for rides in his car with the light flashing, who was finally accused of molesting them. She leans back against the door of her car. He says her name, “Sadie Watkins,” for no particular reason, and she says his, “Ray Filley,” as if he’s been conjured up by the words on her tongue. He jokes about how he feels he’s caught in a time warp. “Even the old Tunxis Players troupe is still together,” he says.
Sadie smiles hesitantly. “Oh, sure. What play are they doing now?”
“Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” Ray says. He waggles his eyebrows, and his smile widens.
“That’s an old one,” Sadie tells him. “Nineteen fifties old!” They have narrowly skirted the topic of her mother, but then she cannot help herself. “My mother was in that play.”
She watches his face closely but sees he will not acknowledge her, even though she’s always suspected he had a crush on her.
“So, a revival!” He does his laugh again, his teeth bright in the fluorescence.
No one is around. The gas station is on the corner of Jerome and Park, next to the library, the Masonic hall. Moths flit about the streetlights. There’s a smell of wood burning, and Sadie is transported back to teenage parties on nights like these—the passing of a bottle around the bonfire, some boy’s arm heavy on her shoulder. The road is quiet and empty, and their voices are too-sharp and high against the emptiness. Ray pulls out a pack of cigarettes and offers her one. “I quit,” she says. “A long time ago.” He must see her rings, notice the SUV with the elementary school magnet stuck to the side. She knows she should tell him about her children—Max, four, and Sylvia, seven; about her husband, Craig; the three of them waiting at home for the ice cream that sits, melting, on the passenger seat. But she is suddenly embarrassed by this evidence of who she’s turned out to be. She is thrown back to a time when she expected to be so much more.
“What have you been up to?” she asks him.
Ray shrugs. He gives her that lopsided grin. “Same old thing. Music.”
He joined a band she’d never heard of and went off to make records and tour after graduating from prep school. Her memories of Ray end then. She hated high school, was lost, a faceless person in the beige hallways. Every moment of her time there focused on clever schemes of escape—forged notes from the nurse to cover skipped classes; day trips with older boyfriends to Newport, Rhode Island, or driving around in their cars drinking; having sex in their boyhood bedrooms, all of them stuck, somehow, within the grid of the town—mechanics, shop workers, lightning rod installers. And then she got out and tried college to appease her father—three semesters of courses at a staid women’s college, in large lecture halls where she once again felt overwhelmed by namelessness, where the girls all knew each other, and where her ability to memorize the details of hundreds of slides of art, and construct and support an eloquent thesis, brought her excellent grades but no appreciation of her own achievement. She hated it too much to stay, eventually getting a job at Lord & Taylor, selling men’s accessories behind a counter—scarves and gloves and beautiful wallets. Across the shining aisle the women in cosmetics stood like mannequins with their garish faces. She had to carry her personal items into the store in a clear plastic tote and at the end of the day pass through the security exit like a thief. Once she met Craig the promise of a new life took over, with its babies to tend, its house—swatches of fabric, paint samples, like the dollhouse she’d decorated as a child, spending hours sewing miniature curtains cut from her mother’s discarded cocktail dresses.
“It’s been a long time,” Ray says then. “Twenty years?”
Sadie admits it might be longer. “What are you doing back?”
Ray stares at her. He says his father has died, and Sadie realizes she has been cocooned in her own grief, that she has not read a newspaper or left the house for anything but errands in weeks. Ray tells her he’s staying at Wappaquassett, where Beth still lives with their mother. He says that they want him to take over the farm and the store, and Sadie tries to remember the last time she stopped at Filley’s, Ray’s father always so kind to her—giving the children apples, tiny pumpkins, putting extra ears of corn in the bag, adding a Christmas wreath for free when they bought their tree.
“I’m so sorry,” she says. She puts her hand to her chest.
Ray stares at her again. She cannot fathom what he’s thinking. He reaches out his hand and brushes a piece of her hair from her face, gently, tenderly. She smells the cigarette, the gasoline. Later that evening, folding the children’s clothes, stacking them in small piles, loading the dishwasher, locking the doors of her house, the street outside shining and black from rain, the neighbor’s porch lights halos on the front walks, she thinks of his hand moving toward her face, the way he looked at her, and it’s as if something dormant has sprung from the ordered dignity of her married life.