Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 1
Blue Kentucky Girl
The doctor‟s office was shady and cool. Since he had the AC pumped up
for people like her who were always, always overheated, he wore a green cardigan
sweater with one of those little alligators perched like a stalker by his shoulder.
Charlie wouldn‟t be caught dead in a cardigan she thought, did Royal ever
wear one? She couldn‟t remember. The doctor told her to have a seat and
gestured toward a black leather couch. There was something dirty looking about
it, as if people had done things on it. She sat instead on a sturdy upholstered
rocker with little calicos all over it.
“Tell me about your children?” He asked.
She ran her hand over the shiny armrest. That caught her off-guard, no
how are you? How have you been? Just boom! tell me about the most painful
subject you can think of. He should know that would be about the last thing she‟d
want to talk about. She patted her hair down since it had a tendency to stick up
in front where she had a widow‟s peak. That means you‟re beautiful her mother
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 2
used to tell her. Patsy did love the feel of short hair, it was so light and free
compared to the heavy bun she had worn so stubbornly ever since that awful time
absolutely years ago when Charlie‟d shaved her head in a rage. For years she
hadn‟t been able to have it cut, even trimmed. Now that Charlie was gone she
was free finally to have short hair and Jackie had shaped it so stylishly so that it
fell around her face soft and pretty as if she wasn‟t more than thirty-three instead
of twice that. Free now not to have to fret about setting Charlie off, not to duck
when she caught the flicker of a shadow by her head. Free now and safe in the
hospital (Mother, it‟s not a hospital it‟s an assisted living home, Jackie told her
time and again). Home? She‟d retort, huh uh.
Yes, she was free, but so often unbelievably sad and unspeakably alone.
“Tell me about your children?” The doctor prodded in a bored monotone.
He couldn‟t have been more than forty. Not attractive. More than likely
unmarried since she didn‟t see a ring and he had that lived-alone look,
persnickety, even had green socks to match that sweater. Everything in his house
was probably just so like the office with its cherry desk and matching bookcase all
too neatly arranged with a bronze head, a porcelain dog, several framed
photographs and a too-small to have been read collection of shiny paperbacks,
probably gifts from patients‟ relatives, with titles like “What Color is Your
Parachute?” and “The Woman Who Mistook Her Husband for a Hat.” It was too
bad he looked a little like a duck with glasses, though she‟d heard unattractive
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 3
men made good husbands. It was a theory she had never tested. Her two
husbands were drop-dead gorgeous though in very different ways and with
personalities at opposite ends of the spectrum.
She wanted to say, call me Mrs. Cambrelly, but she didn‟t. At least he
didn‟t call her honey or sweetie. “Well, Doctor,” she couldn‟t remember his
name. “There‟s Jackie, she‟s my rock.” Her deep sultry voice surprised her since
she seldom spoke much anymore. It sounded a little too loud, as if she were at
the podium instead of nearly touching knees with this man who hardly knew her
yet acted as if he did. Jackie‟s my rock: it was an expression she‟d been using a
lot lately like a security blanket.
“Jackie‟s your stepdaughter, isn‟t she?”
“Yes, but I‟ve been her mama since she was four, I don‟t think of her as a
step-daughter and she has never once referred to me as her step-mother, either.
Charlie‟s little Jackie. She‟s a pistol.”
He showed no reaction to all that, but simply said, “I meant your children
with Royal, you had three?” He leaned forward as if he were expecting a real
scoop. “Two girls and a boy?”
Her smile faded and she could feel the corners of her mouth twitch. She
even slumped a little in the rocker and to cover all that up she began rocking
energetically. The creak of the rocker and the tap of her ballet slipper on the floor
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 4
might annoy him, she hoped it did. She could understand how people gave false
confessions. There was an odd feeling of being cornered that made her want to
spill her guts.
“You named them after towns you had visited I think you said.” He looked
at his notes. “Elizabeth and Cynthiana, and your son is Joe, after Joe Creek?” He
folded his hands in his lap and waited patiently. “Isn‟t that what you told us,
It was settled. She didn‟t like him. She knew, because that nice chatty
nurses‟ assistant had told her, that she had been practically ranting about her
three children and whatever became of them and how she should be locked up for
what she‟d done. Scared me, Miss Patsy, the girl said. I was thinking about that
woman in Texas who drowned her kids. But turns out you were just sad that
none of them ever visited you. Ungrateful baggage, that‟s one of my favorite
She‟d overdone it with the medicines, quite possibly on purpose, but not
with this place as her desired result. Oh, Miss Patsy, the girl said, you were going
on and on about your children and how sorry you were and crying? I never saw
someone so upset.
He was waiting. His eyes didn‟t budge from her face for an instant.
Finally she demurred, the sooner she gave him what he wanted, the sooner she‟d
be excused. “I had nicknames for them the minute they were born: Betsy, Jody
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 5
and Cindy. They were beautiful children. It nearly killed me when I realized
what I had done.”
“You mean leaving them?” Everyone wanted to get that straight, just what
did you do? They‟d ask right seriously.
He cleared his throat as he glanced at his notes again. “For Charlie?”
She looked him square in the eyes, her mouth set in a thin line of regret.
“Royal wouldn‟t let you take the children?” He raised his eyebrows as if to
compel her to elaborate.
Her response was blunt. “I never asked.”
She was an only child, named Patricia for a character in a novel her
mother loved, full name, Patricia Louise McLaughlin, born in Alexandria,
Kentucky on June 2nd, 1920, to Zena, called "Jack," a devastatingly handsome
motorman, who'd been married before, and Augusta, called "Gussie," a pretty,
young, vivacious gal, educated yet malleable, the fifth of six children born to an
Irish matriarch, Louise, and her German composer husband Herman. He was a
Lutheran minister long dead by the time Patsy was born. It was family lore that
in choosing Jack, Gussie had married down. Perhaps to right that wrong, Patsy,
she called herself Patsy by then, married up when she wed Royal, a lawyer who
was also a decorated Naval officer. But that marriage wouldn‟t stick, she would
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 6
throw it away, along with the three children it produced. Like the baby and the
bath water she sometimes thought. When she ran off with Charlie she was
consumed with love, for him, yes, but also for that little girl who tagged along
with him, little motherless Jackie, how could she resist? Poor little girl‟s own
mother had killed herself—killed herself! Jackie needed her. God did she ever.
Patsy had one faded black and white of herself as a child. The snapshot
had surfaced recently from her belongings whether Jackie had brought it or the
nurses‟ aide had found it Patsy didn‟t know but she‟d taken to looking at it and
trying to remember how it had felt to be the little girl in the picture with her
parents. They were tall, the three of them, long legged, gawky, as they posed for
one last shot with their dog Rex, against a dusty porch rail. They were going to
San Antonio for the TB sanatorium. Gussie had tuberculosis.
For the rest of her life Patsy would remember San Antonio with an ache
and a love, as the last place she was happy. Not so much for its sultry Texas ways,
the palm trees and low slung adobe houses so unlike Kentucky's brick and mortar
and stormy leafy overhung skies. In fact, the gritty rock and soil landscape of
Texas, dotted with brilliant yellow cactus flowers under a blue-gray canopy of sky,
was the flip side of the blue-green stretches of home. Yet it was in San Antone,
that she cast hope like streamers about her and each one said, Please don‟t let her
die. Please don‟t let her die. Please don‟t let her die. It was surely all that
mattered, for a child couldn‟t be without a mother, could she?
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 7
Who cared about the stock market crash, the Depression, the holes in her
underwear and socks? She had a great big yellow bow in her pageboy and her
mother wasn't going to die, no she wasn't.
That was Patsy in San Antonio. Eyes bright, chin upturned, shoulders set;
knees beneath the hemline of her long-waisted dress--scuffed, socks droopy, toes
of her shoes worn, frayed even.
Sometime later after her father left, after she and her bedridden mother
moved in with her grandmother, Louise, she changed her name to Patsy, not for
its negative connotations, of which she would only become aware many years
later, as in: "You are a patsy for sticking with that abusive man, Charlie!" But for
an actress popular at the time, a Texas beauty, Patsy Greentree, who wore her
silky strawberry blond hair short in a frilly fringe around her face, her favorite
color yellow, her entourage, a passel of beaus.
Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge
They went camping a lot as kids, at the Red River Gorge State Park, back
when they were still a family, before their mother walked out, and each night
they‟d sing around the campfire: Swing Low Sweet Chariot, You Are My
Sunshine, Down By the Old Mill Stream, their mother taught them all the old
songs and she had a beautiful voice. When their mother sang, their father would
look at her and smile with complete adoration. She always sang descant, and
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 8
Cindy tried to do it, too, the notes higher, riding above the melody in unexpected
ways, and she often messed up but once she got it right, it was after their parents
had gone to bed on the air mattress with real sheets laid out in the back of the
station wagon, windows rolled down and draped with mosquito netting. Cindy
and Betsy shared a pup tent and Jody got a cot all to himself, also draped in
mosquito netting. This was the arrangement they‟d always had, and Cindy sang
loud and clear with her eyes closed thinking about how good she sounded and
how pleased her parents must be to hear her singing so well just like her mother,
and when she opened her eyes Betsy was right in her face, glaring. “Shut the hell
up, you‟re off-key.”
“Yeah, I‟m trying to sleep,” Jody said from his cot.
And their mother called out in her daytime voice from the back of the
station wagon. “Betsy, don‟t say hell. Cindy, go on to bed. Betsy, you, too, we
have an early day tomorrow. Jody and Daddy are going fishing and we‟re going
on a wildflower walk.”
But it started pouring that night, a real gully washer their father said and
they packed up and went home and that was the very last camping trip they took
as a family.
Looking back, Betsy was the end-all, be-all, though Cindy knew she was
prettier and more likeable, she just knew it the way you do, but their father loved
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 9
Betsy more. Betsy had the best voice, she always got into the best choirs, Betsy
could handle the ponies, she was always in the ribbons, she got the achievement
awards, even in Girl Scouts; she was the best driver and on and on. “You were
the favorite,” Cindy told her once matter-of-factly after they were grown-up with
children of their own and Betsy reacted almost violently.
“I was not. Jody was because he was the boy, and then you, because you
were the baby. I was the scapegoat!”
“That‟s bull shit,” Jody said when Cindy asked him. “She‟s always been a
big liar. But she sure was mad all the time, and violent, too. Remember?”
The three of them grew up quite separate from each other and they were
not close as adults though Cindy often longed for it.
But they grew up fairly happy, Cindy thought they were fairly happy, even
when it was just them and their dad. If she missed having a mother the feeling
passed right fast. She enjoyed the sympathy she got from other mothers when
they found out and the envy of her friends when they saw how generous, how
totally, totally generous her father was not just with things— they had a gorgeous
house with a big rushing creek out back and ponies and the best bikes and pretty
clothes and summer camps and school trips; everything they ever wanted really,
including private colleges of their choice, but also because he was there with them
so much eating with them at the dinner table every night, coaching their teams,
even bringing a dish to the school potlucks.
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 10
Their father was handsome and gregarious and Cindy adored him and it
wasn‟t until after he died--well after they‟d all grown up and had children of their
own that Betsy introduced—no bludgeoned her with horrid accusations about
him and it wasn‟t until then, following a kind of nervous breakdown on her part,
that she sought out her mother because she wanted to know the truth. Did her
father do those impossibly disgusting things Betsy said he did? Cindy was too
young to remember. Or at any rate, she couldn‟t remember. She tried to fix
disgusting images onto things she did recall but the bad images didn‟t take. She
asked Betsy to give her examples and there were three and each one was either
easily explained away (he came over and pulled the waistband of my shorts and
told me to go up and change--it was obvious to Cindy that Betsy had probably wet
her pants;) or just impossible to believe (he made me stay in the car with him in
the driveway of the Chaghalls‟ house on Thanksgiving day while you and Jody
went on inside and he molested me--in plain view of the Chagalls‟ and anyone
else who happened by?) But the hardest thing for Cindy to accept was that at first
when Betsy made her accusation, Cindy had leapt in head first and said, yes, it
happened to me, too and Betsy‟s face was absolutely elated.
Betsy was her oldest sister, Cindy looked up to her and admired her. She
wanted to please her and she had. But her gut twisted up into a death grip inside
her and she had an emotional breakdown.
It was only after the breakdown and following much mental health therapy
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 11
that Cindy decided that the reason she had nodded in agreement was crazy, yes,
but also an act of allegiance to one of the most important people in her life, Betsy.
Her mother was long gone and her father had been dead for about three or five
years at that point. All that was left of her past was Betsy and Jody and he was so
detached. She couldn‟t lose Betsy, too, she just couldn‟t. It was pathological, her
acquiescence, and understandable, but also unforgiveable.
So even though she knew, thanks to the therapist who gave her permission
to admit that it didn‟t happen to her, that no, she was not sexually abused, even
though she had wanted so badly to belong to her sister‟s club, she still needed to
know if it had happened to her sister. Had their father been a pervert, a
pedophile, a contemptible creep beyond belief? Of course not, her husband Rob
said from the beginning. I don‟t believe it, Jody told her. But why would she lie
about something like that? Cindy wanted to know and neither one could answer
her. Maybe it was someone else, a friend suggested, you know, a neighbor or
someone and she just was mixed up about it. Maybe it was a false memory, the
The only person who might be able to tell Cindy was her mother, the
woman she thought of as Patsy.
Yesterday is History: Lexington, Kentucky 1963
Patsy leaned back against her new crisp cotton-covered couch with its wild
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 12
splash of plums and cherries. She loved it, was delighted with it, but she
supposed it was a good thing, as her neighbor Bea had said just that morning,
that Royal didn't care a tad about decorating.
"Landsakes," Bea nearly whistled as they watched the delivery men carry
the sofa up Patsy's front walk. "My husband definitely wouldn't let that loud
thing come through our front door."
Patsy restrained herself from saying, well, my husband abhors beige.
Instead she nodded politely to the men as they hefted the sofa up her front steps
and in the open door, and she noted again, as she smiled her goodbye to Bea that
everything about Bea Lawson was buff-colored, from her skimpy flats, slacks and
sweater-set to her short-cut hair and bland colored skin.
Maybe it was the freshness of the day, the fact that it was Friday, and the
girls would be home any minute to rouse little Jody from his nap, but Patsy
simply couldn't be bothered to care that her next door neighbor thought her sofa
was garish. Besides, soon it would be the wonderful weekend, everyone home,
just her family.
Now inside at ten to five, Patsy looked through a picture album with Betsy,
who needed to select one for a family history project. Patsy ran her hand
pleasurably over the cool firm cushion. It cheered her up to look at it, all that
fruit spilling out against the green leaves and blue background. She methodically
flipped the big black pages, stopping every now and then to re-insert a picture
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 13
corner into its gummy-backed slot.
"Is this Daddy?" Betsy slapped her hand on an 8X10 of Royal to keep Patsy
from turning the page.
"Yes, isn't he handsome?" It was tinted in soft browns and creams which
gave it a romantic flair.
"He sure is dressed up." Betsy ran her finger over his face. "Is this a
Patsy gazed at her husband's photo. "I think it's called a morning suit."
Why, he could be royalty in that outfit, she thought. The fancy black cloth looked
like cashmere with wide satin lapels. His stark white shirt had a large pointy
starched collar, with a jaunty-looking black silk bow tie.
"Where was he going," Betsy asked, "to a ball?"
Patsy extracted the photograph carefully and turned it over. Royal
Jameson 1939, someone had written in ink. "Maybe," she murmured, as she
replaced it in the album. "Look at those blue eyes. They got the color just about
"You mean someone painted that?"
"Well kind of. I'm not actually sure how it's done. But in a lot of ways it's
truer than the color film we have now. I think I see Jody in your father, in the
eyes? You think?" She gave Betsy a little hug. Her daughter smelled so good--
graham crackers, milk, chalk, dust, outdoors and school, she breathed in and it
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 14
filled her chest and warmed her soul. She ran her thumb and fingers over Betsy's
braid. "These feel a little tight, would you like me to take them out?" She gently
undid the rubberband that held the braided pigtail nearest her. Betsy wiggled to
make her let go, and she quickly dropped her hand.
They sat side by side and Patsy tried to calm herself, telling herself Betsy's
not a baby any more, don't treat her like she is. She stared at Royal's slicked back
auburn hair and sky blue eyes, which, even in the photo, showed that fleck of
amber near one iris. His expression was attentive, perceptive.
Betsy turned her keen cool blue eyes on Patsy. "Some people smile with
their whole face, like Daddy," she said. "And other people only smile with their
mouths, like you."
Patsy was jolted and she almost smarted with tears. She had to look away,
toward the front window where the dogwood she'd planted when they first moved
in was just peeking up above the sill.
"Were you married to him in this picture?" Betsy asked. By her casual
tone, she seemed unaware she'd hurt her mother's feelings. Royal often told
Patsy she was far too sensitive. They're just kids, he reminded her. But
sometimes the littlest thing could put a quaver in her voice, a tear in the eye, like
an invisible edge, slicing.
Patsy flipped to the next page and formed the words in her mind first, so
they'd come out strong and easy. "No, we hadn't even met yet, honey."
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 15
"But would you have? Married him I mean." Betsy took charge of the
book, turning the pages purposefully and quickly, until she found a newspaper
clipping of their wedding day.
Chandler's Assistant is Bride, the caption said. The photo showed
Royal and Patsy walking down the aisle of the church. He in his uniform, she in a
creamy pale celery green silk like dress with matching lace-trimmed jacket. Oh,
she remembered that dress, the way it slid over her hips and made her feel so
fine. Was it still upstairs in the attic? Suddenly she recalled the church that day,
wet and cold, like a cave.
"L t, what's that?" Betsy pointed to the caption.
"That's the abbreviation for lieutenant."
"Oh, yeah. Lieutenant and Mrs. Royal Jameson are shown leaving
Immanuel Baptist Church, Covington, following their marriage Saturday." Betsy
read aloud in her child's best grown-up voice. "The bride, the former Patricia
McLaughlin, is an assistant to Sen A B Chandler's secretary in Washington."
"That's the abbreviation for senator," Patsy interjected.
Betsy pushed one shoulder up in her mother's direction dismissively and
held the cover of the album higher to block Patsy's view.
"Lieutenant Jameson returned recently from 20 months of service with the
Navy in the Pacific. He is the son of Mrs. Mary Magdalen Madge--is that
Grandma's name? Mary Magdalen?" Giggles spilled from Betsy's mouth and she
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 16
turned her face, sweet then, to Patsy, so her mother could catch the laughter.
"Well, I suppose it is." Patsy grinned and Betsy relaxed her grip on the
album cover, letting her mother see the newspaper article. Patsy scanned the
caption and jabbed the word Patricia. "Look at that. I told them my name was
Patsy. Honey, don't ever change your name. No one will ever get it right."
More pages went by, Patsy and Royal at a restaurant, at a banquet, at a
swearing in ceremony. She'd been so proud of her career. Then they moved back
home to Kentucky, yet Lexington might as well be another state for all that Patsy
felt comfortable there. She began taking classes, got her bachelor's, then her
master's, but Royal didn't want her to work. Not that she could find a job at any
rate; it was the men needed the jobs, but she might meet some nice people if she
worked. She was having a hard time finding a friend; especially since they'd
bought their pretty house and the girls were in school all day. People said she
had a funny accent; well, she did not. Women would talk to her at neighborhood
gatherings and the pool, they'd accept her invitations to bridge, or lunch, or
cocktails, but they'd never return the favor. No matter what she did, she couldn't
get close to anyone; accept Royal's Charlie.
Cindy bounced onto the couch all of a sudden, practically on top of Betsy.
"What are you doing?"
Betsy shoved her sister to the floor. "Get off! Nothing! Who invited you?"
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 17
Patsy took that opportunity to extract herself from her daughters and the photo
album. She went into the kitchen to put the kettle on. Behind her there was a
commotion of shouts and tears and Royal took that exact moment to appear in
the doorway. He held out a letter from the stack of mail he was carrying.
"Hey-ho. What's this?" He handed her a business-style envelope hand-
addressed to her with YWCA in the upper corner.
She accepted the envelope, and a kiss on the cheek. "What are you doing
home so early?" she asked pleasantly, as she turned the envelope over and slit it
with her thumbnail.
"I have reserve duty this weekend, Pats. Did you forget?"
"Oh," she said with disappointment and frustration. "I have Charlie
coming over for supper."
"Well, you two will have to dine alone. I'll be in Louisville until Sunday."
He put his arm around her and pulled her close. "So what's this from the Y?" He
kissed her neck and his bristly face made her shiver.
Patsy pulled out the letter and scanned it before folding it quickly and
slipping it back in the envelope. "Oh, they have a..." She couldn't settle on the
right word. "Negro social worker coming to town and they're looking for people
to host out of town ah-attendees."
He took off his coat and folded it over a chair. Then he sat down and
began sorting the rest of the mail. "Out of town attendees--including colored?"
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 18
His tone was casual; he didn't look up.
"Well, yes, Negroes, too, I suppose." This was a testy subject between
them ever since she tried to get him to object to the covenants of their
neighborhood which banned non-Caucasians. A friend at the Y had mentioned
this to Patsy, who felt embarrassed that she hadn't known such a thing existed.
She put the envelope next to her cookbooks on the counter then busied herself at
the kitchen sink, rinsing dishes she'd already washed.
The kettle whined and trilled and steam gusted from the spout. She set it
aside and switched off the burner. Then returned to the sink, standing with her
back to Royal as she dried Jody's baby cup. Patsy chewed on her bottom lip. She
didn't want to have that argument again, especially with Royal leaving for two
nights, but she knew what he was thinking. Item 10 in the covenants forbade
them from selling, renting or sharing a dwelling with non-Caucasians, unless they
were servants. "That's disgusting!" she'd said when she first saw it.
Royal had shrugged. "They all say that, Patsy. It's just the standard
"But I don't like it." She wanted to rip it up.
"Well I'm sorry, darling, there's nothing you can do about it."
She glared at her husband. "I think we should make them take it out of
there. It's just so insulting."
"Insulting to who?"
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 19
"Whom!" She had corrected him angrily and left the room. She knew it
was a battle she couldn't even begin to fight. She only hoped by the time her
children were grown up and buying houses the laws would be changed so people
couldn't be so blatant with their prejudices. There was no one in their circle she
could talk to about it either. Just the other day over a bridge game two of her
neighbors were saying how upset they were about what the Reverend Martin
Luther King was doing. Upset, she had wanted to say, the man is brilliant and
articulate and brave, but she tucked into her cowardice and pretended to be
concentrating on her bid.
Patsy busily made Royal a salami sandwich with lettuce and sliced
tomatoes and set it on the table in the dining room with a tall glass of chocolate
milk. That was one of the things that had endeared him to her in the beginning,
that he had the tastes of a 10-year-old. After he began to eat, she got chicken out
of the fridge and began pulling down spices. Charlie liked nothing better than
golden fried chicken, and his little Jackie was so fragile-looking and tiny, Patsy
always enjoyed putting on a real meal when they came. She could swear the poor
child lived on Cheerios and bananas.
When Charlie arrived several hours after Royal left for the Reserves, she
accepted his kiss, a harmless seeming gesture when her husband, his best friend,
was about, but at that moment, it sent a bolt of heat right through her center. She
burned with embarrassment and turned her face to the coats in the closet as she
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 20
extracted a hanger. Charlie was tall, lean, and fierce. She felt at home with him
without even knowing him and this kept her off guard. It was like waking up
beside a stranger.
She fed the children and sent them into the basement where the T.V. was.
"Betsy's in charge," she called in a friendly voice.
Charlie was on his second bourbon highball. "There's coal burning under
Chicago as we speak," he was saying.
"My goodness, really?" Patsy flipped the chicken one last time, then set it
on paper towels to drain. Charlie came to stand beside her while she made gravy,
and after a few moments passed, he picked up the gizzard and popped it into his
mouth, letting out a call of Oh-Hot and Damn that's good. She fluffed the rice,
while she stirred the gravy, then she served up plates and sat down across from
him. Their dining table was wrought iron with a glass top. Bea thought it was
completely impractical, but Royal seemed fine with it and Patsy loved the way it
looked with her white blue-rimmed china and Strasbourg sterling.
"Daddy had a touring car," Charlie said between bites and expressions of
enjoyment. "Ford," he added, glancing up at her with smiling eyes as she ate tiny
bits and pieces and dabbed her mouth with the paisley cloth napkins she'd made.
What was the matter with her? She couldn't keep up with the conversation. She
kept having feelings, hot, exciting, totally inappropriate feelings.
She mopped her forehead. "Are you hot, Charlie? Do we have the heat up
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 21
After dinner they sat together on her couch and he kept talking. "They can
measure it by triangulation."
"Whatever is that?" He smelled feral, like he'd just come in from the
woods, and thinking this made her slide away as far as she could, to keep herself
from being in contact with him. Her nipples grew hard and she folded her arms
across her chest, wishing upon wishing she hadn't chosen the little short-sleeved
cashmere Royal'd given her for her birthday. It's rose petal red made her skin
appear golden, and normally she adored the way she felt in the sweater with her
black wool slacks. She crossed her ankles under the coffee table, causing the
coffee in their cups to quiver.
Charlie slid over as if she'd given him more space to spread out. He put his
arm on the back of the couch. His fingers were less than an inch from the nape of
her neck. "That's the distance from here to there, then you position a third spot."
What in God's name were they talking about?
"Mom," Betsy called as she ran up the basement steps. There was a
cascade of footsteps behind her. "Gunsmoke's over."
Patsy sprung up from the couch, knocking the table edge with her knee.
"Oh," she cried out and doubled over, sitting back down. She rubbed her knee as
pain seared all the way to her teeth!
"Oh, my dear," Charlie had his arms around her, rubbing her back.
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 22
"Mom!" Betsy said sharply from just behind them. "What are you doing?"
"Mommy, are you all right?" Cindy bolted over the arm of the couch and
wrapped her arms around Charlie and Patsy.
"Yes, yes, oh my goodness my knee hurt like crazy, but it's okay now." She
swiped her eyes and let Cindy's and Charlie's arms fall off, as she got up,
smoothing down her hair. Betsy tore a look of anger right through her. Patsy let
her hopefully innocent gaze glint away to the room behind them where Jody
emerged rubbing his eyes sleepily. "Where's Jackie?" Patsy asked her children.
"She fell asleep downstairs," Cindy offered.
"I'll get her," Charlie said.
"Okay kids, up to bed!" Patsy clapped her hands.
When she came down from tucking them in, Jackie was a sleeping bundle
in Charlie's arms. He laid her on the couch to put her arms in her coat sleeves,
and he had trouble with the little zipper. Patsy leaned down to help and he
stepped aside, so she zipped Jackie up and gave her a little kiss, before she picked
her up and pushed her gently into Charlie's arms. He wrapped them both up and
kissed Patsy goodnight, holding her in an embrace for much longer than
necessary. Jackie was oblivious, blissfully sound asleep as they replaced her on
the couch, bracing her tiny shape with end pillows. Then they went down to the
basement like teenagers and necked until dawn.
6. Patsy, Lexington, Kentucky 1990s
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 23
“I looked up that old saying about the wrongest wrong in Kentucky,” Hattie
announced when she came into the day room.
Patsy glanced up from her crocheting to see if Lucretia was listening; it
was always hard to tell. Hattie began to dust the unpainted window ledge—
wormy chestnut, Charlie would note if he ever set eyes on the place. Patsy
finished the yellow bootie and placed it on the bedside table. Jackie would come
by later, tie the knots and thread pretty contrasting ribbon through, white maybe
or sea green, then she‟d leave it in the big willow basket by the reception desk. In
two day‟s time it would fill up with hats and mittens, sweaters and baby booties—
these from Patsy.
Lucretia, Patsy‟s nemesis, liked to knit full-fledged, something she could
sink her teeth into like an afghan overloaded with her entire repertoire of
stitches. Blinded with knots if you took a close look, and Patsy knew them all—
thief knot, stevedore‟s, granny, bowline, cat‟s paw, double blackwall,
Englishman‟s tie—that was Charlie‟s favorite.
Lucretia was a priss.
Hattie had moved on to the fake ferns in hanging baskets. She had a
special paint brush she used to dust those. “Well, let‟s hear it,” Patsy said loudly.
Lucretia was listening. Her mouth did a little frown dance though her eyes stayed
glued to her clicking needles.
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 24
“It‟s actually a whole poem, dear,” Hattie said pleasantly. Patsy tried to sit
up taller on the dayroom couch but the poppy covered fabric was slippery, the
thin cloth of her polyester skirt skidded right over it. Hattie stopped what she
was doing and adjusted the pillows behind Patsy‟s back. They exchanged a smile.
“Well then,” Patsy said. “What‟s the rest of it? Hattie read it to me, how‟s the
whole thing go?”
Hattie posed in front of them, though Lucretia still wouldn‟t look up. She
had a problem conversing with coloreds. Lucretia had a lot of problems—Patsy‟d
made a mental list.
“It‟s called “In Kentucky” by James Hilary Mulligan,” Hattie said. She
thrived on new facts; said it kept her brain agile. Patsy was pretty sure that was a
mixed metaphor though people did say the brain was a muscle. Hattie probably
had the poem memorized, but no, she was reaching into her smock pocket. She
pulled out her little spiral book. Patsy didn‟t understand how Hattie who was her
same old age was able to write in such a small notebook. Some days Patsy
couldn‟t write at all and she certainly couldn‟t wrap the yarn around the needle
point on those days, either. That made it all the more important, Hattie said, to
knit up a storm when her arthritis would allow it. Really, Hattie‟d add, and did
you rub that raw potato all over your skin the way I told you?
“The moonlight is the softest, in Kentucky. Summer days come oftest, in
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 25
Patsy joined in, hearing her own melodious voice like a descant, the words
blooming from somewhere deep inside. “Friendship is the strongest, love‟s fires
glow the longest, yet a wrong is always wrongest, in Kentucky.” They both
laughed. Patsy could swear she saw the slightest grin press into Lucretia‟s
Hattie snapped the book closed and replaced it in her pocket. “Is that the
“Yep, that‟s it.” She put her needles down on top of the oblong pile of yarn.
“Lord that‟d get stuck in my head sometimes. Especially the wrongest part. Story
of my life.”
“How so?” Hattie pulled the ladies‟ rocker over near the couch and sat
down. She claimed the yellow yarn and began winding it around one hand. Patsy
couldn‟t be bothered balling it up. She‟d just rip the paper off its middle and pull
at the one loose strand. “Go on,” Hattie said.
“Yes, Patricia,” Lucretia spoke up. “Just how is that the story of your life?”
“My name is Patsy,” she said for the hundredth time.
Lucretia just stuck her nose in the air for a smidgen of an instant. She had
a big chip on her shoulder especially towards Patsy. It had something to do with
Jackie‟s frequent visits, all smiles and bustle, Jackie and Hattie happily
conversing about everything under the sun. Jackie‟s Michael, too, coming by
after school with his girlfriend of the moment in tow. Lucretia didn‟t get any
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 26
visitors, and while Patsy‟s people had tried to engage her in the beginning, they
just ignored her now.
Jackie called her 'old sour puss'.
Patsy settled back into the pillows and closed her eyes. She loved an
invitation to reminisce. She let the soft summer afternoon feeling pass over her
before she began, always a little wary of her own voice because sometimes she
couldn‟t be sure what kinds of improper thoughts would ride out loud and clear
like a band of motorcycles on parade.
“There were three of us, Royal, Charlie, and me. Royal and I came from
Alexandria, like you and me, Hattie, but he liked to say he was from Cincinnati.
“He had a law degree.” She opened one eye to see if Lucretia had caught
that. “One day my father went off looking for work and never came back. Then
my mother and I moved in with my grandmother.” She took a long sad breath.
“I was the valedictorian of my high school class. We had the class ice
cream party on my lawn, so my mother could see from her bed. The governor
was the keynote speaker at graduation, and I invited him to the party. He said
he'd love to. His assistant said, 'Governor, we have the state legislature to attend.'
The governor said, 'Tell 'em we'll be late. We're going to Patsy's party.' Later, he
asked where I was going to college." She wiggled in her seat feeling as fidgety as
she had been back then, when she was just seventeen.
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 27
"I told him I wasn‟t; we couldn‟t afford college in 1937—especially since my
mother was bedridden with TB."
"Oh, dear," Hattie murmured.
Patsy nodded sadly, but she was perky inside with the memory of the
governor and she herself with an armload of long-stemmed roses. "He said to his
assistant, 'we have to get Patsy a scholarship to Transylvania,' and they did. This
was after we‟d moved in with my grandmother, Louise.”
Lucretia made a show of pushing folds of black afghan across her lap and
resumed knitting. “You already said that,” she commented.
“I‟ll bet she was lovely,” Hattie said. “Your grandmother.”
Patsy thought about that--no, it wasn't so. Her grandmother was grim and
strict and just about very nearly hateful. There was that black spot in Patsy's
memory, she was 14, when her grandmother took her aside, pinched her shoulder
to keep her still. "Your mother is too ill to keep house any more." Patsy opened
her mouth to say, I'm doing all I can, Grandmother, feeling all indignant, tearful
even. But the knotty knuckled fingers dug in to keep her quiet. "You and Gussie
will be coming to live with me." "What about Daddy?" Patsy had asked. "Not
him," her grandmother snapped.
They were waiting for her reply. No, her grandmother had not been lovely
at all, that's the way Patsy'd felt all these years, but wait. “She had twelve
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 28
children!" Patsy exclaimed. "And I wasn‟t even the first to go off to college
“You said you had a Master‟s degree.” Lucretia's tone was accusatory.
“Oh, I do, but that was after the war, after I had my children. When I was
married to Royal. I did have one year at Transy before my mother died though.
By then the governor was a senator and I went up to Washington, D.C. to work in
his office. I didn't want to go. I was so scared, but they put me on the train and
that‟s where I met Royal—he was recovering from war wounds at Walter Reed.”
“You said there were three of you.” Lucretia had put down her knitting.
“Charlie was from way over in Pikeville, coal mining country,” she added
in case Lucretia didn‟t know. Lucretia snorted. She was from Paducah—her
husband was a pharmacist like her father, she was always quick to announce.
“Charlie was expected to work for the company like his father and his
grandfather and all of his uncles and cousins, and he did, too, for three years after
high school." The thought of Charlie—who is over six feet—folding himself into
thirds to ride the cart down into the mine was something that used to make them
laugh. "He said he cheered when the President called us to war and he joined the
Navy because he thought the wide open sea under the airy sky would be the
furthest thing from the black sea of Kentucky, meaning the coal mines.”
“Your Charlie was a poet?” Lucretia asked snidely.
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 29
Patsy turned away to blush; it was true, Charlie didn‟t talk that way. He
could be very very funny and he could be gruff, even cruel.
“As kids we had gigging for frogs and church choir,” she went on. “As
young adults we had the melodies of America‟s waltz king. Then later, we had the
war and I‟d like to think that‟s what happened to us. Funny how people can sleep
in the same bed together and tell each other their deepest darkest and end it all
because of one single solitary mistake. I used to imagine us meeting up one day,
Royal and me. We‟d get that old feeling just like the song says and wonder why
we let it go.”
George Freeman grinned from the doorway. “I‟d wager there‟s a person on
just about every street corner who has that fantasy.” He sang the first few bars of
"The Man that Got Away." “ The night is bitter, The stars have lost their glitter,
The wind grows colder, And suddenly you're older, And all because of The man
that got away.”
He was half their age but he liked to flirt with Hattie.
Hattie dismissed him with a wave of her hand. “Go on, Patsy. How‟d you
end up with Charlie if you still have feelings for Royal?”
“I loved them both, I just want to get that out in the open. I‟m not a bad
person—that, too—okay? We had some good times, some extraordinary times
but we also faced hell and gone.”
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 30
She was still figuring it out; she‟d probably be trying to understand her
own actions for the rest of her life. “For me, hell was Charlie; for Royal, hell was
me; for Charlie hell was like an inoperable tumor in his heart and mind. I would
dearly like to think fear made him that way, not fear of dying, fear of living.”
Hattie‟s head tilted to the side. She was listening to footsteps coming
down the hall. George ducked out and vanished. Nobody spoke until the
authoritative doctorly footsteps passed by the dayroom. “I‟m not sure I know
what you mean, dear,” Hattie said. “Fear of living?”
Lucretia began to snore. They both looked at her. Hattie got up and
plucked the knitting needles out of the crack between the cushions. She gathered
the black afghan up in a gentle bundle and put it the basket on the floor. Patsy
watched but she really wasn‟t paying much attention. She was caught in her own
memory thread; Royal and Charlie, marriage and children, making love to
Charlie in his apartment on Broadway. Where was little Jackie on those days?
She only recalled the way Charlie‟s muscular arms and giant hands contrasted
with his exquisitely gentle touch.
It was true that Charlie joined the Navy because he thought the open sea
would be the furthest thing from the coal mines. The Navy‟s a righteous
employer, she could remember him saying. Nothing like the blood-sucking
company store that gored the health and livelihood of his people. Royal was a
Lieutenant on the Duxbury; Charlie was a shipfitter. They first met in ‟44; Patsy
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 31
never saw Charlie until he appeared in their living room in 1950. By then he was
a rail-thin widower with a little bitty girl hanging on his arm.
She was wringing her hands, she realized, and patted them to soothe the
ache, first one, then the other. “I never imagined how things would turn out.”
“No one ever does.” Hattie sat on the arm of the couch, petting Patsy‟s
hair as if she was a beloved cat. Patsy liked it, she loved it, Hattie‟s hand on her
head, her kind, familiar voice, not frustrated and furious like Charlie, not worried
like Jackie or Michael, just kind and familiar. That was Hattie.
“I love you, Hattie,” Patsy said.
“I love you, too, dear.” Hattie kept stroking her hair. She smelled of
lemons and Ivory soap. Jackie wore strong perfume that made Patsy a little
seasick. Michael's smell made her think of woods and beaches and grassy lawns.
Lucretia and just about everybody else at the home smelled like the hospital with
a little bit of public bathroom mixed in. Not Hattie; she smelled of home, the
home Patsy liked to pretend was real, had ever been real--butter on fresh rolls,
lilacs in a glass jar, fresh clean sun-dried sheets and towels; home.
“What went wrong?” Hattie asked quietly. "What went wrong?" she
repeated, her eyebrows all pinched up in concern.
“Everyone has a version,” Patsy said. “Even our children—Royal‟s and
mine." She counted on her fingers in order of birth. "Betsy, Cindy, Jody—though
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 32
Betsy definitely dealt with life‟s blows differently from the other two. Did I tell
you she‟s a lesbian?”
“No, you never said that.” Hattie got up carefully. Pressed her hand
against the small of her back for a long moment, began gathering her cleaning
supplies. “Jackie‟s Charlie‟s girl, is that right?”
“Little Jackie, we always called her but she‟s a pistol; she‟s my rock, she‟s
the apple of Charlie‟s eye, she‟s hell on wheels.”
“Would you like me to help you back to your room or do you want to stay
put? I‟ve got to set up for dinner.” Hattie was very efficient yet never abrupt.
She nodded to Lucretia whose head had lulled back at a funny angle against a
bank of pillows. There were so many pillows in the home. Patsy had never seen
so many pillows.
“I‟ll stay put,” she said. “Thank you, honey.” Sometimes Patsy forgot who
Hattie was and it upset her. A lot of times she forgot Lucretia‟s name but she
always knew it didn‟t matter—that Lucretia didn‟t matter. Hattie meant a great
deal to her.
Hattie got a dove gray chenille throw from somewhere and draped it over
Patsy‟s lap. “You tuck into your good memories and I‟ll come get you when
Patsy smiled her thanks. The air conditioning came on and she settled
into its soft roar, even though it did fill the room with a sniff of cooked kale and
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 33
lemon scented Spic and Span. "Remembering," she said aloud, loving the way it
curled her lips around her teeth.
"Hope is a thing with feathers," she recited the first line of a poem.
"Good day sunshine," she sang the words to a song.
"If good thoughts were posies I'd collect a bouquet."
No one was listening, and none of it helped. She felt so heavy. "Maybe it's
my thyroid." Still no response from Lucretia. "A mind has a mind of its own,
goes where it pleases."
Lucretia squinted and snarled. "Will you for the love of God hush!"
She‟d made a lemon chiffon pie the day Royal‟s war buddy Charlie
Cambrelly came to call. "He was a shipfitter," Royal said. "Great big man from
Kentucky, like us. Has a little girl. His wife, a French nurse, died in childbirth.”
[After Patsy learned the truth from Charlie about Jackie‟s mother she went back
to believing that little white lie.] “He‟s the one I told you almost died himself—
we‟d left him for dead?" He hadn't told her but she didn't let on.
Patsy hoped meeting this war buddy would help her understand her
husband. It was so different back then. Men came home and threw themselves
into their former lives or their new lives and they seldom said anything about
what they‟d seen, but you knew they were always remembering. Nowadays you
hear too much. You hear about horrors almost simultaneously. She used to
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 34
complain about that to Charlie and it would annoy him no end. He was—is a very
literal man. So much can set him off.
Not then though. Patsy was so carefree back when she was a young
mother married to a lawyer, with three beautiful children and a brand new house
in Lexington. It was only after she began seeing Charlie that everything crucial
inside her shifted. She couldn‟t be happy any more and it wasn‟t strictly guilt; she
refused to believe she had walked out on her children because she was an
adulteress, and it wasn‟t that she loved Charlie more, either. But did she ever
love being around him, right from the first, because of the way she and Royal
were when Charlie was there.
He was just home from Australia where he‟d been living since the war, and
Royal being his commanding officer, was his first stop stateside.
She could see them in her mind, Royal and Charlie sitting on the back
stoop of their house watching the sun come up, and Charlie said he‟d never seen
that before. “Yes, you have,” Royal told him, “over Kula Gulf we must have seen
it a hundred times.”
“That was different,” Charlie said, “that sun was coming to incinerate me.
Every time I saw that sun rise I wondered if I‟d live to see it set. This sun is just
floating by, it has nothing to do with me.”
Royal could see the sun rise or fall and remember the pink, purple and
yellow reflections it made on the water. Charlie could only remember how it
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 35
made him thirsty, parched his skin, spotlighted him for the enemy. Charlie and
Royal were so different yet sometimes she mixed them up in her heart.
Especially now that Royal was gone and there was nothing she could do to
make it right. She knew him, she understood that for Royal Jameson, there were
certain things he hung onto with equal clarity. Kula Gulf; the sun sinking over
the Ohio River; the little restaurant in Alexandria run by Lorraine— Lorraine's
red-eye gravy and biscuits. The three of them, she and Royal and Charlie sitting
on their brick patio, laughing and clinking the ice in their glasses, the Wildcats
scoring a touchdown; his Pop laid out on the rope bed for neighbors to pay their
last respects; the way his mother felt when she hugged him, soft and safe. These
were the things he told her in the darkness of their bedroom, his voice as tender
as his touch. Those were Royal‟s sweet nothings, and the night she left him
standing in the doorway, their children clinging to his knees, was her wrongest
wrong that he'd never let her forget.
He refused to divorce her so she couldn‟t marry Charlie and be a legal
stepmother to Jackie. Yet he denied her any involvement in their children‟s lives.
"I don‟t think they even know I‟m in here.” She was crying.
“Well then I think you can forgive yourself because that‟s more than
enough retribution.” Hattie was there. She reached a hand out to Patsy.
“Oh, Hattie. Was I talking in my sleep?”
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 36
“You seemed wide enough awake to me, dear. Come on, let‟s get you into
the dining room, they‟re about to serve. Jackie will be here after supper, I bet.
Your little Jackie who you love so much. Isn‟t that what you call her?”
Patsy leaned on Hattie much of the way down the hall. Sometimes they
joked about the blind leading the blind but not that day. It was the awfulest thing
about her heart condition, Patsy thought. Not being on top of things, not even
knowing when she was speaking out loud or just thinking in her head. She knew
a lot of it was the medicine but that didn‟t make it any better. She missed being
herself. She missed that the most.
Royal had a lot of sayings—"Ah I wonder what the poor folk are eating
tonight?" This as he began to carve a roast. Or, "See you in the funny papers."
This to his children and they‟d giggle. Even, “Lord, I sure miss Charlie and sitting
around smoking cigars and talking about things." This, one April night in 1950 as
they sat side by side on their front stoop waiting for Charlie and his little girl to
Betsy, Cindy and Jody were playing a game of hide and seek in the house
and their calls of ally-ally oxen free rose and fell. It had been a warm sunny day
so the evening air was fickle and Patsy felt ardent and exhilarated. Royal had
been unusually affectionate, his arm around her, kissing her neck, placing her
hand on his thigh, just above his knee. She felt his muscular leg beneath the
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 37
scratchy trouser cloth and a thrill ran from her palm all the way to her chest, like
a pleasant form of prickly heat. She was excited to meet Royal's Navy buddy; it
would add depth to their marriage. He so seldom spoke of the war and what had
happened there, she had learned not to ask but every now and then he'd toss her
an image, a snatch of detail. She tried not to think about it but she didn't really
know her husband.
She stole a glance at him sideways, his diplomatic brow, Roman nose, soft
lips, full, firm stubborn chin. "What would you talk about? You and Charlie--."
There was no answer. Just the air, blowing first cold then warm, then
cold. She pulled the sleeves of her sweater down to her wrists, and admired her
home manicure, her pretty pianist's hands, the nails smooth and cream-colored,
but short. She laced her fingers together in her lap, and slid her leg over very
carefully, almost without notice, to rest against his.
"I saw him so seldom those first few months at sea," Royal said to the
fading light. He spoke to the darkening concrete street at the end of their
walkway. She heard the children run by in the living room at their backs and
nearly held her breath in hope that they wouldn't come out and break the spell.
Royal was talking about the war and she wanted to hear, to know what had made
him so tense and closed, so private.
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 38
The basement door slammed in the house and she heard running footsteps
down the wooden stairs. She relaxed as he continued. "I knew he was the only
other man from Kentucky; I noticed his arms were powerful.
"The night we were hit, I was ordered to evacuate the fire control tower
and gun positions, then I was told to abandon ship. The Duxbury was sinking."
Patsy's hands tightened on her knees. "That close to death in the middle of
the Pacific Ocean," she whispered, hoping he didn't hear, not meaning to speak
out loud but needing to say it, to have it sink in. She was terrified for him and
reminded herself it had been 6 years, he came through it and so did his friend,
"I was about to go over the side when I saw two men pinned by a line that
had fouled when the rescue boat pulled away. I worked to cut them loose, but
this took so long, by the time I had them free, we were shoulder-deep in water
and it was rising fast."
"Oh, honey," she breathed.
"We went over the side and got sucked into a vortex." He turned to her for
the first time and met her eyes, yet didn't see her, he was focussed on the past. "It
was like being dunked by God‟s own hand.
"Though I had a life jacket. The two men with me did not."
"Did the ship sink then?" she asked dumbly.
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 39
"Everything was exploding, the water was on fire, it singed our throats,
burned the tips of our ears, slammed up against our faces, water and burning
debris, all of it and us, tossed about like twigs. I tried to hang onto the two men,
trying to breathe but keep my mouth shut at the same time. I was sure we'd all
drown." He sat up and stretched his back, ran his hand over his face, seeming to
shake it off, the scene so fresh and crushingly horrifying.
Patsy gazed at the lawn, trying to absorb its calm, the ring of bright white
snowdrops circling the black iron lamppost; balanced and serene. Soon daffodils
would burst into bloom all yellow and orange. Then red tulips and purple grape
hyacinths. She adored spring.
"I don't know how long it was before I was finally able to keep my head
above water, but suddenly I only held one man, Charlie. I can't remember losing
the other man and I wasn't even in control of my breathing, each breath was
jerked outside me, coughing and heaving and wrenching, I swear I cracked a few
ribs just trying to catch my breath. They felt all splintered the way they jabbed
"My God. What -- how?" She shook her head in confusion, so afraid she'd
ask the wrong way and he'd close up. But he seemed to need to spill the story
before his reunion with Charlie.
"We thrashed through the gulping sea into a floater net, me hauling
Charlie, who, for all I knew, might be dead. There were other men in the net and
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 40
for several seconds as we watched a passing destroyer try to get a line to us, we
were fully certain we‟d be rescued, but it was moving too fast and before long it
was out of sight."
"Oh, Royal." She slid over and put her head on his shoulder, sneaking her
hand in between his arm and side, wrapping her hand around his hot skin.
"For two or three days we drifted, all of us in various stages of injury.
Charlie was unconscious some of the time and was passing clotted blood. I had a
gash in my head but my hair was matted over it so I couldn't tell how bad it was.
I also was pretty sure my wrist was broken, it was puffed and purple." He rubbed
his wrist as if it throbbed in pain.
"Compared to the others though, I was in good shape. One day we spotted
land about 200 yards away and Tim Brown, a Yeoman who wasn‟t hurt too bad,
swam and pulled the net while the rest of us who were conscious, paddled. It
took us forever to reach shore."
"Thank goodness," she said, as if that was the end of the story.
Some neighbors strolled by just then; two couples, a scattering of bicycles,
and running, falling, noisy children. "Beautiful out tonight, isn't it?" Patsy called
"Yes, nearly a full moon. Happy Easter to you--," somebody answered.
Royal waited until the people were out of sight, though their voices carried
through the trees. "We had a few emergency rations and some water," he
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 41
continued. "But there were hundreds of coconuts, so we knew we wouldn't
starve. Charlie couldn't keep down anything but coconut juice and the second
day on the island I saw a pool of fresh blood on the ground where he'd been
"Oh, no." She imagined an animal, a deer just shot, or a fox mauled by
dogs, not a man, not the man who was coming to see them for Easter Sunday
"We took turns carrying him and another man, an Officers Cook named
Spitzer, moving at night toward a cultivated coconut plantation where we hoped
to find friendly natives. A few times non-enemy planes circled the island and
we'd wave and shout for help."
"But they didn't land?"
He shook his head. "They either didn't see or hear us or believe us. When
a PT boat drifted by the opening of a salt marsh, I pulled myself into a sparse tree
and sang “Anchors Away” as loud as I could, knowing I couldn‟t yell “Hey Navy”
like the Japs did."
She pictured the enemy soldiers luring the Americans with jovial voices,
then hatcheting them to death. She didn't even know if the Japanese used
hatchets but for some reason she felt certain their weapons were primitive. "I
sang louder and waved my arms desperately as I watched the PT boat disappear.
Damned lucky I wasn‟t sprayed with gunfire." He stood up and walked down the
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 42
front steps, leaning over every few steps to pick up clumps of seed pods dropped
by the oak tree. He threw a handful across the lawn, out of the way, then
returned to Patsy's side.
"By the time we got close enough to see that the coconut plantation was
full of Japanese, I was certain Charlie and Spitzer would be gone soon if they
didn‟t get help and I was beginning to understand that this would probably be my
fate as well." Royal shrugged. "Strange how calmly I decided this." He lit his
pipe and drew in the tobacco in a series of loud, comforting puffs.
"We were down to 2 tins of emergency rations and 4 beer bottles of water.
Coconut meat could sustain us indefinitely, but our various injuries might take us
first. Spitzer died the fourth night there and the next morning Charlie said he
couldn‟t go any further and told us to take all the equipment and leave him."
"He did?" She couldn't imagine volunteering to be left behind.
"He gave his shoes to another shipfitter named Pete Guthrie who had
none. Then we left. It was me, Tim Brown, Pete Guthrie and Ray Mathews. All
we had at that point was a sheath knife, a rain parka, and the last tin of
"And Charlie‟s shoes," she added as if this was important.
"And the shoes."
A car approached and Patsy hoped it wasn't Charlie, she had to hear the
end of the story. She nearly cheered out loud when it kept on by, then stopped at
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 43
the corner and idled there for a long moment, teasing her with the possibility that
it was going to back up to their curb.
Betsy ran up to the screen door behind them. "Are they here?"
Patsy smiled at her oldest. Betsy loved company, adults or kids, it didn't
seem to matter, she was gregarious, like her father. "No, dear, not yet. We'll let
you know. You all get some ice cream if you like, only two scoops, each, okay?
And I washed and sugared some strawberries--you can put those on top."
"Okay, Mommy." She was gone. Betsy was only ten but she had the
sensibility and composure of a young woman. Patsy was so proud of her
children, all three of them.
Royal was quiet for a long moment, then he pulled the tobacco pouch from
his shirt pocket, refilled his pipe, pulled out his lighter, flipped the top open with
a tiny clang and struck the zipper with his thumb all in one motion. The tobacco
sizzled when it caught. He went on. "Late that afternoon we risked detection by
swimming to another island, which we thought might hold more promise. I tried
not to think about the man we‟d left behind and all the others that had died.
"That night, a PT boat glided into a small cover and there was an explosion
of gunfire as we crouched in a thicket of mangroves. There‟s the rescue, I
thought, helpless to do anything.
As soon as morning broke I crept down to where the trouble had been and
robbed two dead soldiers, crawling back to our hide-out with a bayonet, a hand
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 44
grenade and two cans of Japanese tinned beef. This sustained us for two more
days when we were able to attract the attention of a Marine fighter pilot who
dropped down, inflated a boat and picked us up."
"Thank God. It's amazing how clearly you remember."
"Well, I'd have been locked up if I couldn't issue a complete report on my
She hadn't thought of that. So much distrust, it was overwhelming. One
minute you're fighting for your country, the next, you're suspected of treason.
"Did you ever see him again? I mean when you were over there?"
"I didn‟t think about him after that, maybe I didn‟t want to, so many men
had died in the months since the Duxbury went down. But a half a year later in
Espiritu Santo, a ghost of a man came up to me and put a hand on my shoulder,
either to brace himself or as an act of friendship I didn't know which, and said. 'If
you hadn't stayed back to cut me free, I would have gone down with the ship. I
wanted to thank you.'
"That was Charlie?"
"Yep. His hand on my shoulder was practically weightless--and he was a
big, big man. A coal miner I found out later. 'You made it,' I blurted out, wanting
to take it back the instant I said it.
"He smiled at me. 'I survived 29 days right where you left me,' he said, 'on
coconuts and Army chocolate ration D‟s dropped by a plane. I don‟t know how
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 45
they saw me, I was too weak to signal, but God Bless „em. When the Marines
rescued me, I cried like a baby.'"
Patsy had heard other great big soldiers say similar things, their gratitude
so fierce they became childlike. "How did you feel when you saw him?"
"Astonished. Amazed that a man we left for dead could survive alone, and
then thank me for saving his life. It's a fact of his character I will never forget,
nor stop admiring."
They had a splendid visit with Charlie and his little girl Jackie. Easter
morning Patsy watched from the kitchen window as the men hid eggs for the
children. Some they put beside the concrete base of the house, on the narrow
windowsills or on the shoulder of the curved brick chimney, where they‟d be easy
to spot by the littlest ones. Others were carefully concealed in the pine boughs
and window wells where the older children would really have to look to find
All at once Royal stood perfectly still with his hands full of eggs, because
Charlie was running around grinning like a 12-year-old. “You‟re enjoying
this, aren't you?” he asked.
Charlie pressed an egg under the frothy skirts of a fern. “I‟ve never done
this before,” he admitted.
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 46
“Never hidden Easter eggs?” Royal deposited an egg under an old metal
chair and another one between two large curving tree roots.
“Never hidden them, never hunted them,” Charlie said.
“What‟s the matter, didn‟t you have a childhood?”
“No,” he replied, cracking a turquoise egg on his knee. Then he peeled off
the shell and bit into the hard-boiled egg as if it were the best thing he had ever
tasted in his life.
A woman‟s past and present aren‟t concurrent, but Lord sometimes it felt
that way to Patsy when she thought back. Walking out on her family was the
worst thing she ever did and she could never take that back, not that single act,
not the years that followed. They blame her and they have a right to, but who‟s to
say they would have turned out better if she had stayed?
She fell in love with Charlie that Easter day, and she was consumed with
thoughts of him after that. Each morning, when she‟d fix breakfast for her
husband and children, the feeling of Charlie gilded her thoughts. On weekdays
when she ran errands and worked around the house, Charlie's essence was like a
film on her skin. At night with her family all around, eating the roast beef and
mashed potatoes she‟d cooked for them, answering her questions about school,
talking about their many friends. Even while making love with Royal—she longed
for the other man she barely knew and it never did make sense.
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 47
Now that she was so much older and Royal was gone, she could talk about
him. Even to Jackie. They'd be sitting in the lobby of the home, waiting for the
hour to pass, and she'd hear herself. “Here‟s something else that never did make
sense when Royal'd say it, but we all got used to hearing it." She'd sit up and take
a deep breath, then put on her stage voice. “„Well, there we were 40 miles out of
rink-a-dink, torpedoes on the left of us, torpedoes on the right of us, and what did
“That‟s weird Grandma,” Michael would comment. The girl perched on
the arm of the chair, practically on his lap, mind you, would smile politely.
“That must have been something from the war, don‟t you think?” Jackie
Patsy wouldn't answer; she'd feel stung by the realization that she‟d quoted
the wrong father to the wrong daughter. But these kids wouldn‟t hold that
against her. They were sweet, full of concern, and she didn‟t know why they put
up with her, why they seemed to love her.
“I‟ve always been able to depend on you, Jacks,” she'd say to her
“And you always will,” Jackie would reply.
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 48
Had it really been just one year, just one year since she was riding in the
car with Charlie, going along to Jackie‟s so she could make things right? Patsy
remembered it so clearly.
She had to contain herself as they rolled along the old concrete highway.
Her bony back end was pressed flat against the blue upholstery, yet she was on
the edge of her seat in her mind. Beside her, Charlie‟s thick coarse hand held the
steering wheel gently, he cruised along as if it were just another ordinary visit to
Jackie‟s. A hot brown cigar twirled smoke between the thick stubby fingers of his
other hand. It rested on the seat between them, that right hand; made her thighs
want to shrink up to give it space. Less than two feet of vinyl separated them,
that and a squall of filmy cigar smoke which he knew darn well made her plain
sick to her stomach. She could feel the heat of its burning nub, watch the thin
dense smoke get pulled toward the vents and dissipate.
For once in her chit-chattering life, she could think of nothing to say. Her
mind rode the wind outside where branches swayed and leaves twisted. She
prodded herself inwardly. It was important to appear normal, even if it meant
riling him. She read the handmade sign as they rolled by: Death is the place
where the rubber hits the road.
“Did you see that one, Charlie?”
He didn‟t as much as grunt a response.
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 49
“It was mostly hidden by the Kudzu,” she went on. “Looked like it‟d been
there awhile. The letters were faded.” Her voice died out at the end.
Charlie unrolled his window to halfway, hawked and spit. “Now when we
get there you stay put in this car,” he said harshly, his voice commanding. “No
need dragging this thing out. I‟ll see what she needs fixing, then we‟ll be on our
“I could maybe...”
“You heard me.”
“Okay.” Her voice sounded appropriately meek in her ears but her panic
was banging from side to side in her head. Maybe she should have tried harder to
argue. Often she put up a fight. She didn‟t want this day to seem any different
from any other. Patsy combed the cotton of her pale pink shirtwaist dress with
her fingers, lifted her legs one at a time to try and get her panty hose untwisted.
The elastic band cut into her midsection and she plucked it away, pulling it up
higher on her waist as she spoke up all hopeful. “But Charlie, can‟t I have just
one quick cup of coffee with Jacks?”
“No.” He drew on his cigar, seemed to suck the foul vapors into his brain.
His knob of a chin lifted as his lips pursed lovingly around a cylinder of exhaled
smoke. “I don‟t have all day. Do you hear me, Patsy?” The smoke burst into ugly
clouds around his face.
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 50
Patsy turned quickly to hide her bunched up mouth, the hot tears splitting
from her eyes. It was the answer she‟d counted on, yet hearing it hurt all over
again. Outside her window, a cluster of new shorn sheep stood on a dirt mound.
Her eyes latched onto one in particular, its sorry image wavering through her
Charlie pulled up neat in front of Jackie‟s. Shut the motor off, leaned back
to stuff the keys in his pocket. Then he nudged her with his cigar, just on her
arm, real quick, as if he hadn‟t meant to. Made her lurch up out of her seat, it
smarted so. Didn‟t even leave a red mark, though; she checked the second he was
out of the car, even before he slammed his door shut, sealing her inside.
Jackie‟s lawn looked real nice, deep green, newly cut. Her blacktop
glistened from a recent rinsing and Charlie left wet footprints on the flagstone
path as he approached the tidy brick rambler. Patsy noted his big strides, broad
shoulders, thick neck, and felt something inside akin to ashes and ice. This was a
man she had slept beside, cooked for, nursed back to health. For twenty-seven
years she had waited outside her office at five each afternoon for Charlie to pull
up. Without a word he‟d idle there while she got in, got settled. Then it was her
self-appointed duty to narrate their journey home. “Look at this...look at
that...Jerry Salsman got laid off today and it‟s real sad...” Sometimes Charlie
would just tell her to shut up but mostly he didn‟t say anything.
Patsy leaned forward a bit when Jackie‟s red door opened. She saw the
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 51
dried flower wreath Jackie had made in crafts class the year before wobble just a
bit when Charlie‟s shoulder hit it as he went inside. Jackie faced her father, eye-
to-eye. She was a tall girl, but slender, curved in the right places. Jackie would
starve to death before she‟d let her love of Cheetos and Coke make her fat. She
was proud of her body, had her breasts enhanced with those squishy implants
(salt-water, Mom, not that fake plastic stuff). Recently she‟d had her teeth
painted with some kind of enamel whitener so they flashed a bit evilly that last
day Charlie came to call. Jackie‟s teeth cast white light on Charlie like an x-ray or
maybe Patsy was imagining that.
Jackie had dressed for the occasion in a silky red blouse Patsy hadn‟t seen
before. The slim black slacks showed off her long legs. Her auburn hair shone so
bright, Patsy was sure it might have been sprinkled with that gold glitter the kids
sometimes added to their make-up. Jacks leaned out the front door and waved to
Patsy, gave her the A-Okay sign. Patsy saw snippets of pink nail polish on her
daughter‟s fingers and this cheered her a bit. It was a light-hearted gesture, after
all on Jackie‟s part. She always was sweet about trying to calm Patsy.
It had to happen this way. They had discussed it so much over the years
and this was the only plan they kept coming back to. Charlie would never fight
back with Jackie. Ever since that time she knocked him unconscious with a cast
iron corn fritter pan she'd pulled right off the wall of their kitchen.
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 52
Patsy refused to acknowledge the gunshot. There was no crack or pop.
The sparrows on the telephone wire did not scatter up in the sky like a buzz of
bees. Wiley the beagle was only barking at a stray animal, or some distant noise
unheard by humans. Later Patsy would swear it was just the quietest morning,
It didn‟t seem long before her only grandson, Mike, swept around the side
of the house past the bridal veil bush Patsy had prodded Charlie into
transplanting from their yard to Jackie‟s. Her Charlie had certainly tried his best
to kill it, too, hacking its roots angrily when he dug it out, dropping it into a
shallow hole at Jackie‟s later, refusing to buy some of that Miracle Gro to make
sure it got a good start. Young Mike had fixed it up later though, after Charlie
and Patsy left. Jackie said he re-dug the hole, mixed some peat with new top soil,
sprinkled little fertilizer nuggets around its base, then watered it every day for a
Mike had a graceful gait, like a gazelle pulling smooth arcs of space
beneath him. He swung open Charlie‟s car door and slid behind the wheel real
efficient, closing it behind him, and locking it. His blue jeans smelled of summer,
grass and flowers. Little golden leaves had showered down on his reddish-brown
hair. They were scattered on the shoulders of his burgundy tee shirt.
Patsy watched him poke Charlie‟s keys in the ignition, then the car started
up with a growling roar, surprising her a bit. She‟d half expected Charlie‟s car to
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 53
balk, as if it had feelings of loyalty. She thought of all those sunny afternoons
when Charlie would be out there rubbing it with wax, shining its windows,
dropping quarters in the power vacuum at the gas station, snorfing the littlest bit
of dirt from its smooth carpet.
“Mom says to drive you home, Grandma,” Mike explained looking at the
rearview instead of her.
She leaned back against the headrest and closed her eyes. Long before,
Patsy could have been one of those Breck models, people said. With her full head
of gleaming bronze hair, washed every single night in the tub, since they didn‟t
have a shower. Rinsed weekly with lemon juice or vinegar, conditioned monthly
with homemade mayonnaise. “Patsy‟s hair is her shining glory,” her mama used
Grew in tougher than rope, too, Patsy had proved time and again. Every
single strand held tight to her scalp the night Charlie dragged her across the
parking lot. Saved her from dropping to her death the gorgeous spring day he
held her out the upstairs window by her ponytail. His grip gave way before her
hair did, and she jumped. Took pride in that; it had surely been her choice to
drop, even though she did end up with three broken bones in her foot and a black
and blue ribbon up and down her right side.
Got a hundred dollars cash for her thick braid from the doll lady in
Louisville that one time she left Charlie. Rented her a one room garden
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 54
apartment on Liberty Street before Charlie arrived in his then blue Ford. Shaved
her head when he got her home, acting as thought he wasn‟t aware when the
razor nicked her skin, couldn‟t see the filmy red blood seep out of its little holes,
didn‟t notice the sheen of her blood on his fingers. Then those days and nights
he‟d amuse himself thinking up names for her: bald-ass; baby big tit. Jackie told
the neighbors her mother lost her hair to cancer. Something she must have heard
on T.V. Cancer became a ready excuse for Patsy then, a reason not to go out. An
explanation for limping or looking bruised.
Patsy reached up and smoothed down what was left of her hair. It was
white now, short for easy keeping. Why, more than once she‟d caught a vision of
herself in some passing mirror and thought, who is that old tart? Mike pulled up
in front of her house and turned off the engine. “You want me to come in with
She gazed at the blue stucco house, wondering how much longer she‟d
have to live there or if she could in fact bear to leave. Jackie was going to call a
man she knew who‟d bring by one of those real estate signs and poke it into
Charlie‟s zoysia grass lawn. There wouldn‟t be a lot of house cleaning to do, since
she‟d kept up with it right well. There‟d be things to go through, though, so many
things. She‟d like to call someone and say, take it all away.
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 55
“No, thank you, son.” She reached across the front seat and placed her
palm on the side of his face for a second. Such a handsome boy, the kind that
melts a girl‟s heart right off.
“Then Mom or me‟ll come back to check on you about dinner time.”
She perked up. “I‟ll make something for dessert.” He smiled such a sad
For the next hour or two Patsy watched from her living room, certain
Charlie would come back, like one of those haunted hacked-up creatures from the
horror movies. Her fears were tiny but there were so many they fairly screamed
in her mind. Her thoughts seemed to scurry along like endangered rodents, bent
on escape. Any regrets she might feel, anger or pride, were wrapped up so tightly,
she was afraid to take them out and examine them.
That afternoon a stranger knocked at her door. A young woman about 19
and pregnant, with a look of hopeful exhaustion. Her face was puffy, probably
water retention. Her complexion was splotchy. “Would you be willing to sell that
iron crib on your porch?” she asked. “I could give you eighty-five dollars cash for
Patsy had gotten that crib back in '73. It had taken her a few weeks to
scrape and paint it, cover its mattress with bright green and pink chintz, scattered
pillows across the back. Her neighbor, Vaughn, who was an interior decorator for
Sears, said it made a cozy and inviting loveseat. Charlie, naturally, thought it was
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 56
stupid, but he‟d fallen asleep there himself a number of times, with the
newspaper fanned out on his chest, and a cigar smoking in a plate on the floor
The young woman reached under her ballooning smock shirt to what must
be a hidden pocket, and pulled out folded bills. Patsy found herself to be nearly
immobilized, unable to speak. The afternoon chided her, it was so bright, with
the smell of lilacs and lilies of the valley. She imagined a shadow standing out
beneath the gumball tree in her front yard and something caught in the center of
her chest like a fruit pit. As if her heart had truly hardened and become
“All right.” She stood aside and let the woman pass by her. “It‟s not a
regulation crib,” Patsy called out from behind her, having found a new voice, one
that resounded a little more assuredly in her ears. “I‟ve read all that stuff about
babies getting their heads stuck between the slats, have you?”
The pregnant woman was on the porch, running her hand over the
decorative iron swags and whorls, patting the mattress. “That‟s okay,” she said.
“I‟ll get one of those bumper pads from the Baby Factory.” She straightened up
and held out the money. Patsy closed her hand around it. The bills were warm
and soft, they matted down nicely in her palm. “Can I send my husband for it?
He gets off work at five-thirty.”
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 57
“My husband always got off at four-thirty. He liked to have his dinner by
five-thirty. Usually I couldn‟t get it on the table before six. But I kept on trying.”
Suddenly Patsy didn‟t want the woman to leave. She didn‟t want to be left alone
in her own house. A picture from the past became lodged in her mind. Jackie
was on the little iron crib loveseat playing with Mr. Potatohead when Charlie
came out and thudded down beside her. Jackie must have been four or five at the
time and she wiggled off the couch so fast, Mr. Potatohead fell from her hand and
rolled up against Charlie‟s foot. Patsy remembered exactly laughing from the
doorway at the sight of that silly round creature with its white plastic arms
reaching in opposite directions, the huge red tongue sticking out right at Charlie.
It was days before Patsy could get Jackie‟s high-pitched scream out of her mind,
the little girl sobs as Jackie picked up the broken toy she loved so much. For
Charlie had, with purposeful glee, smashed the thing under his heel. Had to
stomp a good number of times to destroy the hard plastic, too.
“On second thought,” Patsy said. “Why don‟t you and I just take this thing
apart and I‟ll help you carry it to your car.”
Later she went inside without watching the car leave the curb, without
looking behind her as she shut the door. Then she went to her cool, dark
bedroom and stretched out on her bed. The twilight was gauzy, fading light
filtering through the screen. She had been lying there on the bed watching the
window as the honey-colored afternoon fell into the cusp of evening. Something
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 58
she hadn‟t done since she was a young woman, just resting on top of time, letting
it slide by beneath her as if it didn‟t matter.
It was a gentle evening, she couldn‟t remember one so sweet. A seductive
scent hovered around her, roses, peonies, irises, one of those old-fashioned
flowers that grew beneath her window. A thick patch of mint was starting up
among the flowers. She‟d seen it just that morning. It came every May in spite of
Charlie‟s efforts to yank it up and hack it down. This year it could grow and
spread, bloom purple throughout July and August. She adored mint. Liked to
chew the leaves until her entire mouth went numb. And the bees, with their
cheerful humming, kept her company during the slow summers since she‟d
Every spring except this one she had doggedly pulled out the brochures,
tried to snag Charlie‟s interest in a trip out west. She wanted to see the Grand
Tetons, the Black Hills. She wanted to go to San Francisco and wear flowers in
her hair. Once she had been driving Jackie somewhere and that song had come
on the radio and she sang along. “You should do it, Mom,” Jackie had said. “You
should go there tomorrow.”
“Oh, Jackie, I can‟t.” How many times had she said that?
“Well, I can.” Jackie finally told her. It was after Patsy‟s second heart
attack, brought on by Charlie‟s temper, Jackie was certain, for in addition to an
arrhythmia, Patsy landed in the hospital with a broken nose, two black eyes, and
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 59
a fractured collarbone. She wouldn‟t say how it happened because she honestly
“You should sign a complaint, Mom. You should divorce him. Send him
“Oh, Jackie, I can‟t.”
“Well, I can,” Jackie had said.
She wouldn‟t have to say that ever again: Jackie I can‟t. Patsy rolled over
on her side and positioned her thick pillow under her neck. She let it cushion her
head lovingly like a big soft bosom. She didn‟t have to open her eyes to know
Charlie‟s hunting rifle was no longer propped up behind the door. But his various
shoes for every occasion were lined up in two even rows beside the walnut desk
her grandfather had used more than a hundred years before. His cobalt blue
velvet easy chair, which had been her grandmother‟s was still slung with an
assortment of slacks and shirts. She wondered if Jackie would come for a fresh
pressed shirt to dress him in. The only suit Charlie owned was wool and Charlie
could get so hot his broad red forehead would roll with sweat. She‟d suggest that
green checked shirt. It was his favorite.
What was she wearing? She couldn‟t see any more. The room was dark.
The veil had fallen. Was it the red or the pink, maybe both? Or was that what
Jackie wore to kill Charlie? Jackie killed Charlie. If she didn‟t get away with it
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 60
she‟d go to jail and then young Mike would lose his mother. Patsy couldn‟t let
that happen. She shouldn‟t have allowed Jackie to bud in.
She got up and called 911. “This is Patsy Cambrelly,” she said carefully.
“I‟m home now at 555 Culpeper Street just off the Paris Pike heading out of town?
I killed my husband.” She hung up then and went straight to the bathroom.
Surely all the heart medicine and pain medicine put together would take care of
her nicely. She took the pills methodically, having to keep filling up Charlie‟s
denture glass with water. Then she added Charlie‟s high blood pressure medicine
for good measure. One thing she couldn‟t do was be found. She left through the
back door, first snagging Charlie‟s hunting jacket off the hook even if it was
shirtsleeves warm outside. It helped, the thick scratchy Charlie-scented wool.
Smelled of fall, of tucking in at night, her arms down the sleeves where his used
to be. How could she so love a man who seemed to hate the very sight and sound
of her? It was in her blood, the way she felt about him, and she couldn‟t get it
out. He was her way of life, just as coalmining had been his family‟s. Lately he‟d
been regretting that he never went back to Pike County after the war, not even to
introduce Jackie to her grandparents there. His family there, every last one of
them had expected his return and when he settled in Lexington they wrote him
terrible letters. You think this way of life is beneath you? His father shouted the
last time they spoke. Charlie didn‟t even go to his own father‟s funeral. “They
don‟t want me there, Patsy.”
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 61
“What about Jackie?” Patsy asked. “Don‟t you think she‟ll regret it one
“Jackie doesn‟t know what it‟s like and I don‟t want her to.”
It didn‟t make a lot of sense to Patsy that a portion of someone‟s life—a
small portion—could rule them the way it did, but she knew it happened a lot.
Sometimes she wanted to plead with him to let it go, forget about it, look ahead,
not back, but you didn‟t argue with Charlie when he was in one of his dark
Patsy wandered across the yard toward the hill that led to the railroad
tracks where the drunks and addicts lived. They would never look for her up
there. Jacks would know she had never been up there in her life.
Patsy was lying with her face in a bed of white pebbles. A small brown
woman helped her up. Patsy licked her lips and sniffed. There was someone
behind her, she could smell his body odor, hear his voice tolling instructions, a
youthful tenor. They must have been planning to give her mouth-to-mouth.
“Good Lord,” she said. Strangers did not make good rescuers. She closed her
eyes, trying to will away the nausea, to no avail. The vomit announced itself the
way it always did, as a burning eruptive well of vile bile. She was manhandled
onto her side as liquid sewage washed over her chin, even exploded from her
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 62
nose. Her legs were heavy, her feet deadened, her vision fogged. She thrashed
and clawed to be freed, as they held her down.
“Are you okay? Are you okay?”
She hated that impotent redundant question. One too many times there
were police officers at her front door, their eyes skirting Charlie‟s broad
shoulders, straight blocking-the-way-stance, to where she held herself up in near
darkness, the newel post her only support. “Are you okay, ma‟am?” they‟d ask
and she‟d wait for Charlie‟s eyes to lock onto hers, then she‟d nod, knowing that if
she stepped into the light from the front porch they‟d see the raw skin of her
cheekbone or the limp, injured way her arm hung down from her shoulder.
Charlie‟s episodes were never announced like the bile in her throat, but they
erupted from deep inside him just the same.
Her mouth was swiped harshly with gauze and she felt the familiar
warmth of plastic gloved hands. Her intestines seemed to spiral in her stomach
and prickly chills rained from within her arms. She reared back thumping her
head on a hard muscled thigh as a raging well of ammonia tunneled up her nose.
Smelling salts, my God, she thought, they‟re still using that?
“Ma‟am, ma‟am, what‟s your name? What did you take?”
Was she dead? She wasn‟t dead. Okay, it was just as well, the one drastic
thing she‟d done in her life that should have failed—leaving her children so many
years before—had been a great success, while the rash attempts to save her own
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 63
life by leaving Charlie had failed. This latest effort to end her life and swallow the
blame for Charlie‟s death had been aborted. She didn‟t die. She wasn‟t dead.
Relief flooded the undersides of her face but she knew not to smile. The horror
came more slowly, like acid indigestion, washing upwards from the pit of her
chest to the back of her neck. It would trickle out behind her and lead a trail
directly to Jackie‟s door. She managed to free one hand for an instant and felt the
sticky slick of vomit on her chest, smeared like blood on the lapels of Charlie‟s
hunting jacket, gluey clogs of smut in the zipper. He‟d be furious. “Oh—my—oh
my God, I have to get this off.” Why on earth had she donned his favorite jacket?
She tried to sit up but they wouldn‟t let her, they were holding her down. Well,
she‟d been held down plenty in her life. She flung herself toward the sky and the
little one sat on her hips, straddling her middle.
“She‟s combative,” someone said, and Patsy‟s shoulders were clamped
down in an arm-lock.
“No, please. This is my husband‟s. He‟ll be so upset if it stains.” She
meekly tried to skim the vomit off the red-checked wool with her fingernails.
“Ma‟am, you can get that off at the hospital. Do you know your name?”
“I can‟t go to the hospital again, please. I swore I‟d never.” She was too
tired to finish.
“Okay, calm down.” The small woman reminded Patsy of a rat terrier
Jackie had once. Skeeter was his name and he was cute as a button with little
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 64
bright eyes and sharp features. Those same characteristics weren‟t quite so
attractive in a woman, though.
“Ma‟am, can you tell us your name? Where do you live? What did you
As they peppered her with questions she came to her senses a bit more.
Maybe they‟d release her if she sat up and spoke clearly. She tried to raise herself
up and the woman pressed down on her even harder. She was heavy for such a
tiny thing. “You‟re hurting me, little miss,” Patsy said with concern. She felt so
scared and untidy. Once she had been elegant and graceful, like a beautiful
woman in a hotel lobby. Silk stockings, her best garters, shoes so dear she‟d go
barefoot in the streets to protect them from the tar. The little rescuer hopped off
Patsy and helped her sit up. Patsy coughed for show, then she said, “It‟s true
about your life flashing by.”
“Can you tell us what happened?”
“They were on the same ship that went down and I loved them both, but
one, as big and strong as he was, needed me. You just couldn‟t understand what it
was like. He had that little bitty girl beside him and I don‟t know what happened.
Something broke inside me. Maybe she reminded me of me, I just don‟t know
but we went away, on holiday, my family, to Wishman‟s Key—the loveliest place I
ever imagined but its beauty and the magic of the peacocks and Marguerite it all
just made me feel worse. I missed him so much and I drove twenty miles to call
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 65
him from a pay phone. He was going home and he said I‟d never see him again. I
couldn‟t let that happen. I asked him to wait. I said I‟d go with him. It was
terrible, I was terrible, those were terrible times. So many people died.”
“Calm down. Who died?”
“I got a telegram. „Will you marry me?‟ He was a Lieutenant Commander.
„Recuperating at Walter Reed. Coming home soon.‟ Stop. He was the love of my
life. Do you know what it‟s like to turn your back on your children? After my
mother was too ill to keep house we moved in with my grandmother; but she
wouldn‟t have my father, a streetcar driver. Illiterate, can you imagine? And I
was valedictorian. I never saw him again. Not really.”
They searched her with their eyes, but she could tell their concern was flat-
“No, it‟s true,” Patsy assured them. “I don‟t even know where he‟s buried
or when he died. I only saw him once after that.”
“Where do you live, ma‟am?”
“We had a sweet house, a bungalow I think they call it now, in Rosemont.
I had the children‟s portraits done in pastels then I hung them over the white
brocade couch in my mint green living room. It was beautiful. Everyone said so.”
She‟d told Jackie this story many times. Was it a dream? No, it had really been
her life, not so much carefully planned for and carried out, but more like walking
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 66
quickly with one hand covering her eyes and the other stretched out in front.
“I‟ve always been waiting. The other shoe; I left it in the rain.”
They were talking to each other, her captors, their voices down a notch as
if it was understood she was hard of hearing. Little did they know, her senses
were as keen as Teddy Roosevelt‟s, Charlie liked to say and TR was the best
hunting dog he‟d ever owned. She heard that word Alzheimer‟s and she was filled
with anger. It was their excuse for everything. Just because there was no cure
they thought they could pin that on her?
“It isn‟t that,” she told them. “I promise.” She thought of those three
children, adults now. What if she never saw them again? Up until now she had
always planned, figured life would intervene, bring them together one final time.
It was a premonition. But now, now it seemed damned unlikely.
“Ma‟am, do you know what year this is?”
She heard the question but it was stupid, unimportant. It was so easy to
get off-course. Years could go by and it would be too late. She thought Charlie
wanted her to leave him. He could get so exasperated with her, act so put upon.
Before that he was such a sweet father to Jackie. At first it was just a friendship.
Patsy was the dutiful wife, inviting the widower and his little girl for an Easter egg
hunt. What followed were bag lunches at Rose Park, just her and Charlie,
afternoons at the Hotel Lexington with its giant Edwardian L engraved on
everything. She‟d trace that L with her finger and feel so grand and terrified at
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 67
the same time. Live with me or you‟ll never see me again he told her one
afternoon. So she did. Royal was astonishingly ruthless. Well, of course, a
woman she barely knew said, "You‟re leaving him for another man, how do you
expect him to be, understanding? Men have killed their wives for less."
She could only confide in strangers then, and even afterward when it was
all out in the open she was absolutely shunned by every single woman she‟d
known. In all the years since she wondered what might have happened if Royal
had reacted differently. Instead of anger and ruthlessness, what if he had been
concerned for her? If he had tried to understand what compelled her to leave
him for Charlie, maybe she would have stayed. Divorce was very uncommon
then—naturally she claimed to be divorced and remarried even if it wasn‟t true.
None of their friends, Royal‟s and hers ever spoke to her again. She never went to
her children‟s parent-teacher conferences, their recitals, or sporting events, or
later, their weddings. She wanted to—anniversaries and holidays always filled
her with grief.
Patsy was a guilty woman and living with Charlie turned her into someone
she barely recognized. Instead of getting the kind of job she might have had she
stayed married to Royal—a university teaching position maybe, she was that good
of a pianist--she had gone to work for a heating and cooling company. She took
to speaking in Charlie‟s vernacular, she held him in the middle of the night when
he woke up in a panic and wept against her chest. She accepted his temper bursts
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 68
as if they were her due. She‟d lie awake all night so he wouldn‟t catch her
unawares, and tear off to the grocery at dawn having remembered suddenly at
midnight that they were out of coffee or Charlie‟s Wheaties. It was only then she
recalled the way it used to be with Royal, his kindness, his generosity, the way her
children‟s eyes would shine like stars when she walked into a room. The day he
had the piano delivered--a surprise--her Chickering. God she missed it still as if
it were flesh and blood.
Again they were shaking her, yelling in her face. “Are you all right? Are
you all right?”
“Yes,” she said. Yes, such a beautiful word.
The little woman straightened the collar of Charlie‟s hunting jacket. It was
almost an affectionate gesture. “I‟m sorry, you seemed to black out there. I just—
do you know what year this is?”
“Her name, first, Leslie,” the other one corrected her.
“Patsy Cam--Jameson. Could you please get off me?”
“Camjameson. That‟s a new one. Okay.” She lifted herself off Patsy but
kept her hand locked on Patsy‟s arm. “What‟s your social security number?”
“Good Lord,” Patsy said. “I was trying to get to the railroad tracks and I
tripped. I must have thrown-up from fright or something. Now I‟m perfectly
able to stand up and I would like to do so right this minute. I didn‟t call you here,
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 69
I‟m quite certain of that.” She hadn‟t spoken so authoritatively in many, many
“Will you remain calm? Could you possibly answer our questions?”
“Do you have any heart conditions or other ailments we should know
about?” the tenor with the muscled thighs asked. He put his hands under her
armpits and gently lifted her to a sitting position. He had his arms wrapped
under her bust like a lover. She relaxed against him and closed her eyes only for
seconds. There was so much to sort out. She had made a giant mess of
something but she couldn‟t quite place it.
“I was trying to find the railroad tracks.”
“They tore those up before they put this development in, Mrs.
Camjameson.” It was a new person, a woman in short pants and a bra, simply a
bra. A thin hard gal in giant cloddy sports shoes clutching a tiny black cell phone,
one of Patsy‟s pet peeves. Still, Patsy liked the way she called her Mrs., it showed
respect, something she always longed for and appreciated.
The one that knelt beside her, who had been sitting on her, pumped up the
blood pressure bulb and gently let it release. Patsy hadn‟t even been aware it was
strapped to her arm. “Please tell us what you took, Patsy.” She timed the words
to each release and it had a staccato effect.
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 70
“What makes you think I took anything?” Their expressions didn‟t change.
She relented. “I don‟t know the names. Three different prescriptions: Naproxen
for my arthritis, my heart pills, two kinds, and my husband‟s high blood pressure
pills. Charlie and I both have heart conditions but I‟m the one had surgery.” She
swallowed carefully. She wasn‟t going to mention those other pills, the ones
Charlie was ashamed of, his anxiety medication. She had very nearly added that
Jackie was going to take her out tomorrow to renew her prescriptions.
The straddler spoke directly to her associate. “The Naproxen would make
her vomit if she took enough.”
“We still have to take her in.”
“Do you need me any more?” the jogger asked. “Mrs. Camjameson, is
there someone I can call?”
“It‟s just Jameson, dear.” Jameson, she hadn‟t used it in a great many
years but it sounded so starched and efficient. She could get used to it. It had
nearly killed her when she read Royal‟s obit. She had always planned to
apologize to him, to thank him for the divorce he finally gave her after a great
many years. Then he was dead and she had gotten very, very old. Royal had had
a full military burial with the white horses and the 21-gun salute, him being an
officer. Maybe she could arrange that for Charlie. “No. I can‟t think of anybody,”
she told them.
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 71
If she didn‟t offer they wouldn‟t connect her to Jackie. Jacks went by her
ex-married name since it was Mike‟s last name. What was it? Good Lord, it just
slipped her mind. Something simple started with B maybe.
“What about your husband, the one whose pills you took?” this from the
straddler, Skeeter, Patsy wanted to call her, after Jackie‟s dog. Skeeter had
already unwrapped the blood pressure tape and was packing it neatly away in a
navy blue case.
“I‟m afraid he‟s no longer.”
“Oh, I‟m so sorry. Well, Ma‟am, we are going to have to take you in to the
hospital. The administrators there can decide who to call.” Muscles, as she
decided to call him, lifted her gently, supporting her very nicely. She appreciated
it; she hadn‟t had kind, young, strong male arms around her in the longest time.
She leaned against him. She was a head taller than the little snip and Muscles,
too. He was sturdy, but there wasn‟t a great deal of height to that one.
“Are you feeling faint, Mrs. --? Help me Leslie, get the stretcher.”
“Oh, no, it‟s okay, I was just catching my breath. You know, I couldn‟t
stand to be on a stretcher. I couldn‟t bear it if you took me in that ambulance.
The last time I was in an ambulance like that I thought I was dying. I do have a
heart condition after all and the sirens and all that equipment in that little space,
not to mention the hospital itself just about did me in. I had a heart attack in
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 72
June I think it was. The bill was forty-nine thousand dollars. Forty-nine
“All right, let me check with Dispatch. Hold on,” little Skeeter said.
The jogger intercepted her. “What do you mean? Are you considering just
leaving her here by herself?”
“I‟m just going to call in, ma‟am. We‟re not going to leave her.”
Before Skeeter made it to her ambulance the radio inside started talking
urgently, something about Crestwood and the Deerfield Academy. That was
Charlie‟s preferred route to work, her work, along the shady curving road that
seemed like country and used to be, around the big S turn there by the prep
school. Patsy used to like to watch the athletic fields as they rolled by. She‟d see
the cheerleaders warming up and remember Jacks, so pert and pretty in her fresh
white sweater, her short short skirt and her thin brown legs. Patsy just loved the
way those skirts were bright white inside the pleats but you never saw that until
they jumped and swished and flipped about. She never got to go to her own
children‟s games but she would have.
Jody wasn‟t more than three when she left and now he‟s a big shot lawyer
like his daddy. Cindy was seven. Betsy was ten. Royal was thirty-nine like Jack
Benny. She was thirty-five and still alive, she used to say to herself even though
so many people she knew would look her right in the eye and not even say hello
after she left Royal. She was definitely the condemned woman of Lexington,
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 73
Kentucky, the rotten egg, the scarlet letter whore. “There was no going back, just
like the sign outside the prison said, „Abandon Hope All Who Enter Here.”
The jogger shifted from one foot to the other urgently as if she had to use
the bathroom. “I‟m sorry?” she said to Patsy.
Thinking back, Patsy bet Jody was a football player. Betsy and Cindy
probably turned out every bit as pretty as Jacks, but they wouldn‟t have the
confidence or pizzazz. Patsy firmly believed personalities were set in infancy.
Maybe they were pompom girls. Patsy loved those boots with the tassels and the
crisp swishy-swish of the pompoms. She even knew the words to the high school
marching song: „fight, fight, fight on for Western.‟ Girls weren‟t yet playing many
sports when Cindy and Betsy were growing up but they were probably in the Girl
Scouts. She tried to find it all out once but Royal said she didn‟t have a right to
know anything, not their interests, not their clothing sizes, not their favorite
flavor of ice cream. Jackie‟s Mike was a star on the track and field, but those
meets were a little difficult to see all over the place the way they were. After
retirement, she went to as many as she could though. She wondered if Jody had
ever played sports. That would be a question she‟d like to ask.
She had looked him up in the yellow pages once and called. But he was in
court and it was just as well. What would she have said, hello dear, this is your
mother. Then later she had tried again, to ask for his help, but she was so
frazzled with trying to tell the receptionist just whom was calling and what it was
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 74
in regard to, she hung up. The problem was solved now, she reminded herself,
with Jackie‟s help, and Mike‟s. They were the only people in the world she could
count on, and to repay them for their loyalty she must keep her distance now, so
there wouldn‟t be a single finger pointed at them.
“We have to take this call, we‟re the closest,” Skeeter told Muscles. They
both looked at the jogger.
She stalked over to them and they talked in a quiet clump. “Will you come
back?” the jogger asked.
“If we don‟t, you can call 911 again. But ask for the police this time.”
Muscles came over to Patsy. “We have a real emergency not too far away from
here, ma‟am. We‟ve called in for a police car to take you home. Now we can wait,
we should wait, but there‟s been some big tie-up in town. I don‟t know.” He
looked at Skeeter who had one foot in the ambulance.
“This other one is a true emergency,” she said loudly.
Patsy stood up. She refused to wobble. She‟d done this charade before—a
lot of times in fact. She corrected her posture, stuck out her chin a bit. “I do
apologize for—.” She paused. The truth was there were too many things to
apologize for. She scratched the back of her neck, picked off what must be dried
vomit. Good Lord. They were opening the back of the ambulance and getting the
stretcher down. “I absolutely forbid it,” she said with authority. “You cannot take
a person against their will.”
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 75
The jogger came to her side. “Are you sure you‟re feeling okay? I mean I
just live over there.”
“Please,” Patsy said. “I can‟t abide another hospital bill, please you have to
make them go. I won‟t bother you, I promise. If you‟ll please just send them
away. I‟m all right, really I am. It was just a mistake.” She made her face as
reasonable as her voice.
The jogger studied her. “It‟s okay. I‟m at 16943, the third house down,”
she called out to the medics. “I‟ll take Mrs. Jameson there and we‟ll wait for the
“Thanks,” they both said urgently. They got into the ambulance.
The jogger watched it pull away from the curb, roll down the black asphalt
street, pause at the corner, then rev its engine and shoot up the next street with
its siren wailing. She put on a nice face, Patsy actually saw her do it, then she
spoke slowly and loudly. “Isn‟t there someone I could call? A daughter, maybe?
Do you live around here? Could I take you home?”
“My daughter Cindy had a poem published in a magazine, one of those
literary magazines? She mailed it to me once. It has the loveliest cover of a
“Really.” The woman looked a bit perplexed but that transformed politely
in seconds. “What‟s her name?”
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 76
“Cindy Kirkpatrick.” Suddenly Patsy panicked. Had she used Kirkpatrick
or was it Jameson? Young women like Cindy were starting to keep their maiden
names. She always wanted to ask them, well, how do you register at a hotel?
Patsy had never met Cindy‟s husband Robert, but he got the Purple Heart in
Vietnam, she knew that much, and they had two daughters, Meg and Ashley.
They lived over in Paris. She asked Charlie to drive her there once when they
were at a nearby car dealer but he refused. She only wanted to find the house and
drive by, she wouldn‟t have gone to the door for heaven‟s sake. After she got the
poem in the mail she‟d written a nice congratulatory card and asked if maybe
Cindy would send her photos of her daughters, and also herself with her brother
and sister. One picture came in the mail, an old black and white of Betsy, Cindy
and Jody, their names written on the back in smeared felt tip pen. It was from
Wishman‟s Key when she was still their mother. She had examined the faces for
familiar features. They were very attractive, her children.
Jody wasn‟t married currently, she had managed to find out. But he had
three children just like her; a boy and two girls. She didn‟t even know their
names. Royal‟s obit named his stepchildren but not his grandchildren. She
thought that was wrong. Cindy had sent her Royal‟s newspaper obit; at least the
envelope had Cindy‟s return address in Paris, but she hadn‟t written anything
inside. Patsy had read and re-read about his life and accomplishments taking a
very sweet secret pride in the story of his life even if there was that one slap-in-
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 77
the-face sentence: his marriage to the former Patsy McLaughlin ended in divorce.
Jackie said that was standard for an obit but it stung and it was an insult.
When she got the poem she alternated between feeling proud of Cindy and
being hurt. It was one of those modern free verse things with the words arranged
all funny on the page so it looked like some kind of whirligig. As a matter a fact
there was a line in there she thought might be directed at her and it was
downright insulting: You the dismantled whirligig could sit idle for hours while
the yellowbird seesaws on the Cosmos. She wondered what she‟d done with that
magazine. She‟d been afraid Charlie would find it so she‟d put it behind Don
Quixote and Chekhov on her bookshelf. She didn‟t know what she‟d do if Jackie
made her get rid of her books. The furniture she didn‟t care about, but the
books? She just loved those books.
The jogger shifted from one foot to the next. “It‟s actually dark, now, Mrs.
Jameson. I just can‟t leave you here. I‟d like to, don‟t get me wrong, I really don‟t
want to get involved.”
“You probably have to make dinner for your family.”
“My family consists of two cats. That‟s not it, but I do have things to do.
How about if I let you use this?” She extended the cell phone. “You call your
daughter or a cab, it won‟t be any concern of mine. Or, the police should be here
shortly. They can even take you home.”
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 78
Patsy brushed herself off. The vomit was drying. If she could carefully dab
it with some hot water it would probably clean up without fading. Charlie‟d
gotten deer blood on it a time or two and she‟d managed to get that out. Though
why in heavens she‟d taken his old coat to begin with was a mystery. A big black
sedan rolled up the street toward them and Patsy stepped away from the curb. It
was one of those Mercedes Benzs with darkened windows. To this day, Charlie
spat, when one of those crossed his path. And the Japanese cars, he was livid
about those—goddamned death traps—he called them.
“This is quite a fancy neighborhood, isn‟t it? I‟ve never been here.” She
looked down at her feet in soft green flats. There was no neat swath of grass
separating the street from the sidewalk the way she remembered. There was just
the sea of white pebbles and up ahead, next to the driveway, one of those security
“I‟m frankly surprised you got past the gates. Though I suppose they
wouldn‟t be suspicious of someone your—someone like you.”
Patsy smiled. “It‟s okay. I know I‟m old and feeble. So let me see that
phone. I‟ll have to call information.”
“That‟s all right.”
“Turn it on for me.” She held it back out to the jogger.
“I‟ll go ahead and punch that, now speak right into this.” The jogger
handed it back.
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 79
“Directory Assistance, what city?”
“Uh.” Just who on earth could she call? They prompted her again. “Uh,
“Jameson, J A M E S O N, Robert. I mean, wait, that‟s not it.” She looked
at the jogger with swelling fear that imploded into relief as she remembered.
“Kirkpatrick, Robert.” A recording gave her the number. “I don‟t have anything
to write with,” she said hurriedly.
“They can dial it for you, wait for directions.”
Patsy listened, then nodded to the jogger. “I just had to stay on the line.”
She waited through the rings, one, two, three, four, then a sweet young voice
came on. That must be her granddaughter.
“Hi. Leave a message for Meg, Ashley, or Dad. Bye.”
The jogger was watching her so she left her full name, speaking very
clearly, then she hung up. Had she missed it or was Cindy not even mentioned?
She longed to call it again and listen to the message but the jogger was already
starting up the wide brick pathway to a dark wood door with a brass knob at the
center. It was a formidable door, Mediterranean style, Jackie would say. Jackie
had been studying interior design for the past few years at the community college.
She was always trying to better herself which Patsy admired no end. The jogger
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 80
leaned into the bushes to the right of the front stoop and lifted up a big chunk of
glass. There was a key under it, which she deftly inserted in the lock.
“I know they say never to do this, but there‟s nothing to steal in here at the
moment anyway, and I don‟t like anything in my hands or around my neck when
I‟m running. I absolutely refuse to wear one of those fanny packs, like some of
my friends do, which Jerry Seinfeld says looks like you‟re digesting a small
animal, and I agree.”
The jogger talked so fast and a little under her breath so it was hard for
Patsy to keep up but she smiled at that one, mainly because Charlie hated the
“Seinfeld Show.” She and Jacks liked to watch it whenever they could. They both
talked about how great it would be to have close friends like that cute Elaine or
zany Kramer; of course they knew life wasn‟t really that way, unless maybe you
lived in a college dorm, Jackie said. Patsy had never had that experience,
camaraderie with other girls, and she had longed for it her whole life, to be liked,
accepted, sought out for solace and a good laugh.
She didn‟t have anyone like that to run to, either. She always felt bad
about leaning on Jackie and Mike so much. They never complained, she had no
doubt they loved her and would always take care of her, but she felt like a heavy
weight in their lives. That was part of her thinking when she took the pills. Too
bad it hadn‟t worked, too bad she‟d dropped so many on the floor and upchucked
the rest. Though deep, deep inside, it wasn‟t too bad at all, because she was
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 81
thankful to be alive, to feel the cool fall night air falling down all around, to know
it wouldn‟t be so long before the ground was hard and plastery; and she‟d have to
pull on scratchy wool gloves. Yet where would she be by winter? How could she
go on now that Charlie was dead and she was responsible?
The jogger‟s foyer was dark and empty save for a pile of coats, still on
hangers, on the sand-colored tile floor against the beige wall. In the hallway
there was a solid pane of mirrored glass and though she tried not to look, Patsy
could see that her short white hair was matted on the left and sticking out funny
on the right, and her one cheek was pock-marked with pebble imprints. She
remembered she was supposed to brush her hair away from her eyes at the
temples, and let it curl softly under her ears just the way Jackie had taught her
after one semester at the Empire Beauty School.
Her face was tan, in the darkness the lines weren‟t visible, she could pass
for early sixties, she thought, really. Her eyes were so big they always startled
her, Little Orphan Annie eyes, Charlie used to say when he was in a good mood
about her. They were seal gray, with thick brown lashes and arched eyebrows she
never had to pluck. Her shoulders were strong looking, but the bones were a little
sharp, especially the collarbone which looked like a parrot perch. She shrugged
out of Charlie‟s coat.
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 82
“Is there somewhere I could dab this with soapy water. If I work on it
soon, I might be able to clean it up right.”
“Sure, in there.” The jogger crossed the hall, pushed open a door and
switched on the light. “I‟m just going to get some water, would you like
something? I‟m afraid the cupboard‟s pretty bare.”
“No, I‟m fine.” She would love a Co-cola but wouldn‟t dream of asking just
to be disappointed. The jogger didn‟t look like the type who‟d keep soda in her
house anyway. “Thank you,” she added. Patsy went into the powder room and
shut the door. She leaned against it and caught her breath; she was suddenly, for
no explicable reason, breathing hard. Feet could move, hands could close doors,
eyes could be splashed with cold water, and still the heaviness sat on her so hard
she felt near to suffocating. She tapped the little box under the skin, her
„emergency room in your chest,‟ the doctor called it. It‟s too bad they couldn‟t
devise a similar technological regulator for her head.
She turned on the gold-plated faucet and held her hand under it until the
water was just barely warm. Then she used her fingernails like a soap pad and
worked on the vomit. She didn‟t want to get Charlie‟s coat too wet, though that
would be difficult at any rate, since it was water-repellent. She got it clear of
scum and smelling like the lilac soap the jogger had in a pottery dish, then she
dabbed it gently with the single pink striped towel. That was when she noticed
the bathroom was basically bare of the usual implements. She quietly opened
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 83
one door of the mirrored cabinet and peeked inside. There was a single container
of dental floss and one stray q-tip. It was almost like no one lived in the house.
There was a knock on the door. “Yes,” she said.
“Just wanted to make sure you were all right.”
Patsy opened the door into the foyer and the jogger stepped aside. She
held Charlie‟s jacket out before her even though it was barely damp. “Do you
mind if I set this here for a minute?” she asked, draping it over the wrought iron
“No, that‟s fine. Now,” the jogger said. “I‟m Estelle by the way, Estelle
“Thank you for helping me out,” Patsy replied. Her manners were solid
and often eased situations.
Estelle was wringing her skinny hands. “I‟m afraid I can‟t offer you
anywhere to sit, and like I said before, there‟s really no food in there, either,
except a mostly empty box of Raisin Bran and a half carton of skim milk.”
Patsy knew there were bananas in there, too, for she had finally
established the source of the aroma in the hallway. From the warm mellow scent
she‟d say they were just about right for banana bread, something she used to bake
for the office before they let her go without warning or reason. It still hurt, three
years later and the smell of ripe bananas could remind her of being discarded so
coldly, of how the pleased and interested smiles of Ben and Yolanda and Wei Wei
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 84
had simply closed up like a box top suddenly one day, their eyes downcast when
she spoke to them, their replies clipped. Charlie said there was nothing she could
do, that she‟d probably annoyed the company execs beyond reason with all her
yammering. It was not right though, she was fourteen months away from being
fully vested in her pension, she was the senior administrative person there, and it
wasn‟t a matter of cut-backs. They continually hired youngsters right out of
college, had her train them, then promoted them right past her eyes like finished
products on an assembly line.
She didn‟t even get a going away party since she was the person in the
office who organized the birthday celebrations, wedding and baby showers, and
retirement suppers. Her so-called severance pay was an extra six weeks on the
health plan and a leather-bound clipboard with the company logo, which Jacks
promptly drop-kicked into the dumpster when she picked Patsy up that last day.
She‟d called Jackie, of course. There was no way she could face Charlie feeling
like that. She almost cried for herself remembering.
The jogger was standing by the front door like a cornered animal. “So.”
She pursed her lips. “I might be able to dig up a package of crackers, that‟s been
my mainstay lately, those Ritz Bits.”
“That‟s okay, I‟m not hungry. I‟m not even sure why I came here with you.
Just doing what I was told more or less.” She wouldn‟t have to worry about that
anymore, in one respect. Except, Good Lord, what had she done to Jackie‟s
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 85
carefully laid-out plans? “Do you think I could call my daughter?” she asked
shyly. “Then I‟ll be on my way. I would just walk home but it‟s so dark now and I
have to say I just got completely turned around in this neighborhood.”
Estelle stooped over and untied her shoes, then she stood up and halfway
leaned against the wall, using the toe of one foot to pry off the heel of the other's
shoe. “Everything does look alike, doesn‟t it? That‟s what my husband liked
about it—no surprises, no pink shutters or basketball hoops, planters made out of
old rubber tires or mailboxes with legs or wings.” The jogger kept looking out the
front window, then at her watch.
“I have a stucco house on Culpeper Street, one of the old Sears houses.
Have you ever heard of those?”
“Yes, I grew up in Chicago. Our neighborhood had a few. They have so
much character. That‟s really my style more than this.”
Patsy looked around for Estelle‟s benefit. It would be wrong not to show
an interest. “Did you just move in?” she asked graciously.
“No. My husband just moved out. He left me.”
“Oh, I‟m so sorry.” Patsy planted her gaze on the bottom step. Maybe she
shouldn‟t ask so many questions, but the jogger didn‟t seem to mind. If people
didn‟t want to talk, they let you know, just like the pregnant gal earlier. She‟d
been a closed-mouth one, poor thing, about to drop a baby and having to wander
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 86
around neighborhoods looking for furniture. Come to think of it, that was very
odd. Oh well. She shrugged.
The jogger—Estelle, smiled. She was pretty when she did that. “It‟s okay.
What‟re you going to do when your husband says he‟s found someone else?”
“I honestly don‟t know,” Patsy said quietly. The train of remembrance was
bearing down on her, the big long black locomotive that cut through the years like
a bolt of fire. There she was, a pretty forty-three-year-old going on eighteen.
Leaving her nearly perfect house, clutching her mohair coat to her throat as Royal
stood at the bottom of the stairs in his corporate suit, with Jody attached to one
leg. Behind him, her oldest child Betsy somehow seemed to understand what was
happening, had foreseen it maybe even before Patsy, and her ten-year-old eyes
were cold with hatred. That girl never did like me, Charlie had complained at the
time. No, Patsy realized just then, it was she whom the girl hated. The girl, her
oldest daughter whom she hadn't seen in many many years.
Where was Cindy then? Patsy remembered a hug but forgot the child. Oh
she just bet Cindy suffered from being the middle child. She had read all about
that and told Jackie time and again, it's good you were an only child and Michael,
too--just like I was. You get to be the oldest, youngest and in between. Jackie
would smirk and shake her head in loving disbelief. You're right about that,
Mom. I'm happy every day I think about Sal making babies with his new wife.
Yep, Michael sure is lucky he'll be my only heir.
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 87
Oh Jackie, I didn't mean that. Often, so much that it worried her, she'd
totally forget Jackie was divorced and her husband was remarried. Jackie
wouldn't let her forget it for long though. Lately, she'd gotten so cynical, and it
made Patsy sad.
She started for the door. “I guess I could walk after all. I should walk, get
out of your hair. I could just backtrack. I left my house, went south down my
street, crossed the avenue, turned into that neighborhood with the bonsai trees
and such, then walked up the black asphalt past one green lawn after another, I
was getting dizzy from the sameness, just heading for the tracks. It has been I
guess ten or more years since I‟d been over this way. Everything is so different.”
She felt like crying and closed her mouth and eyes tightly for a moment.
Estelle patted her arm. “I‟m not going to let you walk. I have a car. But
you know the medics have sent for the police.”
Patsy grabbed her arm. “It‟s very important that the police not come here.
You know how busy the police are. They‟ll just be mad if you make them come all
the way out here because an old lady got lost and stumbled. Please?” She
couldn‟t let the police put her name to her face after she‟d called 911 and
confessed to murder. She had that much sense.
“I‟m sorry, they have to take a report. It‟s the only way the Medics could
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 88
Patsy was feeling so tired and she honestly just wanted to cry, to lie down
and cry. But there was hardly any furniture in the house. She needed a sofa with
fat cushions, a pillow for her head, a window for the scent of promise to guide her
dreams. No, what she wanted was Charlie, as bad as he was, as mean, he was the
loveliest person she‟d ever known. Did that make her crazy?
Estelle gently removed Patsy‟s hand from her arm and opened the front
door. “They‟re here.” Patsy saw the cruiser down at the curb, it‟s blue light
spinning crazily. An officer got out and walked up the front walk. Estelle looked
back at Patsy one more time and hurried down to meet him half way. Patsy
waited against the wall. She didn‟t know what to expect and she was numb, tired
of arguing. She‟d go with him if she had to. Sleep on the little metal bed in the
jail cell. She wondered if jail cells looked the way they did in the movies.
Patsy quickly walked to the back of Estelle's house. There was a kitchen
door but it had one of those deadbolt locks. She couldn‟t even work the one at
her house half the time. She turned around just as Estelle came inside and closed
the door behind her. She came into the kitchen. “I told them we had it under
control, that you were not hurt, that I overreacted when I called 911. I said your
family was coming to get you shortly. Did you want something to eat after all?”
That was her way of letting it be known she had seen Patsy‟s feeble attempt at
“No, I was just--. What did he say?”
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 89
“He gave me a little lecture on how much it cost the city every time
someone called 911. Now why don‟t you try your daughter again?” She put her
arm around Patsy and guided he back into the front hall.
“Again?” Had she already called Jackie and completely forgotten?
“Well, you left my cell phone number on the answering machine, and I‟ve
had it on this whole time. I wouldn‟t worry. She might have been caught in
traffic or something, coming home that is. Does she work?”
“Jackie is a hairdresser and a part-time student.”
“Oh. I thought her name was Cindy and she was a poet.”
“Cindy?” Patsy‟s head was spinning. “Actually, I haven‟t spoken to her in
quite some time.”
“I see.” Estelle licked her lips and sucked in the top one. It made her look
toothless. “Here, sit down, please. You don‟t look well.” She helped Patsy to a
black felt chair that had been hiding under a pile of clothes in the living room.
Patsy sat down. It did feel good. Her legs were aching. Estelle walked from one
side of the room to the others with an armload of clothes, then just placed them
on top of the coats on the floor. Something Patsy had said had upset her, that
was evident. Or maybe she was just afraid Patsy was a nutcase. That was
probably it. Patsy had seen that look on people‟s faces before.
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 90
She spoke up assuredly. “My other daughter, step, actually, but we are
very, very close. Jackie. She lives in Camelot. The subdivision past Falls and
“Okay. Do you know the number?” Estelle was poised with her cell phone,
all business. Patsy called out Jackie‟s number and Estelle punched it into her
phone, then handed it to her. She heard Mike‟s urgent hello. “Hi, dear, it‟s
Grandma.” Her voice in her ears was very calm, as if it was an ordinary day and
she was calling about lunch.
“Grandma? Where are you? Mom‟s about to split a gasket.”
“I‟m sorry. I‟m with a nice woman named Estelle.” She felt sick to her
“Who? Why did you leave, where are you, do you know how much trouble
you caused? Mom just about took my neck off for not going inside with you but I
had basketball practice, Grandma. I couldn‟t compete in the tournament if I
missed it. You were supposed to stay home until we came to get you.”
Patsy raised her eyebrows in a question to Estelle, who took the hint and
went into the powder room and shut the door. “I didn‟t want Jackie to get
blamed, Mike. That‟s what it was all about. I love her to death. I don‟t want her
getting hurt, or you either.”
“We weren‟t! We were just taking care of things like we talked about.”
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 91
“Taking care of things, I heard the gunshot, Michael. I know there was no
other way but I didn‟t want my Jackie to go to jail for murder or you either. This
is my problem. I need to own it.” She‟d read that somewhere, about accepting
responsibility, paying the consequences or some fool thing.
“Grandma, you think we shot him? Are you fucking crazy? I‟m sorry,” he
“But I heard it, Mike.” Didn‟t she? She tried to think back to waiting in
the car but it had been such a long day.
“Kill her father? Mom doesn‟t even own a gun, Grandma. Sure, we said
we‟d like to kill him for what he‟s done but we didn‟t mean it.”
“Then what happened, how did, where did--.” Her head was pounding.
“We made him go away since you wouldn‟t leave him. That way you can
divorce him for desertion. Mom told him she‟d found a nice place for him to stay
for the winter. He‟s going to Florida, Grandma. We were going to come over and
get your house ready to sell. Mom found a place for you. It was all going to work
He didn‟t apologize for cussing that time, she noticed, and it worried her.
“Sell my house?” she asked.
“Of course. Where do you think the money‟s coming from to pay for all
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 92
“Florida?” She had just been thinking about Wishman‟s Key. Jackie often
said she was psychic. Now Charlie got to live in that magical enchanted place.
He would never go there with her, she‟d asked him to many times. “Florida?” she
“Yes. He can fish and play golf and bridge. There‟s a community of
widows and widowers there. You know he‟s likable to most people. We think
he‟ll even be happy there. It‟s right near one of the best VA clinics in the whole
country. He can get treatment there for free.”
It sounded really nice. She wanted to go, too.
“Grandma, tell me exactly where you are and I‟ll come get you.”
“Where‟s Jackie?” If Jackie was in jail she‟d never forgive herself.
“At your house probably, crying her eyes out, or maybe the police took her
in by now for all I know Grandma.”
“Oh my Lord. The police?”
“Yeah, when you call and confess to murder, they come check it out. What
did you expect?”
Wait a minute. How could they suspect Jackie of anything? “Oh, Mike, I
just didn‟t want Jackie to get in any trouble. How did they connect her to my
“Ian‟s mother called here because the police showed up looking for you
around 6. They knocked on her door and she said she saw you and Grandpa leave
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 93
this morning then you came home alone, later. She saw you get dropped off in
Grandpa‟s car. But it wasn‟t him at the wheel. She was specific about that. She
thought it was me, she told them, but there was a glare from the midday sun.”
“Good Lord. That woman is nothing but a spy.”
“She also told them you had company this afternoon, a pregnant woman,
and you and she carried a crib out of your house and put it in her car.”
“Rose doesn‟t miss a trick, does she?” Rose Prevot had tried to be friendly
with Patsy and Charlie when she moved in last year but Charlie was downright
rude to her from the start.
“God, Grandma. Mom was paying Ian to keep an eye on you.”
“What?” Patsy felt dizzy. “But I was babysitting him.” Estelle appeared in
the archway to the living room again, saw that Patsy was still on the phone and
went down the hall toward the kitchen. Patsy heard water running.
“Mom went over there as soon as I played her your message. She called
me, frantic, because there were pills all over the bathroom floor. The police came
to the door while she was on the phone to me—Mrs. Prevot called them as soon as
she saw Mom go in the house.”
“Rose thinks she‟s being helpful, I guess.” Patsy felt like a fool; a familiar
feeling. They hired an eleven-year-old to babysit her, not the other way around.
“Mom had to call the airline and get them to verify for the police that
Grandpa was alive and well on the plane. It‟s a big mess, Grandma. Why
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 94
couldn‟t you let us handle it?”
“Mike, I‟m so sorry. I thought I was doing the right thing.” It didn‟t feel so
right any more.
“Well, you weren‟t. They were just here, tearing through the place. They
took my rabbit gun. I don‟t know what they think. I don‟t know where Mom is.
Now give me an address. I need to get you over here.”
“Would Jackie want that? Maybe I should stay away, maybe that would be
the right thing.” It was a half-hearted suggestion. She knew he wouldn‟t take her
up on it.
“No. Now you listen to me, Grandma. I‟m coming to get you. Give me
“I‟m going to put Estelle on the phone, Mike.” She listened for water
running in the kitchen but heard none.
“Who the hell is that? Grandma, don‟t hang up.”
She looked toward the archway and the hall beyond and Estelle was
nowhere to be seen. Now if the situation had been reversed, she had no doubt
she‟d be there with her ear pressed to the door trying to hear every word. Estelle
apparently was unconcerned. “Estelle? Estelle?” she called.
Estelle ran down the stairs halfway and leaned over the railing. “Yes.” She
had changed into a vee neck sweater and jeans. She was much prettier in
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 95
clothing that hid her bones. That husband of hers must be the type who hated
Patsy handed her the phone. “Would you please give my grandson
directions? I just don‟t know which way is which at the moment.”
Mike pulled up too fast in Charlie‟s Buick Century. He jumped out of the
car, leaving the door hanging wide open. “Grandma, are you all right?” He
strode across the lawn and helped her up off the bench. Patsy was getting ready
to introduce him to Estelle but he pulled her across the grass harshly. He was
tugging on her hand as if she was a little child. Her arthritis just ached.
“Mike, slow down, you‟re hurting me.”
“We have to get home. I can‟t believe you left like that.” She heard tears in
his voice. That made her think. She couldn‟t remember the last time she saw
Mike cry. Not even little Mike. He opened the passenger door and pressed on
the top of her head to make her duck down.
Estelle rushed up behind them and reached for the door handle. “Excuse
me, but aren‟t you being a little rough with her. She‟s had quite a scare.”
Mike leaned against Patsy‟s door to shut it, blocking Estelle. “Thank you
for helping. I‟m supposed to take her right home.”
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 96
He went around, slid in behind the steering wheel, turned the key so hard
the motor screeched, and pulled away from the curb before slamming his own
“Michael, I‟m so sorry, really I am.”
“It‟s okay, Grandma. I mean, it‟ll be okay.”
Yesterday is Poetry 'Tis Philosophy --
Though they seldom saw each other, spoke on the phone, or even
exchanged ubiquitous emails, when their father died they came home for the
funeral—or to Cindy‟s, since their father had sold the family home when he
married Edna. Cindy couldn‟t understand how her brother and sister could just
fall in with each other and her, too, after so many years, but maybe that was the
magic of blood. Betsy appeared normal then, in an attractive black-flowered
dress and decent shoes. Jody was very much the successful lawyer. Her
daughters Meg and Ashley were fascinated with them, the aunt and uncle they‟d
heard about but didn‟t remember ever having met. They connected with their
cousins instantly—which nearly made Cindy cry. When she saw Meg and Ash
treat Jody‟s Kathleen, Scott and Carly, as if they‟d always known them she felt so
bad for all the lost time. Jody‟s daughter Kathleen was so grown up and quite
beautiful, she looked very much like her mother, Linda, who Cindy had gone to
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 97
school with. Cindy openly stared. Everyone does, Jody told her later. Scott was
at ease with Meg and Ashley, not awkward at all, but then he did have two sisters.
Carly was adorable.
“Why didn‟t we ever get together before?” Ashley wanted to know.
Cindy hugged her daughter. “Well, honey, we don‟t exactly live nearby.” It
sounded like the flimsy excuse it was. Actually it was just plain sad how
estranged they were—and why? She and Betsy gravitated to the kitchen and
Cindy served them pieces of a carrot cake Meg had made.
“You bring the worst out in me,” Betsy said. “Remember that time I visited
you in that little tiny house when you were pregnant with Ashley? Everything
looked so perfect. But what really got me, the reason I had to leave, was the
thought of you as a young mother.”
Cindy‟s forkful of cake dropped crumbs on the table. Fear in the shape of a
big sour lump parked itself in the pit of her throat. She put her fork down and
looked into Betsy‟s eyes. She knew it was because Betsy lost a baby and she
understood, she really did, even as a young pregnant wife, but she couldn‟t help
feeling sorry for herself back then, she had been so lonely. Rob was just home
from Vietnam, and he didn't know what to do with her, a weepy young mother
with an infant. Her best friend Jill was a therapist working on her MBA. She
balked at even touching the little baby, much less helping Cindy out, and her
mother-in-law Eleni tried, but she was practically the opposite of maternal and
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 98
resented being a grandmother because it made her feel old. Thank goodness for
the military wives who threw her a shower and brought casseroles over after
Ashley was born, but it wasn‟t the same as having a mother.
Betsy looked kindly on Cindy. “You were so sweet. I remember you telling
me all excitedly that you were using cloth diapers and you‟d figured out a way to
save on detergent. You would only add it every other load because there was
enough left in there to make plenty of suds. You were worried about the
environment. It was cute.”
The fear dissipated like a big sigh and Cindy nodded. “I remember that,
too.” She had been so alternately ecstatic and panic-stricken as a young mother
with no guidance, few friends, and Rob working long hours. “I was pretty
isolated. I never imagined I‟d live a military life.”
“Yet you married a Marine.”
Cindy smiled. Hadn‟t she just adored Rob back then? “I fell in love with
him before he was drafted. It‟s been a good career for him though, but the
military life has never fit me very well. It‟s not that I mind moving around. I
don‟t even mind that he‟s gone so much.”
“What do you mind?” Betsy got up and cleared the plates as if she didn‟t
expect an answer.
As Cindy pushed her chair back from the table she thought of Betsy‟s
question. It was a valid one. What did she mind? Betsy put the teakettle on to
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 99
boil and spooned instant coffee into mugs without asking. They‟d always been
coffee drinkers ever since they read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. “I don‟t know
Bets,” Cindy said. Betsy glanced over her shoulder at the sound of her old
nickname. There was a softness in her eyes, maybe it was love. “It‟s just that
when my life gets to a certain lull, I panic and I wanna leave.” She‟d even done
that a time or two, always to come back like the cat in the children‟s song—they
thought he was a goner but the cat came back. Sameness scared her. Years of
predictability closed in on her; leaving gave her life an energy that she was almost
addicted to. But she could never go for good, she could never make a final break.
“Did you know she wanted to come back so bad she begged him and he
told her he‟d get a restraining order if he had to?” Betsy was calmly judgmental.
Cindy didn‟t have to ask who she was. That word spat from Betsy‟s mouth
could only refer to one person, their dear sweet mother. “No,” she replied. “I
mean, no, I didn‟t know that.”
“It was years before he‟d give her a divorce so she had to live like a whore.
I heard him say that once—proudly.” Betsy gave an ironic laugh.
Cindy was aware of her arms heavy in her lap, her hands curled in mock
relaxation. Ever since learning about body language she tried to control hers
especially around her sister. Any defensive wounds she might have settled in her
gut. “I‟m not like her,” Cindy said quietly. “Did you ever see that movie, The
Piano?” she asked after awhile.
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 100
Betsy blew into her coffee. “Why, was it about lesbians?” she teased.
“No,” Cindy laughed awkwardly. “It‟s about this kind of mute piano-player
who commits adultery so her husband chops off her fingers.”
“You think that‟s what our father should have done?”
“No, of course not. But I think keeping Mom‟s—Mother‟s piano was kind
of cruel in that way.” She didn‟t know what to call their mother in Betsy‟s
company. She sipped her coffee with false concentration.
“But you play,” Betsy said kindly.
“Not like her. Do you remember?” Still she couldn‟t look up into her
sister‟s cool gray eyes. Their parlay was unpredictable. She was unpracticed
talking about their pasts—and afraid of being somehow ambushed. She had
made an effort to create a not so bad family history for herself as well as her
children. It was fragile and Betsy had the power to tear it apart.
Betsy looked around Cindy‟s kitchen as if she sensed her sister‟s
sensitivity—or maybe she felt the same. “I do have a memory of her playing at
parties with people gathered around. There was this one song that had the
grown-ups snapping their fingers and tapping their toes yet when I‟d look into
their faces they were miles away.” Betsy sang the first line of „Mood Indigo.‟
“Duke Ellington. I loved the way she sang that. Do you think that‟s why
Daddy used to joke that she was part African-American?”
“Yes, but that wasn‟t the term he used.”
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 101
They exchanged a rueful look. “I heard that her husband rented her a
piano and when she retired he had the rental company come and pick it up.”
Betsy burst out laughing. “Wow. Now that is mean.”
Funny, it was their father who had died, their father who had single-
handedly raised them and now was gone, yet it was their mother they couldn‟t
stop talking about.
"So tell me what the plan is," Betsy said.
Cindy's face fell. "Plan?" God, Betsy made her nervous.
"The wake's tomorrow, the funeral's the next day, we have to be civil to
Edna, that sort of thing."
Cindy grinned. "Oh, that plan." Being the only sibling who lived near
their father and his wife, Cindy had taken on the unwanted burden of being the
informer. She had been the one to call her brother and sister when their father
became ill; she had been the one to let them know he had died.
There was a reception at Edna‟s after the burial and Betsy and Cindy
moved around in a clump like a Halloween costume of two joined women. “Your
father,” people kept saying, and another story was launched. After awhile they
gravitated to the den where Mr. Mills started chatting them up. He kept one arm
around Wanda the whole time and stood so close to Cindy she could see the sweat
glisten on his forehead and smell the bourbon on his breath.
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 102
“Your mother and my Jean swapped maternity clothes,” he said, “when
she was pregnant with you, Betsy. And when you girls went away to summer
camp,” he continued heartily, "the four of us drove to the New York World‟s Fair.
Your mother was a pistol.” He claimed his drink from the nearby table and
polished it off. “One night, Royal and I were out late after a meeting of the Naval
Reserves, and the next day Patsy took me aside and said, „Don, whatever did you
and Royal do last night? He‟s never been better.‟”
Cindy nearly choked but Betsy laughed like a donkey. “You mean our
mother liked sex?” Her voice was too loud and the crowd seemed to creep like a
veil around them. Mr. Mills roared with laughter and squeezed Betsy
Suddenly Cindy couldn‟t get this picture out of her mind. Betsy was home
late from some teenage date and their father was screaming at her. “You‟re
acting like a goddamned whore!” Betsy had wept in the bed across from Cindy
the entire night.
Those little matching twin beds they'd slept in were at that very moment
jammed up against the far wall in Edna‟s basement.
Cindy put her arm around Betsy at the memory, and they left the tight knit
circle that had Wanda at its center. They found Jody and told him they were
going for a walk and a smoke and he said he was coming to. They had ceased to
be parents the moment they entered their stepmother‟s house for their father‟s
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 103
funeral reception. They had, in their minds, gone back in time to when they were
the Jameson kids, or as some people called them, those poor Jameson children.
Jody as it turned out was the one with the hash, and Betsy knew it. They
walked until they came to an elementary school playground and they each took a
swing and they talked about their pasts. Their very separate stories were like
three tunnels moving in the exact same direction but never coming together; like
their swings, in fact. Never joining in any sense of shared history, save for the
trip to Florida when they were really small, before their mother left.
“We were such a sad lot,” Cindy said before she took a toke from Jody‟s
pipe. She stopped swinging and got off to sit on the glider across the grass.
“Well,” Betsy got philosophical. “We were probably no more dysfunctional
than any other family.”
“I hate that word,” Cindy called out a little too enthusiastically.
“Why?” Jody asked. “It explains a lot.” He got off his swing and went to
“No, I think it‟s an excuse,” Cindy said. “Oh, we‟re dysfunctional, okay,
that‟s all anyone ever needs to know about us. Why they might as well put it on
our driver‟s licenses. We could wear bracelets as a warning: Caution, product of
a dysfunctional family. I mean it just makes me so mad. It‟s like people thinking
that a cake from the Price Club is as good as a homemade cake.”
“Oh, yeah, that‟s what it‟s like,” Jody snorted.
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 104
Betsy was swinging quite high at that point, looking to Cindy‟s stoned eyes
as if she might flip over the top like a trapeze artist. “Have you ever heard that
saying,” Betsy sang out. “Something about all happy families being the same, but
all unhappy families are miserably trapped in their own private hells?”
“I have, but I don‟t think that‟s how it goes,” Jody answered. He was on
the seesaw pushing himself up, landing hard, pushing himself up, landing hard,
like some kind of malfunctioning catapult. Cindy sat on the glider, not moving,
just listening to her siblings, glad they couldn‟t see the tears washing down her
face, running with her nose, over her closed mouth, down under her chin.
That was the last time the three of them were alone together. It was at
least three years before Betsy would bludgeon Cindy with accusations about their
father and it was after that that Cindy exiled herself to West Virginia for one
Rob helped her load the Jeep the Sunday before Labor Day. “I can‟t
believe Jill‟s behind this,” he said coldly. “I thought she had more sense than to
egg you on.”
“She was just trying to help.” Cindy didn‟t tell him Jill had dared her to
make a move. Piss or get off the pot, Cindy, fish or cut bait. It felt like a slap in
the face because Cindy had just been doing her usual complaining about life, how
she couldn‟t get a job, she was unhappy in her marriage, the girls didn‟t need her
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 105
“Goddammit,” Jill said as she flipped open her Blackberry hit some keys
and jotted something on a napkin. “Call this woman. Tell her Madeline
suggested you fill in for her. Here‟s the realtor‟s number, too. There‟s nothing to
hold you back now. ” Then she tossed the napkin at Cindy, threw money down on
the table for the bill, and stalked out. It had been a pretty sly move on Jill‟s part.
Cindy took the initiative and called about the job at a community college in West
Virginia. The department chairman was happy to have a body, as she said. Cindy
called Barb the real estate lady about Madeline‟s house. Barb was glad to get
someone in there, saying she hated to let a place stand empty. Cindy knew
Madeline only paid $450, but since you're a new tenant, Barb had said, I'll have
to charge you $500. Okay, fine, Cindy agreed, her momentum started. Then
once all the plans were made and people—outsiders, were involved, Cindy had to
make good on her threats and promises.
She left home, not for the safe haven of Jill‟s luxurious townhouse and her
steady enduring friendship, a place Cindy had run to in the past, but for the frigid
hills of West Virginia, to fill in for a much more credentialed writer named
Madeline Freer, Jill‟s college roommate. The head of the English department
didn‟t even check her references, a word from Madeline via Jill was enough, and
as Jill had suspected, the little house Madeline had rented was still furnished.
Cindy tried not to feel that she was assuming someone else‟s identity.
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 106
She kissed the girls goodbye and drove away, appreciative that Rob had
given her his Jeep, not for the 4-wheel drive, as he had said, but for the
connection to him. It smelled like him, it felt like him, it might just ease the
homesickness she already felt. "I ended it with her if that makes any difference,"
he had told her just once. He didn't really try to talk her out of taking the job, of
leaving; but he did want her to know, he wasn't seeing the other woman anymore.
Her first day there, she stared out the window at the West Virginia
countryside and wondered if she‟d ever get used to it; the golden fields, smudged
gray hills, towering evergreens, wide billowy skyline. A beagle appeared from out
of nowhere and scampered up the drive, nose to the ground, yodeling. She
watched him disappear into a field of knee-high grass. Then it was quiet, deathly
quiet. She looked at her watch -- 5:15. If she were home she‟d be stuck in creep
and crawl traffic. She liked to listen to snatches of talk radio, wanting to
remember the good ones, and repeat them at a dinner table to amuse her guests,
her family, someone.
Rob never did seem to get why she was intrigued by certain things total
strangers said to each other. Sometimes she‟d share an overheard exchange with
him while she was fixing dinner, and he might try to look interested; maybe he‟d
smile or grunt or even say, you‟re kidding? If she ever had something really
important to say to him, important to her that is, chances are she‟d have to repeat
it because more often than not, he simply didn‟t listen to her.
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 107
She thought it would all be different when she got her Master‟s degree, and
one month later, the Manatee editor called to say they were publishing her poem.
Instantly, she felt that her life would be altered. She‟d gone up to her office and
spent the entire evening culling through manuscripts, crumbling those deemed
worthless, making a neat stack of those she‟d send next. She came across the
Wishman's Key story and re-read it before putting it away, crouched there by the
closet floor. It made her so tired. She curled up on the rug and dozed. She
dreamed about words like melancholy and pathos. No feelings were attached to
the words in her dream, no actions. They were just words.
That had been another instance when she thought she had finally arrived--
winning that contest. She imagined people would look at her with respect when
they found out--strangers, that is. She couldn't show the story to her father, or
Betsy either; they wouldn't like it. That compelled her to spend a good part of
one afternoon looking up her mother's address. She sent the story then, and felt
at first relieved when the woman at the post office stamped it and threw it in a
box behind her. On the quick ride home, she felt bad; guilty, and disgusted with
herself. Why was she, a middle-aged woman, still trying to snare a morsel of
attention from her mother?
It was the same with her father's obit. She felt the need to mail it, but was
at a loss as to what to say, so she didn't include a note. Then when her mother
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 108
wrote back and requested photos, it took Cindy a very long time to choose the
picture of herself and Betsy and Jody when they were children.
"You have a cruel streak," Jill said dryly when she found out. "It's time to
stop punishing poor old Patsy for walking out on you. It's also time to quit feeling
sorry for your damned self."
She tried to talk to Betsy about it. "You always care so much what people
think,” Betsy said. “Most people aren‟t thinking about you at all. Even our
father, all those years he waited to marry until we were gone, that wasn‟t for our
benefit, he was just doing it to punish her.”
All the old conversations echoed around her empty life in West Virginia.
One day her elderly neighbor drove up the shared driveway in a tidy little beige
car. The beagle came running down wagging his tail. When the woman ignored
him he toddled over to a patch of dead grass beneath the window where Cindy
stood, and lay down flat, as if he lived there.
"I suppose I'll have to adopt you so I can have something to talk to," she
said out loud. She was startled then to realize that her neighbor was staring up at
her, so she waved. The woman returned the greeting with a smile and, still
ignoring the dog who had happened back over to her, tail wagging, went on inside
her gray and white farmhouse.
Cindy remained at the window. Had that event really just happened?
She‟d only been there one day, which seemed like a week but was just a day. A
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 109
long, eventless day as her classes didn‟t start for two more. She had thought the
time would be easily filled with stocking the shelves, maybe decorating a little.
She was appalled at her own stupidity. She had a perfectly good house at home
filled with her very own family. Why in hell was she in another state thinking
about how she probably wasn‟t going to change a thing in the rental house?
After awhile she realized she‟d been pacing from window to window
looking out like a trapped animal. Once, that first day, the old woman came back
out and looked up where Cindy had been standing. But having seen the door
start to open, Cindy swiftly backed away and peered around the edge of the
curtain; the faded yellow curtains someone else had left there in that window.
Maybe the old woman had been friends with the previous renters. Cindy doubted
she was friends with Madeline—Jill‟s roommate from UK. Cindy had a hard time
picturing the extremely private Madeline chit-chatting with anyone much less an
old country woman.
Living alone was dangerous. She could see how people lost their minds,
how voices in your head could come alive. “Ug!” she said loudly. It was one of
Eleni‟s expressions that she liked. Rob's mother had been characteristically
candid when Cindy called to tell her about the new job.
"West Virginia, Cindy?" Eleni said.
"It will give me some excellent experience, great contacts."
"What about the girls?"
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 110
"Oh, Eleni, they are happier when I'm not around. They are so busy, I just
get in the way." With my incessant questions, she added silently.
"Well, I hope you know what you're doing," Eleni said. Her mother-in-law
always gave her more credit than she deserved, Cindy thought wryly.
The beagle was outside her kitchen door the next morning. He wagged his
tail for an instant, then when she didn‟t respond he turned away and trotted off
without a care. She admired his resilience. That day was just as long as the one
before it. She went to school and got her books, wandered around and found
where her classes were; posted her office hours. She waited outside the
Department Chair‟s office door for a bit, reading and re-reading the notices on
the adjacent bulletin board. She went into the Office of the Registrar to see if she
could get a class list, stood in a short line at the counter, lost her nerve, didn‟t
want to appear too anxious, felt so inadequate, wished she were home, anywhere
else, really. She left without taking her turn. By then it was only eleven o‟clock,
but she bought a bagel anyway and a bottle of grape juice and ate her lunch
standing up and staring.
She remembered a sad story Eleni had told her once about UK in the early
sixties, when she was the odd older student. She couldn‟t stand the idea of sitting
alone at a table with her lunch so she took it into the bathroom and ate it in one
of the stalls. Funny that Eleni had that in common with Patsy. Both had
returned to college after they had children but only Eleni had stuck it out with
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 111
family life. Cindy remembered snippets of Patsy, a graduation ceremony; a pretty
woman holding a huge bouquet of red roses; proud smiles, tight hugs, nervous
Cindy didn't miss being that child one single bit. She missed being a wife
and mother, even a daughter-in-law. The campus was mostly empty. She
wondered when the other students would arrive. There weren‟t any dorms to
move into, it was strictly a commuting college, but shouldn‟t others be there
staking out their territory? Doing a dry run of their classes? Buying their books?
She got home much earlier than she had expected and the emptiness of the
day spread before her like a great hole of white glaring light. Why couldn‟t she
just change into comfort clothes and lie down with her feet up like she imagined
herself doing when she was stuck back in Paris? Paris, Kentucky, she thought
with a smirk. I'm from Paris. France? No, Kentucky. How often had she had
that stupid exchange? Back then hadn‟t she longed for time just for herself?
Hadn‟t she thought she‟d just die to have an afternoon to lie around reading a
The field behind her house glittered in the midday light. It was like a
mirage, shimmering, drawing her attention, beckoning with its silky wave. At
home she had to bend at the waist to see out her windows, and every view was
similar. Stiff painted houses, blacktop driveways, even squares of lawn, trimmed
hedges as unyielding as railroad tracks. That world had a sameness that clamped
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 112
onto her like metal hands, holding her in place. Here in the country there were
sights she would never have imagined or expected. Bats skittering through the
air above her head, owls calling in the dead of night, hawks soaring down in a
nosedive and the horrible thing was there was no one, absolutely no one she
could call to and say, Quick, come look, girls, Rob, hurry!
The silence of the country was deafening. Ten minutes, and her mind was
reverberating with misgivings. Are you out of your mind? Fool, fool, like a pesky
bird pecking away. Eleni, when she heard Cindy‟s plan, had said simply, You‟re
going to do what? Eleni was so practical and just seemed to live a charmed life
even though Cindy knew she hadn‟t. What was it about her? She wasn‟t a
complainer, that‟s what; either was Rob for that matter. Now that was an
admirable quality. Couldn‟t it have been enough to stay put and work on her
whiny personality, to set an example for her daughters? She was setting an
example for her daughters, all right. She was reminded of the Beatles‟ song,
“Think for Yourself,” and the comparison was not complimentary. Hell, she even
missed someone, anyone, to say, you stupid idiot!
That first week in West Virginia, Cindy was always looking at her watch.
Three o‟clock: Ashley and Meg would be at school, Meg donning her soccer
clothes, Ashley getting in the front seat of her boyfriend‟s car to go driving—
where? Who cared? They‟d all converge on the house at six, when Rob appeared,
bent and beaten from his day at the office. Cindy felt a cool hand, the flat of a
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 113
palm pushing against her forehead and it startled her. It was only her own. It
was like she was dividing into two people; the child and the mother; the patient
and the nurse. She should be home right that minute, making spaghetti sauce,
mashing an avocado, sprinkling it with lime juice, mixing up Cosmopolitans for
Jill. Her life had been simply wonderful, why had she felt the compulsion to chop
it off at the knees?
A month went by. She would live from weekly phone call to weekly phone
call. The weekends were almost endlessly intolerable. She had managed to avoid
the woman next door. She thought this was what she wanted; peace, quiet, being
the college teacher. It wasn't.
One day when the door banged shut and the old woman next door headed
down her drive toward the back of her house, Cindy lurched off the couch and
nearly flew out there. She reached in through her car window as she went by and
retrieved a half-eaten honey bun which she held out for the beagle. He took it
immediately, his teeth clicking together, and she headed on after the woman next
door like a child with nothing else to do.
She stopped a few feet away. Her neighbor was on her knees pulling
weeds swiftly and tossing them behind her. “Hi,” she said. “I‟m Cindy
Kirkpatrick.” That slipped out, she‟d been going by her maiden name, Jameson,
at the college. The beagle sat down at Cindy‟s feet and she leaned down to pet his
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 114
soft head. “Is he yours?” she asked, unsure if the woman had heard her
“Nope,” the woman said. “People before you left him; not the single
woman, but ones before that.” She kept working, kneading the warming soil with
an old fork.
Cindy shifted from one foot to the other. Her navy slacks were grossly
wrinkled, and there was a white crust of honey across her thigh. The old woman
was wearing a faded flowered dress with a flannel shirt over it like a jacket. She
had stretchy circulation hose on her narrow legs and giant waffle-soled athletic
“I‟m Alice Snow,” she said, as if she felt the scrutiny and wanted to put a
stop to it.
Cindy eagerly stepped forward, nearly tripping over the beagle, and offered
her hand but Alice waved it away as she moved further down the edge of the
garden and swiftly plucked overgrown weeds at the edges.
Cindy called home every Sunday night at seven. Even she was sick of her
questions; how‟s school, how are your friends, are you eating enough, what‟s your
homework, any special projects? They didn‟t ask her any questions, almost as if
they‟d made a pact, and the conversations were often stiff. But every now and
then they‟d seem to forget she had left them. “Mom,” Meg said once, excitedly. “I
got two goals today and we won the game!”
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 115
“That‟s great, honey! Are you going to celebrate?”
“Yeah, Dad‟s taking us to Nightmare on Elm Street.”
She called to wish Ashley a happy birthday one Saturday morning, all
prepared to launch into the Beatles‟ birthday song, but the moment she said, hi,
Ashley was getting ready to hang up. “I‟m on my way to Jennifer‟s, Mom, I can‟t
talk. Dad‟s not here.” She forgot to say goodbye and Cindy kept the receiver to
her ear for a long, long minute, while the dial tone droned rudely, just in case
Ashley might get back on the line.
Another month went by. It was a good thing Madeline had a reputation,
because her classes were booked solid. That gave Cindy more than enough work
to do. But the weekends were still scary lonely. Rob and the girls came to see her
for Thanksgiving. She fretted for days about which would be better, making the
meal in her little rental house, or making reservations at a beautiful mountain
lodge. She opted for the lodge. They seemed to like it. They admired the
scenery. Everyone liked the food. They sat awkwardly in her tiny living room
while they answered all her questions about school; and they did not ask her a
single question about her new life. Then they were gone.
She tried to make friends with some of the other teachers or secretaries
after that. Everyone was cordial, but no one needed a new friend. Winter break
approached. One Saturday she came back from grocery-shopping, got everything
unloaded and put away and commenced to staring out the window. Her neighbor
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 116
came outside and made her way down to the garden plot. Cindy went outside;
casual, she thought, make it casual. People can sense desperation.
Alice was on her hands and knees, digging in the dirt when Cindy said,
"Hello. Gorgeous day, isn't it?"
Alice sat back on her heels and wiped her neck with her sleeve. “This
weather‟s unseasonable to be sure. I‟m still getting taters out of here.”
“I know, I came all ready for snow storms. I don‟t have the right clothes at
all. It‟s hard to believe it‟s nearly Christmas. Though Santa‟s hut is up in town, I
noticed, and everyone‟s lining up for pictures. All the houses in town are
decorated,” her voice trailed off. She glanced at Alice‟s door, no wreath, no
colored lights, no sign of a Christmas tree. “Will you have family visiting?”
“I had two sons,” Alice said. “One died in Vietnam on Christmas day
1967—Ronnie; the other one, Johnny, had a blood clot on his 49th birthday.” She
squinted up at Cindy. “Just burst in his head one day.”
Cindy looked down at the ground, the woman‟s hands were posed over the
soil; there were brown age spots and blue bulging veins. Sorry was stuck in
Cindy‟s throat. She thought about mentioning Meg and Ashley. She pictured
Rob in his uniform, stepping across the tarmac in ‟69, so handsome she nearly
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 117
“I‟m widowed, ten years,” Alice said after awhile. This was spoken like a
quiet observation as she poked a fork in the black soil, prodded and pulled and
brought forth a plump brown potato. “You have family?”
Cindy focused on Alice‟s soft shoulder, the pale blue plaid of her shirt. “I
have two girls back in Paris, Kentucky; Ashley and Meg.”
Alice got up and started back to her house with the potato. “You a
divorcée?” she said over her shoulder.
“No,” Cindy said. “I had to come here for my job. At the community
college.” She followed Alice to the back porch, clutching her hands, glancing over
at her empty car, its passenger window gaping. Alice was holding the door for
her so she stepped inside.
It was like looking into one of those old toy view-finders. The kitchen she
had left behind in Paris was sleek and white, full of modern appliances, a
microwave, cooking island, juicer, miniature TV, so Rob could see the Today
Show while he drank his two cups of coffee, ate his Grape-nuts and read the front
page and Metro section. Alice‟s kitchen had a sloping floor covered with
mismatched sheets of linoleum. An old wood stove hissed in the back corner.
Alice filled the kettle and set it on the stove. “Some of the boys here travel all the
way up to D.C. for work, no guarantee. Have to sleep in their trucks, wash in
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 118
“Washington, D.C.?” Cindy was ashamed to admit it. At home, with Rob,
she had felt insistent, righteous. Here, with Alice, she felt like a ninny. It used to
happen with her father, too, when she was growing up. She would tell him her
schemes and dreams, and somewhere between her mouth and his ears, her ideas
would turn against her. When she got married he had asked her why didn‟t she
want to be independent. When she had babies he had asked her why she didn‟t
want to do something useful with her life. It was a long while before she realized
he wasn‟t being critical for the heck of it, he was worrying out loud because he
was her soul parent and felt double the pressure for how she turned out. That
was Rob‟s theory anyway; he loved her dad.
Alice was slicing into a dark pie, thick blue-black juice spilled out and
steam rose up like a gasp. She deftly lifted first one piece of pie, then the other
onto waiting china plates. Cindy breathed in deeply and the kettle started
rattling. “I dry my own tea,” Alice said. She pulled a handful of brownish-green
leaves out of an old coffee tin and tossed them into two white mugs. Then she
poured the water and brought the pie plates and steaming mugs to the table.
Cindy ate the pie slowly, as if it were her last meal. It was good enough to
“Who watches your children?”
Cindy blew softly into her cup, stirring up a whirlpool of crumpled
blackened leaves. “Well, they‟re older now, Ashley‟s in twelfth, Meg‟s in tenth.”
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 119
She took a sip and burned her mouth. It stopped her short. She remembered
suddenly, how she had cried the day Ashley boarded the school bus for
kindergarten. She blew into her mug, forgetting what it was she might have said
that would explain to Alice what she was doing there.
Alice was gazing at her over the rim of the mug. She had gray-sky eyes
that told Cindy nothing. “My father admired the teaching profession,” Cindy said
shyly. “That‟s what Ido at the college, teach.” She took another gulp and it wasn‟t
so hot, but papery leaves clumped on her tongue.
“Your father‟s deceased.” It was a statement.
Cindy called home that night, but she only got the answering machine. Hi.
Leave a message for Meg, Ashley, or Dad. Bye. It was like she had never lived
The next two weeks flew by. Each morning her Jeep would bounce over
hills and swing around S-curves, each evening she‟d sit on the vinyl chair at
Alice‟s Formica table and sip tea. She liked to watch Alice wash up afterwards,
dip the white mugs in steaming soapy water, rinse them under the tap.
“My John repaired watches, you know,” Alice told her early on. “He used
tiny little tools, and sometimes he‟d just forget the time.”
Cindy loved the way Alice called her husband my John as if she knew
Cindy had her own John. Used to have, that is. Away from her family sometimes
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 120
she nearly forgot she‟d broken up with him. She‟d lie in bed alone and imagine
she was with him. Did she love him? Did it matter? She didn‟t know the answer
to any of her own questions.
Alice set the plates in the drainer and dried her hands on the ends of her
flannel shirt. “I‟d have to blink the light again and again to call him in for dinner.
I could get so irritated I‟d nearly rip that light switch off the wall.”
One day Cindy looked out her window and the hayfield had turned from
rich maize to soggy brown. She broke down crying on her lumpy single bed,
sobbing loudly like a kid. Finally she petered out and rolled over on her back, her
face hot and sticky. The ceiling was cracked and peeling. A mammoth cobweb
hung from one corner to the other. “I‟m marooned in the thick of a mistake,” she
said. The old beagle‟s tail thumped lazily on the wooden floor by her bed. She
sensed flashing lights in her head. WRONG WAY-WRONG WAY, like glaring
highway signs. What would her father say if he walked in on her right that
minute? I know an idiot when I see one. No, that‟s what she‟d say. He‟d tell her
to get off her duff. Alice blinked the light as usual that afternoon, but Cindy
couldn‟t move. She stayed on her bed until it got dark, even after she heard the
beagle nosing his food bowl around the back stoop, and chortling his bark-howl
at the moon, running up the hill after the glass-eyed deer that crept around close
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 121
The next morning she found a note from Alice inside her kitchen door. I‟m
in Florida until April 1, in case of emergency, phone me. The number followed in
hard, driven pencil marks, underlined twice. Cindy carried the note with her to
work and back. The department chairman stopped her in the doorway of the
ladies‟ room to say she couldn‟t guarantee the January class.
“You‟ve done a great job, it has nothing to do with that. It just depends
entirely on registration, and without any snow...”
Cindy smiled vaguely or maybe it was a sneer. The stupid woman would
have no idea if she did a fine job or not. Sure, no one had complained,
apparently, but she hadn‟t seen that woman near her classroom even once.
Meanwhile, Jan Utterback who really did stink, had a full class load next
semester. Where was the justice? She wanted to run wailing down the empty
corridor. Where is the goddamn justice?
Alice would tell her she didn‟t even know what trouble was. You make
your own, you do. Let life give you some real problems then we‟ll talk. No, Alice
wouldn‟t say that. The Department Chair might though, with her handicapped
son and husband weak with a heart ailment. Cindy didn‟t even know where the
Department Chair lived, what she ate for lunch, whether she even taught
anything other than the modernists. That was the only subject they‟d exchanged
more than a few words on. Cindy didn‟t deserve to work there, she hadn‟t even
made any friends.
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 122
She carried Alice‟s note back and forth to work that week. Stood and
stared at Alice‟s empty dark house until the world outside fell into darkness, too.
One night just shy of twilight she walked across the driveway, remembering the
crunch of the stony ground near Alice‟s garden. She hadn‟t known how lucky she
was those other times, to have a friend to visit, to talk to, to listen to. Had she
ever listened? She quizzed herself. How much did she really know about Alice?
That she went to Florida for the winter? No, that had come as a complete shock.
She peered into Alice‟s kitchen through the door‟s little four-pane window,
startled to find the door unlocked, since she was only half aware that her hand
had turned the knob. She pulled it closed tight and ran back to her house. She
reached for the phone. It wasn‟t Sunday. What day was it, anyway, Tues-no,
Wednesday. They could be anywhere. For all she knew they went out to the Lost
Dog Cafe every Wednesday night, or maybe it was the sports banquet. They
wouldn‟t be expecting her phone call. Ashley or Meg would snatch up the
receiver wanting it to be for them. They might even be annoyed to hear her voice
out of the blue.
“Rob,” she said when he answered. Her voice was muted, very tentative,
even though she hadn‟t meant for it to be. “What would you say if I told you I was
coming home?” she asked meekly, like a child gone bad.
“I‟d say I‟ll be sure and pick up an extra gallon of milk,” he quipped. Rob
didn‟t like serious conversations.
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 123
She didn‟t detect any exasperation in his voice, only soft concern. Tears
streamed down her face and the beagle stood up on his hind legs and clawed her
hip, trying to reach her face.
“Cindy?” Rob‟s voice was alarmed.
“Is that Mommy?” Meg said in the background. “Is she coming home?
Tell her to cut down a tree on her way.”
She smiled through her tears at that. “I-I have a dog.” She was finally able
to speak. She gently pushed the beagle off her lap.
“Well, he can come, too. Are you leaving now?”
“No, I‟ll leave Friday. My last class is Friday morning. I will waste a
month‟s rent. And my deposit.”
He didn‟t reply to that.
“I‟ll see you when I get there,” she told Rob.
“Okay, ” he said, as if they were business associates firming up a lunch
After she hung up, she stood perfectly still, waiting to see what kind of
feeling would come over her. There was no huge wave of relief as she might have
expected, but no giant wall of regret, either. She‟d have to go by the department
chair‟s office and officially resign. The woman actually thought she would hang
around Hillsvale, West Virginia on the chance that more people would sign up for
comparative lit? She‟d have to call Barb, the real estate lady. Now, there
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 124
wouldn‟t be any understanding there. Barb would get defensive and businesslike
right away to fend off any requests for a rebate. Cindy knew how it worked.
There was just such a phone call when she was talking to Barb that first day and
Barb had criticized people for being so disorganized with their lives. A contract is
binding. She could hear Barb say sharply. As if they were the only two people
sensible enough to understand the serious legalities of renting a house in the
middle of nowhere.
She thought about Alice coming home from Florida, finding a note and
reading it as she boiled a potato for dinner, turning off the lights on her way to
bed. You didn‟t need lights to climb the stairs in West Virginia. The stars filled
the sky with a kind of holy, confidence-bearing radiance.
Friday afternoon she packed the car then closed up the house. She walked
over to Alice‟s and each time her feet came down on the West Virginia dirt, she
missed Alice all over again. Alice seemed to creak in her mind like an old rocker.
She left a note on the table. I went back to my family because of you. Love,
Cindy. She crumpled it up and put it in her coat pocket. She looked around for
something to write with; for something to write on, then she decided Alice
wouldn‟t like that, wouldn‟t want her rummaging around in her kitchen looking
for a pencil and the back of an envelope like some kind of crazy thief. She went
back to her car and took out her notebook. She propped it on the hood and wrote
again, trying to say not just less, but enough.
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 125
I‟ll always think of you as one of the dearest people
I have ever met. I hope you enjoyed Florida. I‟ve
decided to go home to my family. Love, Cindy
She read it over with approval and underlined Love. Then she placed it
carefully on Alice‟s table tucking one corner under the clock radio so it wouldn‟t
blow away when Alice opened the door, or when she shut it behind her.
Outside the beagle was waiting to get into the rented house. “No,” she
called out, tapping on the hood of her car. She opened the passenger‟s door wide.
“Come on puppy-dup. Get in. How would you like to come home with me?” She
spoke to him as if he were quite capable of considering his options. He tottered
down to the car and jumped up on the seat, facing forward, ready for the journey.
She drove with determination, taking the most direct route possible, noticing that
it was a true winter day outside and when she passed the Welcome to Blue Grass
Country sign she put her window down all the way and thought she detected the
smell of snow in the air, as if real winter had been waiting for her to come to her
Cindy‟s first night home went better than she might have expected, the
beagle of course helped. She had forgotten how a dog could change the focus in a
family, help make each person feel loved simply by being there with his incredibly
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 126
soft head, his velvet ears, his happy-to-see-you tail. Meg had claimed him as her
own within minutes and had walked him three times before her eleven o‟clock
bedtime, using the new purple leash Cindy had bought. “What are you going to
name him?” Cindy asked.
“Well, he looks like a Melissa so I think I‟ll call him Mel, after Mel Brooks.”
Cindy considered the dog. “Yes, I can see that.”
“Stupid,” Ashley muttered under her breath.
“Go to hell,” Meg responded. “Night Mom.”
Her girls had developed a rather crass exchange in her absence. They
made foul little pictures on each other‟s notebooks, wrote dirty words that had to
be scribbled out. But they also went into each other‟s bedrooms and talked
quietly, and giggled loudly together in the kitchen. That she had missed so much,
just the happy sounds of other people living in her midst.
Rob had already gone up to bed as he had an early meeting; at least that‟s
what he said. Their reunion had been tenuous. She saw the look of distrust in his
eyes. She didn‟t know when he‟d relax with her again, when he might be sure she
wouldn‟t bolt at first fright. Cindy accepted that, she knew she would have to
earn all of their trust after what she did, even as she wondered how she‟d
accomplish it. It bothered her to think she might be one of those people who was
addicted to trouble, a person who couldn‟t be happy unless there was something
to be unhappy about. Christmas was in two days, they could all get swept up in
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 127
decorating and celebrating, with so much tradition to guide their feelings, they
might not have to really talk until January.
Now that she was back in her cool blue living room surrounded by
evergreens, with Liszt‟s “La campanella” playing softly on Rob‟s state of the art
system, Cindy was having a hard time remembering what it felt like in her little
lonely house in West Virginia. As if she had been there a year before instead of a
day before. Ashley was lying on her stomach on the floor with her face buried in
Anna Karenina. As soon as Meg‟s bedroom door closed upstairs, Ashley sat up,
sighed loudly and placed the book upside-down in her lap. Tolstoy‟s portrait
stared up at her and Cindy felt a familiar trickle of dread. “Did I say I‟m sorry I
missed your Christmas concert, honey?” she asked quietly.
“Yes. That‟s not it.”
“I haven‟t missed the Berea reception, have I?
“Oh, God, no, that won‟t be until April.”
The beagle trit-trotted down the stairs and turned around three times at
Cindy‟s feet before curling up in a tight ball. “He‟s cute,” Ashley said.
“Yeah. He more or less adopted me.”
“I can‟t believe his owners would just leave him there.”
“I know, me either.” She waited, thinking she wouldn‟t be surprised at
anything that came out of Ashley‟s mouth. She remembered how much she
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 128
detested her own mother for leaving, a hatred that burned bright to that very day.
She liked it that some kids thought „hate‟ was a bad word—small kids that is.
She‟d overheard it in a restaurant bathroom once. Two little girls were washing
their hands and one said, I hate salad, and the other said, Oh, you said a bad
word. Cindy looked out her big picture window and barely saw the pine branches
swaying; she heard the oak limbs creaking, and the neighbor‟s car turn the corner
and park. She didn‟t miss West Virginia at all. In fact she decided that must be
what self-imposed exile was, and she had done her penance.
The Ocean of the Afterwards
Patsy patted the car door. “How do I get this window open, Mike?
Where‟s the crank? I‟m about to burn up.” Mike pushed a button on his side and
her window came down a few inches. She saw the buttons on her door then and
pushed them all haphazardly. There were clunks and clinks and then on the third
try her window came further down. “Third one‟s the charm,” she said more to
herself, embarrassed to have forgotten about the automatic windows in Charlie‟s
“Grandma, I have the AC on."
She ignored that. "Where‟s Jacks? Did she have to work today?”
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 129
She had thought it was a Saturday when she woke up but the nurse who
took her temperature said it was Thursday. There was a real darkness in her
mind about the day before, which she did not care to clarify. She‟d had such a
strange dream about a fancy neighborhood and a skinny gal in little short shorts
and great big athletic shoes.
At the R & B Cafe, Michael fidgeted about with his little miniature
telephone while Patsy looked at the menu. She wasn‟t the least bit hungry; in
fact, she never had an appetite anymore since she retired. The working world
had defined her eating habits so well and she missed that. A quick bowl of cereal
and coffee before leaving, another cup of coffee at her desk, an apple
midmorning—unless they were having a staff meeting with some of those
fattening goodies; yogurt and a bagel for lunch, a Coke in the afternoon, and so
on. Without that framework it was difficult to stick to any routine diet.
Sometimes she‟d get up and try something new for breakfast, new to
Charlie and her that is, fried eggs, hen‟s nests, cowboy omelets, and Charlie
would complain and fuss. He just liked his Wheaties with whole milk and black
coffee. For lunch he wanted a hot dog with a real hot dog bun, don‟t try giving
him a plain piece of bread, or ham and American cheese with mayo and mustard
on white bread, no lettuce or tomato unless you wanted an earful. He was a little
more varied with the dinners he‟d allow, his favorite was roast beef with mashed
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 130
potatoes and peas, but he‟d gladly eat most plain foods, fried pork chops, broiled
salmon, baked chicken. He didn‟t like sauces and he flat out hated casseroles.
“What are you thinking about, Grandma?”
There was a young man with her and hell if she couldn‟t recall his name.
She looked up from her salad, her fork poised over the glob of blue cheese
dressing. She‟d been planning to gently spread it over the lettuce and cucumbers.
How long had she been frozen there, going over menus in her mind, seeing
Charlie‟s big familiar face across the table, hearing his strong voice? “I don‟t
know.” Maybe his name would come to her. She could get by just talking and
answering his questions even if it didn‟t. Something horrible had happened, of
that she was sure. “It‟s just that some things make me so sad.”
“Well, we‟ve got a few new prescriptions to try. Mom should be here
“Will she have Charlie with her?” She could miss her husband to the point
that her stomach just tied up in knots, even if he was in the next room. She had
worried herself sick time and again at the thought of Charlie dying and leaving
He peered up from his French fries, a handsome boy, though his neck was
overly long. “No, he's in Flor..." He stopped himself. "He had to be somewhere.
Mommy will explain it all to you when she gets here.” He put his hand on hers
for an instant. “What is it exactly that makes you sad?”
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 131
She thought of Charlie and how he‟d pull her to him in bed at night and
she‟d just want to stay there forever with her head resting on his chest. “Oh,” she
said. “Things that are over, things that are gone forever, things I might not have
liked so much at the time.”
He was Michael, she remembered, Jackie‟s boy, Charlie‟s grandson, his
pride. She pushed her salad away and looked into the boy‟s eyes. “Michael, I
want you to tell me the truth."
“About Grandpa? He moved to Florida, like we said.”
“My mother always wanted to go to Florida but she was so sick. Did you
know my mother had TB? It was the saddest day of my life when she died.”
“Yes,” was all he said.
“When I was about your age. Charlie was so sweet to me then. I wish you
could have known him when he was younger, when I first met him.”
“Mommy said you met after the war.”
“That's certainly true. Charlie joined the Navy the minute they‟d
“I know, Grandma. He got the Purple Heart for being a prisoner of war,
it‟s on his license tag, but he never talks about it.”
Patsy felt stricken for a second, and her face flushed deep with heat. She
reached for her water and the ice cubes just rattled. The goblet was very heavy
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 132
and filled so high it dribbled down to her elbow as she lifted it across her plate.
Michael steadied her hand as she drank loudly. She set the glass down and
picked at her salad again. The white dressing was too thick and not nearly tart
enough. Well, the problem was, she couldn‟t taste it. She wanted the water again
but she didn‟t want the young man to help her drink it as if she was an invalid.
She wished Charlie would get there. He had a way of helping her that wasn‟t so
"Did I tell you I once had a house with a raised brick hearth in the kitchen?
I used to sit there with my back to the fire and thumb through magazines while I
waited for Royal to come home.”
"Royal, that was your first husband?"
She looked across the table with shock. Then the waitress swept in and
took her salad away and set an immense platter down in front of her. What had
she ordered? Some kind of grilled sandwich dripping with sauce. How could she
manage something of this size? She started to reach for the top piece to pull it
away, but the waitress spoke quite loudly. “Oh, your plate is very hot, Ma‟am.”
Patsy shrank back.
A pretty blonde suddenly appeared at their table. “Hi, Mrs. Cambrelly,
hmm, you got a Reuben, I love those. What‟d you get, Michael?” She slid in close
to him and popped a French fry into her mouth. “A hamburger, can‟t you ever
order anything else? Just a Coke, please,” she said to the waitress. “Diet,” she
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 133
called after her. Then she looked across the table at Patsy. “Do you remember
me, Mrs. Cambrelly? Mike‟s girlfriend, Courtney?” She raised her little
eyebrows—they were so finely shaped, like fragile moth wings.
Patsy remembered plucking her eyebrows once, good grief, maybe twenty
years ago. Charlie liked to watch her get ready in the evenings, back when they
went out. She‟d sit at her dressing table and put on her lipstick, and he‟d lean in
close with his face next to hers. They‟d stare at themselves in the mirror as if they
couldn't believe they were together. Sometimes she‟d feel his hand reach down
into her neckline and caress her and it was all she could do not to push everything
aside the way they do in the movies and what was it the kids used to say—jump
his bones. She smiled at that one. Charlie was quite a kisser and she loved the
smell of him. “My mother was suspicious of Charlie right from the start,” she told
the young couple.
Courtney and Michael looked surprised.
„'There‟s something about him,' she'd say. 'I can‟t put my finger on it.‟"
Patsy could hardly breathe for a moment. "I just worry about you so,” she added
“Excuse me?” Courtney leaned her elbows on the Formica tabletop. “Us?
Michael and me? We‟re fine.”
Patsy got all flushed again, wondering how much she‟d spoken out loud.
She just wanted to go home. When would Charlie get there? She cut into her
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 134
sandwich and ate without stopping. She didn‟t want to talk about it any more,
and tried not to look across the table as Mike‟s girl friend sipped her cola and
giggled at something he said. She recalled Jackie saying that Courtney‟s living
room had one of those concert grand pianos, with the top just covered with
framed photographs, as if they were famous.
Courtney leaned across the table with her chin in her hands. Her eyes
were an icy blue, maybe not real. Jackie wore green tinted contact lenses to make
her eyes a rich pine tree color. Courtney‟s eyes were aquamarine, pretty, but hard
to decipher what she was feeling.
“Mrs. Cambrelly, do you think everything happens for a reason?”
Patsy had to ponder that one. “You mean for a higher cause or because of
a stupid mistake?” When Jackie was studying to be a paralegal they‟d had some
fascinating discussions about the law that somehow got twisted into religion and
philosophy. Charlie had actually listened to some of the things Patsy had to say
then; he had seemed almost in awe of her.
Mike was looking from his girlfriend to her and back again. “I think
Courtney‟s talking about fate.”
“Oh, I do believe in fate, but I think we sometimes cause our own.” Patsy
looked up expectantly as the waitress appeared. “Could you wrap up this
sandwich, dear?” The waitress took away her plate. “Charlie likes restaurant food
even better when it‟s from a doggie bag," she told the children. "He feels like he‟s
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 135
getting something for nothing.” She folded her napkin and placed it on the table
“So why did you marry Grandpa, anyway?” Mike asked. He began to eat
his hamburger in quick giant bites, with his head tucked down, like he was on a
“Well, Michael, I loved the man. He nearly died in the war; did you know
Courtney covered her mouth with a small creamy hand as she yawned.
Then she seemed to realize that Michael was paying more attention to his
hamburger than his grandmother. “I‟d heard he was a veteran,” she said vaguely.
Michael waved down the waitress. “Do you make chocolate sundaes?
Who wants one? Grandma? You love sundaes, would you rather have a banana
“I‟m on a diet,” Courtney told them. “I‟ve already bought my prom dress
and it cost over two hundred dollars.”
“Oh, my Lord,” Patsy said. She shook out her napkin and folded it up
“Yes, dear?” Michael and the waitress were waiting for something from
her. What was it? She had no idea. Had they already had dinner? She glanced
about the table. There was a platter half filled with French fries. Then they had.
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 136
Dessert, that‟s probably what it was. Jackie used to tease her about her sweet
tooth, saying that if she had her way she‟d skip the meal and go straight to the
dessert, and Patsy had to admit when Charlie wasn‟t there for meals that‟s usually
exactly what she did do. “Do you have ice cream?” she asked.
The waitress rattled off the flavors so fast she only heard the first few and
the last few. “How about a good old fashioned sundae?” she asked.
When it was set before her she ate the cherry and had a spoonful of the
whipping cream. It was just beautiful. “Charlie always claimed he didn‟t like ice
cream,” she told the young people.
“Who doesn‟t like ice cream,” the girl said.
“Why, Charlie, my husband.” Patsy watched the boy and girl as they
argued quietly, then the girl stood up.
“I have to pick up my little brother,” the girl said. “It was nice seeing you,
Michael got up, too. “I‟m just going to walk Courtney out, Grandma. Now
don‟t go anywhere.” He hurried after Courtney.
It seemed like a long time before Michael slid back into the orange vinyl
booth. “I‟m sorry, Grandma. I thought Mom would be here by now. Courtney
and I are supposed to be working on a project.”
“Michael, if you have to go, if you have schoolwork to do, you can just call
Charlie to come get me, he‟s always been good about that.”
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 137
Michael raised his eyebrows and leaned in toward her. He spoke slowly;
carefully. “Grandma, I just picked you up from the hospital. You got yourself
dehydrated yesterday. I‟ve called in your prescriptions and we can pick them up
on the way home. Hopefully, Mom will be here any minute. Grandpa is in
Florida, you know that. Grandpa is in Florida,” he repeated, thumping his hands
on the table in exasperation. Two women at a nearby table glanced over at them.
“I‟m sorry.” He rolled his eyes. “You know if I could get her to answer her cell
phone I‟d tell her we‟re going home but she‟ll be pissed if she comes here looking
for us and we‟re gone.”
“It‟s true, Jackie has a hot temper.”
He put his head in his hands. It was a gesture so much like Charlie‟s that
she reached for his arm across the table. She looked at hers, the loose skin like
crepe paper, the brown spots, the clean stubby nails. She still smelled like that
hospital lotion which she didn‟t like. “I‟d like to get home and take a hot bath,”
she said to herself. She used to always have medium nails, filed smooth, painted
to match her outfits. It was something she liked to do the night before when
Charlie watched the evening news, remove the nail polish, file the nails, paint on
a fresh color. Such a simple act kept her happy sometimes. But then suddenly
Charlie couldn‟t stand the smell of the nail polish remover.
“Mom thought if we talked about things that happened a long time ago, it
might cheer you up,” Michael was saying. He reached into his back pocket and
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 138
got out his wallet. He flipped a credit card on the table and motioned with one
hand. She watched, fascinated, as the waitress hurried over, collected the credit
card and the receipt and spoke to him as if he was a grown up man. Jackie‟s little
Michael. Yes, he was all grown up. “I can see it‟s just made you tired,” he added.
“It‟s true,” she said. “I can hardly keep my eyes open.”
“Mom says I ask too many questions. I just pick and pick until it bleeds.
She gets really mad at me sometimes. I don‟t know why I‟m this way. She says
most boys aren‟t. Most hardly talk at all.”
“Well, I don‟t happen to like that in a man—not talking, showing no
interest. I don‟t like that in any person, actually. You know these people who can
only talk about themselves.”
“One way conversations. Is that what you mean?”
“Yes. Exactly. I hate those.”
“Me, too. Was that what that other guy was like, Royal?”
She took a deep breath. "No. Royal wasn‟t like that at all. Royal was the
most gregarious person I had ever met. People just flocked to him, wanted to be
around him, he was so often the center of attention but it wasn‟t from some
selfish spotlight hogging it was just because he was so much fun and he brought
everyone in there with him. I was completely dazzled by Royal Jameson.”
“Sounds like what people say about President Clinton.”
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 139
“Yes. You‟re right." Charlie wouldn‟t let her have a thought about that
president. If she as much as mentioned his name Charlie might go on an out and
out rampage. He had been deeply satisfied when the Democrats lost the recent
“Then what happened? Why did you leave him for Grandpa? No offense,
but Grandpa never struck me as the type that dazzled.”
“No,” she said vaguely. “But he had many other qualities.” Charlie was a
large man. His hands were huge and his arms were thickly muscular. It was his
physical strength that she was drawn to. She used to call him her Zeus to tease
him. You mean Hercules, Jackie would get into the act and Charlie would be all
gruff but she thought he liked it. He could fix anything that broke, and when she
was sick or ailing he knew just how to take care of her, and he surely knew how to
love her. But she couldn‟t tell her grandson that. “Charlie is the kind of person
you can lean on,” she told her grandson.
“There‟s Mom,” Michael said. “Come on, Grandma.” He helped her out of
the booth. She looked around for Jackie but there was no one in the entry. She
left the restaurant slowly, leaning on Michael and when they got outside she saw
Jackie‟s little station wagon and Jackie standing beside it. She had her arm in a
sling and Patsy gripped Michael‟s elbow so tightly he stopped abruptly. “What‟s
wrong? Are you okay?”
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 140
“Mama, do you want to ride with Michael or me?” Jackie asked from the
“Oh, Jackie, with you if you don‟t mind but can you drive with that? What
“It‟s a long story. I‟ll tell you when we get home. Can we just go straight to
your house? Oh shit, you said there were prescriptions.” She directed this to
He handed Patsy off to her, then pulled out his wallet and gave her several
little slips of paper. “I already called them in.”
“Okay. Thanks, hon.” Jackie hugged him and he kissed Patsy on the
“I‟ll see you later, Grandma.”
Jackie brought Patsy around her car and helped her get in. It was such a
small car, but Jackie was a small person. Everywhere Patsy looked, it seemed,
she saw that silly name—Subaru. But what does it mean? She used to ask
Charlie. It‟s the name of the goddamned car! He‟d say with exasperation.
Once they were home Patsy began to feel better. The real estate sign in the
grass was a shock but she just gave it one quick look and went inside. It was
downright cold as if they‟d left the door open and things were missing—Charlie‟s
easy chair, his ottoman, Teddy Roosevelt‟s bed and dishes. She knew Charlie was
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 141
gone and she‟d have to stop pretending otherwise. It didn‟t make her feel better
like she thought it might.
“Jackie, I‟d like to take a long soak in the tub.” She kept walking on
upstairs and Jackie followed her.
“That‟s a good idea, Mama, but don‟t let the water get too hot.” Jackie
took her sunglasses off revealing two black eyes, and Patsy‟s heart sank. “Now,
don‟t get all up in arms,” Jackie said. “It‟s not what you think.”
“What is it then?” Patsy hung onto the bathroom doorframe.
“Daddy tried to get away from me at the airport. Everything was going
well at the curbside check-in until they told us the dog would have to ride in the
cargo hold and Daddy just went ballistic. He ran back to the car and let Teddy
Roosevelt out and they took off across the parking lot with me after them and the
next thing I knew I was pitching face forward onto the asphalt.”
“What happened, Jackie?”
“There was this goddamned hump of asphalt. I tripped right over it and
went down. Daddy felt horrible, he rushed back and helped me up, with Teddy
Roosevelt right by his side, and he just gave those airport people hell for that.
Anyway, he was a lot more agreeable about signing the legal documents after that
and I put him on the plane and went straight to the hospital. It‟s just a fracture,
not a full break.” She touched the cast on her arm gingerly. “My face already
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 142
“If that‟s better I‟m glad I didn‟t see it before.”
“Oh, you know it always looks worse the next day. Now you take your bath
and I‟ve got some phone calls to make. I‟ll come tuck you in when you‟re ready. I
put a bell by your bed.”
“Oh, Jackie, I refuse to ring a bell for you.”
“Then yell.” Jackie went back downstairs.
Later that night Jackie sat on the edge of her bed, just the way Patsy used
to sit beside her mother, Gussie. “Mama, I‟ve always wanted to ask you
“What, Jackie.” Patsy settled back into her pillows. Jackie had put clean
sheets on the bed, and she just loved that feeling.
“When you went back with Daddy the second time, did you know about the
Patsy shivered inside at the memory of waking up with Charlie on top of
her throttling her, his face thick with terror. Their new president liked to throw
that word around—terror—but she wondered if he‟d ever had any personal
experience with it. “Yes,” she said sadly.
“Then why, why did you go back to him?” Jackie‟s eyes pleaded with her
to make some sense, to explain something so central to their lives, and she didn‟t
think she‟d be able to.
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 143
Patsy struggled to sit up higher, to be more eye-to-eye with Jackie. Jackie
got up and gently pushed Patsy‟s back forward while she fluffed up the pillows
and added an extra. When Patsy leaned back again it was much softer behind her
back. “I did it for you, Jackie.”
Jackie sat back down. Tears ran down her bruised face. “What--why?”
“You were four. You had no mother. I remembered what that was like.
Did I ever tell you about my mother?”
“That she died of consumption? Yes.”
“Well, I couldn‟t leave you with Charlie after what I‟d seen him do. You
were the tiniest child but you were strong-willed and just plain fierce.”
“You were afraid I‟d set him off.”
“There was no question about that.”
Jackie leaned in and pressed her good cheek to Patsy‟s. “But you left
everyone, your own children. How could you do that?”
Patsy pushed her away carefully. She looked into those green eyes, that
face she loved so much. “They didn‟t need me the way you did.”
Jackie got up and pulled the curtains together at all the windows. She
started to leave and Patsy slunk down a bit, as best she could on the mountain of
pillows. It wouldn‟t be hard falling asleep. She‟d worry about what to do in the
morning. “Did you love him at least?” Jackie asked from the doorway. “Daddy, I
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 144
“Oh, yes. So much, Jackie. He was a good, decent man. The love of my
“I don‟t understand that.”
“Life‟s greatest mystery, some people say.”
“No, not about love, about Daddy. How could a person be good and
terrible at the same time?”
Patsy didn‟t answer. She closed her eyes, hoped Jackie would go. It had
been the longest day.
“Do you think that‟s why my mother killed herself? Because of Daddy?”
“I honestly don‟t know.” Patsy squeezed her eyes to keep them closed.
Her left eye began twitching to beat the band. “Charlie believed she did. But
Katherine was there in the thick of war, she had her own nightmares. Charlie
told me once there were two kinds of people in the prison camp, the ones that
wanted to live and the ones that wanted to die. He said whenever he felt like
giving up he‟d remember when his ship went down and men—one man in
particular—risked his life to save Charlie. When he was being kicked and beaten
by the prison guards, he‟d hang on just so that man‟s sacrifice wouldn‟t be for
nothing.” Jackie didn‟t say anything so Patsy turned over on her side and tucked
her arm under the pillow trying to ignore the emptiness of the bed without
Charlie‟s heat beside her. She didn‟t think she‟d ever get used to that.
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 145
Cindy woke up in the dark and waited for her eyes to adjust. Her life in
West Virginia was already fading from memory. She looked at her Victorian
dresser with the pictures tucked into the mirror: little Meg and Ashley on a tree
stump in their old backyard; Rob in his uniform just home from Vietnam; tickets
to Hair and Cats, Jesus Christ Superstar and the Joni Mitchell concert in „74. She
had dusted around them for so many years and replaced them in the exact same
spots every time they moved to a new house. Their placement was cemented in
her mind. In front of the glove drawers sat the milky jade glass perfume bottle
from her mother-in-law, Eleni, and the Russian music box from Rob‟s
stepmother, Margo. The dresser had belonged to her mother, Patsy. Gazing at
the rich walnut wood, the fruit-handle pulls, the handsome glove boxes--the
small fact that Patsy had once placed things there meant more to her than she
liked to admit, even if the dresser was just another thing her mother--Patsy--had
left behind. She needed to learn to think of her mother as a woman named Patsy.
It didn't hurt as much that way.
Cindy hated to be a grown woman who still cried like a hurt little girl. She
hated that about herself. Why couldn't she be bitter and cold like Betsy? Or mute
and distant, like Jody? She had lived on her own as an adult for so many years
now, so many, many more years than she had as a child. Why couldn't she
goddamned well get over it?
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 146
In the center of Patsy's dresser--no, her dresser--under the pedestal mirror,
slightly hidden from view, was a small framed picture of her maternal grandmother,
Augusta. She could barely make it out in the dark but remembered the face so well,
the grandmother she‟d never met, a woman who had died before her own mother
was eighteen. Could that have had something to do with her mother's detachment?
One of Jill's clients, back when she was a practicing therapist, had lost her mother
to TB. She had said the illness was a stigma, and people with TB were instructed
not to touch children, certainly not to kiss them. That woman, Jill's client, was
convinced that growing up that way had made her mother emotionally cold.
"Gussie in the Packard," the picture said on the back. The old snapshot was
something her mother had packed into a small blue suitcase along with a green
velveteen jewelry box. Then she had left the suitcase by the door when she walked
out on them. Betsy and Cindy had broken into it when they were children, after
their father had placed it on the bottom step of the attic and apparently forgotten it.
Betsy had taken an amber ring with a bug imbedded in it. Cindy had swiped the
picture. Their father never knew this--or at least, he never let on that he knew.
“What?” Rob asked.
Had she spoken out loud? She didn't think so. "Nothing," she answered.
“Quit worrying about it. Ash will be fine. You‟re home, now. We'll work it
out.” He yanked the covers over his bare shoulders.
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 147
Ah, to be able to prioritize so automatically like that. "Rob?" she suddenly
remembered. "With everything that's been going on with Ashley, I forgot to ask
you. She said my mother called back in September?"
"Oh, yeah. Meant to mention it; forgot. Sorry."
She waited for a long moment and finally said, "And..."
"Oh, there wasn't much of a message--'This is Patsy, your mother? Your
grandmother.' Then there was a long pause and she hung up."
Strange, that Patsy would call then--after Cindy herself had left. Had it
anything to do with the poem? It had rankled Cindy that Patsy had asked to see a
photograph of them--had asked her after she sent the obituary. Why had she sent
the obituary, to hurt the first wife? She had taken pleasure in that tiny sentence--
his marriage to Patsy McLaughlin had ended in divorce. That had felt good
because she knew how much it would sting when Patsy read it. "God I'm a bitch,"
she said quietly. Rob didn't respond. She listened to his breathing for a long
while and decided he might be asleep. "I've been thinking," she began.
So he was awake. Well, then, all the better. She'd have to make good on it.
"Before Christmas, I want to settle this thing with Betsy."
"You know. Her pronouncement; what it did to me."
"But that happened so long ago, why bring it up now?"
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 148
"I just need to."
"Well?" he said in a whatever voice.
Either he didn't care or he didn't see any point in arguing. It probably was
a terrible idea. Betsy had a way of scaring her to death. "What do you think?"
"I think you should do whatever you need to do, hon." He hadn't called
her hon in ages.
He finally went back to sleep without a response from her and eventually
she fell asleep, too, because she woke up the next morning to an empty house.
What had awakened her? Rob getting ready for work? The girls getting ready for
school? No, the beagle out in the back yard barking his head off.
She got up to let him in and pulled her address book out of her purse at the
same time, opening it to Betsy's phone number. It had to be done in stages. One,
make the call. Two, get in the car and drive there. Three, well--she had no idea
what three would entail. Betsy certainly owned the emotional patent on
I need to come see you but I won't bring my suitcase inside because after
you hear what I have to say you may never want to speak to me again.
Jesus Christ, she had called Jill immediately afterward. Jill had been her
best friend since before kindergarten and she had lived with them for three years
in high school when her parents were stationed in Saudi Arabia. Jill knew all of
them very well; even Betsy. She used to joke, I'd have never become a therapist if
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 149
it wasn't for life with the Jamesons! But you quit being a therapist, Cindy would
retort. Yeah, that, too. Of the four of them, Jill being an honorary Jameson, Jill
and Jody were the most successful. Now that Jill had her MBA she was managing
some non-profit having to do with the homeless. Jody had become a lawyer 'just
like dad,' and done quite well. Cindy was nothing but a temporary adjunct
professor with one published story and one published poem. Betsy had trained
as a veterinary technician, and after that a farrier, and Cindy thought she was
raising goats or something, as well. The sad thing was, Cindy had no idea how
Betsy supported herself.
"I'll be there at about four, I think," she told Betsy on the phone, after
getting directions. She fed the beagle and left him outside in their fenced side
yard, where Meg had already placed a big new doghouse, a large water pan, and
an assortment of chew toys. It was a bright, sunny day, just like the song said,
and the drive was fairly easy. She didn't think of anything the whole two hours,
not anything of significance. The incessant Christmas music on the radio helped
with that, the bright light that nearly blinded her.
There was the metal bridge. Betsy had said her turn was exactly a mile
from the river. The water through the rusty railings was deep green, the
riverbank strangled with vines. She tried to imagine what kind of fish swam
beneath the surface, cloaked by the murk. She thought of the manatees in
Florida, so easily visible from the deep-water docks she could almost reach down
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 150
and stroke their sleek backs. In Carolina it was alligators, so admirably
surreptitious. By the time you realized it was a gator, it was crawling into the
water. Once she caught her girls feeding their peanut butter sandwiches to a
gator right behind their deck in Charleston. In Kentucky, Ashley and Meg could
spend hours checking under rocks in the streambed for crayfish, or catching
minnows in paper cups.
It seemed that every place she‟d lived with Rob there was water to sit
beside, to sun herself, read novels, watch the girls on their rope swings and rafts,
to wait for her life to begin. All the time she‟d missed. Why couldn‟t she live in
the moment like sensible people? Now that her father was dead, there was no
going back to ask him why things were. There was a mother though, Patsy
Cambrelly, 555 Culpeper Street, Paris, Kentucky.
A trailer by the road on the other side of the bridge advertised bait and
Kettle Korn, whatever that was, and she watched for her turn, Route 202. The
number signs were small and hard to distinguish and worse than that, they
weren‟t consecutive. Why couldn‟t Betsy live on a road with a name like Stony
Creek or Oak Grove? Her girls hated the name of their street in Paris--
Pussywillow. It used to be a cute song, she told them. You sang it in preschool.
Mom! They would just moan and roll their eyes. Number 634, number 692. She
rushed by in her car trying to eye every sign. Numbers had no meaning to her.
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 151
Betsy had said it would be well marked. “There‟s a rock wall, you can‟t miss it. If
you pass Emily‟s Restaurant you‟ve gone too far.”
The light was fading and she tried not to think about how afraid she was of
driving in the dark—not to mention how impossible it would be to find Betsy‟s.
Balloons tied to a mailbox twisted in a whirlwind around a handwritten sign:
Lordy Lordy Mary‟s Forty.
Cindy could see a big group of people crowding around a picnic table,
laughing and singing probably. She couldn‟t hear them but they seemed to have
that look. She was reminded of how she never wanted to have a birthday party
after her mother left, yet when the day arrived she would be heart-broken. Her
father was always so sweet, making a big show of carving up the cake four ways.
Once, Jody shoved his all in his mouth at once and they started laughing so hard
and chasing each other around with big wedges of cake until they ended up under
the hose in the back yard.
Suddenly there it was, Emily‟s Restaurant, a little white house with a
rickety porch. The sign was bigger than the building. There was a couple getting
into a car outside, stopping to kiss before they ducked their heads, then meeting
across the front seat to kiss some more. Only lovers did that, mainly illicit ones.
She and John had kissed that way more than once. Maybe a hundred
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 152
She sped along looking for the best place to U-turn, inexplicably annoyed
with her sister for moving out to the boondocks.
She thought of Wishman‟s Key, of how she and Betsy had vowed they‟d
move there when they grew up. She had come close the time Rob was stationed
in Florida. She had taken the girls down there and walked them around as she
looked for places to rent. What are we doing here? Ashley had demanded with
her hands on her hips and Cindy couldn‟t tell her because it didn‟t make sense. It
wasn‟t even as though she was unhappy with Rob, she just felt compelled to
elbow herself out of her marriage from time to time. “This is the last place we
went as a family,” she told her girls. “Before my mother left.” It played like a
dream in her head, complete with the warmth of the sun, the smell of the salt air
and rotting fish.
Then she remembered the sound of the dried grass crunching under her
feet and the frantic fear of being pecked by a peacock coupled with the slow
suffocating panic of knowing something was about to change their lives forever,
and that something was reflected in her mother‟s eyes.
Betsy‟s turn was right on the other side of Emily‟s Restaurant, Cindy
discovered—there was the outcropping of rocks and the road number 202. Betsy
lived in a new log cabin, the first house on the left. Cindy bumped along the
rutted road choking down her anxieties with every dip and lunge. There was no
shoulder to the country road, but a sheer drop-off of wasted-away earth and
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 153
gravel. When she saw Betsy‟s nondescript mailbox with just the number, no
name, she remembered the news story of the lesbians down south somewhere
whose mailbox was stuffed with dead armadillos. She had worried at the time
about Betsy, even though she hadn‟t been in touch with her enough to know if she
still lived with Sonia. Cindy parked her car next to the red pick-up truck and
looked at her watch: 5:48. She got out purposefully, and petted the husky that
jumped down off the stoop to greet her.
“How long did it take you?” Betsy asked from the doorway. She was
partially shielded by a log-style pillar; in jeans, a dark blue sweater, and just
socks on her feet. She looked exactly the same to Cindy as siblings do—no matter
the years and age, the familiarity is in the eyes and gestures. Betsy was pretty but
plain, with short sandy gray hair, a tan, healthy face, narrow muscular body, and
“I missed my turn back there,” she said, not really answering. They
hugged and separated quickly. Cindy felt stung with grief, not so much about her
father as Betsy. She had seen her sister two times in eight years.
Betsy held the door open at arm‟s length. “Come inside.” The husky
dashed in the open door, and was met there by a barking brown mutt. Betsy
grinned. “Come on, I don‟t bite.” She beckoned with her free hand, and Cindy
walked by her into the house.
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 154
Cindy asked for the bathroom right away and Betsy showed her where it
was. “Bloody Mary okay?” Betsy asked. “I‟ll be in the kitchen.”
Cindy closed the door and leaned against it. Well, she was here, she was
actually inside Betsy‟s house. She looked around the bathroom. Everything was
so pretty, a pot of lavender on the windowsill, a collection of shells on back of the
toilet, a lithograph of a kingfisher on one wall. She had no idea Betsy was so
artistic. But then maybe it was the other woman, Sonia. Cindy splashed her face
with cold water a few times and pressed a clean purple towel against her skin. It
was warm, as if it had just come out of the dryer. The afternoon sun must pour
through the window.
She found Betsy in the kitchen pulling lasagna out of the oven. It smelled
heavenly. “This is really beautiful, Betsy, your house.” She went straight to the
French doors and looked out. “I had no idea you backed right up to a creek like
this. I love the water.”
“Me, too.” Betsy set the casserole on the table.
The back of the house was open to a deck, with a small waterfall behind
that. “This reminds me of Ithaca, you know, where Rob and I met? It‟s really
gorgeous.” She accepted the Bloody Mary Betsy handed her and stopped talking.
She didn‟t want to be too effusive. Betsy would think she was surprised to find
her living in such a nice house.
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 155
She remembered the time Betsy visited her and Rob in their first little
town house. They had just bought a white Haitian cotton couch, which Ashley
would soon stain with cherry Jell-O. Cindy had rushed out and bought matching
lamps at Little Caledonia in Lexington, specifically for Betsy‟s visit. She‟d
forgotten to take the plastic off the shades; or that‟s the way she liked to
remember it. She had probably left the plastic on, so they‟d stay nice and white.
“You‟re so materialistic,” Betsy had commented harshly as she toured the house.
Cindy had felt humiliated. Anything Betsy said to her was the voice of authority.
She stood in the middle of Betsy‟s kitchen and smiled nervously.
There was a lot of artwork on the walls, watercolors of the country, a pastel
of a giant peach cut in half. Cindy wondered who the painter was, Betsy, maybe?
She really knew nothing about this woman she had grown up with. There was a
collection of antique spice tins on top of the oak cabinets, a pie safe by the door, a
dry sink in the front hall. It was funny and maybe a little spooky the way an
affinity for antiques could pass from one generation to the next. Did Betsy recall
all the times their mother would make their father stop? Look Royal, she‟d say
excitedly, pointing to a sign along the road. It was one of the first complicated
words Cindy learned to spell: Antiques.
“Thanks,” Betsy said to Cindy‟s compliments. She set a table by the
French doors—plain Navy blue placemats, salt and pepper, a can of Parmesan.
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 156
Cindy sat down. Betsy cut into the lasagna and served a piece to her.
“These plates are pretty.” Cindy couldn‟t help herself, she always chattered when
she was nervous. She scanned the room quickly. How could you tell if someone
else lived there? Two jackets on the pegboard? Two mugs in the sink? She
decided to blurt it out. “Are you and Sonia still together?”
“Oh, no.” Betsy held a forkful of steaming lasagna to her mouth and blew
on it. “She moved to British Columbia if you can believe it. As far away as
“Oh, it‟s been six months, I‟d say I‟m over it. I actually like living alone."
They ate in silence for awhile. One of the even the dogs began to snore. Betsy put
down her fork. "What about you? That postcard was kind of a surprise. West
Virginia? I didn't know you and your husband had split up.”
“Oh, we didn't. That was a temporary job. I got my Master's," she began,
because that had been her reasoning all along. Then she wished she hadn't.
"Great," Betsy already responded. Then after a long moment, "How are
"They're good. Ashley's applying to colleges. Actually she's trying to get
"An artist," she commented as if it was to be expected.
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 157
Again, another long painful moment. Cindy wanted an opening she could
ease into but that was stupid. The subject was far from easy. She carefully cut
her dinner into little squares, it was cooling quickly now. The cabin was
becoming quite chilly. She wondered if Betsy had central heat. Her teeth were
chattering. But maybe that was nerves. It was time. "Thanks for agreeing to see
me so close to Christmas."
"That's fine, I don't really celebrate Christmas anyway."
"Oh." True, in looking around she hadn't noticed the absence of
decorations until now.
"So what was it you needed to tell me?" Betsy asked mildly. Was there an
edge to her tone?
Cindy took a deep breath. "Remember what you said about dad?"
"Well, of course you do." She looked down at her plate. Miraculously, it
was practically clean, yet she didn't recall lifting all those forkfuls to her mouth.
“I hope you‟re not going to write a poem about it.”
She smiled. Betsy smiled back. Then they both laughed a little. “So you
“Well, I usually read my mail.”
Cindy served herself another piece of lasagna, out of embarrassment more
than hunger. “I even sent a copy to Patsy.”
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 158
“You know. Our mother?”
“Good Lord.” Betsy shook her head. “So, go on. Does this pronouncement
have something to do with her? I hope you aren't expecting me to write her a
letter of forgiveness or anything." A piece of lasagna dropped off her fork. She
put her fork down and folded her hands on the table.
Cindy answered simply, “No.” Fear in the shape of a big sour lump parked
itself in the pit of her throat. Or maybe it was more like fury. She forced herself
to look at her sister. "What you said dad did to you? And then I said he did it to
me, too? Well, that wasn't true. I think I was just trying to beat you to the punch
or something. I've thought about it until there are no thoughts left and I can
remember no incidences, involving me or you either."
Betsy didn't appear to react. She just sat there.
"I'm not saying it didn't happen to you. I'm just saying it didn't happen to
"Okay." Betsy got up, scraping her chair loudly, and cleared the plates.
Cindy was numb. She stared at her sister's back, then she, too, pushed her chair
back from the table. She wanted to leave, to go home and sleep in her own bed
but it was pitch black out now. The thought of driving alone scared her. No, that
wasn't what scared her, it was what she had just said to Betsy.
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 159
Betsy suddenly spun around, and dried her hands on a dishtowel. "So, are
you driving back tonight or did you want to stay over?"
Cindy stood up slowly. Her legs were heavy. Her heart was a wet blanket.
She looked at Betsy and remembered what Jill had said. She's an authority
figure. You want her approval. "I think I want to go home. I mean, I really
should. I haven't done any shopping for Christmas."
Her talk with Jill flashed through her mind like a beacon. Why in the
world would she accuse him of that after he's dead?
Because he can't defend himself? Or--if it really happened, then she is
finally safe enough to face it after he's gone. It's called recovered memory.
"Jill--." Cindy began. "You know my friend who lived with us?"
Betsy walked her to the door. "Of course, I'm not senile."
"She quit being a therapist and got her MBA. She says hi." The last part
was automatic. Jill might have said it before she told Cindy: Sometimes a person
needs to see herself as a victim to explain why she's so fucking crazy. That made
Cindy laugh. Did you talk to your clients like that? She asked. God knows I
wanted to, Jill said.
Betsy opened the door and the dogs ran out. She turned to Cindy. Her
expression was soft, kind. "Why'd she quit being a therapist?" Betsy asked.
"She said mental health was nebulous."
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 160
They both laughed and Betsy walked her to the car. They actually hugged
out there in the dark and they agreed to try and keep in touch. As Cindy was
getting into her car she was fairly certain she heard Betsy say, I still love you.
15. Kentucky Woman, for the Rest of her Life
Patsy sat in her beloved living room and prepared herself to say goodbye,
to her windows, to the dental molding Charlie had fought so hard to put in—
redoing the one corner at least five times, never satisfied and he‟d only get mad
when she‟d say how good it looked, how elegant. It‟s not right. I‟m going to have
to re-do it, Patsy. Charlie was a perfectionist, always had been.
She admired the yellow pine floors where Teddy Roosevelt would lie in the
patch of morning sun. Lord, she missed that dog and all he stood for. The house
had been sold and it was time to move her things out, but first Jackie had to get
Mrs. Hurston‟s apartment at Cooperman House ready. Poor Mrs. Hurston had
gone to the hospital wing. Patsy didn't know her but she had seen all of Mrs.
Hurston's beautiful things when she had her private tour.
"She won't be coming back, Mama," Jackie had said. "That's what I like
about this place, once you move in, there's always a space for you. We won't have
to scramble around to make arrangements if you become really ill. I mean, I
know that won't happen for absolutely ages..."
"That's where you go when they know the end is near," Patsy had said.
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 161
Getting Mrs. Hurston's apartment ready meant having the maintenance
men finally come get the gold velvet couch, her cherry side tables and beautiful
mahogany dresser. Patsy hoped they‟d leave the piano. Jackie, nobody wants
this fragile old girl, do you think they‟d just leave it here? I‟ll ask, Mama. I
suspect they won‟t mind at all turning their backs on it. Few people relish having
to move a piano out and I know they‟ve already got two in the party rooms.
Patsy had gotten real good at replaying entire conversations in her head.
Reminded her of that man she‟d read about, the last Jew in Afghanistan. You get
used to being alone, he‟d said, rocking in his metal folding chair. That‟s the way
the reporter had described him in the newspaper and she tried to imagine that. A
metal folding chair; what could be more uncomfortable and that man was older
than she was. Patsy patted the arm of her brocade couch; it was probably too big
for her tiny living room at Cooperman House but Jackie said they‟d try to fit in as
much as they could. They‟d gone straight there after her last hospital episode; an
apartment was available and Jackie didn‟t want to lose it. You have to move in,
Mama or they‟ll give it to someone else. But Jackie I can‟t just sleep in another
woman‟s bed. Yes, Mama, yes, you can. The manager says it‟s fine; he‟s being
very nice about it Mama. But who do these pictures belong to, this beautiful
paisley piano scarf. She had gone straight to it, where it draped the back of the
elegant sofa; then the piano caught her eye. Oh, Jackie. There around the corner
in an alcove where she supposed the dining room was supposed to be, was a
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 162
Baldwin spinet. She used to scoff at spinets, mostly looks, hardly any sound. But
then she never imagined she‟d ever in her life be without a piano as she had been
these past ten years. Everything belongs to Mrs. Hurston, Mama. She passed
away; she doesn‟t have any family; there‟s no hurry about moving her furniture.
The staff took away her clothes and anything personal.
Patsy gingerly pulled the satin-covered bench out, sat right down and
played “The Minute Waltz,” “Mood Indigo,” then parts of a Gershwin prelude.
She was in heaven; she hadn‟t felt excited in the longest time. Her playing was
sloppy, her fingers stubborn, her arms achy, her neck developed a brutal crick but
she felt happy. The sound, the sound—she wanted to put her face against the
keys but she knew that would alarm Jackie. When they went to the bedroom
where the ugly hospital bed was at least stripped bare, Patsy thought it was where
Mrs. Hurston had died, she could smell it, not the death exactly or even the
urine-soaked sheets, just someone else. She felt like an intruder. She sat down in
an upholstered chair while Jackie pulled out some sheets from home, the only
single sheets she had, must be from Mike‟s bed from when he was little. Patsy
laughed out loud—there were the Smurfs, Papa Smurf and Mama Smurf. I hope
these are okay, Mama, it was all I had. She really had to tug to get the little boy
sheets to fit around the giant corners of the hospital bed but she made it up real
nice and covered it with a pretty white satin-edged blanket and a colorful afghan
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 163
Patsy herself had made many years before. When Jackie was done, she patted
the bed and said, now you can sleep here.
Well, Patsy hadn‟t liked that idea one bit but there was no arguing with
Jackie after everything that had happened. She was able to sleep there, too, even
if she didn‟t like the bed. Two weeks in, Jackie and Mike showed up one Saturday
with her own walnut four-poster, and they wheeled out the hospital bed and set
hers up and she felt just so much better. But in just those two weeks she thought
she had really aged. It was the absence of young people, that‟s what it was. Mike
visited when he could and once one of his girl friends popped in on Patsy, all
bubbly and cute as a button. But days would go by and she wouldn‟t see anyone
under the age of 25 and it made her sad. One look in the mirror that morning
and she thought, now wait a minute, who is that old lady? It was enough to put
some resolve in her backbone. She didn‟t have to give up and die, she was just
moving, just moving.
It was only a house; only a life, and here she was back in her own home for
one last visit. Visiting your own home—it didn‟t seem right, she wasn‟t sure what
to do. She turned on Katherine Graham‟s funeral. She never watched daytime
television so it seemed okay just this once, especially since it was like a
documentary or a living history. As she heard all the famous stories about Kay
Graham stepping up to the helm of the Washington Post after her husband‟s
death, and paving the way for businesswomen everywhere, Patsy was caught
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 164
between admiration and cynicism. How hard can it be, she thought, when you
grow up rich, and inherit a major corporation? Though she‟d read the poor
woman‟s husband committed suicide, but she chose not to dwell on that fact.
That was just petrifying, that one. She knew how a man could get depressed.
Charlie‟s moods got so black she‟d see him go way beyond his eyes and she‟d be
afraid he wouldn‟t find his way out and where would she be but feeling all
responsible just standing there wringing her hands? Lord if she happened to ask
him a question at an inconvenient time. She‟d just be making conversation.
Charlie, is a lesbian a homosexual? How the hell should I know? Patsy,
goddammit! He‟d rail.
An old copy of The Post was on the table beside her, parts of it were torn
away to wrap things that went to Charlie in Florida, but its front-page story was
intact, all about the anti-globalization demonstrations in Italy. Globalization,
what was that, she had asked one time and Michael tried to explain it to her while
Jackie talked over him, making snide remarks about third world countries taking
all our jobs. Then they got in an argument, each one thinking the other one was
way off base. Everything was changing by the second and she was so far behind.
What had she been doing these past years except trying to live with Charlie,
hoping not to set him off, yet fearful to the point of near paralysis sometimes that
he‟d get sick and die, leaving her alone. Good God, without Charlie there to
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 165
worry her to death, she‟d have only herself to think about and that was so much
Patsy was so afraid of dying, it was always looming over her now that she
had a scar down the middle of her chest and a mechanical device right inside her.
She searched the newspaper photographs for a recognizable face, but most of the
demonstrators were wearing black masks. This confrontation was particularly
violent with at least one Italian getting shot and run over by the police. To have
your life taken from you abruptly, that might be preferable. She held the
newspaper page to her chest for a moment, then folded it neatly. It was so very
odd to be sitting alone in her house for the last time, reading a old newspaper
story, watching a live funeral on TV.
When the doorbell rang, she didn‟t startle, thinking it was probably young
Ian coming to check up on her, and she got up slowly, and shuffled over there.
How many times in her life had she hurried to answer the door, such a simple,
beautiful act? Jackie always wanted her to have one of those peep holes but
Charlie wouldn‟t hear of it. I‟ll be damned if I‟ll drill a hole in a solid wood door,
he‟d grouse. Patsy peeked out the front window. She‟d hung a pale green silk
curtain there back in 1964, she recalled, but it was long gone. Sometime in the
early 80‟s she and a wonderful friend, Betty Jean Hawkins, had spent an entire
week at their sewing machines with various calicos. They had re-curtained
Patsy‟s entire house and the bright colors just lit up the rooms when the sun
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 166
shone through. The curtains were faded now, a little drab. Betty Jean had moved
to Austin in ‟92 when her husband retired. They used to keep up, at first
regularly, then just at Christmas. It had been years now since she heard
anything. Betty Jean was the last real friend she‟d ever had, Patsy thought sadly.
A woman in one of those Navy pea coats stood on the porch, her hands
jammed in her pockets, the collar up around her chin with just a flash of sparkly
silver earrings. Charlie always said, don‟t even open the door, but this one didn‟t
look like a solicitor. The woman was fortyish, with fluffy golden brown hair and
shy eyes. She had a careful stance, no clipboard under her arm, she didn‟t appear
ready with a sales pitch—in fact she didn‟t appear ready at all. Patsy opened the
door wide. “Yes?” she said pleasantly. It was nice to have company.
The younger woman was wary, just on the verge of jumpy. “I‟m your
Cindy,” she said breathlessly.
“So you are,” Patsy answered. Then her mind fuzzed up. She looked over
the woman‟s shoulder to the car on the curb, one of those sixties‟ cars, racy, dark
blue. She watched Ian sail down the front walk next to hers, pop the curve and
glide along Culpeper Street, coatless on his skateboard with his shoulder-length
blond hair making a skirt around his face, a kind of halo. He‟d already been by
once, to see if she needed help, and ever since finding out he was babysitting her,
she looked at him differently. He whistled appreciatively at the sight of the car
and gave her a jaunty wave. He was a good boy. She missed him already.
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 167
“I was wondering if we could talk for a minute?” Cindy asked.
Patsy gripped the door. “I don‟t know if I can. Jackie will be here shortly
to move me to a nursing home.” That wasn‟t true, Jackie wasn‟t coming until
later in the day, but Patsy was quick with excuses, always had been. She knew
one thing. She didn‟t want to answer a lot of questions.
“I know. I spoke with her this morning at Cooperman House. She said
you were here saying goodbye to your home.” She fumbled in her purse. “Would
you like to see pictures of my two daughters?”
“I guess that would be all right.” She hadn‟t said „your granddaughters,‟
had she? That hurt, but it was also a good thing, maybe she wasn‟t there to place
blame. Still, that poem she‟d written hadn‟t put Patsy in the best light, and that
still stung. Cindy pulled a wallet out of her shoulder bag and carefully extracted
two pictures. One was of a very pretty redhead in a black vee-neck. “This is
Ashley‟s graduation picture.”
“Oh, my, she‟s a looker.” Patsy‟s heart softened quite a bit. She wondered
if Cindy knew she had been valedictorian of her high school. “I believe she knows
Michael, my grandson.”
“Oh, I don‟t think so but she did come to see you before Christmas. Do
you remember that?”
“I think I do.” She didn‟t.
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 168
She showed Patsy the other picture of an impish-looking blonde with a
giant smile. “This is Meg, she‟s my youngest.”
“Why, oh my goodness. I had a little girl looked just like that.” Spitting
image was the phrase that came to mind.
Cindy put the pictures back in her wallet and dropped it in her purse.
Then she gazed across the threshold at Patsy. “So, you‟re actually moving today?”
“Yes, to the Cooperman House in Potomac. Have you heard of it?” Jackie
always corrected her, it‟s not the Cooperman House, Mama. You don‟t need the
“Well, only because—yes. It‟s supposed to be very nice.” Cindy glanced at
the empty hallway behind Patsy. “Is your husband going to be living there, too?”
“Oh, no. My husband is a World War II veteran and he had to move to
Florida—to get his benefits.” She was quite tired and a little nauseous. “Do you
know, I‟m going to have to go lie down. I‟m awfully glad to have met you.” Patsy
opened the door wide and stood there like a statue until the younger woman
blustered out. She closed the door carefully and went back to the couch. She
would have listened for the car to start up out front except for the television.
Funeral music accompanied images of the stately National Cathedral. She‟d
always wanted to go there. She took a sip of cold tea and after awhile the nausea
passed, but she was positively weighed down with exhaustion. The doorbell rang
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 169
Patsy got up, this time less light on her feet. She opened the door a bit and
stood aside. She could tell Cindy wouldn‟t be going any time soon. “Would you
like to come in?” Patsy walked back to the couch. She picked up the K-mart bag
full of gingham pillows that Jackie had bought her and displayed them before
sitting down. Jackie had misunderstood when Patsy commented on all the
pillows at the home. She thought Patsy wanted some for her new apartment, but
that was okay. She patted the cushion next to her and Cindy joined her on the
couch, all knobby-kneed like an adolescent. Cindy was no stranger to her as she
might have expected. Her voice had a familiar tone, the way she sat with her legs
crossed at the knees, one foot bouncing slightly. The way she wore her hair. She
reminded Patsy of herself back when she was working at the U.S. Capitol. She
felt embarrassed at the way the house looked. There were big empty spaces
where Charlie‟s furniture had been. The absence of the dog was a real shock.
“It‟s moving day and I just got out of the hospital. I‟m not sure I have
anything to offer you. Jackie bought me this tea at an Oriental deli.” She took a
sip. “I‟m afraid it‟s cold now. My goodness,” she chattered, “I hate for you to
catch me watching television but I was just resting.”
“Kay Graham‟s funeral,” Cindy noted. “It‟s an historical event. Because of
Watergate,” Cindy added.
Watergate. That nearly drove a stake right through Charlie‟s heart. He
was a Nixon supporter right to the end. She remembered her manners. “Was
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 170
Royal very ill?” It had been some years since she‟d read of his death. She wished
obits would give that kind of information, it was something that bothered her, not
“Yes, he had a heart problem.”
“Like me,” she said more to herself. She thought of her two men then, her
two loves, one of them dead, the other gone. She would have to die alone and it
was a bitter thought. Oh, Jackie would be there, maybe even this one—Cindy, but
the men would be conspicuously absent. Everything she‟d done with her life for
the past forty years had been for a man. Maybe that‟s why it all went wrong.
“You and your sister and brother, are you all well?” she asked.
“Yes. They were both here, of course, for the funeral.”
“Of course.” Patsy glanced around for the remote control to turn down the
cello music. “Was it nice? The funeral?” It was awkward to be asking about a
funeral when there was one on TV. She doubted Royal‟s funeral had been at a
place like the National Cathedral, though he was prominent in his day. When she
saw Cindy bite her bottom lip, it was like a scene from the past.
“Yes.” Cindy fidgeted. “Your house is real pretty and Jackie is very nice.
She was cleaning your apartment she said. She really takes care of you, doesn‟t
“She‟s my rock.” Patsy liked saying that. She tried giving Cindy a kind,
sympathetic look. The girl was nervous as a mouse yet there was Royal in her
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 171
eyes, the way she held her head proud with a hint of defiance. It was like that
with Jackie, too. Every so often she‟d say something, or fling her arm out in a
certain way and Patsy would see Charlie so clearly it hurt. She could still recall
the thrill of being between them, of actually being in love with each of them and
they, in turn, falling in love with her. But Royal and Charlie had a war bond that
had nothing to do with her. They‟d both been lost at sea together—how she had
reveled in that story, having heard it only once and never again as if it happened
in another lifetime. She remembered the three of them at the picnic table. The
children were running about. Charlie admired their back yard, which really was
ideal for children, very green, sloping down to a large azalea bed—all in bloom at
Cindy watched her, waiting. What was the question? Patsy fudged it. “ I
remember Royal used to say, „if you are lucky enough to be awake at dawn, and I
often am, because I‟m a dreadful insomniac, you can see the sun rise.‟”
Cindy smiled all at once. “I‟ve heard him tell people that, and it‟s true,
Daddy was up half the night all the time.”
“You know, Royal and I had positioned our bed so we didn‟t have to do any
more than roll over and open our eyes and the sun would come up in that
“That was a wonderful house.”
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 172
“It was, and we saw many sunrises.” She hesitated, then took a sip of cold
tea to cover up how afraid she was to be sitting there recollecting Royal. “We
watched the sun rise and Charlie claimed he‟d never seen that before, and Royal
said, „Yes you have, over Kula Gulf we must have seen it a hundred times.‟”
Cindy looked startled. “Kula Gulf?” she asked.
“Where they fought in WWII.” Patsy folded her hands in her lap. The
memories were precious. They were more real than the day-to-day. Cindy‟s head
was tilted just like a kitten‟s. Patsy had to restrain from stroking her silky hair.
“That was one Easter Sunday when they said that. I‟d put an egg, cheese and
sausage casserole in the oven and I brought coffee out to them. We sat together
outside and it was a glorious morning. I was right there with a man on either
side.” She felt it so acutely, being young, her chest full of pride over her pretty
house, her handsome husband, her beautiful children, full of pride one second
and terrified the next. It had hit her like a force that morning so long ago—she
had a complete life, a very good, wonderful even—life, all because of one man,
Royal, and she was grateful. Yet there next to her was another man, Charlie,
whose world had collapsed around him and she felt so much love for him,
hopeless, helpless love that she was compelled to let her life change course
Patsy rubbed her eyes. She was drained. Where was Jackie? Why had she
let this girl in her home? Jackie would be incensed. No, Charlie would be
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 173
incensed, and yet, he‟d never know, would he? “They had served together in the
War,” she said. “Your father and Charlie.”
“I did know that.” Cindy looked at her hands. Patsy noticed the wedding
ring, white gold with a tiny braid of trim, very elegant. Cindy had long fingers,
pianist‟s fingers they used to say, people used to say about her.
“We have the same hands.” Patsy held hers out and Cindy did the same,
then she took hers back and hid them in her lap. Her hands were spotted and her
knuckles bulged. Patsy longed to ask Cindy if she played the piano. Royal had
bought her a walnut colored Mason & Hamlin. Oh she adored that piano with all
her heart. “Do you play piano, dear?” It was like her heart spoke because her
mind had told her not to.
“Yes.” Cindy looked like she wanted to say more and Patsy waited but all
she did was clear her throat.
“I did, too and my mother before me. She graduated from a music college
back in 1930. A woman graduating from college, it was very unusual.”
“Mary Frances McLaughlin,” Cindy said.
“Why, yes. Did you know her?”
“No, I‟m sorry, I didn‟t.”
They sat in silence for awhile. Patsy could hear Ian‟s skateboard wheels
rattling down the sidewalk. “Your husband is in the military, too, isn‟t he?” she
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 174
“Yes, a lieutenant colonel. He served in Vietnam. But he doesn‟t talk
about it much.”
“Oh, back in ‟45, when the men first got home they did, but then, there was
no talk at all, as if it never happened. Except for my Charlie, now, he didn‟t talk
about it but he had nightmares. Terrible ones.”
“I‟m sorry.” Cindy fiddled with her purse strap, twisting it around and
around. It reminded Patsy of something she couldn‟t quite put her finger on.
Cindy noticed her looking and she stopped, folding her hands in her lap and
crossing her ankles. “When Rob—that‟s my husband—when he came home from
his first tour, there were all these picketers at Andrew‟s and the police, people
with ugly faces shouting and spitting, they actually were spitting at us. I got one
of them by the sleeve and yanked her down. I hadn‟t intended to do that. My
mother-in-law was there, Eleni—Daddy used to call her the firecracker, and well,
we all got arrested, Eleni, a couple of the demonstrators, and me. Rob and his
dad had to come bail us out and they didn‟t think it was funny. I actually didn‟t
either until much later.”
“Why that‟s terrible, dear,” Patsy said. If it had been her there with Cindy
she would have stood back, away from it all, afraid to join in, missing something
even then, courage, convictions. She thought she heard a car door slam but the
driveway was empty. Jackie always pulled her Subaru into the driveway. She sat
back down and Patsy gazed about her living room. California Sky was the paint
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 175
color, she‟d chosen it herself and Charlie had spent all of a weekend painting the
walls. He could do that, paint walls a color of her choosing, put up a chair rail if
she asked, lay a new linoleum floor. It was true what people said, their house was
so pleasant and welcoming. It was just tricky knowing when she could ask him to
do things, these past years, but before, a long time before, there was something
almost childlike about Charlie the way he enjoyed making her happy.
Patsy patted her daughter on the knee. “Royal had the best smile, didn‟t
“You look like him,” Patsy told her.
Cindy appeared pleased by that. “Thank you.” There was a tear running
down the outside of her face, back toward her ear. Patsy wanted to reach out a
finger and swipe it away but she didn‟t think she had that right.
She thought back to a certain day, remembered the air sweet with orange
blossoms. No, that wasn‟t right. It was a cherry tree they had. “At Easter time,
back when you were small. Do you recall that? We used to get you children little
chicks and ducks and then they‟d grow up and they didn‟t make such good pets at
all. We‟d take them down to Licking Creek and set them free.”
“I‟ve seen pictures of that,” Cindy said. They both watched the funeral
procession on TV, the bishop led the way down the aisle in his long purple and
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 176
black silk robes with the scarlet sash draped over his shoulders. Cindy cleared
Patsy remembered that one Easter morning in particular, when she stood
by the sink looking out her kitchen window at the two men on her back porch
stoop and she felt herself tear right down the middle. “It was soon after that I
left,” she told Cindy.
“That‟s what I thought.”
They watched the TV screen again. The reporter was thrusting his
microphone in the faces of various funeral-goers. Patsy was always looking for
distant relatives in the news—not that she‟d ever found any. Once she saw a
health care demonstrator on the cover of Newsweek and she was positive it was
her own father; he was dead, mind you, but the resemblance was chilling. When
the Berlin Wall came down all of the East Germans looked like they could be her
cousins. Some people just look familiar, Jackie had told her more than once.
Cindy stood up. “I guess I should go.”
“Okay.” Patsy walked her to the door.
“Do you think I could visit you at your new apartment?” Cindy asked.
“Yes, I think I‟m allowed to have visitors.” Patsy opened the door as Ian
came up the walk. She wondered if it was lunch time. The summer before, Ian
would be out and about on his skateboard until he got hungry, then he‟d show up
to eat a ham sandwich with mayonnaise. After two or three weeks of that, he
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 177
asked if Patsy knew how to make English muffin pizzas, because he didn‟t want to
eat meat any more. Of course she did. She made up a batch on Sunday, wrapped
them individually, and stuck them in the freezer. He was a very interesting boy,
one she‟d probably see in an Italian demonstration ten years hence if she lived
that long. When the weather was bad, he‟d sit on her screened porch and play on
the guitar Mike had brought over, or he‟d be on his hands and knees on the
kitchen floor designing a poster or two for PETA, the ethical treatment of animals
group. She missed those days when just having to be up and dressed with some
food for Ian kept her going.
“Hi, Aunt Patsy.” He propped his skateboard up against the porch wall.
“Ian, I‟m so glad you stopped by.”
“Jackie asked me to come over to see if you needed any help packing.”
“Well, I will, I think I might. Ian, this is my daughter, Cindy.”
They smiled at each other and said hi. “I guess I‟ll see you then.” Cindy
clutched her awkwardly in a hug, hurried down the porch steps and got in her
Patsy went inside and made a tower of gingham pillows on the couch, then
she leaned against them. “Look at that, Ian, this is the funeral of Katherine
Graham, publisher of The Washington Post. That‟s the National Cathedral in
Washington.” Ian stared at the TV screen without responding. Patsy watched the
parting shots, the gargoyled eaves, the many steeples. It was a spectacular place.
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 178
Some years before a woman up that way had disappeared and they sent
out the search helicopters and such and maybe even dragged the river at great
expense. She was a mother of three or four with a successful husband.
Everybody liked her, all the neighbors who went on TV, they said she was the
kind of person who would go pick up their children at school if they had to work
late, she was the kind of person who would bring them a hot meal if they were
sick. They were so worried about her, and spoke to the camera saying, please if
you have her, just let her go. Patsy had wondered if the kidnapper was watching
and if he cared the tiniest iota. Then the woman called the police and confessed
that she‟d been hiding out at the National Cathedral, fine as could be, if not
definitely crazy for allowing the city to go into major search mode. Everyone was
mad, angry that she‟d scared them so much and cost the city and county
thousands of dollars in a wasted rescue effort. She‟d spent three days and nights
at the Cathedral, going to the deli down the block. She admitted she‟d seen the
newspapers, knew they were putting on a no holds barred effort to find her.
Charlie had said she should be arrested and thrown in jail. Jackie said
they should garner her wages or something, and make her pay back the
community, but at least she didn‟t drown all her kids like the young mother down
in Texas. Patsy didn‟t say anything because she was thinking it made perfect
sense if you just had to run away—and she understood running away—to go
somewhere beautiful that brought you peace. The poor woman had simply
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 179
removed herself from the stream of life. It really wasn‟t her fault. Even if she had
seen those newspaper headlines she wouldn‟t have exactly been aware that they
were about her.
After the pallbearers carried Mrs. Graham‟s casket down the aisle while
everyone sang “America the Beautiful,” Patsy mopped her eyes and turned off the
TV. Then she got a tall glass of water and sat at the dining room table. What was
she going to do with all the furniture she had bought over the years? All the
things she thought a wife should have, china, silver, chintz couches, velvet wing
chairs? Where in her past did she ever get the idea that she needed such things?
She‟d done the same with Royal and left it all behind. It was like she thought she
could build a marriage by acquiring things.
That was a question she meant to ask that young woman. Are you happy,
dear? Do you love your husband and children? Do you ever think about leaving?
Jackie called and asked to speak to Ian. His end of the conversation was a
bunch of uh-huhs, then he hung up. “She‟s bringing lunch over,” he said. “Do
you mind if I watch a movie, Aunt Patsy?” He began to look through the box of
tapes Michael had left there.
“No, not at all.” Patsy closed her eyes. She hoped she wasn‟t senile but
that was what seemed to be happening. Or if it wasn‟t senility then it was just
plain mental illness and which was worse? Had Cindy really just been here? Was
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 180
she actually going to move away from her house forever? Charlie was gone, she
knew that much.
She longed to be back in time, maybe ten or twelve years, before Charlie
got so fed up with her, before she was forced out of her job, before her cat,
Cinderella, died. Charlie might be across from her in his wing chair with the
newspaper open and his feet in brown socks propped on the coffee table. “Listen
to this,” he would say, and he‟d read some odd account of a lady in the Midwest
who just found out her husband of twenty years was a woman. “I never had a
clue,” the wife was quoted as saying. Then he would laugh musically,
contagiously. He could be such a sweet, funny man who enjoyed life and treated
her like a queen.
What went wrong? Was it just age and poor health and guilt and old war
memories? Had she changed? When they started pushing her out the door at
work did that make her all paranoid like he said? When her heart slowed down
and filled up with fluid did that make her just impossible to live with? “What the
hell‟s wrong with you, Patsy?” he‟d yell. “Why are you so weak?”
If Jackie were there as she so often was toward the end she‟d intervene.
“Who can answer questions about the past, Daddy? Why should Mama answer
for something she did when she was so much younger and you were a different
person? Maybe she thought she was doing the right thing at the time. The right
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 181
thing for her, for you, for me, and for her other family. Just how long does a
person have to drag around the chain?”
But he was like a dog, barking out of habit.
“I agree Jackie,” Patsy told her later, when they were alone.
“Feeling guilty forever. I mean I‟ve never committed a felony so I can‟t
speak to that, but I don‟t think a person should go through the rest of her days
feeling bad about all the mistakes she‟s made in her life. Being sorry for all the
people she‟s hurt. If she tries to make amends, if she expresses her sorries, then
let it go.”
Ian‟s movie was about a robot. At least he said the man was a robot but he
looked like a real person to Patsy. “The Terminator,” it was called and she liked
that idea that a big robot could go around righting all the wrongs. She got up
from the couch and repacked the pillows, then she gathered the rest of her things
together in another neat pile a few inches from the previous neat pile. She
supposed it was a way of inching out the door, inching away from her life. She
had only packed two photographs. One of Jackie and Mike of course, when he
was the all American boy in his little league uniform, before his hair got so long
and he took to going shirtless whenever possible.
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 182
The other one was of her and Charlie on the hammock, the day of the Nina
Simone concert, the night of her first heart attack. Jackie had taken it. They
were laughing, Jacks was probably surprised to see them together, happy, and
she wanted to document it. That‟s what she‟d say, anyway. Charlie was having a
beer and she was drinking plain tonic because she didn‟t feel quite well. It was
funny at the concert, they were just about the only white couple there and Patsy
felt conspicuous. Sitting there in UK‟s concert hall, white and pasty amongst the
throngs of blacks, she had felt like the outsider she was, and it was the way she
felt at home, too. Maybe that was the moment she became aware that she and
Charlie couldn‟t continue to go on the way they were.
Tears poured down her cheeks when Nina sang the exquisitely beautiful “I
Loves You Porgy,” about the slave girl being taken from the man she loved to be
owned and used by a white man. She had loved Charlie like that once and she
reached for his hand on the armrest. Then just when she was thinking there had
never been anything so tragic as being a slave, someone requested that Nina sing
“Strange Fruit” about all the lynchings, and Nina said, “No, I don‟t sing that any
more. I don‟t like junkies.”
Patsy didn‟t get it, she knew the song and it was not about drugs. She
leaned close to Charlie‟s ear. “Do you think by junkie she means people who can‟t
let go of all the shameful horrible stuff in our past?”
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 183
“No,” he had said in a regular voice, as if he knew. “She‟s talking about
Billie Holiday.” An older black woman glared at them over her shoulder as if they
didn‟t have a right to speculate and Patsy shrank into her seat. “My Baby Just
Cares for Me” was the encore and it was their song—hers and Charlie‟s. Patsy
loved the lyrics and the bouncy tune. That‟s the way her love with Charlie used to
The phone rang and she nearly jumped out of her skin. She hated that
high-pitched bristling nerve-jangling bell. “Yes?” It was silent for a minute then
someone began rattling away in a foreign language. “I don‟t speak Spanish,”
Patsy said and she hung up just as Jackie came in the door, pushing it wide open
with her foot, carrying two big white bags and a box of drinks. Ian jumped up
and took the drinks from her. Soon they were eating right there in the living
room. She supposed it was okay for her last day at home though she hated for
her house to smell like greasy fast food. Jackie and Ian were engrossed in the
movie; the robot had a very peculiar accent and he resembled the governor of
California. She munched on her fish fillet without speaking up. Lord they‟d tease
her about that one.
Patsy glanced at the back of Ian‟s head. The TV was roaring and he was
fixated on it. She picked up the newspaper Jackie had brought, scanned the first
page section, then she found the local page, pulled it out and flipped through
until she found the obituaries. She needed to read the obits. For some reason it
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 184
brought her comfort every day she did not know someone who had died. Jackie
noticed her reading and turned to face her. “Sal‟s mother canceled on me again
this week and I really think she‟s shifting loyalties to that Lina.”
“Oh, Jackie.” Sal‟s mother was an idiot. Patsy had always thought so.
Jackie and her mother-in-law Gina had a standing lunch date once a week for
absolutely ages, even after the divorce. Patsy didn‟t know why the old woman
had to change it now. Unless the young woman was insisting on it. New wives
tended to want the old wives out of the family picture. It was
hard to trust a petite woman at any rate. They got quiet again. Jackie
went back to watching the movie.
Patsy scanned the names in the obits, then the pictures, then the ages. She
read a brief article about a man who wanted his wife declared dead so his
children could begin collecting benefits. Their mother had been missing for over
a year and his children needed closure, he told the judge. “There‟s a word I never
want to hear again,” Patsy said.
Jackie sighed. “What‟s that?”
“Well, you won‟t hear it from me. What are you reading anyway?” She
peered over Patsy‟s shoulder.
Patsy scanned the article at the top of the page. “Now here‟s something
worthy of an obituary.”
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 185
Jackie put her cigarette out in her paper cup, but Patsy heard it sizzle so
she supposed it was okay, if rude. You don‟t do that in someone‟s living room,
even if she is your own mother and you‟re moving her out that very day.
Jackie‟s smoky breath eased over her way like a dreamy fog. “Mama, why
do you read those depressing death notices?”
“I don‟t know, superstition I guess.”
“You mean like tossing salt over your shoulder? Sal‟s mother used to do
that even in a nice restaurant and it drove me crazy.”
“Well, Gina should have moved back to Italy a long time ago.”
Jackie collected the lunch garbage and took it outside. Patsy heard her at
the trash cans around the side of the house. It was a nice, familiar sound. Jackie
leaned inside the door, gathered the boxes Patsy had pushed there and took them
out. Then she was back, but she only sat on the edge of the couch. Kind of like
Cindy had earlier, but Jackie was not a nervous bird; she was a cool cookie.
Nobody took advantage of Jackie; Patsy would bet people walked all over Cindy
from time to time, the way they had her. “So what is it?” Jackie asked.
“What‟s worthy of an obituary?”
Patsy began reading aloud. “Mr. Wong once took a rare komodo dragon to
the Capitol in pursuit of appropriations.”
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 186
“That‟s in our paper?” Jackie brushed off her black sweater and leaned
down to straighten the cuff of her black slacks. She was wearing pointy high-
heeled boots. Patsy didn‟t know how her narrow feet could stand being
scrunched up like that. Jackie came over and peered down at the paper.
“Right here,” Patsy pointed. “He taught at Transy, that‟s probably why.”
She read from the article. “„Mr. Wong once took a rare komodo dragon to the
Capitol in pursuit of appropriations.‟”
Ian turned around on his heels and leaned toward the paper with his
elbows on the table. “Big or little?” he asked.
Patsy noticed the TV screen was blue. The movie must be finally over.
Movies could be long. Her last day at home was going by too fast. “Big or little?”
he asked again.
“I don‟t know. There‟s no picture, dear.”
Ian got up and asked Jackie if he could go and she said yes. Then he did
something that surprised Patsy to tears. He came to her and put his arms around
her and kissed her on the cheek. “Bye, Aunt Patsy.” Then he was gone. She sat
there in the wake of his affection just on the brink of collapse. That‟s what it felt
like. Jackie followed him out and there was some commotion on the porch, then
Patsy saw the two of them carrying her wicker chair past the window. That‟s
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 187
right; Ian‟s mother, Rose, wanted the chair and Jackie was going to give it to her.
Well, Patsy had no use for wicker at the nursing home. They didn‟t even have a
porch. Jackie was back soon after and she loaded more boxes in her car, then she
was standing in the doorway rattling her keys and Patsy just didn‟t know how
long this had gone on.
“That reminds me, Jackie,” she said as she stood up and brushed off her
skirt. “I tried to get the mildew off my shower curtain liner and it just won‟t
budge. I‟ve even soaked it in bleach. What do you think I should do, just put it
back on? Could Mike maybe help me with that? My arthritis is just about killing
me now and even the thought of those little plastic hooks.”
Jackie interrupted her. “Mama, you shouldn‟t be doing stuff like that. I
told you, after we get your things sorted, I‟ll come over and give the house a real
“But now I think I‟ve made it worse.”
“Mama, we‟ll buy a new liner. They only cost a few dollars, I don‟t even
bother to clean mine any more, I just buy new ones.”
“Well, that just seems so wasteful.”
“Trying to clean old mildew is a waste of time, that‟s what I say. Anyway,
I‟m going to go to the unemployment office. See what I can find out.”
“You getting those unemployment checks yet?”
“No. It was too much trouble. They practically wanted to take my blood.”
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 188
“You‟re eligible you know.”
“Yes, just like you were eligible to sue that company for forcing you into
Patsy crossed the room and ran her finger over the bare shelf where
Charlie‟s Indian artifacts used to be. “Okay, okay. Well, I‟m too old to worry
about that now.” She couldn‟t take her eyes off the empty shelf. “ Jackie, I read
these papers from the lawyer and I just feel so sad. I almost called Charlie.”
“Well, it is sad, Mama.”
“Do you think Charlie‟s sad?”
Jackie was peeking in doorways, assessing how much more packing Patsy
had to do. “I don‟t know. But I think if you want to talk to him you should call
“You think he‟s there now?” Patsy asked. Jackie had one foot out the
“I really don‟t know. But you have his number, Michael put it on your
speed dial. Four, I think. But I wrote all the names in, so just check it first.
Okay? Really, he‟d probably like to hear from you.”
She looked toward the kitchen where the phone was. “Well, I suppose I
“Of course you can. Now I‟m going to go and when I come by tonight will
you have things sorted for me?”
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 189
“Okay. Bye, dear.”
Patsy picked up the neatly clipped stack of legal papers and hugged it to
her chest, then she got up and went to her bedroom closet and pulled down the
metal box that held the deeds, wills and birth certificates, and she put it in there.
She should send Charlie his papers. Maybe she‟d put all his papers in one
envelope and have Jackie or the settlement attorney send it to him. In the corner
of the bedroom Jackie had made piles of things they wouldn‟t be taking with
them; boxes full of papers, stacks of clothes—some still on hangers, in dry-
cleaning bags. There were books, blankets and sheets, old cosmetics and
cleansers, just a real assortment of what makes up everyday lives. Jackie was
going to give some to charity and throw the rest away. An old cardboard box at
the back against the wall caught Patsy‟s attention. It looked to be full of files.
Jackie should know better than to throw away important papers. Patsy worked to
free it from the mess. It was too heavy for her to lift but she slid it with her foot a
little bit at a time, until she could sit down in a chair and sort through. She had to
admit most of the papers were trash, but there was a file inside another file
wedged so tight, she wondered if Jackie had overlooked it.
She had to stand up to get the proper leverage to extract this from the box
and she took it with her to the living room couch. It was a pale green file marked
Department of Navy Classified. There were many old records on flimsy almost
see-through paper marked COPY. Every page was stamped TOP SECRET. As she
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 190
began to read she realized it was an account of being lost at sea. She read the
whole thing. It was signed: Lt. Cmdr. Royal Jameson. She shivered, then she
replaced it in the file, fearful that some official hands would come down on the
back of her neck and grip her threateningly. Charlie always said she had the
richest imagination of anyone he had ever encountered. “I surely do wish we
could bottle that up and send it to Hollywood,” he‟d say when he was in a good
humor. Then they‟d laugh.
The memory weighed her down with grief, for herself and Charlie, too.
She knew Royal and Charlie had been through something horrible, that Royal
had saved Charlie‟s life, but they had never shared many details with her. Royal
did tell her about seeing Charlie in Espiritu Santo, a ghost of a man,
unrecognizable. Patsy sat still for a very long time, not moving, until she heard a
car in the driveway. She got up hurriedly then, much quicker than she was used
to, and she felt dizzy. She held the arm of the couch and put her head down until
it passed, then she took the file to the bedroom and wedged it back in the box so
the TOP SECRET was hidden just as it had been. If Charlie had wanted these
papers he would have told Jackie about them. It was possible he didn‟t even
remember they existed. Royal was dead and it wouldn‟t be long before she and
Charlie would go as well. There were folks who lived past their eighties but Patsy
didn‟t think she and Charlie would be among them. She just had a feeling about
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 191
Patsy was sitting on the couch dozing when Jackie burst through the door
happier than she‟d been in a long time. “Guess what? I have an interview
tomorrow with H and R Block, the tax people.” Jackie dropped her purse on the
sofa and gave Patsy a hug.
“Oh, Jackie. That‟s perfect for you. You‟re so good with figures and you‟re
organized. Would you be one of the ones who answer the phones? People get
upset when they‟re trying to understand those itemizations. I know Charlie used
“No, I‟ll be at one of the little storefront places where people can just walk
in. It‟ll be kind of like counseling. I just have to take this short course and a test.
I already know so much, I‟ve been doing mine and Sal‟s and Gina‟s taxes for
years. Last year I did yours and Daddy‟s.”
Patsy sat down on her couch. She noticed the VCR button was bright red—
Ian had left the power on. She looked around for the remote control; she could
never find that thing. She hoped Jackie wouldn‟t notice. “What time is the
“Eight-thirty in the morning. I hope I get this one, too, I can‟t stand not
“I hope you do too.”
Jackie‟s eagle eyes zeroed in on the TV stand and she went right over there
and hit the off button. “So how‟s the packing going?” She turned around with
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 192
her hands on her hips. She had on her blue jeans, they were a dark indigo blue
with a sharp crease and she had them cinched tight at her waist with a Spanish-
looking belt, cherry leather with silver coins all around. Her dark red shirt had a
scoop neck showing off her pretty throat. Patsy knew Jackie was feeling good
because of the way she was dressed.
“Why Jackie did you go home and change?”
“Yes, I was just plain tired of all that black even if they say that‟s the way
you‟re supposed to dress.” She made a face. “I guess I‟ll put it back on for the
interview but for now I get to be me. Oh, Mama.” She came over and lightly
rested her head on top of Patsy‟s. After awhile Jackie straightened up. Patsy
hoped she wouldn‟t notice the big metal paper clip on the table. It must have
fallen out of the papers.
"Well,” Patsy said to divert Jackie. “I haven‟t made any progress in
the root cellar. There must be fifteen jars of beans and peaches, none dated, so I
don't know which are good and which to throw away. Charlie used to be so up on
everything.” She got up and went to the kitchen and Jackie followed. “He loved
canning my tomatoes and beans, he even entered some of his beets in the County
Fair, remember?” Patsy smoothed her dark green corduroy skirt down over her
knees; it was lined with that silky, cool nylon that felt so good against her skin.
Jackie said she didn‟t need to bother with hose anymore at her age and that was
one nuisance she was happy to be rid of.
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 193
“Yes.” Jackie smiled and hugged Patsy. “I remember I had a table at the
fair with chocolate chip cookies one year.”
“And crocheted plant hangers, too.” That was a good memory.
Jackie laughed. “We‟re just going to throw them all away, Mama. You
have a beautiful dining room at Cooperman House, and no room in your little
kitchen for canned peaches or any of the rest.”
“Well, what about the hats for my career? There‟s hat boxes here
that fill three shelves under the basement stairs. What am I going to do with all
these pretty hats? I don‟t think folks wear hats any more nowadays. Do you
think you might need some of these hats for your new job?”
“Oh, Mama, I hardly think,” Jackie let out a whoop of a laugh, then she
caught herself and said sweetly, “No, you‟re going to have to just leave all that. I
don‟t want you spending your time sorting hats. The new people want to move in
by January if they can.”
Patsy knew she should be glad instead of filled with deep sorrow. She
looked at her walls and windows—ice blue with pearl gray trim, re-painted the
summer after retirement—had it really been eighteen years? Now there were pale
shapes on the ice blue where the pictures had been taken down, dust rimmed
squares and rectangles, and empty hooks left in the plaster. Even her calico
curtains looked drab and wrinkled and she‟d just washed and ironed them the
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 194
week before Thanksgiving. So much had happened since then. “Oh, Jackie,” was
all she could say. “Tell me about them again.”
“A couple with four children. The woman, Monica is very sweet and soft-
spoken. She said we can come back to see the house any time we want. The man,
well, I can‟t pronounce his name, it‟s something middle-Eastern, he said, yes,
please, feel free to visit. I know we won‟t, but isn‟t it nice to know we could? And
I‟m so glad we‟re going to get a family here, aren‟t you? This house needs a big,
loud, happy family to fill it up. Now, I‟ve got to run out and pick up some boxes
at the Moving Store and I need to take what I‟ve already loaded in my trunk over
to Cooperman. Will you be all right for the next hour? Could you get yourself
something to eat so we don‟t have to worry about the dining room hours on your
first night there?”
Patsy said that she would, and Jackie was gone in a burst of energy,
stopping for an instant to snatch up the two suitcases and four K-mart bags that
had framed the doorway. There was a deep-toned slam, that would be the tail
gate, and short snappy slam, that would be Jackie‟s door, then the Subaru backed
out with its high-pitched engine whining a warning to any poor soul, human or
animal, that happened to be passing by. When Jackie was in a good mood she
drove too fast. When she was in a bad mood she drove too fast. Patsy guessed
there really wasn‟t any time Jackie didn‟t speed around town in that little red car.
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 195
She sat in the quiet for a while. Her living room was even more vacant
now—that was good, a few more hours and she‟d never have to see it looking so
deserted, because it was a sad sight, a very nearly pitiful one. She thought about
where she was moving. She would try to like it there for the time she had left.
The people she‟d met were friendly, one gentleman in particular had seemed very
interested in meeting her. Eugene, was his name, like the hospital back home:
Saint Eugene‟s. He seemed very prominent and wanted her to know that
Cooperman‟s wine list was fairly decent. She and Jackie had chuckled about that.
I think he likes you, Mama, Jackie had kidded her. Well, he was rather
handsome, Patsy had replied. She wished everything wasn‟t happening so
When she heard the bells at St. Marys chime five times, she got up and
went to her kitchen to make a tuna fish sandwich and ended up eating the tuna
straight from the can with a fork, as she stood over her sink. Wouldn‟t Jackie just
badger her to death to put it on a dish, sit down at the table, have some lettuce
with it, some salad dressing, a few Saltines. It was quietly brilliant all by itself, a
square chunk of pinkish meat on a silver fork; just the right amount of salt and
tang. Maybe she‟d always eat it that way from then on.
When she looked at the clock it was only five-thirty and this
frightened her because the day was almost over. What would she do in her new
apartment with all the time? There were television shows, magazines,
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 196
newspapers, books, a throbbing view outside, a walk, perhaps if she could get
herself down in that tiny box of an elevator that had taken on all sorts of
complications in her mind. The idea of just opening the door and being outside
seemed much more important to her than it ever had before. So much so that she
hurried to her back door and opened it wide. All the neighbors around her had
their lights on and she liked that—they wouldn‟t be able to see her if she turned
off her kitchen light, which she did. Then she walked out on the back stoop,
missing the feel of a hound dog‟s velvet ears. Charlie‟s dog was always there at
your side the moment you reached your hand out. When the church bells chimed
six times she went back inside, flipped the light switch, and shut her door. It
certainly got dark early in December, which she used to enjoy when her kitchen
was lit up and cozy and smelling of dinner. She picked up the nearest thing, a
tablecloth folded neatly on top of the other kitchen linens, and wrapped it around
her shoulders. She‟d gotten a terrible chill without realizing it.
She reached for the address book that was a Christmas present from
Jackie the year before. It opened almost automatically to C for Charlie. There in
Jackie‟s big heavy black writing was Charlie‟s phone number in Florida. She
punched it in. Then she remembered the speed dial gadget and she pushed for
the dial tone again and looked for Charlie‟s name, which wasn‟t there. Daddy was
though, so she pushed that. She held the receiver up to her ear so tight it
positively hurt. He answered on the eleventh ring, and she was counting, full
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 197
certain she'd let it ring right off the hook before she‟d hang up without hearing
“Charlie?” Oh, the sound of his hello sent her heart racing.
“I was in a deep sleep, Patsy,” he complained. “What do you want?”
“I want you to come home,” she said. “Your plants are dying.” That wasn‟t
exactly true, there was still a whole windowsill of African violets by the sink, and
Charlie‟s dwarf lime tree, four feet tall in the upstairs hall. Ian was going to take
it, he said they had a sunny window for it and his mother was real good with
plants. Patsy was hoping to take the violets, herself. The rest of the plants had
“Well, did you give them some water? They have to stay evenly moist.”
“I can‟t be running from room to room with a water jug, Charlie.” She
couldn‟t tell him Jackie had taken the pots outside one by one the week before
and dumped them at the very back of the yard. They‟d be dead now, surely
there‟d been a frost. Her hand began to cramp so she switched the receiver to the
other ear and shifted in her seat, one of Charlie‟s pressed back oak chairs. “Why
did I wake you up? Are you sick?”
“No, couldn‟t be better. Went fishing at 5 a.m. I like to take a nap before
It sounded nice. Patsy used to love going fishing with Charlie. “There‟s ivy
growing in under the door here, Charlie.” That wasn‟t true either, but she had
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 198
nearly tripped on the stuff helping Jackie carry the empty pots to the shed by the
driveway. Besides, she knew how he liked to keep the place neat.
“Well, I doubt that matters much now. I hear we sold the place.” The
softness in his voice made her feel for a second that he was right across the table
from her and her creaky chest eased up just a bit. She thought for a moment she
could even smell the dough rising in her beaten biscuits even though she hadn‟t
mixed up a batch in over a year. That was one surefire way to make him happy.
Could a sweet scent linger that long?
She could hear him breathing heavy as he shuffled from one place to
another. “What‟s the matter,” she said. “Do you think it was a mistake?”
“No, what‟s done is done. It was the right thing. We‟ll adjust. I‟ve actually
met another young lady. You should find someone else, too.”
“What?” She was horrified.
He chuckled. Then he stopped talking and she heard papers rustling,
bedsprings groaning. She imagined his bedroom to be hotel-like, with functional
furnishings and no personality. It would smell of generic cleansers and
antiseptics. She turned a bit so she could look up Charlie‟s yellow pine stairs,
vacant, narrow, one quick high-stepping flight. The kitchen used to be her
favorite room; now it was plain bald and empty without anyone there to fill the
teapot for, to put out bread and butter for. She used to lovingly wash her cups
and saucers and place them in the pink rubber drainer to dry. She was the one
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 199
who always did those things, when she had other people living with her, a
husband, someone to tend.
“Old Teddy Roosevelt passed on the other night, Patsy.” His voice was so
full it seemed to take up all the space between them, inflating her heart and
lungs, pushing against the backsides of her eyeballs, making her pucker and
blink. She could hear his breath whistle a little as it left his throat. “I think the
Florida heat was just too much for him,” he concluded. “It‟s just too damned hot
here and small. No yard at all.” He loved that dog more than any single human
being he‟d ever known. Except her. Did she know that? Yes, because he‟d told
her more than once.
“That‟s terrible, Charlie. I was just missing him.” She spoke soft and low
like she was right next to him. She could almost feel her hand on his arm. She
knew more than anyone else how much that dog meant to him.
“I‟m just lost without him, Patsy.”
She sat up straighter, wanting to wake up from the longing and sadness
that made her feel so heavy. “Jackie has a good chance at a job with H&R Block,
the tax people.” Her voice reverberated through the empty house.
“Well, it‟s most certainly about time. I felt terrible about what happened
to her. She‟s a good smart woman who deserves a decent job.”
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 200
“And Gina‟s not having lunch with Jackie any more.” Patsy began to chip
away at a callus on her hand. She used to love discussing the news of the day
with Charlie, even the sad news. She ran her rough hand over her thigh, crushing
the fabric of her skirt. “So, I‟m trying to get our things packed up here because
Jackie‟s coming back tonight to move me to the Cooperman House.”
“It‟s for the best, Patsy.”
“Is there anything you want me to send you?”
“No, I don‟t think so.”
If you hadn‟t left Kentucky old Teddy‟d probably still be alive, she thought.
“I never got the chance to tell you how I felt, Charlie,” she said instead.
“We had a lifetime for that, Patsy.”
“All right. So tell me about this young woman. Is she pretty?”
He cleared his throat. “She‟s a bit fast.” Patsy heard him grin and pictured
him raising his eyebrows in delight the way he used to.
She swallowed hard. “Well, most young women these days seem fast to
me. I mean, we didn‟t go around sleeping with men who weren‟t our husbands.”
She nearly choked realizing what she had said and Charlie let out a bark of a
laugh. Patsy turned away from the sink and stove then, unable to quit seeing
Charlie there with his back to her. Her plaid apron with the apple-green trim
hung from a hook by the door, a limp twisted piece of cloth with no more shape
than an old rag. The narrow side window at the north of the house didn‟t get as
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 201
much light, so the sill only held one long viney plant that draped the floor with
heart-shaped leaves. They‟d forgotten about that one. It had been there so long
she supposed they never really saw it any more.
Charlie said he had to go, without agreeing to anything, and they hung up.
Then Patsy froze, her arm outstretched, her hand still on the receiver. A buck
with six points was right outside the north window pulling needles off a pine
bough with a hurried snap of his head. When he saw Patsy, he swiftly yanked
himself away. If only he knew she wasn‟t a hunter, maybe he‟d stay and feed
longer and she could watch the graceful turn of his head, his rich muscular chest
rise and fall with every breath, his eyes flitting back and around to the other
beasts, seen and unseen, the stars and the moon and the river down below.
“Come home to me, Charlie,” she said softly like a prayer, stretching her
legs out under the table of the empty kitchen and crumbling the dried-up leaf that
had fallen under the centerpiece. She thought that might be the last time she‟d
ever hear the sound of Charlie‟s voice.
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 202
Patsy seemed to wake up every fifteen minutes in her apartment. It wasn‟t
just the narrow light under the door. She wasn‟t used to the knowledge that
people were moving to and fro out there, strangers, all of them. She also didn‟t
like the idea that strangers and particularly that director, Mrs. Ridgeway, had a
key to her apartment, so she inserted the little brass nub into the chain lock even
though they told her not to, and she checked it twice before getting into bed. At
home, as old as she was, Patsy slept without anything on. She liked the feeling of
the sheets against her bare skin. In the nursing home she wore a flannel
nightgown from K-mart and all night long she was tugging at it trying to untwist
it and free herself.
What kept her up mainly was worrying about Charlie and that woman he
said was fast. That meant they‟d been sleeping together and Patsy could hardly
stand that idea. She still thought of Charlie as her husband; she wanted to think
of him that way for the rest of her life. The thought of him kissing someone else
was bad enough, as for the other—well, it just wasn‟t right. He didn‟t say how old
this girl was but men tended to go for the younger women, she knew. Charlie was
getting on there in years and he could die having sex. She‟d heard of that, and it
just made her shiver. The one phone call she never wanted to get was the one
that told her Charlie was dead. Dead. It was one of those words like thud, boom,
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 203
or crash. She hadn‟t known that many people who had died, just the ones who
counted—her mother, Royal, and with Charlie gone it was like he was dead.
Sometimes she‟d be sitting in her new apartment at Cooperman looking at
the walls: eggshell white and she just hated that. She needed to get Michael to
hang up some of her pictures. She‟d go to her tiny kitchen, her boxlike
windowless kitchen, another thing she couldn‟t stand about the place, and put the
kettle on to boil. Thank goodness for tea bags. Then she might do some
primping in her new pink bathroom; that fool director acted like having pink
walls in a bathroom was the end-all, be-all, for us women, she had said with a
conspiratorial wink. Patsy and Jackie had practically gagged together on the
One day Jackie said, “Your daughter Cindy called to see if she could visit
you here. I told her you were an independent adult woman and if you felt up to
company you‟d say so.” She stood in the doorway waiting for Patsy‟s response.
Patsy had the feeling Jackie wanted her to say, I don‟t want to see that
woman. Instead, she just said, “If I‟m not busy I‟d love for her to drop by.” She
knew that hurt Jackie and she didn‟t feel too bad about it. It was Jackie, after all,
who had yanked Charlie out of their home and sent him clear to Florida,
managed their divorce, and now this, her living by herself in a nursing home. She
would have never predicted it in all her years. Patsy lovingly took up the framed
photo of Betsy, Cindy and Jody she‟d gotten from Jody. It was outdated, but all
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 204
she had. She put it on her cherry side table. She had noticed the visiting nurse,
Holly, looking at the picture, and was surprised when she didn't ask who they
were. Patsy was all prepared with their names on the tip of her tongue; those are
my children. To look at them, they could have been anyone‟s children. Betsy
looked distant, Jody serious, and Cindy vulnerable, at least in this photo, which
was taken, Jody had said in his note, at Royal‟s wedding to a woman named
Edna. Royal had waited to marry, until the children were grown. Remembering
this, she pushed their photo back a little bit behind her favorite one of Jackie and
Mike. Sal was in it, too, but what are you going to do? She had learned not to
look at his big healthy Italian face.
She liked to think back to the first and only time she‟d entertained guests
there. Cindy‟s oldest daughter, Ashley, called and said she was going to be near
Cooperman for some kind of school event, the girl talked so fast, Patsy hadn‟t
been able to pinpoint exactly what it was, and she wondered if she could drop by
for a visit. Well, Patsy was taken completely off-guard to receive a phone call
from one so young and bold; she had said yes, that would be nice, then as soon as
the arrangements were made she had called Jackie all hysterical about it, and she
didn‟t calm down until Michael agreed to play host.
She was ready in her favorite dark green skirt and a lovely Navy cardigan
with brass buttons by 3 o‟clock that Friday and Ashley wasn‟t due until four. It
had been a good day so far, lunch with Eugene, the former F.B.I. agent, and Betty
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 205
Cladderstuck, a woman Patsy might have been friends with, except Betty
evidently had her sights set on Eugene and she was very obvious about it. Jackie
said she had her claws out. Mama, she‟s jealous of you. Jackie, why? You‟re a
threat, can‟t you see? You‟re much prettier than she is and Eugene likes you. Oh,
I think he likes her, too. Well, he might like her for certain reasons, but you‟re
the one he cares about. What reasons, Jackie? Jackie never answered that one.
Patsy studied Betty at lunch. She had a way about her, leaning close and laughing
gaily even when Eugene wasn‟t trying to be funny. You have to admire her,
Patsy‟s newest friend, Patricia, had said in passing after lunch. Oh? Patsy had
wanted to know. She makes the most of what she has, Patricia says. I mean look
at her, she‟s not a natural beauty like you, yet she always looks good—clean,
cared-for, well-dressed. Patsy wished she could say, really? You think I‟m a
natural beauty? But she knew that would be fishing.
Mike arrived first, his hair all slicked back like he was fresh from the
shower. “It‟s pouring out there, Grandma,” he said.
“Oh, Michael, let me get you a towel.”
“No, it‟s okay, I ran like hell. I think she‟s right behind me. Tall redhead?”
He raised one eyebrow and she could tell he liked the way the girl looked. Patsy
turned around to hide her pleasure and in that split second, Michael was talking
in a different voice, a deeper, more intimate voice and she realized from what he
was saying that Ashley had arrived.
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 206
“Hi, I‟m Ashley, thank you so much for letting me come by.” She offered
her soaking wet hand to Patsy. “Oh, I‟m sorry.” She wiped it on her leather
jacket, then giggled at the ineffectiveness of that and swiped it on her black jeans.
She had very long legs, Patsy noticed, and she was cute as a button.
Before long at all, Michael and Ashley were chattering up a storm and
Patsy was smiling and trying to keep up. Ashley was much more gregarious than
Cindy and didn‟t resemble her at all. She must take after her father. Patsy felt a
stab of regret that she‟d never met Cindy‟s husband. That she never knew when
Cindy was pregnant with this beautiful child. She was a lovely, pleasant girl, very
polite but also genuine, and extremely outspoken. She told Patsy their entire
family history up to the part about Cindy leaving them to take a job in West
“She left you?” Patsy had said.
“Yep. Just moved right out.”
“I‟m so sorry.” Was this the example she had set?
“Oh, she‟s left before, and at first we were upset, but then we started kind
of liking it. Dad doesn‟t care that much what we have for dinner, and he was
always willing to get take-out on his way home. We actually ate pretty well. My
sister Meg is getting a little strange, though. She started going to a Jewish
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 207
“Aren‟t all synagogues Jewish?” Patsy asked innocently. Meanwhile she
tried to recall if Cindy‟s husband was Jewish.
“Yeah, I guess they are. Anyway, that didn‟t last all that long because she
found out if she really wanted to be Jewish she had to convert and that meant
taking all these classes, and I don‟t know if Mom‟s told you anything, Meg isn‟t
that big on school. She gets mostly C‟s.”
“Oh, that‟s not so good.”
“No, I know, and it‟s not because she‟s stupid, she used to get A‟s, like me.”
“Was this after your mother went to West Virginia?”
“No, it started a long time ago, when she was in 7th grade, maybe, I don‟t
really remember. Anyway, so then she decided to be an Episcopalian, they were
pretty serious, too, talking about Jesus left and right and making her take
communion. So now she‟s a Quaker.”
“Wait, wait,” Michael interrupted. “Your mother has left before and now
she‟s in West Virginia? So your parents are separated?”
“I guess,” Ashley shrugged.
“My dad just got remarried.”
“Oh,” Ashley‟s face was sympathetic. “Is that going to be okay?”
It was his turn to shrug. “Who knows? She‟s nice enough. I‟ll be going
away to college next year, anyway. I‟m going to Arizona.”
“Wow,” Ashley‟s eyes widened. “That‟s so far.”
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 208
“The only place I got a track scholarship.”
“Congratulations. I‟m going to Berea.”
“Well, that‟s farther than Arizona in some ways. I mean Appalachia is a
“Oh, please,” she laughed and tapped him playfully on the arm. Then she
glanced at Patsy. “I‟m sorry, Dad says I‟m a motormouth.”
“No,” Patsy said. “It‟s very interesting. Mike, I didn‟t know you had made
up your mind about Arizona.” She used to be included on those kinds of
“I only just got the offer, Grandma, and when you apply early decision, you
have to accept.”
“Yeah, that‟s what I did, too,” Ashley agreed.
Patsy decided not to delve too far into that one. She was getting a tension
headache and that made her feel bad, simply because she wanted to enjoy this
visit. What was wrong with her that she had to get all anxious about a couple of
young people, her grandchildren. “Ashley,” she realized there was a long pause in
the conversation. “Why do you think your sister is trying so many different
“I don‟t know. I just think Meg‟s the kind of person who has to belong to
something. That‟s what Mom says anyway. So are you coming to my
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 209
“I would like to.”
“Amazing, I‟ll have three grandmothers there. Some people don‟t have
“Three?” Michael asked.
“Yeah, Grandmother Eleni, and Edna, she was married to my grandfather,
and you.” She got up and leaned over to give Patsy a kiss. Her hair smelled like
All of these people she‟d never met. Patsy was starting to have second
thoughts about it. But life is short, she reminded herself. “Ashley, will your Aunt
Betsy be there, and your Uncle Jody?” Her heart filled up at the prospect of
seeing them all together. She didn‟t know if she would even be able to talk to
them, still she felt she had to make the effort. If she could somehow make
amends to her children, even just a simple face-to-face apology, she could die a
“Well, I don‟t know. I heard he might be getting married. Did you know
that? And my cousin Scott is going to England to play soccer and he might go
visit his sister Kathleen who lives in Ankara—that‟s in Turkey. I‟m hoping to visit
her, too, sometime.”
“Oh, my goodness.” Patsy had a hard time catching her breath. She was
happy that her children‟s children knew about each other, yet all the news was
just so hard to take. Jody getting married? How many times was it now?
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 210
“Have you met Jody‟s fiancé?” Patsy asked, clasping her own hands tight
“No, but she has horses, I know that much.”
It was time for the children to leave and Patsy thanked Mike twice for
coming. He had brightened up a great deal since she saw him last, after Courtney
had broken up with him. It must be wonderful to shake it off so easily, Patsy
thought. “What do you want for Christmas, Grandma?” he asked on the way out.
Ashley was halfway down the hall, she said she‟d hold the elevator. He seemed to
really want an answer. Patsy had forgotten it was going to be Christmas soon,
though she didn‟t know how she could forget, the nursing home was decked with
plastic poinsettias from bow to stern as Charlie used to say.
“Do you know, Michael, I haven‟t given it a lot of thought.”
“Come on,” he prodded her. “There must be something.” She could see
him being particularly debonair for Ashley‟s benefit. Ashley had come partway
up the hall and was well within hearing distance.
“I think what I would like more than anything is to go home to Alexandria
one more time. That‟s where I was born,” she told Ashley.
“That‟s a fantastic idea,” Ashley said. “You should do it,” she told Michael.
“Well, I‟ll ask Mom. How far is that, Grandma? Can we do it in a day?”
He didn‟t wait for an answer. He kissed Patsy goodbye and caught up to Ashley.
Patsy stood in her doorway until the elevator doors closed then she went into her
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 211
apartment and straightened up. She organized the dishes neatly on the tray and
carried it to the kitchen. After washing and drying the dishes, she returned to the
living room with a damp cloth to swipe off the couch where Michael had scattered
cookie crumbs, and the glass table, where Ashley had splattered instant coffee.
Patsy knew she was being overly fastidious, certainly no one else was expected
that day or any other day that week. A lovely Hispanic girl named Theresa only
came once a week to change her bedding, run the vacuum and wipe the bathroom
down. Patsy liked her apartment to look neat and clean; an uncluttered, spotless
room calmed her just as a crowded, dim place made her uneasy. She thought of
Eugene going into Betty‟s apartment. She‟d never been in there. She hoped Betty
was a slob because Eugene was a neat nick.
She took three deep, reassuring breaths as Dr. Paulo had instructed, then
gazed appreciatively around the room. Patsy felt safer in her big house than she
ever would in this little apartment. She had stopped mentioning this to anyone
as it always provoked some inane comment: a house is only as important as the
person living there -- that from her next door neighbor. Material possessions can
be replaced. That from the infernal woman Paulo had sent to talk to her.
"Meddler," she snapped angrily at the air.
Sometimes she thought people had no more wisdom than that which could
be obtained from a factory-made fortune cookie.
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 212
"Your apartment is positively sterile," Michael had joked the first time he
saw it. "Where exactly do you keep the surgical supplies, Grandma?"
She could easily picture his room at Jackie's. Just a mattress on the floor -
- he preferred it that way. A deep red and blue Indian print bedspread, a braided
rug. Books piled up everywhere, toppling over. A guitar leaning up against a
massive stereo system. Blue jeans stacked up five-high on the window seat; they
were faded and stiff, as he insisted on drying them outside on a clothesline he had
strung between two trees. Michael was the one who helped her find Royal‟s
headstone at the cemetery in Locust Grove. She was afraid to ask Jackie and for
some reason she was unable to ask Cindy, who might have liked taking her there.
Cindy was a little too stuck in the past for someone so young and Patsy was afraid
of encouraging that.
She returned to the cemetery by herself the next week and wandered until
she found the polished surface where his beautiful name was engraved. She had
run her hand over and over that spot until the cemetery clerk brought her a piece
of paper and suggested she rub it with a fat brown crayon, like a temple rubbing.
She did it every time she went now, while the cab waited. There were piles of
rolled up rubbings under her bed like architectural renderings or important
maps. She was stuck in that time, like a record scraping, jerking, jumping
backwards again and again and again. There‟s no way to get back the past, to
undo mistakes like that, and who‟s to say it was a mistake? Only now, when
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 213
there‟s so little time left, does it seem like it might have been a mistake. She
could make amends, though, or at least she could try.
Patsy found herself standing in the middle of her living room holding a
single spoon and it was a moment before she remembered that she had been on
her way to the kitchen. She could get so engrossed in her thoughts, she had
grown used to her little phases as she referred to them. She didn't just drift off
into a blank state, as people seemed to think. She was really away somewhere.
Often when she came out of it, she would feel as if she had returned from a
distant place where she had been actively involved. There was a distinct feeling
of having wandered miles through foreign surroundings, maybe even different
time periods. When she had tried to describe it to Michael once he had said, "Let
me try some of those pills, Grandma."
The pills had to be readjusted significantly after Charlie left, as Patsy had
spent days in a total fog, an entire week when she didn't even get out of bed. She
doubted whether anyone else could have grieved as hard. There was no way she
could respond to any of her mail or phone calls and Jackie was just beside herself
with worry. Then one day Patsy got up and went out. She walked down to the
local market and bought fresh California strawberries, imagine, she thought,
fresh strawberries in November. She saw the bus station there, she‟d never
noticed it before, and she took a bus all the way down town to Thoroughbred
Park and watched the fountains while she ate the unwashed berries. Returning
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 214
home, it wasn't until she put the key in her lock that she realized an entire day
had gone by and she hadn't thought of Charlie. It was the first indication Patsy
had that her life would proceed, raising several levels above the dreary,
suffocating hollow of grief she had been stuck in. Only after that was she able to
think about sorting her things, packing up the bare essentials, and moving to
Patsy was all refreshed after the young couple visited. They were so
attractive, full of plans; how positively wonderful to be looking ahead to college.
Had Ashley said that Jody‟s Kathleen was living in Turkey? That seemed almost
preposterous; though she‟d gone to school up north, like her father. It must have
something to do with that; and the boy, what was his name? She couldn‟t recall
to save her life but he was going all the way to England to play soccer. That didn‟t
make a lot of sense, either. Maybe it was just as well she didn‟t have day-to-day
knowledge of their lives. It would be so hard to keep up with all their comings
and goings. Cindy had told her that Jody‟s youngest regularly flew to Chicago to
see her mother; she‟d been doing it since she was five! That hurt; it physically
hurt her to think of a little girl all by herself on an airplane.
Patsy went to her balcony window and watched the activity in the street
below. A cardinal flew by; a young man in a brown uniform was sweeping acorns
into a giant nest around an oak tree. Sometimes she wanted to just pull back the
screen, climb the rail, stretch out her arms and fall, just to see if it was true that
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 215
her body was heavy and it would sink. Wasn‟t it possible that she could be lifted
up by a gust of wind and carried away?
The day after Christmas, Jackie and Michael drove Patsy to Alexandria.
The roads were icy and traffic was heavy. Patsy hoped she wouldn‟t die in a
crash, and that Eugene wouldn‟t die while she was gone. “Did you talk to Charlie
last night, Jackie? I called, but he didn‟t answer. Gosh two of my neighbors
passed away on Christmas morning, can you imagine?”
“Mama, I swear, if you say one more thing about dying I‟m going to
scream! I talked to Daddy this morning and he‟s fine. Now, I want to enjoy this
trip. It cost me a small fortune,” she said under her breath.
Patsy had just been filling them in on news of the nursing home. She
gripped the backseat armrest as Jackie yanked the big sedan onto the Parkway,
she wanted to say, Jackie did you put your blinker on, did you even look, but she
kept her lips pressed together.
“It‟s true,” Mike added, “You‟re going to jinx us, Grandma.”
Patsy settled back, determined not to say another word. She listened as
Michael complained to his mother about how Courtney showed up at a party with
a dude from Dartmouth. Mike said he was an asshole and she was a bitch. Jackie
gave him an icy stare and told him to clean up his language. Michael put on
headphones, then and Patsy stared out the window.
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 216
The rental car was a swanky; Navy blue with the most beautiful midnight
blue leather upholstery. Patsy thought Jackie was being too extravagant,
something Charlie wouldn‟t have approved of; Jackie said it was the safest car
available. Patsy dozed most of the way to Alexandria, trusting them completely to
get her there safely, although the two of them had never been to her old
neighborhood as far as she knew. Certainly they‟d gone to Cincinnati but her
home town was across the river and in another time zone, or so she always felt.
She opened her eyes now and then and mostly let the wash of countryside lull
her. Jackie was pensive and Mike listened to some horrendous music on the
radio. Neither of them had dressed for the trip, and that bothered her. She‟d had
her hair colored and fluffed, she bought new coral lipstick, wore her funeral
dress, still lovely after fifteen years, since she didn‟t wear it all that often. It was a
classic shirtwaist of black dotted Swiss with a white collar and she bought new
slick silk-like hose to wear with her good black pumps. “It‟s amazing you can still
wear that dress,” Jackie had said with admiration when they picked Patsy up that
morning. It was already feeling like a long day; she might not ever feel caught up.
She leaned a little forward and tried to see around the headrest. “Is this
what jet-lag feels like, you think, Michael?”
“Grandma, we‟ve only been gone an hour.” He switched radio stations
again. “This is a kick-ass sound system.”
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 217
Jackie and Mike looked clean-cut and modern in blue jeans and dress
shirts. Jackie‟s hair was the same coppery brown Charlie‟s used to be, but what
color were her eyes? Did she bite her nails? Patsy couldn‟t remember. Jackie
was slim, and spoke in careful precise words, not all rushed together like really
young girls, like that Courtney who broke Mike‟s heart. A spoiled child born to it
all, natural beauty, wealth and connections; Mike didn‟t have a chance.
Patsy decided she was thankful to be on this trip; it could be her last, and it
would give her the opportunity to say goodbye to Royal and her beginnings. She
hadn‟t been able to attend Royal‟s funeral and it worried her still. Cindy said it
had been nice, but they couldn‟t get a police escort the way his wife had wanted
and though they draped the coffin in an American flag the gun salute was cut
short. Jackie said she‟d read in a self-help book that some people come together
just to produce children, and nothing else. Maybe that‟s how it was for Prince
Charles and Princess Diana. Di was another girl who never had a chance, but
what a wedding. Jackie had it on video tape; the funeral, too. She and Jacks
thought it was a good thing the boys got Diana‟s looks. Patsy felt gray and hung
over like the sky before her. The sun hadn‟t made an appearance yet, and the
world outside was shaded like a memory. Jackie and Mike switched places about
halfway to there and he drove at a steady speed. Patsy decided right then to enjoy
the flash of pavement that brought her closer and closer to home. She could do
that, change her own mood by sheer will. Determination was everything. There
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 218
were no quiet hills that side of Jacksonville and she missed seeing fields of cows
looking like they were standing on end. It was rather flat, but open, and that gave
her an expansive feeling.
She tried to keep her mind on the scenery so she would not think
about the world without Charlie and Royal, or whether Eugene was squiring
around that Betty Cladderstuck from Louisville. She was a looker but a bit of a
snob, Patsy thought. She rolled down her window all the way and rested her
elbow on the cool metal of the car. The cellophane on the boxwood wreath beside
her in the back seat crackled in the breeze as she thought of an old song Charlie
used to sing, or was it Royal?
Once I went in swimming
Where there were no women
And no one could see
Bare as Pharaoh's daughter
As we hit the water
Charlie never slept in anything; he didn‟t even own any pajamas as far as
she knew. She wondered what would happen if she suddenly burst into song.
Would Jackie smile and sing with her or would she get that look on her face,
patience lightly glazed with fear? Patsy wanted to see her smile. How were her
teeth? Should they have insisted on braces? Was her smile bright and friendly or
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 219
tentative and secretive? A hawk flew low in front of them and Mike slammed on
the brakes. Jackie was a hard egg to crack, she didn't even turn her head. Time,
Patsy had only so much time. Since she learned of Royal‟s death, she‟d practically
been counting the days to the end. She was used to charting time but she had
never in her life cared so much for every single moment. Scenes on the landscape
stacked up in her memory like still lifes. Cows trooping along the edge of the
woods single file. A church sign that posed the question: HEAVEN OR HELL?
“I wonder if Lorraine‟s Restaurant still exists,” she said aloud.
“I don‟t know,” Mike finally answered after glancing at his silent mother
“She‟d be a hundred if she‟s a day, but I do recall her grandmother being
about that age and still tying on an apron at dawn to fry scrapple and bacon and
“What the hell is scrapple, Grandma?”
Jackie slapped him on the arm. “Quit cussing all the time. It really
“Well, it‟s right good,” Patsy answered. “Let‟s see, scrap meat mixed with
corn meal I think. Fries up real crisp unless you cut it thick the way some folks
“Sounds kinda gross to me.”
“It is,” Jackie said.
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 220
As they approached the river, clotheslines took the place of fence lines. An
electric bug zapper dangled over a deserted patio. When Jackie leaned back and
stretched her arms out, her red nailed hands flashed against the windshield. "I
called Sal in Honolulu last night," she said. "Told him about you and Daddy. He
sends his sympathies. He says he thought you all would be together for the
“Honolulu? Good grief. How can Sal afford a honeymoon like that?”
"Uh-huh," was all she said.
Patsy felt close to nothing about Jackie‟s ex marrying a Vietnamese girl, or
was that just a big old barge moving in and blocking everything in sight? Patsy
concentrated on landmarks, trying to remember the turn-off to the cemetery.
“Your father could eat as much ham biscuits and red eye gravy as Lorraine could
make up in a day,” she said. Then her face just burned. It was Royal who ate at
Lorraine‟s, not Charlie.
Jackie‟s profile was harsh as her words. "Sal wanted to know how much I
got from the house sale. Can you imagine? As if he‟d be seeing any of it.”
"Oh, Jackie, he was just thinking about you all," Patsy said. It was the
Cardinal Motel, that was it. Turn right, follow the road by Old Clear Lake, turn
left at Switzer's Gas and Go.
"No, I don‟t really think so. He said, are we going to be rich? Sal tries to
make a joke out of everything. He's so undependable. First he chooses his
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 221
mother over me, his own wife, then he won‟t let me have a divorce for six years,
and now he‟s married some young chicky. What do you bet she‟ll get pregnant?”
“Mom,” Mike protested. “Anyway, she‟s not so bad,” he said under his
She slapped him on the arm again. “What do you care, you‟re going away
to college next year.”
“Well, what do you care, you kicked him out years ago.”
Patsy closed her eyes and eased her head back against the rental car
headrest. She could get used to that leather interior and the smoothness. She
wondered what kind of car Eugene used to drive, probably one of those LTDs.
None of them drove at the home. Or at least none of the ones she knew. They
were almost there. Then she remembered, she needed to respond to Jackie.
Listen to what she says, that's the ticket. She thought for a minute, got it all
together, then she leaned forward and put her old hand on the top of the front
seat. She looked at it, admired it, it was a pretty hand, soft, the nails a natural
pink color, white at the tips. Jackie called it a French manicure. "Jackie, dear,
could that have been Sal's way of holding on?" she offered. "Signed, sealed,
delivered, it would be too final. I'm sure he cared a great deal." Her Royal
wouldn‟t give her a divorce for nearly twenty years. Could that have been his way
of holding on? She hadn‟t thought of it before.
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 222
“You mean about the divorce? He just wanted to have complete control.
He didn‟t want some lawyer to decide how much I should get in child support.
Forget alimony, I wasn‟t even looking for that. Now he‟s got that young slut
standing in line for a piece of his paycheck.”
“Mom, come on,” Mike said.
"It‟s true, Jackie. You talk about his language. Do you ever listen to
There was a long moment of silence on the inside of the car. When had
Mike turned off the radio? “I‟m not sure why I invited you on this trip, Patsy.”
Jackie spoke without turning around. She made a big show of repositioning
herself so she was sitting forward with her neck stiff, head straight. After awhile
she said, “Yeah, he cared all right, cared enough to make me miserable. Acting as
if I'm trying to cheat him out of his full share. Full share of what, I ask you? I
couldn‟t believe it when he ordered an independent appraisal.”
Jackie still smarted from having to sell their house. Why now she had an
even better house, Patsy thought. She must have amassed a nice nest egg, too,
but she was always smart about her financial dealings; smart about a lot else, too.
“Well,” Patsy offered. “And now you own your house free and clear so why can‟t
you just try and be happy?” She couldn‟t believe she had said that. It was one the
most unfair things she‟d ever shot at Jackie, who had more burdens than most.
“I‟m sorry, Jacks. I guess I‟m a little tense about this.” Patsy cleared her throat
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 223
and stole a glance at Jackie. “Money does funny things to folks. Lord, you should
have seen the way these young folks bickered in the lounge the other night. Their
poor father hadn‟t even been moved out of his apartment yet and they all over
Jackie didn‟t respond to that. “The point is, even if there is some money,
Sal wouldn‟t be getting any of it so why does he think it‟s any of his business?”
“Because I‟m his son? Is that a good enough reason for you?” Mike almost
didn‟t stop at a red light. Patsy‟s knees banged against the back of Jackie‟s seat.
Mount Olivet cemetery was on the other side of town, along a country
road. A massive stone church faced the road and behind it was the cemetery,
shady, still very green for that time of year. Leaves held on, mums bloomed along
the stonewall. Patsy was so excited about seeing her mother‟s grave she could
hardly wait to get there. A pretty young woman was pushing her children in one
of those double strollers and she stopped and waved at them. That was sweet.
Patsy had lived in the scattered city and suburbs for so long she‟d forgotten how
truly genuinely kind and mannerly the people in a small town could be.
“I love this cemetery,” Jackie murmured. “I want to be buried here, too,
do you hear that Michael?”
“Do we have to talk about that?” Mike moaned.
Patsy got out slowly and stared at the TAYLOR plot where each plain
headstone was guarded by a small white marble lamb. She had no idea who the
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 224
Taylors were except they‟d always been next to her grandmother‟s family plot.
The large granite BLACKSEA stone was visible from the corner of her eye and
Jackie went straight to it. Patsy approached a little more slowly; she stepped
among the gravesites gingerly. You never know about the dead, she thought,
what they see, what they hear. She had the willies, no doubt about it. She hadn‟t
been home to Alexandria in a very long time. To her knowledge her father had
never remarried. Could he be buried in her mother‟s family plot? There were no
McLaughlins in sight—even her mother‟s grave said simply DAUGHTER Augusta,
with the year of her birth, and the year of her death. It was a very long time ago
but Patsy could almost smell the climbing roses that covered her grandmother‟s
porch that time of year. Her mother had died in June.
“I'm waiting for you to notice,” Jackie nudged her. “My little surprise, what
I had done?” She pointed to it. A matching plaque in the plot beside her
mother‟s, inscribed with her name and birth date, two dashes and a blank space.
Patsy just stared and stared. “Why Jackie,” she finally said. “I am
Jackie laughed out loud. “Lorraine's ham biscuits and red-eye gravy,
right?” Her eyes were gray, too pale, too colorless to be Charlie‟s green. Jackie
turned on her heel sending her hair into a carefree twirl over her shoulders and
headed for the gate.
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 225
The day Jackie‟s Sal got married she had come over to the nursing home
and spent the night. They made popcorn and watched an old movie, Bye Bye
Birdie. Jackie said it cheered her up so when terrible things happened in the
world like terrorist bombings. She didn‟t have to say it but Patsy knew Jackie was
very upset to be cast from Sal‟s family now that he was remarried. Patsy started
talking about how she met Royal, and how they‟d go to a little restaurant run by a
woman named Lorraine. Royal was famous for his ability to gulp down ham
biscuits and red-eye gravy.
Michael appeared with the wreath they‟d brought. He tore off the
cellophane, crammed it in his pocket, then set the wreath on the ground next to
her mother‟s gravestone. She kept her eyes glued to the toes of her shoes all the
Jackie was leaning up against the side of the car. She snared Patsy‟s eyes
with hers as she tried to sidle by. “I'm sorry, did that upset you, what I had done?
It‟s just that I suppose it could happen at any time, and I didn‟t want you to worry
about making arrangements.”
Patsy gave Jackie a hard look. “Your father used to complain that women
always have to say whatever‟s on their goddamned minds.” Patsy hardly ever
cursed but it did feel good.
“Way to go Grandma!” Mike laughed at that one.
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 226
“Here Mama,” Jackie opened the car door and helped Patsy into the back
seat. “There‟s plenty of room if you want to lie down. I can hear you breathing,
you‟re worn out. I should never have let you walk around out here. Michael, why
didn‟t we bring any water?” She shook the empty cups in the car‟s holders.
They‟d stopped for coffee on the way out of Lexington. “Wait here with Michael, I
won‟t be long.” She hurried off like a policewoman on a case, all purpose and
“Where are you going?” he called out with alarm.
“To get some water.”
Mike sat beside Patsy but he didn‟t say anything and that was good
because she was too tired to talk. She put her head back and stretched out her
long legs. It was warm with the light flooding her, soothing her. It reminded her
of old friends and sitting around sipping martinis and talking about things.
“Grandma, Grandma?” A young man was peering into her face and Patsy
opened her eyes and blinked. Behind him, leaning over his shoulder, was that
pretty girl...that pretty girl, who was she again?
“Mama,” the girl said. “Are you all right?”
I‟m fine, she thought as she leaned on the young man. “Do I know you?”
she asked him. Her words were thick.
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 227
“I‟m Michael, Grandma.” The young man's voice had a familiar ring.
Patsy thought for a minute, then she said, “Jackie. She was sweet.” After
awhile she spoke, with her eyes closed, it was just too hard to open those lids. It
smelled of rain, cold, winter dampness. “It always surprises me to go home. In
some ways the place is exactly the same. I even expect little Jackie to come
crashing around the corner the way she used to. I miss everybody so much, even
after all these years. Did I ever tell you about that?”
Patsy woke up to a room full of people, Hope, the night nurse, Cindy, Betsy
and Jody, she‟d know them anywhere, and her beloved Jackie. “Oh, Jackie,” she
said tearfully. “What happened?”
“You had a minor heart attack, Mama. We think you‟re going to be fine,
we‟re going to transfer you to the hospital.”
“No, Jackie, please, not the hospital, please?”
“Well, I don‟t know.” Jackie looked at Hope and Hope looked at her
watch. “Dr. Paulo‟s supposed to be here like twenty minutes ago. He‟s the one
Cindy brushed the air above her shoulder tentatively. “Hi, Patsy, look who
I brought to see you.”
“Good Lord, am I dreaming?”
“No, Patsy.” Betsy leaned down and kissed her cheek. She smelled
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 228
heavenly, like lilies of the valley. Her hair had grown out some and she looked
prettier than the last time. She was wearing a long purple skirt; it almost looked
like suede, and a black leotard type top. She had a lovely figure.
“And,” Cindy said, presenting Jody with a flourish of her hand.
“Hi, Patsy.” He leaned down and kissed her cheek. He looked very
powerful, like a businessman.
Patsy was crying and couldn‟t help it. “My little Jody who I love so much.”
She grasped his shoulder in its rich textured suit jacket and cried and cried.
“It‟s all right.”
After awhile she stopped sniffling and looked around the room in wonder.
She had a thought that was crystal clear. “I want to ask you children something.
Cindy come here dear, come over here and sit by me. I want to ask you
something and it might seem so odd since I am not a religious person. You know
that about me, don‟t you?”
“Well, now we do,” Betsy said wryly.
“There is a part of the Lord‟s Prayer that I feel is very apropos.”
“Which part is that?” Hope chose that moment to take her pulse. Why do
they always have to do that? Isn‟t it obvious she‟s conscious if she‟s sitting up and
talking, praying out loud for godsake?
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 229
“I‟m not sure. I need to say the whole thing. I don‟t know if I can. Can
we?” She tried to lean away from Hope.
“Of course,” Hope answered for all of them, as she tightened her claim on
Patsy‟s voice rang in her ears, the loudest. “Our Father, who art in Heaven,
hallowed be thy name, thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in
Heaven. And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against
us. That‟s it. That‟s the part.”
“I think you left some of it out, Mrs. Cambrelly,” Hope said.
“That‟s fine because I got the part I was talking about. And forgive us our
trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. It‟s beautiful, it says it all,
do you agree, Cindy?”
“Yes, Patsy.” Cindy was holding Betsy‟s hand. They were women; middle-
aged women. It was a shock.
“Mrs. Cambrelly,” Hope said. “You didn‟t push your necklace button.”
Hope looked at the others. “All of our clients have a Save Your Life necklace.
They just have to push the button and it calls the front desk. But you didn‟t push
the button, Mrs. Cambrelly. If your daughter hadn‟t asked us to check on you, no
telling what state you‟d be in now.”
“Well, thank you,” Patsy said. “Oh, Jackie, I‟m sorry.”
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 230
“And you aren‟t supposed to have these chains engaged,” Hope went on.
“Didn‟t they explain that to you when you moved in? I‟ve told them a hundred
times we should just pull those from the wall.” Hope was jotting something down
while she complained. The others were looking at Patsy.
“It‟s all right, Mama.” Jackie sat down on her bed and held her hand. She
was crying so it must be bad. Jackie didn‟t tend to shed many tears. Patsy closed
her eyes. They were there, all four of them.
“Where‟s Mike, honey,” Patsy asked without opening her eyes.
“He‟s on his way. He was at a party at someone‟s country club but we had
him paged. Lucky for him he was where he said he‟d be.”
It wasn‟t long after that Mike showed up and Jackie introduced him
around and he kissed Patsy on her cheek. She opened her eyes for a moment and
told him to be a good boy. She thought she saw tears in his eyes, too. Mike asked
about Ashley, and offered to go pick up both of Cindy‟s girls. Cindy said if they
were coming then surely Jody‟s kids should come, as well.
Then Patsy knew it was really bad, but it was okay, she had known it was
coming and it was already better than she imagined. Her children were here,
every one of them, and soon her grandchildren would be here. When Dr. Paulo
arrived, Hope shooed everyone out and Patsy pushed against his prodding hands
and cried and even scratched Hope, though she hadn‟t meant to do that. “I want
my family back in here,” she said in a big voice. Then Paulo and Hope stepped
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 231
away from her bed and the room filled up with people. They stayed for quite
awhile, it seemed, and the lively sound of their terribly familiar voices lulled her
into the most peaceful state. They were a beautiful sight. She could feel her face
streaming with tears.
“Hey,” Jody said, “Do you all remember the time Dad found condoms in
my pocket and he blew a gasket?”
“Oh my God!” That was Cindy‟s voice. “He was going ballistic and you
said but Dad, at least they aren‟t used.”
“What‟s that supposed to mean?” Mike‟s voice now.
“Exactly. It stopped him dead in his tracks. He didn‟t know what to say to
“You rat fink,” Betsy kidded him. “You were always getting off easy. What
was that cleaning lady‟s name, the one who would leave religious pamphlets on
“Right. She said you had the morals of a dog.” That really got them
“Once Dad found pot in his closet and Jody told him it was oregano and
Dad said, okay,” Cindy told them.
“That‟s preposterous,” Jackie said. “Why would you have oregano in your
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 232
“You wouldn‟t, that‟s why it‟s so ridiculous.” They all burst out laughing.
Betsy sat on the edge of Patsy‟s bed and stroked her forehead. Patsy‟s eyes
fluttered open. That‟s my oldest daughter, she thought proudly. “How about the
time Mother got out of the moving car and walked down the alley and Daddy
slammed on the brakes and shouted, Patsy, Patsy, until she turned around from
halfway gone, waved like a lady on a float, and said, „Hi.‟”
Patsy remembered that moment with brutal clarity. She had been so
ashamed of loving Charlie, that the diamond ring from Royal burned on her
finger. She had to get it off, she had to get away. Then he was shouting after her,
bellowing her name so she gave him a backwards wave hoping that anyone
around would think she was greeting a friend. That was her leaving her family,
for she had gone right home and packed her suitcase.
“Good Lord,” Jackie said.
“Then,” Betsy continued. “He made us get out of the car and search the
gutter and someone‟s lawn because she threw her diamond ring out the window.”
“My goodness,” Hope interjected. “Did you find it?”
“Betsy did,” Cindy piped up. “Daddy gave her ten dollars which was a lot
“And you stole it,” Betsy accused her.
“I did not,” Cindy objected.
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 233
“I stole it,” Jody admitted. Then there was a ruckus and Betsy was diving
at Jody trying to grab his wallet and Cindy was shrieking and Jackie was smiling.
“Somebody should write this down,” Hope said. “The story of your lives.”
It was the most wonderful feeling dozing with them there, her children. It
was a fine memory.
Patsy was buried the following Sunday. Jackie led the way in her Suburu,
sometimes losing the hearse on the way to Alexandria. They all had their
headlights on—Jody and his children and his fiancé, Julia, Michael and Ashley in
Charlie‟s Crown Victoria; Cindy, Betsy, Rob and Meg , who had driven in the day
before and were making last minute arrangements at Lorraine‟s for a reception.
They breezed into the cemetery in Rob‟s convertible about a half hour later and
they all stood around. For once, Jackie hadn‟t thought of everything. No one had
prepared anything to say.
“How about the Lord‟s Prayer?” Cindy suggested.
“Do we all know it?”
“I know it,” Meg told them. So she led it in her sweet clear voice. Then
Mike went to his car and got his guitar and played what he told them was one of
Patsy‟s favorite songs. Something called, “My Baby Just Cares for Me.”
Rob cleared his throat then and said, “Patsy was obviously a beautiful
woman, not just from pictures I‟ve seen but from the children and grandchildren
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 234
she left behind.” He swept his hand out to include them all. Cindy leaned against
him and he put his arm around her.
There was a long silence then until Kathleen rustled a bag behind her and
pulled out a large bouquet of purple irises. “I don‟t know if she liked these or not,
but it was all I could find in this town.” She put the bouquet on top of the casket.
Then Jody reached into his pocket, pulled out his wallet, and sorted through until
he found what looked like a scrap of paper.
"I guess I have something to read," he said, unfolding an ancient piece of
notebook paper. He began in a too-quiet voice, and the group got smaller as
people closed in to hear. "Observe constantly that all things take place by change,
and accustom thyself to consider that the nature of the Universe loves nothing so
much as to change things which are and to make new things like them. For
everything that exists is in a manner the seed of that which will be. It's from The
Meditations of Marcus Aurelius."
Kathleen put her head on her father's shoulder and whispered, "That was
Mother's, wasn't it?" Jody nodded as he folded the page carefully and replaced it
in his wallet.
They all looked at Jackie then as she was the unofficial person in charge.
She couldn‟t speak through her tears so she finally shrugged and put her bouquet
of pink roses next to the irises. Mike went to Jackie‟s side. “How about some
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 235
more stories?” he suggested. “Grandma loved a good laugh.” They all looked
relieved. Gravesite ceremonies were supposed to last longer than a few minutes.
“She used to fix my hair in a curly ponytail or lollypop braids,” Cindy
offered. “It doesn‟t sound like much but it‟s a good memory.”
Jody stepped forward. “This is more about Dad, I guess, but remember
how the neighbors called me Jody Goddammit because Dad was always yelling?”
Cindy and Betsy nodded. “Well, I think she used to call me my little Jody who I
love so much.”
“I forgot about that,” Betsy said. “But you were definitely the favorite.
Once we roared up the driveway, and Daddy jumped out, thrust a baby bottle at
her and said, „Quick, fill this with water.‟ „Is it for Jody?‟ she asked. “„No, it‟s for
the Ford,‟ Daddy yelled as he lifted the hood.”
“That was a great car,” Jody said.
“We used to go visit this place,” Cindy said. “I mean, Patsy would take us,
I‟ll always remember it. A brick mansion with two chimneys and a semi-circular
drive in front. Once there was this little girl in shorts running this way and that
over the greenest grass waving her arms at a black and white lop-eared rabbit.”
“That was me,” Jackie spoke for the first time. “That was our apartment
“You had a rabbit?” Mike asked.
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 236
“You named your rabbit, Dokie?”
“Hey, I was four.”
Mike laughed. “She told me once her mother would have cried to know
she married Grandpa.” They all looked alarmed. "I mean my grandfather--
“Why?” Jody asked.
“Because he liked racehorses and played cards.” Everyone looked
somewhere else, at their feet in the green, green grass, at the blooming cherry
trees at the edge of the cemetery.
Ashley sat up. “I thought it was cute the way she‟d say, „Goody-goody
“I liked her voice, it was very rich and mellow,” Meg added.
Jody seemed to notice Kathleen, Carly and Scott didn‟t have anything to
say and he went over to stand with them. He waited for Julia to join him in the
little cluster, then he cleared his throat. “It‟s too bad about the way it all
happened—in some ways.” He glanced at Jackie. “But she was a good mother to
you and a good grandmother to you.” He nodded to Michael. “She had a fairly
long life and we were all there at the end. I don‟t know.” He shrugged. “I don‟t
know where I was going with this.” He stared down at his empty hands until
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 237
Julia claimed one. Their fingers knotted up neatly. With Carly, Kathleen and
Scott nearby with their arms around each other, and they looked like a family.
It was quiet for awhile and they started to rustle about, standing up,
shifting from one foot to the other. “Anything else?” Rob asked.
Jackie was rearranging the flowers on the casket. “She used to say your
father saved my father‟s life. Well, she saved my life, I‟m sure of it. She had this
incredible strength to be pleasant when the worst things happened.” Jackie‟s
voice broke at the end.
Michael put his arm around her. “There‟s this game she used to play with
me when I was—well I don‟t know how old I was, but I remember I‟d be standing
at her knee and she‟d take my hand.” He took Jackie‟s hand and opened her
fingers and touched each one as he said, “Johnny, Johnny, Johnny, Johnny,”
then he slid down the slide between her index finger and thumb and said,
“whoops Johnny,” going back the other way, “Whoops, Johnny” and tracing the
fingers: “Johnny, Johnny, Johnny, Johnny.”
They all did it then and they knew it was silly but it felt right, like a prayer.
Everybody gathered themselves up and started for their cars. The funeral home
people were waiting politely way off in the distance. It was a beautiful cemetery.
The day, in fact, was fragrant and sunny. Cindy started walking with Rob and she
put her arm around his waist. “What do you think about giving the keys to Ashley
and walking with me back to Lorraine‟s?”
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 238
Cindy and Rob waved them off, Meg and Ashley in Rob‟s convertible, Mike
and Jackie in the Suburu, Jody and his kids in their Ford LTD. Mike left Charlie‟s
car there at the curb. They‟d pick it up later. Cindy and Rob strolled through the
cemetery reading the names, trying to decipher the soapstone markers. They
were the most beautiful but so weather-worn they were often difficult to read.
“Look at this one,” Cindy said. “Cindy Laura Jameson. God it‟s so close to my
name it‟s a little spooky.”
“What else does it say?” Rob asked as he leaned close and tried to make it
out. “Robbed and drowned,” they both said aloud. “Good Lord,” Rob exclaimed,
“Not only was she robbed, but she was drowned?”
“Why would they put that on her gravestone?” Cindy asked. She stared at
it again, reading it over and over. The old-fashioned writing was intricate, full of
loops and curlicues, faded and obscured by time. Finally it made sense, and she
laughed. “Oh, robed and crowned.”
“Oh, my God,” Rob guffawed as he hugged her.
They left the cemetery and walked down the side of the road. Cindy
thought for a single second, I never did ask her. And she brushed it aside. She
would forget it, all of it. What did it matter anymore? She was reunited with
Betsy, they had said goodbye to their mother and now they would just go on from
there being who they were, who they had become.
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 239
One solitary car passed them before they reached Lorraine‟s parking lot. It
was filling up. There was a sign on the door that was there when they arrived that
morning: Lorraine presents a special buffet honoring Thelma "Patsy" McLaughlin
Jameson Cambrelly, granddaughter of Louise Blacksea.
“I think that is so sweet,” Cindy said, relieved to see they'd included the
name Jameson. “Wait „til you see Lorraine. She‟s a hundred if she‟s a day.”
“Yep. Wow, what a place. I wonder what would have happened if Patsy
had never left this town.”
“She wouldn‟t have married your father and you wouldn‟t be born.” Rob
waited with her at the entrance.
Cindy shook off her melancholy mood. “I think I‟m actually going to try
some of that red-eye gravy even if it does look disgusting.”
“Oh, that‟s a must, that and the scrapple and the black-eyed peas. I hear
they bring you good luck.” Rob held the door for her and they went inside. “The
peas, that is.”
Jody, Betsy and some ancient-looking men and women were toasting each
other with glasses of bourbon. “I guess they don‟t have blue laws here,” Rob said
as he accepted the glass of amber liquid Jody held out for him.
“Not at Lorraine‟s, at any rate. This is her private stock. Look what she
dug up.” Jody held an old newspaper out for Cindy. She took it and sat down at
the next table. It was a picture of a beautiful brown-haired girl in a cap and gown
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 240
with an armful of long-stemmed roses and a cascade of climbing roses behind
“Is this her?” she said more to herself. The caption said Valedictorian
Receives Scholarship to Transylvania.
“That‟s Patsy, all right,” Lorraine said over her shoulder. “She was a smart
one. I always knew she‟d go places and she did. Now put that aside and try some
of this.” She put a full plate in front of Cindy. “You young people are too skinny.”
Cindy picked up her fork, the food smelled so good she was suddenly
ravenous. She ate almost feverishly, as if she was trying to fill herself up for a
long dry spell.
Betsy came and sat beside her. “Well, now all of our parents really are
“Yes.” She looked at Betsy, warily. That was an odd way of putting it. She
hoped there wasn‟t going to be any pronouncement.
“It‟s just that for years, since she left, in fact, I‟ve been pretending she was
dead. So now she really is dead, just when I was beginning to like her, and I feel
gypped, like I fell off the assembly line,” Betsy said. She picked up a biscuit off
Cindy‟s plate and began to nibble it, then she ate the rest, which was more than
half, in one big bite. “Good God these are good.”
“What are you going to do now?” Cindy asked.
Betsy raised her eyebrows. “Get my own plate, I guess.”
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 241
“No, I mean now, in the larger sense.”
“I‟ll drive back with you guys, then I‟ll rest up a bit and return to them thar
“You‟re going back to your cabin in the woods?”
“Well, yes, that‟s my home.”
“And Jody‟s going back to marry Julia.”
“I expect. A summer wedding will be nice. I‟m glad he didn‟t tell Patsy.
She would have been so sad about missing it.”
“And I‟ll help Jackie sort through what‟s left and we‟ll all just go on, won‟t
“I think that‟s what we‟re supposed to do.”
“Will we see each other again?”
“You‟re my damned sister, aren‟t you? The only one I have in the whole
world.” Betsy pressed her teary face against Cindy‟s.
Meg began a rap at the next table. “My dad Rob he‟s a slob, chews the
cob—hey, what‟s a fob?”
“Something for your watch,” an elderly man told her.
“Oh, thanks. Did you know my grandmother?”
“Patsy? Oh, yes. I was in her class at Alexandria. I had a serious crush on
her, too, but she was determined to go to Transy and I had plans for a military
career. Now is your name Cambrelly? Is that Italian?”
Pfoutz: Singing Descant at the Red River Gorge 242
“No,” Meg said. “It‟s kind of complicated.”
“Oh, you can say that again,” the man agreed.
“Hal Brown, are you bothering these nice folks?” Another old man came
from the buffet table carrying a plate loaded down with ham and biscuits and
fried chicken and green beans.
“This is Patsy‟s granddaughter,” the first man said.
“Oh, my. She was sweet.”
“You knew her too?” Meg asked.
“This is a small town now, dear, it was even smaller, then.”