Juno Books

An Excerpt From Apricot Brandy

By Lynn Cesar

[ Information on Apricot Brandy ]


At long last, on a cold golden October afternoon, Karen Fox came home. The tires of her pickup crackled down the long gravel drive, around the bend, and there it stood: the big old two-story house, her childhood world.

A broody brutish old house, Karen thought, with its thick-pillared porch, deep eaves, and gabled windows that resembled hooded eyes. Crouched like a gate-keeping troll, it dared her to enter the orchard beyond it, dared her to open its door and step into the first sixteen years of her life.

Karen killed the engine and propelled herself out of the cab. She faced the house which she could enter for the first time in nineteen years, but it was no use. After all her furious rush to get here, on freeways, highways, county roads, speeding from sun-up to high noon, it all came to this. She could not climb those porch steps, could not open and walk through that heavy black door.

It stunned her, the power this house still had over her. She felt like her face had been slapped and the breath punched out of her, to stand so helpless against her fear and grief. Dazed, she looked around her and saw the plum trees in their ranks.

She would look at the orchard. It was hers now and she could at least do that. Turning away from the house, Karen walked past the packing sheds and up along the first of the picking lanes. She went up to where a rank of oaks screened the orchard from the county highway.

Here it was, the vantage she had liked as a kid. You could see acres of plum trees descending in gentle undulations. When she was ten or so she would perch here and gloat over the green wealth of her universe, the braided leaves, all gemmed with purple fruit.

She drew a half pint from the back pocket of her jeans and took a pull. As she drank, her forearm showed the etched muscle fifteen years of swinging a framing hammer had put there; her posture showed strong shoulders in her loose Pendleton and breasts large for her leanness. The sun, just declining, picked out the first wisps of gray in her loosely ponytailed blond hair.

She licked whiskey from her lips and addressed the trees. "This is a goddamned shabby turn-out, men! Look at you! Like a bunch of savages! Degenerates!"

After Mom's death, three years ago, Dad had not pruned nor picked them. The trees were spiderish in the gold light, crooked and hairy with untrimmed shoots and suckers, the lanes between them full of weeds and fruit-rot and clouds of flies. The scent of the decay touched her nostrils and, somehow, it filled her with memories of fear. Would she never understand Dad's crime against her? Would she never be free?

Groping for a gesture of defiance, she thought of a game she and Susan liked to play. They would sit around drinking wine and talking to one another like characters in a romance novel. Draining her half-pint with a flourish, she flung it out into the orchard.

"Now, at long last," she declaimed to the trees, "the comely Karinna Foxxe was the mistress of all she surveyed! She stood alone on the crag, a bit long in the tooth, perhaps, but with her willowy limbs and her swelling bodice, still a striking figure of Womanhood. But as Karinna gazed upon her new domain, ample though it was, she felt there was something lacking, something hauntingly absent from her grand estate! For where, oh where, was He? He who had so benevolently ruled this Fairy Kingdom of delight? Where, oh where, was Dear Dead Dad?"

Shouting this, her voice broke and she wiped away unexpected tears. "How she and Dad had haunted these verdant acres together, these nooks and bowers! But now, though she harkens, Karinna hears no sound of Him!" More tears came, so hot and sudden. "Oh, my plummy troops! Oh, my poor bedraggled army! Dear Dead Dad, your general, is no more! It seems he blew his fucking head off!"

It hit Karen then for the first time: though she had shunned Dad for twenty years, she had all along hoped to hear his voice just one more time. To hear him grieve for what he had done.

The breeze shifted, wrapping her Pendleton around her like a shroud. She looked skywards and saw a magnificent red-tail hawk,Aeia female by her great size,Aeicrucified against the flawless blue. Karen's mind was lifted to the raptor's viewpoint and she remembered what a wide green world surrounded her, all the hills and groves and silver streams of Gravenstein County. Outside this place, outside these acres which still held her heart staked to the earth, there was a another world. One filled with peace and joy. There was a whole life to be lived, if she could just be free.

Back along the oaks she walked. There was the house and Karen tried to imagine she had been able to go inside it after all, imagine she was in there right now, in Mom's kitchen, maybe, where all the warmth her childhood held could still be found. Looking out the windows into the back yard, where Dad's private fruit trees stood, the ones for his brandy. But no, not till she knew through her own eyes that Dad was truly and unarguably dead.

So back she drove through hours of sun-washed terrain, seeing again the bright red barns and white-railed fences she'd passed coming out. Bales of hay studded just-mown fields, each bale casting the same parallelogram of shadow. Green slopes were dappled with harlequin herds of black and white cows.

But when night came and the towns became sparse islands of light in the long darkness, she stopped for another bottle of bourbon and drove drinking it. Pretty soon she felt simplified enough by the booze that she could pull off to a thinly-neoned country motel, crawl into a bed, set the TV screen flickering with murky shapes to keep her company in the dark, and deeply, simply sleep.


Karen woke late, got a six-pack for the road and fired up the truck with a brew between her thighs. She came into the metropolis' web of freeways just when they were starting to clog with afternoon traffic. The mortuary lay deep in the old downtown. She had picked Chapel Grove from the Yellow Pages three years ago, when Mom died. Had told Dad's old army buddy, Dr. Harst, who'd called with the news, that Dad could send Mom's body here, that she did not choose to come any closer than here to Gravenstein County, or to Dad himself.

Three nights ago, when Dr. Harst, weeping this time, called and told her of Jack Fox's suicide, she'd given him the same directions.

The mortuary was an extensive one-story structure, in dirty pink stucco with a pseudo-Spanish fa/ssade. The last direct sun had slipped off the building and was retreating across the parking lot. Freeways on their colossal pillars surrounded it on all sides, their rivers of traffic snoring and rattling through orange smog that was just beginning to be tinted with violet. Karen thought of Dad's so-different world, the one he'd never seemed to want to leave, save for a tour in Viet Nam, and later, in Central America,thought of the orchard with its cool, creaky country silence, its long corridors of shadow . . . .

Old Dad was a plucked root now for sure, warehoused amid monoxide and endless traffic. He was stacked like cargo in this downtown depot, "You're boxed and docked, old man. We say this one goodbye and I ship you to the flames."

But, at first, it was like yesterday all over again. She couldn't step forward, couldn't approach the mortuary's pompous fa/ssade, her legs cold and sluggish. And, Karen didn't really have to go through with any of this. She could tell that bitch on the phone just to burn him and send her the paperwork. Then head back to Frisco. From there, she'd sell Dad's house and all the ground it stood on.

Yeah. Back to San Francisco. Back there, things were really swell. Tongue 'n' Groove Carpentry limped along on what sub-work Karen could scrape from a few old friends. More often than not, Karen's partner Susan was paying all the rent. And meanwhile Susan had to go on living with Karen Fox as she was, right here and now, and as she had been all her adult life: a drinking, brooding grief-maker.

There was no other way, she had to face Dad, to tear her heart free of him.

Walking towards the entry, Karen tensed in anticipation of the opposition awaiting her. This business of viewing Dad, dead by his own shotgun, had been hard-won and had taken a good deal of almost-shouting on the phone two nights ago.

False columns ennobled the walls of the wide reception chamber, where a thick carpet of doeskin hue obsequiously received her feet. A beautiful black woman sat at the gleaming barge of the reception desk. It had been an older white lady three years ago when Karen had come here to see Mom. This woman was helmeted with lacquered hair and had sloping, bird-bright eyes.

"How may I help you?" That lilt, the help almost 'elp. This was the musical voice, Haitian or something, Karen had encountered when she called.

"I'm Karen Fox." With a lift of her eyebrows, she referenced that telephone chat. There was a pause between them, the woman's slightly dreamy smile seeming to recall that conversation fondly.

Karen had said, "I'll have to see the body, of course, and then I want it cremated right away."

"Miss Fox," this woman had said solemnly. "It's not a good idea to view the deceased. His condition is very severe."

"Miss. You think I'm just gonna take the word of strangers that he's really dead?"

"Miss Fox, we can assure you. You can be absolutely sure. Absolutely."

"Miss, you're not listening. The body is released to me. And what I'm telling you to do, is to arrange for me to have a last look at him and then burn him, in that order."

"Of course we wish to follow your instructions, Miss Fox, but this is a very unhappy thing you are choosing. . . ."

It had gone on from there, back and forth. All of that echoed for the two of them now as they took each other in. The woman's hands lay gracefully crossed on the desk blotter. Such polished, pointed fingers she had. Something in the way those hands lay crossed told Karen that the woman was still not willing to concede. "Ms. Fox, will you please permit me to say something to you? Your father's death is absolutely real. Again, absolutely. But when you do this, regarding his terribly damaged body, you make it more real than it ought to be. You are endangering . . . your peace of mind."

Karen had to laugh at that. Her peace of mind . . . "I'm very sorry. I know you're trying to be kind. Please, just tell me the room."

Though smiling again, the woman did not look like a particularly kind person when she answered. "You go left down that farthest corridor and turn right where it ends. It's room 311." Her eyes had an ironic glint: a fool had been warned and had chosen as expected. "And if you would just sign this release for the cremation, please?"

"Gladly. As soon as I've seen him, you can burn him. I don't want the ashes."

Karen passed the entryways of tasteful parlors and viewing rooms, but at the far hallway, all glamour sharply ceased. A many-doored white corridor stretched to either hand, its garish floral carpet short-napped and much-trudged. She turned left. This was a sizeable building. Someone whispered behind her. She turned. The hall was empty. She walked on. In the land of the dead, of course things whispered. A dark man in a long white lab-coat emerged from around the corner ahead and walked serenely towards her, the open coat delicately flaring as he came. He was Latino, his sculpted Mexican hair veined with grey. Had an elegant black suit under the lab-coat. He paused by a flight of stairs that led down to a lower floor and let her come up to him.

"Are you Ms. Fox? I'm John Rubalcava." He had a hard smooth hand like oiled walnut, a calm face carved of the same material. "You are going to view your father?" A quaver of hesitation on view.

Karen looked at him for a beat, trying to convey non-aggression. "I have to say goodbye to him. Think of it that way."

"You have to know that he is dead." Offering her own words back to her, spoken to the Haitian on the phone.

"I have to see, Mr. Rubalcava."

"I respect your courage, Ms. Fox. But you know, all the looking in the world doesn't change death. It remains what it is, stare as you will. You must excuse me. I'm so very sorry for your loss."

"Thank you."

Rubalcava's step got strangely lively as he descended the stairs, which led down to a remotely clangorous region. Things faintly slammed, stainless steel clashed and a sneaky chemical whiff came up from that stairwell. He spun gracefully round the turning and his coat flared almost festively. The wings of it had reddish-brownish smudges here and there.

The transecting hallway down which she turned was even more behind-the-scenes, more frankly funky. The walls bore waist-level skidmarks from gurneys and the loud floral carpet was balding in spots. That muted clangor she'd heard from belowstairs was audible up here as well and the smell was stronger too, that haunting, industrial-strength perfume.

Another door: 311. She stood in front of the door like she was staring it down. She muttered, with all the sarcasm she could muster, "Karinna Foxxe had come at last to that last doorway, beyond which lay the last remains of that dark, unknowable man, who had for so long. . . "

Oh, just fucking do it.


The first shock was the different carpet; again floral blobs were the pattern, but these screaming-loud in cobalt, marigold and scarlet. The floor's ugliness filled the whole bare cube of a room. Its only contents,Aeithe gurney along the far wall and the plastic-sheeted oblong shape it held,Aeiseemed to float upon the Hell of color. For an instant she thought it impossible to take these last few steps, but then found herself crossing over to him with the weightless, unwilling compliance of a commanded child.

Here he was.

The body was tightly scrolled up in the kind of tough white plastic she'd seen on construction sites. Its cocoon, like the wrapping of a bouquet, was flared open at one end to display Dad's neck and head, and at this flared end, the plastic was smudged and spattered a muddy red.

Still the commanded child, she leaned over him. Take a good look at me, Karen. Look at the last thing I have to show you.

The dome of his head had been blown out and his brow shattered. That he had been shortened was how it kept hitting her, a hideous joke had been played on him, taking four inches off his height. How he'd towered, when she was small! Now his eyes were wider-spaced by the fissured brow and the left eye seemed to strain upward, disbelieving, at this ragged crown of bone he ended in. His jaw gaped, the hinge blown. Most of his upper teeth had left him along with his brain.

Leaning there, breathing his aura of refrigerated decay, Karen could not help but pity this obscene vandalism to a man once so handsome.

Dad. It's me. Karen.

She had foreseen pain in this moment, but she hadn't foreseen that its cruelest edge would be love. The first years, when he had been Daddy, when she had been weightless and safe in the crook of his arm, had sat in his lap for stories,Aeihow he seemed to love to read to her!,Aeihis chest her trusted backrest and a favored bed if she should drowse. Somewhere down in its root, her heart still held these things, was partly made of them. As she discovered this, the cruelty of what he'd later done to her stunned her, seared her as if it were brand new and her first blood not dry from it, while at the same time, she yearned like a little girl for the loving father she had lost.

Resting both hands lightly on the gurney's side-rail, she leaned down to kiss his cheek. If she ever hoped to find that earlier undamaged part of her, she had to say goodbye to all of him.

Cold putty took her kiss, stubble nibbling her lips like frost crystals, chilled putrescence filling her nose. She straightened slowly, eyes still searching him, searching herself for the seam where this man's life left off and her own life, whole and inviolable, could at last begin.

Her left wrist felt the clamp of an ice-cold hand, a crushing grip and freezing to the bone.

Explosively she wrenched free and spun around. There was no one else in the room. All her nerves were firing in a cascade that drained out the bottoms of her feet and into the floor, while the floor itself was plunging, plunging into the earth. She stood in the same room, but suddenly it was deep, deep underground, unreachable from the world overhead

Dad lay there, mummied by the plastic, limbless, yet surely it had been his hand upon her wrist, just the way she had felt it in her youth, when he dragged her down to the fruit cellar, deep in the earth then, as she was now, in this deep hell of color and corruption.

She backed away from the gurney, taking slow steps, to show she still defied him, did not flee him. She tried to face him down as she withdrew. She closed the door behind her and leaned against it, rubbing her wrist to erase that grip it still remembered. Karen stood in perfect silence, all subterranean sounds were gone.

It seemed impossible to tread the swollen blossoms of the corridor's carpet, but she had to walk out of this nightmare. She lurched and staggered, till her legs came back to her. What festering wound had been revealed in herself? For the first time in her life, she had hallucinated. What had been torn in her brain, to bleed madness into her thoughts? Dad was finally gone, but was it only to leave her forever damaged by the booze he'd cursed her with?

No one appeared in the corridors, the Haitian's gleaming desk stood empty. She stepped out into the last light of the day and was glad, the hugeness of the city around her a balm. Glad to be above-ground, as if the city might erase that room from her mind, the growl of traffic replacing its awful silence. Standing down there in that room, death's antechamber, confronting what she had confronted...after all, who would not have gone a little crazy?

"Karen Fox," she said with quiet determination, "is going to be all right." But please dear Jesus,Aeishe started, still unsteady, across the parking lot,Aeihow could that be her last vision? Dad in his spectacular death, printed on her mind's eye. His crime against her scorching her heart. If she did not find strength and defiance somewhere, she would come away even more broken, even more crippled.

The door of a white pick-up opened as she passed, one of those new oversized brutes, and out stepped a tall, lean man in a deputy's uniform. A clipboard and shades, even in the declining light. As he moved to intercept her, Karen had a qualm of premonition.

He confronted her and took off his shades. "Hello, Karen."

"Marty Carver." A gulf of years had just been bridged. Marty's hair and his tufty eyebrows, like two vertical brush-strokes, were dulled to ginger from the red they'd been in high school. The plump mouth, still smug, was set in a chin a bit squarer now, somewhat pouchier underneath.

"Are you on an official mission, Marty?" Karen noticed that his armpatch said Gravenstein County Sheriff. He would have stayed in their hometown and he would be a cop. "You're a long way from home here."

"I've got some errands of my own, but I'm here for you too. This is kind of a personal gesture, Karen. I called to find out when you'd be here. You didn't show yesterday, so I stayed over. I wanted to let you know personally about the Medical Examiner's Report."

"You mean the autopsy findings?"

"That's right. It's a sad thing of course, but I thought you'd be reassured to know that there was no foul play. Definitely a suicide. GSRs on his right hand."

"And those are?"

"Gunshot residues." He showed her some stapled sheets on his clipboard.

She noticed the signature. "Dr. Harst filled this out?"

"He's been our County M.E. for fifteen years now."

"Of course. He called me about Mom, before." Army buddy Harst, weeping on the phone three nights ago, had been a comrade-in-arms whose life Jack Fox had saved in combat. Marty was also Dad's old friend, though a generation younger. As a teenager, Marty had, in some wordless way, idolized Dad. Dad's tour in Viet Nam, and afterwards in Central America, seemed to have something to do with it. Marty had done a lot of hired work in the orchard throughout his and Karen's high-school years, though at school he'd never pursued any personal acquaintance with her. But near the end of their senior year he'd begun making a big deal to Mom about wanting to take Karen to the prom. Poor Mom knew that no one else had asked her daughter, that her daughter was set on not going at all. In the end Karen accepted for Mom's sake. She brought a flat of bourbon in her purse and got rowdy on the dance-floor. When Marty managed to get her out to the parking lot, she smashed the windshield of his car with her bottle.

"Well, thank you, Marty. It was very thoughtful of you. But you know, there was never a doubt in my mind that he killed himself."

This made something flare in his eyes and Karen realized she'd meant it to. Did he guess her accusation of his hero? Had Marty maybe, even as a kid, sensed her father's crime?

"You know," he said, "I wonder, Karen. After your Mom died, I made it a point to call and check in on your Dad every couple weeks. Did you ever call him once that whole three years? I didn't get the feeling that you ever did. I got the feeling you were just too busy with your lesbo friends out in San Francisco to give a damn."

Karen smiled. For a couple years after leaving for the coast forever right after high school, Karen had now and then come back to visit Mom. Always at some diner in the county seat, Gravenstein, twenty miles from the orchard, but still within Mom's driving range at her timid, invariable thirty-five miles an hour. Karen had brought an early lover on one visit. Both had more than a few drinks in them. Marty was there with some scared, docile girl. Karen had taken her lover to his table and introduced her at length.

"Hey, Marty. You just don't get it. I haven't called, I haven't talked to my old man for twenty years. Do you understand what I'm saying?" She had laid the ugly truth right there, just one question away from good old Marty, if he dared to ask it: Why not?

Real anger now in his yellow-brown eyes. But he didn't dare. Put his shades back on. "Your life, your choice."

"My life, my orchard." She was furious now, enraged he'd backed away, hadn't let her spit it out, and she grabbed the handiest thing, remembering how Marty had always loved the orchard. "You know, I think I'm gonna have some fun with that orchard. I think I might just burn it down tree by tree."

He didn't even nod. She'd got to him though, she could tell by the way he almost slammed his truck door closing it.

As he drove off, and she stood there waving after him ironically, it hit her. If Dad, with half his face, were not to out-face her, and drive her down into fear and pain for the rest of her life, she had to go into the house after all. Had to go back home and face it all again, till she had faced that bastard down and, once and for all, thrust him and his crime down into the earth, and finally set her spirit to mending.

After meeting Karen, Marty killed some time in the city till Dr. Harst should arrive. A uniform meant something whatever jurisdiction you were in, and he drove like it. Smooth, peremptory, decisively claiming his space.

He liked the city's decayed old core. Lots of heavily-grilled mom-and-pops, run by ragheads and slopes. He liked immigrants--they kept their heads down and worked. They were usually easy arrests, too, and too poor for anything but Public Defenders, so they kept his production level high at the Gravenstein County Correctional Facility.

Why did winos like to camp behind dumpsters so much? Because they knew they were trash, Marty guessed. He could've gotten a ninety-day bit for public disturbance out of every one of these people. The city had too much real crime and the police, no doubt, had a harder time beefing their budget out here than Marty did back in Gravenstein. People in rural county seats knew each other and how things ought to be run. They worked together.

Marty wished he'd worn his civvies when he passed the porn shops. He'd had a good piece of Helen this morning, after the boy left for school, but you could never get it just right with Helen. If you tied the ropes too tight she'd start to whine and nag and break the mood. He was forced just to accept with his wife the more fictional degree of bondage and make the best of it. When he returned to the mortuary, it was dark. Among the four or five vehicles left in the lot, Dr. Harst's old dirty, battered, olive-drab station wagon had arrived. The doctor's big baggy profile was visible behind the wheel. His head was slightly cocked, as if he were watching something very distant.

The old man had gotten distinctly dreamy, since Jack Fox shed his mantle with a Last Supper of double-ought. Harst and Jack Fox went way back, to those jungles in Nam and Central America. My God, wouldn't that have been something! Marty honored them both for it, honored them still, but this was no time for dreaming. He and Harst had an appointment, a life-and-death matter.

"Hi, Doctor. How was your drive down?" Looking down through the window at him, watching, behind the thick glasses, those pouchy old eyes, yellowish like tarnished cue-balls, coming back from far away....

"Hello, Marty. The drive was fine." Such a bleak little smile, saying that. The old man looked like a cartoon vulture; with his weak jaw, the puckers of his face flowed right down into those of his neck. A man who'd aged a lot more severely than his lifelong friend Jack Fox had done before his death. But Harst straightened and flashed a sharper smile. "It's time to join our friend."

They walked together toward the mortuary, Marty slowing his pace to match Harst's limp so that their advance was measured, almost ceremonial. This difference in their gaits made Marty realize what a crossroads this was for both of them. With Jack Fox in the earth now, the relationship between him and the doctor was going to change.

They pushed open the great front door and Marty slipped his shades back on: it felt right. Funereal. The wide carpeted spaces were deserted. Beside the reception desk, a gurney gleamed, supporting a bulky blackness--a thermal body bag. They stood in the silence beside this plastic sarcophagus till Dr. Harst said, roguishly, addressing the body bag, "We'll have to haul ass on this, won't we, Jack? Have to get you back while the frost is still on the pumpkin, so to speak?" And laughed. Marty resented the old man's impiety with this powerful corpse. Envied it too. Harst, so much closer to him, could get away with it.

It was strange to wheel Jack Fox out under the big-city night. Rolling him across the asphalt, the body bag seemed like Jack's spacesuit for crossing an alien wasteland, on his voyage to reach the dark earth and deep roots that were to be his new mansion.

"I've cleared the back of my wagon--" Dr. Harst began.

Marty's nostrils flared at the sight of that old wreck. "My truck bed's better, Doc--we can secure him better there." The doctor was so dreamy-clingy about Jack Fox's mortal remain...and might have thought so himself...for he acquiesced at once. They bungied Jack Fox snugly in Marty's truck bed.

All the way back out to Gravenstein County, Dr. Harst's eyes clung to the only love of his long life, a cocoon in a truck bed that was dancing through traffic ahead of him. More than once those red-rimmed eyes leaked tears. Oh Jack. How long we have shared the same world! It was everything, for me.

The doctor's grief at the loss that lay wrapped in that bundle filled his heart. He was in mourning. But in another part of Dr. Harst's mind there was calculation and the ant-like first tickles of fear. Now that Jack had moved on, was the doctor's own term near?

But, as always, Harst forgot calculation and came back to his tears. Forty-five years of almost hopeless love. At least there had been their friendship, unfaltering friendship.

Dr. Harst had seen Marty's distaste for this old station wagon. He'd never know the reason the doctor still drove it. It was because Jack, with the power upon him, had taken him into the back of this old wagon--pulled off on a dark country road--and sodomized him there, for the last glorious time in Dr. Harst's life. Again, his tears flowed.

The motel room offered one towel, one micro-bar of soap, one plastic glass, one blanket, one dim TV that got three channels, and one picture on the wall above the TV--a trite sad-clown print, very dusty. Except for the tiny nook of the bathroom, this room was very near as bare and square as Dad's room this afternoon.

She hadn't chosen the motel with this penance in mind, but instead for the liquor store one block away. A brisk walk down a boulevard of sleepless traffic, a brisk walk back, the crisp fracture of a half-pint's seal as you twisted its head off...nd then solace.

Karen lay and sipped and watched the news with the sound off, the blow-dries making their pretty faces--how long now? Soon it would be too late to call Susan. She had to call Susan, but sipped again from her spiked Seven-Up and put it off. From time to time she glanced up at the clown print. When it hung too long at the periphery of her vision, the vague smeared face hinted at a more dreadful one. And as she watched, her fingertips traced her wrist. She should not be drinking. Not ever again. Because her wrist which had been gripped...was sore now to her touch. Her wrist which she must have gripped. Her wrist which she had gripped...though she so clearly remembered both her hands resting on the chrome rail of the gurney when that cold clench had had melted every nerve in her body.

Except, of course, an alcoholic "clearly remembering" was an oxymoron. She should not be drinking. Not ever again.

The thing was, there was still tomorrow, and the orchard, and the house to go into, and what she had faced in the mortuary had settled nothing, had laid no ghosts. The thought of going into that house was as frightening as it had ever been, going in and staying there. And she had to stay there without drinking, facing everything and beating it cold, if she was to free herself at last and forever. So she should flush this bourbon and start not drinking here and now.

But she took another pull of bourbon and wryly thought that perhaps the real reason for her drinking was, if she ever got totally sober, she would finally realize she could never quit drinking...

Must call Susan or drive herself crazy. She dialed. It was picked up so quickly, Susan must also be in bed, snatching the receiver from the nightstand, "Karen?"

"Yeah, hon, it's me. Calling from the land of the dead and the dead-tired." Trying to take the edge off things, sound amused about her mission.

"You saw him, huh?"

"I saw him. He--" a giggle rose up in her "--he's a lot shorter than I remembered him."

She could hear Susan trying to join her laughter, but not really succeeding. Susan would be waiting to get past the bravado and closer to her lover's pain. It irritated Karen. She didn't want Susan to get closer to her pain.

So she added, abruptly, "I know I mentioned it before and said I wasn't going to, but I think I do have to go back to the place, deal with it face to face. A couple days, maybe, is all I'll need...but I have to. I'm sorry."

"Hon," Susan began, striking a note that gently urged they get to the heart of their feelings. This was a flashpoint between them. How angry Karen had let it make her in their earlier days. But Karen had learned since then how wrong an angry answer was. "You've got to forgive me, Karen. I've got to say this. Will you let me?"

"Sure. It's nice just hearing your voice."

"You shouldn't do this alone! Move back in there alone! You don't need to. Please let me be there with you and help you through it. You were defenseless when you lived it; now you have an ally."

Karen imagined it: she and Susan bedding down together in the dark of that house, Susan's lovemaking voice singing out in the silence of those rooms, those halls.

"Sue, if I can't do this alone, it's not facing him. Not by our rules. And he'll never leave me then. He'll just keep eating me hollow. But maybe, after just a little while, maybe things will look different...." Thinking to herself that maybe even this was too much to be yielding and with half her heart whining Yes! Be with me. I can't go in there alone!

"Your rules? His and yours?"

"Don't ask me to make sense, Sue. It's just that to face it I have to relive it and I lived it alone. Mom just refused to know."

"...You'll call me tomorrow when you get there?"

"Tomorrow afternoon, yes. Tomorrow afternoon or tomorrow night." She might not be up to talking to Sue right away. She was damned sure going to arrive there in broad daylight, though.

And she did. It was in the blaze of noon that her tires sizzled up the gravel drive again. And, amazingly to her, she was bone-sober. She took her foot from the gas and let the truck coast to a stop, confronting the house once more. Sitting bemused, Karen was amazed by what she had just accomplished. Waking before sunrise, she'd jumped out of bed, peed, washed, and changed, flung her things in the duffel, the duffel into the truck and roared onto the freeway.

It was whoosh all the way. An off-ramp down to a liquor store just ahead? Whoosh. It sank behind in a blur. Pure onrush had kept her panic bottled. (You can't go there sober! You can't go in there with your mind naked!) But now here she was, sober in fact.

What had she done? Had she lost her mind?

Momentum. It was her only hope. She flung her door open and surged from the truck. Jumped up those steps (worn round-edged by the years) up into the Stonehenge shadow of the massive porch roof, her key already out. She stabbed it into the lock like a dagger, shouldered open the heavy-boned door, and plunged into the dimness where armchairs, armoires, tables, door-frames, crowded her eyes with their ancient, intimate anatomies, sending through her a ghostly rout of childhood days and nights.

All urgency vanished. She stood there accepting what had dawned on her yesterday: that she had already been living here all along, had never lived anywhere else. All the fear and pain and ancient sweetness that breathed from every door and wall and chair around her now, had been the air she breathed every day of her life.

Moving slowly, she began to engage the place. Downstairs first. She pulled back the curtains, opened all the blinds and windows. Checked the closets, meeting in the hall closet a twelve-gauge shotgun propped in one corner, not surprised that Dad would have more than one, as the police must have the one he'd used on himself.

The kitchen, its sunny utility porch... These were Mom's domain and brought Karen warmer memories. Her big stainless steel sink was on the porch in her canning nook with its worktable and shelves of jars that breathed out an aura of luscious jams and jellies. And here by the pantry door was her chopping table, its whole top a heavy cutting board which whispered a breath of tomatoes and onions and beef, precursors of Mom's stew.

It was harder to go upstairs, to those bedrooms and closets. She did little more than look into Mom and Dad's bedroom and her own, but in Mom's sewing room she lingered. It echoed with all Mom's years of patient--maybe desperate--labor, as if she sometimes had to work down her fear of what might be happening to her daughter, stitch that fear down tight and fold it away. She had to have feared, at least...hether or not she'd successfully avoided knowing? All the silence Mom had suffered here. Pity filled Karen's eyes and she wiped them angrily with her knuckles.

She went back downstairs. The dining room, the living room, the hallways--all had become Dad's in the three years since Mom's death. There were even more hand-guns and rifles showcased on the walls than she remembered. There were other beefy hand-guns in unexpected drawers, like that of the telephone table and the silverware drawer of the dining-room breakfront. And booze of course, even more booze than before. Bottles of quality whiskeys and brandies occupied every sideboard and end-table, occupied the mantel over the big field-stone fireplace.

And here was the door, the one to the basement. Standing before it, Karen tried for some bravado and declaimed, "That dark-browed, masterful figure, that brooding, elemental man might now be gone forever from this earth, but Karinna Foxxe felt his presence still in the long, echosome halls and chambers of Foxxe Hall!" It fell flat. It didn't work without booze in her to bring it off.

She toughed it out and, though cold to the bone, she opened the basement door and stepped down, experiencing that same twinge she'd felt here so long ago as Dad shepherded her past this point: up there was Mom's kingdom, there in the kitchen with its warmth and good smells. Down here, where Karen had to go, was Dad's much darker world.

The basement was unchanged. When she was six, it had been a half-spooky playground, gloomy in the corners with spiders and racks of big weapon-like tools, but basically safe because there was Daddy at his bench, fixing things, making life work right for all three of them. When she turned fourteen it became a true dungeon, where Dad grotesquely punished and shamed her ignorant body with his own.

Still, one level deeper was a place that was worse than this: the fruit cellar. Its door was at the basement's far end. Why were the times he'd taken her down there the most frightening?

Do it and be through the worst.

She opened the door, switched on the one yellow bulb, then sank down the steep wooden steps into the deepest part of the house. The close air was honeyed with preserves. The shelves of dark jars breathed a complex sweetness just bordering on spoilage. These jars had walled her on either side when she was sprawled beneath Dad's weight and though it was Mom who had filled them, there was no help from Mom in those moments and her bright jars just blindly stared at Karen, reflecting her fear.

But there was something else about this place that had made it the worst place of all. Something about its being down at the level of the roots of the orchard. As Dad rooted in her, she felt them all around her, just outside the buried walls, those millions of greedy roots reaching toward her like sharp, hairy fingers...

Karen had come all the way home now.

Hello, again. It's me.

When she came outside the sun was already halfway down the sky. It shocked her. Well...ight was just going to have to be faced. While the light was good, she'd explore the orchard, for the orchard itself was one of the witnesses to her long-ago destruction. This army of trees in which the house stood, their roots reaching beneath the house. The bigness of their silence had always been a part of the house itself for her, a part of its scariness at night when she was small.

She got in the truck and set it to rolling slowly down the lanes. The weedy, draggled trees looked best in this slanting light--burnished, bursting with foliage and fruit. Their battalions rode the gentle, down-trending slopes of the land. The whole spread sank towards its southern boundary. She saw it now ahead, down there near one end of the huge plastic-cocooned compost heap: Dad's shed, his study and distillery in one.

Maybe she'd been wrong. Maybe there was a worse place than the fruit cellar, though Dad had never taken her there in his shed. Karen had rarely even been inside it.

For a while she rambled left and right down the harvesting lanes, dropping southward a lane at a time, glimpsing the shed now and then through breaks in the trees, until she found the nerve and the anger to take the next turn straight down to it.

A faded plywood shed with a raked tar-paper roof. A big old 'fifties Chevy pick-up crouched under a shelter built off its side. That gray brute of a truck... With a shudder--of fear, of course, but also fascination--Karen walked to the bangy old screen door. She pulled it open a few inches and let its spring pull it back to the jamb with a soft clap.

Way up there at the house on certain quiet summer afternoons, lying in the grassy yard where Dad's personal fruit trees grew, Karen could hear this screen door bang from almost half a mile away. Flopped on the grass with some comic books, Karen might be absorbed, only half hearing the far faint summery stir of the ocean of leaves around her. Mom was gone into Gravenstein for shopping and the girl, restlessly trying to get at the gist of one of those encyclopedic Superman thought-balloons, might be only remotely aware of the wide-scattered outbursts of birds or the wandering hum of a bee.

Then, far out across that sea of leaves, would come that remote tiny flap-clatter of this door. The minuscule distinctness of it, a micro-noise of wood clapping wood! This the child could hear as clear as thunder. Dad had gone down to the shed some hours ago. If he went down, he stayed drinking till dinnertime. Except some of those times when Mom was gone somewhere. Would she hear the microscopic truck next? Firing up to come up here?

...Yes, there it went. So faint to be so unmistakable! But already that young girl knew how quick its roar would grow as big as life, its tires come clawing to a stop at the yard's edge, Dad booming from the cab, "Karen, get over here to me! Double-time, girl!" And if she was not quick enough, he would grab her wrist and haul her up aboard...

Half-consciously Karen touched her wrist and found again last night's tenderness, though lessened, it seemed. If only that memory of being gripped were fading, were not still so stark, like madness, in her brain. Of course, it was only memory she had felt in that mortuary room--the memory of what had happened here.

Only? What was the difference between a delusion like that and the full-blown DTs? Oh please, please don't let my brain already be that crippled by alcohol. Oh that son of a bitch. That cruel black boar.

She yanked on the screen door and shouldered the inner door open.

She was surprised by how well she remembered this interior, though it had all been so much neater, those few times she'd glimpsed it as a child. Dad's desk-and-armchair corner, with all its miscellaneous freestanding shelves and files walling it in, was now snow-drifted with papers, magazines, and books in sagging stacks. The other half of the space was occupied by the still. The benches and sinks, the trellises of copper tubing, the domed copper cookers, the cooling fans stationed along the coils, the little bunged kegs of oak--all looked orderly as ever, but dust-heavy cobwebs extravagantly festooned them.

She took a few steps towards the desk. Crowded with so much else, there was still a place on it for the brandy cannon, its muzzle aimed at a forty-five degree angle at the cobwebby roof-joists. A cut-glass howitzer that fired booze.

She turned back and stood looking out through the screen door. Dad's view.

As a child, most of Karen's visits down here didn't bring her inside. She would trot down across the acres in the late afternoon, important and pleased with her errand, admiring the gold light on the swelling plums. She would knock at the screen door and call, "Daddy! Mom says dinner is in one hour exactly."

From inside, his preoccupied, cheery voice. "Okay, Punkin! I'll be up!"

What had happened in those years that came after? Those years when he would step out of this shed and go up to find his daughter? She shoved open the screen door, stepped out, and let it clap shut behind her. And stood there looking up towards the house. You could just see the tops of Dad's prized brandy-trees in the back yard, the peaches and apricots under which his daughter lay reading. Because Dad, after the door banged, always stood looking for a moment, didn't he? Because there was always that uncertain interval between the far, tiny door-noise and the miniature engine-growl that followed it.

Yes, she was sure he had stood here, eyes probing that green skyline for her, for that faraway long-ago girl. Stood staring here and thinking...hat? Could she ever know? Perhaps, if she could, it would kill her to know it. That brutal shit! He had murdered her heart here, buried it here so many years ago. Now all that she had was his sickness, but none of his reasons.

She snatched open the screen and slammed it wildly three times back against the shed wall, as if she could shatter it. Then she went back into the shed and flung herself down into Dad's big tattered leather armchair bought at some yard sale before Karen's birth. At first she thought she was going to root through his books and papers, search there for some fragments of his thoughts, but she found she had eyes only for the brandy cannon.

It was a long-spouted two-gallon jug of thick faceted glass, notched to rest on an axle between two wheels of carved wood. The neck of the spout was wreathed with an almost indecipherably fine-cut design, something with perhaps a dragon in it. It was filled only and always--filled now--with Dad's own hundred-proof apricot brandy.

Karen reached and plucked out the glass stopper. A gust of Dad's breath stung her eyes and nose, soft and stunning, a vaporous smack in the face. For an instant his huge weight crushed down on her again, smothered her smallness in that sweet stink of poisoned apricot.

"You really messed with me, didn't you, Cannon?" Her voice was breaking, hot tears were sliding down her cheeks. "You shot me full of holes." This was what she had come here to face. Right here. To hell with logic, resolutions. This was the demon she had come here to wrestle.

No less than three dusty glasses stood near. She plucked the least sticky one, polished it on the tail of her Pendleton. She pressed the cannon's muzzle down and poured it--a generous tumbler-sized glass--full of gold. And she took it down in a breath, in three long golden gulps.

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