Secret Keepers | Chapter one
The town had moved the Confederate Monument from the square to the gates of Springforth Cemetery some twenty years after the War of Northern Aggression, and General Robert E. Lee -- who stood atop the mossy marble with a scowl -- had never quite recovered. The general was listing, slowly sinking in the boggy soil, his finger pointing no longer at the ghostly Union brigade ahead, but just down and to the left, toward the new ldeal Laundry Factory, as if to demand extra starch. The stony glare of the good general was the last thing Emma Hanleys grandfather saw, as he sat at his mahogany desk in his office, pondering a lost factory -- foreclosure by some outfit up North was imminent -- and an astonishing sweep of bad investments. As he swallowed the muzzle of a Colt .45, William McCann peered at the general, who seemed to look back at him approvingly, a kinship that comes from being beaten down by Yankees.
William McCanns self-inflicted gunshot on that brilliant spring day in 1908 made a mess of things. But then, he never did have a head for business. In those days, a man was born with his fortune, and occasionally he increased it, but he never lost it. And McCann, whod never quite cottoned to the textile industry, had managed to lose everything, as his widow, Josephine, quickly discovered. The tree-lined estate in town went first, the familys seasonal residences next -- the seaside place in Charleston, the summer bungalow in the Blue Ridge mountains -- everything inside them, auctioned off, crated and shipped down to the pickle forks and finger bowls, how could they?
They could, they did. The wealthy in Palmetto had little sympathy for downfall brought about by a gentlemans folly. Travel lust, for example. Seduced by the lure of far-flung jungles, perilous crags and shimmering deserts, McCann had, for some time, been obsessed by exotic botanicals. He fancied himself a plant hunter -- ignoring his failing business, and leaving behind his wife, Josephine, for months at a time, appeasing her with promises of civilized travel fit for a woman upon his return.
A pity, many in the town noted, that shortly before her husbands unfortunate firearm accident -- for that is what the family thereafter referred to it as, an accident, a man simply cleaning his gun -- Josephine McCann had already sent a steamer trunk to Paris, in preparation for a season with her daughter, Angeline, on the Continent. That voyage was cancelled, the trunk recalled. Without means, the McCann women found themselves stuck in Palmetto, South Carolina.
The financial snarl untangled, the fortune unspooled, and the McCann womens property shrank to a dot on the map, to a single address: Amaranth -- a staid Victorian at the edge of town, built on a whim a decade previously, on land McCann had purchased purely for its rich, well-drained soil, fierce fecundity, and eastern light.
At Amaranth, the widow Josephine insisted decorum remain. Linen napkins, yellowed as old teeth, were used at all meals, as well as a few remaining pieces of silverware, the handles heavy as guns. In time, daughter Angeline -- who had not been a debutante, having lost that privilege along with other trappings -- settled for a young soldier as a husband, a doughboy. The poor soul lost his mind on the battlefields of France and never found it again. Angeline moved from her brief newlywed venture back into Amaranth with her mother. Six months later, Emma arrived, born into a household of women pining for escape, who continued to insist they were trapped in a decidedly lower station in life, a station from which there was no leaving the town, at least not in any sort of civilized fashion.
But that was going to change, finally. For on this unseasonably warm April morning nearly eight decades after her grandfathers firearm mishap, Emma Hanley, seventy-two, found herself just days away from embarking on a journey of a lifetime. The Trip, as her husband Harold referred to it -- often while rolling his eyes -- a cruise to Europe.
That was the year spring rushed through the town, barely stopping. By April, a morning stroll produced clammy sweat at the nape of ones neck -- a sure sign of an impending brutal summer. But this harbinger of a merciless season did not overly concern the people of Palmetto, as it would have years before, back when a cruel season made airless lint-filled mills suffocating, left crops dead, farmers unpaid, and children unfed. Now there was central air, office jobs, and grocery stores. Cable television brought news all day and all night -- reports that the Berlin Wall might soon fall, rumors the Japanese were buying up Hawaii, hotel by hotel. There was a rosy-cheeked President well into his seventh decade for whom Emma Hanley did not much care for, though she did find some use for him: When Harold protested that Emma and he were too old to take The Trip, she reminded her husband that the Leader of the Free World -- a man for whom Harold had twice voted -- was even older.
That was the spring when Emmas life took a dramatically new course, and it all started that Saturday morning in April, 1987, a day when Emma was happier than shed been in years -- studying her itinerary, wondering about comfortable shoes and all-weather cloaks, peering at her husband across the stack of maps and Fodors Guides on the dining room table, nodding pleasantly as he announced he would soon be heading to the Biscuit Basket for his daily coffee klatch. For in the last few weeks, travel plans had brought to the Hanley marriage an unexpected spirit of compromise. Nowadays, when Harold sucked his teeth, or stayed too long at his breakfasts, all Emma had to do was think of The Trip. . . and a thrill like harp strings would thrum inside her, and she would be happy again.
Look here at this mess, Harold said now, holding up the morning newspaper. No respect for the dead. Emma glanced up from the brochure she was reading on converting foreign currency. Cemetery vandals strike again! the headline on the front page of the Palmetto News screamed, and there was a picture of the general himself -- festooned with toilet paper and what appeared to be Hawaiian leis, looking, appropriately enough, drunk and rakish. Behind the statue, streamers drooped over the rusty iron spires of Springforth. Harold studied the article. When he read silently, his lips moved. Says here, kids done it, he said. Teenagers and their parties. He shook his head.
Perhaps someone at town hall will remember now to fix the memorial, Emma said cheerfully. There had been talk about repairing the Confederate Monument for years, and restoring the cemetery, and doing something with the old mill and all the rest, but then the town would forget, and nothing happened. It was as if the people of Palmetto just stopped seeing the statues, the shuttered cotton mills, the vandalized graveyards. They drove right by, sealed behind their tinted car windows, sipping their travel mugs, nodding their heads to music. Even the McCann saga had apparently been wiped from the towns memory. Although the old cotton factory -- with the McCann name fading on the brick -- remained, and there was still a McCann side street, and for a short time, a shopping center with the name -- no one, except Emma, herself, and her friends Miss Gibble and Lila Day, associated the McCann name with lost fortune, or penniless women lamenting their strangled fate. Come to think of it, Emma thought now, perhaps the towns collective amnesia wasnt such a bad thing after all.
Gonna be a hot one today, Harold said, reading aloud now the detailed weather forecast -- complete with humidity levels and wind directions -- in that halting way that set Emmas teeth on edge. The Trip, she thought. The Trip.
She smiled. Good, it will be nice to get away. They say that London is cool this time of year.
More coffee? she asked.
Ill get some Sanka later. He put on his jacket. Sure youre not coming?
Not with all the things Ive got left to do.
It was part of the Hanleys new unspoken agreement: he would pretend to demand Emma come along to his morning coffee klatch with all those adoring widow women, as vigorously as she would decline. With The Trip on the horizon, Emma was perfectly happy to send him off to the Biscuit Basket, and he knew it. Her interests remained elsewhere; across the Atlantic, where, according to their itinerary they would be within a week at the dazzling Dutch Capital of Amsterdam with its quaint, cobbled streets, steeply gabled merchants' houses and famous museums and galleries. Yes, thought Emma, after thirty-seven years of marriage, she and Harold were enjoying some well-earned equilibrium, at least temporarily. A regular ceasefire. For what was marriage but a treaty between two warring little nations, a congress of conflicting desires and wills?
There is one little thing, before you go, she said.
Whats that? He stood at the door in the black jogging pants hed taken to wearing these days. His tan windbreaker was zipped, the baseball cap pulled down, hiding his eyes. He was waiting to be dismissed. It was twenty after eight. In ten minutes, hed be out the door. You could set your watch by him. Emmas husband was a man whod established times for everything -- bedtimes, meals, and bowel movements. Daylight Saving Time presented a quandary every six months in the Hanley household, until Harold, with a shot of prune juice and a stack of Reader Digests, reset himself. Try to drag a man like that across the ocean and to a different time zone.
Could you help get my old trunk down from the attic? she asked.
Ah, the travel trunk. One of the few possessions Emma had brought to her marriage.
When shed met Harold, Emma had still been living at Amaranth. It was a rooming house by then, run by Mrs. Eunice Anderson, a jowly and coarse woman, her meaty arms waggling as she beat eggs, who was glad to have a fine lady like Emma as a tenant, quiet and minding her own business among the cacophony of boisterous, drunken fools who swarmed the place.
While there were respectable rooming houses in the town for maiden ladies in 1950, Amaranth wasnt one of them. But how could Emma leave? That place was a kind of purgatory, a parallel world that both tortured and flattered her with memories of better times. The chandelier in the foyer, stripped of its crystals, blinked dimly and swung in crooked, precarious arcs. The strips of torn cabbage rose wallpaper in the hallway waved vaguely in the drafts of cold air. The red carpet, trod upon by steel-toed work boots, offered a pink threadbare path up the stairs.
Emma had been teaching the lower grades for nearly a decade by then. Her grandmother was long gone, her mother, with whom shed shared one drafty room on the second floor, had been dead all of six weeks, and Emma found some comfort in going through her grandmothers travel trunk daily, sorting her grandfathers botanical sketches. Shed kept the trunk since she was a young thing, cherishing it like a hope chest. Instead of putting away linens and finery for an impending marriage -- prospects were too dim for that -- Emma had stuffed the steamer with magazines, a crumpled atlas or two, and a bundle of vintage postcards from Rome, Paris and London that shed happened upon once at a flea market. And there was also the small, sad worn wad of money that her grandmother had stashed there for an emergency, an occasion that, Emma reflected, had not only arrived, but had, for a very long time, never stopped.
In those weeks after her mother died, Emma checked the train schedules every Tuesday, taking along her emergency fund, zipped in the side pocket of her satin-lined pocketbook. A one-way ticket could take her very far, indeed. Once, she even approached the station ticket window, close enough to see the bearded, weary man there talking on the black phone while eating his lunch, close enough to see the nervous, red-headed, timid woman reflected back in the glass.
And then came the morning Emma heard an awful clatter from downstairs, and Mrs. Andersons hearty laughter, too. Emma closed the trunk, locked her door, and ventured downstairs to the kitchen to find out what all the racket was about, the clanging and shouts. There was a new stove being put in, the other one just upped and quit on me, Mrs. Anderson told her, no telling how old. The previous stove, white enamel, heavy as God, sat upended in the corner, its doors and pipes amputated and discarded in a pile, and it hurt Emma to look at it, to remember the legions of Christmas turkeys and Easter hams her grandmother had once cooked in it. Then, from behind the new stove, Harold Hanley stood up, plaster dust smeared across one cheek, a sheen of sweat glistening on his forehead, Hal stitched over one pocket of his dun-colored, tight work shirt. His gaze fell on Emma and he nodded politely, but he left those yellow eyes on her face, the heat of him shone on her and she was so alone, like freezing to death, numb and half-dead for so long -- she hadnt realized how lonely! And scared? Lord she was scared, her mother not cold in her grave, and Emma, herself, hibernating. There were combed grooves in his black hair. Hair oil! Only the lower class men wore hair oil, only the workers. The room spun and left her weak-kneed, till Mrs. Anderson hobbled over with a dinette chair and said you sit down here. Girl, you look right peaked.
And so it was that Emma found herself courted, quite suddenly engaged, and scolded by Miss Gibble, her supervising teacher, who taught the upper grades. Upon news of Emmas unlikely suitor and imminent betrothal, Miss Gibble pulled Emma aside. Youll be bored to tears, with your mind, Miss Gibble warned. What on earth will you talk about with that man?
Talk? Talk didnt have much to do with it. Instead, Emmas impending marriage had to do with the certain spot on the nape of her neck that Harold Hanley had discovered. Yes, there were those who said she was marrying beneath her, settling for an unschooled appliance repairman who did not even have his high school diploma. But there were those who thought the reverse, too, that Harold Hanley was marrying an old maid teacher when he could have had a levelheaded girl better at doing things like pickling peaches or ironing sheets and scrubbing the kitchen floor with Old Dutch.
Youre not settling down. Youre just settling, Miss Gibble chided, before she turned to clap the erasers over a trashcan. Now youll never leave this town.
And what does ol dried up Eleanor Gibble know about loving anyway? Harold had asked later, after Emma had shared her best friends misgivings with him. Back when Emma still shared such thoughts with Harold. What does that one know about loving?
Miss Gibble did indeed know about loving, since shed lost her fiancé, a pilot from Mississippi, when he was shot down over Germany in the war. Hed been a blond, handsome man, with enormous, red protruding ears, whose smiling photograph and lock of hair stayed in a heavy gold locket tucked behind the starched white muslin of Miss Gibbles blouse. Occasionally, Miss Gibble would open the locket and gaze down at the diminutive, grinning face there before slowly closing the cover again, as if it were the lid of a tiny coffin. I shall always be a Miss, insisted Miss Gibble to the teaching faculty after the funeral. None of this silly talk about how there will be others. For there will be no one else.
Shortly after her marriage, Emma used the emergency fund from her travel trunk to finance a used 1949 Chevy pickup, officially launching Hanleys Appliance Repair. She and Harold moved into their 50s split-level that was all the rage then, a spec house that went cheap when the builder went broke. By then, Emma was expecting, and couldnt lift anything heavier than a teacup. Theyd hardly had any furniture anyway. As for the travel trunk, it was relegated to the attic, until this day, when Emma persuaded Harold to finally lug it down.
The trunk, battered and filthy, sat now in the sunny corner of their kitchen like a mysterious stranger soaking up warmth and company.
Harold looked warily at it from the corner of his eye while he drank a glass of water at the sink, as if he still didnt believe her claims, that no, she didnt plan to take that old thing on The Trip. What Emma had in mind was finding her grandmothers travel journal. She was certain it was in there somewhere, and wouldnt that be something? To take it along on The Trip. But she kept that wish to herself. There was no use appealing to Harolds nostalgic side, for Emma suspected her husband did not have one. The past did not much concern a man who was content to live in the present, whose retirement days offered him so much fun.
Maybe I should make Bobby get out a little this morning, Harold said now from behind her. On The Trip, hes going to have to get used to doing things he dont like.
Well, you can try I suppose, she said, playing along. By pretending to insist their son accompany him, Harold was clearly assuaging his own guilt about escaping to the Biscuit Basket.
Bobby? he called. You sure you dont feel like a walk?
There was no reply from the living room, just the antic whirs and boing boing sounds of morning cartoons and the smoke from Bobbys unfiltered Camels.
No, came the groggy response.
Harold met her eyes, then shook his head, sadder than usual. Well, I tried.
Dont worry, Emma said now. Hes going to have to get out with us this afternoon. After a beat, she said, Shoe shopping, Harold. Dont tell me you forgot?
Puzzlement did a funny little dance across his features, until resignation took hold. No. No, I didnt forget. Guess Ill pick up the medicine at the drugstore on the way back this morning. Reckon you better call and check to make sure they got it ready?
The extra, too, he said.
The medicine for The Trip is what he meant. Bobbys pills. The extra dose to help Bobby calm down and sleep. Was it a rebuke, Harolds reminder about Bobbys need for extra medicine? Perhaps. Taking Bobby along on The Trip wouldnt be easy. But they couldnt very well leave him behind with Dora.
Yes, Ill call the pharmacy. Emma said. Ill see to it they have the extras ready. Youre walking?
Silly question. Harold always walked to his breakfasts. Somehow, even in sweatpants and windbreaker and cap, he was fine-looking. Yes, shed have to give him that. He was slim, without the paunch most men his age acquired. And he had his own teeth and drove at night. Quite a commodity.
I suppose Betty will be at breakfast? She couldnt resist asking. And the McCormick sisters?
Yeah, I reckon Betty and them will be there.
I believe she mentioned that last night. When I ran into her at Winn-Dixie. Funny -- Betty didnt know about The Trip. I promised wed send her a postcard.
Harold adjusted his cap in the hall mirror.
The evening before, when Emma had encountered Betty Snodgrass hovering over the cucumbers in the produce aisle, Betty had practically purred, Oh your husband, that Hal Hanley, he just tickles me no end! And Betty, whose arthritic hip gave her a gimpy sway like a drunken dancer, and whose thin lips shone like cellophane -- lip gloss at her age! -- whispered, in her smokers rasp, He keeps us in stitches. Just a darling. Emma chuckled in a way she hoped resembled fondness before reminding Betty in an offhand way that she was just frantic planning their golden honeymoon, as Harold liked to call it. Emma had made that part up, of course. Harold would never call their impending trip a golden honeymoon, but a little lie like that was worth it just to see Bettys crestfallen expression.
The truth was, Emma now lacked the patience to converse with Betty or Velma Scranton or the McCormick twins about double coupon days and the senior citizen booth at the flea market. The McCormick sisters still dressed as if they were young things, rouged and clad in polka dots and heels, sopping up sausage biscuits and milk gravy, their dentures clacking. Velma claimed she was retired from the textile industry though Emma knew shed spent thirty years sewing the crotch seam in dungarees. Not one of them was interested in the Eiffel Tower or Stonehenge or the Royal Tulip Garden; they had made that perfectly clear. Hals Gals, people called them.
I guess I better get a move on, he said now. The stove clock said eight-thirty.
You go on, Emma said, thereby releasing Harold. To the Biscuit Basket and your fans, she stopped herself from adding. Im sure theyll be waiting.
He stepped out on the front porch and turned to close the door behind him, not bothering to hide the delight and anticipation on his face as he finally headed out.
It never occurred to Emma he might not return.