The chilled air inside the Tucson funeral chapel suppressed the punishing heat outside. Amanda shivered as she took a seat on the cool metal chair. She leaned over and whispered to her husband in the chair next to her. “A sweater in Arizona in September?”
He nodded casually, apparently unfazed by the abrupt temperature change from scorching to polar. Neil had worn a suit, though she told him she didn’t think he had to, and she envied his long sleeves. He quietly cleared his throat, opened the program he’d been handed when they walked in, and began to read the obituary of the woman whose casket sat several feet away–the woman neither of them had ever met.
A generous waft of newly refrigerated air spilled from the vent above her head, and Amanda instinctively turned to her niece on her other side. The teenager’s arms were bare under a
flamingo-hued halter dress. Amanda wondered if the foster mother had given Tally any advice at all on what she might want to wear to her grandmother’s funeral. Amanda again turned to her husband.
“I think we should’ve come yesterday.” Her voice was barely above a whisper.
Neil looked up from the program. “It wouldn’t have changed anything,” he replied gently. “Besides, we got here as quick as we could. It’s not your fault you didn’t know she was here. Your brother should’ve told you.”
Neil reached for her hand and gave it a squeeze. Amanda looked down and noticed a thin line of wood stain under one of his fingernails, evidence that he had cleaned up from his latest woodworking project in a hurry. Neil turned back to the program, and Amanda looked over at her niece.
“You doing okay?” She hesitated, then placed an arm around Tally’s shoulders.
The girl flinched and glanced at Amanda’s arm before turning back to face the casket. The sixteen-year-old shrugged. “I didn’t really know my grandma.” The words were laced with casual regret, as if she knew people were supposed to know their grandparents, but what could she do about that now? Amanda intuitively pulled Tally closer. The girl stiffened at first and then relaxed, reminding Amanda that Tally barely knew her either.
Amanda hadn’t seen her niece in nearly a decade. A handful of phone calls over the last few years, including one from a Texas jail and one from a château in Switzerland, had confirmed that Bart was still alive and that he still had Tally. Bart tended to contact her only in desperate times. And most of the time he didn’t recognize his own desperation.
She had always felt like the older sister when it came to Bart, the one who watched out for him, the one who tried to keep him out of trouble, the one their parents expected more from. It had always amazed her that Bart was just fine with that arrangement. She had been in junior high when he left home at seventeen, and he’d come home only twice in the years before she graduated from high school. Bart missed their parents’ quiet divorce. Missed their mother’s remarriage to an Australian man who had no intention of living anywhere but Melbourne. Missed her wedding to Neil and the births of her two children. Missed their father’s last agonizing days of pancreatic cancer. In thirty years Bart had missed just about everything, including all opportunities for his family to get to know Tally.
The opening notes of the organist’s ballpark rendition of “Shall We Gather at the River?” startled her, and she barely heard the buzz of her husband’s vibrating cell phone. Neil pulled
the phone out of his suit pocket. “It’s a text from Delcey,” he said. “She wants to know if she can sleep over at Mallory’s house tonight. They want to go to the beach.”
Amanda crinkled an eyebrow at the thought of her daughter not being home when they flew back to San Diego. “Tonight?”
Neil looked at her. “Maybe it’s a good idea.”
“No. Not tonight, Neil. She can go to the beach but she should be home tonight. Don’t you think?”
“Which beach? How’s she getting there?”
“Encinitas. Chase said he’d take her,” Neil said, looking at the tiny screen on his phone.
Amanda wondered for a moment how Chase would feel about making the thirty-two-mile round trip to the beach. With Delcey out of the house, Chase would have the place to himself until she and Neil returned that evening. Their quiet seventeen year-old probably couldn’t wait to get his chatty younger sister out of the house. It hadn’t passed her notice that her children were the same ages she and Bart had been when Bart left home. Chase’s
introspective nature and stark Teutonic features were similar to Bart’s, but beyond that he was nothing like her brother. And Delcey thankfully did not have to mother Chase like she’d mothered Bart. “Tell her she needs to be home by six thirty,” Amanda said. “I want her to be at the house when we get back tonight.”
Neil punched in the message on the tiny keyboard. He nodded to the funeral program as he sent the message. “Did you know Virginia was a nurse in Vietnam? In the Army Reserves.
She was in Saigon when it fell.” He cocked his head as if waiting for a response and slipped the phone back in his pocket.
“I…I didn’t know that,” Amanda whispered back, pulling her thoughts back to the funeral chapel.
“She had medals from the army.” Tally’s head was turned toward Amanda, resting at an angle–like she had been a silent and interested part of the just-finished conversation about Delcey. “I saw them on the wall in her bedroom. But I didn’t get a chance to ask her about them.”
“I’m sorry, Tally.” Amanda stroked the child’s shoulder.
“I don’t think my dad knew that about her. That she was in Vietnam. They didn’t get along, actually. My dad and Grandma. She blames him for what happened to my mom.” Tally swung her head back to face the front. “But you probably already know that.”
Amanda opened her mouth but said nothing in response. Tally’s mother, Janet, whom Bart hadn’t even been married to, had died of an overdose of sleeping pills when Tally was an
infant. Janet was alone when it happened. Alone by choice. Bart was nowhere around. She was about to tell Tally that Bart had never said much to her about Virginia, which was true, but a minister with a white checkerboard square at his throat and a tiny black book in his hands had come to stand next to Tally. Amanda closed her mouth.
“Is there anything you would like to say during the service, Tallulah?” the minister asked.
“Me?” Tally’s voice was edged with astonishment. “Um. No. No, I don’t want to say anything.”
He patted her arm. “I understand,” he soothed. “This is a very difficult time. My prayers are with you, child.” The minister smiled, turned to the next row of chairs, and approached a
woman whom Amanda had met outside the funeral home ten minutes earlier. Virginia’s only surviving child, Jill. Janet’s younger sister. Tally’s other aunt.
Amanda watched as the minister bent down to speak to her. The woman wore a charcoal gray suit, with a silky burgundy scarf frothing at her neck and black stilettos on her petite feet. She had flown in from Miami that morning, probably having made the funeral arrangements by the iPhone she now held in her left hand. Jill shook her head. Jill’s husband and twin teenage sons shook their heads as well. Amanda couldn’t remember which twin was which.
Tally also appeared to be watching the exchange of hushed words between her aunt and the minister. Amanda leaned in. “Do you know your aunt Jill and your cousins very well?”
“I met them once,”Tally whispered back. “When I was four. My dad and I were in Tucson the same time they were. I don’t remember them, though.”
Amanda gently touched the girl’s arm. “Not many people can remember things that happened when they were that little.”
“I remember your kids, though.”
This surprised Amanda, though she knew it shouldn’t. Tally was eight the last time Bart had swung through San Diego on his way to somewhere else. Certainly old enough to remember at least a little of that trip. But it wasn’t Tally’s words that had surprised her. It was the tone. It was hopeful, like Tally was relieved she had memories of her California cousins. And they
appeared to be good ones. “I’m glad to hear that,” Amanda said. “Chase remembers you too. Delcey was too little. But she likes the idea of having a girl cousin.”
Amanda was about to tell her niece that Chase and Delcey had wanted to be here at the funeral today, which wasn’t completely true, but the organ music stopped at that moment. The minister stepped onto the carpeted platform next to the casket. Amanda took a quick peek over her shoulder to see how many others had gathered at the chapel to say good-bye to Virginia Kolander. Thirty or so people sat in the chairs behind her. As she turned to face the front, Amanda noted that Tally’s outlandishly fuchsia dress and matching streaks in her hair offered the only speck of rainbow in the tiny sea of gray and black shoulders. The girl’s ankle tattoo, a ruby-throated hummingbird with its wings extended, was the only divot of extraordinary in a lineup of charcoal pant legs and nude-toned hosiery. Tally crossed her legs and Amanda involuntarily tensed. The movement gave the illusion that the hummingbird was now poised for a beautiful escape, that it was peeling away from Tally’s skin and about to take flight. Amanda pulled her gaze away and exhaled softly, remembering that Bart confessed to buying that tattoo with money Amanda had sent him for car repairs.
The minister cleared his throat to speak, but he paused as the door at the back of the chapel opened. Every head turned to follow the latecomer inside. The dark-haired woman held an iced coffee in one hand and a briefcase in the other. Her white button-down blouse clung to moist skin.
“That’s Nancy. My social worker,” Tally said, toneless. “She’s the one who called you.”
The social worker hurried inside, mouthing the word sorry
. She declined a chair offered by the funeral director, choosing to stand against the back wall instead. She tipped her head toward Tally and then smiled at Amanda as she pushed a pair of sunglasses up on her head.
Amanda nodded to the woman she’d met over the phone two days earlier, the same woman who told her that Bart Bachmann was missing–somewhere in Warsaw, they thought–and that his daughter Tallulah was homeless.
Excerpted from White Picket Fences by Susan Meissner. Copyright © 2009 by Susan Meissner. Excerpted by permission of WaterBrook Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.