All day long, people stopped along the path that ran through the woods by the Potomac River. Bundled in their parkas and wool scarves, they stood close to one another for warmth and clutched the mittened hands of their children or the leashes of their dogs as they stared at the one splash of color in the winter gray landscape. The yellow kayak sat in the middle of the river, surrounded by ice. The water had been rough the night before, buffeted by snowy winds, rising into swirling whitecaps as the temperature plummeted, and the waves froze in jagged crests, trapping the kayak many yards from shore.
The walkers had seen the kayak on the morning news, but they still needed to see it in person. It marked the end of a saga that had gripped them for months. They’d looked forward to the trial that would never happen now, because the seventeen-year-old girl—the seventeen-year-old murderer, most were sure—now rested somewhere beneath that rocky expanse of ice.
She took the easy way out, some of them whispered to one another.
But what a terrible way to die, others said.
They looked at the rocky bank of the river and wondered if she’d put some of those rocks in her pockets to make herself sink. They wondered if she’d cried as she paddled the kayak into the water, knowing the end was near. She’d cried on TV, for certain. Faking it, some of them said now as they moved on down the path. It was too cold to stand in one spot for very long
But there was one woman, bundled warm, gloved hands in her pockets, who stood at the side of the path for hours. She watched as the news chopper collected fresh aerial images, its blades a deafening dark blur against the gray sky. She watched as the police milled along the banks of the river, pointing in one direction and then the other as they considered how they’d retrieve the kayak from the ice . . . and how they would search for the girl’s body beneath it.
She looked at the police again. They stood with their hands on their hips now, as though they were giving up. This case was closed. The woman pulled her jacket more tightly around herself. Let them give up, she thought, pleased, as she watched a police officer shrug his shoulders in what looked like defeat. Let them wrest that kayak from the river and call it a day.
Although a yellow kayak stranded in ice proved nothing.
They were fools if they thought it did.
I’d never expected to lose nearly everyone I loved by the time I was twenty-five.
I felt sorry for myself as I parked in front of the small, nondescript post office in Pollocksville. The three hour drive from my apartment in Durham had seemed more like six as I made a mental list of all the things I needed to do once I reached New Bern, and that list segued into thinking of how alone I felt. I was a counselor. I knew the best thing I could do was to counter every one of those negative thoughts with something positive: I’m healthy. I have a job I love. I have an awesome best friend, even if she’s thousands of miles away for the summer. But it didn’t work, and after a while I simply gave into feeling miserable.
The first thing I needed to do was stop at this post office, ten miles outside of New Bern. I’d get that out of the way and cross one thing off my list. Digging the flimsy white postcard from my purse, I went inside the building. I was the only customer, and my tennis shoes squeaked on the floor as I walked up to the counter where a clerk waited for me. With her dark skin and perfect cornrows, she reminded me of Sherise, so I liked her instantly.
“How can I help you?” she asked.
I handed her the postcard. “I’m confused about this card,” I said. “My father died a month ago. I’ve been getting his mail at my address in Durham and this card came and—”
“We send these out when someone hasn’t paid their bill for their post office box,” she said, looking at the card. “It’s a warning. They don’t pay it in two months, we close the box and change the lock.”
“Well, I understand that, but see”—I turned the card over—”this isn’t my father’s name. I don’t know who Fred Marcus is. My father was Frank MacPherson, so I think this came to me by mistake. I don’t even think my father had a post office box. I don’t know why he would. Especially not in Pollocksville when he lives—lived—in New Bern.” It would take me a long time to learn to speak about my father in the past tense.
“Let me check.” She disappeared into the rear of the building and came back a moment later holding a thin purple envelope and a white index-type card. “This is the only thing in the box,” she said, handing the envelope to me. “Addressed to Fred Marcus. I checked the records and the box is assigned to that name at this street address.” She held the index card out to me. The signature did look like my father’s handwriting, but his handwriting was hardly unique. And besides, it wasn’t his name.
“That’s the right street address, but whoever this guy is, he must have written his address down wrong,” I said. “Maybe he transposed the numbers or . . . I don’t know.” I could check with the neighbors to see if any of them knew Fred Marcus so I could deliver the envelope to its rightful owner. My shoulders sagged with the burden of one more thing to do.
I slipped the purple envelope into my purse.
“You want me to close the box or you want to pay to keep it open?” the clerk asked.
“I don’t feel like it’s mine to close, but I’m not going to pay for it, so . . . ” I shrugged.
“I’ll close it then,” she said.
“All right.” I was glad she’d made the decision for me. I smiled. “I hope Fred Marcus doesn’t mind, whoever he is.” I turned toward the door.
“Sorry about your daddy,” she said.
“Thanks,” I said over my shoulder, and my eyes stung by the time I got to my car.
Driving into New Bern, I passed through the historic district. Old houses were packed close together on the tree-lined streets and gigantic painted fiberglass bears stood here and there among the shops. A pair of bicycle cops pedaled down the street in front of me, lightening my mood ever so slightly. Although I hadn’t lived in New Bern since I went away to college, it still had a hometown pull on me. It was such a unique little place.
I turned onto Craven Street and pulled into our driveway. Daddy’s car was in the garage. I could see its roof through the glass windows—one of them broken–of the garage door. I hadn’t thought about his car. Was it better to sell it or donate it? I had an appointment with his attorney in the morning and I’d add that question to my ever-growing list. The car should really go to my brother Danny to replace his ancient junker, but I had the feeling he’d turn it down.
My old house was a two-story pastel yellow Victorian in need of fresh paint, with a broad front porch adorned with delicate white railings and pillars. It was the only house I could remember living in, and I loved it. Once I sold it, I’d have no reason to come to New Bern again. I’d taken those visits home to see my father for granted. After Daddy’s sudden death, I came back for two days to arrange for his cremation and attend to other details that were now a blur in my memory. Had he wanted to be cremated? We’d never talked about that sort of thing and I’d been in such a state of shock and confusion that I couldn’t think straight. Bryan had been with me then, a calming, loving presence. He’d pointed out that my mother’d been cremated, so that would most likely be my father’s wish as well. I hoped he was right.
Sitting in my car in the driveway, I wondered if I’d been too hasty in ending it with Bryan. I could have used his support right now. With Daddy gone and Sherise doing mission work in Haiti for the summer, the timing couldn’t have been worse. There was no good time, though, for ending a two-year-old relationship.
The loneliness weighed on my shoulders as I got out of my car and looked up at the house. My plan had been to take two weeks to clean it out and then put it–and the nearby RV park my father owned–on the market. Suddenly, as I looked at all the windows and remembered how many things were in need of repair and how little my father liked to throw things away, I knew my time frame was unrealistic. Daddy hadn’t been a hoarder, exactly, but he was a collector. He had cases full of vintage lighters and pipes and old musical instruments, among zillions of other things I would have to get rid of. Bryan said our house was more like a dusty old museum than a home, and he’d been right. I tried not to panic as I pulled my duffel bag from the back seat of my car. I had no one waiting for me in Durham and the summer off. I could take as much time as I needed to get the house ready to sell. I wondered if there was any chance of getting Danny to help me.
I climbed the broad front steps to the porch and unlocked the door. It squeaked open with a sound as familiar to me as my father’s voice. I’d pulled the living room shades before I’d left back in May and I could barely see across the living room to the kitchen beyond. I breathed in the hot musty smell of a house closed up too long as I raised the shades to let in the midday light. Turning the thermostat to seventy-two, I heard the welcome sound of the old air conditioner kicking to life. Then I stood in the middle of the room, hands on my hips as I examined the space from the perspective of someone tasked with cleaning it out.
Daddy had used the spacious living room as something of an office, even though he had a good-sized office upstairs as well. He loved desks and cubbies and display cases. The desk in the living room was a beautiful old roll top. Against the far wall, custom-built shelves surrounding the door to the kitchen held his classical music collection, nearly all of it vinyl, and a turntable sat in a special cabinet he’d had built into the wall. On the north side of the room, a wide glass-fronted display case contained his pipe collection. The room always had a faint smell of tobacco to me, even though he’d told me that was my imagination. Against the opposite wall, there was a couch at least as old as I was along with an upholstered armchair. The rest of the space was taken up by the baby grand piano I’d never learned to play. Danny and I had both taken lessons, but neither of us had any interest and our parents let us quit. People would say, They’re Lisa’s siblings. Surely they have talent. Why don’t you push them? But they never did and I was grateful.
Walking into the dining room, I was struck by how neat and orderly it appeared to be compared to the rest of the house. My father had no need for that room and I was sure he rarely set foot in it. The dining room had always been my mother’s territory. The wide curio cabinet was full of china and vases and cut glass bowls that had been handed down through her family for generations. Things she’d treasured that I was going to have to figure out how to get rid of. I ran my fingers over the dusty sideboard. Everywhere I turned in the house, I’d be confronted by memories I would need to dismantle.
I carried my duffel bag upstairs, where a wide hallway opened to four rooms. The first was my father’s bedroom with its quilt-covered queen-sized bed. The second room had been Danny’s, and although he hadn’t slept in our house since leaving at eighteen—escaping, he would call it–it would always be “Danny’s room” to me. The third room was mine, though in the years since I’d lived in the house, the room had developed an austere air about it. I’d cleaned out my personal possessions bit by bit after college. The memorabilia from my high school and college years—pictures of old boyfriends, yearbooks, CDs, that sort of thing—were in a box in the storage unit of my Durham apartment waiting for the day I got around to sorting through them.
I dropped my duffel bag on my bed, then walked into the fourth room—my father’s office. Daddy’s bulky old computer monitor rested on a small desk by the window, and glass-fronted curio cabinets filled with Zippo lighters and antique compasses lined two of the walls. My grandfather had been a collector, too, so Daddy’d inherited many of the items, then added to them by searching through Craigslist and eBay and flea markets. The collections had been his obsession. I knew the sliding glass doors to the cabinets were locked and hoped I’d be able to find where my father had squirreled away the keys.
Propped against the fourth wall of the room were five violin cases. Daddy hadn’t played, but he’d collected stringed instruments for as long as I could remember. One of the cases had an ID tag hanging from the handle, and I knelt next to it, lifting the tag in my hand. It had been a long time since I’d looked at that tag, but I knew what was on it: a drawing of a violet on one side and on the other side, my sister’s name—Lisa MacPherson—and our old Alexandria, Virginia address. Lisa had never lived in this house.
My mother died shortly after I graduated from high school, so although I would never stop missing her, I was used to her being gone. It was strange to be in the house without Daddy, though. As I put my clothes in my dresser, I kept expecting him to walk into the room and I had trouble accepting the fact that it was impossible. I missed our weekly phone calls and knowing he was only a few hours away. He’d been so easy to talk to and I’d always felt his unconditional love. It was a terrible feeling to know that there wasn’t a soul in the world now who loved me that deeply.
He’d been a quiet man. Maybe one of the quietest people to ever walk the earth. He questioned rather than told. He’d ask me all about my own life, but rarely shared anything about his own. As a counselor, I was the one always asking the questions and I’d enjoyed being asked for a change, knowing that the man doing the asking cared deeply about my answers. He was a loner, though. He’d died on the floor of the Food Lion after a massive heart attack. He’d been alone and that bothered me more than anything.
Bryan had suggested I have a memorial service for him, but I wouldn’t have known who to invite. If he had any friends, I didn’t know about them. Unlike most people in New Bern, my father hadn’t belonged to a church or any community organization, and I was certain my brother wouldn’t show up at a service for him. His relationship with our father had been very different from mine. I hadn’t even been able to find Danny when I got to New Bern after Daddy’s death. His cop friend Harry Washington told me he’d gone to Danny’s trailer to give him the news, and I guess he just took off. He’d left his car parked next to the trailer, and Bryan and I hiked through the forest looking for him, but Danny knew those woods better than anyone. He had his hiding places. Now, though, he had no idea I was in town, so this time I’d surprise him. I’d plead with him to help me with the house.
Back in my bedroom, I put on my running shoes. Then I went downstairs and outside, locking the front door behind me before I started running through my childhood neighborhood. I turned onto New Street and headed for the river, my favorite old running turf. I could breathe out here, running next to the water. A few tourists strolled along the waterfront, but for the most part, I had the trail to myself.
When I returned to my neighborhood, I stopped at the houses on either side of mine to ask if anyone knew a Fred Marcus. Both houses had changed owners since I’d lived in New Bern and I barely knew these new neighbors, but they seemed very nice, offering condolences and kind words about my father. A woman in one of the houses was now the head of the Neighborhood Watch program and she claimed to know everyone on the street. “There’s no Fred Marcus around here,” she told me. “If there were, trust me, I would know.”
It was funny, the emptiness I felt as I walked across the lawn from her house to mine. I’d wanted to find Fred Marcus, the man mysteriously linked with our address. I wanted to meet him, and I wanted him to look exactly like my father. And then I wanted him to pull me into a big bear hug that would last for days.