So? It was true. Katherine was trouble. John dreaded letting her baby-sit. What he dreaded more, his little Mallory following in her footsteps—being at the same school with Ann, having Chadwick as her teacher someday. That couldn't be healthy. Laurel Heights had good prestige, sure. But it wasn't the only show in town. If he could just get Ann to quit, he could put Mallory in Burke, or Hamlin—someplace safe, ordinary.
It wasn't as if John hadn't done his best to be Chadwick's friend. How many guys would do as much as he had? But Chadwick and Norma were bad for them. And what the hell was that carnivore crack earlier? Shit.
He was primed to walk past Chadwick—fuck the consequences. What had he been thinking, getting sentimental? It had been his idea that they go out together after the auction tonight, have some drinks, get the old friendship back on track. He hated that maudlin streak in himself. It was a weakness he always had to suppress.
Then Chadwick locked eyes with him, gave him that forlorn smile, that weary but affectionate look John's dad used to give him coming home from the Embarcadero every night, and it was like a window into a world that John had spent his whole life trying to escape. Despite himself, John stopped, leaned against the bar.
“Here's the man,” he said.
“Lost our wives, again.”
“Nah,” John said. “Can't lose mine. She's always on stage.”
Sure enough, there Ann was, applauding and smiling as the auctioneer drove up a bidding war between two families over the beautiful third-grade ceramic whatever-the-fuck-that-was their kids had made.
Hays MacColl drifted off through the crowd with a young lady in tow, and the moment of opportunity passed.
“Norma?” John asked Chadwick.
“Around somewhere.” Chadwick shook his head. “Thought I could make some sense out of things, John. I thought a few days away . . .”
“Hey, man,” John said. “I'm sorry.”
And he was sorry. Honestly. God knows, he and Ann had their differences. They were as mismatched as Chadwick and Norma. But if John was constant about one thing—it was marriage. He'd seen what divorce did to a man, what it did to his dad when his mom had left them. No. Not for John Zedman. His kid would not grow up like that. It was another kind of mirror John saw in Chadwick—and he didn't like it.
Chadwick passed him the auction program. Three more items—the trip to Barbados, a weekend in Aspen and the kindergarten quilt. John had to be there for that, of course. Mallory had made one of the panels—a picture of a horse, naturally. Always a horse. He had to join the frenzy of bidding to turn a week of kindergarten finger-painting into hard cash.
“You still want to go for drinks after?” Chadwick asked. “Little cold out there.”
John realized he'd been scanning the crowd, probably looking like a dog on a leash in the park, ready to bolt. Chadwick gave him the sad eyes, telling him it was okay to leave. Go ahead. But John saw the apprehension there, too, and he knew that Chadwick—the tall one, the one who could wrap a grown man around a pole—needed him.
Whatever else he was, John was a man of action. He did not spend his time vacillating over what to do. If he made a mistake, he didn't waste time grieving over it.
Without him, Chadwick was a mass of indecision, whether it was about his wife, or his daughter, or their plans tonight to relive their first outing as a foursome, so many years ago, when they'd gotten drunk on Veuve Clicquot and wandered through Pacific Heights, singing “When I'm Sixty-Four” in the dark until the old ladies in the mansions started yelling at them, using words old ladies in mansions weren't supposed to know.
John Zedman wasn't afraid of living.
He imagined taking out his .22, right here in the middle school area, making Chadwick pale with fear.
There's nothing to be afraid of, he would tell Chadwick. Johnny will take care of everything.
The idea made him smile.
He said, “Why wait? This round's on me.”
Twice, Mallory had dreamed about the house. Each time the metal vines on the walls started moving like hair, and the dark doorway opened like a mouth. It would start to inhale, pulling Mallory toward it, trying to bring her inside.
Mallory shivered. She breathed into her hands and tried to capture the warmth, but that just made her palms sticky.
A song was playing on the car radio—men with funny voices, singing that they were going to come back home from five hundred miles away.
Mallory didn't like the song, but she didn't want to touch Katherine's radio. She was afraid she'd make the music even louder.
When Katherine finally came out of the house, talking to somebody on the porch, Mallory started bouncing in her seat, willing her to hurry.
She liked being with Katherine, the way she liked the spinning teacup on the carousel or her daddy dipping her upside down. But Mallory didn't have bad dreams about the spinning teacup. She had bad dreams about the yellow house with the dark door and the metal vines.
Katherine slid in the driver's seat. She smelled like smoke. She had a brown lunch bag, and Mallory asked what was in it, because she was hungry.
“Medicine,” Katherine told her.
“Are you sick?”
Katherine smiled. “Let's get back home, Peewee.”
“Why do you like coming here, Kaferine? I don't like it.”
Katherine laid her hands on the steering wheel. She seemed to be feeling it for a special vibration. “I had to say goodbye to somebody, sweetie. I had to tell them something. I don't expect you to understand, okay?”
“We won't come here anymore?” Mallory asked hopefully.
“No,” Katherine said. “Our little secret. Okay?”
Katherine squeezed Mallory's knee, her fingers biting like ice. Mallory felt so relieved tears welled up in her eyes. The house seemed to be looking at her, waiting for her to promise.
“Secret,” Mallory said.
She promised she would never tell anyone about the house. Never in a million million years.
Norma Reyes was worried about the girls.
She wanted to call Katherine, make sure everything was all right. She wanted to pull her daughter straight through the phone line—kiss her forehead, pinch her cheeks, tell her, M'hijita, I am on your side. I am not mad anymore.
But she couldn't be the first to suggest calling. That would prove something to Chadwick—a lack of trust in Katherine, an admission that things were as bad as he believed they were.
He never approved of how she dealt with crises, and the crises always happened on her watch, because everything was Norma's watch. Twenty-four hours a day.
Norma had learned to be defensive—to play down Katherine's problems, because if she didn't, Chadwick would fly off the handle. Not emotionally. Never emotionally. But he'd get worked up with some crazy idea—like the therapy. Like medication. Like sending Katherine to pinche Texas. He would bring home educational manuals and the flavor-of-the-week child psychology book and make up a game plan to fix their daughter like she was some broken carburetor.
And he wondered why she hadn't been anxious to tell him about the heroin.
Now here they were, on the school playground, freezing their asses off, she and Ann sitting at the base of the play structure, watching their husbands teach each other karate like a couple of drunk idiots. John was laughing, the kindergarten quilt he'd paid $7,500 for draped over his shoulders so he looked like an Indian chief of the Crayola tribe.
Everyone else had left except the cleaning crew and a few staff members, who were putting their classrooms back together inside.
The wood plank under Norma's butt felt like an ice block. The paper lanterns above them dripped icicles. Inside, the night custodian Juan Carlos was blaring Frank Sinatra Christmas carols while he ran the vacuum cleaner, sucking up the booze and pâté crackers the parents had trampled into the classroom carpeting.
This was not fucking quality time. They would have to leave soon or freeze to death, but who was going to be the first to admit this idea was a failure? Who was going to break down and confess that they were nervous and unhappy and just wanted to go home?
Somewhere along the line, Norma's life—her marriage, her friendship, even the way she raised her daughter—had become a game of chicken. She and Chadwick were barreling along at top speed, pretending they weren't on a collision course, trying to be the last to flinch.
“You sure there's nothing I can do?” Ann asked.
What Norma heard: You need help because you're a failure.
Maybe that wasn't Ann's fault. She had the same tone of voice Chadwick did—steady and calm, bleached of emotion so you had to guess her feelings.
Norma was raised in a family where if somebody was mad, if somebody had a problem with you—you knew it. It would come flying at your head as a Bible, a tortilla press, a hand towel—something. Then you'd yell a little, and it was over. The way Chadwick and Ann expressed themselves—Norma had learned to be suspicious of every comment, because they weren't obvious. Their criticisms were like Chinese water torture. Norma guessed it must be a teacher thing.
John clunked his champagne bottle on the ground, tripped on the edge of the kindergarten quilt. “All right. Look. They have this thing they do with their elbow, right?”
“Give me that before you ruin it,” Ann said. “I'm freezing.”
John tossed her the quilt, and Ann spread it over her knees and Norma's—sharing automatically, moving in closer. The smell of acrylic paint wafted up from the fabric.
John did an elbow strike at Chadwick.
Chadwick shook his head sadly. “That would never work.”
“No? The Japanese should know, man.”
“John, karate's not Japanese. It's Okinawan.”
“What the fuck ever. Look, you're an Air Force guy. Come on, throw me a punch. Pretend I'm the Vietcong or whatever. I'll show you.”
They went at it, Chadwick halfheartedly playing the game, John laughing, trying to egg him on.
Ann mumbled, “Pathetic.”
John kept swinging. “Look, Chadwick. All I'm saying is, it's not all about muscle. You could—”
“Granted. It's about knowing when to get the hell away.”
“You could have a little more training than I've got, and one elbow strike could take you down.”
Norma smiled, despite herself. It was so ridiculous—her enormous husband who could never hurt a fly. If Chadwick had half of John Zedman's bravado, he could take over the world. The guy had been security police in the military, for God's sake, but in seventeen years of marriage, not a harsh word. Not a fist through the wall. Nothing. It drove Norma crazy.
She'd married him because he was handsome and intelligent and had been in the Air Force—all of which reminded her of her father. She'd thought that she would eventually get inside his silence. She knew there was something there—a spirit that came out the few times she saw him teach his classes. Or the nights when Katherine was little, when Norma would creep close to Katherine's bedroom and listen to Chadwick's stories, the way he would bring everything alive for her. But for Norma? She tried to think of a time he'd been truly on fire for her, and she had to convince herself there had been a honeymoon period like that. More and more, she wondered if it was just her imagination.