With Emily laid out in the funeral home’s basement and Earl in the kitchen of Ross’ apartment, reluctant to enter his empty home as the end of that awful day drew near, Ross still dreaded making that phone call. It was to Earl’s sister, Ann. He loved his niece and in some ways was a mentor to her, but as Ann grew older, they grew apart, for no reason other than the different lives people have, with little common ground besides blood.
Still, Ann was the closest relative not just to Earl, but also to Emily, whose immediate family was all dead and whose in-laws never bothered to make the attempt to keep in touch. During Ann’s rare visits to Connor she spent most of her time with Emily, with Earl so busy with the funeral home.
As his aged crooked finger gently ran down a list of numbers in small black book, Ross peered at Ann’s name, still Taylor, and the exotic address, some Rue or another, in some place in Paris, France. Ross began dialing a number. The ringing began, and continued for some time before he heard a faint ‘hello?’
Earl spent the night on the bedding he placed on the floor, unable to sleep in the bed he shared with Emily. He spent most of the night unaware of being awake or asleep, except for when he dressed and went downstairs to the living room to acknowledge his neighbors’ sympathy. It was possible the entire town of Connor turned out to pay its respect to Emily Taylor. Visitation was two nights for four hours each, and both nights the funeral home on State and Elm overflowed with folks wanting to offer some word of kindness to Earl and Ann and Ross.
The Episcopal church was packed for her funeral service. The procession to the cemetery was 35 cars long and the crowd at the graveside service numbered over 500, according to Dave Weisbrodt, who was there with his brothers and a cousin, all policemen and close friends of the Taylor family.
Emily Taylor wasn’t particularly religious but she did attend Episcopalian services somewhat regularly, sang with deep reverence, and knew the music by heart. The rector said she would be remembered as someone who always gave of her time to any cause no matter how small. Many mourners from all over Connor were there because of a kindness she showed during some time of need, and most of the time it had nothing do with the funeral home or the church, or the women’s aid committees and other charitable groups. Everyone who knew her knew she took a personal interest in nearly everyone in Connor. No one ever had anything bad to say about Emily Taylor.
Earl’s shock and grief were still too deep within him to rightly acknowledge the outpouring of love and kindness folks showed for Emily. He spent most of those hours nodding his head, tilting it to one side, rubbing a handkerchief under his nose, and throwing pleading looks at Ross whenever he felt truly overwhelmed. Despite soldiering on at the funeral home and maintaining his poise during the services, he was numb, and his soul had a perpetual raw, nagging ache.
With the burial over, the crowd dispersed, Joe and Sam set about rearranging the funeral home to its normal state. Ross undid his tie and sank into his brown leather easy chair in his apartment. He could barely stand up, and was glad he had the excuse of grief to hide his pain. He didn’t know how much longer he could keep his secret; he certainly didn’t want to blurt out, now of all times, Dr. Burger’s diagnosis.
The morning after the funeral, Earl found one of the half-dozen coffee cakes he found in his kitchen, gifts from his caring neighbors, and crossed the wide driveway to Ross’s apartment on the second floor of the funeral home. He found Ross dressed in his usual black slacks, white shirt, and black necktie, his shoes shined to a high gloss, the few strands of white hair remaining carefully placed exactly where he thought they should be.
Ross fetched a cup of coffee as Earl explained that he had to leave that house, where he was born, lived his whole life, next to the family funeral home at the corner of State and Elm. Ross knew Emily had been born in the house on the other side and she and Earl grew up and fell in love and lived their lives together closer than most couples he had known. So Ross only nodded his understanding, accepting Earl’s need be away from where he had known love and loss. There was nothing to say to a nephew in such grief. All Ross knew how to do was place his aged hand on Earl’s shoulder.
Earl said goodbyes to Ross, telling him he was going to the lake house and that he’d be back soon, then packed a bag. He was wan and spent and aimless and restless and missed Emily intensely, and knew he couldn’t spend another minute in that house, the house he’d grown up in and then shared with Emily. Her absence was fresh, raw and painful, and he knew he didn’t want to be alone in that house, the house he lived in with and without his father and brother, with and without his mother, and now, with and without his wife. Earl wanted nothing more than to park his Chevy next to the lake house and stare at that lake for a long, long time.
The Adirondack chair on the porch overlooking the lake was warm from the summer sun and Earl’s body heat. He’d been sitting in it for hours on end and this was his third day at the lake. Every day Earl sipped beer and thought about Emily. He hadn’t bothered to go to town for food or the mail. There was enough food in the cupboard. He wasn’t at all interested in having news from the outside world invade his. He hadn’t turned on the radio since arriving. The television wasn’t worth the bother.
The lake house was really a farm house Earl paid to have moved, whole, on a flatbed semi truck from Anderson’s farm to the property he bought right on the lakefront, at the far end of Connor County. With the crawl space dug and the foundation poured and the utilities ready to be set, the two-story Federal-style frame house was put in place by a friend in the heavy equipment business, and Earl spent the rest of the summer of 1950 building a porch on three sides, a 15 foot square addition off the back, and a barn 30 yards or so away from the back door, for the mower and tools. There was about an acre of grass to mow around the house and the driveway was nothing but gravel, for an eighth of a mile. It was three miles to the nearest town, a postage stamp state highway crossroads with a gas station, general store, diner and post office for the surrounding farms. There were a few places like it left in post-war Indiana. Progress hadn’t reached this corner of the state and no one was complaining.
Earl sat in those whitewashed wooden chairs and thought many thoughts, like how the house was supposed to be a getaway from the pressure of always having to something to do at the funeral home. It was for family and summers and children. Emily so wanted children. Her 20s were spent trying to get pregnant but suffered miscarriages, one after the other. The year she was 32 she was pregnant and it seemed everything was going along so well until she developed toxemia and then baby died in her womb. After that the doctor said she should not get pregnant again. There was surgery for her, and for Earl, to help guarantee that. They wept that morning they had their procedures.
Earl knew it had taken Emily years to reconcile the fact she would have no children. Earl took it as a sign of failure. Good husband, good provider, responsible son and business partner, just unable to be a father, to give his wife what she dearly wanted. She told him time and again that she accepted their fate, that she was fine with it and that they should be thankful for each other, and Earl knew she was right, but deep down it was one more thing to be disappointed about.
Earl did not serve during the war, so he had no war experience, nothing to share with the men he knew from school who had left home and then came back so different, and still so themselves. Then his friends became fathers, joking about the ‘buns in the oven’ and ‘yard apes’ and ‘mouths to feed’ and then boasts of daughters’ recitals and sons’ little league successes and good grades and science fairs. Earl would listen politely and nod his head, but he had no more notion of being a father than Ross did, the old bachelor.
Emily and Earl’s friends knew they had no children and politely skipped mentioning it when they thought of it, and as the years passed, with friends marrying and starting families, it was just another thing that made Earl feel he was different from the other fellows. And even though Earl liked to think of his students as his children, at the end of the day, with the house so quiet, so still, with Emily brushing her hair, sitting on the bed, staring out the window, Earl was aware she wasn’t tucking in her children, reading them a bedtime story or listening to their prayers. That silence tucked them into their bed, the weight of disappointment became their blanket.
The subject of children was never mentioned between them, not after the final miscarriage. But Earl felt it deep, deep in his gut, that there was an essential part of him that just wasn’t right. And as Earl sat in the Adirondack chair, staring at the lake, those first few days after Emily died, with a feeling like he had been disemboweled. He sat in the chair with his mind floating free, then without warning the ache to just be with her overcame him in such intense spurts, he felt faint.
What invaded Earl’s mind as he sat in the chairs, drinking beer and staring at that lake, was was running to the house, finding Emily on a gurney with a sheet over her face, then having no escape from the endless lines of people telling him how wonderful Emily was and how much she was going to be missed. He wanted to shout at all of them “I am the only one who’s going to miss her! I made love to her that morning! We loved each other with all our hearts!” but the people who came through the house, paying their respects, were just being polite, saying it was only right that it the home was so full, too full to hold all the people who came to remember Emily. There they were, person after person, old and young, from childhood days to the present, one person after another having nothing but a kind word about Emily. Earl didn’t want to hear any of it. He wanted Emily there, sitting on the sofa, telling him about her day.
It took three days for him to wander to the back of the house, to the back rooms, Emily’s rooms, which he treated as her private lair. To Earl’s recollection, he never found any compelling reason to enter them, no in the thirty-some years they were together in that house.
And nothing in the two rooms would have indicated that a male ever inhabited them. Figurines, knickknacks, a bolt of cloth, a sewing machine, a dressmaker’s dummy, yarn, patterns, and in the middle of the room, an overstuffed easy chair with doilies and a side table holding a lamp, pincushions and thimbles. On the other side of the room there was a trunk with scattered bits of newspapers, and some books.
Earl knew Emily sat in the room for hours just sewing or reading. He knew that in the back of the house the grove blocked the sun so didn’t beat down and make the room unbearably warm but there was still good indirect sunlight.
He looked into the other room and saw a table with an old manual typewriter he knew had never been used in years, covered by a dust cover, and books, some quite dusty and moldy, on three sides of the room, on shelves from the chair back molding to the ceiling. Most of the books in the room belonged to his sister Ann, a doctor with a UN agency who spent most of her time with medical missions in Africa. Emily sometime’s called it Ann’s room, and there was were two easy chairs with matching end tables.
As he turned to leave the room a trunk he didn’t recognize caught his attention. It was neither a steamer trunk nor a something resembling a military footlocker. It was really just an old, battered brown chest with a lid and withered brown straps, and a lock and key mechanism that fell undone. It was under a table by the far wall. Earl could not ever remember seeing it, and its presence puzzled him.
Placing the paper and pens on the table, he knelt down to open the trunk. Blowing away dust, he lifted the lid and found the trunk empty except for manuscripts with cover sheets, held together with long tacks in holes from a three-hole punch. Each cover has a title, and at the bottom of the page is the name E.W. Taylor and year, going back 21 years, and in pencil, small marks indicating #2, #3, up to #14. He lifted #4, saw 1962 written on the first inside page, and begins reading. A girl and a boy, riding bicycles out the old town road to the woods north of the lake, finding the ponds hidden in the groves, claiming the spot for the own, each daring the other to wade into the cold spring-fed waters.
It only took a moment before Earl realized he was reading a novel Emily wrote many years before. It may have been written in 1962 but he recognizes the events in the story, a bike ride the two took out into the country when they were 11 or 12. And he could not stop reading the story. It is a captivating, clear and clean and exciting in more ways than what he remembered. As he reads it, he found it strangely appealing.
“These all must be stories,” Earl said as he lifted each one up, thumbing through one after another before setting back down into the trunk. Each one seems to be as good as the next. The words flowed, and he recognizes Emily’s wit and imagination.
Holding the thick manuscript, he never realized he slid to the floor, dropping like a sack of flour, aware only of the discovery of a hidden truth in front of him. A trunk full of manuscripts, of stories Emily must have written, and he never knew anything about them. A total and complete secret, something Emily never shared, never said a word.
It was minutes before Earl realized he was staring at words on a page, words his wife had written, words that seemed to flow so easily, words that told a story Earl could only pretend to be able to tell. The shock sent him to a place in his grief where he could only demand to know why? Why didn’t she ever tell him about the stories? Why did he have to find them in a trunk after she died? Why?
And at just that moment he remembered an envelope he saw in the stack of mail, neglected and lonely on the table in the kitchen.
Running to the kitchen, he grabbed the mail and sure enough: Smith + DeWitt, a publisher in New York, addressed to E.W. Taylor, with the lake house address.
The shock of seeing the manuscripts somehow made finding the envelope seem like the punch line to a cosmic joke. The postmark is from four weeks ago.
Emily must have had some of the mail sent to the lake house address in order to keep him from seeing it, was all Earl could think of. He collapsed in a chair as another shock overtook him while he read the words on the fine stationery: This is a second letter, informing E. W. Taylor they liked the manuscript and were still waiting for a decision to go ahead.
Earl’s head spin. “Could she have been hiding it all this time? Was she ever going to tell me about any this? Why didn’t she tell me about all this? What was she hiding? What was the point of not telling me about any of this?”
He returned to the back bedroom, holding the publisher’s letter, surveyed the manuscripts, taking it all in when he spots an envelope at the bottom of the trunk. It’s in Emily’s hand. He gasps, seeing her slanted, round script.
Opening the envelope, a letter from six years before falls to the floor. He sets himself onto the floor before reaching over to pick it up. He has trouble focusing on the letters. It reads:
“If you are reading this then something must have happened to allow you to see my babies, all of them neat and tidy, covered and complete. I wrote these stories as something to do many years ago, and over time I began to consider them our children.
“When we could not be blessed with children of our own they became even more precious to me, and I guess, even more private and personal. Some of the stories are about growing up with mama and papa, and how lonely my life was except for the wonderful family next door, your family. Some of them are about our adventures as children. Some of them are about how life changes for a woman, who falls in love, marries, finds herself as happy as life could possibly allow, happy to face every new day with the man she loves.
“Of course some of the stories are silly nonsense, too, but I love them all. Please, please forgive me for not sharing them with you, darling. I guess I wanted to have just one thing that was mine, my very own, and I selected this. I never meant to keep my babies a secret, and I’m sure someday I’ll tell you all about them and this silly old letter will be something to laugh about.
“Please know that I love you with all my heart, that you are the best man in the world and I am so lucky to have you for my very own. I thank God and the fates that allowed me to come into the world the same day as you, next door to you, my darling. To have you in my life, almost from inception, was something more than I could have ever asked for, or deserve.
Earl folded the paper, gently placed it back into the envelope and placed it on top of one of the stacks of manuscripts. Softly shuffling out of the room and down the hallway, Earl grabbed a beer and returned to his Adirondack chair, a million questions invading to his mind.
An Emily he never began to emerge from the pages of stories in a trunk in a back bedroom, an Emily who spent so many years of her life writing, writing, writing.
Staring at nothing, he thinks and drinks until he can do neither.