A WORLD lit up by the glint of snow. They drove the long drive in, up the steadily sloping hill, winding for no good reason around sweeping curves carved into the vast and open grounds. Pete Connerly drove and hummed along with the radio, finger-tapping the steering-wheel to the beat. Del Connerly imagined the view from the rooms in the main upper building, the distant unbroken boundary of pine trees rising up like a wall to keep everything on the other side out and the inmates in. Or in the words of Dr. something or other whose last name sounded like Mozambique, “to maintain balance and safety, to keep the treatment sacrosanct.” Between the hospital and the far-off trees, only the shocking brightness of the snow in this season of contrasts. Anyone trying to flee would be seen like an ant in yogurt.
“Park here?” said Pete.
“OK,” said Del, “this is fine.” She didn’t care where Pete parked, but Pete was the kind of man who checked with her on everything stupid and nothing important.
They were here to see their daughter Mary, who hadn’t spoken a word in almost a year. They had let her stay in her room at home for a while—most of the whole long month after the assault. Del would scrape softly at the door, then louder and louder as Mary stayed silent. Del and Pete left trays of food on the floor outside her door. They stood and listened for signs of animation. Not hearing them, sometimes they cracked the door and looked in to make sure she was still there with them, on this earth. She lifted her head and stared. She was like an injured animal, a thing with feelings beyond their reach.
Del sat at the edge of the bed and rubbed her back, starting at the knobs of the spine and making expanding outward circles. No words. Just touch, the best connection. It was odd to feel nothing moving in reply—no tension in the muscles—and yet the terrible warmth of Mary’s flesh coming through her t-shirt.
“She’s like a factory that’s being heated, but it isn’t making anything,” Del told Pete. The smell of the room got worse every day.
Pete favored words over touch. He sat in the dark, in the chair beside the bed, and whispered to his daughter. He told her he loved her and that he was there to help her in any way she needed, whatever she wanted, that he would listen to anything she had to say whenever she was ready to start talking again. Then he waited to see if Mary would respond. It was like sending signals out into space to see if there was detectable life. He heard the breath go in and out of his daughter, some normal kind of process occurring.
Day after day they repeated their efforts of care. Still Mary did not speak or stir very much from her bed. Her cell phone sat on the dresser unused, the battery dead. So they knew she was not talking to others, not to her friends or her big sister in Florida or her former boyfriend Dave Stoers, who had called the house a couple of times and spoken to Pete to see how Mary was doing—about which Del overheard Pete lying and snatched the phone away and told Dave the truth. Del thought it would be a good thing if people knew, whereas Pete thought it was a bad thing and tried to keep it bottled up inside their house. Del’s feeling was who the hell were they fooling? Their house was too small to hold a secret this size.
But when Father Walker finally came by (Del complained it was taking him too long to visit), Pete cried like a baby, the sobs shaking his shoulders to the point where Del got worried.
It was Mary who called a halt. In the middle of July, she slid a note out under the door one night. “I don’t feel safe,” she had written. “I think I need to be in a hospital.”
BELVEDERE HILL. The bills were being paid by benefactors. The story had been all over the news—TV and the papers. Del worked in a real estate office, and a lawyer there helped her set up a charitable trust to accept donations. It was amazing how total strangers were moved to help. She was one of those people who saw a story like that and thought it would be nice if she and Pete made a contribution, but then she never did. So now she appreciated better the people who actually followed through, wrote the check, sent it off.
They sat in the car a few minutes. They were freakishly early since that was Pete’s nature. He rested his forehead on the steering wheel and appeared to Del like an accident victim. She felt Mary’s presence in the air somehow, as if the turmoil of her mind mixed in with all the other pained auras of Belvedere, leaked out of the buildings and into the general winter atmosphere, and made its identifiable way to Del sitting in the car.
The steering wheel was sure to leave a red depression in Pete’s forehead. “What time is it?” she asked him. He looked startled.
“Were you asleep?” she asked him, amazed.
He had been at his group the night before. Father Walker had suggested it to Pete, seeing in him the awful overwhelming grief. Suggested it to both of them, really. A group to help the families of the victims of terrible crimes heal themselves and each other—what groups did by taking turns listening, supporting, being present in the moment with others who are also in pain. But Del liked reaching out to friends, not strangers, whereas Pete wanted only total strangers to know.
“I’m a little tired, yes,” said Pete.
Del nodded. “Should we go in?” Pete shrugged, but he opened the car door. The sound of it disrupted Del’s sense of Mary’s presence.
There was a big sunny room set aside for visiting families. Mary sat in a customary corner, on a couch as though she’d been placed there—posed just so. Her hair was always perfect. The hospital, having failed so far to fix Mary’s mind, could make sure she looked smart and put together, that her hair was nice. A caregiver named Sully told Pete and Del that Mary was just now returned from therapy, but they knew that already; Mary’s schedule was committed to memory. Del tried to see in Mary’s demeanor the great benefits of the therapeutic relationship. (Though it was hard for Del to imagine talk therapy without Mary’s speaking. Maybe she wrote down her thoughts, as she had when she asked to be taken to Belvedere.) The corners of Mary’s mouth struggled upward in a smile that never quite made it, though it passed as recognition.
“Hey, there, love,” said Pete, capturing one hand between both of his own. Mary looked around the large room as though her father’s sound had come from some distant piece of molding or a hinge. The visit went much as it always did. Silently, in stillness, all of the unused emptiness of the room exaggerated by their inability to fill it with conversation, laughter, the pleasure of their reconnection.
They allowed the time to pass in this way. They did not think the word “madness,” but it was there for them to see. Their daughter went out jogging along the Jamaicaway one Saturday afternoon in the spring, some sixteen months before. At some point along her route, she was coveted, dragged into bushes and insanity by a man named Linton Rowe. He beat and raped her, left her for dead, her running shorts jammed in her mouth for a gag. May 2003. Now it was fall 2004, all the changes in Mary bad ones.
“She might as well be dead,” Pete sometimes said. Del knew he didn’t mean it, that she thought the very same thing herself sometimes without meaning it. The wreckage of Mary brought madness to all of them it touched. When Pete wished death on his daughter, he was only lamenting the awful change—all the life that was already missing from her now. Del understood. Mary herself understood, Del believed. As though her mind had gone deep into the woods and left no breadcrumbs by which to find its way home.
They sat in the quiet bright room, alone with Mary. Sully interrupted once to bring them coffee, juice with meds for Mary. By now Sully knew how they took their coffee. Thank you, Sully, they said. Mary tilted up her head for the juice and pills. A little bird, compliant and hopeful. Maybe these pills are the ones!
Later they met with Dr. Monbouquette for his sad report of tiny steps forward taken slowly—a gesture, a bark of excitement, the ability to catch a ball two tries out of ten (“a sign of connection to others”)—then the list of medications now abandoned and replaced by other newer ones to try. Then assorted treatment permissions to sign.
Linton Rowe was caught in the act of committing this very same sort of assault upon someone else, a jogger along the Jamaicaway dragged into the exact same bushes and also gagged with her own running shorts. An alert passersby saw something, called 9-1-1, saved the woman from the very worst of it. Police put the two crimes together, came and questioned Mary. But Mary was by then no help—stared at pictures, shook her head, wept. Speech did not vanish right away, but Del believed the questioning had done its part to push things along. The madness came as much from the sudden reappearance in Mary’s mind of the thing that had happened as from the assault itself at the original time. The police couldn’t know. Maybe Mary was that fragile to begin with, her life just waiting for the upsetting thing that would turn out the light. They bore down on her, justified it to Del and Pete by saying they needed Mary’s earlier, more severe, assault in order to add weight to the case. It was a problem that Linton Rowe had no adult record.
The police made it feel like Pete and Del’s failure that Mary could not participate in the case. Pete took it on, bore it hard, drank more and stared at his hands. Mary ceased to speak, as though saying nothing could prevent her from saying something she would be sorry for.
“You’re over-thinking it,” Del was told by her good friend Monica. “Sometimes a thing is just too much.”
Dr. Monbouquette asked if they had any questions. Which was like asking the ocean if it had any waves. But they had learned by now it was his signal that they were done, that he had no more to tell them, that it was time now for them to leave.
DEL SOMETIMES argued with Pete over the value of his therapy group versus the value of their friends—her friends.
“Friends are steadfast,” Del would say. “You have history with them. You’ve tested them. You can trust them.”
“Maybe so. But the job of a friend is to be your friend. The job of the group is to help you understand and heal. And the others know you’ll do the same for them. So it’s like a transaction. Even Steven.”
When Pete would come home from the group, he couldn’t be with her right away. He had to sit by himself and “come down from the intensity of it.” That was how he put it, and it sounded like something he’d been taught to say and do. He said the drive home was too short to get himself back to himself—the normal Pete that Del knew. He said his head was still full of everyone’s voices, their faces, the physical heat of the room as emotions climbed higher and higher.
But when Del asked Pete about what happened, when she wanted the gritty details of who said what, Pete clammed up. It was a rule, Pete said, that people in the group had privacy rights. What was said there was meant to stay in the room.
“But if it’s just about you…”
“In the group, there is no me without the others. It’s all mixed together. It’s a united thing that’s bigger than any one individual.”
By now Del had learned, but still it rankled. Whenever she got together with Jen or Maggie or Dawn, there was no rule that she couldn’t share it with Pete. Unless it was something private and confidential to them, something Del wouldn’t have to be told to keep quiet. But if it was about Del herself, whatever she said and they said, whatever all of them felt about it—all of that she shared with Pete.
“But those are people in our life,” Pete told her. “We have that understanding with them. Within the group we have a different understanding. We’re all there to dig deep, explore the pain like it’s a cave we’re going down into, all of us roped together.”
To Del it sounded like mumbo-jumbo. Without the details, all he gave her was the nonsense. It required the details to give shape to the nonsense. What if somebody told you about the Girl Scouts but they never told you what they did at their meetings, they just said it was the special sacred communion of girls becoming strong together?
Early on, Del thought maybe there was no group, that it was just a lie, a cover for something else Pete was up to. She was suspicious and paranoid. Mary’d just gone off to Belvedere Hill and she and Pete were alone in the house. So, she followed him out one night, feeling all investigative and sly but also not a bit comfortable with herself.
Dawn had said, “I’m sure it’s nothing.” Jen had said, “You better fucking not get caught.” When he turned in at Holy Redeemer, Del just kept going, stopped at the supermarket—to give herself some after-the-fact better purpose—and picked up two percent milk and Pete’s favorite Pepperidge Farm Brussels cookies. She returned home feeling like crap. She sat in the dark until Pete got back, and she confessed she’d followed him.
“You did?” He was so surprised! “Why?”
She shook her head. “I don’t know. Everything’s so secret feeling. It just seems like if a person won’t talk about something, then something’s not quite right about it.”
“Well, if you’re so fucking curious you can always join. Then you’ll see all the why and wherefore. You’ll know all the terrible dark secrets.”
After that night they often had the conversation about Del joining. It went round and round in a circle. Pete had upon him the joy of the new. She thought he’d never let it go. “That way we can share the whole experience, you’ll know everything there is to know. You’ll go just as deep as I do.”
And that was the thing—Pete felt abandoned by Del and Del by Pete. And Pete saw the path to reunion so clearly whereas Del thought there must be a middle ground that didn’t require her to join.
“We can’t each have our own way of taking care?”
“We can,” was how it always ended. But it was just two short angry words, nothing that really meant anything else.
And so it went along like that. Because Mary was “uncooperative,” Linton Rowe was arraigned on the single count of assault with intent to rape. The witness and victim identifications were shaky. It was a question of dusk and distance for the witnesses, disorienting panic and fear for the victim—a young woman like Mary, living at home with her parents, working downtown in her very first real job, running after work for the exercise and because it was a habit.
Identification was all there was to the case, and when it finally went forward, Linton Rowe was acquitted. A reasonable doubt was what took the place of Mary. The police and the prosecutor made it clear. Pete finally yelled at the prosecutor, a Hispanic woman in a mannish suit, “He made her insane, and we can’t make her well.”
“He’ll do it again to someone else’s daughter,” the woman said. It was like a TV show.
“We tried,” Pete said simply. “We tried.” And Del nodded too, feeling equally accused, and slung her arm over her husband’s shoulders. The nerve of this bitch, she thought.
AT MASS, Mary was always mentioned as someone to be in everyone’s prayers. Del would cry during the reading of this long list, silently, her vision becoming wet and her chin quivering. It was mostly the first names only, and she wondered if people knew which of all the many possible Marys was in distress and needed prayer. Some weeks there were two, distinguished by last initials—Mary M. and Mary C.—and then it was easier to know.
She tried to rise out of the swamp of it. She showed her houses. She praised the empty rooms, the light, the spaciousness, the flooring, the closets, the woodwork, the heating system, the brand new appliances. She swept open doors as though there was an exciting prize behind. She summoned positive magic to herself, but the magic would not come. She tried to properly love the homes, love even more the people who were looking for homes in this downturned market where the sellers were scared and the buyers were sure they were incorrectly timing the bottom, that they needed to wait longer.
Even without her own troubled heart, Del understood that these times were not right for magic. The Iraq war, the weakening economy, the people going crazy and shooting innocents in schools and malls and office buildings. Gangs. The infrastructure.
One day she showed a perfectly nice but unremarkable condo on Barnett Avenue in Jamaica Plain to a heavyset older woman in too-small jeans and a Tom Brady Patriots jersey. The woman wore a wedding ring and seemed not quite the condo type, but never mind. Del showed her through the place. The woman followed along but hardly even entered the rooms—poked her head in and nodded, cooed a little, and then signaled she was ready to move on to whatever was the next fine selling point. She seemed a little bit nervous, and she asked no questions about the sorts of things Del had learned typically matter to buyers: schools, taxes, was it oil or natural gas, was there off-street parking, where’s the nearest shopping, the T, whatever. Instead, she asked Del about Del in a way that felt like an interview.
And finally she confessed that her name was Margaret Spahn, and she belonged to the therapy group where Pete was a member. Her nervousness vanished and she turned bold and aggressive. She sat Del down on the couch in the living room as though the condo were her own damn castle and she was its queen. She took Del’s right hand between her two and began to talk in a soothing voice about how she understood what Del was going through, “the terrible loss and so forth.” Del was simply stunned. No, she was stunned and curious too. She let the woman go on about how much Pete needed her to be in the group, how it was selfish of Del not to “accompany” Pete on his journey. How her own husband Jimmy had been unsure at first, but he trusted and went along with her. “And now he’s so glad he did,” said Margaret Spahn.
“Our son was stabbed to death in a fight in a bar. Innocent bystander. Total misery for all of us. It’s been just two years.”
Del thought back to high school where a girl like this one would have swooned to have a kind word from Del Kinsella. Del had been that level of popular girl for whom the hallways parted. Not a bitch at all, but someone with standing, a personality that stood out and was respected and looked up to. She didn’t need to be told who she was or what she should do—she already knew those things. She sat now on the couch in this shitty little condo and wanted to bitch-slap Margaret Spahn silly, put her on the ground in a hammer lock and make her cry.
But instead she slowly drew her hand away from its soft captivity and said, “So I guess you won’t be taking the place?”
She spent the rest of the day considering the implications. Pete was devoting time in his therapy group to discuss his wife, her estrangement from the group perhaps retarding his healing progress. Maybe the plan to have Margaret Spahn confront Del had been hatched during one of the sessions. It felt creepy to Del. It felt like a violation. Having lunch at her desk she closed her eyes and imagined the conversation, lots of people pitching in. You say she’s a real-estate agent, right? Maybe one of us can have her show us a house?
That night she talked it over with Pete. She was careful in her approach—the group was so important to him. Despite how angry she was, she remained calm and didn’t attack him. If he really wanted her to, she told him, she would agree to join the group. But she also said she preferred to find her own way through this crazy experience. “I’m not a big fan of groups,” she said. “I’m not comfortable with strangers. And the fact that you let me be set up like that—well, it makes me two things: pissed off and really sad. And it makes me wonder about how the whole thing works, who decides things and so forth. Was this a sign of good judgment? Did anyone say it was a bad idea? Where were you in all of this, Pete? You’re the one who knows me.”
“I’m sorry, Del. It was wrong. Everyone got carried away. I should have stopped it.”
“And now, even if I did join the group, how would I feel in the room with all those people? I’d look at them funny. I’d always be wondering about them.”
“Yes, I can see that now, Del. Yes.” His voice caught. “It was such a bad idea. I’m so sorry.”
And that’s why Del loved Pete—because so few men can offer a good sincere apology.
“It’s OK,” said Del. “It is. It’s just, I want to get through this in my own way. Can I do that, Pete?” She was crying hard now, and it just poured out.
“Alright. Not another word, I swear.” Here, they hugged for all it was worth, for themselves and Mary and the whole situation.
And Pete had been good as gold for the last six months. Not badgering, not even telling her all the time how much the group was helping him. And Del, for her part, did not tell Pete how certain she was that Mary wasn’t ever coming back to them, that she had somehow slipped off into the dark forever, broken into pieces by something that other people might have gotten over no matter how big and powerful it was. They went to see Mary the weekend after the Red Sox won the World Series for the first time since 1918. Mary had always loved the Sox, and she was wearing the Manny Ramirez t-shirt, but Del didn’t doubt that it had been chosen for her, not by her.
“She looked very good, I thought,” said Del.
“Yes,” said Pete, in whose eyes Del thought she detected some tears.
They were driving back down the hill from seeing Mary. Del reached over and patted Pete’s knee. It was quiet. The wheels crunched snow and ice from the freak early snowfall. Pete, in his shades, paid sharp attention to the switchback curves. He took his driving as seriously as he took every task, big or small, as if the ground ahead of them might open up and swallow them both. As if it already had, and they found themselves now in a strange new place underneath the world’s surface.