Excerpt from Lily’s Game

That ghastly woman with her brood of ragamuffins invaded the ward again this morning. Why they allow my neighbor in the next cell such conjugal visits I can’t imagine, even if his murderous history is long past. At least my plunge into such darkness was done less publicly and spectacularly. Efficiently, even.

But like him, my descent was long ago. We have that much in common, I suppose, even if I have never been redeemed by the rosy aura of family and children that he now enjoys. All of us here are far past our misdeeds, and are lightly supervised, conscientiously counseled, watched carefully for signs of regression. But they will not know why that gaggle of children disturbs me so, or more accurately, why one of them does.

She is the oldest of them, perhaps ten years old, the same age as myself when I first met Lily. And her blond hair has the same soft sheen Lily’s had, the same pageboy cut. More troubling to me, though, is her serious, unblinking stare, which she fixed on me this morning as her pack of babbling siblings passed by. I confess that in a brief rush of the same madness that made them put locks and bars between me and the docile public, I thought the young urchin was Lily. It was only a moment’s slip, and I have it firmly under control now, as I have for most of the last twenty-odd years. But for that one moment...

It’s impossible she’s returned. Isn’t it? 

In that one moment, I saw not only Lily, but the house we both lived in, set against the bleak winter Berkshires. I always imagine the house in winter, even though it was early spring when I saw it for the first time. The hills were just furred with green, the narrow country roads were still empty of tourists from New York or Boston that overran the place every summer. We had driven up from Springfield that morning (it was a longer drive in those days, the interstate still not complete) and had met the real estate agent at his office in Northampton.

It’s curious how mundane details stick in one’s mind. The agent’s car was a Cadillac Eldorado, red with white trim. As it purred its way out of town and into the surrounding hills, the smell of its new leather seats mixed with my mother’s familiar perfume, the scent wafting back toward me in the cavernous back seat. The two of them were busy chatting when the house floated into view between them through the front windshield, leaving me those precious few seconds when the house and I looked at each other, alone. It was a gray, misty afternoon that softened the house’s edges and shrouded its secrets. But I felt like it had been waiting for us, and I knew we would live there.

But my mother had her doubts as soon as her gaze settled on it. “It’s bigger than I imagined,” she said to the agent. “Bigger than the ad made it sound.”

Mr. Harlan - sleek, black hair; the rugged skin of an outdoorsman - waved a big, gnarled hand at the house. “Three bedrooms, two baths,” he said. His voice was gruff and coarse, not like the gentle smoothness of my father’s. Mr. Harlan glanced at me in the rear view mirror. “Is it just the two of you?”

“My husband was killed in Vietnam last year,” my mother said, and paused, waiting for the additional information from me that had become part of our standard response over the last year to such inquiries. We had become used to them by then.

“He was killed in a place called Mei Dong,” I dutifully said. “It’s one hundred and forty two miles northwest of Saigon. He was killed in a Viet Cong ambush.” I suppose it must have sounded like I was reciting a class lesson, but by then my mother’s grief over the loss had become such a part of her that it barely registered with me anymore; or, rather, it had added a kind of tragic beauty to her that etched her more deeply in my mind and heart, even if it had hardened into a boundary between us I couldn’t cross. That’s why I wanted her to like the house, as I did. It would have been something for us to share.

I suppose all sons consider their mothers beautiful, if not physically then in some other, less obvious, way. But my mother was, in fact, strikingly handsome. She was tall, slim, and in those days wore her dark hair long to her shoulders. Some women might have let themselves go at the loss of a husband, but my mother seemed to pay even more careful attention to her appearance after my father was killed. I remember her at the burial ceremony at Springfield’s veteran’s cemetery, my father’s bronze coffin glinting in the sun as she accepted the folded flag that had covered it. Try as they might, none of the men present could take their eyes off her.

By now we had pulled up in front of the house. As my mother reached to open the car door, Mr. Harlan touched her gently on the arm. “I’m so sorry,” he said. “It’s a lousy war.”

“Most wars are,” my mother replied simply, before pulling her arm away and getting out of the car. Mr. Harlan turned to me and plastered a bright smile on his face, as if a child wouldn’t understand sympathy. “Well!” he boomed. “Seth, isn’t it?” I nodded. “Why don’t we take a look at your new house?”

We stood by the car, the three of us, staring at the house as if waiting for it to speak and explain itself. It sat on a rough stone foundation smeared with green slashes of moss and lichen. Above the foundations rose three clapboard stories topped by what I later knew was a gambrel roof, but which at the time looked to me like a huge, rounded hood that had been draped over the frame below. The roof was pierced by two windowed gables with Gothic trim, that made it seem like the house was raising its eyebrows in surprise at its visitors. The windows on the lower stories - three on each side of a central porch - were without adornment and stared blankly back at us. It had once been painted white, but the paint was faded now, so it was hard to tell where the house ended and the mist began.

Mr. Harlan consulted his notebook. “The lot’s about four acres.” He turned to me and pointed to a corner of the house. “There’s a nice big backyard for you to play in, right around there.” I ran ahead of them to see. 

The yard’s expanse of green seemed immense to me, the ragged lawn jeweled by the mist stretching away from me to a blurred horizon, where the soft outline of an oak tree floated. Underneath it stood a small figure - a child, I realized, just like me. It raised its hand as if to wave, and I did the same just as my mother and Mr. Harlan came around the corner. I turned to them, my hand still in the air.

“Who on earth are you waving at?” my mother wanted to know, so I turned back to point the figure out to them. But it had disappeared.

“I thought I saw somebody standing over there,” I told them. “Maybe it was one of the neighborhood kids.”

“Then they're pretty far from home,” Mr. Harlan said. “The nearest house is five miles away. But you could have a lot of your friends over to play in this yard.” He reached down and tousled my hair. My mother never did that, not since my father was killed. I was about to say that I didn’t have many friends, but my mother quickly stepped in.

“Never mind,” she said. “It was just the fog playing tricks.”

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