June 2002


he George Washington Br idge had never been anything but strong and beautiful, its arches monumental, cables thin and high. Kate watched them spindling like ribs past the car window as her husband drove eastbound across the span. It was a testimony to optimism, a suspension bridge, each far-fetched plate, truss, and girder an act of faith against gravity and good sense. The sun was strong, glinting off the bridge and hitting the river like shattered glass. Drivers traveling in both directions were shielding their eyes, staring as she was down the length of Manhattan. She didn’t know what any of them expected to see. Mushroom clouds? Skywriting in Arabic? She wished for some visible sign of drama where the towers had once stood. Then she looked toward Queens, even though it was impossible to see the site from this distance. Few people were even looking anymore, though she always would. The car reached the end of the bridge and she exhaled. Chris glanced over and she faced the window with what she hoped looked like ordinary interest, damp-palmed hands loose in her lap. He angled the rearview mirror to check the backseat. The children were still asleep. “Has Dave gone back to work yet?” His voice was grave, in the way someone speaks about a bad diagnosis.


Nichole Bernier

She put her foot up on the dash. “A few months ago. His company let him take as much time as he needed.” Chris nodded, satisfied. It was the right thing for the company to do, and he liked when the right thing was done with a minimum of drama. “What’s he doing with the kids? Did she have family close by?” “No. There’s no one.” A trickle of cool air from the vent brought gooseflesh to her leg. “He found a nanny through an agency.” “It’s strange to think of Elizabeth’s kids with a nanny.” That was the first thing she had thought too, like Julia Child farming out the cooking to a housekeeper. “People do it all the time, Chris. Not everyone stays home with their kids.” He looked over, gauging her. “You know that’s not what I meant, Kate.” She turned back to the window and wiped the corner of her eye as if she were ridding it of an irritation. A nanny in Elizabeth Martin’s house. The obvious things weren’t what affected her most—the obituary, the ser vice, even visiting the crash site, a charred hole in Queens that seemed inhospitable to anything ever being grown or built there again. The smaller details were the potent ones. Seeing the open can of infant formula on the Martins’ kitchen counter the first time she’d visited to help. Hearing that Jonah had lost his first tooth a few weeks ago, but Dave had forgotten to tell the tooth fairy. These were the things that gave certain days a dull ache she could not explain, or shake. A sign ahead marked the turn toward Connecticut. If the parkway was less choked than the others there would be only an hour more. In the two years since they’d moved down to Washington, D.C., they had not found a good time of day or night to travel. Traffic on the Northeast Corridor was unrelenting. Tonight, they’d find some hotel around the Massachusetts border, and in the morning they would be on the first ferry to the island, seven weeks this summer instead of their usual two. If Chris had agreed because he knew how much Kate needed it, he hadn’t let on, and she wasn’t saying.

T he Un f i n i she d Work of E l i z a b et h D.


Dave had asked if they could stop for the trunk on the way through. She could not imagine having it on vacation with them, but Dave Martin now had that effect on people; they jumped, they put things on hold, they accommodated. This would be the fi rst time they would be getting together with the children but without Elizabeth. Kate and Chris hadn’t brought James and Piper when they came up for the funeral, a maudlin affair made worse by the baby in the front row drooling and pinwheeling her arms at the photo of her mother on an easel. Now the kids would be playing together like old times, but for the adults, all the roles would be unfamiliar. Dave would be host and hostess, Kate just a polite guest in the kitchen. He might jiggle the baby on one hip as he composed plates and poured small cups of milk, and Kate would offer help, trying not to sound as if she questioned his competence. She would have to be social glue for the men, who had only ever come together because of their wives, and someone would have to take the lead with the kids. We don’t throw sand at our friends, and It’s time to take turns with the backhoe. That had been Elizabeth’s job. It had all been Elizabeth’s job. As Chris turned the car from the interstate to the parkway, Kate pulled out the note the lawyer had forwarded to her in lieu of any other instructions. Its even script evoked the to- do lists always strewn across Elizabeth’s counter, the ticker tape of tasks to be done and groceries to be bought, looping in perfect penmanship. A small antique key was taped to the notecard. There’s something I’d like to add to the specific bequests section of the will. Please amend it so that Katherine Spenser gets my trunk of journals. In whatever legal language is appropriate, please indicate that I’m leaving them to her because she’s fair and sensitive and would know what should be done with them, and ask that she start at the beginning. I’ll come soon to drop off a letter for her that should go with it.



Nichole Bernier

The roadside clutter thinned near the Connecticut line, old tires and abandoned appliances giving way to birches, azaleas, roadkill. Trees lined the median like suburban sentries. The sun hadn’t let up and Kate’s sunglasses weren’t doing much to cut the glare, reviving the headache she’d had on and off all day, and yesterday too. A two- day headache. Brain tumor, she thought. Ocular cancer. Aneurysm. She lowered the window a few inches. A warm wind cleared the recirculated air and the smell of old peanut butter sandwiches. Several things struck her each time she read Elizabeth’s note, one thing more than the rest. It wasn’t that Elizabeth had kept journals, though there was that, or the wonderment of what such an uncomplicated person could have written. Today I got Jonah and Anna to agree to turkey sandwiches in their lunchboxes. Or the realization that Elizabeth had been so phobic about flying; Kate knew she’d been a bit of a ner vous flier, but enough to make a summer addendum to her will before she traveled? And it wasn’t the contradiction that she had been meticulous enough to name a trustee for her journals, but had never followed through with the letter expressing her intentions. What struck Kate most was a single word choice—sensitive. Not a word people used often to describe her. Even with Elizabeth, her most frequent contact in the dailiness of mothering, sensitivity wasn’t something Kate wore on her sleeve. But Elizabeth had seen it. Each time Kate thought of it, she felt the loss of something she hadn’t known she’d had, an unscratched lottery ticket found years too late, a winner. When Kate first heard about Elizabeth’s trip out west, it was last July. The Spensers stopped for an overnight in Connecticut on their way to the previous summer’s vacation, and the two women had gone walking on the beach, as they did when Kate came back to visit. Elizabeth mentioned her birthday gift from Dave, a long weekend away for a painting workshop. There was an opportunity with a Mexican painter famous for abstract landscapes, she’d said, a workshop guru who almost never left Oaxaca. She spoke in a gush with

T he Un f i n i she d Work of E l i z a b et h D.


agitated movements, working a chain of dried seaweed between her fingers like rosary beads. It had been strange, such fidgeting from a person usually calm as tranquilizers. Elizabeth called the trip a fortieth birthday present two years early, one she’d requested herself from Dave. She’d found a cheap flight from JFK to Los Angeles on August 9; Joshua Tree was about 120 miles east, and she was even looking forward to the drive alone. A getaway to recharge her batteries, she’d said, as the seaweed strand snapped in her hands. At the time Kate had been surprised. Elizabeth hardly ever traveled, rarely expressed an interest in it. Kate knew Elizabeth used to paint before she and Dave were married and still dabbled here and there, but nothing Kate would have thought worth taking a trip across the country without a baby so young. That was the last time she’d seen Elizabeth. Her plane never made it past Queens. Officials called it a freak accident, a confluence of bad things—bad wind, bad rudder, a bad call by the pilot. Any deeper consideration of the flight, or the arbitrariness of Elizabeth’s having been on it, was quickly overshadowed by all that came in September.