Home > Commonwealth(2)

Commonwealth(2)
Ann Patchett

“Bonnie’s so happy to see all those cops in one room. She can’t be expected to think about sandwiches,” Beverly said, and then she stopped the assembling of cream cheese and cucumbers for a minute and looked down at his hand. “What’s in the bag?”

Fix held up the gin, and his wife, surprised, delivered the first smile she’d given him all day, maybe all week.

“Whoever you send to the store,” Wallis said, displaying a sudden interest in the conversation, “tell them to get tonic.”

Fix said he would buy the ice himself. There was a market up the street and he wasn’t opposed to slipping out for a minute. The relative quiet of the neighborhood, the order of the bungalows with their tight green lawns, the slender shadows the palm trees cast, and the smell of the orange blossoms all combined with the cigarette he was smoking to have a settling effect on him. His brother Tom came along and they walked together in companionable silence. Tom and Betty had three kids now, all girls, and lived in Escondido, where he worked for the fire department. Fix was starting to see that this was the way life worked once you got older and the kids came; there wasn’t as much time as you thought there was going to be. The brothers hadn’t seen each other since they’d all met up at their parents’ house and gone to Mass on Christmas Eve, and before that it was probably when they’d driven down to Escondido for Erin’s christening. A red Sunbeam convertible went by and Tom said, “That one.” Fix nodded, sorry he hadn’t seen it first. Now he had to wait for something he wanted to come along. At the market they bought four bags of ice and four bottles of tonic. The kid at the register asked them if they needed any limes and Fix shook his head. It was Los Angeles in June. You couldn’t give a lime away.

Fix hadn’t checked his watch when they’d left for the market but he was a good judge of time. Most cops were. They’d been gone twenty minutes, twenty-five tops. It wasn’t long enough for everything to change, but when they came back the front door was standing open and there was no one left in the yard. Tom didn’t notice the difference, but then a fireman wouldn’t. If the place didn’t smell like smoke then there wasn’t a problem. There were still plenty of people in the house but it was quieter now. Fix had turned on the radio before the party started and for the first time he could hear a few notes of music. The kids weren’t crawling in the dining room anymore and no one seemed to notice they were gone. All attention focused on the open kitchen door, which was where the two Keating brothers were heading with the ice. Fix’s partner, Lomer, was waiting for them and Lomer tipped his head in the direction of the crowd. “You got here just in time,” he said.

As tight as it had been in the kitchen before they’d left, there were three times as many people crammed in there now, most of them men. Beverly’s mother was nowhere in sight and neither was the baby. Beverly was standing at the sink, a butcher’s knife in her hand. She was slicing oranges from an enormous pile that was sliding across the counter while the two lawyers from the L.A. County District Attorney’s Office, Dick Spencer and Albert Cousins—suit jackets off, ties off, and shirtsleeves rolled up high above the elbow—were twisting the halves of oranges on two metal juicers. Their foreheads were flushed and damp with sweat, their opened collars just beginning to darken, they worked as if the safety of their city relied on the making of orange juice.

Beverly’s sister Bonnie, ready now to be helpful, plucked Dick Spencer’s glasses from his face and wiped them with a dish towel, even though Dick had a capable wife somewhere in the crush. That was when Dick, his eyes relieved of the scrim of sweat, saw Fix and Tom and called out for the ice.

“Ice!” Bonnie cried, because it was true, it was hot as hell and ice sounded better than anything. She dropped her towel to lift the two bags from Tom, placing them in the sink atop the neat orange cups of empty rinds. Then she took the bags from Fix. Ice was her responsibility.

Beverly stopped slicing. “Perfect timing,” she said and dug a paper cup into the open plastic bag, knocking out three modest cubes as if she knew to pace herself. She poured a short drink—half gin, half orange juice, from the full pitcher. She made another and another and another as the cups were passed through the kitchen and out the door and into the waiting hands of the guests.

“I got the tonic,” Fix said, looking at the one bag still in his hands. He wasn’t objecting to anything other than the feeling that he and his brother had somehow been left behind in the time it had taken them to walk to the market and back.

“Orange juice is better,” Albert Cousins said, stopping just long enough to down the drink Bonnie had made for him. Bonnie, so recently enamored of cops, had shifted her allegiance to the two DAs.

“For vodka,” Fix said. Screwdrivers. Everyone knew that.

But Cousins tilted his head towards the disbeliever, and there was Beverly, handing her husband a drink. For all the world it looked like she and Cousins had a code worked out between them. Fix held the cup in his hand and stared at the uninvited guest. He had his three brothers in the house, an untold number of able-bodied men from the Los Angeles Police Department, and a priest who organized a Saturday boxing program for troubled boys, all of whom would back him up in the removal of a single deputy district attorney.

“Cheers,” Beverly said in a low voice, not as a toast but a directive, and Fix, still thinking there was a complaint to be made, turned up his paper cup.

Father Joe Mike sat on the ground with his back against the back of the Keating house, staking out a sliver of shade. He rested his cup of juice and gin on the knee of his standard-issue black pants. Priest pants. The drink was either his fourth or his third, he didn’t remember and he didn’t care because the drinks were very small. He was making an effort to write a sermon in his head for the following Sunday. He wanted to tell the congregation, the few who were not presently in the Keatings’ backyard, how the miracle of loaves and fishes had been enacted here today, but he couldn’t find a way to wring enough booze out of the narrative. He didn’t believe that he had witnessed a miracle, no one thought that, but he had seen a perfect explanation of how the miracle might have been engineered in the time of Christ. It was a large bottle of gin Albert Cousins had brought to the party, yes, but it was in no way large enough to fill all the cups, and in certain cases to fill them many times over, for the more than one hundred guests, some of whom were dancing not four feet in front of him. And while the recently stripped Valencia trees in the backyard had been heavy with fruit, they never would have been able to come up with enough juice to sate the entire party. Conventional wisdom says that orange juice doesn’t go with gin, and anyway, who was expecting a drink at a christening party? Had the Keatings just put the gin in their liquor cabinet no one would have thought less of them. But Fix Keating had given the bottle to his wife, and his wife, worn down by the stress of throwing a good party, was going to have a drink, and if she was going to have a drink then by God everyone at the party was welcome to join her. In many ways this was Beverly Keating’s miracle. Albert Cousins, the man who brought the gin, was also the one who suggested the mixer. Albert Cousins had been sitting beside him not two minutes before, telling Father Joe Mike that he was from Virginia and even after three years in Los Angeles he was still shocked by the abundance of citrus fruit hanging from trees. Bert—he told the priest to call him Bert—had grown up with frozen concentrate mixed into pitchers of water which, although he hadn’t known it at the time, had nothing to do with orange juice. Now his children drank fresh-squeezed juice as thoughtlessly as he had drunk milk as a boy. They squeezed it from the fruit they had picked off the trees in their own backyard. He could see a new set of muscles hardening in the right forearm of his wife, Teresa, from the constant twisting of oranges on the juicer while their children held up their cups and waited for more. Orange juice was all they wanted, Bert told him. They had it every morning with their cereal, and Teresa froze it into Tupperware popsicle molds and gave the popsicles to the children for their afternoon snacks, and in the evening he and Teresa drank it over ice with vodka or bourbon or gin. This was what no one seemed to understand—it didn’t matter what you put into it, what mattered was the juice itself. “People from California forget that, because they’ve been spoiled,” Bert said.

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