Home > Commonwealth(6)

Commonwealth(6)
Ann Patchett

“Not dead.” Fix took back the list to check the names beneath the straight black lines. He held it up to the kitchen light. “Well, a couple of them. The rest were either promoted already or they moved away, dropped out. It doesn’t make any difference—they’re off.”

Two older women in their best church dresses and no hats leaned against one another in the frame of the open kitchen door. When Fix looked over they gave him a wave in unison.

“Bar still open?” the smaller one said. She meant to sound serious but the line was so clever she hiccupped and then her friend began to laugh as well.

“My mother,” Fix said to Cousins, pointing to the one who had spoken, then he pointed to the other, a faded blonde with a cheerful, open face. “My mother-in-law. This is Al Cousins.”

Cousins dried his hand a second time and extended it to one and then the other. “Bert,” he said. “What’re you ladies drinking?”

“Whatever you’ve got left,” the mother-in-law said. You could see just a trace of the daughter there, the way she held her shoulders back, the length of her neck. It was a crime what time did to women.

Cousins picked up a bottle of bourbon, the bottle closest to his hand, and mixed two drinks. “It’s a good party,” he said. “Everybody out there still having a good time?”

“I thought they were waiting too long,” Fix’s mother said, accepting her drink.

“You’re morbid,” the mother-in-law said to her with affection.

“I’m not morbid,” the mother corrected. “I’m careful. You have to be careful.”

“Waiting for what?” Cousins asked, handing over the second drink.

“The baptism,” Fix said. “She was worried the baby was going to die before we got her baptized.”

“Your baby was sick?” he asked Fix. Cousins had been raised Episcopalian, but he had let go of that. To the best of his knowledge, dead Episcopal babies were passed into heaven regardless.

“She’s fine,” Fix said. “Perfect.”

Fix’s mother shrugged. “You don’t know that. You don’t know what’s going on inside a baby. I had you and your brothers baptized in under a month. I was on top of it. This child,” she said, turning her attention to Cousins, “is nearly a year old. She couldn’t even fit into the family christening gown.”

“Well, there’s the problem,” Fix said.

His mother shrugged. She drank down her entire drink and then waggled the empty paper cup as if there had been some mistake. They’d run out of ice, and the ice had been the only thing to slow the drinkers down. Cousins took the cup from her and filled it again.

“Someone’s got the baby,” Fix said to his mother, not a question, just a confirmation of fact.

“The what?” she asked.

“The baby.”

She thought for a minute, her eyes half closed, and nodded her head, but it was the other one who spoke, the mother-in-law. “Someone,” she said without authority.

“Why is it,” Fix’s mother said, not interested in the question of the baby, “that men will stand in a kitchen all day mixing drinks and juicing oranges for those drinks but won’t so much as set a foot over the threshold to make food?” She stared pointedly at her son.

“No idea,” Fix said.

His mother then looked back at Cousins but he only shook his head. Dissatisfied, the two women turned as one and tipped back out into the party, cups in hand.

“She has a point,” Cousins said. He never would have stood back here making sandwiches, though he felt he could use a sandwich, that he wanted one, and so he poured himself another drink.

Fix returned to the business of the knife and the orange. He was a careful man, and took his time. Even drunk he wasn’t going to cut off his finger. “You have kids?” he asked.

Cousins nodded. “Three and a third.”

Fix whistled. “You stay busy.”

Cousins wondered if he meant You stay busy running after kids, or, You stay busy fucking your wife. Either way. He put another empty orange rind in the sink that overflowed with empty orange rinds. He rolled his wrist.

“Take a break,” Fix said.

“I did.”

“Then take another one. We’ve got juice in reserve, and if those two are any indication of where things are going most of the people here won’t be able to find the kitchen much longer.”

“Where’s Dick?”

“He’s gone, ran out of here with his wife.”

I bet he did, Cousins thought, a vision of his own wife flashing before him, the shrieking bedlam of his household. “What time is it, anyway?”

Fix looked at his watch, a Girard-Perregaux, a much nicer watch than a cop might be wearing. It was three forty-five, easily two hours later than either man would have guessed in his wildest estimation of time.

“Jesus, I should get going,” Cousins said. He was fairly certain he’d told Teresa he would be home no later than noon.

Fix nodded. “Every person in this house who isn’t my wife or my daughters should get going. Just do me a favor first—go find the baby. Find out who has her. If I go out there now everybody’s going to want to start talking and it’ll be midnight before I find her. Take a quick walk around, would you do that? Make sure some drunk didn’t leave her in a chair.”

“How will I know it’s your baby?” Cousins asked. Now that he thought about it, he hadn’t seen a baby at the party, and surely with all these Micks there were bound to be plenty of them.

“She’s the new one,” Fix said, his voice gone suddenly sharp, like Cousins was an idiot, like this was the reason some guys had to be lawyers rather than cops. “She’s the one in the fancy dress. It’s her party.”

The crowd shifted around Cousins, opening to him, closing around him, pushing him through. In the dining room every platter was stripped, not a cracker or a carrot stick remained. The conversation and music and drunken laughter melted into a single indecipherable block of sound from which the occasional clear word or sentence escaped—Turns out he’s had her in the trunk the entire time he’s talking. Somewhere down a distant hallway he couldn’t see, a woman was laughing so hard she gasped for breath, calling, Stop! Stop! He saw children, plenty of children, several of whom were pulling cups straight from the unwitting fingers of adults and downing the contents. He didn’t see any babies. The room was over-warm and the detectives had their jackets off now, showing the service revolvers clipped to their belts or holstered under their arms. Cousins wondered how he had failed to notice earlier that half the party was armed. He went through the open glass doors to the patio and looked up into the late-afternoon sunlight that flooded the suburb of Downey, where there was not a cloud and never had been a cloud and never would be a cloud. He saw his friend the priest standing still as stone, holding the little sister in his arms, as if they’d been dancing for so long they had fallen asleep standing up. Men sat in patio chairs talking to other men, many of them with women in their laps. The women, all the ones he saw, had taken off their shoes at some point and ruined their stockings. None of them was holding a baby, and there was no baby in the driveway. Cousins stepped inside the garage and flipped on the light. A ladder hung on two hooks and clean cans of paint were lined up on a shelf according to size. There was a shovel, a rake, coils of extension cord, a bench of tools, a place for everything and everything in its place. In the center of the clean cement floor was a clean navy-blue Peugeot. Fix Keating had fewer children and a nicer watch and a foreign car and a much-better-looking wife. The guy hadn’t even made detective. If anyone had bothered to ask him at that moment, Cousins would have said it seemed suspicious.

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