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Excerpt

Excerpt

It All Comes Down to This

1

Certain Expectations

How differently the Geller sisters’ lives would have turned out had C. J. Reynolds not been released from prison that February. Or suppose he’d been released but had not decided to restart his life on Mount Desert Island, Maine, where Marti Geller’s old waterfront house might or might not be coming up for sale. Suppose that instead of getting a flight from Columbia, South Carolina, to Bangor, C.J. had instead returned to his hometown of Aiken to try to make amends.

But he did take that flight, and in doing so, he altered his future and theirs—the three Geller sisters, Manhattan born and raised, not at all the sorts of women C.J. had been used to back before he was locked up with some thousand men whose coarse behavior made him feel like he was in the ninth grade. Misfit. Scared. Wishing yet again that he’d been born into a different family, a different life.

You’d be amazed at the volume of prison conversation that had centered on women’s breasts. On body parts generally. On sex in every possible form—incarceration made some men really creative. C.J. had chosen not to take part in those conversations. He’d chosen not to take part in most everything optional in the pen, a place he was not meant to be. And yet there he had been, and this made him wonder about meant to be and about fate in general.

He’d also wondered whether Jesus, who he believed had been a real person who’d done at least some of what was credited to him, would approve of all the ways he (Jesus) was being put forth as the personal savior of a lot of hardened criminals who really only hoped the connection might help get them paroled. C.J. had not relied upon Jesus to aid in his defense; for that, he’d spent a good deal of money on an attorney whose relationship with Jesus (if any) was unknown to C.J., but whose relationship with law, evidence, and specific judges was certain and solid. This had not, however, been enough to keep him out of prison. It had perhaps made it so that he wasn’t in prison longer, and this was worth far more to him than the money he’d spent.

C.J. was extremely fortunate to have had that money in the first place, especially as he hadn’t earned most of it himself; he’d inherited a pile—no, a mound—of money from his paternal grandmother, who had never judged him for wanting to take a different path. But he didn’t have more millions coming to him the way some of his kind did, because he had not returned to Aiken to make amends and was determined not to do so. Ever. He was also out of a job. And a wife. A daughter, too, damn it all, though he hoped to rectify that, if not the rest.

Would any of this matter to the Geller sisters? Beck: a journalist, pragmatic but also sensitive and stalwart; Claire: a doctor, caring but skeptical, too, and sometimes quick to judge; Sophie: an assistant gallerist, forgiving yet cagey, self-protective. If any of these women discovered his past (and maybe they would not), they wouldn’t be the pushovers one might wish to have as a jury. But how much would that matter to C.J., who wasn’t looking for new entanglements? An inspiring, peaceful setting in which to live and paint was his central aim.

The Geller sisters, too, had particular aims. They had certain expectations, desires, long-held beliefs. They had no idea that everything safe and familiar would be undone at the intersection of a man and a house and a secret—not C.J.’s, but another’s. Of course, each of them had their own secrets, too, hidden and protected by long and careful habit. Revelation is risky; suppose it leads to a fall?

Ah, but suppose it leads to flight?

2

Tough Situations

Knowing for certain now that there was no chance she would outlive what money she had, Marti Geller left the clinic and hailed a cab to take her to her apartment on 19th Street in Gramercy Park. She gave the cabby the address and told him, “I should have taken more cabs in my life. I was too cautious about everything.”

The cabby said, “This I think is very wise. Please you spread the word.”

Marti was one of those unlucky nonsmokers who’d developed lung cancer mysteriously, then spent four years playing tumor whack-a-mole with diminishing success before today’s appointment, where her oncologist told her there was nothing more to be done. The high probability of her dying from the cancer had been known and (more or less) accepted by Marti and her three daughters. That she would die soon, though, likely within the next couple of weeks, was news Marti intended to keep from them until it became a fait accompli.

Just the same, once she got home from the clinic where she’d been given her final prognosis, she would ring up her middle daughter, Claire, to tell her that the doctors had run through all possible treatment options and it would be palliative care from here on out. If Claire asked for a timeline and particulars, Marti would be vague. She chose Claire for this and not her oldest daughter, Beck, because Claire was a doctor herself, though not here in New York, and because Claire was not Beck.

The day was cold but clear. Marti leaned back and watched the cityscape as the cab wended its way over to Gramercy Park, where, almost five decades earlier, she and her late husband, Leo, both of them eager to play house like grown-ups, had lucked into the spacious south-facing two-bedroom on the top floor of a five-story that had been a walk-up at the time but was now outfitted with an elevator just large enough to hold two people, a bag of groceries, and a small dog. She and Leo had been relieved when all of their children turned out to be girls and they didn’t need to find an equivalent three-bedroom here in Manhattan (impossible on their income) or leave the city for the suburbs, a lifestyle that Leo had rejected long before.

Three children, two bedrooms, one bathroom, five flights of stairs. Takeout that you ordered by calling someone on the telephone. Physical books that you purchased from a store in person or took out from the library. Bulky television sets that got only three or four stations and gave you the news just twice a day. Young people in the city today could not appreciate the everyday efforts and limits Marti’s generation had taken as basic matters of fact. No, now they had every need answered by their smartphones. They lived their lives with their faces angled toward glowing screens and never even saw what was around them. Ninety percent of the people Marti observed in her neighborhood had a coffee in one hand and a phone in the other, and very often a leash looped around one wrist, tethered to a trailing dog that was seeing all the sights its person was missing.

The cabby pulled up close to a gap between parked cars, making space for Marti to get out safely. “Here you go.”

“Let me ask you a question,” she said while swiping her credit card to pay. “Are you from here?”

“No, I come to New York from Bulgaria.”

“When you’re not driving, I hope you don’t walk around with your phone in your face. This is a wonderful city. It’s terrible, too, it some ways, but it’s an exceptional place and I hope you aren’t sorry you came from Bulgaria to work and live here. I hope you notice all the wonderful things.”

He said, “I love Shake Shack. Best cheeseburger in my life.”

“Well, I don’t disagree with you there.”

After living five decades in the same location, Marti still liked her neighborhood, and she liked her controlled rent even more, since she was now getting by on Social Security and Leo’s pension from the city, where he’d worked for the comptroller’s office. She knew many of her neighbors, knew their dogs and their children, felt valued for her talent in remembering small details about myriad things, like which days and which markets had the freshest produce, and whether to take a bus or the subway (or a cab) to any given destination in the city depending on the day and time of travel, and how or whether to scare off a stray cat. The talent for details had served her well over the years in her various apartment concierge jobs—which, not incidentally, had made for excellent part-time work especially around the holidays, when the big earners liked to show their largesse by slipping her “just a little something,” usually in an envelope, usually in cash. She should have spent more of it on cabs.

Until exhaustion and pain had made it impossible to continue, in retirement Marti had been volunteering at Mount Sinai Beth Israel three mornings a week, responding to patient call buttons when the nurses were busy, and keeping lonely people company while they recovered from illnesses and surgeries. Her days had been as full as she wanted them to be, and who could ask for more? No one got to live forever. Her sweet, adored Leo had made it only to sixty-six.

Once Marti was back in her apartment, she sat down in front of the window to sunbathe for a few minutes and regather her energy. Then she called Claire. She delivered the news about ending treatments, then said, “I’ve got hospice coming on Wednesday for an orientation. I’ve heard they’re terrific people.”

“You sound almost happy about it,” Claire said. “Are you stoned?”

Copyright © 2022 by Therese Anne Fowler

It All Comes Down to This
by by Therese Anne Fowler

  • Genres: Fiction, Women's Fiction
  • hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • ISBN-10: 1250278074
  • ISBN-13: 9781250278074