You’d think a death would change everything, but the sun still shone, and Carola still kept my kitchen spotless.
She stood filling her cup when I said, “I dreamed about him again last night.”
Her hand stopped in midpour. The teapot thumped on the oak table.
I added sugar and milk to my tea in an effort to ignore her steady stare.
“No, not again. Sometimes I long for the days when you were just the cleaning lady.” I picked up my cup with what I hoped was an air of finality.
Her back straightened. “I don’t care. I have to say it. Start living again. Robby’s been gone more than a year. Is this what he wanted for you—sadness and dreams? You’re letting him down.”
“No, I’m not.”
“I will not watch you kill yourself with grief.” She snapped her mouth shut, walked over to the sink, and started loading the breakfast dishes into the dishwasher.
Her words stung as sharp as a slap to the face. Now her silence—louder than her words had been—separated us.
I set my cup down. “Don’t be angry.”
Her response was the clink of dishes.
The radio on the tiled counter, tuned to a Tijuana station, played softly. Mariachi music drifted through the room with the scent of the red rose on the trellis just outside the open French doors. The tick-tock of the antique regulator clock on the wall measured our silence.
She finally turned. “I don’t want to be angry, but I am . . . and worried.”
I held my hand out to her. “I’m so sorry. I don’t want to make things difficult for you.”
She returned to the table and took my hand in hers. “I know. But nothing will change unless you change something. He always took care of you, but he can’t take care of this, no matter how long you wait, no matter how much you dream.”
“Oh, Carola. Everyone says I have to move on, but I don’t know how. My father used to say, ‘When times get tough, you just put one foot in front of the other and keep going.’ I’ve tried, I really have.”
“I know it’s difficult, but why don’t you go out with someone? What do you have to lose?”
Maybe she’s right. Men ask me out. I’m complimented. I’m almost sixty, but everyone says I look younger, in spite of my used-to-be-brown, salt and pepper hair. They seem to like my figure, even though my hips are too big and my breasts are too small. At five-five, I don’t intimidate even shorter men. And I get compliments on my dark brown eyes.
We hadn’t been in denial. Robby was forty-six and I was twenty-four when we met. We knew when we married that I’d probably be a widow someday. We thought I’d be able to manage, but I hadn’t known it would be like this.
I guess I’m waiting for him. I go through the motions of life, and I wait and wait for him to come back. I think I hear his car in the driveway or his key in the lock. When I go out, I see men, and, for an instant, I think I see him walking in a door down the block or passing by in a taxi. When the phone rings, I always expect to hear his voice. I never do.
I don’t know how to be alone. When Robby worked, when he was away on trips, he was always “there,” somewhere. I was never really alone. Now I am.
I shook my head. “I don’t want another man.”
She moved and put her arm around me.
I leaned into her soft warmth and wept.
After a while, she handed me a paper napkin from the holder and took one for herself. We blotted our eyes and she sat.
“You need to start something,” she said.
“I don’t know what. Just something.”
I nodded. “I’ll think about it.”
“You’re like the Energizer Bunny, Anne. Once you’re moving, there’s no stopping you, but it sure is hard to get you moving sometimes. You need to start something today. Why don’t you work on the genealogy?”
“The genealogy?” I shook my head. “No. We did that together. I can’t.”
The more I thought about it, though, the better it seemed. I’d have a mission, a quest. I could finish the genealogy. It could be my last gift to Robby . . . and then I could go be with him. I’ve been thinking about that for a long time. I can’t see any way of going on without him anymore. It’s just too hard.
I know it might break Carola’s heart. She’s been my housekeeper for more than thirty-five years, and she’s been my best friend and confidante for most of that time. I trust her as I trust no one else in the world. But I won’t tell her that doing the genealogy won’t be a way of saying good-bye to Robby.
So I started.
When we finished our tea, I went into the den.
I had the radio there tuned to the local classical station. Carola and I have become a little territorial over the years. I get the rest of the house, but she’s the boss of the kitchen and the small sitting room where she watches General Hospital every afternoon that she’s here. When we’re in those two rooms, we listen to her stations. Everywhere else, we listen to mine.
I switched the radio on just as an orchestra started to play the overture to Marriage of Figaro. That had been Robby’s favorite opera. It seemed like an omen, a message that I’ve made the right decision.
I pulled a large notebook labeled “Brendan O’Malley” off the lowest bookshelf. I’d say I dusted it off, but nothing around Carola would dare be dusty. I spent the rest of the morning reading the notes on the project Robby and I had not completed before his death.
Each page held memories—happy then, sad now. We’d spent many hours researching, trying to find out about his father, Brendan. I remembered the excitement of finding a clue, a document, sometimes even a photo. I thought genealogical research would be boring, but it was like a treasure hunt.
Brendan had been born and raised in Pittsburgh. His father owned a bank and was one of the movers and shakers of that era—his name appeared in many newspaper stories of the day.
We found out where Brendan went to school, how well he did in different subjects, and what his political and religious affiliations were, but then, when he reached the age of twenty-two, the records just stopped. We couldn’t find anything more about him until he reappeared in public records nine years later.
Of course, we thought about him being in prison, but even prisoners show up in the census rolls.
Before Brendan dropped out of sight, he’d worked as a banker in the family business, but when he reappeared, he identified himself as a farmer on the marriage license he filed with Robby’s mother, Isabelle.
The few photos we have of him were taken after that nine-year gap. He looked old beyond his years, tired, ill. He died at the age of thirty-two, before Robby’s first birthday.
When Isabelle remarried, Robby had been strongly discouraged from asking about Brendan. He was expected to accept Isabelle’s new husband as his father, but the man had been cold and uninterested in a lonely little boy. In later years, Robby thought it was because he’d been an unwelcome reminder that Isabelle had loved someone else. He had grown up “knowing” that life would have been better with his own father. Searching for information about him, which had started as a pleasurable hobby, ultimately became almost an obsession.
The focus of that obsession was a leather-bound pocket notebook that had come to Robby as part of his inheritance. Its yellowed pages were filled with Brendan’s small, neat handwriting in some sort of code. We guessed it might have information about the missing years, but we’d never found anyone to verify that, even though we hired linguists and code specialists to help us.
And now I couldn’t see any loose ends I could pull to unravel his secrets.
I felt so let down
Carola and I walked around the garden after lunch looking at the begonias Ernesto, Carola’s husband, had spent the morning setting out in the shaded beds.
Usually spring in San Diego is mild, but the air was still now, and the sun stood high in the cloudless sky, making it hot for this early in May. I was almost too warm in my dark blue slacks and a long-sleeved blue plaid shirt. Carola was more seasonably dressed in black slacks (to make her hips look slimmer) and a yellow short-sleeved knit top.
A scrub jay scolded us for invading his territory, but we didn’t let that interrupt our conversation.
“Maybe there aren’t any records in Pennsylvania because he went someplace else,” Carola said.
“We looked in all the states.”
“World War I happened about then. Maybe he was in the army or something.”
“We checked military records.”
“What about another country?”
“What if he went out of the country? Where would he have gone?” She bent down to pull several small weeds, walked to the compost pile, and tossed them on. Years ago, in a moment of candor, Ernesto told me that he always left a few weeds or something else undone for her to find. When I scolded him for being deceptive, he simply said, “It makes her happy.”
We stopped again, this time in the sunshine at the edge of the kitchen garden, and contemplated the lettuces that had begun to bolt in the spring warmth.
I considered her question. “Maybe Ireland. His parents came from there. Maybe relatives still lived there. We never heard of any though.”
“Canada, I suppose. Brendan’s Uncle James lived in Ottawa.”
I thought a moment. “No place I know of.”
“Ottawa’s a lot closer to Pittsburgh than Ireland is.” Carola’s voice trailed off. She turned with a smile. “Maybe you should go there. See what you can find.”
“Go where? To Ottawa?”
She talked right over my refusal. “If that doesn’t work out, you can look in Ireland.”
“Ireland. Carola, wait a minute.”
“How soon do you want to go? We can pack now.” She turned and walked purposefully toward the kitchen door. “We’d better pack just for Canada though. I think it’s wetter in Ireland this time of year. You’ll need different clothes. You’ll probably want to come home a few days before you go there, anyway, to catch up on the mail and get your hair done. I wonder where we put your passport.”
“Carola, stop.” I hurried to catch up with her. “You can’t be serious.”
But she was, and when she gets an idea, she’s like a terrier with a rat.
We spent the rest of the afternoon talking. I finally said, “Carola, I don’t have the strength to argue anymore.”
She smiled. “It’s the right thing, Anne. You’ll see.”
I’d really known all along that I’d give in eventually. In all the years I’ve known her, I’ve never figured out how to distract her when she latches on to an idea.
We decided I’d stay a month. She said I could do whatever research needed to be done, go to some art galleries, some concerts. I don’t have obligations in San Diego. The opera season was over, and I’d quit doing volunteer work when Robby was ill.
Two days later, I stood in line at the gate waiting to board the flight to Ottawa.
I’m always uncomfortable even on the best of flights, and I hadn’t gone anywhere in the almost three years since 9/11. I expected problems. They didn’t materialize, but I still felt tense and uncomfortable. I was glad when I finally walked along the jetway into the Ottawa terminal.
I rented a car, but I planned to keep it for only a few days. I wanted to be where I could get around on foot and by cab. I stayed in a hotel Saturday night and spent the next day looking for an apartment.
I found a small place in an upscale neighborhood not too far from the center of Ottawa. Several single-story units sat around an attractive courtyard garden. I hoped the cheerful celadon green living room might bring my mood up a little. A dining area with a table for four abutted a tiny kitchen. The large cream-colored bedroom had ample storage—not that I’d brought much that needed storing. The windows faced east, but heavy drapes would allow me to sleep through the early sunrises of spring. Their pleasing floral pattern in greens, yellows, and pinks might make me glad to open my eyes each morning.
Monday, I arrived at the Library and Archives Canada. I was so early I had to wait until they unlocked the doors at eight o’clock.
As I entered, the people I’d waited with scattered or lined up at the information desk.
The entry hall was bigger and grander than I expected. I wasn’t sure what to do. I guess I looked bewildered. I heard a French-accented voice say, “Madam, may I help you?”
He looked about my age and wore a well-tailored dark brown suit with a fine pinstripe. A lively yellow and brown tie over a cream-colored shirt saved the suit from being dull. He also wore a small gold ring in his left earlobe. The discreet nametag pinned to his jacket pocket read “René Benoit.”
“Mr. Benoit, I don’t know where to start.”
“Have you come to research or to tour the building?”
“I’ve come from San Diego to research. I didn’t know you could tour the building.”
“I’ll tell you what. We’ll start with a tour. We have a nice display of historical documents, artwork, photos, and maps.” He gestured toward a large archway on my right. “I’ll give you a quick run through; you can come back later and really look at them at your leisure. Then we’ll talk about your specific research problem, eh?”
I looked around. I didn’t see anyone else getting an individual tour. I wondered why he’d picked me. “That would be great, but don’t you have work you’re supposed to be doing? I don’t want your boss mad at you for spending too much time with me.”
“That’s OK. I am the boss.” He fished a business card out of his jacket pocket. It read “René J. Benoit, PhD, Chief Research Librarian, Library and Archives Canada.”
In surprise, I said, “Dr. Benoit, do you have time?”
“Yes, as a matter of fact, I do. I was scheduled to go to a long and boring meeting this morning. It’s been canceled at the last minute. I’m like a boy with a day off from school.” He smiled broadly.
“Yes, my calendar’s blank. I’m going to celebrate by doing what I love best. I’m going to help you with your research.” He turned and gestured again. I walked ahead of him through the archway.
“What can I call you?” he asked.
“Anne. My name’s Anne O’Malley.”
“Well, Anne, you call me René.”
His “little tour” turned out to be a fascinating view of public areas and behind-the-scenes places where the public normally didn’t go.
Tall and lanky, René was one of those men who seemed to be all knees and elbows and yet managed to move with surprising grace. He made me think of Fred Astaire. His ash blond hair shaded into gray. He had a blond’s light coloration, brown eyes flecked with gold, and a charming smile. I found out later that morning that he wore wire-rim half-glasses on his angular face when he read. They made him look dry and academic. In reality, he had a lively sense of humor and a hearty laugh, and he loved to talk.
When we finished the tour, we went to the fifth floor. His corner office commanded a spectacular view of the city of Gatineau across the Ottawa River. Double-hung windows muted the sound of any traffic below. His large desk was bare except for a telephone, computer monitor, keyboard, and a large dusky-pink cymbidium orchid in full bloom. When I complimented him on the orchid’s beauty, he said he’d grown it in his greenhouse at home.
Bookshelves lined the walls. Files and books in neat stacks covered a library table. A small sofa of buttery-soft black leather, matching easy chair, and coffee table completed the furnishings. The overall feeling was strongly masculine.
He offered me a seat on the sofa. He sat in the chair with easy elegance and crossed his long legs.
His secretary brought in a tray with cups of coffee for him and tea for me.
“Now tell me about the research that brought you all the way from San Diego.”
“I’m trying to find out about my husband’s father, Brendan O’Malley. He died before my husband, Robby, was a year old. Robby’s mother remarried. Contact with his father’s family faded. As Robby got older, he felt the loss more acutely. He died in January last year. He really wanted this, so I thought I’d try to complete it for him.”
“You’re a widow then. I saw your ring. I assumed otherwise.”
I looked at my left hand. “I haven’t been able to bring myself to take it off yet.”
“I’m sorry for your loss.”
“Thank you.” I took a sip of tea to get past this awkward moment.
“Where have you looked?”
“Looked?” I had to pull my mind back from thoughts of Robby.
“Oh. In the Mormon Library and the US National Archives. We even went to Pittsburgh—where his father was born and buried—but we still had a big hole in our information.”
“Sometimes you never do fill those holes. Old records are often spotty because of fires, floods, insects. Records are stolen too.”
“I’m not ready to give up yet. I’m willing to work hard. This is very important to me.”
“Tell me what you’ve found so far.” He prepared to take notes.
I set my cup down and picked up my folder. “Brendan John O’Malley was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on August 24, 1890. He lived with his parents until 1912. He was a city boy, born and bred. His father owned a bank. After he completed two years of college, Brendan worked at the bank until he was almost twenty-two, when he disappeared from records in the US When he reappeared in 1921, he listed his occupation as “farmer.” He died in 1923 of chronic leukemia.”
“Ah. That puts our research back further than I thought. What else did you find?”
“We managed to get copies of his medical records.”
He looked up from his paper. “Ha! Talk about luck.”
“I know. He died at a teaching hospital that’s still in business in Pittsburgh. They archived all their records for future research needs.”
“I assume they showed something interesting besides the leukemia.”
“Yes. How he became a farmer wasn’t the only mystery in his life. He’d recovered from injuries suffered in a plane crash.”
“That’s interesting. Planes were uncommon in those days.”
“But we never found a connection between Brendan and flying.”
“That might be a place to start, though. What else?”
“He was an accomplished artist and he played the mandolin.”
“Hmm. What did you look for that you couldn’t find?”
I closed my folder. “We couldn’t find a record of him in the military or any indication he participated in any flying-related activities such as barnstorming or the early airmail service, and we couldn’t find any clue as to where he might’ve learned to farm.”
“Why have you come to Ottawa? You must think he was here at some point.” He looked up expectantly.
“His obituary listed an uncle in Ottawa. It’s a slim lead, but it’s something. I don’t have anything else.”
He finished his coffee and stood. “Well, that does give us a place to start. Let’s see what we can track down about that uncle. What was his name?”
“James Patrick O’Malley.”
We spent the rest of the morning researching, and we did find some property records for the uncle. At 12:30, René apologized. “The second half of my boring meeting hasn’t been canceled, so I won’t be able to help you any more today. Thank you for an interesting morning.”
“You shouldn’t thank me. You’ve done so much. This has been wonderful. I really feel like I have a start.”
“Will you be coming back tomorrow?”
“I’ll look for you,” he said.
After a lunch break, I worked systematically through city census and property records. By five, my eyes were tired from peering at the screen of the brightly lit microfiche reader, and I was stiff from sitting so long. I did find out that Uncle James had an extra adult living in his household in 1913. I walked home satisfied with that small step forward.
The next morning, I stood outside the doors at eight o’clock again. I didn’t see René, but I couldn’t expect him to wait at the door every day. In any case, I had plenty of work to do.
At 11:45, he arrived.
I showed him what I’d done so far.
He made some notes on other references I should check. “I’m sorry I won’t have time to help you this afternoon.”
“As much as I’d like that, I do remember you have other responsibilities.”
“Well, still, I’d have liked to. Could I take you to lunch instead? We could talk about your research while we eat.”
I wondered what René wanted from me. He’d sort of picked me up the previous day. I didn’t know if this lunch was a date or friendship, and I didn’t know how to ask that question. My first instinct was to turn him down, but I thought, well, why not? I came here because Carola wants me to have new experiences.
“I’ll go to lunch with you, but you have to tell me one thing first.”
He looked puzzled. “What?”
“Why do you wear an earring?”
“It’s a secret.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.”
“It’s OK. I’ll tell you. It’s so that when I look in the mirror, I’m reminded that I’m a librarian by choice. I could have been a pirate.” He winked.
I giggled. “I’ve never had lunch with a pirate or a librarian either.”
I had second thoughts, though, as I gathered up my papers and picked up my purse. I didn’t know if he was married. He didn’t wear a ring, but many men don’t. I had to find out.
We walked to the Earl of Sussex Pub, a short distance from the Archives. It was crowded and noisy, but the food on the diners’ tables looked wonderful and smelled even better.
We managed to find a booth.
I’d never been in a pub, but I had always imagined that one would be just like this—dark wood, whitewashed walls, wrought-iron light fixtures. The only things that hadn’t been part of my imaginary pub were the paintings on the walls: athletes skiing, racing on skates, and playing ice hockey. That, I suspected, was a unique Canadian touch. The classic rock on the sound system was almost drowned out by conversation and the clink of utensils on plates as people hurried through their meals to get back to work.
We ordered the pub lunch: steak and kidney pie—that’s what had smelled so good—Merlot for him, iced tea for me.
After the waitress left, I said, “Well, tell me about your family. Are you married? Do you have children?”
“No, I’ve never married. I used to think about it, but it wasn’t in the cards. I have a younger sister, Yvonne. She’s my only sibling. We don’t have any other family.”
He pulled out his wallet and took out a photo of him standing in a garden with a woman. She was much shorter than he was, but otherwise, looked very like him and had the same ash blond hair, cut short in a simple style.
“She’s mentally disabled. She attends an adult day care program while I work, but I take care of her the rest of the time.”
I handed the picture back to him. “What’s that like for you?”
He put the picture in the wallet and the wallet back in his pocket. “It’s not bad. She’s sweet and loving. She can’t be left without supervision, though.”
“She can’t take care of herself?”
“She’s like a three- or four-year old. She can dress, bathe, and feed herself. She can’t read, but she can count money. She helps me with the grocery shopping. She’s good at recognizing pictures on boxes and cans. Once in a while, I leave her in the care of a neighbor, but my social life is limited.”
“Is that difficult for you?”
“Sometimes. My parents took care of her before. She could have been institutionalized when they died, but I didn’t want that for her, and I knew they didn’t. So I chose not to marry.” He shrugged.
“I’m so sorry. I think that must be sad for you.”
“Sometimes I mind, but most of the time it’s OK. The thing I miss most, though, is conversation. She’s not good at that. At work, I spend a lot of time shuffling paper. I like to talk to people when I can. That’s why I asked you to lunch.”
“Oh. Well, I’m glad you did.”
“Now, tell me about Robby.”
“It’s strange. He’s been gone more than a year now, but I can’t seem to get myself to realize it. He’s still here for me somehow.”
“You’re not ready to move on?”
“We were happy together, but I know I need to let him go. I just can’t seem to figure out how to do it. My friend Carola pushed me into this trip to see if it might get my life off dead center.” I shook my head. “You don’t want to hear this stuff.”
“But I do. If we’re going to be friends, we need to know about each other, eh?”
The waitress brought our drinks. I had a little time to think about what he’d said. Friendship was what he wanted, and I was willing to provide that. I relaxed and enjoyed the lunch.
We met for lunch nearly every weekday after that, even when I researched at other facilities. He called me on the weekends too. There seemed to be a lot to talk about.
René was invaluable. He knew so much more about research techniques than I did. He saved me from spending time on things that would have been dead ends. Instead, he pointed me in the right direction when he suggested I look through Canadian military records. Brendan’s obituary said he served honorably in the “Great War,” but we’d never found any records in the US. It hadn’t occurred to me that that service might have been for Canada.
To my delight, I found Brendan’s name in a list of Canadian Army promotions from January 1917. I could hardly wait for lunchtime to show it to René.
“Look.” I laid the copies of the microfiche out in a row on the library table. “They gave him a promotion from staff sergeant to warrant officer. But I don’t understand why these papers were marked ‘Top Secret.’”
He looked startled. “You have something top secret?” He rose and hurried around his desk to look at the documents.
“Oh, no. Not now. They were declassified in 1938.”
“Ah, OK.” He relaxed as he stood next to me reading the papers. “You’re sure it’s your Brendan? That’s not necessarily an unusual name.”
“I’m sure. His date of birth is right.”
“That’s great. Now you can use his military serial number to find other things, eh? This really opens a door.”
“What could he have been doing that a record of his promotion was secret?”
“It’s a mystery, but we’ll just have to solve it. World War I was going on in 1917, so it has to have had something to do with that.”
“Well, I’ll see what the afternoon provides,” I said, as he set the papers down.
We’d been standing shoulder to shoulder looking at the documents. I started to turn. Before I could say no, he turned to me, put his hands on my shoulders, leaned down, and kissed me gently.
I was so shocked.
When I didn’t pull away, he pulled me closer, put his arms around me, and kissed me again—this time harder. Then he released me and stepped back. “I’m so sorry. You were standing so close, and you’re so beautiful. I couldn’t stop myself. Please accept my apology.”
I blushed. “Oh, René. You surprised me.”
“You didn’t think I’d be attracted to you?”
“When you told me you’d chosen not to marry, I thought you’d given up on all that.”
“I’ve been thinking about kissing you since the first time I saw you.” He took me into his arms and kissed me again.
I hadn’t kissed anyone since Robby. I didn’t really feel single, no matter what I told myself, but I was lonely. His mouth so warm on mine, his body pressed against me—I’d forgotten how good a kiss could feel. Better than good.
Something in me that had been quiescent for so long came to life. I relaxed into his arms with a little sigh of pleasure. When I did, he tightened his arms around me and deepened the kiss. I knew I should stop this, but I couldn’t . . . I didn’t . . . I wanted . . .
He let me go.
I took a deep breath. “Oh, René. I don’t—”
“It’s OK. I really won’t do that again if you don’t want me to.”
“I don’t know what I want.”
“Your body knows.”
He was right.
“Is this why you came over to me that first day?”
“Yes. I saw your mouth—so sensuous. Like a magnet.”
“But I wear a ring.”
“I didn’t care. I figured that was his problem, whoever he was.”
“When you found out I was a widow did you figure I’d be easy?” I blushed again.
“No, Anne, not that. I’m a man. You’re a beautiful woman. That’s all.”
I couldn’t think of the right response.
Finally, he said, “We’d better go to lunch. Though, maybe you don’t want to go with me now.”
“I do want to go with you.”
We gathered up my papers and walked out of the office together. My heart rate was off the charts. I couldn’t look at his secretary. I was still blushing.
I spent the whole lunchtime trying to pretend to myself that I was sophisticated enough to handle something like this. No matter what I told myself, though, I couldn’t control the thoughts swirling through my mind. I felt like everyone in the place must know what we’d been doing. Every time I caught someone’s eye, I blushed. They didn’t even know me, but I felt they were judging me. It didn’t feel good.
At the same time, I wondered if that was all. Had he satisfied his curiosity? He’d been so quick to say he wouldn’t do it again. Maybe I wasn’t what he’d hoped. What should I say? What should I do? What if he wanted to kiss me again? What if he didn’t? Oh, Lord!”
René and I didn’t talk much. He asked me to pass the catsup, and then he offered to share his french fries. I said something about the weather. Conversation drifted.
When we finished lunch, we walked back to the archives. We hadn’t mentioned the kisses.
In the elevator lobby, he said, “I’d like to drive you home today.”
“Don’t you have to pick up you sister?”
“I generally pick her up at six. You go home at five, don’t you?”
“Yes. But I don’t want to inconvenience you.”
He brushed my lips with his finger. “Anne, I want to kiss you again.”
“Oh.” And without thinking even a moment, I said, “I’d like that.” My heart soared.
He leaned toward me.
Two women walked into the lobby to join us.
He sighed and moved away.
A soft bell announced the arrival of the elevator. We all got on.
When I stepped out on the third floor, he said, “I’ll find you this afternoon. Wait for me.”
As the elevator door closed, I thought, I should have told him no. I can’t do this.
I couldn’t settle down and focus on my research that afternoon. I kept trying to work out how I was going to tell him I’d changed my mind, but I couldn’t focus on that either. I kept thinking about his lips on mine, how his tongue felt in that most intimate of kisses . . . and how much I wanted more.
I intended to call Carola as soon as I got in the door, but I couldn’t figure out what I was going to tell her.
Finally, I sat on the sofa and dialed the phone.
I could hear the TV in the background. I’d forgotten about the time difference. She was watching General Hospital.
“Anne, are you OK.”
Maybe I hadn’t calmed down as much as I’d thought.
“René kissed me.”
There was a pause. The sound of the TV disappeared.
“Kissed you. What do you mean?”
“Kissed me, that’s what I mean.”
“On the mouth?”
“I thought you said he wasn’t interested in women.”
“I was wrong.”
“Well, I guess so. What did you do?”
“I kissed him back.”
“Way to go, Chiquita! How was it?”
“Well, I’ve been married a long time. I’ve forgotten.”
I chuckled. “Tell me another.”
“Heaven. He can really kiss.”
“Where were you?”
“In his office the first time. Then, in his car.”
“In his car! Aah. What does it mean? Did he ask you out?”
“No. I don’t really know what it means. Carola, I shouldn’t have done it. How am I going to tell him it was a mistake?”
“You don’t like him?”
“That’s not it. I do like him. But I’m not ready.”
“Tell him that. If you’re not ready, you’re not ready. That’s all.”
We talked for an hour. I couldn’t think about anything else the rest of the evening.
After that, René drove me home every day, but I never told him I wasn’t ready. He didn’t come into my apartment, partly because he had to pick up his sister and partly because I didn’t know what might happen if he did. But we stopped in a wooded area in a park. We pulled over on a seldom-traveled road. It felt a little like high school again—parking in an out-of-the-way place. I didn’t ask if he’d been there with other women. He never volunteered any information.
We kissed, and the kisses became more passionate.
When I was in his arms, I didn’t think about Robby.
When I got home, I felt so guilty.
Brendan’s military serial number led me to his record of enlistment in March 1915. He was twenty-five. His induction physical made no mention of injuries from a plane crash. Those must have come later.
The enlistment papers included his home address and next of kin. He’d listed his parents as his next of kin, but he didn’t list his parents’ address in Pittsburgh or any address in Ottawa as his home. Instead, he’d written a single word—Ungavaq.
“Ungavaq? René, where’s that?”
“It’s not a suburb of Ottawa. It could be the name of a town or a village. Let’s get an atlas. If it’s not in a current atlas, we’ll get one from the 1910s or ’20s.”
He walked to a shelf and brought back a huge book of maps. He flipped pages to check the index and then to find the relevant map.
“Here it is,” he said, “on the western shore of Ungava Bay in northern Québec.” He moved over so I could see where he was pointing.
“It looks tiny.”
“It isn’t near anything except this village farther north called Seal Haven. Ungava Bay is an extension of Hudson’s Bay. That’s Inuit territory.”
“Inuit? What’s that?”
“I feel like Alice in Wonderland. Each time I think something makes sense, instead it gets ‘curiouser and curiouser.’”
“Yes, another mystery. Your next step should be to find his service record and discharge papers. They’ll have a lot more information.”
I plowed back into the files, but I found nothing more. The documents that should have been there just weren’t.
On Monday of my fourth week Ottawa, we sat in a red-plastic upholstered booth in our favorite coffee shop. I’d ordered chicken salad. He’d ordered a hamburger and french fries. The waitress set the plates down with a clatter, refilled our water glasses, and left us to enjoy our food.
“I’m considering another month in Ottawa, but I don’t know which way to go with the research.”
As he reached for the catsup, he said, “I don’t think you have much choice. I think you have to go to Ungavaq, eh?”
“Go there? It’s like the other side of the moon. How would I do that? There aren’t even any roads on the map.”
He drenched the fries with catsup and pushed the plate over so I could have my share. I’d never think of ordering french fries because of the fat and salt, but I wasn’t above cadging them from him.
“It’s doable,” he said. “I’ll bet there are bush pilots who go up there on a regular basis. They have to get their mail.”
“I’d never have thought of an Eskimo village having mail delivery.”
He laughed. “You’re thinking of Nanook of the North or something. This is the twenty-first century. They’re called Inuit now, and they write letters.”
“Would I ride with the bush pilot?”
René thought a moment. “Probably. As soon as we get back to the archives, we’ll call the post office and find out how the mail is handled for Ungavaq.”
It turned out that mail to the north was a sometime thing. In the winter, everything depended on the weather. In the short summer, mail was delivered every Friday. Now, during the second week of June, regular delivery had started for the season. The mail arrived at the nearest city, Blackwell, on commercial flights and was transferred to a small plane owned by Northern Air. Then the bush pilot took over.
“You really think I should go there?”
“Sure. Why not? The only thing is, it wouldn’t be cheap.”
“That’s not a problem. What would I look for there?”
“It’s pretty small. There won’t be a library or a history society, but there’ll be a village teacher. He or she will probably know the history of the area. And there’ll be old people. They’re the ones you really want to talk to. If Brendan was there long enough to think of it as his home, there’ll be stories.”
“What could he have been doing?”
“He might’ve been a trader or a medical officer. He might have been in the Mounties and handled law enforcement there. That’s certainly the kind of post a person without seniority would get stuck with. People would have gone up there for lots of different reasons. There’s no guessing. You’ll have to go ask.”
“If you’re going, why not?”
“Well, yes, why not?”
“There won’t be a hotel. It’s possible they do a round-trip in one day. Then you wouldn’t have to worry about where to stay. If you do the round-trip on Friday, you might want to spend Saturday at the Blackwell Library to see what they have.”
René emailed Northern Air. Someone named L.G. Chandler wrote back that the company regularly carried mail, supplies, and passengers to Ungavaq. The round-trip did take one day, the pilot generally stayed on the ground in Ungavaq about two hours before going on to Seal Haven, and there would be room for me on Friday.
“I guess I’ll be back Sunday or Monday at the latest. That’s the day my rent is due. I’d better pay for another month.”
“Good. I’m selfish enough to be glad you’re staying.”
I thought about the implications of his compliment. Our relationship had developed from a friendship to a flirtation to something more, as yet undefined. He hadn’t asked for anything else yet, but I was sure he would. I did find him very attractive, but every time I thought about going to bed with him, I thought about Robby. It didn’t feel right. If nothing else, this trip would set that decision aside for a few days.
On Thursday afternoon, I walked through the Ottawa Airport carrying my boarding pass to Blackwell.
René had dropped me off. I had his passionate kiss on my lips and in my mind.
I’d told Carola about my trip. She’d been pleased, but I still had my doubts. I don’t usually do things on the spur of the moment, but the trip to Ottawa had been last minute, and this trip was too.
I thought I’d have time in the waiting area at the gate to sit and think, but a man sat next to me and interrupted my concentration. He carried a briefcase, so I thought, businessman. His rumpled suit and tie pulled askew suggested that business hadn’t been good. I didn’t pay much attention to him, but I couldn’t miss the odor of beer wafting in my direction. I figured he’d had a beer with his lunch, but it didn’t take me long to realize that he’d probably had beer instead of his lunch.
He leaned toward me. “Hiya, Honey. You travelin’ to Blackwell?”
We were in the crowded waiting area for the Blackwell plane. “Yes.”
“Well, things are lookin’ up. I didn’t think there was gonna to be any good lookin’ women on this flight, eh?”
I didn’t answer.
“Your husband travelin’ with you?”
He’d noticed my ring, at least. “No.”
“Oh, waitin’ for you in Blackwell?”
“No.” And as soon as that word came out of my mouth, I kicked myself for being a fool. It would have been so easy to say yes.
He leaned even closer and leered. “A woman like you shouldn’t be by herself. I’ll keep you company, eh.”
Frost in my voice. “That’s not necessary.”
“No problem. We’ll have a good time. How ‘bout I buy you a beer while we’re waitin’?”
“Thank you, no.” I’d begun to think about a retreat to the ladies’ room. As I looked around, another man walked up. He was about my age and quite good looking, with dark hair and a neatly trimmed dark beard. He wore a white shirt, open at the neck, and black slacks.
“Well, Sarah,” he said. “What a surprise. I would never have imagined bumping into you here. Are you flying home?” He winked.
I hoped I wasn’t going from the frying pan into the fire. “Mr. Smith, this is a surprise. Yes, I’m flying home.” I turned to the drunk. “I think you’ll have to excuse me, now. We’ll have to have that beer some other time. I haven’t had a chance to talk to my parole officer in a while. In fact, I’ve missed our last two meetings, so I suppose I’m in a bit of trouble.”
“Mr. Smith” said sternly, “Yes, I think you’d better come along with me now, Sarah. If you cooperate, I won’t have to put the cuffs on you this time.” I rose, picked up my purse and bag, and left the drunk with his mouth agape.
When we got a few feet away, the man said, “You are wicked. I hope I don’t really look like your parole officer.”
“Oh, no. He’s much better looking.”
He tried to stifle his laughter until we were farther away.
“Thank you for rescuing me.”
“I watched what was happening. I hoped he wasn’t your husband. I’d have looked like a proper fool in that case. But your body language made me guess he wasn’t.”
“No, I’ve never seen him before. What’s your name? I don’t suppose it’s Mr. Smith.”
“I’m Guy Lavelle.”
“I’m Anne O’Malley.”
“Well, Mrs. O’Malley, let’s sit over here until they call the flight. After that, I think you’ll be OK. He’ll have an assigned seat. They may not even let him on board, he’s that drunk, eh?”
In fact, the gate personnel didn’t allow my beer-drinking friend on board. I sat in a window seat in an empty row. Guy changed his seat to sit next to me. After the plane took off, I had a difficult choice to make. I could hardly stop looking at the scenery, but I had this very nice man sitting next to me. Carola would have been pleased. Canada seemed to be full of good-looking men who wanted to help me with things.
“Why are you going to Blackwell?” he asked. “Do you have family there?”
“Actually, I’m going through Blackwell to Ungavaq.”
“Well, you are going to the back of beyond.”
“Have you ever been there?” I asked.
“No. I don’t think there’s much up there. It’s just a little village. Why are you going?”
“Well, it may be a wild goose chase. I’m working on the history of my late husband’s family. His father may have been in Ungavaq at some point. I want to talk to the old people and see if anyone remembers stories about him.”
“There aren’t many more than a hundred people there, I don’t think. That shouldn’t take you long.”
For most of the trip, we flew over forest. As we neared Blackwell, though, the scenery changed. In the distance, I could see range after range of snow-covered mountains and glaciers. Below us, the trees were gone. Large patches of snow lay scattered on the ground.
“This view is spectacular.”
“Yes. Dramatic,” he said. “There aren’t any more trees between here and the North Pole.”
Tundra stretched below and ahead of us. From our altitude, it looked almost like bare ground, but Guy told me the marshy soil was solid with low-growing plants. Here and there, lakes dotted the land and reflected the sunlight like mirrors. Ribbons of meandering water connected them.
When we landed, bright sunshine greeted us. The pilot announced clear skies and a temperature of fifteen degrees. I still had trouble converting Celsius to Fahrenheit, but I finally worked out that it was fifty-nine, not too cold, but definitely not warm. We taxied toward the terminal past shrubs and grasses bent in the wind.
Guy’s wife, Elise, was there to meet him. He introduced us and told her how we met. Before they left, I asked for directions to Northern Air. He pointed out a small counter at the far end of the concourse.
“It’s been a pleasure, Anne,” he said. “You tell Sarah to keep out of trouble.”
“I will. Thanks again.”
I turned and walked toward the Northern Air counter.
“I’m looking for L.G. Chandler.”
“You must be Mrs. O’Malley. I’m L.G. Chandler, but please, call me Laura.” The petite, neatly dressed woman who greeted me didn’t fit my notions of what the employee of a bush airline would look like. I’d guess she was in her early forties. She had large brown eyes and short curly brown hair. I asked her later, and she said the curl was natural. She wore a sort of dress-for-success blue pantsuit and a white blouse. She had no makeup on, but she did wear rings on just about every finger and big gold hoop earrings.
Laura directed me to my hotel—arranged by René—and asked me to be back no later than seven o’clock the next morning.
I didn’t have a good night. Northern Air’s web site had shown that the plane to Ungavaq was a four-seater. I’ve never flown in a small plane. When I tried to imagine the trip, I just thought about throwing up inside the plane as it swooped up and down through the sky.
I went from breakfast to an all-night drugstore Laura had recommended. She’d advised me to get sunscreen and bug repellent. I decided to get some motion sickness pills too.
The temperature was in the low forties, the air crisp. I’d had to do some shopping at clearance sales in Ottawa to get warm clothes. I hadn’t brought any from San Diego. I wore maroon wool slacks, a pink turtle neck shirt, a cardigan sweater, a warm jacket, and sturdy walking shoes. I felt warm enough, but not too warm.
I arrived at the Northern Air counter with my overnight bag in hand. I didn’t plan on staying overnight, but René told me that, even at the best of times, the weather was uncertain, and I should be prepared for a change of plans.
Laura waited for me, more casually dressed this morning in jeans, a bulky yellow pullover sweater, and boots. The extravagant jewelry of the day before had disappeared. She put on a leather jacket and a wool cap and led me through a door to the tarmac. I didn’t see a plane. She took me to a small panel truck and said, “Get in.” We drove about five minutes to a river where a number of floatplanes were tied up like boats in a marina. We walked to a small but solid-looking red and white plane—one of two sitting there. She stepped out onto the pontoon and gestured to me to follow. I stepped next to her and she showed me where to put my hands on the short ladder built into the plane’s structure. “Go ahead, climb up.”
“Will the pilot be along soon?”
“That’s me. I’m the pilot. Go ahead, get in, and we’ll get going. I’ve just been waiting for you.”
I wondered if this petite, pretty woman was competent to fly a plane into the Canadian wilderness. I hesitated for a moment, then started climbing. I wasn’t backing out now.
I watched her as she moved all the way around the plane, balancing on the pontoons and inspecting. She untied the lines that held the plane to the dock, coiled them, and climbed into her seat, stowing the coils under the seat as she sat. She went over a checklist on a clipboard, then taxied the plane away from the dock.
I’d thought I wouldn’t mind the takeoff, but the faster the plane went, the more nervous I got. My hands were clammy, and I broke out in a cold sweat. Riding in the front of the plane and looking out the window at the water speeding by is very different from looking at the seat back in front of you.
When the pontoons came off the water, I began to think I couldn’t handle the wave of fear building in me.
Laura banked the plane to the right and crossed the river’s edge.
I looked out the side window at the ground receding below me, and I was terrified. This certainly didn’t feel like the big planes.
When we finally leveled out, though, I managed to get myself under control.
Laura had been concentrating on the takeoff, so I didn’t think she’d seen how white my knuckles were. I didn’t tell her. I certainly didn’t want to tell a woman—and a younger one at that—I couldn’t manage something she could. I just hoped the worst was over.
The rest of the flight turned out to be uneventful—no swooping and no throwing up. At times, Laura concentrated on the plane. At other times, we talked.
She started the conversation by saying, “I guess the takeoff made you a little tense.”
Ah, she had seen.
“Lots of people feel that way if they haven’t been in a small plane before,” she said. “You’ll get over it.”
“You’re right. I’ve never been in a small plane before.”
“Well, this old plane and I’ll take care of you.”
“The plane’s old, or are you kidding?”
“This is a Cessna 185 Skywagon built in 1981, one of the last off the line.”
“Isn’t that awfully old?”
“No, this plane’s going to fly forever. It was my dad’s. It’s the one he started the business with. Now I take good care of it, and it takes good care of me.”
“You do the maintenance?”
“How fast are we going?”
“A little over 240.”
“Kilometers or miles per hour?”
“Kilometers. That’s about 150 miles per hour. We’re up to cruising speed. I’ll keep it here for the rest of the trip.”
“Don’t you get bored doing the same trip week after week?”
“Never. It’s always different. And I get to meet so many people, like you. Why are you going to Ungavaq?”
“I’m researching my father-in-law’s life. It looks like he might have gone there around 1915.” I told her about my project.
She’d never thought about tracing the genealogy of her family, so we talked a while about how she might get started.
“My parents came to Blackwell during a boom time and stayed on to start Northern Air. They saw Québec as a paradise for hunters and fishermen and knew there was money to be made transporting them. I grew up in the business. Don’t tell anyone, but I flew this plane the first time when I was eleven. I’ve been flying solo since I was a teenager. I never thought of doing anything else. Now my father’s retired. He turned the business over to me. He still comes in to help when things get extra busy.”
Our conversation was strange at times. At one point, Laura said, “You certainly didn’t bring much luggage, eh? I flew Jack back last week. He practically filled the plane with his stuff.”
Jack who? I wondered. “No, only an overnight bag.”
“You realize I come to Ungavaq only once a week.”
“Yes,” I said, not seeing the connection. “Every Friday.”
“Do they have a little airport there?”
“Where do we land?”
“On the bay. That’s what the pontoons are for.”
I intended to ask Laura who Jack was, but the tower at Blackwell called with an updated weather report, and she switched her attention to the radio. What they said was technical, but I took it to mean clear skies all the way. I forgot to ask my question.
As she handled more radio traffic, I gazed out the window. We flew much lower than the commercial flight to Blackwell over tundra like an exotic grey and green oriental carpet. Streams and one large river cut across it. Laura told me that they ultimately flowed into the bay.
Finally, in the distance ahead, I saw it—Ungava Bay. It stretched ahead and to the right as far as I could see—the icy home of seals, walruses, polar bears, whales, and uncounted millions of sea birds and fish.
We followed the shoreline north, and passed over what I was surprised to see was a big herd of caribou traveling the same direction we were. Less than a half-hour later, I saw a cluster of fifty or more low buildings adjacent to a protected inlet—Ungavaq!
As we approached, I could see one- and two-story wood buildings—some raw and unfinished looking, others painted in earth tones, and some even red or blue.
Barrels of fuel oil sat next to each building. Almost all the houses also had racks where, Laura told me, fish hung drying. Small boats bobbed at their moorings at a short dock. A path led from the dock to the nearest house and then through the village. I didn’t see any cars or anything that looked like a road.
We flew over people, including a group of children playing. Many waved. Laura waggled the wings in response.
Dogs tied near the houses looked up. I could tell they were howling.
We headed out over the inlet.
“Here we go,” Laura said. “Don’t get nervous. Landing’s a little tricky here because it’s always windy, but I’ve been doing it for so many years I could do it with my eyes closed.” She headed the plane toward the water in what seemed like a nose-dive.
I sure hoped her eyes were open. I’d been blasé about the idea of a water landing when Laura first mentioned it, but not anymore. At the last minute, she executed a steep banking turn, and landed with a solid thump not too far from the dock.
I managed to get my fingers unclenched before she looked at me.
“You must really be glad to get here, eh?”
I assumed she thought I was glad to get on the ground, or water, to be exact. “Oh, yes.” I said, with more enthusiasm than I meant to show.
As she taxied toward an open space at the end of the rows of boats, she pointed out two kayaks and an umiak, the traditional women’s boat. They bobbed next to outboard motor boats of various sizes and vintages.
She turned off the engine and undid her seatbelt. “I’ll be here for a while. We’ll offload the plane, have some tea and chitchat, and then I’ll head to Seal Haven. Are you going back next week or do you plan to stay longer.”
“Oh, no. I thought you’d pick me up on your way back from Seal Haven today.”
“You mean you don’t want to visit a while? They’ll expect you to stay a week at least.”
“Why, all your relatives.”
“All your relatives here in Ungavaq.”
With that, she opened her door. “Hi. I brought you a visitor,” she said to the man who’d walked down to the dock from the nearby house as we taxied in. Laura picked up the two coils of rope from under her seat. She put one heel on the ladder, grabbed the edge of the door, and swung herself down onto the left pontoon. She tied the end of one of the ropes to a bracket on the fuselage and tossed the other end to the man. He tied it to a cleat on the dock. They did the same at the back before he gave her a hand onto the wooden platform.
I sat in total confusion. Had I said something to Laura to make her think I had relatives here? I couldn’t remember anything. Well, maybe René had in his email, or maybe she’d misinterpreted our talk about genealogy.
I undid my seatbelt and clambered out over her seat. The plane rocked gently in the swell, so I didn’t try to copy her acrobatics. I turned to face the ladder and climbed carefully down. When I’d just set my feet on the pontoon I felt a pair of strong hands lift me and set me down gently on the dock. I turned and found myself face to face with the man who’d greeted Laura.
He was a broad-shouldered Inuit dressed in a green plaid wool jacket, Levi’s, and heavy boots. He stood only three inches or so taller than my five-feet-five, but his big work-hardened hands dwarfed mine. His thick black hair, touched with gray at the temples, was combed straight back almost to his collar. The lines on his clean-shaven face showed he spent a lot of time outdoors. I wouldn’t call him handsome, but his strong, pleasant face had a ready smile. That smile kept me from noticing immediately that he had tattoos, two parallel lines that went the full width of his face across his nose.
I started to thank him, but stopped, perplexed. He looked familiar, but I couldn’t think where I might’ve seen him before.
Now, Laura looked confused. Then, she laughed. “Oh, it didn’t occur to me the two of you might not have met before. Anne, this is Jack.”
We both said, “Hi.”
There was another awkward pause.
Laura tried again. “Anne O’Malley, this is Jack O’Malley. I guess he’s your cousin or something, eh?”
A look of surprise came over Jack’s face. I don’t know what my face looked like, but suddenly I realized why he looked familiar. In that broad Inuit face, I looked into Robby’s hazel eyes. I finally registered what Laura had said and realized there could be no doubt—he was some kind of relative.