Author's note: Carol's ex did show up in one or two episodes. But I took the liberty of reinventing the character for this story.
by Scott Hanson
Carol was starting a new job today, and was actually looking forward to it. After dismal experiences at everything from waitressing to substitute teaching, the prospect of showing upscale homes seemed like a dream. The older lady who would be mentoring her was friendly and intelligent. And the office manager had managed to keep from staring at her chest, which she counted as a big plus! Furthermore the pay was good, and the flexible hours would give her more time with Phillip, who was in the fifth grade now. Maybe things were coming together at last.
The extra money would be a blessing. She hoped they could finally get a place of their own, instead of having to live with her mother and (latest) stepfather in Tuckahoe. She liked Walter, and loved her mom. But given their track record for keeping vows, she didn't give this arrangement much long-range chance.
Thankfully Phillip's dad Robert was faithful with his child support, and visited regularly. She had kept his last name, Traynor. She told everyone that it was just easier for legal purposes, in light of Phillip. But there was an emotional aspect as well, which Carol--the proudly independent "new woman"--was slightly embarrassed about. In fact, in the past few months, there had even been some three-way activities when Robert visited, instead of just father/son outings. It was almost like, well...she let the thought drop.
"I'll be back by five," she told Phillip. "We're showing a townhouse to Norman Lear, the TV producer, and I get to tag along. So your mother might even be discovered." She hugged him. "Wish me luck. Pay mind to Maude and Walter. I'll call if we're running late."
"Good luck, Mom."
"Oh, you can call me Carol! I've told you that. You're a big person now." She prided herself on a broad-minded, modern outlook. Robert was a hopeless square, on the other hand.
"Okay, okay," he said.
A car horn sounded outside. Carol took a final glance in the mirror, to check her short, businesslike coif. "Got to run. Bye now. Love you, Phillip." And she was out the door. He walked to the window, and watched her climb into the idling Eldorado. The lady at the wheel handed her a portfolio, and they drove off.
"I love you, too, Mom," he whispered.
It turned out the Lears had cancelled their appointment at the last minute, exercising the joint prerogatives of fame and money. Carol and Mrs. Lane would instead be visiting a country home in rural Connecticut, which had been vacant for over a year. The owners were finally getting around to listing it.
It was a long drive, and the weather was warm for late March. Since divorcing Robert, Carol had done her own driving of course. She was her own woman now; in charge of her own life. But riding again on the passenger side brought back memories. It wasn't unpleasant to think back. In fact, she had done so more and more of late.
She rested her eyes. A song came on the radio, from maybe 5 or 6 years ago. It was one of Robert's favorites, and she liked it too. When it came on while they were driving together, he would drum his fingers in rhythm on the steering wheel. She could still see that, and hear it.
She felt the car's vibrations beneath her, and the warm breeze spilling through the half-open window. Then she could almost swear she heard a tapping...in time to the melody.
An odd fantasy came to her. As the song began its last verse, she set a strange proposition before herself:
If it is there, she pledged. If somehow, when I look, it is there...I will never take it off again, for the rest of my life.
The song faded out. She opened her eyes--and looked down at her left hand. A gold band glinted on the third finger.
"Having a dream?"
Robert cast a loving smile at her, then turned his attention back to the road. He continued drumming his fingers, even with the music over. "Nice song," he commented. "Did you catch who sang it? That is going to be a hit."
Carol stared at him. Then she felt something at her ear, and touched her shoulder-length tresses.
A pint-sized voice spoke up from the back seat. "Are we there yet?"
"Just enjoy the ride, Phillip," Robert said over his shoulder. "It won't be long."
Carol turned in her seat, and looked her son in the eyes. He looked back at her, with the innocent solemnity that only a five-year-old can muster. "Enjoy the ride, Mommy," he said gravely, mimicking his dad. "It won't be long."
Robert, from behind his sunglasses, gave his young wife a slight double-take. "What is it, kid?" he asked. "What's the matter?" He reached his right hand towards her.
She couldn't explain; not even to herself. "Robert...Robert..." She took his hand in both of hers, and pressed it to her lips.
"What's the matter?" Mrs. Lane repeated. Carol opened her eyes. Her hands were empty, of anyone else's hand...and of anything else. The tapping had been her own fingers upon the portfolio. With a quick movement, she touched her bare neck, beneath her ear. Then she slowly lowered her hand, and looked at it.
"Nothing," she said.
It was quite a remote location, Carol commented, when they reached the house after nearly an hour. "Quiet and pastoral," Mrs. Lane corrected her, by way of illustrating how a realtor should phrase these things. She reached into the back seat, and got Carol a Pro-Flex 35mm camera. "I have some paperwork to finish up," she said. "Just stroll the grounds, and take some preliminary shots. The house, the other buildings, that grove of trees in back, the hills over there. Whatever looks scenic. Then circle back in about 20 minutes, and we'll go inside."
Carol set out, looking for marketable views. Luckily she knew her way around a professional camera. She had done some modeling, like many attractive young women in the New York area. But where the other models would simply gossip or flirt between set-ups, Carol would watch the photographers and ask questions. (Not that she didn't like some occasional flirting, too.) She never thought of it in terms of career prep. She was just interested in life, and loved to learn about things.
The large colonial-style house was a beauty. She adjusted the aperture and the shutter speed as needed, to suit the conditions, and carefully selected the best angles to shoot from. She knew how to brace herself, so the camera wouldn't shake.
The air was noticeably cleaner and fresher than in the suburbs; a spring breeze riffled Carol's brunette hair. Sunlight broke from behind a cloud, and beamed down on the broad green acreage and its sojourner.
She passed from the open lawn, into the grove of trees. The sunlight winked and blinked through the canopy, which was just beginning to bud with new life. The alternations of light and shadow were random, of course. But somehow, a familiar pattern was there.
It had been at the Massachusetts shore, 200 miles and a lifetime away. They were in Robert's car that summer evening, looking out over the Cohasset Rocks near Boston Harbor. Maude had told her, as New England mothers had told their daughters for over 100 years, about the Minot's Ledge lighthouse--and its beacon. One-four-three was its signal pattern. What the mariners called its "characteristic." One...one-two-three-four...one-two-three. I...l-o-v-e...y-o-u. I love you. Over and over, forever.
Men would laugh about the silly story, and humor their wives and girlfriends who would tell it to them. And they would look at the light. And look at it. And the laughter would fade, even as it welled silently in their companion's heart. Maude had told her daughter to make sure, absolutely certain, of the man she wanted for life. Then take him to the beacon. And of all the men who had pursued Carol, whether for her body or her heart, she knew Robert was the one. From his hands. From his eyes. From the way he talked with elderly women, and with children.
And so that July evening, she asked him to take her to Cohasset. She said she had something to show him. And there they sat in the parked car, a soft song on the radio, and Robert's arm around her shoulder. And she pointed to the lighthouse... and told him the story. He smiled indulgently, and allowed as it was a "love"-ly bit of folklore. And he looked at the light. One-four-three. Yes, a nice, quaint story. One-four-three. One-four-three. One-four-three.
Carol watched his face. She watched his eyes grow wide. How the light slowly, but surely entranced him. She tingled at the thrill of it. This must be, she reflected, how a witch would feel when watching one of her spells take hold. She would be in charge from now on. No lovesick nonsense for her. The perfect marriage...or whatever.
At last he turned. He moved slowly, like in a dream; but whether his or hers was unclear. He lifted her face in his fingertips, and looked at her eyes. And touched her dark hair. She was more beautiful, in that guiding, intermittant light, than anything he had ever seen or imagined. The light blinked upon her. One...one-two-three-four...one-two-three. I...l-o-v-e... No. He didn't want to say it. Wasn't smart. Wasn't cool. Giving away everything...so much more to see, and to be free for. One...one-two-three-four...one-two-three.
"I love you," he said. He couldn't not. The words seemed to echo again and again, like the eternal light itself. "I love you."
Then he paused, and Carol herself looked at the man who was now hers. The light blinked upon him, before her own eyes now. One-four-three. One-four-three. There seemed to be something that Maude had forgotten to tell her. Or perhaps not forgotten, exactly. That the witch is just as suceptible to her charms as her intended. One-four-three. One-four-three.
"Robert..." No. This isn't supposed to happen. I'm supposed to be in cha--... One-four-three. No. No. One-four-three. One-four-three. One-four-... "Robert...I...I love--" But the words of both were lost in the kiss.
The country estate was certainly grander than the modest, mortgaged home where she and Robert had started out. That had one bathroom; no garage; no dining room. They would eat together at the kitchen table; whatever simple fare that she or Robert had fixed, depending on who got home first. Sometimes, for no reason apparent to Carol, he would suddenly reach across the table, and take her hand, and say how wonderful it is to have a meal with someone you love.
Carol, her mother's daughter, would make a semi-cynical remark about overdue bills, or an irate neighbor. Then Robert would repeat what he had said. And Carol would try to make another wisecrack--but a smile would force its way across her face. She'd fight back a tear, and admit that yes, yes, it was wonderful.
Other sentimental thoughts stirred as she walked along, out from the trees and back into the open sunlight. Phillip would like it here, she couldn't help thinking. A marvelous place to grow up. Maybe too remote--err, pastoral--for an only child, though. But she was still young. She could give him a younger brother or sister, or both, someday. My gosh, she thought, now I'm really getting mushy. She wondered why all these thoughts were coming to her today, of all days, when she needed to concentrate on her new job.
She snapped a picture of a beautiful, tall oak tree, with the house's veranda in the background. Then by sheer luck, she spotted a deer romping near the fence line, and focused quickly for a perfect shot. The third-floor balcony; then a restored windmill. Really the only eyesore was an abandoned car by a tool shed. But Carol easily avoided that. Fifteen minutes later she came round the last corner, and returned to the driveway.
The driver's side door was open, and Mrs. Lane appeared to be napping. Well, Carol knew it was all too easy to doze off, on a gorgeous day like this.
"Mrs. Lane? Are we ready to go inside?" She touched her shoulder. Mrs. Lane's head lolled over, and Carol saw a wound just in front of the ear. Then an arm lunged around Carol's neck, and she was hurled to the ground.
Carol screamed. Two earsplitting screams, partly as good strategy taught by her women's group, and partly from genuine terror. The weighty man struggled on top of her, and pinned her arms down with his knees. "Shut up!" he ordered. "Shut up!!!" She was about to scream a third time, when he jerked an ugly revolver from his boot. She stifled her cry, and stared up at him.
"So another visitor I got," he said, with a hoarse laugh. "And brought along a nice set of wheels for me." He looked at it, and back at her.
"T-t-take the car," she said. "I won't...I won't say anything."
"Yer right about that, honey." His breath reeked of alcohol. "I WILL be taking the car, and you WON'T be saying anything. I made the mistake of leaving a witness another time. Cost me eight years." He hefted the gun.
Her mind raced. "The agency knows we're here. The landscapers were right behind us!"
"Thass nice, 'cause I won't be here. You're the one who's not going anywhere."
"Please," Carol gasped. "I've, I've got a 10 year old boy at home."
"Oh, you're breaking my heart." He cocked the hammer.
Was this really the end? From peace and snapshots, to this, in one minute? Dear Phillip! Take care of him, Robert, she pled in her mind. Maude...Mother. Tell him about me. See that he grows up straight and strong. Oh no...oh no...!
The stout barrel was pushed into her rib cage. "Say yer prayers," he growled, like a thug in an old Western. It was just a taunt--an insipid clich that surfaced in his insipid brain. But in Carol's horror, as the finger tightened on the trigger, a phrase she hadn't thought of since childhood came to her in the last second of her life...Lord Jesus, sa--
It was merciless--but mercifully quick. She actually felt a split-second of impact, and heard a micron of the blast. But then there was nothing... silence... except for--perhaps from the sun beaming down on her closing eyes--from somewhere a white, white light.
Maude was insane with grief. At the hospital with Walter, to identify Carol, she bear-hugged the body so fiercely, and sobbed so uncontrollably, that Walter feared he'd lose her too, by coronary or suicide. Reached at work, Robert only had word of a shooting. Rocketing from Manhatten in a police cruiser, he had demanded the officer not radio ahead for details. But he knew, from his very dread to know, that she was gone.
The mortician, a family friend, labored overtime to prepare her perfectly. Hang the cost. He would never, could never, charge a cent for this. He paused only when his hands quavered too much, and tears flowed too freely, to let him work. He had asked for two pictures: a good profile, and a good frontal. Maude and Walter had brought him fifty, dating back even to her high school graduation.
The wake was two nights later, in the large front room of the Findlay home. The casket was near the foot of the staircase. So often Phillip had seen his mother walking down those stairs, tugging on her gloves, ready to start a new day. Of all her hugs, and admonitions, and pep talks, it was somehow that sight that always gave him the most confidence that life was good, and anything could be handled.
Walter had a dangerous penchant for alcohol, and there could be no better excuse than this. But to make an excuse of it would be the worst disrespect to Carol, and to Maude. So he restrained himself to two drinks and only two, and took charge of the hospitality for the many visitors, freeing Maude to receive their embraces and condolences (especially after their maid, Mrs. Naugatuck, passed out weeping in the pantry.)
When the last person had left, and Robert stood by the bier comforting their son, he flashed back to the night Phillip was conceived. Only he, not Carol, had known. The insight was a gift, and mystery, he never fully understood. At their wedding, they had spontaneously kissed three times, rather than once. It became a ritual for them. Every night of their married life--no matter what had happened during the day, or whether they made love or not--they would kiss three times before sleep. On that particular night, after their love and after the threefold kiss, Carol had nestled into Robert's chest, to drift off. But then for some reason--even later she couldn't say why--she had lifted her eyes and looked up at him. She didn't smile, or say a word. It was just a gaze. But he knew. He knew. Their child was here.
He had wrapped his arms around her so tightly she was almost frightened. "Carol...Carol..."--he said her name again and again, and couldn't quit saying he loved her. She welcomed the affection, but was bewildered. Hey, she knew she was great in bed--but no greater than usual. Had he lost his mind? "What is it, kid?" she asked, using their pet name. "What's the matter?" He couldn't explain, not even to himself. He just took her right hand in both of his, and pressed it to his lips. And exactly nine months later, as he was clasping that same hand, their son was born.
He leaned down now over her still form, and gently kissed her once...twice. He had promised himself not to take the third. Not without her assent. But as he looked upon her for the last time, he couldn't help himself. There was just a faint sensation, for a second or two. But he would cherish it the rest of his life.
That was how he had known the marriage was over, too. Just when the unraveling had begun was vague--sometime around Phillip starting school. But the end point was crystal clear. Much had preceded it: Silences; clich s; futile counseling. And much would follow. But that one moment stood alone.
They had not made love for months, by Carol's choice. But they still shared their bed, and the three kisses. Then came a night when Carol, to Robert's joy, reached out to him. He threw his heart into it, and savored her more tenderly and passionately than ever in his life. At the end, as they lay next to each other, Robert knew a turning point had been reached. The slide was reversed. All marriages go through bad stretches, and that stretch was over now. Things would be better and stronger than ever. They would raise Phillip side by side, and any other children Carol would want. And they would someday grow old together, and play with their grandkids, and would know that nothing could ever separate them.
Almost trembling with happiness and gratitude, he had gently brought Carol's face towards his, for the goodnight kisses... but she raised her hand. She placed her fingers against his lips, averted her eyes, and turned away. And it was over.
The wake was over. The casket would be closed for the funeral. Maude knew she couldn't bear it otherwise. When the time came to close and seal it, she stayed near. Then just as the heavy lid was halfway down, she thrust in her hand to grasp Carol's one last time. The mortician held the lid rock steady, and waited without a word. So did his assistant, knowing he would be fired if he so much as cleared his throat. "My love..." she spoke softly, intently. "My love... my love... my love..."
Maude had gotten an abortion two years ago when, by an unexpected chance, she had become pregnant in middle age. (It was impossible, now.) She had orated about her "right to choose," and declared in her complaining/loving way that she already had all the kids she needed in Carol. Carol herself, always the 100% feminist liberal, had supported her Mom completely. But Mom did notice, on the scheduled day, a tear running down her feminist daughter's cheek as she watched Phillip play in the yard. Maude learned months later, from the mother of Robert, that Carol had asked for a no-strings reconciliation, if he would return while she raised Maude's new baby as her own. She had never breathed a word of this to Maude, for fear of pressuring her. And Maude never let on that she had found out. Mothers and daughters...
The killer was himself killed in a shootout the day of the funeral. So eager to get away after murdering Carol, he hadn't noticed that his first victim was still breathing. Carol's desperate ploy about landscapers hadn't been in vain after all.
He had been in and out of prison three times. With the governor cracking down on violent crime, he knew he'd never get out again. So he finished off the 12-pack in his seedy motel room, and shot the last ounce of smack into his arm. Then he charged out the door, firing at nothing in particular, while ten policemen fired in particular at him. He had no family (that stepped forward at least), and was cremated by week's end.
Chris, an on-and-off boyfriend, served as a pallbearer for Carol. So did neighbor Vivian Harmon, in defiance of male tradition (and despite her own conservatism), knowing that Carol would have liked the gesture.
The chapel was filled to overflowing. Her favorite portrait, in a gold frame, sat atop the casket. A blue silk scarf, a present from Phillip on her last birthday, was looped around it. Mrs. Lane, disregarding doctors' orders, was there in a wheelchair, with an ambulance on stand-by outside.
Viv's husband Arthur, Walter's best friend, offered the eulogy. In their late-night conversations, Maude and Carol had often made merry over his pompous, absurdly Republican pronouncements. But when the chips were down, he could come through for friends--and he did so, nobly, on this occasion. Maude held up for most of it, only sobbing aloud when he made a seemingly inconsequential mention of Carol teaching Phillip a children's song. "Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, Life is but..."
At the end was played a tape of Carol herself singing. She had an excellent voice, which even some friends were unaware of. Every year, when the families gathered at Christmas, she would sing "O Holy Night." It was an exceptionally beautiful, and difficult, song--but Carol had it wrapped round her finger. Robert recorded it several years ago, over her good-natured objections. The lyrics always had special meaning for him. A thrill of hope...the weary world rejoices.
Her vibrant rendition poured through the chapel, and ended with the final "...oh night di-vine." Then came muffled applause on the tape, and some meant-to-embarrass cheering from onlookers in the Traynors' living room. And Carol's voice, off-mike, could be heard saying Oh stop it!... Thank you... That was for you, kid...
Phillip sat between his dad and Maude. Robert had worked hard at being a good father, within the awkward circumstances. And he never stopped carrying a torch for Carol. His heart had leaped, albeit a bit guiltily, when she proposed reuniting to raise Maude's now-aborted child. He'd always been ready to reconcile, strings or not. In fact, he had put off remarrying just to keep the door open. But Carol needed her "space," as she put it--while he had only needed Carol.
He wondered, as he gazed at her picture, if she had thought of him at all in that final minute. Then he kicked himself for being such an egotist. He had let her down, and she deserved much better. At such a terrible moment, she wasn't about to be giving any thought to the likes of him.
Accompanying Robert was Judy Brown, a lifelong friend. She had never really warmed to Carol--perhaps from jealousy. But she'd always respected Robert's ex, and never said a word against her. As Robert squeezed her hand during Carol's song, she felt painfully guilty that a part of her couldn't help feeling hopeful now. She looked past him to Phillip, and was struck again by their resemblance. She felt free, finally, to ask if he would take her to a special place her mother had told her of. By the sea.
Two weeks later, Maude had Vivian drive her to the house in Connecticut. She brought along a folder from the realty office. They parked, at Maude's insistence, just where Carol and Mrs. Lane had. (The tire marks where the killer had peeled out could still be seen.)
In the folder were Carol's photos, in the same order from the film roll.
While Vivian stayed with the car, Maude slowly retraced the steps her daughter had taken in the last 20 minutes of her life. Looking at each picture in turn, she stood in the exact places where Carol had. As she moved from picture to picture, and point to point, a sense of woe and dread built. She wanted to cry out to her to stop. To flee. To not come round that final corner.
The seventh picture was a shot of an oak tree by the veranda. The next was of the fence line behind her. When Maude turned around, the precise view presented itself. Carol must have snapped it immediately, to catch the deer at play. Maude felt a sweet moment of identification with her daughter's thoughts.
At last she reached the final picture. The final view. She stood there a full minute, sharing Carol's eyes. Then she rounded the corner to the front of the house. The car sat in the driveway, with Vivian waiting. Maude crossed the expanse, as Carol had, and knelt down by the driver's side door. Chalk traces were still faintly visible. She touched the vacant spot, and wished that somehow--beyond time and space--there was a way that she could take away what her daughter suffered, and bear it herself instead. But no one could do that.
Vivian helped her back into the car. They rode home to Tuckahoe in silence.
Epilogue: Five years later
What were those seven stages of grief? Maude had seen that "expert" on the Phil Donahue show, but couldn't remember. But one of them, either at or near the end, had been Acceptance. Perhaps six out of seven wasn't bad.
It was mostly cloudy and unseasonably cold today, unlike the sunny April afternoon when Carol had been buried. Maude and Walter, married and divorced so many times, had never made any final plans together. Death was something to joke about, and force back into the recesses of thought. Carol's father, bless the old jerk, had offered a place for her with his own family, in a lovely churchyard in Dutchess County. Being more optimistic (and less realistic) than Maude, he had purchased six plots when Carol was born: for the three of them and whoever else might enter, and leave, their lives.
But Carol was instead laid to rest next to where Maude herself would someday be, with Maude's own mother and grandmother, in Crown Point, Indiana. There was a space on the other side of Maude's, for whoever would actually be with her "till death do they part." Walter, on the day of the burial, had vowed it would be him. And it looked like he finally found a vow that he could keep.
Maude still had family and friends here, and had flown back at least once a year since moving east. And always now, every trip included two or three visits to Carol. She no longer knelt on the grave and wept. Or at least, rarely. But the "acceptance" stage was still nowhere in sight.
To the right of the marker was a wreath the Harmons had sent along. It was heart-shaped, which made Maude almost smile. How typically corny of them. To the left was a bouquet of white hyacinth from Robert and Judy. Carol had carried hyacinths on her wedding day.
In the middle lay two long-stem roses, one pink and one red, intertwined.
"They still shouldn't have carved the cross on it," Phillip said. He was on Easter vacation from high school now. But he had delayed a trip with friends to come with Grandma on this fifth anniversary. "She never went to church."
Maude nodded. "But I know she thanked God--in a modern, progressive way, of course--for giving you to her."
"And taking her from us."
Maude hugged him, although he kept his hands in his pockets. The chilly wind rustled the willows nearby. "Just for her to have lived at all is...is more of a miracle than I ever deserved."
"And you're more than I deserved..." said a soft voice.
Maude broke the embrace, and beamed into her grandson's eyes. "Why, Phillip, that's the most wonderful thing I've ever heard you say."
He squirmed a bit, and looked at her quizzically. "What do you mean, me?"
She looked at him long and hard.
"Can we go now?" he asked. "It's getting cold."
"Yes. It's cold," Maude acknowledged, after a pause. "That's how it is sometimes. But it's just a matter of...accepting it."
She gazed at Carol's name one more time. The breeze rose again, and the sun through the treetops flickered across the face of the marker. The waver of light and shadow, light and shadow, stirred something in Maude's memory that she couldn't quite place. But she felt eased, somehow. Then she led the way towards the open gate.
1. Dutchess County is in New York State, north of Tuckahoe (which is a real suburb, and where the show was actually set.
2. The Minot's Ledge lighthouse in Massachusetts is as described, with the one-four-three beacon. Its "I love you" legend is oft-told.
3. Chris was Carol's fiance early on. The character, and Carol's impending remarriage, both disappeared in the second season without explanation.