The Artist’s Signature
SHE RUSHED up the steps of the nursing home and, on the newly repainted green veranda, marked off at regular intervals by empty rocking chairs, she saw John Staughton – stooped, immobile, his arms dead weights. In his right hand be clutched a shopping bag in which Ellie could see a translucent shower cap, a flowered makeup case, and two bedroom slippers adorned with pink pom-poms.
“She’s gone,” he said as his eyes focused. “Don’t go in,” he pleaded. “Don’t look at her. She would’ve hated for you to see her like this. You know how much pride she took in her appearance. Anyway, she’s not in there.”
Almost reflexively, out of long practice and still unresolved resentments, Ellie was tempted to turn and enter anyway. Was she prepared, even now, to defy him as a matter of principle? What was the principle, exactly? From the havoc on his face, there was no question about the authenticity of his remorse. He had loved her mother. Maybe, she thought, he loved her more than I did, and a wave of self-reproach swept through her. Her mother had been so frail for so long that Ellie had tested, many times, how she would respond when the moment came. She remembered how beautiful her mother had been in the picture that Staughton had sent her, and suddenly, despite her rehearsals for this moment, she was wracked with sobs.
Startled by her distress, Staughton moved to comfort her. But she put up a hand, and with a visible effort regained her self-control. Even now, she could not bring herself to embrace him. They were strangers, tenuously linked by a corpse. But she had been wrong – she knew it in the depths of her being – to have blamed Staughton for her father’s death.
“I have something for you,” he said as he fumbled in the shopping bag. Some of the contents circulated between top and bottom, and she could
see now an imitation-leather wallet and a plastic denture case. She had to look away. Atlast he straightened up, flourishing a weather-beaten envelope.
“For Eleanor,” it read. Recognizing her mother’s handwriting, she moved to take it. Staughton took a startled step backward, raising the envelope in front of bis face as if she had been about to strike him.
“Wait,” he said. “Wait. I know we’ve never gotten along. But do me this one favor: Don’t read the letter until tonight. Okay?”
In his grief, he seemed a decade older. “Why?” she asked.
“Your favorite question. Just do me this one courtesy. Is it too much to ask?”
“You’re right,” she said. “It’s not too much to ask. I’m sorry.”
He looked her directly in the eye. “Whatever happened to you in that Machine,” he said, “maybe it changed you.”
“I hope so, John.”
She called Joss and asked him if he would perform the funeral service. “I don’t have to tell you I’m not religious. But there were times when my mother was. You’re the only person I can think of whom I’d want to do it, and I’m pretty sure my stepfather will approve.” He would be there on the next plane, Joss assured her.
In her hotel room, after an early dinner, she fingered the envelope, caressing every fold and scuff. It was old. Her mother must have written it years ago, carrying it around in some compartment of her purse, debating with herself whether to give it to Ellie. It did not seem newly resealed, and Ellie wondered whether Staughton had read it. Part of her hungered to open it, and part of her hung back with a kind of foreboding.