Excerpt from Secret Language
It is cold comfort, these twice-monthly dinners at Faith's.
For having this house to come to, Connie is grateful, but there
are conditions: it is a place to come to only if you call first; it
fills a need only if you don't need much.
Before going in, she stands for a moment in Faith's yard, looking
at the house, its neat shutters, its tidy front porch.
Bird feeders hang like ornaments among the trees.
In the air, warm for April, Connie catches winter's final waning.
Faith's preparations for spring are everywhere: flower boxes
filled with soil; a rose trestle, newly painted, snugged against the end
of the house; bits of string and yarn set out for the birds.
Connie takes it all in with a sense of wonder; this annual act of
hope is one of Faith's many mysteries.
Connie had moved back to Portland, into a one-bedroom
condominium ringed by rhododendrons and unnaturally green grass, with a
notion of setting down roots, and the proximity of Faith fed this
notion. I live a few
blocks from my sister, she pictured herself saying.
Oh yes, we see each other every day. But it had not turned out this way. For one thing, Connie was never home. For another, their years apart had not made them any better
suited to other people's rituals, and she discovered how inept they were
at spontaneous visits. They
were no more separate than they had ever been, and no closer, so they
stumbled into a ritual that did suit them, another of their silent
pacts: Connie began coming here two Saturdays a month, at exactly five
She rings the bell. Joe
and Chris appear at the door, on their way out, Ben and the dog behind
them. Tucked under Joe's
arm is a ruffled catalog of auto parts.
"Hey, Connie," he says, and kisses her cheek.
The boys give her a brief hug, then the three of them seem to
wait for her to say something. She
looks from one to the other, vaguely uncomfortable.
"So, what do you think?"
Chris says, finally.
"About what?" Connie
looks him over, for a new haircut, the start of a beard, a tattoo.
"My car." He
points to the driveway, to a blue car parked right in front of hers.
The car is exceptionally ugly, yet somehow she'd missed it.
"Well," she says.
"It's really something."
"Careful of your blood pressure, Connie," Joe says.
"No, really, it's nice."
She frowns. "Isn't
it something like that car you used to have, Joe?"
Chris places his hand on his father's shoulder, standing up
straight. He's almost as
tall as Joe, with Joe's big build, but he has Faith's fair
hair--Connie's too, she likes to think--and the
Spaulding green eyes. "Very
good, Aunt Connie," he says. "What
you see before you is a 1966 Corvair.
"Four on the floor," Ben says.
"We're putting her back on the road."
"I'm putting her back on the road," Chris says.
"You're not even old enough to get a license."
"So?" Ben says. He
is short and stringy, with his father's black hair and deep blue eyes.
"I didn't say it was my car."
Joe thumps cheerfully on the catalog.
"It's nobody's car till we get it running."
To Connie, the Corvair looks hopeless.
"Well," she says.
Chris and Joe start down the steps, but Ben lingers, waiting
while she pets the dog, a sweet-tempered shepherd-retriever mutt.
"What's new?" she asks Ben, running her hands over the
dog's golden pelt. She
doesn't want to go inside.
"I'm playing shortstop."
He always offers her something.
Chris is harder to talk to, his mind always somewhere else, his
body in perpetual motion. Ben
looks right into a person's eyes, focused, purposeful.
To Connie it seems he has made a virtue of the pensiveness he
inherited from his mother.
"Shortstop," she says.
He laughs. He thinks she's kidding.
"How's school? Almost
out, huh?" She has
always felt a little foolish talking to children.
He smiles politely. "Yup."
"What grade will you be in?"
She winces. As a
child she hated this question: there were too many schools, too many
"Eighth," he says patiently.
"Eighth. I keep forgetting."
Ben runs one spidery hand through his hair.
"I'm gonna go help those guys with the car, okay?"
He chucks the dog on the head.
"Come on, Sammy."
Then he, too, is gone, and the dog is gone, leaving her alone
with the house, and her sister. She
tightens her grip on her purse, on the letter inside it.
The letter contains just the sort of thing they're not good at.
She finds Faith in the kitchen, laying silverware around five
"Sorry I'm early," Connie says.
Faith looks up. "Safe flight?"
"We got stuck in London for a while but we still touched
down on time." She
sits down. "How's
"Fine. Marion's out with the flu, so it's pretty busy."
They have been having this conversation, more or less, ever since
Connie first left this house to work for AtlanticAir.
Connie considers how little her life has changed: she's had the
same schedule--Portland to Boston to London to Paris; Paris
to London to Boston to Portland--for years now.
Her final return is always on a Saturday, when her routine is the
same: she waters her one plant, puts on some coffee, calls her friend
Stewart in Boston if she can get him home.
From time to time she also has a boyfriend to call.
She straightens her already tidy apartment, then lies down for a
nap. When she gets up she
takes a shower, puts on her makeup, and heads out to pick up her mail
and drive the few blocks to Faith's.
"This is our first warm day," Faith says.
"It's freezing in Paris."
Connie moves a fork next to one of the plates.
"Is Joe eating with us?"
"Uh-huh," Faith says.
"They'll be tinkering with that car half the night, by the
looks." She rolls her
eyes. "So far it needs
nine hundred parts and a new tire."
Connie smiles. Faith's life hasn't changed much, either.
She has worked at Dr. Howe's for nineteen years, ten as the
office manager. And despite
a divorce that's five years old, Joe is still a dependable presence.
He lives with another woman but always seems to turn up here.
The aroma of chicken and ginger wafts out of the oven.
Connie recognizes the recipe, one of Phoebe's.
The table is set exactly the way Phoebe once showed them.
"Faith, can I talk to you?"
Faith looks up, startled, as if Connie has asked permission to
remove her clothes. "Not
if it has anything to do with Isadora James," she says.
She opens the oven, then shuts it without looking inside.
"I got another letter."
Connie fishes it out of her purse and presents it on the palm of
Faith looks at the letter as if it were a dead mouse.
"What does it say?"
"The same. She thinks the first one got lost in the mail."
She places it square on the table between the neatly arranged
dishes. The handwriting is
big and scrawly. "She
thinks Billy's her father, Faith. She believes it."
Connie can almost count the shifting muscles in her sister's
"I don't want anything to do with her," Faith says.
"She's probably nuts."
"Then what am I supposed to do with this?"
"I don't know. Send
it to Armand. He can add it to his collection."
"His collection doesn't have anything like this,
"Yes it does. I
bet she's writing a book on the theater.
It's a mystery to me why any of these people want to include
Billy and Delle anyway—they only had one legitimate hit."
"She's not writing a book on the theater, Faith."
"Maybe not. But
you can bet she wants something. Besides, if Billy had another
kid I don't want to know about it."
Connie watches Faith move back and forth across her kitchen, her
meal materializing. It
reminds her of when they were teenagers, trying to run a household
around their mother.
Dear Connie, the letter begins.
My name is Isadora James and I believe I am your sister.
She has carried the two letters back and forth to Paris three
times now. The thought of
another sister, another blood tie, is a cruel temptation, one that bares
the pitiful ties she already has.
My mother was a dancer in a show called Silver Moon.
Connie stares out the window, chin in hand.
Faith's neighborhood looks solid, the houses and trees heavy and
safe. Connie's condominium
complex, though not far from here, has a temporary, antiseptic feel, its
slim, well-formed trees no more than decoration.
Faith's house is old and settling.
What would it would be like to belong to a place like this?
Connie's sense of belonging is more mobile: for years she has
expected to find her true place in life at the other end of the next
When the boys and Joe return, clattering through the door, the
house begins to breathe. They
gather at the sink to dip their hands in soap and sugar, their voices
rising amiably over the running water.
Arguing about what might be wrong with the car, they assemble at
the table, Chris with an optimistic smear of grease across the front of
"How long will it take to fix the car?" Connie asks
The three of them chuckle, a conspiracy of men.
"Only all his life," Joe says.
Faith doesn't seem to hear anything.
She stands with her back to them, tossing a salad at the counter.
"Everything okay here?" Joe asks, looking from one
sister to the other.
"Just fine," Faith calls out.
Joe stacks plates and begins to serve from the stove.
Connie gets up to help, grateful for the chance to move.
"I've been talking to Faith about meeting Isadora
James," she says.
"Who's Isadora James?" Chris asks.
Faith shoots Connie a look: the surprise of betrayal, the look
she gave every time Connie tried to make Billy and Delle behave kindly.
"Sorry," Connie says.
"I assumed you'd mentioned it."
She carries over the last plate and sits down, steeped in a
miserable silence, her place at her sister's table ready, good food
steaming into her face. She
senses the boys' held breath, their fierce interest. Their mother's
discomfort has not been lost on them.
"Is this any of my business?" Joe says.
His voice breaks the spell and again everyone moves, taking up
forks, reaching for bread and salad.
"Connie got a letter from somebody in Brooklyn, that's
all," Faith says, as if that explained anything.
Joe stops chewing. "So?"
"She thinks she's our sister," Connie says.
"Half sister," Faith adds.
"She thinks Billy was her father."
Joe lets out a long whistle, and the boys wait, their mouths
"What does she want?" Joe asks.
"Nothing," Connie says.
Faith lays down her fork. "She
probably thinks we have money."
"She says she wants to share our memories," Connie
says. The thought is a cold
hand on her shoulder.
"Another Spaulding sister," Joe says.
"I'll be damned."
His eyes darken with interest.
"Why did she wait till now?"
"She didn't know. Her
mother finally told her a few months ago, just before she died."
Saying this, Connie already believes it.
"She grew up thinking her mother's husband was her father.
He's dead, too."
"How old is she?"
Joe's questions are a comfort; they anchor Connie to Isadora
James's story in a way that makes it true.
"Let's see, they left Silver Moon in the spring of. .
. she must be about twenty‑six. I would've been ten when she was born. Faith, you were almost twelve."
Faith is taking tiny mouthfuls of food, one after another.
The boys are vigilant, eating mechanically, suspended on the next
"I don't know why we're even talking about this," Faith
says. She collects her
plate, scrapes most of her dinner into the sink.
"She probably works for a tabloid.
'Dead Crooners Speak from the Grave,' something like that."
"Crooners," Ben says, and he and Chris laugh.
Their habit is to make gentle fun of their mother, but Faith
never seems to mind. Connie
watches her relax again, letting her sons coax her into a smile.
She looks at them as she looks at no one else: she listens. It's the way she used to look at Joe.
"She might be for real, Faith," Joe says.
"You never know. What
about that stuff in the attic, all that stuff you moved from your
"What about it?"
"Maybe there's a clue somewhere."
"Oh, for God's sake," Faith says.
She turns to Connie. "Why
are we falling all over ourselves just because some girl in Brooklyn
says she's our sister?"
"I believe her," Connie says.
Her words feel pronged, her voice hard; the recognition of
something shuddering between them lends the smallest thrill to her
discomfort. Their exchange
has the texture of something living.
Emboldened, she makes her claim: "I think we should meet
Faith closes her eyes.
"I've already talked to Armand about it, Faith.
We could meet her in New York, in his office.
Neutral territory. We'd
never have to see her again."
"I just want to meet her once."
Faith shakes her head. "Connie."
"I hate to ask you, Faith, believe me."
This truth presses on her like a soft wound.
"But I hate New York," Faith says.
"I hate it there."
Connie keeps on: "I
don't want to go alone."
"Then don't go." Faith
looks away. "I'd have to inconvenience everyone at work," she
says weakly. "I'd have
to take the boys out of school."
"Whoa, remember me?" Joe says, waving his hand.
"They can stay with Brenda and me."
"We can take care of ourselves," Chris announces,
indignant. Not quite
seventeen, he's already bigger than most men.
"I'd rather go to New York with Mom and Aunt Connie,"
Ben says. "No offense,
Joe laughs. "None taken."
He looks at Faith. "I
think it's a good idea."
Faith leans back against the counter, her arms loosely crossed,
staring into some thought known only to her.
It's the mention of Brenda that has disarmed her, Connie knows;
she can see it in the set of her lower lip.
"Meeting this woman will take what, an hour?" Joe says.
"It might even be interesting.
And look at the pluses: you get to do Connie a favor and the boys
get to see New York City. Besides,
you haven't seen Armand in years."
Faith flicks her eyes toward Connie, a green warning.
"Armand will expose this thing in about five seconds,"
she says. "I hope you know that."
Is Faith saying yes? "I
just want to know, one way or the other," Connie says.
But it isn't true; she only wants to know one way.
Faith comes back to the table and sits down heavily.
"Can you at least wait till school's out?"
Ben lets out a yip. "You
mean we're going?"
"Thanks," Connie says softly.
Faith has come through.
The boys talk through the rest of dinner about what they want to
do in New York, but make no mention of meeting their possible aunt.
By the time the plates are cleared, Faith is more herself, though
she is quiet, even for her.
"Aunt Connie, watch," Chris says, standing at the
refrigerator. He makes a
clucking sound. The dog,
who has been slumbering near the kitchen door, pricks up his ears.
Chris opens the freezer and fishes out an ice cube.
Ben nudges her. "This is really good," he says as Chris tosses the
cube into the air. The dog
springs from all fours to catch it on its upward arc, then drops like a
sack, intent on the meaty crunch of ice between his teeth.
Chris shuts the freezer and grins.
"He thinks we buy them."
Connie laughs, slipping under the sound of the boys' voices, the
crunching dog, the faraway neighborhood noises of the season's first
warm night. These are only
the motions of comfort, she knows, but for the moment it seems like
All at once the boys are off: Chris to pick up his girlfriend,
Ben to walk the dog. Joe
"Another Spaulding," he says, shaking his head.
They're still at the kitchen table, the lights on.
Eighteen years ago, Connie thinks, we'd be getting out a deck of
"Faith, thank you," she says.
"Really, I mean it. We
can make it a quick trip. An
overnight, if you want."
Faith looks into her lap. "I
don't want another sister."
Connie can't tell how she means this.
"Aren't you even a little curious, Faith?
Imagine if she's really...I mean, if she's been out
there all this time . . . "
Faith looks up. "I said I'd go. I'm
sorry you had to beg."
Joe scrapes his chair back and looks at his watch.
Connie has almost forgotten that he no longer belongs to this
"Thanks for dinner," he says to Faith, and presses her
shoulders as he passes. "Don't
"I thought you were going to work on the car."
"Tomorrow," he says.
He tosses Connie a little salute, then he's gone, leaving her and
Faith in their customary silence, a silence that has always come from
not having enough to say to each other, until tonight, when it seems
instead like too much.