Laura glanced at her. “What’s wrong?”
Chyna closed her eyes.
“Chyna, you’re as white as a ghost. What is it?”
“A long time ago…when I was just a little girl, seven years old…Maybe we were in the Everglades, maybe not…but the land was swampy like the ’glades. There weren’t many trees, and the few you could see were hung with Spanish moss. Everything was flat as far as you could see, lots of sky and flatness, the sunlight red and fading like now, a back road somewhere, far away from anything, very rural, two narrow lanes, so damn empty and lonely….”
Chyna had been with her mother and Jim Woltz, a Key West drug dealer and gunrunner with whom they had lived now and then, for a month or two at a time, during her childhood. They had been on a business trip and had been returning to the Keys in Woltz’s vintage red Cadillac, one of those models with massive tailfins and with what seemed to be five tons of chrome grillwork. Woltz was driving fast on that straight highway, exceeding a hundred miles an hour at times. They hadn’t encountered another car for almost fifteen minutes before they roared up behind the elderly couple in the tan Mercedes. The woman was driving. Birdlike. Close-cropped silver hair. Seventy-five if she was a day. She was doing forty miles an hour. Woltz could have pulled around the Mercedes; they were in a passing zone, and no traffic was in sight for miles on that dead-flat highway.
“But he was high on something,” Chyna told Laura, eyes still closed, watching the memory with growing dread as it played like a movie on a screen behind her eyes. “He was most of the time high on something. Maybe it was coc**ne that day. I don’t know. Don’t remember. He was drinking too. They were both drinking, him and my mother. They had a cooler full of ice. Bottles of grapefruit juice and vodka. The old lady in the Mercedes was driving really slow, and that incensed Woltz. He wasn’t rational. What did it matter to him? He could’ve pulled around her. But the sight of her driving so slow on the wide-open highway infuriated him. Drugs and booze, that’s all. So irrational. When he was angry…red-faced, arteries throbbing in his neck, jaw muscles bulging. No one could get angry quite as totally as Jim Woltz. His rage excited my mother. Always excited her. So she teased him, encouraged him. I was in the backseat, hanging on tight, pleading with her to stop, but she kept at him.”
For a while, Woltz had hung close behind the other car, blowing his horn at the elderly couple, trying to force them to go faster. A few times he had nudged the rear bumper of the Mercedes with the front bumper of the Cadillac, metal kissing metal with a squeal. Eventually the old woman got rattled and began to swerve erratically, afraid to go faster with Woltz so close behind her but too frightened of him to pull off the road and let him pass by.
“Of course,” Chyna said, “he wouldn’t have gone past and left her alone. By then he was too psychotic. He would have stopped when she stopped. It still would have ended badly.”
Woltz had pulled alongside the Mercedes a few times, driving in the wrong lane, shouting and shaking his fist at the white-haired couple, who first tried to ignore him and then stared back wide-eyed and fearful. Each time, rather than drive by and leave them in his dust, he had dropped behind again to play tag with their rear bumper. To Woltz, in his drug fever and alcoholic haze, this harassment was deadly serious business, with an importance and a meaning that could never be understood by anyone who was clean and sober. To Chyna’s mother, Anne, it was all a game, an adventure, and it was she, in her ceaseless search for excitement, who said, Why don’t we give her a driving test? Woltz said, Test? I don’t need to give the old bitch a test to see she can’t drive for shit. This time, as Woltz pulled beside the Mercedes, matching speeds with it, Anne said, I mean, see if she can keep it on the road. Make it a challenge for her.
To Laura, Chyna recalled, “There was a canal parallel to the road, one of those drainage channels you see along some Florida highways. Not deep but deep enough. Woltz used the Cadillac to crowd the Mercedes onto the shoulder of the road. The woman should have crowded him back, forced him the other way. She should have tramped the pedal to the floor and pegged the speedometer and gotten the hell out of there. The Mercedes would’ve outrun the Cadillac, no problem. But she was old and scared, and she’d never encountered anyone like this. I think she was just disbelieving, so unable to understand the kind of people she was up against, unable to grasp how far they’d go even though she and her husband had done nothing to them. Woltz forced her off the road. The Mercedes rolled into the canal.”
Woltz had stopped, shifted the Cadillac into reverse, and backed up to where the Mercedes was swiftly sinking. He and Anne had gotten out of the car to watch. Chyna’s mother had insisted that she watch too: Come on, you little chicken. You don’t want to miss this, baby. This is one to remember. The passenger’s side of the Mercedes was flat against the muddy bottom of the canal, and the driver’s side was revealed to them as they stood on the embankment in the humid evening air. They were being bitten by hordes of mosquitoes but were hardly aware of them, mesmerized by the sight below them, gazing through the driver-side windows of the submerged vehicle.
“It was twilight,” Chyna told Laura, putting into words the images behind her closed eyes, “so the headlights were on, still on even after the Mercedes sank, and there were lights inside the car. They had air-conditioning, so all the windows were closed, and neither the windshield nor the driver-side window had shattered when the car rolled. We could see inside, ’cause the windows were only a few inches under water. There was no sign of the husband. Maybe he was knocked unconscious when they rolled. But the old woman…her face was at the window. The car was flooded, but there was a big bubble of air against the inside of the glass, and she pressed her face into it so she could breathe. We stood there looking down at her. Woltz could have helped. My mother could have helped. But they just watched. The old woman couldn’t seem to get the window open, and the door must have been jammed, or maybe she was just too scared and too weak.”
Chyna had tried to pull away, but her mother had held her, speaking urgently to her, the whispered words borne on a tide of breath sour with vodka and grapefruit juice. We’re different than other people, baby. No rules apply to us. You’ll never understand what freedom really means if you don’t watch this. Chyna had closed her eyes, but she had still been able to hear the old woman screaming into the big air bubble inside the submerged car. Muffled screaming.
“Then gradually the screaming faded…finally stopped,” Chyna told Laura. “When I opened my eyes, twilight had gone and night had come. There was still light in the Mercedes, and the woman’s face was still pressed to the glass, but a breeze had risen, rippling the water in the canal, and her features were a blur. I knew she was dead. She and her husband. I started to cry. Woltz didn’t like that. He threatened to drag me into the canal, open a door on the Mercedes, and shove me inside with the dead people. My mother made me drink some grapefruit juice with vodka. I was only seven. The rest of the way back to Key West, I lay on the backseat, dizzy from the vodka, half drunk and a little sick, still crying but quietly, so I wouldn’t make Woltz angry, crying quietly until I fell asleep.”
In Laura’s Mustang, the only sounds were the soft rumble of the engine and the singing of the tires on the blacktop.
Chyna finally opened her eyes and came back from the memory of Florida, from the long-ago humid twilight to the Napa Valley, where most of the red light had gone out of the sky and darkness encroached on all sides.
The old man in the Buick was no longer in front of them. They were not driving as fast as before, and evidently he had gotten far ahead of them.
Laura said softly, “Dear God.”
Chyna was shaking uncontrollably. She plucked a few Kleenex from the console box between the seats, blew her nose, and blotted her eyes. Over the past two years, she had shared part of her childhood with Laura, but every new revelation — and there was much still to reveal — was as difficult as the one before it. When she spoke of the past, she always burned with shame, as though she had been as guilty as her mother, as if every criminal act and spell of madness could be blamed on her, though she had been only a helpless child trapped in the insanity of others.
“Will you ever see her again?” Laura asked.
Recollection had left Chyna half numb with horror. “I don’t know.”
“Would you want to?”
Chyna hesitated. Her hands were curled into fists, the damp Kleenex wadded in the right one. “Maybe.”
“For God’s sake why?”
“To ask her why. To try to understand. To settle some things. But…maybe not.”
“Do you even know where she is?”
“No. But it wouldn’t surprise me if she was in jail. Or dead. You can’t live like that and hope to grow old.”
They drove down out of the foothills into the valley.
Eventually Chyna said, “I can still see her standing in the steamy darkness on the banks of that canal, greasy with sweat, her hair hanging damp and all tangled, covered with mosquito bites, eyes bleary from vodka. Laura, even then she was still the most beautiful woman you’ve ever seen. She was always so beautiful, so perfect on the outside, like someone out of a dream, like an angel…but she was never half as beautiful as when she was excited, when there’d been violence. I can see her standing there, only visible because of the greenish glow from the headlights of the Mercedes rising through the murky canal water, so ravishing in that green light, glorious, the most beautiful person you’ve ever seen, like a goddess from another world.”
Gradually Chyna’s trembling subsided. The heat of shame faded from her face, but slowly.
She was immeasurably grateful for Laura’s concern and support. A friend. Until Laura, Chyna had lived secretly with her past, unable to speak of it to anyone. Now, having unburdened herself of another hateful corrupting memory, she couldn’t begin to put her gratitude into words.
“It’s okay,” Laura said, as if reading Chyna’s mind.
They rode in silence.
They were late for dinner.
To Chyna, the Templeton house looked inviting at first glimpse: Victorian, gabled, roomy, with deep porches front and rear. It stood a half mile off the county road, at the end of a gravel driveway, surrounded by one hundred twenty acres of vineyards.
For three generations, the Templetons had grown grapes, but they had never made wine. They were under contract to one of the finest vintners in the valley, and because they owned fertile land with the highest-quality vines, they received an excellent price for their crop.
Sarah Templeton appeared on the front porch when she heard the Mustang in the driveway, and she came quickly down the steps to the stone walkway to greet Laura and Chyna. She was a lovely, girlishly slim woman in her early or mid forties, with stylishly short blond hair, wearing tan jeans and a long-sleeved emerald-green blouse with green embroidery on the collar, simultaneously chic and motherly. When Sarah hugged Laura and kissed her and held her with such evident and fierce love, Chyna was struck by a pang of envy and by a shiver of misery at never having known a mother’s love.
She was surprised again when Sarah turned to her, embraced her, kissed her on the cheek, and, still holding her close, said, “Laura tells me you’re the sister she never had, so I want you to feel at home here, sweetheart. When you’re here with us, this is your place as much as ours.”
Chyna stood stiffly at first, so unfamiliar with the rituals of family affection that she didn’t know quite how to respond. Then she returned the embrace awkwardly and murmured an inadequate thank-you. Her throat was suddenly so tight that she was amazed to be able to speak at all.
Putting her arms around both Laura and Chyna, guiding them to the broad flight of porch steps, Sarah said, “We’ll get your luggage later. Dinner’s ready now. Come along. Laura’s told me so much about you, Chyna.”
“Well, Mom,” said Laura, “I didn’t tell you about Chyna being into voodoo. I sort of hid that part. She’ll need to sacrifice a live chicken every night at midnight while she’s staying with us.”
“We only grow grapes. We don’t have any chickens, dear,” Sarah said. “But after dinner we can drive to one of the farms in the area and buy a few.”
Chyna laughed and looked at Laura as if to say, Where’s the infamous Look?
Laura understood. “In your honor, Chyna, all wire coat hangers and equivalent devices have been put away.”
“Whatever are you talking about?” Sarah asked.
“You know me, Mom — a babbling ditz. Sometimes not even I know what I’m talking about.”
Paul Templeton, Laura’s father, was in the big kitchen, taking a potato-and-cheese casserole out of the oven. He was a neat, compact man, five feet ten, with thick dark hair and a ruddy complexion. He set the steaming dish aside, stripped off a pair of oven mitts, and greeted Laura as warmly as Sarah had done. After being introduced to Chyna, he took one of her hands in both of his, which were rough and work worn, and with feigned solemnity he said, “We prayed you’d make the trip in one piece. Does my little girl still handle that Mustang as if she thinks it’s the Batmobile?”
“Hey, Dad,” Laura said, “I guess you’ve forgotten who taught me to drive.”
“I was instructing you in the basic techniques,” Paul said. “I didn’t expect you to acquire my style.”
Sarah said, “I refuse to think about Laura’s driving. I’d just be worried sick all the time.”
“Face it, Mom, there’s an Indianapolis 500 gene on Dad’s side of the family, and he passed it to me.”
“She’s an excellent driver,” Chyna said. “I always feel safe with Laura.”
Laura grinned at her and gave a thumbs-up sign.
Dinner was a long, leisurely affair because the Templetons liked to talk to one another, thrived on talking to one another. They were careful to include Chyna and seemed genuinely interested in what she had to say, but even when the conversation wandered to family matters of which Chyna had little knowledge, she somehow felt a part of it, as though she was, by a magical osmosis, actually being absorbed into the Templeton clan.
Laura’s thirtyish brother, Jack, and his wife, Nina, lived in the caretaker’s bungalow elsewhere in the vineyard, but a previous obligation had prevented them from joining the family for dinner. Chyna was assured that she would see them in the morning, and she felt no trepidation about meeting them, as she’d felt before she’d met Sarah and Paul. Throughout her troubled life, there had been no place where she had truly felt at home; while she might never feel entirely at home in this place either, at least she felt welcome here.