Del Withers sits in a tub half-filled with water, quietly shaving her legs as she considers the best way to get rid of her children. By “best way” she does not mean the most effective way but simply the method that will cause her the least amount of grief while still insuring that no one will ever find out. Del leans back into the luke-warm water and blows a damp ringlet of blonde hair from her eyes. She’s pretty sure that killing your children would be thought of as a horrible deed in anybody’s book — one of those things people hear about on the evening news that causes them to shake their heads and wonder what on earth could ever cause someone to commit such an act against a child. Still, she hasn’t made up her mind yet. Is it a sin just to contemplate the act? Del is pretty sure it is, at least that’s what Maddy would say if she were still alive.
She wonders whether “contemplating” is a nicer word than “planning.” She likes the word contemplating. It was the first word she saw after she hung up with Glen, just glaring at her from Maddy’s 2004 Word of the Day calendar. Of course, it wasn’t 2004 and hadn’t been for some time; not since Maddy Withers had died and Del had never bothered to throw away the calendar. In fact, she had paid little notice to that calendar until the morning Glen called, just 2 days ago.
“I’m out of here in 5 days, sugar. I want to see that pretty smile when I walk through those gates.”
Glen spoke in a tone that was simultaneously sweet and threatening; so much so that it made the soft little hairs on the back of Del’s neck stand up. That was when the planning or better said, the contemplating, began.
Del knows she can make the drive to Huntsville in about three days. That’s how long it had taken her to drive up from the prison to Maddy’s house in upstate New York thirteen years ago. She had felt guilty about leaving Glen as he had no real family to speak of, but she couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that the relationship had run its course. There was nothing to bind her to Texas except for Glen and he would be spending the next fifteen years in an eight by six box, leaving her nothing but a near-empty efficiency apartment in La Porte, for which she was more than 2 months behind on the rent. Any savings they had at the time he was arrested, which wasn’t much because Glen’s temper had rendered him largely unemployable during their time in Texas, had gone to the lawyers. Del still had her job at Dow Chemical then but it was only minimum wage and she had no real friends to speak of there. Upon her hiring, she had found that she was widely resented for being too young, too pretty, or too white.
Their farewell had been strained and awkward. Glen tried to maintain his pride, telling her over and over that he would be okay and that it was best for her to go back to Yorktown, where at least, she had family. Still he could not resist demanding that she stay faithful, and that she call and write at least once a week. Of course, Del had promised she would, even though at the time, she had no intention of doing so. All she had wanted was to get as far away from Glen and La Porte as she possibly could.
And so she ran. Back home to Aunt Maddy’s tired old Victorian in Yorktown. She had been just 15 when she left for Texas, having known Glen for only a few days. It took a year or so for everything to fall apart, to be penniless and miserable and at each other’s throats all the time, and for Glen to kill a man without really meaning to.
To her credit, Maddy never said “I told you so,” although Del knew she must have been thinking it the morning she pulled into her aunt’s driveway in Glen’s pickup. Maddy just walked down from the porch and gave Del a long, sincere hug, shrugged her shoulders, and helped her carry her things up to her room. Maddy never expressed disappointment in anyone; frequent failures were to be expected, if not anticipated, in the Withers family. Even when Del announced that she was pregnant, less than two months after her return to Yorktown, Maddy expressed no disappointment or shame. If anything, she was excited at the thought of having a young child around the house again.
The water is turning cool and goose bumps rise on Del’s breasts and forearms. She steps out of the tub, taking a moment to admire her figure in the bathroom mirror. Del had kept her form, despite having given birth to twins — everyone said so. She smiles slyly, guessing Glen would think the same. Of course, Glen didn’t know about the twins. He could never know.
The twins came earlier than expected, just eleven months after Del arrived unceremoniously in Yorktown and nearly two years since the last time she had been intimate with Glen. Not that they had ever been truly “expected.” Rather, the twins had been the final salvo in a series of sudden, unexpected events, which began with the surprise appearance of Ginny Russo’s Toyota Celica in her aunt’s driveway, just two nights after Del’s return to Yorktown. Prior to her leaving for Texas with Glen, Ginny and Del had been best friends, inseparable partners in crime who had ruled Yorktown High School with a ruthlessness and lack of foresight that was typical of popular teenage girls. Prior to her arrival in Maddy’s driveway, they had not seen each other in over a year. But there she was, leaning on the horn with a Salem 100 stuck between her fingers and the Red Hot Chile Peppers blaring from her car stereo. Ginny just hooted and screamed,
“Del Withers, get your butt down here. We’re gonna find us some pretty long-haired boys tonight,” in her distinctly smoky but feminine voice.
And Del, who had been sulking for two days on Maddy’s living room couch alternating between fits of self-pity and anger at Glen, was only too happy to oblige.
The sun is starting to go down and a cool breeze blows in through the bathroom window. Del wonders whether it will rain tonight as she wraps a towel around herself and thinks of Ginny Russo, singing “Give it Away” at the top of her lungs as they sped down the Taconic Parkway toward New York City with a bottle of Southern Comfort stolen from Mr. Russo’s liquor cabinet.
Even now, Del can remember the wind in her hair and the slow burn of the Comfort on her throat. She had nearly finished the bottle by the time they reached the city and was fixing to get even with Glen for shooting a man and getting himself and darn near Del arrested in the process. They hopped from bar to bar until they had landed in a dirty little shithole in the East Village called “Downtown Beirut.” Ginny had thought it sounded exotic. The crowd had been an uneasy mix of punk rockers, metal heads, and old men that smelled like cigarettes and pee but in the midst of it all shined the prettiest boy Del had ever seen. His name was Marcus and he had long, ash-white hair and eyes that were so green they made Del think of the Bahamas travel brochures that Maddy displayed, without explanation, on her coffee table. (Maddy had only taken but one trip in her entire life, to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C.) Marcus had a beautiful mouth, with soft, pink lips that made Del think of movie star kisses. Del had wanted him from the moment she saw him; to get carried away in a tangle of his long blond hair. They hadn’t had but a couple of shots before Del took him by the hand and led him to the backseat of Ginny’s Celica. And Marcus had been everything those lips had advertised and nothing at all like Glen. He was sweet, pretty, and quietly self-assured. And after he was gone, Del laughed. She laughed until she started to cry, and then cried until she threw up. Del never drank Southern Comfort again.
Her series of unexpected events continued when two months later, she discovered she was pregnant. She was even more surprised to learn that she was carrying twins, the undoubtedly fair-haired and pretty children of Marcus, a man whose last name she had never bothered to ask and who she did not expect to ever see again. Still, as much as Del wanted to get an abortion, she just couldn’t bring herself to do it. Del’s dad had taken off before she was born and her mom not much longer after that. Save for Maddy, she had no one. To Del, it seemed her universe was just getting smaller and smaller. It wasn’t too hard to conclude that having those babies wasn’t such a bad idea. At least it would stop her world from shrinking.
It didn’t. Del dropped out of Yorktown High after she began to show. Ginny started coming by less and less, until it seemed as if they were no longer friends. Occasionally, she would run into Ginny at the Seven-Eleven or at the bar where Del worked. Ginny would smile and make polite inquiries about her condition, and lament the fact that they never had time to speak anymore. She eventually went off to college. Del later learned she married a man from Kentucky and lives in a five thousand square foot house. Del couldn’t imagine what she did with all that space. So it seemed for the longest time, there was only Del — who felt fat, tired, and miserable, and Maddy. Then the first of Glen’s letters arrived.
Del felt nothing but dread the first time she opened the mailbox and found a letter addressed from Glen. At the time, it had been more than a year since she left Huntsville and had never written to him. She expected the letter to return all of the anger and disappointment she had felt toward Glen but it did not. Instead, it read:
I know I’m the last person you want to hear from but I just wanted to say that I’m sorry for making such a big mess of things and for letting you down. Despite all the trouble we had, there were some good times too and I sure miss those. Hope life is treating you well.
In Del’s experience, Glen had never been good with words. He just tended to do what needed to be done and if he spoke at all, it was just to express, often forcefully and in as few words as possible, some practical need or the current state of affairs.
“I shot him dead.”
While Glen’s letter had made it clear he was no Shakespeare, it still made her cry. In Del’s view, he had scored some points for sincerity and for sharing the loneliness Del had been feeling since she got pregnant.
A couple of weeks later, Del worked up the courage to send a short letter in response. After that, Glen’s letters came once a week. Del began to look forward to them. They often described his life in prison but Glen never complained or showed weakness. Del respected him for that. He even asked about her job and Aunt Maddy. And while Del could never bring herself to tell Glen about Marcus and the twins, a bond began to grow between them. After about year had passed, Glen began to sign his letters, “Love, Glen” instead of just “Glen.” And it wasn’t long after that when their letters began to hint at the idea of a future together. Del even found herself turning down dates with other men. On January 12, 2000, Del drove down to Huntsville to visit Glen for his birthday. It felt wonderful and electrifying just to hold his hand.
That thrill, which Del has experienced only two or three times a year since her first visit to Glen, is one of the few pleasures she has. She’s never been much of a mother and won’t pretend otherwise. Del’s never been particularly interested in the development of the twins. No, if there had been any pride in parenting or nurturing of the children, it came from Maddy, and she has been dead for nearly five years.
If Del is to be honest with herself and it seems to her that standing naked in front of the bathroom mirror is a good time to be truthful, she must admit that she feels mostly resentment toward the twins. She looks at them and sees twelve years of lost opportunity and loneliness. They are the consequence of her betrayal of Glen and a terrible mistake that he must never know about.
Del opens the medicine cabinet and removes a bottle of sleeping pills.
© gibson grand