For some time now, Dr. Hugh Mandara had accepted his life as it was and managed to find contentment in what he considered mature, even philosophical ways. There was the matter of his son Connor who had disappeared eight and a half years earlier and never been found. He was twenty-one at the time, bipolar and an addict, half the time living on the streets and scaring everyone when now and then he returned home. Hugh was not afraid to admit to himself that it had been a relief to find his son gone, though a hole remained in his heart at the thought of never looking into the face of his son again.
“Most likely, he’s dead,” Hugh told his friend at the hospital where he was the head of cardiovascular surgery. “Probably murdered for a few bucks in some back alley in whatever city he wandered off to. But it kills me to think like that.”
His colleague Eric, a Gastroenterologist he had known since med school, could sympathize. “It’s the not knowing that’s so frustrating. My niece is an addict and it’s constantly one thing or another. My sister has PTSD from the phone ringing during the night.”
“But it’s worse,” said Hugh, “if you never hear anything at all. It most likely means only one thing. Though Cicely claims he’s still alive – ‘she just knows it.’ I let her think that; why burst her bubble?”
“He disappeared around the time you were up for this position here,” noted Eric.
“Yeah. At the time, Cicely was worried he would ruin my chances. I admit, I was concerned. He’d just been arrested for possession, but Cicely’s brother got him off. Remember, Jim was a cop and I guess he pulled some shady strings. I never wanted to know the details.”
“Didn’t Jim die shortly after?”
“Three years later, poor guy. Pancreatic cancer.”
“Whew,” said Eric, who knew that diagnosis well. He occasionally had to give it to patients and in his twenty-seven years of practicing his specialty had only seen two of them survive the disease, long term.
“Well, “said Hugh, “I’ve got a valve replacement, so I’d better get up there. Seventy-eight-year-old diabetic.”
Afterwards, Hugh pulled off his gloves, stripped down and took a shower. He thought about what he would do when he got home. What frame of mind would Cicely be in? She had never quite recovered from menopause, though, by now things should be evened out. It wasn’t unusual to have her fling the covers off during the night when she’d soak her pillow from another hot flash. He’d wake up chilled to the bone.
He wondered now as he drove home if she loved him. When they first dated, she informed him that she wasn’t the demonstrative type. “My family just isn’t, British stock and all that.” And she’d laughed drily. Only once did he remember her crying and that was after the phone call informing them of Connor’s first overdose; Hugh had listened through the bathroom door. Something had stopped him from calling to her. He just knew she wouldn’t have wanted it. She had no idea how many times he himself had wept. His own nature was much more emotional. He sometimes harbored dark thoughts that would amaze people if they knew.
“Well, you still have a daughter,” well-meaning people pointed out and yes, they were correct. He and Cicely had a wonderful daughter, everything a parent could wish for. Like him, she was a physician though a pediatrician, and with a kind husband and baby on the way. Her patients loved to see her protruding belly as it signaled to them her sincerity. In addition, the older mothers enjoyed giving her advice about things not medical. How was it that Zoe was so admirable while her brother such a disappointment? What had they done wrong with Connor?
He arrived home and was handed a vodka martini, which he sipped gratefully while Cicely made comforting noises in the kitchen. She was taking an Indian cooking class and now their meals were spicy and aromatic. “I’ll try Spanish next,” she had informed him.
At dinner, which was delicious and left a pleasant, low-key burning in his mouth, he mused aloud that he planned to install a gazebo in the back yard, “at the back of the property across from the oak.”
Cicely’s head jerked up. Her mouth was full and he watched her madly chew to swallow it. “What? What for? That’s where I planted the azaleas. Why would you want to mess them up? They’re beautiful.”
He noticed how bright her eyes were, a crystal-clear blue. There seemed to be fire behind them. “We can move those bushes, Cicely. We’ll pay a landscaper to do it; those guys the Marshall’s use.”
“Oh, I’d rather not, Hugh. Why do we need a gazebo? We sit on the porch. You nap out there. I don’t understand why you’d even want one?”
“Because gazebos are…” He didn’t know quite how to explain it. Well, he could, but it wouldn’t go over well. You don’t tell your wife that you’ve always loved gazebos since long ago when you dated that rich girl in college – Whitney, the one whose parents owned a vast house on Lake Michigan with wrap around porches and an incredibly romantic, gingerbread gazebo in a Victorian garden. He finished with, “romantic. They’re romantic. And it would be peaceful to sit out there a distance from the house and read or meditate.”
Cicely’s face had the oddest expression. Did she somehow know about Whitney? That he would have married her if he’d had the background and wherewithal, but he came from working class parents and she had gone on to Rome to study art. He met Cicely during his internship; the traditional nurse marries a doctor story. And then the kids had arrived, and she had quit and never gone back.
But for the most part, they were happy (other than Connor) and he had learned through a Google search that Whitney had died from breast cancer almost twenty years before. She must have carried that gene and might have passed it down to their daughters. He thought in medical terms, though it broke his heart to learn that she was dead.
“I really don’t want you to mess the yard up,” Cicely continued, eyeing him intensely. “It’s perfect it the way it is. It took a long time to get those bushes flowering like they do. Moving them could send them into shock and kill them.” She took a sip of her iced tea. “Why don’t you put it on the other side of the yard? What’s the difference?”
“Well, the oak tree. The last thing I’d want to disturb would be that!”
“Oh, it’s okay to kill my azaleas but not the tree? What makes that rate higher?”
“Cecily, that tree is at least forty years old. You can’t move it. I would imagine that anyone would rate a mature oak tree as more valuable and less replaceable than four azalea bushes, for crying out loud.”
She slammed her fork down and stood up from the table. “Don’t touch my bushes!” she said. “You have no right!”
He was shocked. She wasn’t normally like this. “Cecily,” he said, pushing away from the table.
“Surely we can work this out. I guarantee you that I’ll have those bushes moved safely and if they somehow don’t survive the move, I’ll have them replaced with already flowering bushes. Don’t worry, I’ll take care of it!”
She started to cry. “Please, Hugh, don’t hurt my bushes. I-I…I planted them to remind me of Connor. Every time I look at them, I think of him.”
“But you said you think he’s still alive.”
She hesitated. “Well…I do, but…we don’t know for sure. The worse could have happened, you know that. And it just makes me feel better to have planted those bushes.”
For a few days, her explanation sufficed. But then he started to think. During a quadruple bypass, he suddenly recalled that Cicely had not planted anything when her brother or mother had died. Her mother had been eighty-four and passed in her sleep, a good end to a long and in her case healthy life, so possibly a bush was not merited? But surely her brother Jim had deserved a bush or two? This was not like possibly losing a son, but he and Cecily has been very close.
“Are you all right, Hugh?” his surgical assistant asked.
He snapped himself back to the matter at hand, but his own heart was beating strangely. “Yeah, I’m okay.”
He didn’t dwell on the thought immediately; in fact, a week passed before it presented itself again, and then he was angry.
That night when he was home and they were having drinks before dinner, he said to Cicely, “Those bushes have been there since when exactly? Wait, didn’t you plant them before I became head of the department? That was over eight years ago.”
Her expression was wary. “I don’t remember, Hugh. How would I remember exactly? What I do know is that it took them several years to flower. Now they blaze. I can’t imagine why you’d want to harm them.”
This latter statement enflamed him. He raised his voice. “I do not want to harm them, I told you that! I told you I’d hire professionals! I told you I would do everything to preserve them! Cicely, I don’t often get mad at you but you’re pushing me beyond my limits here.”
Her skin was splotchy and pale, and her hair faded blond. He supposed it looked that way since it was slowly graying, though he wondered why she didn’t have the hairdresser perk it up. She was quite thin and dressed in soft colors like tea rose, mauve or gray-greens. In contrast, he knew he appeared colorful with his black hair, heavy brows and, (people told him) flashing dark eyes. He supposed that opposites had attracted.
She cried softly but there was something slightly off about it. Her attitude infuriated him. Not often did he override her wishes on anything to do with their home, but now he was going to, damn it. He had the right to occasionally do something to their home that pleased him instead of always yielding to her desires.
“I am going to build myself a damn gazebo, Cicely, and I am going to put it where I want to put it. You will simply have to adapt for once.”
Months before, he had printed out various gazebo designs and since had narrowed down what he wanted to two rectangular screened in versions. Not as pretty as the gingerbread, hexagonal styles but infinitely more usable. He envisioned taking bug free naps out there at the bottom of their long yard on some soft old sofa with a magazine on his lap. By the time the weekend had arrived, he’d already spoken to the contractor who’d built their porch and arranged for him to come take a look the following week.
“Cicely is sleeping in the guestroom,” Hugh told Eric when they had time to go out to lunch, “all because I want to build a gazebo in the backyard and move her azaleas.”
Eric said, “Melanie is pretty picky about her garden too. I don’t think I’d dare suggest she rip it up.”
“It’s not a garden, Eric. It’s a few bushes that we can easily have moved to the other side of the yard. I don’t see what the fuss is about.”
He would soon wish that he had never mentioned any of this to his friend.
Cicely remained in the guestroom, but Hugh wasn’t giving in. They did things her way all the time. It was she who decided where they vacationed even though he would often have preferred other destinations and it was she who chose what cars they drove, what restaurants they frequented and what movies they watched. Goddamn it, he was going to have his gazebo and have it where he damn well wanted it.
After three days, she put on her old baby doll pajamas and sat on his lap. “I’m sorry,” she said in a sultry voice.
“Sorry you stayed in the guestroom or sorry you made a big deal about the gazebo?”
“Fuck you,” she said, abruptly standing up.
“Well, you avoid me for three nights and then you expect me to be turned on? Seriously? I have to be up early anyway – a long day of surgery.”
She stood there, unfortunately looking tired and rather old instead of like the sex kitten she had aimed for. “Hugh, are you still going through with this?”
“With what?” he said, though he knew full well.
“The damned gazebo.”
He sighed. “Yes,” he said.
The change of expression on her face was remarkable. From mildly pissed to outright terror. “What on earth is the matter with you?” he said, sitting up straight. Her hands were shaking.
She fell to her knees in front of him. “Please, please don’t do this. Hugh, I am begging you.”
He made to stand up, but she grabbed his knees. He found her repulsive. This whole thing was bizarre.
“Unless you explain this absurd behavior-” he began, but she interrupted.
“Hugh, someone is buried there.”
“What? Who, some former land owner?”
She sighed. “No. No. Hugh, it’s Connor. Our son.”
A UFO landing in front of him could not have confused him more than what she had just said. His heart seemed to have stopped. “What are you talking about?”
Her eyes were pleading. “Remember when you were up for your current position? Remember all the interviews, the phone calls, the warnings?”
“The warnings?” he said, but he dimly remembered something.
“The implication that with Connor going to jail, that—”
“That was just that idiot Strauss in administration. He really didn’t have any power over the process.”
“But that wasn’t all,” she said. “Eric visited me while you were at that conference in Houston. “
“Now don’t get mad at him, he was only thinking of our situation. He wanted you to have the position. He told me that we needed to get Conner out of the picture, out of town; did we have anywhere we could send him for a while. I couldn’t think of anywhere but then I talked to Jim and he said that sometimes the police give the local homeless and other problem people money and a one way ticket to somewhere warm like Miami or Los Angeles and that this might get rid of Connor for a while, just long enough to not mess things up for you.”
“No,” said Hugh, trying to stop a terrible story he was hearing.
She went on. “Jim got the money and added a bit of his own and we got Conner over here and made the offer. Jim put the envelope in one of Conner’s pockets and was trying to lead him out to Jim’s car to drive him to the bus station and make sure he got on the right one. Connor was already high on booze and God knows what else and slurring his words and trying to keep his balance. He started objecting to Jim strong-arming him, made a desperate struggle, slipped and banged his head on the corner of the table and then….” She started to sob. “Then he slunk to the floor and didn’t move anymore.”
Hugh shook his head. “You don’t understand. I don’t care what he did, Cecily, I loved that boy.” His eyes watered.
Cecily swallowed and kept on going. “Honey, he was dead. I felt his pulses, checked his eyes, his breathing, everything and he was gone. There was nothing to do about it. We didn’t call for help; Jim said it would look suspicious and the inquiry would be worse for your chances at the hospital then they already were with Connor’s behavior. So…just like that, Jim took the money back and we dragged him outside. Jim got the shovel from the garage and buried him at the end of the yard where I planted the bushes and where you want to go and dig it all up.”
Hugh felt like his body had gone numb. After a long moment, he said, “What about his car?”
I drove behind Jim as he took it back to that flophouse Connor stayed in and we parked it with the keys under the mat around the corner. Jim wiped it down. No one saw us, thank God. His street was deserted except for some kids at the far end of the block. I drove us back here and Jim went home.”
Hugh sat and stared into space.
“Why didn’t you call me? Why did you keep it from me like this?”
She looked away while crossing her arms to hug herself and he realized she was cold. Still in the silly baby doll pajamas, his wife was a woman in her late fifties who had buried her only son in the backyard like someone on a television police drama.
She shook her head. “I already said why; it would have been a big scandal. It was an accident, Hugh, but it would have ruined your chances. I did it for you.”
He thought about his brother-in-law, the times the two of them had gone out for a drink or gone fishing, how Jim had helped him redo the fireplace. And for three years and even on his deathbed, the man had known and allowed Hugh to constantly wonder where Connor was. He thought about Zoe who had no idea what had happened to her brother after he disappeared and never quite got over it. The two had been so close when they were kids.
He thought about living now while knowing the truth. If he told the police, his wife would go to prison. For that matter, would the police even believe he had nothing to do with it? They could never move, not even if they became disabled from age. And after they died and someone eventually found the grave, people would view them as murderers. His mind darted madly in all directions, separately from any emotion. Could they somehow get rid of the remains now? Buy a wood chipper, burn them, but how to do any of that without drawing attention?
He wanted to kill her. “Don’t tell me you didn’t call 911 because of my job, that’s ridiculous.” He was standing now and moving toward her in what, by her reaction, was a threatening manner.
“I told you,” she said, backing up, reaching behind her to keep from slamming into the wall. “It would have messed everything up. I knew how much you wanted the position.”
“You wanted me to have it, Cecily. If it were left to me, I’d probably volunteer my time to some third world country or a Mercy Ship. I don’t care about the things you care about; I don’t really care about this house! But now we’re stuck here forever.”
She slipped into the hallway.
“And now no gazebo,” he said, shaking his head. “Not even that.”
He closed his eyes and saw, as if watching an old home movie, six-year-old Connor running through the spray of the hose on a sunny summer day. Not crazy about the ending. No gazebo seems self-centered, and yet in the last paragraph, he recalls his son…??