In the old riverbed behind the house in the red and yellow and brown leaves, and the black and grey sticks, and the brown and white round stones as big as the trees, Peter kicked over a dead raven. It had been there so long that the feathers of its belly had turned from ivory to grey, and its eyes had disintegrated into empty sockets.
Live birds carried diseases--they did in the city, anyway--and he imagined dead ones carried them for a while, but this bird was more like hollow chocolate than the remains of an animal. It had partially collapsed when he kicked it, and it rolled a little, and it was just by chance that a bit of lingering sunlight pointed through the empty branches overhead and caused the locket to flicker like a match, and it was equally by chance that he happened to notice.
Peter squatted down, reached out and tugged on the chain. The black beak crumbled like a snail shell, and he stood back up with the locket in his hand. It was tarnished and silver-colored, spheroid, attached to a thin chain of the same metal. He held it up and watched it turn for a moment, then put it between his thumbs and tried to pry it open. He couldn't, and he decided he would have to wait until he got home. He put it in the pocket of his coat.
It was nearing dinnertime. The boys had climbed on top of one of the giant boulders and he called out to them. "Jamie! Shawn!" he shouted, as he returned his fingers into the warmth of his leather gloves. He couldn't remember which of the towers they had commandeered in this glacially deposited cityscape, but he heard them giggling and whispering to each other. "Hey, you two, time to eat!" He strained to see their heads but he saw neither of them.
He heard Jamie speak in a low voice: "What is the password?"
"The password is spanking," he said, trying to sound like a ghost.
That got one of them to appear anyway: Shawn dropped behind him and said, "Pow!" His boots kicked up mud and leaves and slush still on the ground from the snow melt the day before.
"There's another like you somewhere," Peter said.
Then: "Pow!" Jamie's lithe, thirteen-year-old frame dropped onto on his back. He almost fell over from the sudden extra weight, but he grabbed the kid's legs and started to run instead. Shawn followed, shouting, "Hey, kidnapping! Kidnapping!" His big boots kept him a few yard behind them.
By the time they got to the old house, Peter and the boys had run out of breath They stood panting together like wolves. He saw the yellow light behind the kitchen window and the silhouette of Amy, but the rest of the old house was dark. The sunlight dappled the outside stones and wood with postcard-like sentiment, but he ignored the feeling that aroused in him, and looked up. Widening stripes of airplane exhaust crisscrossed high overhead, but otherwise the sky was a pristine blue. He could smell smoke from the chimney of his neighbors an acre away, and he said, "Hey, let's bring in some firewood."
Shawn and Jamie both dropped to the ground and played dead in the unraked leaves that had become soggy after four months under the snow. He looked down at them and wished he could tap into their ignorance.
That night after dinner, he quarreled with Amy, and after an hour or so he told her "I give." As usual, by the end he couldn't remember why the argument had started, and he didn't care. They had already agreed to divorce. It was only a matter of getting Miss Mayfield, the same attorney in town who had worked on helping him adopt Amy's two sons, to get her shit together and move on the paperwork. Peter wanted to go out of town and get another lawyer, but he also knew he needed to take it easy. He could run with a 110-pound kid on his back, no problem--but he was going to have a heart attack from the stress of his marriage.
He went to sleep that night on the couch. It was actually a luxury, and he slept pretty well, only waking and getting up once. Early in the morning he heard the newspaper crash against the screen door. He had never changed the screen to glass for the winter, and the panes were still leaning against the stone wall of the entry way.
He retrieved the paper from the doorstep and set it out in sections on the table in front of him while the coffee brewed on the counter. He ate the last square edge of a crumbling breakfast cake Amy had made a few days before.
He read the headlines and two stories in the lead section, and laughed at the treacle of the Crooked Corners Gazette staff on the op-ed page--they were always so conservative and caught up by sentimental attachments to the way things used to be that the simplest answers to the tough questions went right over their head. Sometimes he wanted to write them a letter, but then he told himself it wasn't the New York Times.
He read the travel section thoroughly and glanced at the front page of the classifieds. It was then that he was startlingly reminded of the locket, and he felt his cheeks become warm as if he had gulped down a mug of hot buttered rum.
An ad in the center of the page, printed in bold and capitalized type, read:
LOST SILVER LOCKET WITH NOTE
INSCRIBED "TO YOU ALONE I ENTRUST
MY LOVE, L.M. PLEASE CONTACT GAZETTE."
It seemed too odd a coincidence, but stranger things had happened, and he got up and went to the coat closet and found the locket and chain still there in the pocket of the red fleece lining. He brought it back with him into the kitchen and set it on the paper, sat down and--with the end of his coffee spoon--pried the locket open. Sure enough, a small piece of paper, folded into a square, fell out.
Peter glanced at the newspaper and read the notice again. He picked up the slip of paper and unfolded it; it was crisp and thin and seemed made of something other than pulp. He read the words, looked at the newspaper, read the words in his hand again and sat back. The old furnace kicked on with a bang and he nearly jumped out of his chair.
He heard music from the television in the living room behind him, and he remembered it was Saturday. Shawn was up to watch his favorite cartoons, and the colors on the screen sent stripes and zigzags across the bare wall. He pulled the cord and opened the vertical blinds of the sliding door. Out on the patio there was still a lot of snow. The sun, still hugging the south horizon, couldn't reach it.
Shawn popped his head up from the arm of the couch, his head wrapped in the orange-and-brown knit afghan. He had a gap-toothed grin (both front teeth had fallen out the week before), and he hid until Peter sat down on top of him.
With the boy underneath he watched Bugs Bunny confuse Daffy Duck with some dynamite. He was glad they still ran these cartoons even if they were a little violent. Shawn kept giggling, and he whispered, "Keep it down. You want your mom in here, turning this off?"
He sat up a little so Shawn could roll over and watch it with him. A commercial came on and Shawn said, "That's all folks!"
"Hey, you want to go with me for a drive?" he asked. He didn't think he could pry Jamie out of bed this early--the kid had an adolescent's lethargy on the weekends, as if his growing body needed to conserve all the energy it could to survive another week of eighth grade. Besides, Shawn was good for company. They got along great, like they should, and the boy obligingly got up and went upstairs and dressed quietly and came back down and met him at the door to the garage.
"Where are we going?" Shawn asked as Peter pushed his boots onto his feet for him.
"To the place where this came from," he said. He held up the classified ad. He had returned the locket and chain and note to the pocket of his coat, but he kept that to himself.
The only person working at the paper that morning was an older woman named Henrietta with long-braided hair the color of a burnished kettle. She laughed when he asked about the ad. "We run that every year on this day," she said. "I remember it back when I started here."
"Who placed it?"
"I'm not allowed to say, dear, but he paid enough to have a hundred ads, once a year, always on February 14th."
"Yes. Don't you know what day it is?"
He realized he hadn't shaved. He reached up and scratched his chin. "I guess it's Valentine's Day."
"Yes, dear, it is."
"Well, thank you for your time. No finding out about who placed the ad?"
"We would have to respect the person's privacy."
"But if it's that old--"
"It was placed confidentially. Everyone here will tell you the same thing."
He gave up. Shawn was in the car, and it was cold outside. Plus he'd promised they'd stop by Sue's Cafe and get some cinnamon rolls. He turned to leave, but then thought of something. "Uh, could you at least tell me when it was placed, the first time, I mean?"
"L.M.," Amy said. She handed the paper back to him. "I don't know."
"The lady said it's been in the paper every year since 1925."
"That is really weird. Kind of romantic, I guess, but, whatever."
"Yeah, whatever." He had not even bought her a box of chocolates this year as an empty gesture. She had said nothing about it, and he couldn't tell one way or another if she cared.
He folded the paper back up and put it into the locket and closed it. He was afraid the exposure to the air after having been confined so long would cause the paper to oxidize and come apart. Though it seemed to him to be made of vellum, he was no expert, and he didn't want it to disintegrate.
"And you only found it yesterday?" she asked. She startled his mind back into the room.
"Yeah. Before supper when I was outside with the boys."
"That is really weird," she repeated. She put the rock on the kitchen window sill to dry. She was painting pictures on rocks with acrylics for some reason. He hadn't asked her why yet, and didn't know if he would. He had seen one of the round rocks from the riverbed in the downstairs bathroom at 4:00 in the morning while he took a leak. It had a couple of bug-eyed goldfish on it. He didn't know they could swim in granite. Maybe they had been petrified.
"It's a pretty locket. Must be an antique."
"I wish I could figure out who it belongs to. 'L.M.' could be anyone."
"Except for anyone whose initials aren't 'L.M.'" his wife said.
He ignored her.
"You know where you should go? To the county registrar's. I bet they have birth records."
"Is it legal for me to do that?"
"I don't know," he said.
"Give it a try."
He thought maybe she was just trying to get him out of the house, but it was Saturday, and they would both have to wait. He closed his fist around the locket and squeezed it tight, as if he could somehow learn more by osmosis.
On Sunday he took the boys to the movies. He had not slept as well that night as the night before. It was cold downstairs even with the embers still glowing in the fireplace, and he couldn't get the locket out of his mind. Even during the movie, a PG adventure with phantoms and that sort of thing, he kept missing chunks of the plot because he was thinking of the million-to-one odds that he had--literally--stumbled onto the locket when he did.
On Monday Shawn and Jamie rode away in the yellow school bus so early its brake lights were still reflecting off the asphalt. Peter watched it head down the street, then called into work and told them he'd be a little late, got dressed, and drove downtown to the only city building he knew of in Crooked Corners. He found the registrar's office on the first floor.
"Yes, sir, we can show you records that old, but nothing recent without a lot of work. So many new people around, nowadays, you know, and they're only now thinking about getting us a computer down this way."
"Well, anything prior to 1925 and someone who lived in Crooked Corners County with the initials 'L.M.'"
"I can tell you that right away," the clerk said blithely. He had his thumbs around his wide, black elastic suspenders and rocked back and forth on his heels as if he were a character out of an old comic strip. He wore an old-fashioned see-through visor, and the cellophane cast a green semi-circle over his face. His bow tie was about the size of a pen knife.
"Of course." The clerk smiled widely, and Peter shook his head at him out of frustration. "The town founder," the clerk said finally. "Don't you know who the town founder is?"
"I'm not from here. You'd have to ask my wife."
"I see. Well, if you want to go back and look at the records, it's only about 12 or 13 years worth before...1925, you said?" Peter nodded. The man rose up on the balls of his feet again. "I tell you I could save you the trouble. It's Leonard Marx."
Peter skipped over the name and focused on the aisles of wooden file cabinets he could see behind the clerk. "Did a lot of people live here back then?" he asked.
"No, can't say as they did."
"If you don't mind, then," Peter said.
They checked the records, but the clerk was right. He coughed as if he expected a tip when they ran their fingers down the list and could only find one resident in the town at that time with "L.M." for initials: Leonard Marx. "People really didn't start moving here until after the war, and then a lot of 'em died from influenza, you know," the old clerk said.
"Ah." He had not yet mentioned the locket. He hesitated, but brought it out and cracked it open. The paper caught in a draft and fluttered away from them like a moth. "Shit," he said, before he caught it in midair. He glanced at the clerk. "Sorry. I found this the other day. Do you know the woman he would have given it to?"
"Let me see." The clerk read it over. "Hmm. I can't say Leonard Marx ever had a lady friend. No, I doubt that. He was a wicked man, not very pleasant at all. I met him once. Had to pass by his land in the fifties to get to the new highway. He was still trying to charge people tolls!" The clerk laughed.
"It's the same wording as an ad that runs in the paper every year on Valentine's Day."
"Well, that's a peculiar one now, isn't it?" the clerk said.
"Yeah. It sure is."
"Maybe it's from somewhere else," the clerk shrugged.
"It has to be from here or the ad that matches it wouldn't be running in a local paper." Peter sighed. He had sounded a little sarcastic, and he regretted it.
The clerk smacked his lips. "Well, son, you got me there," he said.
He spent a long day at work mostly behind his desk. He had route schedules to fix, as his assistant hadn't figured out yet that the same semi couldn't be in two places at once. He worked at Marx Trucking Company, and as he had pulled into the lot, the name on the sign seemed about 200 feet high. He tried to focus as he checked and double-checked times and locations, and when he drove home, his head hurt. He went straight to the medicine cabinet upstairs, cracked open a new bottle of aspirin and took three, dropping his head to the faucet to swallow the running water.
Amy poked her head out of the adjacent laundry room, and he told her what he'd learned.
"Leonard Marx?" she repeated, with an air of incredulity. But then she said, "Of course. Of course."
He followed her through the hallway into the bedroom. She was carrying a load of dry towels, and she dropped them on the bed. He could smell the fresh dryer scent as she began to fold them. "Why do you say 'of course'?" he asked.
"Well, Leonard Marx used to come here."
"Here--you mean, to this house?"
"Yes. He owned it. My grandmother was always late on the rent. She had to wash clothes and sell paintings to make the money to pay him."
"What about your grandfather?"
"He died in the early '20s."
Peter nodded. He remembered and kind of admired the story of her grandfather, an inventor who built his own flying machine and on his first experimental flight crashed into a potato field. He felt his cheeks burning and the sensation of a spider crawling on the back of his neck. "You don't think that, um, Marx and your grandmother..."
"Oh, my gosh, Peter. Do you think that Grandma Margaret went to bed with Leonard Marx?"
"No, I didn't say that."
Amy unfurled a big bath towel and dropped it onto the pile. She folded it in thirds and continued with an annoyed flutter in her tired voice. "Besides, you didn't find it just laying there. It was in the beak of a dead bird, you said. A dead bird couldn't have been decomposing for 75 years."
"I don't have an answer for everything," Peter said.
"Well, shit, don't go implicating my family just to find answers to your stupid puzzle."
Peter frowned. "Why are you being contentious?"
"Yes, you are," Peter told her. "I didn't say anything wrong. I was just speaking off the top of my head."
"Well, maybe you ought to think, first, before you speak. Shit. Birds fly, don't they? That locket could be from anywhere."
She was already raising her voice, and he didn't want her to start yelling at him. He backed up a step and banged his shoulder blade against the door frame. "Ow."
"Serves you right." She turned her back to him and squatted and dug under the bed for a washcloth she had dropped.
"I don't want to fight right now," he said. "Can we have a reasonable conversation?"
"Don't throw the word 'reasonable' out thirty seconds after you insult my grandmother."
"Okay, okay," Peter said. "I'm sorry."
Amy stood back up and folded the washcloth and started another. He watched her and rubbed his shoulder and twisted his head back and forth on his neck, wishing his headache would fade. She held two hand towels up and looked up them, shook them out and said, "They say Leonard Marx's ghost still haunts his mansion."
Peter straightened up. "That's ridiculous."
She shrugged and folded the last remaining towel. "You can be cynical all you want, but that's what they say."
"I'm not being cynical," he clarified. "I'm skeptical. Talk about unreasonable."
"All right," she said. She loaded up her arms with the towels and walked past him into the hall and opened the cupboard beside the bathroom. She started stacking the towels on the shelves "Who knows? It's Valentine's Day. Maybe Lenny Marx's ghost was trying to tell you something," she said.
"What do you mean by that?"
"I'm not even from here."
"Well, it doesn't make sense. I mean, if we went along with the absurd idea that there are ghosts walking around in this idyllic little burg you've dragged us to, why in the hell would he want to send me a message?"
"I don't know. But it sounds like he was a little more romantic than you are."
"Never mind," she said with a bit of a laugh. "Besides, I didn't drag you here, as if we left such a great life in New York. This is where I grew up. You told me you wanted to be here."
He stood out of her way as she returned to the laundry room. He switched on the light for her. "You're right," he said.
"Thank you." She put her arms into the washing machine and pulled out a load of clothes and threw them into the dryer.
"Besides," he said. "You sent me out to play with the boys when the phone rang. I wasn't going to. You were."
"The other night. I mean, you were going to go out with us, remember?"
He watched her tug the last dryer sheet out of an orange box. She dropped the empty roll into the wastebasket, but set the box back on the shelf. "I mean," he said, "maybe the locket was meant for you."
"The ad said the locket was lost. If he was such a jerk, this guy Marx, he wouldn't have cared what happened to it. It belonged to a woman, and she placed the ad."
"It wasn't my grandmother."
"That's just sick."
"If you say so," he said, "but you have to admit it works better than your theory. Your Grandma Margaret could be a ghost, too."
"You know what, Peter?" Amy said, "You can fuck off already."
Five years after the divorce he returned to Crooked Corners for Jamie's graduation. As he sat next to his ex-wife and watched the ceremony, he could feel her restlessness beside him. They had met outside in the parking lot ten minutes before the thing started, and they hadn't really had a chance to talk. During the principal's speech, she bent down and started ruffling through a black bag at her feet. Her head passed within inches of his face.
It was nice to smell her hair again, and she still had the intelligence in her brown eyes that had caught his attention in the book store so long ago. But now the two of them were like distant friends who couldn't really remember why they'd first hung out in the first place. He did have the kids for a month every summer, and Jamie was going to go to NYU in the fall. Shawn sat on the other side of him and had grown tall and had the unkempt hair of a kid in fifth grade. Peter had tried to joke with him, but they were no longer pals.
Amy sat up, and he cleared his throat and tried to concentrate on the idiotic speech. He felt her poke him in the ribs with her elbow, and he looked at her. "You were right," she whispered.
"Huh?" He put his finger and thumb between his collar and the knot of his tie and undid the top button of his shirt. "About what?" he asked quietly.
She handed him a piece of folded black cardboard, the size of a wallet. He opened it and saw a photograph of a young woman. The portrait was black-and-white, but her cheeks were tinted pink, her eyes and hair brown, the lace collar of her dress left grey. He started to hand it back to Amy, not understanding, and wishing she would wait until later to confuse him.
"No," she whispered. "Mother cleaned out her attic last month. There were ravens and raccoons and who knows what else living up there for years."
"Why are you telling me this right now?" He was rather embarrassed. A woman in front of them cocked her head, but so far no one had turned and given them an annoyed stare.
"Just look," Amy said. She put her finger on the picture in his lap.
He glanced down and saw the locket. It was hanging from a thin chain around the woman's throat. The program for the evening's events slipped off his knee and dropped under the bleachers, lost for good. He grabbed the photograph before it fell and quickly held it to his leg. He closed the black cover over it and sat still.
"That mystery is in the past," he said softly.