She reaches for the remote and shuts off the TV. In the six years of their marriage, eight years together, Baker has never known Anna to watch a single minute of television.
“How was work?” Baker asks.
“I’m leaving you,” Anna says.
“I’m in love with someone else,” Anna says. “And it’s beyond my control so I’m not going to bother apologizing for it.”
“Oh,” Baker says. “Okay.” He looks at his wife. With her hair down and loose, she is at her most beautiful, which he feels is unfair, given the circumstances. But then, too, Baker experiences a strange sense of inevitability. He knew this was coming, didn’t he? Earlier today, when he had thought about divorce, when he had all but decided on it, in fact, it was because he knew this was coming. Anna doesn’t love him. She loves someone else. But who? Who is it?
“Who?” Baker says. “Who is it?”
“Louisa,” Anna says. “I’m in love with Louisa.”
She’s in love with Louisa.
Anna doesn’t bother giving him time to process, to react, to emote. No. She takes her wine and leaves the room.
Baker sinks back into the Baker-shaped and -sized divot on the couch. His phone rings. It’s his mother.
His mother? No. He can’t possibly speak to his mother right now. Briefly, he wonders if Anna called his parents to inform them she was leaving him, then decides the answer is no. Anna and his mother don’t have a relationship. And Russ once naively referred to Anna as a “smart cookie,” and Anna hasn’t spoken to him since.
The house phone rings and Baker wonders who on earth would be calling the house phone at ten o’clock on New Year’s night. The ringing stops. Anna calls down the hall. “Bake? It’s your mom.”
This is not happening, Baker thinks. Now he has to get on the phone and make at least sixty seconds of pleasant conversation without letting his mother know that his life is dissolving like an aspirin in acid. His wife is in love with her esteemed colleague, Louisa!
“Hey, Mom,” Baker says, picking up the phone in the kitchen. He hears Anna hang up. “Happy New Year.”
“Baker,” Irene says. She’s crying. So obviously Anna did tell her.
“Mom, listen…” Baker scrambles for a way to talk Irene off the ledge. She was born and raised in Iowa. She’s the editor of Heartland Home & Style. Do they even have lesbians in the heartland? Baker doesn’t mean to be a wise guy—he obviously knows the answer is yes, and Irene and Russ live in Iowa City, which is pretty much the People’s Republic of Iowa, but even so, he worries this is really going to upset her. Confuse her. She’s going to ask why Anna turned into a lesbian. She’s going to ask if it’s Baker’s fault.
“Baker,” Irene says. “There was an accident. Your father is dead.”
She wrote down everything Marilyn Monroe told her. There was a helicopter crash. Russ and a local woman and the pilot left from a private helipad at seven o’clock in the morning on Tuesday, January first. There had been a thunderstorm; the helicopter was struck and it went down somewhere between Virgin Gorda and Anegada. Anegada had been the apparent destination, Marilyn said. The helicopter wreckage had been recovered, as well as the three bodies.
“Mr. Steele’s property manager traveled to the British Virgin Islands to identify the body,” Marilyn said. “And Mr. Croft has arranged for cremation.”
“Wait,” Irene said. “What?” She knew that Russ wanted to be cremated, it’s what they both want, but does this mean…? “Am I not going to see him again, then, before…?”
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Steele,” Marilyn said. “You’re going to have to trust Mr. Croft’s judgment on this. The body needed to be identified as soon as possible, so Mr. Croft requested that Mr. Steele’s property manager do it. Time was of the essence, and a decision had to be made.”
“I don’t understand!” Irene said. “Shouldn’t I have been the one to make the decision? I’m his wife. Who is this so-called property manager? What does that even mean? I don’t understand!”
“I know this is coming as a shock,” Marilyn said. “Beyond a shock. Again, you’ll just have to trust that Mr. Croft took the appropriate measures.”
Trust Todd Croft? He was a man Irene had met briefly only once, a man who had controlled their lives for thirteen years. And it wasn’t even Todd himself telling Irene that Russ had died in a helicopter crash between Virgin Gorda and someplace else, a place Irene had never heard of, but, rather, his secretary, Marilyn Monroe. It was like a joke, a prank, a bad dream. Irene had gone so far as to pinch the soft skin on the underside of her wrist, hard, to make sure she was awake and cogent; that Ryan, their handsome server, hadn’t slipped something into the Cakebread chardonnay earlier.
Marilyn was telling Irene that some “property manager” had ID’d the body and that Todd Croft had given the okay to cremate it. Time was of the essence and Irene would never see her husband again. “Why was Russ in the Virgin Islands?” Irene asked. “He never once mentioned the Virgin Islands. Was he there for work?”
“He had concerns there,” Marilyn said. “He owned a home there.”
“A home?” Irene said. “My husband did not own a home in the Virgin Islands. I would obviously know if he owned a home. I’m his wife.”
“I’m very sorry,” Marilyn said. She paused. “Mr. Steele owns a villa on St. John.”
“Yes,” Marilyn said. “If you have a pen and paper, I can give you the specifics…”
“Pen and paper?” Irene said. “I’m flying down there.”
“That’s not advisable…,” Marilyn said.
“You can’t stop me,” Irene said. “Russ was my husband. I’ve lost my husband.” Does this secretary, Marilyn Monroe, understand? Irene briefly, fancifully, thinks about the husbands of the real Marilyn Monroe. Arthur Miller. Joe DiMaggio. Someone else. “I’m going down there to see about this so-called home. Because, frankly, this all sounds suspicious. Are you sure we’re talking about Russell Steele, of Iowa City, Iowa? Originally from…” Where was Russ born? She can’t remember. “Are you sure?”
“Mrs. Steele,” Marilyn said. Her tone of voice made it sound like Irene was being unreasonable. “There’s a woman who will meet you at the ferry if you insist on making the trip. Her name is Paulette Vickers. Her number is 340-555-6121. She’ll take you to Mr. Steele’s villa.”
Irene’s head was spinning. She had drunk too much of the Cakebread chardonnay. Dinner at the Pullman with Lydia, Brandon the barista at Prairie Lights—all of that now seemed to belong to a different life.
“I’m very sorry, Irene,” Marilyn Monroe said, more gently now, and then she hung up.
Cash arrives at noon the next day. Irene wakes up sprawled across the purple velvet fainting couch in her clothes, Winnie licking her face. She languishes in the warm, wet love of her son’s dog before she comes to full consciousness. Slowly she opens her eyes and sees Cash’s expression, and she remembers.
Russ is dead. Helicopter crash. West Indian woman, a local, dead, and the pilot also dead. Villa. On a scrap of paper on the coffee table is the phone number of someone named Paulette. Also on the paper is Irene’s flight information.
Cash has always been a free spirit, but he does a remarkably good job of taking charge. First, he sits next to Irene on the fainting couch and holds both her hands in his. He’s expecting her to cry. She keeps expecting herself to cry, to gush like a dam breaking—her husband of thirty-five years is dead!—but nothing comes. She doesn’t believe it. It makes no sense. There’s been a mistake. Russ is in the Virgin Islands and went on a helicopter ride to an island no one has ever heard of with a local woman? And what did Marilyn Monroe say about a villa? What is a villa, exactly? Irene pictures a vacation home, a tropical vacation home. Marilyn had called it Mr. Steele’s home. Which makes no sense. Russ’s home is here, on Church Street. He and Irene talked about buying someplace up in Door County once Milly passed so that they could have the boys and their families come visit. Irene had pictured waterskiing, trout fishing, big family dinners around a harvest table, lighting sparklers out on the porch while they listened to the loons. She envisioned a silvered, aging version of her and Russ, side by side in rocking chairs. But that image implodes like a star.
“Milly,” Irene says. They need to tell Milly.
“Not yet,” Cash says. “First we’re going to worry about you.” He looks at the paper on the coffee table. “These are your flights? You booked these?”
Irene nods. She booked the flight last night, although it now seems like a dream. Making plane reservations to St. Thomas has no basis in Irene’s reality. (She had discovered that she couldn’t fly to St. John, because St. John has no airport. Private helipads, yes, but no commercial airport. She has to take a ferry from St. Thomas.) And yet she had done it. She flies Chicago to Atlanta, and then Atlanta to St. Thomas, on Delta. She has booked herself coming back a week later, and that seems surreal. Who would Irene be after a week in St. John, collecting her husband’s remains? Because she certainly can’t do it and stay the same person she is now.