Celeste, always obedient, did just that.
When Dr. Edman called last week to say it appeared the cancer had spread to Karen’s stomach and liver, Karen and Bruce decided to keep the news from Celeste entirely. When Karen leaves on Monday morning, she will say good-bye to Celeste as if everything is just fine.
All she has to do is make it through the next three days.
Karen can still walk with a cane but Bruce has arranged for a wheelchair to glide her gracefully down the ramp and onto the wharf. Greer Garrison Winbury—or, rather, Greer Garrison; people rarely call her by her married name, according to Celeste—is supposed to be waiting. Neither Karen nor Bruce has met Greer, but Karen has read two of her books: her most recent, Death in Dubai, as well as the novel that launched Greer to fame in the early nineties, The Killer on Khao San Road. Karen isn’t much of a book critic—she has dropped out of three book groups because the novels they choose are so grim and depressing—but she can say that The Killer on Khao San Road was fast-paced and entertaining. (Karen had no idea where Khao San Road was; turned out it was in Bangkok, and there were all kinds of elaborate details about that city—the temples, the flower market, the green papaya salad with toasted peanuts—that made the book just as transporting as watching the travel channel on TV.) Death in Dubai, however, was formulaic and predictable. Karen figured out who the killer was on page fourteen: the hairless guy with the tattooed mustache. Karen could have written a more suspenseful novel herself with just CSI: Miami as background. Karen wonders if Greer Garrison, the esteemed mystery writer who is always named in the same breath as Sue Grafton and Louise Penny, is coasting now, in her middle age.
Karen has carefully studied Greer’s author photo; both of the books Karen read featured the same photo, despite a nearly twenty-five-year span between publication dates. Greer wears a straw picture hat, and there is a lush English garden in the background. Greer is maybe thirty in the photo. She has pale blond hair and flawless pale skin. Greer’s eyes are a beautiful deep brown and she has a long, lovely neck. She isn’t an overtly beautiful woman, but she conveys class, elegance, regality even, and Karen can see why she never chose to update the picture. Who wants to see age descend on a woman? No one. So it’s up to Karen to imagine how Greer might look now, with wrinkles, some tension in the neck, possibly some gray in the part of her hair.
There is a crush of people on the wharf—those disembarking, those picking up houseguests, tourists wandering the shops, hungry couples in search of lunch. Because the cancer has invaded Karen’s stomach, she rarely feels hungry, but her appetite is piqued now by the prospect of lobster. Will there be lobster served over the wedding weekend? she had asked Celeste.
Yes, Betty, Celeste had said, and the nickname had made Karen smile. There will be plenty of lobster.
“Karen?” a voice calls out. “Bruce?”
Karen searches through the crowd and sees a woman—blond, thin, maniacally smiling, or maybe the smile only looks maniacal because of the face-lift—moving toward them with her arms wide open.
Greer Garrison. Yes, there she is. Her hair is the same pale blond, and expensive-looking sunglasses—Tom Ford?—are perched on the top of her head. She’s wearing white capri pants and a white linen tunic, which Karen supposes is very chic and summery although she herself always prefers color, a result of having worked in the gift shop at the Crayola factory in Easton for so many years. In Karen’s opinion, Greer’s look would be more interesting if the tunic were magenta or goldenrod.
Greer swoops down to hug Karen in her wheelchair without confirmation that she is, in fact, Karen Otis, which gives Karen the uncomfortable feeling that she and Bruce stick out so badly that there can be no mistaking them. Or maybe Celeste has shown Greer pictures.
“So wonderful to meet you finally,” Greer says. “And on such a happy occasion. I’m thrilled you could make the trip.”
Karen realizes that she is prepared to dislike Greer Garrison and take offense at everything she says. Of course Karen and Bruce made the trip! Their only daughter, their pride and joy, is getting married!
Karen needs to adjust her attitude, and fast. She needs to abandon her petty jealousy, her feelings of inferiority, her embarrassment because she and Bruce aren’t wealthy or sophisticated. Mostly, Karen needs to abandon the anger she feels. This anger isn’t caused by Greer specifically, by any means. Karen is angry at everyone who isn’t sick. Everyone except Bruce. And Celeste, of course.
“Greer,” Karen says. “It’s so nice to meet you. Thank you for having us. Thank you for… everything.”
Bruce steps forward and offers Greer his hand. “Bruce Otis,” he says. “It’s a pleasure, ma’am.”
“Ma’am?” Greer says. She laughs with her head thrown back, her neck—still lovely but indisputably aged—exposed. “Please don’t call me that, you make me feel a thousand years old. Call me Greer, and my husband is Tag, like the game. After all, we’re going to be family!”
Family, Karen thinks as Bruce helps her into the backseat of Greer’s car, which looks exactly like what people drive in across the savannas of Africa on the Travel Channel. They head up a cobblestoned street. Each cobblestone the car goes over is a punch to the gut for Karen, but she grits her teeth and bears it. Bruce, sensing her pain as if it’s his own, reaches a hand between the seats to comfort her. The comment about family might have been a throwaway, but it holds undeniable appeal. Karen and Bruce are low on family. Karen’s father died of a heart attack when Karen was pregnant with Celeste; her mother put the house in Tatamy on the market and ended up marrying Gordon, the listing real estate broker. Then, when Celeste was in kindergarten, Karen’s mother was diagnosed with a rare myeloma and died six months later. Gordon is still a real estate agent in the area but they hardly ever hear from him. Bruce’s younger brother, Bryan, was a state trooper in New Jersey; he was killed in a high-speed chase. After Bryan’s funeral, Bruce’s parents moved to a retirement community in Bethlehem, where they both died of old age. Karen and Bruce have always clung to each other and Celeste; they are a small, insular cluster of three. Karen somehow never imagined that Celeste would provide them with a whole new family, and certainly not one as esteemed as the Winburys, who not only have a summer estate on Nantucket but also an apartment on Park Avenue in New York City and a flat they keep in London for when Tag takes business trips or Greer misses “home.” Karen can’t help but feel a secret thrill at the thought of a new family, even though she won’t be around to enjoy it.
Greer points out Main Street, a certain restaurant she likes that serves an organic beet salad, a store that sells the red pants that all of the gentlemen will be wearing tomorrow. They’ve ordered a pair for Bruce, Greer says, tailored precisely to the measurements he sent them (this is news to Karen). Greer points out the boutique where she bought a clutch purse that matches her mother-of-the-groom dress (though the dress itself she bought in New York, of course, she says, and Karen nearly says that of course she bought her mother-of-the-bride dress at Neiman Marcus in the King of Prussia Mall using Bruce’s discount but decides this will sound pathetic) and a shop that specializes in nautical antiques where Greer always buys Tag’s Father’s Day presents.
Bruce says, “Do you have a boat, then?”
Greer laughs like this is a silly question, and maybe it is a silly question. Maybe everyone on this island has a boat; maybe it’s a practical necessity, like having a sturdy snow shovel for Easton winters.
“We have three,” she says. “A thirty-seven-foot Hinckley picnic boat named Ella for puttering over to Tuckernuck, a thirty-two-foot Grady-White that we take to Great Point to fish for stripers, and a thirteen-foot Whaler, which we bought so the kids could get back and forth to Coatue with their girlfriends.”
Bruce nods like he approves and Karen wonders if he has any earthly idea what Greer is talking about. Karen certainly doesn’t; the woman might as well be speaking Swahili.
How will Karen and Greer be related once the kids are married? Karen wonders. Each will be the mother-in-law of the other’s child but no relation to each other, or at least not a relation that has a name. In many instances, she suspects, the mothers of two people getting married dislike each other, or worse. Karen would like to think that she and Greer could get to know each other and find kinship and become as close as sisters, but that would only happen in the fantasy world where Karen doesn’t die.