I’ve just finished Harper Lee’s GO SET A WATCHMAN.
WARNING: Spoilers abound.
I was determined to hate this book. I didn’t agree with how the novel started, what with Jem dead and gone. I was treating it as a sequel rather than its own masterpiece, which it assuredly is, and was being stupid and small. I was behaving much in the same way Jean Louise was, confident in a supreme intelligence that nothing and no one could surprise me because I know it all inside out. But Jean Louise did not know her father as a human, did not know all the delicate intricacies of her hometown. She needed to see Atticus as a human being, with flaws (which boil down to opinions other than her own), just as the reader did. Lee is a masterful storyteller because she discreetly forces you along Jean Louise’s journey and does so flawlessly. Her revelations become the readers’ revelations and another invaluable lesson is imparted to a generation; that you can love someone and disagree with them, that parents are still people, and that we never, ever stop learning or growing. Beautifully written, perfectly executed; well done.
I cursed myself for starting the novel, firmly believing that there is information not worth knowing. I lumped this novel in with such information, but the pain that comes from realizations and revelations is how human beings grow. Though knowledge can come with a terrible cost at times, I suppose it’s up to each individual to decide when enough is enough. There is no hard and fast rule for when ignorance becomes bliss. Furthermore, I think that’s a lesson we all learn in time, in our own terribly painful way.
WEEKLY WRITING PROMPT #26: “While at a family reunion, a teenage brother and sister find an old suitcase filled with money under their uncle’s bed.”
The car slowly rolled to a halt at the end of the long, meandering driveway. The gravel crunched beneath the tires in a finite, satisfying way. David didn’t move. In no way did he acknowledge the end of the journey. He left his ear buds in, music blaring, and his forehead remained against the cool glass of the car window. His eyes were wide open but unfocused so that his vision was blurred and doubled in a disorienting way. David could have stayed that way for hours and hours, long after the sun sank down and disappeared, but his twin sister gave his arm an affectionate pinch. It didn’t hurt or anything, but it was enough to snap him out of it and bring him back to reality. He carelessly yanked his ear buds out and turned to face Savannah. “C’mon bud,” she said. She was smiling, but it was small and too sad to be sweet. David decided it was horrible and would have preferred Savannah to frown, or wail, or scream – anything else. “We’re here. We’ve got to get our stuff from the back,” she instructed. She turned away and climbed down from the family SUV. He mumbled “okay” pointlessly – no one was listening – and climbed down himself.
David hopped down and looked at his feet, comfortably clad in athletic slides and tube socks. Savannah was always giving him grief for that particular fashion choice, but David didn’t understand her frustration or her condemnation. He didn’t dress any differently than anyone else on the baseball team. Now that he thought about it, he realized his conformity was most likely the point of contention concerning his wardrobe. Currently, one side of Savannah’s head was shaved and the remaining locks were long and pink, a bright pink. As David moved to stand beside his twin sister, he surveyed her torn, black leggings, stained shirt featuring some band that had called it quits long before the Newbury twins were born, and the silver hoop stuck through her right nostril. Savannah was a rebel without a cause, to be sure. The hand that reached for a pink backpack of imitation leather featured fingernails adorned with chipped, black nail polish. David had never bothered to observe his other half, had never bothered to ask what it all was for. Death, he supposed, had that effect on some people.
Savannah felt David’s eyes upon her. Belongings secured in her grasp, she turned to face. “Why don’t you take a picture? It’ll last longer,” she said in a husky, laboring tone in her best imitation of a dumb, schoolyard bully. As she passed to enter her aunt’s massive and impressive log cabin with wonderfully modern and convenient amenities, she playfully slammed her shoulder into David’s. It caused him to rock back on his heels and he started to chase after Savannah, which caused her to shriek and scurry inside.
“Yeah, that’s what I thought,” David called after her. He offered the world a satisfied smile as he reached in for his own black duffle bag.
Later, David stood in the doorway of a bedroom on the third floor, the top floor of the cabin without counting the attic. He was to sleep in this room while his family stayed with Aunt Cheryl, who had just lost her husband. Uncle Doug had been killed in a rare attempted carjacking in town, a small town that was half an hour from the cabin, a small town whose name was only known, and not even cherished, by the locals. It was bizarre and tragic set of events, of circumstances, but wasn’t that always the way with death? If its patterns were readily, easily identifiable and thereby predictable, then the problem of the lack of longevity in humans would be solved. But David was not one for deep, philosophical thoughts, nor was he prone to entertaining existential crises. He shook his head and stepped into the room.
It felt weird, like the air was heavier or something equally irrational and beyond explanation or articulation. Savannah’s fashionable backpack rested atop the twin bed farthest from the door and nearest to the adjoining bathroom. The other bed straight ahead and against the breathtaking, full length windows, would be his. It had always been that way; all the innumerable visits to Cheryl and Doug’s cabin had begun in this exact same way. It was familiar yet not. The room was decidedly different, but not in any way that would make sense to anyone but David. He sighed.
It was nearly eight o’clock, but it was mid-July, so the room was filled with glorious, burning natural light courtesy of the giant windows. It should have been beautiful, but David only blinked once and turned away. He returned to the dark, cool, carpeted hallway and threw his duffle bag carelessly. It landed in the center of the room. David left it, hurrying downstairs to the muted sounds of idle conversation passed among grieving family members.
David moved to stand behind his mother, his sister, and his aunt. They were standing in a peculiarly straight row, looking out the tall, wide, sliding glass doors. David fell in line, took his place beside his sister, and tried to match their gaze. Though the lawn was a massive series of rolling hills, there was nothing of particular interest, nothing he hadn’t seen before. There were the cows and goats and donkeys and horses, moving slowly, grazing calmly, like this was a day like any other, as if the human who brought out the hay three times a day wasn’t dead and cold and gone. David thought it was a curse to be a sentient being. “What are we looking at?” David asked Savannah discreetly through the corner of a clenched jaw.
“Dad,” she answered, in the same discreet fashion. “He’s just been standing out there, staring. He’s been like this for at least ten minutes.”
David turned to his sister, concerned. “Shouldn’t someone go out there and check on him?”
“I’ll go out there in a minute or two,” answered Mom. Both David and Savannah whipped their heads in their mother’s direction, surprised she had overheard, had eavesdropped and then given herself away by responding. She had not turned to face her children but had remained stoic and still with her eyes locked on her husband. “He’s grieving for his brother, guys. There’s no right or wrong way to do that.” It wasn’t an admonishment or anything, it was just a statement, a fact there was no arguing with. In the same cool, matter-of-fact fashion with which she spoke, Mom slid the doors open, stepped out and slid them shut behind her. For a few moments, the remaining family members watched her progress, felt their breath catch in their throats when Mom stepped a few feet behind her husband and called out to him. He didn’t turn, though. He didn’t respond in any sort of fashion they could readily observe. The husband and wife stayed like that for endless, unbearable minutes. Eventually, Mom moved towards Dad and slipped an arm around his shoulders. It was seconds before he crumbled into her embrace. He was sobbing openly, and it seemed indecent to watch, so his children turned away. They showed their backs to the windows and doors, to all the glass.
Savannah wiped at her eyes soundlessly. David nudged her shoulder with his. “It’ll be okay,” David said. He sounded lame. Savannah was the one who gave comfort, handled situations and convinced David he’d survive. Though they were twins, separated by mere minutes, Savannah had always seemed older, wiser. But now, in the face of seeing her father cry for the first time, she was speechless. She had nothing to offer. Savannah could only nod.
Suddenly, Aunt Cheryl spoke. She said, “I didn’t think it was possible to miss someone so much like that. Huh.” Aunt Cheryl seemed thoughtful, genuinely intrigued by the extravagant, dramatic display of human emotion going on just outside her doors. She busied herself in the kitchen, presumably preparing for a late, supplementary dinner, a second evening meal. David and Savannah exchanged perplexed looks. David didn’t know what was worse, watching his dad weep like a woman outside, or watching his aunt be cold and distant inside, seemingly unmoved by the passing of her husband. David tugged on Savannah’s sleeve and jerked his head to the side, indicating that they should leave and go upstairs. She nodded and followed her brother.
The next day dawned clear and bright. When David padded downstairs in bare feet, he discovered the adults showered, dressed, and heading out.
“What’s up?” David asked.
“We have to head out for a while to handle arrangements,” Mom answered delicately. “There’s cereal and milk for breakfast.”
David nodded. “Anything we can do to help, Ma?”
She smiled warmly and grabbed her only son by his shoulders. “Just make sure you don’t make a mess, okay? Help your aunt out and clean up a little.”
David nodded again. Mom kissed him on the cheek and the adults headed out the door. David set about pouring himself some cereal and was joined by his sister some time later.
The pair cleaned the kitchen, hung around outside, traversed back inside, and watched mindless television. Savannah chucked the remote without warning onto the opposite couch, only narrowly missing David. “We should be celebrating Uncle Doug’s memory, not just sitting here.”
David sighed. “How?” He was used to Savannah’s penchant for sentimentality and dramatics. He’d entertain her today, seeing as how they really was nothing else to do.
“I don’t know,” Savannah admitted with an air of defeat. She thought for a few moments in silence and then said, “We could watch home movies.”
The nostalgia appealed to David and he smiled. “That’s not a bad idea.” He climbed to his feet. “Where do you think Aunt Cheryl keeps them?”
Savannah climbed to her feet and shrugged. “No clue, but let’s look around.”
David hesitated. “Mom told me not to make a mess.”
“We’ll clean up after ourselves,” Savannah laughed. She shook her head at her brother’s momentary lapse in common sense. She hurried upstairs and David followed close behind. She explained that something personal, like home movies, would most likely be in a personal space, like a shared bedroom. David tried to explain his trepidation, how it was weird for him to be in his aunt’s bedroom for many different reasons (including but not limited to relation, gender, age and so on and so forth), but Savannah dismissed her brother’s misgivings with her presence. She assured him it was fine, and advised him to look in the closet and on shelves but not in drawers or cabinets; she’d handle that. The pair commenced searching, coming up with nothing interesting until Savannah released an excited shout.
David turned to his sister, who was spread on her stomach on the floor, peering and reaching underneath the bed. “What are you doing?” he hissed, as if there was anyone home who could hear them. He felt like this was a violation. Why would she look under the bed, anyway? Who kept home movies there? But Savannah was insistent and in just a moment more, she was sliding an antique-looking suitcase out from under the bed.
“How cool is this? It looks like it’s from the 1800s!”
“You should put it back,” David warned. It was cool, for sure, but he was positive there was some reason it was hidden beneath the bed, and David firmly believed ignorance is bliss.
“Why would she keep something this great where no one could see it or appreciate it? Maybe it’s got something awesome in it!”
“Grow up,” David sneered. “The home movies aren’t in there, so put it back, and let’s go up to the attic.”
But Savannah wasn’t listening. She was opening the suitcase and when she did, she screamed. David dropped to his knees. The young siblings were looking at thousands of dollars. Neither had seen so much in person. Both longed to reach out and touch it, to hold it and pretend it was theirs, all theirs. Savannah looked at David with wide eyes. “Why the hell would Aunt Cheryl have all this cash under her bed? Why isn’t it in a bank?”
David shrugged. “Maybe the crash of ’29 left her rattled.”
“She’s not that old, stupid,” Savannah snorted. Her amusement faded. “This is weird. Something doesn’t feel right.”
“Then put it back and let’s look in the attic, like I said,” David offered, climbing to his feet. Savannah carefully closed the suitcase and slid it under the bed. In the attic, they found a couple of dusty shoeboxes with ancient VHS tapes. They hurried down stairs, hoping they’d be able to find a VCR. They were just about to resume their earlier positions on the couches when the doorbell rang. David hurried to answer the door, Savannah in tow.
The opened door revealed two intimidating-looking men in expensive suits. They wore identical, humorless expressions. The one on the left grunted and asked, “Is Cheryl Paton home?”
David frowned. “I’m afraid she’s not. She’s at the funeral home with my parents, making some last arrangements for my uncle. Can I help you?”
The man dug in his coat pocket. “Just tell her we stopped by and give her this card, okay? We want to talk to her about her husband.” He handed over an average-looking business card and looked at David from over his mirror sunglasses. “Have a good day, kid.”
“Thanks,” David said. “You too,” he called as he shut the door. With Savannah breathing down his neck, the pair read the name on the card. Detective Joseph Stanton, it said. What did the cops want with Aunt Cheryl? Maybe they’d made some progress on the case, found the assholes who tried to take his car?
“Think this has anything to do with the money upstairs?” Savannah asked.
Inexplicable chills ran along David’s spine. “Shut up,” he growled, shoving the card in his back pocket. “Help me find a VCR.”
Over another dinner that evening, David handed his aunt the business card. “Some detectives stopped by the house today, Aunt Cheryl. He asked me to give you this card and tell you he wanted to talk to you about your husband.”
Cheryl snatched the card from David’s hand. It surprised David, the urgency of it, and he shifted uncomfortably in his seat. She didn’t say thank you or anything. Cheryl got up and left the room. The extended family was left to its own devices. “That was weird,” David said.
“Yeah, and we found an old suitcase filled with tons of money under her bed while we were looking for the home movies,” Savannah whispered excitedly, looking from Dad to Mom and back again. “What’s that about, huh?”
Dad slammed his fists on the table, eliciting a shriek from Savannah and stunned silence from Dad. He pushed his chair back and away from the table, wood sliding against wood, and stormed from the room. Mom calmly wiped her mouth with her napkin and followed. Savannah turned to David.
“What the hell?” he mouthed.
The next day dawned clear and bright. David awoke to screaming and shouting. He bolted up in bed, flung the bedclothes far from him, and took off. He ran towards the source of all the noise, ran downstairs to find his mom and dad and sister pacing in the kitchen.
“What’s going on? What’s wrong?” David was panicked.
“Cheryl’s gone,” Savannah said. “So is the money. So are her clothes. She just up and vanished.”
David was in disbelief. He asked Savannah to repeat what she had said when Detective Joseph Stanton strolled in. “What money?” he asked.
David looked to Savannah, terror-stricken.