Kyle and Matthew Grosen sat silently across the kitchen table from one another toying with the remains of yet another casserole left by yet another neighbor. Kyle wasn’t completely sure what prompted the neighbors to bring them casseroles the same as they were also carrying to the Wolfs, whether it was sympathy or cruelty.
They said it was for the two men left alone. Patsy had been away, spending some time with her family. That’s what Kyle and his father and most of Haden County said aloud and to one another, their eyes sliding off one another and then glancing away. Patsy’s mother wasn’t well. Her mother hadn’t been well for a while. What some people in Haden County said was that whatever the suffering of her mother, maybe Patsy’s suffering was greater.
People in Harrison County thought simply staying with Cecelia Harrison was punishment enough for anything. “Well good thing you didn’t take up poker for a living,” were the first words out of Cecelia Harrison's mouth when Patsy stepped into the kitchen. Matt set a suitcase on the floor, turned around and drove back to Haden County without further conversation with any of them.
Shelby was away as well, also in Harrison County. She was staying with her grandmother, Ruth Prentiss, the matriarch of a fortune based upon property and the livestock it produced. There was no finer farmland, no clearer running streams, no better timber in the whole of Southern Illinois than on the thousands of acres that generations had acquired and passed intact into her husband’s possession. Her husband, too, had added to the holdings and increased production of what were arguably the finest racing horses and best breeding cattle in the Midwest.
That reputation was lost during the brief tenure of their eldest son between his father’s premature death and then his own. The fortune was moving even more quickly through the hands of their youngest son who used much of it on a succession of trophy wives – even Ruth Prentiss knew the phrase – and to keep his own two sons out of jail. Shelby’s father, the middle son Philip, had never been given a stab at the company, showing himself at a shockingly young age to be not merely a natural dilettante but a wastrel and drunkard as well.
It was astounding how fast it could go, Ruth Prentiss thought about the fortune, but she never remarked upon the money. It would do no one any good to hear her speak such awkward truths, which did not mean she failed to make the point to her remaining sons and grandsons when she ever saw them. She had not yet thought what to make of her granddaughter. She had seen very little of her.
It was rumored her husband actually called her "Ruth," but no one in Harrison County had ever called her anything than Mrs. Harrison or “Ma’am.” That included her sons, Shelby had been told more than once by Lucille. Shelby was thinking about that after the deputy had handed her off to a maid who was now closing the parlor door behind her and her grandmother.
Once the door had shut Ruth Prentiss said, “I hear that now your mother thinks you should live with me.” After Shelby remained silent the older woman asked, “What do you think of that?”
“I think I shall call you Grand-Mama if I am to stay here,” Shelby said.
“You’ll call me the devil if you give me any trouble,” Mrs. Prentiss replied.
Shelby was silent for a moment but then said,“I will call you Grand-Mama and I will return to my birth name.”
The old woman caught herself nearly smiling before she lifted and rang a small bell near her hand on a side table. Nearly immediately the door opened and the maid reappeared.
“Show Miss Prentiss to her room,” the old woman said, nodded at Shelby and returned to reading a pile of documents she had let fall to her lap. “I think we understand each other,” Ruth Prentiss said as Shelby stepped out of the parlor.
That both of these hugely unusual reunions were taking place seemed somehow normal in the wake of something so irregular and unexpected as Bill Wolf shooting himself in the stomach on his and Lucille’s bed.
"Who would have thought it? Bill Wolf," Irene Hanley went around repeating like a drum beat. "I would have thought it of anyone before Bill Wolf. Who would have thought it?"
When Patsy heard she clutched her stomach and doubled over in an agony from which she could not emerge. She might as well have performed her exposure on the town square. As it was word reached her at Maxine’s. Patsy was done, blown dried and almost out the hairdresser’s door when the news burst in upon her and the women behind her.
To many the news of Patsy’s response was the greatest of the shocks and seemingly endless aftershocks which included Patsy’s husband, the state’s attorney, discovering in Bill Wolf’s closet a shoe box full of checks made out to the governor’s recently successful reelection campaign.
“A goddamn shoe box,” Matthew Grosen told Patsy that night.
Patsy was sitting on the couch when he returned home. Her red eyes were dry and swollen. “I’m going to go stay with my mother,” she said.
Matthew Grosen looked at his wife and finally said, “I think that is a terrible idea.”
It was rumored the first words out of Lucille upon discovering the body – which she did upon her return from her own hair appointment in the clever little arty town of Platteville, the other side of Vernon County – were, “Well you son-of-a-bitch.”
But this was pure speculation. No one was in the house except Lucille who had a difficult time remembering any type of chronology from swinging shut the door of her small SUV and catching a pleasing glimpse of herself in the side mirror until sitting face to face with Shelby and holding her hands across the dining room table and repeating, “There is nothing, absolutely nothing any of us could have done to prevent this.”
“I’ve got it, Mom,” was the rebuke from Shelby that awakened Lucille to chronology and efficiency.
Lucille remained in black and in firm and complete control from that moment forth, which began with the decision to get Shelby out of town. Lucille handled the funeral arrangements, interface with the forensic people and the damage control. She made every decision necessary regarding the handling of the estate, declining assistance from the Wolf family attorney, the family physician, the husbands of either of Bill’s two aunts, a remarkable array of cousins some of whom she had never met and even from Al Plover.And, of course, from Bill’s dear baby brother Robert.
The inconsolable Robert was in no shape to question anything, he was grateful, repeatedly telling her how grateful he was for her ability to handle all of this. And that mousy wife of his certainly wasn’t going to poke her nose into it.
“You know he would never do anything wrong,” Robert kept telling Lucille. “I just can’t believe this has happened,” he would take off crying again.
“Well Robert he has done something wrong,” Lucille finally said. “He shot himself on my bed.”
“It’s not your fault Lucille,” Robert said instantly.
“Thank you Robert. I know that. We need to move on now." Lucille said.
Other than that not even Al Plover – who witnessed her pulling every penny of the Wolf money out of his bank – ever received any comment from Lucille regarding her opinion of Bill Wolf or regarding her legal or financial standing. Lucille hired her own attorney, an almost young man from Platteville, but already turning middle aged. He was as circumspect as a choir boy. With him at her side she dressed consistently in a black suit. He wore medium gray. Together they met and were candid with the police and the investigators. She also had him accompany her to all meetings with the governor's aides, to Buddy's particular annoyance. They all came at her furiously for the first month, at which point the state investigations went on but she became a lesser and lesser piece of their inquiries.
This was because even the state investigators ultimately came at the truth of the matter, which was that Lucille had been completely and totally ignorant of the shoe box of checks in Bill Wolf’s closet.
She wasn’t surprised that Bill would be involved – albeit in a minor way – with campaign fraud. He was a pragmatic man. But a box of un -cashed, after-the-fact checks made out to a campaign entity struck her as just some kind of stupid oversight on someone’s part, as stupid as Bill perhaps forgetting to turn them in to someone. Nothing to kill yourself over.
She had sent a sizeable chunk of cash with Shelby. She’d known exactly where Bill kept campaign cash. She’d accepted Bill’s explanation that the cash came from contributors who wished to remain anonymous. Lucille expected she and Bill would use the cash themselves as an unreported reimbursement of the debt they had accrued on behalf of the campaign. Not legal perhaps, but not really cheating. That was how Lucille saw it. It never occurred to her those few thousand dollars, well, maybe even ten thousand, would constitute campaign fraud. Never in the weeks of interrogation by police and investigators did she even in her mind make any link between the improbable checks and the cash she hoped would prove enough to get her and Shelby out of Haden.
When she awoke from her hours of shock and sat facing her daughter Lucille knew she would never understand why he had done it. She wouldn't understand anymore than Haden County itself understood how their fair-haired Billy Wolf, one of the finest and most upstanding among them, could do this. And as time and investigations wore on, it seemed Bill Wolf crashed so hugely and irresponsibly into a scandal that was never defined. No one would ever understand.
“It was just scandal for the sake of scandal,” Lucille would soon tell Irene Hanley. “He was pilloried to death, Irene. And no one came to his rescue. No one.”
Lucille was as angry at Bill as a scorned woman, as a threatened mother. But despite it all, the long and the short of it was this, Lucille made a convincing grieving widow, for Lucille did grieve.
Despite her jaw-clenched tenacity to see through what she viewed as a humiliating personal tragedy and its attendant anger at her husband beyond anything she had imagined possible, she sobbed nightly. She sobbed for hours into the pillow in the guest bedroom, which was as far as she could pull herself from their bedroom which remained gapingly empty where the bed had stood.
While Lucille proceeded with her clenched jaw and ramrod spine and abrupt behavior -- winning her a begrudging admiration but no love – Patsy’s grief verily oozed from her house, which she didn’t leave, not even for the funeral.
The ladies at Maxine’s attempted to stop by that first week and for the first few days were greeted at the kitchen door by a bathrobe clad, slack-faced Patsy who did not invite them in. By the end of the week Patsy wasn’t opening the door. By the weekend Matt took her over to Harrison where it had been agreed her mother needed her.
Irene Hanley wasn’t any longer than an hour bringing a plate of chocolate chip cookies to Kyle. “I saw your dad taking your mom out 231,” she said after rapping at the window in the top of the Grosen’s kitchen door and seeing Kyle look up from the kitchen table. “I figured they were heading over to her people,” Irene called through the door. “For some reason I just thought you might like some cookies. I just baked some for Bobby. With your mom out of town and all.” She stood at the door smiling brightly and held the plate in the air a though she were an advertisement for fresh baked cookies. “May I come in?” she finally asked.
Kyle stared at her. He couldn’t imagine what to say, he could only formulate things not to say. He got out of his seat and felt he was somehow hypnotized, walking toward the framed face of Bobby Hanley’s mother at the kitchen door. He suddenly realized his fists were clenching and unclenching. “Yeah,” he finally said and reached to open the door. He held it open and let her into the kitchen where they both stood staring at one another.
“Well,” Irene finally said, “I’ll just leave them here on the table.” Placing them there, with her back to him, she tried again, “I hope everything is all right. Is your mother all right?” she asked.
“Uh huh,” Kyle said which thankfully released him from his daze. It had made him sound like Bobby Hanley. “Oh,” he said, “oh, absolutely. Mom’s fine. Gee. Thanks for the cookies Mrs. Hanley.”
“Well, I was just worried,” she said.
“Nothing to worry about, Mrs. Hanley. Tell Bobby hello,” he said and stared at her until she walked away from the table and back to the door. She stopped then and looked him in the eye. She was shorter than him, but not by a lot. Her smile twisted at one end and her smile turned briefly into a slight smirk and then righted itself back to her thin smile. She didn’t say anything more until she was out the door. “Bye Kyle. Enjoy the cookies,” she said and got in her car and drove home.
Kyle stared at the cookies and felt suddenly that he might vomit. He turned to the sink and got a glass of water and held on to the counter until the sensation passed. He drank the water and filled the glass again at the faucet but this time only drank half of it before setting it down on the counter. He couldn’t even tell for sure if he was angry, let alone who he was angry at. Who wasn’t he angry at? Shelby. Maybe he wasn’t angry at Shelby. He could think of no reason to be angry with Shelby. But he knew that somehow they would never be the same kind of friends again.
He had driven over to the Prentiss’ house the morning after William Wolf had killed himself. He had learned that night, from his father, where Shelby had gone.
“What?” he had screamed at his father, “why didn’t you tell me? I could have taken her.” He plunged toward the kitchen to get his truck keys when his father yelled.
“Kyle! It’s nearly midnight. Get hold of yourself.” It was unusual for Matthew Grosen to raise his voice. It stopped Kyle and he started to cry but made himself stop as his father entered the kitchen. “Go to your room, I have to talk to your mom, I’ll come by your room in a little bit and answer what I can for you.”
“Her grandmother?” Kyle said. He had been on his computer, trying to see what the news had about Mr. Wolf when his father came into the room. It hadn’t been long, maybe twenty minutes. He’d heard his father talking and then he presumed putting his mother to bed. She was acting really weird, he thought.
“Keep your voice down,” Matthew confirmed as he closed the door behind himself, “I’m hoping your mother can get some sleep.” He ran his fingers through his thinning hair. “Doctor Bean sent over a sedative,” he said and only now looked at Kyle.
Kyle pursed his lips but said nothing.
“We were all good friends in high school,” his father said and sat down on Kyle’s bed. “Bill, your mom and me. He hasn’t had a happy life.”
“Yeah, I guess not,” Kyle said.
Matthew Grosen gave his son a sad, acknowledging smile. “Right," Matt said, "I mean before too. I mean his whole life. It never made sense. His life. Everything should have been perfect for him. He always had everything he needed for it to be perfect. And he knew it. He was appreciative. He worked hard and was always a good friend but, but, I don’t know. It would end up, whatever it was, that nothing about it had gone perfectly. Not at all. This isn’t making much sense, is it?” Matt suddenly asked, turning back to Kyle.
“You mean like Mrs. Wolf? It looked like it was perfect but it was horrible.”
Matt looked still at his son and finally said. “Like both Missus Wolfs. But I don’t mean, Kyle, that they were horrible. It just was somehow everything turned horrible.”
“So was that always the problem? You and mom never liked either Mrs. Wolf?”
“That was a problem,” Matt said and his eyes slid off his son onto his hands clasped between his knees.
“So why did he kill himself? Because of Mrs. Wolf?”
“No. No I don’t think so. No I’m certain not. No,” Matthew said.
"Why?" Kyle asked.
"I don't have any idea."
“Right,” Kyle said. “How’s Shelby?”
“She’s fine. She’s tough. She will be fine. She's like Lucille, no crying, just practical.”
“In shock,” Kyle said.
“Yes. Probably in shock. Lucille sent her over to the Prentiss’ which, I have to say, was a piece of good clear thinking on her part.”
“Mrs. Wolf is okay,” Kyle said. “I don’t know why you and mom hate her so much. I mean, I know she’s kinda a pain in the ass. But she’s okay.”
“We don’t hate her, Kyle.”
“Stop it,” Matthew said quietly. “It isn’t the time for us to be bickering about this.”
“I’ll go see Shelby tomorrow.” Kyle glanced at his father and saw no rebuke so hazarded one more remark. “Maybe now you and Mom can be nicer to her. She thought of Mr. Wolf as her father.”
“Kyle, it isn’t the time for this either, but I’m going to tell you what I always tell you about Shelby Prentiss, she won’t be staying in Haden County. Not for you. Not for anybody. And this is just going to speed that up.”
“Well maybe I won’t be staying either,” Kyle said.
Matthew slapped his knees and stood up and walked to his son to put his hand on the boy’s shoulder. He squeezed it once and turned to leave the room.
Kyle was right thinking his father hadn’t heard him. Even if Matthew Grosen had heard, it would never occur to him that Kyle would leave Haden County.