Following is an excerpt from Connected Underneath, Linda Legters just-released debut novel, from Lethe Press. Kirkus Reviews write: “As a family secret festers, a father strives to connect with his adrift teenage daughter in Legters’ emotional debut novel. . . . Legters relays their psychological journeys with an acute urgency and a sense of inevitable doom. . . . It’s more than a story about adoption, family secrets, or guilt; it also addresses other universal matters, such as parents’ desires to be relevant to their children as they grow up. . . . A potent story that offers an engaging meditation on the most basic desire—to know oneself.”
I was 12 when my mother took me to buy new Easter shoes before going to St. Mark’s to help the lady who baked bread for communion—I was secretly glad when she died and we could go back to communion wafers—cut her loaves into teeny tiny cubes; the next morning, these piles of cubes would stand on silver trays underneath special white cloths on a special table at the front of the church. To me, it all seemed embarrassing. The woman made loaf after loaf of white fine-grained bread from scratch, kneading it, and waiting for it to rise, lots and lots of it, for what? To be cut up into little squares too small to taste? The lady rarely came to church. ‘I’ve done enough,’ she’d say.
I’d never gone to help my mother like this before, but we’d just been out to buy me Easter shoes and mom said “You can help, come help cut the bread, you’re old enough now.” Not old enough for patent leather shoes with heels, but old enough to do church chores, apparently. Every other girl my age already had heels. I was awkward in the church basement kitchen, out of place and not very useful, my mother and the baker lady so efficient. Mom sent me upstairs with the cloths that would cover the bread and wine trays. She took the main stairs while I took the darker, narrower, more mysterious stairs that came up behind the alter, and that passed by the little office on the landing that the priest used on Sunday mornings, and I felt special, like the stage people at plays, working behind the scenes, crucial, but unknown, close to the action, the stars of the show, in this case, must be, God and Jesus and the priest, not down in a pew near the back, the pew my dad preferred. The only other times I had been this close to the front were when I had gone through first communion rituals, and when I’d been a lamb in a Christmas pageant. I’d wanted to be Mary, but an older girl with the beginnings of breasts was chosen to wear the pretty blue robe.
We’d compromised on the shoes; there was a low heel, but also a Mary Jane strap. I wasn’t yet sure how I felt about them. I would be wearing them the next day for Easter morning, and then again on every Sunday until winter. I was still contemplating the shoes, and how many months I would wear them, and the possibility that my mother wouldn’t ever let me grow up, when I peeked into the little office, empty, and I was still wondering if my mother would ever let me grow up when I came through the door just behind the podium where Father Gault gave speeches.
And it was then I saw mom halfway down the middle aisle, carrying a silver tray full of bread, fresh from the baker lady talking talking about the sanctity of her mission, to bake bread for communion, every communion, ever since her husband had died, and mom nodding and murmuring while they cut and cut and cut the loaves; I could not understand the connection between a dead husband and these trays of bread cubes, or how they could represent the body of Jesus, a baby (a doll) in a manger only months before.
But mom was standing stock still. On her face, horror, but softer than that, too. Dismay. Guilt. Confusion. A chiaroscuro. Disbelief. Inaction.
I came around the podium to look at what she was: the table draped in the thick white linen tablecloth, meant only for the communion stuff, now held Father Gault. What was he doing? I was ashamed for him, and embarrassed, but then saw how limp he was, how sprawled and how uncomfortable he seemed. I took a step closer.
“Get away from there,” my mother said.
There were a few drops of blood sprinkled across the thick linen, the most luxurious thing I had ever seen in that careful church. Father Gault must have hit his head on a challis or some other silver turret as he fell.
My mother, so helpful in the basement church kitchen, her hands flying, her fingers wielding the knife that cut twice as many, four times as many cubes as I did, were useless now. She stood mute. I’m the one who went up to the priest’s lean, limp black pants and starched shirt, one shoe tip touching the carpet in a suspended pirouette, the other hanging above it; I saw where his pant seams had been over pressed, saw how one arm was caught underneath him, saw that one hand was reaching out; saw the scratch on his temple still bleeding, saw his gray skin, his half-closed blue gray eyes.
“Get away from there,” my mother said again. She sounded angry.
“We need to call somebody.” I’d watched the shows. Somebody also needed to reach out and feel for a pulse in the gray folds of the priest’s neck.
She carefully put her tray of bread crumbs on the seat of a pew, it hardly fit, it was so broad, and I watched her worry it would tip, and watched her turn back to me, arm out, “Come on.”
I hesitated. “Shouldn’t I stay with him? Where’s a phone? Isn’t there one in that office back there?
My mother measured the distance between herself and the altar and the door to the little office, where I knew there was a phone, because I’d just now peeked in, the light was yellow coming through the blinds, nothing like the light in the basement, or the light in the stairway or the light in the church, which I thought of as green, pale green, something about how the sun hit the carpet, and I’d seen the phone, an old fashioned one like we used to have, black and solid, and so I knew that’s where the closest phone was. There was a phone booth on the corner. And a white phone on the counter down in the kitchen. But they were all much further away than the solid black phone on the desk in the little dressing room.
“Celeste. Listen to me. Don’t touch anything.”
And so the ambulance and police were called from the phone way downstairs in the basement kitchen, while Father Gault waited upstairs.
The EMTs were too late. Father Gault was already dead. “Don’t worry. Probably died instantly. A stroke. Or a heart attack,” one said. “Hit his head, scraped it, on the way down. You can probably get the blood out of that tablecloth. My mother always soaks bloodstains in milk.”
But I knew more.
In his wrist, the one poking out of his shirt sleeve reaching for help, I had seen a pulsing vein. And when I looked into his bloodless, nearly colorless eyes, I had seen life. His eyes had shifted ever so slightly in their sockets; they had shifted to look into mine.
No one ever suggested I go to the funeral. The death, the events of the death, were never discussed. The day in the church was never even mentioned. My mother drove us home in silence. She told my father privately. Her only response, as far as I saw, was to touch her fingers to her forehead and close her eyes briefly—too briefly for a prayer, and as though something had happened to her, not the priest, and certainly not to me—before turning the key in the ignition.
A few weeks later, a new priest appeared. He was younger.
Theo has tricky memories of his mother, too. In one, he’s sitting at a small table with her, when she was young and very pretty. He remembers large squares of plate glass sun. Towers of colorful book spines. He must have been five or six. His mother is reading to him, and he likes to be read to, and the book is about hibernating bears, and he can’t recall whether it was a storybook or a book about real caves and berries, and he may not have known at the time, because he is mostly just looking at her, at her gentle face, and at her hair falling across her forehead and down over her shoulders, and at her gentle hands, as if this were something he needed to remember. There is hot chocolate in a blue cup. There is a gold ring on her finger, and her nails are neat and polished, and she has on a dress that is a soft soft red, with a print of some sort, tiny flowers, maybe, and the dress is long, and, when she walks, the dress makes her look like the princesses in some of his books at home. There is a flurry at the bookstore door, and he realizes it’s snowing outside. He could have sworn he had on shorts. His father has arrived, and is rushing towards them in a big brown coat, and bringing snow in with him, on his shoulders, and on his hat, and on his breath. And the warm sun dissipates, and his mother looks up, and the father leans down, and they kiss, but the book is put aside, and although she says let Theo finish his hot chocolate, his father, smiling in a big way, and all in a rush, he is always all in a rush, says no, there are books and hot chocolate at home.
In another, he’s eleven, no longer feeling like a boy. The woman, his mother, is not there. She’s not reading to him, not having hot chocolate with him, not there, as he sits on the school steps. There was supposed to be a meeting with his teacher. There had been a contest, an award, and the award was a summer adventure. This was the last day to sign up, and his mother, (or father), had been needed. He’d seen the pain in the teacher’s eyes. And the frustration. He’d been careful to seem stoic; it wasn’t the teacher’s fault; she had done everything she could, even saying there would be other chances, but he knew there would be no other chances, or, if there were, they would all turn out just like this. Now, most of all, he would be careful that no one would ever see what was behind his closed doors. He went home and shaved his head. He went home and cut his plaid shirts to shreds. He went home to find his mother asleep, drunk, still in her bright, red, garish bathrobe, the one with the gaping hole in the armpit. Storga. Having a family, not just Theo tacked on to two unhappy people, but a family that made things feel good, seemed so easy. Most everyone did it. He grew up wanting nothing more. He came to realize—we all come to realize—our search isn’t for family, exactly, but for connection, connections that will keep us, so we won’t drown, won’t fly off, something that will connect us underneath.
Teacher, novelist, short story writer, and painter, Linda Legters has lived in Boston and New York, and traveled across Europe as well as to Australia and New Zealand. Her stories reflect her keen insight into the workings of the human mind and heart. She currently lives and works in a cottage in Connecticut.