Excerpt

The Senator’s Children

Nicholas Montemarano

November 7, 2017 
The following is from Nicholas Montemarano’s novel, The Senator’s Children. With delicacy and empathy, Nicholas Montemarano brings two sisters together in a parallel of grief and grace.The Senator’s Children brilliantly distills the American family under pressure. Nicholas Montemarano is the author of two previous novels. He is the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the MacDowell Colony, Yaddo, and the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference.

As soon as Betsy turned the corner, her stomach went nervous, but only when she took in the specifics—news vans blocking the street, lights and cameras in front of the house—did she make a connection between the commotion and her father.

It could have had something to do with Iowa, which he’d won four days earlier, or with New Hampshire, four days away, but somehow she understood that this could not have been about anything good.

Maybe he’d said something he shouldn’t have, but to garner this kind of attention he would have had to say something truly terrible or stupid, and it wasn’t like him to say terrible or stupid things, he was careful, he knew how to shut up and let others say terrible or stupid things.

Betsy thought: Car accident, plane crash, assassination.

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She walked faster, and as she got closer, about halfway down the street, she saw two cameramen laughing, maybe some crack one had made to the other, and she guessed that no one would be joking, not in front of their home, had her father been hurt.

It was bitter cold and windy and she hadn’t worn gloves, and was carrying a bag, and her hands were freezing, and she really wanted to be home and warm. In the bag was a box, and in the box was a tie she’d bought for her father at Brooks Brothers—rather, a tie she’d bought to be from her mother to her father. She always bought him ties, they both did, always blue, for every occasion—birthday, Christmas, Father’s Day, anniversary, winning Iowa. This one was for Valentine’s Day.

She closed her eyes and waited, imagining that when she opened them, the cameras and reporters would be gone.

She opened her eyes: they were still there. Betsy could see that some of her neighbors were out on the street too. Delancey Place, one of the quietest streets in Philadelphia, had turned into a media circus. She walked around the block to the alley behind the house and snuck in through the back.

She found her mother hiding in the tub. Her mother was fully dressed—jeans, a light blue sweater, wool socks.

“Has Dad been hurt?”

Her mother shook her head no.

That was the beginning and end of their conversation. That was all Betsy wanted to know. As long as her father wasn’t hurt, they could handle whatever this was about.

She could have turned on the TV, could have gotten in the tub with her mother and closed the curtain, could have snuck out the back of the house and taken her mother with her, but somehow she knew what to do and had the bravery to do it: she walked out the front door, still carrying the tie, and faced the cameras.

They charged the stoop. But, as if realizing it was just David Christie’s daughter, not even old enough to vote, they paused.

Then one reporter asked her, and then they were all asking, what her reaction was to the news, the reports, the allegations, the photo, had she known, had her mother known, was it true, what did she know, how did she feel?

She knew to say nothing, what her father was so good at—let them talk and talk and make themselves look bad. She stood there stone-still. “Just a girl,” she imagined someone might say. “Leave her alone. As if her mother having cancer isn’t enough.”

Betsy used the same tactic when her father came home that night. By then he had made three denials—in New Hampshire, upon his arrival in Philadelphia, and in front of his home—simple and quick.

Nothing but tabloid trash.

I love only my wife.

I’m determined to focus on the issues important to our country.

When he came inside, Betsy stared at him, and kept staring, until her father looked down.

And so without a word spoken between them, she knew.

*

Betsy and her mother sat on the couch. Her father sat on a chair across from them, leaning forward, elbows on his knees. He was wearing a dark gray suit but no tie.

He had been in politics too long by then, and the politician in him had spread like her mother’s cancer, Betsy thought. She didn’t recognize him. He probably saw this moment—telling the truth to his wife and daughter—as one that could be spun, as if he were trying to maintain strong family favorables.

He said: poor judgment, terrible mistake, foolish behavior.

“Save that language for them,” Betsy’s mother said. “We’re not them.”

Her father looked down like a boy ashamed.

Her mother asked who, and her father said, “Nobody,” and she said, “Who is she?” and Betsy put her hands over her ears, and her father said, “She’s nobody,” and for the first time her mother raised her voice and said, “Everybody isn’t standing in the cold outside our home because of nobody.”

“Please stop,” Betsy said. “Please, please, please.”

“I made a mistake,” he said.

“David,” her mother said. “David. David.” She seemed to have no other words, and the more she said his name, the more strange and unrecognizable it sounded to Betsy.

“Forget what’s outside,” he said. “Forget the campaign.”

The phone rang. Betsy got up, walked calmly across the room, picked up the receiver, and then put it back into its cradle.

Immediately the phone rang again. She unplugged it, then left the room.

*

Betsy, a senior in high school, had missed two weeks of school. The principal had been very understanding; everyone had. “Take as much time as you need,” her teachers said. Some offered to meet with her one-on-one. But two weeks was probably enough, she decided. The longer her absence, the more attention she would receive upon her return. Maybe everyone was talking about her. Or maybe no one really cared.

If asked how she was doing, what would she say?

Fine, thanks.

Good, how are you?

Hanging in there.

It hasn’t been easy.

To be honest, life kind of sucks.

The truest answer might be to say nothing. Because she really didn’t have the words. Maybe she did, but it would be too complicated, too much for polite conversation.

She would have to explain that as bad as it was to hear her parents fighting—sometimes in the middle of the night—worse was to hear their silence, and worst was to be barely able to hear them, to know that they were trying to keep their voices down for her benefit.

Some nights she couldn’t hear everything they said, only words, phrases.

I feel sick.

Love note.

It was about sex.

Bullshit.

Pulled out.

Pregnant.

She lay awake in bed now and could hear them. Their bedroom was at the other end of the hallway, and their voices were low. It was after midnight: already Monday, the day she had decided to return to school. She was too nervous to sleep. That her parents were awake and talking at this time usually didn’t mean something good. Their voices went up and down in waves.

Then she thought she heard—yes, she did—her mother crying. Betsy got out of bed and went to her door; she opened it a crack and listened. She remembered how frightened she’d been the first time she heard her mother cry. Betsy was seven, and her mother had banged her knee on the bottom of the dining room table, and the pain brought tears to her eyes, and then Betsy started to cry, and hugged her mother and said, “Stop, please stop.” Before that, she hadn’t understood that adults cried.

She had an urge to do something similar now—to walk down the hallway and into her parents’ room without knocking, and say, “Please stop.”

She wanted to shake them and say, “Look at me—it’s Betsy, your daughter. Look at each other. It’s you. It’s us. We’re okay, we’re going to be okay. No one died.”

She listened until her mother stopped crying.

She didn’t watch much TV, especially not this late, but she turned it on. A late-night comedian was telling jokes, and it was nice to hear actual people laugh rather than a laugh track. The comedian, a tall man with dark wavy hair and a Brooklyn accent, was talking about how his wife was always mad at him—he used too much toilet paper, he snored, he was a slob, he didn’t make enough money—but now, finally, he had the perfect response: “Hey, at least I’m not David Christie.” The audience laughed, and Betsy was too stunned to turn the channel. The comedian went on: “Did you hear what David Christie said now? Did you hear what this guy said? He said about his mistress, ‘I don’t love her.’” After a pause: “Real smart, man, now you’ve got two women mad at you. Great, way to go.” Now the audience’s reaction did sound like a laugh track. Betsy wanted to turn off the TV, but didn’t. She kept listening. “This guy, I’m telling you, he makes a terrible husband like me look pretty good. You remember during his campaign, he was always talking about how there are two Americas. Well, no wonder: in one America he was faithful to his wife, and in the other America he was, in fact, banging his mistress.”

Enough.

Betsy turned off the TV, got back into bed, closed her eyes, and listened: the house was quiet.

*

One Sunday morning, a month after the story broke, cold enough to remind Betsy that winter wasn’t over but sunny enough and with enough birdsong to remind her that spring was a week away, she believed that everything would be okay. Maybe her father did too. Her mother’s cancer was neither spreading nor remitting, her father had suspended his presidential campaign, the nomination process had carried on without him, and the press wasn’t feeding on them with quite the same frenzy.

The night before, for the first time in a month, her parents had slept in the same bed. Her father got up early to make pancakes. Betsy smelled them in her sleep and woke convinced that she was a child again.

She found her father in plaid pajamas, pouring batter. With his back to her he could have been a younger man, but when he turned and smiled, she could see how much the campaign and the past month had aged him. There were more lines around his eyes, and his hair had more gray.

Her mother came down and made coffee. Betsy thought she was seeing things when her mother pressed her face into her father’s back and wrapped her arms around him. He closed his eyes. The batter in the pan started to bubble, but she didn’t want her parents to move. As quietly as possible she took the spatula from her father’s hand and flipped the pancake.

After breakfast she had the idea that they might drive to Valley Forge and walk the trails as they’d done almost every Sunday when she was a kid. Even though her mother wasn’t strong enough to walk nearly as far as they used to, she loved the idea, and of course her father did. They didn’t bother to clean up their mess—the kitchen counter was splattered with batter and syrup—and within ten minutes they were dressed and in the car.

Her father opened the window and wind blew his hair wild, and this made her mother laugh. He hadn’t shaved in a week. He’d gotten dressed in such a rush, almost as if Betsy’s mother might change her mind, that he’d put on two different socks, one black and one gray. He was just some absentminded dad driving his family to the park, Betsy thought, and the rest of it—speeches and fundraisers and press conferences and debates—was over.

The first blip in Betsy’s blissful morning was the sudden change in her mother’s demeanor as they reached the park. At first she seemed to be wincing from cancer pain—that sometimes happened—but then Betsy saw that her mother was mumbling to herself—something angry. Her father looked at her mother, then turned back to face the road.

Her mother was getting louder. She closed her eyes and shook her head. “No. No. No,” she said, as if trying to make some truth go away. Then, as they drove through the park, her mother opened the car door and tried to jump out.

Her father grabbed her mother’s shoulder. From behind, Betsy pulled her mother’s coat to hold her back. But she fought like a wounded, trapped animal and pushed herself out of the car just as it came to a stop.

Her mother fell but got up, then ran across the road and into a vast field. She paused only to take off her coat and sweater and let them fall to the grass. She kept running. Whitetail deer feeding on the tips of bush branches hopped away to the farthest borders of the field, where they stopped and turned to stare.

They ran after her, the car idling in the road. The farther her mother ran into the field, the taller the grass. Her legs must have been too tired to keep going. She fell.

They couldn’t see her, but found her by her sobs.

Her father sat on the ground beside her mother, then lay upon her. Betsy’s mother made herself small and pulled at the neckline of her blouse as if it were choking her, and her father held her mother and covered her until all Betsy could see was him. He seemed to be the one sobbing, but her mother was crying beneath him, and Betsy had never loved her parents more, had never been more frightened and hopeful, or felt as sorry for all of them as she did now.

They helped her mother back to the car. She sat in the back seat with Betsy.

When they arrived home, her father got into bed with her mother. He didn’t bother to take off his boots. Betsy wanted to stay there and watch them. She wanted the story to end there. But there was still the mess to clean up. So she went to the kitchen and scrubbed the breakfast plates. She wiped batter from the stove. She soaked the pan, then washed and dried it.

Only later, toward dusk, did she notice the butter and milk, which she’d left out. It was too late. The butter had melted. The milk had gone bad. Her parents didn’t get up for dinner. At some point during the night, frightened, Betsy got into bed with them.

Early the next morning, the phone rang and rang, but they didn’t answer.

__________________________________

From The Senator’s Children. Used with permission of Tin House Books. Copyright © 2017 by Nicholas Montemarano.

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  • Kathy Stevenson

    I found this story today by sheer happenstance, and I’m glad I did. The momentum of this many-layered excerpt was gripping, and, like the sort of incident it is meant to portray, I found myself unable to turn away. I look forward to reading the book.



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