Pete and Jackie Hatch have been together for decades; they were high school sweethearts, although they didn’t marry until years after an explosive incident at the end of senior year broke them apart. Now in their sixties, with their only daughter grown and facing scary news about Jackie’s health, they travel to their Cape Cod hometown for Pete’s first book signing. But a disastrous encounter with an old schoolmate brings their long marriage to the breaking point and forces them to revisit the long-ago event that changed the trajectory of their lives.
Exceptionally moving and heralded by New York Times bestselling author Mary Beth Keane as “brutally honest and true,” The Sweetest Days is an insightful portrait of a couple in it for the long haul, and of the deepest feelings, both tender and fierce, that are held in the wake of an enduring marriage.
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Chapter One We were waiting at the light by Bagel Heaven and the Shell self-serve when Jackie told me to stop at the liquor store up ahead, PJ’s Wine & Spirits. There was a good bar in the motel and I didn’t think we needed a bottle in our room, but then I wasn’t the one who had cancer.
“Maker’s,” she said, “or Jim Beam Black.”
“Which?” I said.
“Either. No: Maker’s.”
A Ford Bronco was parked in front of PJ’s, its owner inside the store, a big swart guy in a Bruins hat. He’d lifted a case of Sam Adams onto the counter and was digging out his wallet. Saturday, midday, July still young. A radio in the back room was broadcasting the Red Sox pregame show. A kid in an apron was loading six-packs of beer into the cooler at the other end of the room. I pulled down a fifth of Maker’s Mark. The customer lugged his beer out, shouldering through the glass double door, and the man at the register watched me come toward him with the Maker’s. He was smiling.
“Pete Hatch,” he said.
I stopped. It took a moment. “Well, damn,” I said.
“You don’t change, star,” Walter Cummings said.
It happens every time I run into someone from high school: my heart catches, and I look for curiosity in back of the smile, a certain tilt of the head, a question forming. It’s a reason I don’t often go home, maybe the reason. But Walt Cummings’s smile was unmitigated, his day merely brightened by my arrival, and I relaxed.
“You don’t change, either,” I said untruthfully.
“Like hell I don’t. Too much beer. I shouldn’t be working in a liquor store.”
I set the bottle down, and we shook hands. Walt had been on the jayvee when I was a senior, a happy-go-lucky kid, skinny for football. But he hit hard and Coach Maguire had put him on the varsity kickoff team because he could fly downfield nearly as fast as the football, agile and slippery when they tried to block him. He’d also played some defense when the situation warranted a fleet safety. He’d gotten heavy—who would have thought?—but the bucktoothed grin was the old Walt, the bullet head and tight curls, gone gray now. He scanned the bottle of Maker’s.
“I heard you were down in Washington,” he said. “Working for Powell, I heard.”
“I was,” I said. “I’m out in western Mass now. Northampton.”
A woman in dark glasses and a black two-piece bathing suit came in. A placard on the door said Shoes and proper attire required, and she could not have missed it. She was sun-browned and fleshy, scraping along in flip-flops. She looked pretty good, but ten or fifteen years ago she’d have caused traffic accidents in that bathing suit. She’d come from the beach, and her chestnut hair was damp and tangled, giving her a look of wantonness and abandon. You could imagine licking the salt off her skin.
She granted us a smile, appreciating the attention we were paying her, and went slowly down the nearest aisle with her purse hanging off her smooth bronze shoulder. The kid crouching in front of the cooler watched her as she stood pondering the vodkas. We all did.
Walt finally tore his gaze from her, gave me a wink and a smile, and reached below the counter for a paper bag.
“Why’d you leave Washington?” he said.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Tired of the life. I guess. What about you?”
“Never left town after the service. Dunstable’s home, you know?”
I swiped my credit card and signed the slip. The woman had come back with a quart bottle of Absolut. She set the bottle on the counter. She looked at Walt, looked at me.
“What is this, old home week?” she said.
“High school buddies,” Walt said. “We’re catching up.”
“We were teammates,” I said. “Football. Walt once intercepted a pass in the end zone, ran it back a hundred yards for a touchdown.”
“I’m yawning,” the woman said. “Tell me something interesting.”
“I just did,” I said.
“Tell her who you used to work for,” Walt said.
“It won’t impress her,” I said.
“Probably not,” she said.
“Senator Powell,” Walt said.
The woman removed her dark glasses and considered me, wondering if it was true and deciding it was.
“Good for you,” she said. “Brave new world. Black president, Black women in the House and Senate. Or do I say African American?”
“Senator Powell usually says Black,” I said.
“She’s a smart lady. Might be president herself someday. You should have stuck around, maybe get an office in the West Wing someday.”
“A job came up, teaching,” I said. “Seemed like a nice quiet change.”
“Whereabouts?” Walt said.
“Smith College,” I said.
“Yowza,” said the woman. “My alma mater.”
“Small world,” I said.
“It’s Pauline Powell’s alma mater, come to think of it. She get you the job?”
“More or less.”
The woman broke out a nice smile, my reward for being honest, then swung the smile to Walt. “Now, if you’ll ring this bottle up, I’ve got a cookout to go to.”
“BYOB?” Walt said.
“No, I just like to be prepared.”
“Semper paratus,” I said.
“In vino veritas.” She began digging in her purse. She found her wallet. “What brings the prodigal home?”
Walt reached down for a bag. “Thirty-one eighty-nine,” he said.
“Jesus,” the woman said, “who sets these prices?”
“I’m giving a reading tonight,” I said. “Signing books, I hope.”
“Books?” Walt said.
“He’s an author, apparently,” the woman said.
“No shit,” Walt said.
“A rookie author,” I said. “A beginner.”
“So was Faulkner, once,” the woman said. She gave me another assessment. Nodded at what she saw. “Well, well. Come in to buy liquor, you never know what’ll turn up. What did you say your name was?”
“Pete Hatch,” Walt said.
“The Village Bookstore, seven o’clock,” I said. “I need all the help I can get.”
“I’ll try to get someone to cover for me,” Walt said. “They got me scheduled till eleven tonight.”
“I’ll probably be three sheets to the wind by then,” the woman said. “This book, you dishing the dirt on Pauline Powell?”
“There is no dirt on Pauline. It’s a novel.”
“A novel, then you ought to change your name. Or use a pen name. A novelist needs a name with two or three syllables. Updike. Dickens. Salinger. See what I mean?”
“What’s she talking about?” Walt said.
“She’s trying to prove she went to Smith,” I said.
She smirked, fitted on her dark glasses, lifted the bottle in its bag and cradled it against an ample breast. She cast a farewell nod my way and moved with slow voluptuous dignity toward the door. She pushed through it sideways.
James Joyce, I thought, too late.
“She might actually come tonight,” Walt said. “Your wife with you?”
“She’s out in the car,” I said.
“Uh-oh,” Walt said. He looked out, squinting, found Jackie sitting there looking not too happy.
“I better go repair the damage,” I said.
I was at the door when Walt said, “You married Jackie Lawrence, right?”
I stopped, turned, nodded.
“Yeah, I thought that was her. She looks good, Pete.”
“I know,” I said, and got out before Walt could ask any more questions.
“What was that all about?”
“You remember Walter Cummings, couple classes behind us? He’s clerking in there.”
“I have trouble remembering my own classmates, never mind sophomores. But that wasn’t my question.”
“I remember Walt from football.”
I’d backed out and turned around and we waited now for a break in the traffic.
“What I was asking about was the sexpot in the bikini. Who can’t read, by the way.”
“Proper attire? She walks in looking like a slut in a mafia movie.”
“She can read,” I said. “She went to Smith.”
“Yeah, I bet. Majored in Russian literature.”
“She was a character. Walt and I were having fun with her.”
“I could see that.”
A pickup truck stopped to let us out, and I waved thanks and swung out into the slow inbound parade of traffic, people pouring in to salvage what was left of the summer weekend.
“She could stand to lose a few pounds,” Jackie said.
“A few,” I said.
“God, Peter. She was a tramp.”
“I told her and Walt about the reading.”
Jackie was looking out the window. “That’s all we need,” she said, still looking away, quiet, as if to herself.
“We need everyone we can get,” I said.
“I hope she puts some clothes on,” Jackie said.
The dining room of the Holiday Inn in Dunstable is a high barnlike space with a mirror behind the bar, a fieldstone fireplace, and fake antique wagon wheels, yokes, branding irons, and spurs mounted on the plank walls. Dodge City on Cape Cod, something Disney would conjure. It was quiet now, the lunch crowd pretty well thinned out. The waitress put us by a window, and Jackie set her elbows on the table and looked out at the pond on the other side of the road. The biopsy had come back two days ago, and we’d driven into Boston, to Dana-Farber, and gotten the bad news, a 40 percent chance Jackie would survive this. That night, at home in bed, she’d wept on my chest, one of the few times I’d ever seen her cry. She could get plenty mad, but she wasn’t a weeper.
“Might she really come tonight?” Jackie said.
“You know damn well who. I almost came in and pulled you out of there.”
“She was on her way to a cookout with a bottle of vodka,” I said. “She said she’ll be smashed by seven o’clock.”
“Too bad for you.”
“I’m sorry, Jack.”
Jackie turned again to stare out at the pond, which lay in a wide depression between two tree-clad hills, steel-blue in the glare of the sun.
“She was hot,” she said. “I get that.”
“You’re hot too.”
“You don’t need to say that.”
“I never needed to.”
Jackie was a swimmer, we both were, and she’d stayed slender and leggy into her sixties. She colored her hair, which was still golden, and she had good posture and knew how to dress. White slacks, heels, a violet V-neck shirt on this hot day.
“Age doesn’t make any difference, does it,” she said. “Any hot young piece can turn an old guy like you on.”
“She can make an old guy wistful for what he’s lost.”
Jackie took another long look out the window. “It’s one loss after another, isn’t it.”
“Pretty much,” I said.
“Until there’s nothing left.”
“If you live long enough,” I said, and saw my mistake.
“One way to look at it,” Jackie said.
“You’re going to pull through this, Jack,” I said.
“Maybe, maybe not.”
The waitress arrived, smiling.
“I’m Tracey,” she said. “I’ll be your server.” Her hair was an unnatural yellow, lemony, and she was deeply tanned. I wondered when waitresses had begun being called “servers.”
“Something from the bar?”
“You’re a mind reader,” I said.
“Comes with the territory,” the girl said.
Jackie stared out into the bright afternoon as if she hadn’t heard. The girl was getting on her nerves, I could see that. She would lose a breast, radical mastectomy, then radiation, chemo. It would begin midweek, four days from now.
“Jack?” I said.
“A Manhattan, up,” she said to the window.
“Sir?” said the waitress.
“Maker’s Mark, on the rocks,” I said.
“You got it,” said Tracey, and left us.
“I still think Jennifer should be here,” Jackie said.
“I didn’t ask her to be.”
“You shouldn’t have to ask your own daughter. You’ve written a book, for Christ sake.”
“If there’s a signing in Washington, she said she’d take the train down from Philly.”
“There damn well better be a signing in DC. If not there, where? Can’t the senator do something?”
“I don’t know. Maybe.”
“Call your publisher and raise hell. Or I will.”
“Figure out what you want to eat,” I said.
“A salad, I guess,” Jackie said.
The waitress arrived with our drinks. I watched her bend and set the glasses down, and when she straightened I asked her to bring us two chef’s salads.
“You got it,” she said, and gathered the menus and walked away, bare-legged in her short skirt.
“Don’t strain your eyes,” Jackie said.
“Cheers,” I said, and raised my glass.
We sat awhile, Jackie drinking and gazing out at the pond. Slender fingers fondling the stem of her glass. Dark-red nail polish. The good bourbon I was drinking slid down smooth and sweet, and the air began to lighten around me.
“Walt Cummings might come,” I said. “He didn’t say he wouldn’t.”
“Him and bikini girl. Daisy Mae and Barney Fife. The bookstore could sell tickets.”
“I just want a respectable turnout,” I said. “I mean, what if no one shows up?”
“Jill should have given it a bigger writeup. She’s your sister.”
“She did what she could. If she runs too big a story, the bookstore doesn’t advertise it.”
The waitress was back with our salads. Jackie drained her glass and nodded at it as she handed it up to her, a silent request for another.
“I’ll have another Maker’s,” I said.
“You got it.”
I watched her go.
“She’s starting to annoy me,” Jackie said.
“I want you to eat,” I said. “Keep your strength up.”
But she shook out her napkin and placed it on her lap. Took up her fork and stabbed a cherry tomato.
“Linda Jean’s at her wit’s end about Daddy,” she said. “She says he might not even know me.”
“He’s got to go to a nursing home,” I said.
“Linda Jean says the home care ladies are managing all right. They’re both Black, did I tell you?”
“You mentioned it.”
“Daddy likes them.”
“How broad-minded of him.”
“I was thinking you might be a little nicer about him, now he’s got... whatever it is.”
“We don’t know that.”
The waitress broke it up, arriving with our drinks. I swigged the last of my bourbon and handed her my glass. She swung her smile from me to Jackie and back again.
“Anything else?” she said.
“Yeah,” Jackie said. “Stop saying ‘You got it.’”
The girl met Jackie’s gaze and smiled.
“You got it,” she said, and spun away, and I pictured her chuckling on her way back, then repeating it to the bartender.
“She gets a lousy tip,” Jackie said.
“It was a pretty good answer,” I said.
“My father’s losing it and I’m about to have a boob chopped off. She should sense that.”
We ate our salads and looked around the big, nearly empty room. Two men sat at the bar, nursing beers and watching the Red Sox game.
“I might take a swim before we go over there,” I said.
“I might too,” Jackie said.
“We take too long, Mike and Linda Jean’ll wonder where we are,” I said.
“You know how their minds work. They’ll think we’re getting it on in our room.”
“Might be a good idea,” I said.
“Don’t make any rash promises.”
“Maybe I can keep the promise.”
“That never used to be a problem with us, did it,” Jackie said.
The room was on the third floor and looked down on the parking lot, the rows of cars gleaming under the high white eye of the midsummer sun. The air conditioner blew, a steady insistent drone. Jackie chain-locked the door, went into the bathroom, and came out a few minutes later unbuttoning her blouse. I sat down on one of the queen-sized beds and watched her. The wide window was a pane of pure blue sky, the room daytime bright. Jackie tossed the blouse aside, sucked in her stomach, and unzipped her slacks. She stepped out of her heels and, after a couple of tries, wobbling maybe from the Manhattans, stepped out of the slacks. Time is unkind to all of us, but Jackie’s swimmer’s body wasn’t so altered that you couldn’t work with it, or with the memory of what it was not so long ago. She was a strong swimmer and did lap upon lap in the pool at Smith, not quite as fast as I swam, but she could swim for as long as I could. She shrugged her bra off and dropped it on the bed beside me. Her breasts would have been the pride of any woman her age. She sat down and slid off her underpants. Stood up and threw the blankets back, got in and covered herself. She lay on her side watching me, her eyes wide and sad. I laid a hand on her shoulder.
“You never think something like this is going to happen to you,” she said. “Someone else, but not you.”
“It’s going to be all right,” I said.
“It is. I know it.”
She looked past me, thinking. “How’d we get so old, Peter?”
“You don’t see it coming, do you.”
“And you don’t remember when it did come. There’s no bridge, like autumn bringing you to winter. Moving you into it a little at a time. You suddenly realize, I’m old. When did that happen?”
She thought awhile, staring past me. I caressed her bare shoulder.
“Can you imagine dying?”
“I suppose it’s like going to sleep. It is going to sleep.”
“No. You vanish.”
“You don’t vanish. People remember you. I can see my mother and father. Their moods. Their smiles. I can hear them.”
“You vanish from yourself,” Jackie said, “and who can imagine that? No dreams. No memory. There’s literally nothing, and time goes on without you, on and on. Millions of years. Billions.”
“Maybe, maybe not.”
“What else could it be?”
“I don’t know.”
“I don’t know either.”
“You aren’t going to die, Jack,” I said. “Not yet.”
She smiled sadly, reached up with both hands and began unbuttoning my shirt. It was a blue cotton work shirt, Northampton attire. She tugged the shirt out and undid the final button. I stood up and went on undressing.
“You look good,” Jackie said.
“Not anymore,” I said.
“Bikini girl liked you.”
“Not my looks. It impressed her that I worked for Pauline.”
“Not that you’d written a book?”
“It got her attention, I guess. She was no dumbbell.”
“If she comes tonight, you better behave yourself.”
“She won’t come.”
“If she does...”
“Get in bed.”
She drew the blankets back and made room for me. I could smell her perfume now, and vermouth-sweetened whiskey on her breath.
“We don’t have to do anything,” she said, “just be close.”
“Be a waste of a good hotel room,” I said, and got comfortable against her.
“When was the last time we did it? I can’t even remember.”
“The night after that reception for Rachel Maddow.”
“Lesbo Rachel. I wonder if she’d like Jennifer.”
“And Jen would like her, I imagine.”
“She does like her,” I said.
“You know what I mean.”
“Rachel’s a good-looking woman.”
“I got plastered at the reception.”
“You got amorous.”
She rolled away from me, lay on her back, eyes open. “Sex. It’s what kept us together, isn’t it.”
“You know that isn’t true.”
“It’s all right, Peter. What the hell. It’s as good a thing as any.”
“Thirty-four years. Takes more than sex.”
“It takes more than sex and a daughter.”
“You should have married an English major. Sophisticated little Smithie with a Ph.D.”
“Don’t start that.”
“Just hold me, okay?”
“I’ll do more than that,” I said.
“Can’t you tell?”
I was above her now, moving a hand down her hip, her thigh. I kissed her.
“Nice and slow,” she whispered.
“I know,” I said.
“Gentle,” she said. “Gentle, gentle.”