Scilla’s conversation with Flo had given her what she had wanted most from her family of origin. And she hated it. Now that she had been included on the front end, she was tongue-tied, nonplussed by a feeling that her world had just unraveled. She was not able to believe what her sister had told her about their father.
No, Flo was wrong. She was mixed-up. There must have been a movie, a book, a friend, some rumor started by one of Dr. Hank’s patients. A notion had taken root in Flo’s imagination, and her mind had distorted some innocuous remark their father had made. And now this full-blown paranoid obsession has to sit like a fat bully on Scilla’s plans for the big family Christmas.
Years before, Scilla had read something in the The New Yorker about the unreliable nature of memory in the recall of important events. People remained confident while their minds distorted the truth. She thought she was witnessing something like that in her sister’s account of the family split.
Maybe it was not too late to rethink Christmas. Or was it?
Scilla had a task before her. She had to, if not eradicate, at least reduce in density her confusion around this holiday party. So she did the engineer-thing, as it worked for her most of the time. She shoved all thoughts of the matter beyond her concern and replaced them with what felt like more urgent matters, like the new design problem for the circuitry of a power plant needing to be constructed within narrower dimensions, due to a flawed geological report.
She liked her work, and she had faith that, more often than not, she could come up with a solution that would work. She retreated into the part of her mind that was happiest dealing with things like foundations that had to be bolted to rock in a new way, requiring a different conduit that still had to carry a certain gauge wire…
Things. They did what they were told. But people? Ow!
Scilla enjoyed one good evening of compelling distraction from the new Christmas debacle. But the night after, another of her longstanding wishes was granted: Flo called her back to talk some more.
In spite of herself, or, rather, her old self, Scilla asked if maybe Artis should be brought in, so Little Sister would not be left out of the loop. Maybe Flo could call her and bring her up to speed. Then maybe they could all get on Skype or have some other kind of conference call.
Flo did not like that idea.
“You know, Scilla, I love Artis and I think she is great, great with her kids and all the rest. And, though we see things differently, I do like Mitchell, in his own way. But here’s the problem: she tells him everything. And he is pretty right-wing. You know that. Very conservative. And you know what I have learned about right-wing people? They hate it when you connect the dots on something like 9/11. They get hostile. They’re funny that way.
“They like to think that everyone should wake up to some precious fact that the government is ripping off the people with merciless taxes squandered by lazy civil servants. And I do give them some credit, there is some truth to that. But when you try to add to that viewpoint by showing them how a criminal element has been ripping them off in a far worse way, they act like you hate this country or something. So, sorry, Artis is not the person I want to be talking to about this. And, besides, this is mostly about Christmas at your house, isn’t it?”
Then Scilla thought the previously unthinkable: Flo should be talking to Gene Cassidy about this stuff, not her. The call had taken her by surprise. She had planned to spend some time in her private mind pondering a far more manageable problem, like circuitry within reduced structural parameters.
Scilla, as we have demonstrated somewhat laboriously, does not gladly “do” surprise calls. There is too much danger that she will throw out one of her puzzling remarks, void of the proper connecting tissue. Like this zinger to her sister Flo just then:
“You sound like Gene Cassidy.”
“Oh, he’s this pothead friend of Dean’s.”
“Is Dean a pothead these days?”
“No, no. In fact, Dean doesn’t think Gene is either. Anyway, how did we get to talking about Gene Cassidy?”
“You brought him up. You said I sound like him. But I’m no pothead, Scilla. Do I sound like I’m stoned? Because I’m not. I hardly ever smoke weed.”
This was why Scilla rehearsed her conversations. They could turn loopy in a hurry.
Flo tried to unloop the dialog.
“Do you think I am off-base in my take on Dad? In my belief that he has ‘gone over to the dark side’ because the idea of the money got to be stronger than the idea of his ethics? Is that what you’re thinking in comparing me to this Cassidy character?”
“Daddy’s not that kind… he wouldn’t do that kind of –”
“‘Daddy’?” asked Flo. “Where is that coming from? Do you call him that now?”
“No, no. He’s still plain old Dad. I don’t know. It slipped out.”
“Well, whatever. I do know one thing: I’m not making this up. I’m not remembering this wrong. Scilla, he threatened me.”
“Well, like I said, he told me if I ever brought up the subject again he would hang up, if it was on the phone, leave the room if it was in person. I am forbidden to speak of this subject. He runs the family like it was his private police state, where free speech has been banned.”
“You exaggerate. This is becoming histrionic.”
“He is a secret-keeper and he knows I know that. Two, maybe three of his cronies on the board of the Balboa Graduate Institute know even more than he does. These are the same men who advised him to invest in a helicopter manufacturer that they knew was going to get a military contract. And one or two of these men told him to sell that airline stock because they knew about 9/11 in advance of the attacks.”
“I cannot believe that.”
“And why not?”
“Flo. Listen. You certainly know that 9/11 happened because of intelligence failures. If the government didn’t even know, how could anyone else know about it? There were failures in intelligence. That means no one knew.”
“The evidence contradicts what you think is the truth, Scilla. One guy, I think he worked for the FBI, placed over 70 calls to his superiors because he knew an attack was in the works.”
“That cannot be true.”
“His superiors would have told someone, or they would have been exposed as incompetent by the commission that investigated the attacks. And guilty, at least in part, by their negligence. This is so Gene Cassidy. I cannot believe my own sister has taken on this conspiracy theory. You are bright, too, a Biochem degree from Burleigh-Harald. Married, OK, common-law variety, but, still, to a doctor, and you manage a holistic health clinic. I can’t believe you are talking like Gene Cassidy. Flo, come on. You are smarter than that. You have a good brain.”
Flo paused after hearing this odd comparison to a man she had never met, as if she had spent hours in the Regent Street living room with Gene Cassidy. Vintage Priscilla, not quite a non sequitur, but a stretching of relevance that took the stream of conversation and sent it splashing in a few unrelated directions.
Flo took a breath and exhaled audibly. Then she spoke.
“You really want to know why I spent nearly ten years with almost no contact with my family?”
“Well, that was your choice, wasn’t it?”
“I know, Scilla, I know, and it was not such an easy choice as you might assume. It has been very hard at times.”
Flo’s voice lost its measured intensity, crackled, got a little moisture in it before she strengthened it with another determined breath.
“Scilla. I don’t know who this Cassidy character is, this pothead friend of Dean’s, but I am not him, and I am not under his influence, and I am not under anyone else’s influence, either. And I do remember what Dad said to me, and I thought hard after he said it and I thought hard about my choices. I could have ignored that conversation I had with him, pretended it had never happened, kissed him, hugged him at family gatherings, ignored his scrutiny of me as he shifts in his chair when 9/11 memorials come up on TV or in conversations, pretend it had never come up between us. I could have talked to you and Artis about all the things grown sisters talk about, kids, the men, the mortgages, the stock market and our investments, sports and politics and the weather and all the rest.
“Except for our parents and their inevitable decline, when we girls ought to gather to share our observations of them, to brainstorm on what needs to be done. If I attend those meetings I am tense, nervous, evasive. So I beg out of them because I know our father knows people, likes people, floats around in boats with people who, at the very least, probably know someone close to those who masterminded the greatest terrorist attack on our soil. So I can either keep my mouth shut or I can tell you what I know about our dad. And then I get to watch as you deny what I tell you. And then so will Artis. I am dismissed as a madwoman in the eyes of the sisters I love and respect, or I continue to try and convince you both that I am right, and then, if I am successful, you, too, have to look at our father as someone who cavorts with, if not mass murderers, then people who associate with these criminals, who golf with them and go to the same church with them.
“So I chose to go low-profile. To disappear. To take the hit as the crazy, alienated daughter, the ingrate spurning all the warm-and-happy connections that got me launched into an adult life that, I own, I really do like quite a lot. My self-imposed exile was the only path that protected those I love from the truth, including your dear “‘Daddy’.” But now you want to bring me back into the family. You have masterminded my return. Yes, sure, we will come to Christmas at your house as we promised. But will Mom? Will Dad? Knowing that I will be there? Will he get sick the day before they plan to head north? Or will he come, squirm when he sees me, fearing that I’ve told you what I have just told you? And then how do I act on Christmas Day? Big sister, give me your guidance.”
“You know, Flo… I have to go. I just forgot I have to call the headmaster at Harlan’s school. There was a little incident last summer. A little science experiment that went haywire. Rumors. You know. He wants a call back. I have to talk to him before it gets too late. But, hey, let’s talk again.”
“Uh-huh. Yes. We must. Good luck with your call. And, thanks for hearing me. It has been good to get all this out. I really mean that, Scilla.”
“Sure. Good to know what you think. Bye for now.”
Artis! Where are you?! Why do I have to be the witness to all this mad raving?
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