In high school, my friends played trumpets, French horns, trombones, and Risk—conquering make-believe continents while desiring real girls. We spoke on speech teams, competed on chess teams, sang in glee clubs and choirs. Popular boys played football and shot hoops. My friends and I studied Latin.
One day I made the mistake of telling fellow trumpeter, Nolan Niemeyer, why I couldn’t practice with him on Saturday morning. We were performing Telemann’s trumpet duet, Fantasia No. 2, in a competition at the University of Louisville later that month. “I clean our neighbor’s house on Saturday mornings.”
“Just Sally Cosgrove’s.”
“Sally! Does she speak to you?”
“Sure,” I lied.
Sally Cosgrove was the girl who changed my life. I would not have moved here to Charleston in 1963 if not for Sally. I never would have met your mother. We never would have had you girls. I’ve never spoken of this to either of you, but with the coronavirus raging throughout South Carolina, I need to tell you about Sally and your grandfather Charles.
On your grandfather’s insistence, I was selling greeting cards when I was eight, mowing yards at ten. I walked a neighbor’s collie, Einstein, twice a day. Thanks to Lady and the Tramp and Lassie, breeders were turning out cockers and collies like nuclear warheads.
My father was a loan officer at Ohio Valley Bank. The summer after my freshman year at duPont Manual, he volunteered me to pick up trash along the Falls of the Ohio, where Lewis and Clark met to begin their journey. Dad dropped me off on the Indiana side before returning to Louisville for work. While other kids were riding bikes and skateboards, I was picking up beer cans and spent condoms from the shoreline and ticks from my legs.
One Friday night, our long-time Cherokee Gardens neighbors, Lawrence and Betty Cosgrove, were playing bridge with my parents. This would have been in spring, my sophomore year. That night, Mrs. Cosgrove—a small, attractive women with a large, blond, beehive hairdo—said they’d lost their house girl. “Our Sally’s allergic to dust,” she explained.
My room was separated from the bridge game by one wall. I was seated at my desk, translating Virgil’s “Eclogue II,” when I heard my father say, “Benjamin’s just your girl.”
Before sheltering in place, I took yoga at the Charleston Y. Other than moderately high blood pressure and Type 2 diabetes, I was in good health. Your mother and I enjoyed trips to Europe, Peru, and Mexico. We saw Stonehenge, Manchu Picchu, and Chichén Itzá. At the Mayan ruins of Cobá, we climbed the tallest pyramid. Ixmoja. There was a stone on top where human sacrifices had been performed. Looking out over the jungle, we felt like we were flying. I took a picture of the canopy, green as far as you could see.
Sitting here, alone in downtown Charleston where coronavirus numbers keep rising, my mind takes me to unexpected places. A few days ago, I competed in a high school brass ensemble competition with Nolan in Lexington. We placed fourth. Yesterday, the two of you were born twenty-two minutes apart. Today, I cleaned the Cosgroves’ house.
Sally and I had grown up together. But by the time we were in high school, the most I could hope for was, “Hi, Benjamin,” when we passed in the hallways.
Sally was class treasurer. She was on Student Council. And each time the cheerleaders released her from their pyramid’s top, her skirt flew up to the sight of her legs and the sound of our cheers. Kids used to say that they were hot for someone. Maybe they still do. It’s a wonder I didn’t set off a fire alarm when I saw Sally in school. But when I was cleaning the Cosgroves’ house, she stayed inside her room. Beauty sleep, I guessed. And it was working.
One Saturday morning in June, I was walking down our street a few minutes before eight when I saw the Cosgroves’ New Yorker heading my way. Pulling alongside me, Lawrence Cosgrove rolled his window down and, from the passenger seat, Betty said they were having breakfast at the country club. Hurstbourne. She said my parents were meeting them there later for golf. She didn’t need to tell me that the front door to their house was unlocked. No one locked their doors.
As children, Sally and I had collected lightning bugs in jars. As twelve-year-old’s, Sally, Laura Schaefer, Nolan, and I played spin the bottle in Nolan’s tree fort. Sally was the first girl I kissed. But by the time we were fourteen, she’d moved on to older boys. Midway through our sophomore year, she was wearing Hugh Lawson’s class ring.
Hugh had played starting right tackle on our high school team the previous fall—1962, his senior year. He went on to play at the University of Kentucky. The last I heard of him he was coaching high school ball in Lexington. Who knows where he is now. If anywhere.
I was greeted at the door that day by Misty, the Cosgroves’ cocker spaniel. Usually, Misty stayed in Sally’s room while I cleaned. I was petting Misty in the foyer when Sally shouted from upstairs, “My parents went to Hurstbourne. Here, girl!” Misty turned her cropped brown tail toward me and ran upstairs. A few seconds later, a door slammed shut.
I started cleaning the den, where Sally’s dad usually spent Saturday mornings reading The Courier-Journal or Time. Lawrence Cosgrove was an attorney in the trust department at Dad’s bank. He looked like Richard Crenna. Luke, in The Real McCoys. Google it.
In the war, Lawrence had been a top turret gunner on a B-17. It had damaged his hearing. When I came into the den, he’d usually ask me about school. Then he’d remove his hearing aids and go back to reading. Once, while I was dusting the mantel, he gave his newspaper a shake and said, “Nixon’s got a screw loose.” My father was a Democrat too. I would soon learn that politics, bridge, and golf were not the only things that he and Lawrence Cosgrove had in common.
I finished cleaning the den. I scrubbed the kitchen sink, wiped the counter, and mopped the linoleum. I was dusting the upstairs hallway baseboards when music started playing from behind Sally’s door. Paul Anka was singing “Lonely Boy.”
Accidit or fatum? Coincidence or fate? A question we’d considered in Latin II, though not as it applied to me now, alone outside Sally’s bedroom. I was about to enter the guest room when “Lonely Boy” stopped playing and Sally opened her door.
She was wearing a large crimson jersey—65, Hugh’s number—but nothing else as far as I could tell. “Benjamin, we have to talk. Come here,” she said before returning to her room.
My mother had told me that as girls matured, they recognized the “hidden qualities” in boys. As I followed Sally into her bedroom, I imagined her saying, “I’ve been thinking about you, and, well, Hugh’s okay but . . .” or words to that effect. Maybe my time had come.
I’m in Sally’s bedroom, I was thinking when Sally jumped onto her bed. With her back against the headboard, she pulled Hugh’s jersey to her shins and her knees to her chest. As I stood beside the bed, she slapped a spot on the sheets beside Misty. I sat. I’m on Sally’s bed.
I was nervously twirling the duster in my lap when I remembered her allergies. “Sorry, let me get this out of here.”
“The only thing I’m allergic to is housework. Don’t tell anyone. Swear?” But before I could answer, she asked, “What do you think of our parents?”
“They’re okay, I guess.”
“That’s not what I mean. Don’t you think it’s weird how your dad’s bridge partner is always my mother, and your mother’s partner is always my dad?”
“I never thought about it.”
Sally’s long brown hair covered her knees as she leaned toward me and asked, “When they play at your house, have you ever looked under the table?”
If someone had told me on New Year’s Day 2020 that I would soon be confined to my house; that if I did go out, I would wear a mask; that if I didn’t adhere to these measures, I could be one of tens-of-thousands dead, I would have thought it impossible. If someone had told me in early 1963 that I would soon be on Sally’s bed listening to her explain how she’d seen my father kick off his shoe and stroke her mother’s foot with his, I would have thought it equally so.
“You should have seen the way my mother smiled,” said Sally.
During the war, my father was stationed at the Charleston Navy Yard, training to be a radio operator. At the same time, my mother, who lived in Charleston, helped build the hull of the USS Tidewater. They met on Meeting Street. More than once, I saw my father wrap his arms around my mother’s shoulders, smile, and tell their friends, “I’m riveted to this Rosie.”
They married in First Scots Presbyterian, not far from where they’d met. When Dad got back from the Pacific, he returned to Louisville with my mother. Two years later, I was born.
As far as I was concerned, their marriage was like any other. Most nights, they embraced before my father went to bed. Before meals, the three of us held hands when we said grace. I gave it no thought beyond that.
“We have to prove it before we say anything,” said Sally. “We have to catch them in the act. Are you in?”
I should have been thinking about my parents, my mother especially. I should have thought about the impact my father’s actions would have on her. But instead, I thought about spending time with Sally. Time in which my qualities were sure to surface.
You bet I was in.
The South Carolina governor was late in issuing stay-at-home orders. But our Charleston mayor was weeks ahead, about the time I received the masks from you, Melissa. And thank you, Alison, for the Clorox wipes. I couldn’t find them anywhere.
I’ve watched four seasons of Murdoch Mysteries, reread East of Eden and A Prayer for Owen Meany. Thank you for your weekly phone calls. I know I’ve told you both I’m fine, but I’ve had a fever for the past three days. As long as I stay here, I’m a threat to no one. And I don’t want either of you flying here and exposing yourselves.
The fever is worse in the evenings. Two nights ago, your mother entered through a living room wall. She felt my forehead and said, “You’re burning up, my love.” Last night, I was sitting in my recliner when I had the sense that I was in the back seat of Hugh Lawson’s car. Hugh and Sally were in front. When Sally turned her head to me, she smiled and said, “Holy Cow!” A bright red cardinal flew from her mouth and landed on my shoulder.
When I woke up this morning, I was still in my chair. I fixed a breakfast of scrambled eggs, buttered grits, and toast with scuppernong jelly, grateful that I still had my sense of taste and smell. I’ve read that after losing those, coughing begins.
After breakfast, I washed the dishes, scrubbed the sink, and wiped the counter. Then I started writing this. I used to tell my writing students at Charleston North to never let facts get in the way of truth. But I want you girls to know both if I can.
Sally’s plan was to call Hugh and me when she suspected her mother was meeting my father, which—since her parents were always together in the evenings and on weekends—would most likely occur on weekday afternoons.
“Why do we need Hugh?” I asked. I was still on Sally’s bed. My hand was within an inch of her bare foot.
“He has his own car. I doubt we’ll catch them in your house or mine. They could meet in Indiana, for all we know. We’ll have to follow my mother, and Hugh will do anything for me.”
Great. What kind of impression could I make with Hugh around? Driving his car. But at least I’d be with Sally. “I’ll do anything for you too,” I said.
“You’re sweet. But we’re doing this for my dad and your mom.”
Sally asked me, and presumably Hugh, to stay near the phone on weekday afternoons. Whenever the phone rang between noon and dinner, I was quick to pick up. One afternoon, it was Sally. She’d noticed her mother applying more makeup than usual. And she’d put on a silk blouse, a pearl necklace, and new shoes. To supposedly go shopping. “Meet me in the school parking lot, pronto,” said Sally.
She meant our elementary school within walking distance of our houses. I told your grandmother I was going to Nolan’s house and I ran to the lot. When Sally got there, she was furious. Hugh hadn’t answered his phone. She must have called me first, I thought.
There were several ways out of our neighborhood. But if Betty Cosgrove was heading downtown to meet my father, she’d have to drive by the school. “When I get ahold of Hugh . . . ” said Sally. But before she finished, her mother drove by in her Olds.
Sally was even angrier. I put my hand on her shoulder and said, “I guess Hugh won’t do anything for you.”
“I guess not. And the next time I see him, I won’t be doing anything for him either.”
I squeezed her shoulder and asked, “Do you want to do something with me now?”
“Yes,” she said. “I want to see where my mother’s going. But that’s not happening today, thanks to Hugh.” Then she turned and walked away.
I can honestly say I was more disappointed that I wouldn’t be with Sally that day than the fact my father was, in all likelihood, about to cheat on my mother. It shames me to think of how self-absorbed I was.
After dinner that evening, I walked to Nolan’s house. Nolan’s father sold real estate. One of his clients had moved and left a slate bed pool table in the house. A bonus for Nolan’s dad if he sold the house quickly. Steepleton pool tables were made in Louisville. Now this one sat in Nolan’s basement.
Shooting pool was as close as Nolan and I came to playing sports. We had just started a game of 8-ball when, with all the casualness I could muster, I said that I’d gone out with Sally. Nolan couldn’t believe it. “You?” he said. “Where? What about Hugh?”
As I chalked my cue, I told him that Sally and I had hung out in the schoolyard together. But I expected to be seeing her a lot more that summer. “She doesn’t like Hugh so much after today.”
“Why not?” Nolan asked as I took aim at the three-ball.
“He can’t be trusted,” I said as my cue tip met the cue ball. “And I think she’s starting to recognize my qualities.”
“Nice shot,” said Nolan. “But you’re stripes. What qualities?”
Eight or ten days later, Sally called again. When I got to the school parking lot, Hugh was there, behind the wheel of his green Bel Air. I got in back.
Hugh was a man of few words. Considering his appearance and athleticism, he didn’t need many. He was at least six feet tall, and his blonde, flattop stood up another half-inch. He weighed two hundred pounds, easy. “What’s up, little man?” he asked.
Oh, I don’t know, Hugh. We’re about to spend the afternoon following Sally’s mom to catch her and my dad having sex. That, and I wish you’d disappear.
“Not much,” I said.
For the next few minutes, we sat in silence. Then Sally ran across her next-door neighbors’ backyard and into the parking lot. She was wearing a red-checkered, button-down shirt, calf-length blue jeans, and a St. Louis Cardinal cap. She got in the passenger-side front door, reached over, and placed another Cardinal cap on Hugh’s head.
Sally’s dad was from Saint Louis. He was a huge Redbirds fan. He drove my father and me there one time for a doubleheader. Bob Gibson pitched the first game and got a pinch-hit double in the nightcap. Back then, Harry Caray announced for the Cards. “Holy Cow!” was his signature saying.
Without acknowledging me in the back seat, Sally told Hugh to pull the cap down as far as he could. “We can’t let my mother see us,” she said. But instead of pulling the cap down, Hugh pushed it back. Then he reached for Sally and pulled her face toward his.
“Not now,” said Sally, slapping Hugh’s hand and reminding him what we were there for. “At least you answered this time.”
“I told you I’m sorry, Sal,” Hugh said, pulling his cap down and turning toward the wheel.
“And keep at least one car between us,” said Sally. “Hi, Benjamin.”
Betty’s red Olds drove by.
Hugh turned left out of the lot. When Betty turned northwest on Bardstown Road, Hugh let one car pass. With his left hand on the wheel—on what we called a necker’s knob—and his right arm stretched across the seatback toward Sally, Hugh turned too.
Betty turned west on Broadway as the light changed to yellow. It had only been red for an instant when we got there, but instead of gunning through, Hugh hit the brakes. There were no seat belts in Hugh’s car. The sudden stop forced Sally forward. She pounded the dash with both hands and shouted, “You could have made it through. Now look what you’ve done!”
“You could have made it through easy,” I said.
Without a word, Hugh lifted his right arm from the seatback and put both hands on the wheel. When the light turned green, he burned rubber and caught up by Shelby Street—with one car between Sally’s mom and us. When I looked into the rearview mirror, I saw that Hugh was smiling.
Just before Fourth Street, Betty turned into a pay-by-hour parking lot opposite the Heyburn Building, a seventeen-story office building. No place to meet my dad, I thought. We pulled over to the curb. After Sally’s mother crossed the street, just as she was entering the building, Sally told Hugh to feed the meter and meet us in the lobby.
“Why should Hugh come in?” I asked. “They’re our parents. You wait here,” I told Hugh. “If Sally’s mom comes out with my dad, we’ll have to leave in a hurry.”
“We’re going to lose her,” said Sally. “Stay here, Hugh.”
Sally and I ran across Broadway and into the lobby, where Betty Cosgrove stood waiting for the elevator. I grabbed Sally’s arm and pulled her behind a large planter. Between leaves, we watched Betty straighten her hairdo in the elevator door’s reflection. Standing behind Sally, I put my hands on either side of her waist. She didn’t seem to mind.
Hoping the elevator was on the top floor, that it would never come down, I said, “No way Hugh would have hidden behind this. He would have given us away for sure, Sal.” She nodded. Her hair smelled like the honeysuckle in our yard.
A bell rung. The elevator opened, and Betty stepped in.
When the door closed, Sally ran across the lobby to a framed list of offices. Standing on her toes, she reached up and ran her finger down the list, starting with the seventeenth floor. As her finger came down, she asked me if Ohio Valley Bank had any offices in the building. I told her I didn’t think so. But then, after her finger reached the fourth floor and paused at Roy Henley, DDS, she turned and walked out.
Back in the car, Sally said her mother had received a root canal a month ago. Her mother had probably come for a crown.
“Maybe next time,” said Hugh.
“Just stay close to your phone,” said Sally, staring straight ahead, sitting closer to her door than to Hugh.
There were one hundred twenty steps to the top of Ixmoja. Steep steps. Worn steps. The descent was more difficult than the climb. As most people did, your mother and I sat and slid down. One man lost control and broke his leg. When I think of that summer with Sally—how quickly it all happened—I’m always reminded of that.
Three days after Betty Cosgrove received a new crown, Sally called Hugh and me. This time, Sally and I met at the school first. “Hugh will be here soon,” she said, “if he doesn’t stop at yellow lights.” She was wearing her Cardinal cap again. And holding one in her hand.
Without knowing how much longer it would take to catch our parents, I decided to make my move. Sally hadn’t flinched at my touch either time, and she still seemed upset with Hugh. As Sally scanned the street for Hugh’s car, I took the cap from her hand and put it on my head. Then I held her hands, shut my eyes, and leaned forward. I’d kissed her once. With or without a spinning bottle, I would kiss her again.
“What are you doing, Benjamin?” she asked, shaking my hands loose and stepping back. My eyes were open now. Sally looked at me with what I’d call disgust.
The line between shame and anger is easily crossed. I was angry at myself for showing my feelings toward Sally. And angry at her for witnessing my shame. “I was just trying to show you how I felt,” I said.
“Here comes Hugh. Keep your feelings to yourself,” she said, snatching the cap from my head.
This time, after taking Bardstown to Broadway, Betty turned right on Seventh, passed Dad’s bank on the right, and parked in the next block. Three blocks from the river. “Pull over,” I told Hugh. “You’re getting too close.”
“Calm down, little man,” said Hugh. But he did pull over, a half block behind Betty.
Within minutes, Sally saw my father in the sideview mirror. He was walking toward us on the sidewalk. “Duck down, Benjamin,” said Sally as she ducked down in front.
My father must have passed within three feet of me lying in the Bel Air’s back seat. When Hugh said the coast was clear, Sally and I sat up. A few seconds later, I saw Dad stop at Betty’s car. He looked around at passers-by—to make sure no one he knew saw him, it seemed. Then he got in. I was still upset. With myself, with Sally, with taking a back seat to Hugh in every sense. When Betty’s Olds pulled away from the curb, I shouted, “What are you waiting for? Go!” Hugh pulled out fast. As he did, we were hit from behind by a Packard.
The impact severed Sally’s spinal cord at her C2 vertebra. She stopped breathing within minutes, about the time our parents would have parked at the Seelbach Hotel. The weightlifting Hugh had done had strengthened his neck and saved him. Thanks to a taller back seat, I was unharmed.
In my mind now, the next few minutes are a blur: a rush of people to our car; the owner of the Packard, an old man, holding his rib cage and moaning—more over Sally’s death than his injury, I suspect; Hugh, refusing to let go of Sally and saying, “No, no, no!”
I ran to the bank to find Sally’s father. When I told the receptionist what had happened, she called Lawrence Cosgrove on the phone and handed it to me. One moment, the phone was in my hand and I was telling him that Sally had been in an accident. The next moment, Lawrence and I were back at the car and he was pleading with the ambulance attendants to “Do something!” I had never heard a grown man cry out in such pain.
All this happened in front of a children’s shoe store. The owner had called the ambulance. Beneath a large, revolving fan, I called my mother on the store phone. As we spoke, I worried that the fan might fall on me.
The ambulance left with Sally, Lawrence, and Hugh. But it wasn’t long before my mother arrived. Entering the store, she asked, “What were the three of you doing downtown?”
I told her what Sally had seen underneath the table. I told her that we followed Sally’s mother—and who she was with now.
I don’t know what I expected from my mother. Anger? Tears? But it was more the sound of resignation in her voice when she asked, “Why didn’t you tell me this before?”
I had no answer. I couldn’t tell her that my feelings for Sally had meant more to me than my parents’ marriage. It would be weeks before I could express the guilt I felt —for not telling her earlier, for telling Hugh to go, for knowing if not for me, Sally would be alive.
Two hours later, I heard our garage door open. I looked out our living room window and saw my father’s car in the driveway. Then I saw him get into his car and drive forward.
“I’m home,” he shouted as he walked into our kitchen. His tie was in place, briefcase in hand. All smiles.
“You haven’t heard,” said my mother, standing beside our dining room table, the table where they played bridge. “I assume Betty doesn’t know either.”
If my father understood the implication, he didn’t give himself away. “Know what?” he asked, stepping forward as if to embrace my mother.
As she backed away from him, my mother looked at me and said, “Go on now.”
Mother had made arrangements for me to spend the night with Nolan. But before I left, I shut the front door to sound like I was leaving. Then I hid inside our foyer closet. “Sit down, Charles,” I heard my mother say. “Don’t you dare touch me.”
“What’s eating you?” he asked.
“What’s eating me is you and Betty. What’s eating me is you ignored the crash you no doubt heard as you drove away with her. I said don’t touch me!”
I was about to leave the closet, thinking my mother might need help. But before I opened the door, Mother told Dad that Sally had been killed in the collision. “Sally and Benjamin have been onto you and Betty for weeks. They were following you. Sally’s dead because of you.”
When my father started sobbing, I sneaked from the closet and out the front door. When I returned the next morning, a Saturday I would normally be cleaning Sally’s house, my father was gone. “We should have met on Bull Street,” my mother would say of my father for years to come.
Aside from Sally’s funeral, I didn’t see your grandfather for almost twenty years when I took you girls to meet him. As it turned out, that was the only time you saw him. Now, forty more years have passed. He is long dead.
You would have been six or seven when we went. He took you to the Cincinnati Zoo, not far from where he lived with his wife, Eileen. For years, when I mentioned your grandfather Charles, you both referred to him as the man who bought stuffed animals. A hippo for you, Melissa. A giraffe for you, Alison. More than likely, that’s the only thing you remember him for. Amazing how a man can fight in a world war, build a career, start a family, live a life, and be remembered for one small thing. Until now.
My father and I never talked about his relationship with Betty Cosgrove. Not on that trip, not in phone calls, not in any of our few visits. We never discussed our roles in Sally’s death. I never told your mother either. I was always too ashamed. Sometimes, the deepest secrets are kept from those we love the most. Aside from Hugh, my mother, and now you, no one ever knew that I told Hugh to pull out into the street. But as I said, I want you to know the facts as well as the truth. The truth is, I feel better knowing you will know.
When your mother’s cancer was diagnosed, she asked me to frame the picture that I took on top of Ixmoja and hang it on the wall that faced our bed. She said that even though we weren’t in the picture, she could see us together on top, looking out over the tree canopy. It’s the last thing I see at night. The first thing I see every morning.
Before my father left our house the day Sally died, he not only admitted his recent affair with Betty to my mother, he admitted to an affair they’d had about the time I was conceived. It had only lasted a few weeks, but Betty had been certain that my dad was Sally’s father. Sally was your aunt.
It’s almost ten o’clock. The breeze coming through my windows carries the sound of waves on Charleston Bay. One month after Sally’s funeral, my mother and I left Louisville and moved in with her parents three blocks from this house. You might say I haven’t come very far in life, but thanks to your mother and you girls, it’s been a good one. Up until an hour ago, this breeze smelled wonderfully of salt.