That June when Helen was thirteen a soft, bright sky domed the earth, covered by dazzling green lawns. A profusion of buttercups blossomed.
Helen loved her father so much it hurt. She attended six a.m. Mass with him and his law associate, Janet Collins, every morning.
And if he punished Helen, but never her sisters, Helen only loved him more. When she made a mistake, he smacked her hard. But he and Helen shared a daredevil nature, he said. So that Helen, like him, needed harsher discipline, unlike milder souls.
At eight p.m. Friday, the Transfiguration eighth-graders would attend their last dance before high school. So Helen dragged her friend Mollie home for lunch. She planned to grab her white dress and shiny blue shoes. After dinner, Mollie’s older sister would help them with their hair and make-up.
Helen’s mother was away, visiting relatives, and last night her father, who was working on a legal case requiring a marathon strategy session, had sent Helen and her two sisters to stay with the neighbors.
His car was gleaming in the driveway, along with another car. The house was locked, when ordinarily it never was.
Helen rang the doorbell. She leaned on it and tried the garage door, the basement door, and the back porch. Mollie wanted to buy their lunch in town. But Helen needed her dress-up clothes. Behind dense shrubbery, she opened the pantry window. They crash-landed among cereal boxes and canned soup.
“Dad, hey, Dad!”
Her parents’ bedroom door was half open. But from behind the door came a menacing vibration. The space between the hinges revealed naked Janet Collins behind the door. Through the hinges, Helen saw Janet’s arms pressing into her breasts. She saw Janet’s nipples and deep, linear navel.
Her father was pretending to talk on the phone. His feet were crossed on the disheveled bed and he adjusted a flannel robe he never wore.
Then Helen turned, pushing Mollie down the stairs.
In the village, Helen bought Mollie some French fries. She wasn’t going back to school.
Mollie said, “Meet me at three.”
Helen wandered around until the school bus was waiting in an alley.
Instead of preparing for the dance, Mollie left Helen alone in a bedroom until almost dark. Mollie’s mother entered, saying Helen’s father had stopped by with her good clothes. She could sleep over but he expected her home before noon.
The next morning Helen thanked Mollie and her mother and left. Wearing her school uniform, she drifted through the suburbs.
Finally, at a loss, she traipsed home. Her father ran up.
“I said, be here at noon.” But instead of punishing her, he fondled her ear.
The worst thing he did—though she wouldn’t think so for years—was to ask her directly, “Is anything bothering you, Helen?” And then he turned his head. “Something you don’t understand?”
“No, I understand. I totally understand.”