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A.M. Homes is the author of the memoir The Mistress’s Daughter and the novels This Book Will Save Your Life, Music for Torching, The End of Alice, In a Country of Mothers, and Jack, as well as the story collections The Safety of Objects and Things You Should Know and the travel book Los Angeles: People, Places, and the Castle on the Hill. Her books have been translated into twenty-two languages. The recipient of numerous awards, she has published fiction and essays in The New Yorker, Granta, Harper’s, McSweeney’s, One Story, The New York Times, and Vanity Fair, where she is a contributing editor. She teaches at Princeton University and lives in New York City.
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ALSO BY A.M. HOMES
The Mistress’s Daughter
This Book Will Save Your Life
Los Angeles: People, Places, and the Castle on the Hill
Things You Should Know
Music for Torching
The End of Alice
Appendix A: An Elaboration on the Novel The End of Alice
In a Country of Mothers
The Safety of Objects
For Claudia to whom I owe a debt of gratitude
“May we be forgiven,” an incantation, a prayer, the hope that somehow I come out of this alive. Was there ever a time you thought—I am doing this on purpose, I am fucking up and I don’t know why.
Do you want my recipe for disaster?
The warning sign: last year, Thanksgiving at their house. Twenty or thirty people were at tables spreading from the dining room into the living room and stopping abruptly at the piano bench. He was at the head of the big table, picking turkey out of his teeth, talking about himself. I kept watching him as I went back and forth carrying plates into the kitchen—the edges of my fingers dipping into unnameable goo—cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes, a cold pearl onion, gristle. With every trip back and forth from the dining room to the kitchen, I hated him more. Every sin of our childhood, beginning with his birth, came back. He entered the world eleven months after me, sickly at first, not enough oxygen along the way, and was given far too much attention. And then, despite what I repeatedly tried to tell him about how horrible he was, he acted as though he believed he was a gift of the gods. They named him George. Geo, he liked to be called, like that was something cool, something scientific, mathematical, analytical. Geode, I called him—like a sedimentary rock. His preternatural confidence, his divinely arrogant head dappled with blond threads of hair lifted high drew the attention of others, gave the impression that he knew something. People solicited his opinions, his participation, while I never saw the charm. By the time we were ten and eleven, he was taller than me, broader, stronger. “You sure he’s not the butcher’s boy?” my father would ask jokingly. And no one laughed.
I was bringing in heavy plates and platters, casseroles caked with the debris of dinner, and no one noticed that help was needed—not George, not his two children, not his ridiculous friends, who were in fact in his employ, among them a weather girl and assorted spare anchormen and -women who sat stiff-backed and hair-sprayed like Ken and Barbie, not my Chinese-American wife, Claire, who hated turkey and never failed to remind us that her family used to celebrate with roast duck and sticky rice. George’s wife, Jane, had been at it all day, cooking and cleaning, serving, and now scraping bones and slop into a giant trash bin.
Jane scoured the plates, piling dirty dishes one atop another and dropping the slimy silver into a sink of steamy soapy water. Glancing at me, she brushed her hair away with the back of her hand and smiled. I went back for more.
I looked at their children and imagined them dressed as Pilgrims, in black buckle-shoes, doing Pilgrim children chores, carrying buckets of milk like human oxen. Nathaniel, twelve, and Ashley, eleven, sat like lumps at the table, hunched, or more like curled, as if poured into their chairs, truly spineless, eyes focused on their small screens, the only thing in motion their thumbs—one texting friends no one has ever seen and the other killing digitized terrorists. They were absent children, absent of personality, absent of presence, and, except for holidays, largely absent from the house. They had been sent away to boarding schools at an age others might have deemed too young but which Jane had once confessed was out of a certain kind of necessity—there were allusions to nonspecific learning issues, failure to bloom, and the subtle implication that the unpredictable shifts in George’s mood made living at home less than ideal.
In the background, two televisions loudly competed among themselves for no one’s attention—one featuring football and the other the film Mighty Joe Young.
“I’m a company man, heart and soul,” George says. “The network’s President of Entertainment. I am ever aware, 24/7.”
There is a television in every room; fact is, George can’t bear to be alone, not even in the bathroom.
He also apparently can’t bear to be without constant confirmation of his success. His dozen-plus Emmys have seeped out of his office and are now scattered around the house, along with various other awards and citations rendered in cut crystal, each one celebrating George’s ability to parse popular culture, to deliver us back to ourselves—ever so slightly mockingly, in the format best known as the half-hour sitcom or the news hour.
The turkey platter was in the center of the table. I reached over my wife’s shoulder and lifted—the tray was heavy and wobbled. I willed myself to stay strong and was able to carry out the mission while balancing a casserole of Brussels sprouts and bacon in the crook of my other arm.
The turkey, an “heirloom bird,” whatever that means, had been rubbed, relaxed, herbed into submission, into thinking it wasn’t so bad to be decapitated, to be stuffed up the ass with breadcrumbs and cranberries in some annual rite. The bird had been raised with a goal in mind, an actual date when his number would come up.
I stood in their kitchen picking at the carcass while Jane did the dishes, bright-blue gloves on, up to her elbows in suds. My fingers were deep in the bird, the hollow body still warm, the best bits of stuffing packed in. I dug with my fingers and brought stuffing to my lips. She looked at me—my mouth moist, greasy, my fingers curled into what would have been the turkey’s g-spot if they had such things—lifted her hands out of the water and came towards me, to plant one on me. Not friendly. The kiss was serious, wet, and full of desire. It was terrifying and unexpected. She did it, then snapped off her gloves and walked out of the room. I was holding the counter, gripping it with greasy fingers. Hard.
Dessert was served. Jane asked if anyone wanted coffee and went back into the kitchen. I followed her like a dog, wanting more.
She ignored me.
“Are you ignoring me?” I asked.
She said nothing and then handed me the coffee. “Could you let me have a little pleasure, a little something that’s just for myself?” She paused. “Cream and sugar?”
From Thanksgiving through Christmas and on into the new year, all I thought of was George fucking Jane. George on top of her, or, for a special occasion, George on the bottom, and once, fantastically, George having her from the back—his eyes fixed on the wall-mounted television—the ticker tape of news headlines trickling across the bottom of the screen. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I was convinced that, despite his charms, his excess of professional achievement, George wasn’t very good in bed and that all he knew about sex he learned from the pages of a magazine read furtively while shitting. I thought of my brother fucking his wife—constantly. Whenever I saw Jane I was hard. I wore baggy pleated pants and double pairs of jockey shorts to contain my treasonous enthusiasm. The effort created bulk and, I worried, gave me the appearance of having gained weight.
It is almost eight o’clock on an evening towards the end of February when Jane calls. Claire is still at the office; she is always at the office. Another man would think his wife was having an affair; I just think Claire is smart.
“I need your help,” Jane says.
“Don’t worry,” I say, before I even know what the worry is. I imagine her calling me from the kitchen phone, the long curly cord wrapping around her body.
“He’s at the police station.”
I glance at the New York skyline; our building is ugly, postwar white brick, dull, but we’re up high, the windows are broad, and there’s a small terrace where we used to sit and have our morning toast. “Did he do something wrong?”
“Apparently,” she says. “They want me to come get him. Can you? Can you pick your brother up?”
“Don’t worry,” I say, repeating myself.
Within minutes I’m en route from Manhattan to the Westchester hamlet George and Jane call home. I phone Claire from the car; her voice mail picks up. “There’s some kind of problem with George and I’ve got to pick him up and take him home to Jane. I had my dinner—I left some for you in the fridge. Call later.”
A fight. On the way to the police station, that’s what I’m thinking. George has it in him: a kind of atomic reactivity that stays under the surface until something triggers him and he erupts, throwing over a table, smashing his fist through a wall, or…More than once I’ve been the recipient of his frustrations, a baseball hurled at my back, striking me at kidney level and dropping me to my knees, a shove in my grandmother’s kitchen hurling me backwards, through a full-length pane of glass as George blocks me from getting the last of the brownies. I imagine that he went out for a drink after work and got on the wrong side of someone.
Thirty-three minutes later, I park outside the small suburban police station, a white cake box circa 1970. There’s a busty girlie calendar that probably shouldn’t be in a police station, a jar of hard candy, two metal desks that sound like a car crash if you accidentally kick them, which I do, tipping over an empty bottle of diet Dr. Pepper. “I’m the brother of the man you called his wife about,” I announce. “I’m here on behalf of George Silver.”
“You’re the brother?”
“We called his wife, she’s coming to get him.”
“She called me, I’m here to pick him up.”
“We wanted to take him to the hospital but he wouldn’t go; he kept repeating that he was a dangerous man and we should take him ‘downtown,’ lock him up, and be done with it. Personally, I think the man needs a doctor—you don’t walk away from something like that unscathed.”
“So he got into a fight?”
“Car accident, bad one. Doesn’t appear he was under the influence, passed a breath test and consented to urine, but really he should see a doctor.”
“Was it his fault?”
“He ran a red light, plowed into a minivan, husband was killed on impact, the wife was alive at the scene—in the back seat, next to the surviving boy. Rescue crew used the Jaws of Life to free the wife, upon release she expired.”
“Her legs fell out of the car,” someone calls out from a back office. “The boy is in fair condition. He’ll survive,” the younger cop says. “Your brother’s in the rear, I’ll get him.”
“Is my brother being charged with a crime?”
“Not at the moment. There’ll be a full investigation. Officers noted that he appeared disoriented at the scene. Take him home, get him a doctor and a lawyer—these things can get ugly.”
“He won’t come out,” the younger cop says.
“Tell him we don’t have room for him,” the older one says. “Tell him the real criminals are coming soon and if he doesn’t come out now they’ll plug him up the bung hole in the night.”
George comes out, disheveled. “Why are you here?” he asks me.
“Jane called, and besides, you had the car.”
“She could have taken a taxi.”
I lead George through the small parking lot and into the night, feeling compelled to take his arm, to guide him by his elbow—not sure if I’m preventing him from escaping or just steadying him. Either way, George doesn’t pull away, he lets himself be led.
“At the house.”
“Does she know?”
I shake my head no.
“It was awful. There was a light.”
“Did you see the light?”
“I think I may have seen it but it was like it didn’t make sense.”
“Like it didn’t apply to you?”
“Like I didn’t know.” He gets into the car. “Where’s Jane?” he asks again.
“At the house,” I repeat. “Buckle your belt.”
Pulling into the driveway, the headlights cut through the house and catch Jane in the kitchen, holding a pot of coffee.
“Are you all right?” she asks when we are inside.
“How could I be,” George says. He empties his pockets onto the kitchen counter. He takes off his shoes, socks, pants, boxers, jacket, shirt, undershirt, and stuffs all of it into the kitchen trash can.
“Would you like some coffee?” Jane asks.
Naked, George stands with his head tilted as if he’s hearing something.
“Coffee?” she asks again, gesturing with the pot.
He doesn’t answer. He walks from the kitchen through the dining room and into the living room, and sits in the dark—naked in a chair.
“Did he get into a fight?” Jane asks.
“Car accident. You’d better call your insurance company and your lawyer. Do you have a lawyer?”
“George, do we have a lawyer?”
“Do I need one?” he asks. “If I do, call Rutkowsky.”
“Something is wrong with him,” Jane says.
“He killed people.”
There is a pause.
She pours George a cup of coffee and brings it into the living room along with a dish towel that she drapes over his genitals like putting a napkin in his lap.
The phone rings.
“Don’t answer it,” George says.
“Hello,” she says.
“I’m sorry, he’s not home right now, may I take a message?” Jane listens. “Yes, I hear you, perfectly clear,” she says and then hangs up. “Do you want a drink?” she asks no one in particular, and then pours one for herself.
“Who was it?” I ask.
“Friend of the family,” she says, and clearly she means the family that was killed.
For a long time he sits in the chair, the dish towel shielding his privates, the cup of coffee daintily on his lap. Beneath him a puddle forms.
“George,” Jane implores when she hears what sounds like water dripping, “you’re having an accident.”
Tessie, the old dog, gets up from her bed, comes over, and sniffs it.
Jane hurries into the kitchen and comes back with a wad of paper towels. “It will eat the finish right off the floor,” she says.
Through it all George looks blank, like the empty husk left by a reptile who has shed his skin. Jane takes the coffee cup from George and hands it to me. She takes the wet kitchen towel from his lap, helps him to stand, and then wipes the back of his legs and his ass with paper towels. “Let me help you upstairs.”
I watch as they climb the steps. I see my brother’s body, slack, his stomach sagging slightly, the bones of his hips, his pelvis, his flat ass—all so white they appear to glow in the dark. As they climb I see below his ass and tucked between his legs his low, pinkish-purple nut sack swaying like an old lion.
I sit on their couch. Where is my wife? Isn’t Claire curious to know what happened? Doesn’t she wonder why I am not home?
The room smells like urine. The wet paper towels are on the floor. Jane doesn’t come back to clean up the pee. I do it and then sit back down on the sofa.
I am staring through the dark at an old wooden tribal mask made with hemp hair and a feather and laced with tribal beads. I’m staring at this unfamiliar face that Nate brought back from a school trip to South Africa, and the mask seems to be staring back as though inhabited, wanting to say something—taunting me with its silence.
I hate this living room. I hate this house. I want to go home.
I text Claire and explain what’s happened. She writes back, “I took advantage of your being gone and am still at the office; it sounds like you should stay the night in case things deteriorate further.”
I dutifully sleep on the sofa with a small, smelly nap blanket covering my shoulders. Tessie, the dog, joins me, warming my feet.
In the morning there are hurried phone calls and hushed conversations; a copy of the accident report crawls out of the fax machine. We will take George to the hospital and they will look for something, some invisible explanation that will relieve him of responsibility.
“Am I going deaf or what the fuck is going on around here?” George wants to know.
“George,” Jane says clearly. “We have to go to the hospital. Pack your bag.”
And he does.
I drive them. He sits next to me, wearing well-worn corduroy pants, a flannel shirt he’s had for fifteen years. He’s unevenly shaved.
I drive self-consciously, worried that his complacent mood might shift, that he might flash back, erupt, and try to grab the wheel. The seat belts are good, they discourage sudden movements.
“Simple Simon met a pieman, going to the fair. Said Simple Simon to the pieman, ‘Let me taste your ware,’” George intones. “Simple Simon went a-fishing for to catch a whale; all the water he had got was in his mother’s pail. Watch out,” he says to me, “or you’ll get what you asked for.”
In the Emergency Room, Jane goes to the counter with their insurance information and the police report and explains that her husband was involved in a fatal car accident the evening before and appeared disoriented at the scene.
“That’s not what happened,” George bellows. “The fucking SUV was like a big white cloud in front of me, I couldn’t see over it, couldn’t see around it, I couldn’t help but punch through it like a cheap piece of aluminum, like a fat fucking pillow. The airbag punched me back, slammed me, knocked the wind right outta me, and when I finally got out I saw people in the other car, pushed together like lasagna. The boy in the back didn’t stop crying. I wanted to punch him, but his mother was looking at me, her eyes popping out of her head.”
As George is talking, two large men make their way towards him from the rear. He doesn’t see it coming. They grab him. He’s strong. He fights back.
The next time we see George he’s in a cubicle in the back of the Emergency Room, arms and legs tied to a gurney.
“Do you know why you’re here?” a doctor asks him.
“I’ve got bad aim,” George says.
“Can you remember what happened?”
“It’s more like I’ll never forget. I left work at about six-thirty, drove towards home, decided to stop for a bite, which is not something I normally do, but I was tired, I can admit that. I didn’t see her. As soon as I realized I’d hit something, I stopped. I stayed with her. I held on to her. She was slipping out from under herself, fluid was leaking out, like a broken engine. I felt sick. And I hated her. I hated her for how stunned she looked, how gray, the pool forming beneath her—I didn’t even know where exactly it was coming from. It started to rain. There were people with blankets—where did the blankets come from? I heard sirens. People in cars drove around us, I saw them staring.”
“What is he talking about?” I ask, wondering whether I’m confused or George is entirely disoriented. “That’s not what happened, that’s not this accident, perhaps it’s another one, but it’s not his.”
“George,” Jane says. “I read the police report—that’s not what happened. Are you thinking of something else? Something you dreamed or something you saw on television?”
George offers no clarification.
“Any history of mental or neurological symptoms?” the doctor asks. We all shake our heads. “What line of work are you in?”
“Law,” George says. “I studied law.”
“Why don’t you leave him with us for now. We’ll order some tests,” the doctor says, “and then we’ll talk further.”
Again, I stay the night at George and Jane’s house.
The next morning, on our way to see him, I wonder aloud, “Is this the right place for him, a psych ward?”
“It’s the suburbs,” she says. “How dangerous could a suburban psych ward be?”
He is alone in his room.
“Good morning,” Jane says.
“Is it? I wouldn’t know.”
“Did you have your breakfast?” she asks, seeing the tray in front of him.
“It’s dog food,” he says, “Take it home to Tessie.”
“Your breath stinks—did you brush your teeth?” I ask.
“Don’t they do it for you?” George replies. “I’ve never been in a mental hospital before.”
“It’s not a mental hospital,” Jane says. “You just happen to be in the mental unit.”
“I can’t go into the bathroom,” he says. “I can’t look at myself in the mirror—I can’t.” He begins to sound hysterical.
“Do you need me to help you? I can help you clean up,” Jane says, opening the toilet kit they have left for him.
“Don’t make her do this,” I say. “You’re not an infant—snap out of it—stop acting like a zombie.”
He begins to cry. I am surprised at myself for the tone I’m taking with him. I walk out of the room. As I leave, Jane is running water on a washcloth.
In the evening, after work, Claire comes to the hospital, bringing Chinese food from the city for the four of us. For someone of Chinese descent, Claire is surprisingly indiscriminate about Chinese food—as far as she’s concerned, it’s all the same, variations on a theme. We reheat it in the microwave marked “For Patient Use—No Medical Products.” We clean our hands with the bottles of foaming cleanser that are on every wall of every room. I worry about putting anything down, touching any surfaces—suddenly I fear I could be eating deadly germs. I look into the Chinese food and see a worm, which I discreetly show Claire.
“It’s not a worm, it’s a grain of rice.”
“It’s larva,” I whisper.
“You’re nuts.” She uses her fork to extract the grain of rice.
“Does rice have eyes?” I ask.
“It’s pepper,” she says, wiping the eyes off.
“Where did the food come from?” I ask.
“The place on Third Avenue that you used to like,” she says.
“The one the health department closed?” I ask with a measure of alarm.
“You have a big trip coming up,” Jane says, distracting us.
“I’m going to China for a few days,” Claire says.
“No one goes to China for ‘a couple of days,’” George growls.
Refusing to eat, George will only allow himself to suck the hot mustard directly from the plastic packets—self-punishment. No one stops him. “More for me,” I am tempted to say, but don’t.
“When are you leaving?” Jane asks.
I pass another packet of mustard to George.
Later, in private, Claire asks me if George and Jane have a gun. “If not, they should get one,” she says.
“What are you saying? They should get a gun? That’s how you end up dead, you get a gun and then someone shoots you.”
“I’m just saying that I wouldn’t be surprised if Jane comes home one night and the family of the people George hurt are waiting for her. He destroyed their lives, and they’re going to want something back. Stay with her, don’t leave her alone; Jane is vulnerable,” Claire says. “Imagine if it were you; if you went nuts, wouldn’t you want someone to stay with me and keep an eye on the house?”
“We live in an apartment with a doorman. If I went crazy, you’d be fine.”
“That’s true. If anything happened to you, I’d be perfectly okay, but Jane is not me. She needs someone. Also, you should visit the surviving boy. The lawyer is going to tell you not to, but do it anyway—George and Jane need to know what they’re dealing with. There is a reason I run Asia,” Claire says. “I’m always thinking.” She taps the side of her head. Think. Think. Think.
And so the next day I visit the boy, more out of a kind of familial guilt and less out of the need to calculate the impossible cost of making the boy “whole.” I stop at the gift shop, where the selection is limited to brightly colored carnations, religious necklaces, and candy. I pick a box of chocolates and powder-blue carnations. The boy is in the same hospital as George, in the pediatric unit—two floors higher. He is sitting up in bed, eating ice cream, his eyes fixed on the television—SpongeBob SquarePants. He is about nine years old, chunky, a single eyebrow arches across his face in the shape of the letter “M.” His right eye is blackened, and a large patch on the side of his head has been shaved, and there’s a meaty purple line of stitches exposed to the air. I give the gifts to the woman sitting with the boy, who tells me that he is doing as well as can be expected, there is always someone with him, a relative or one of the nurses.
“How much does he remember?” I ask.
“All of it,” the woman says. “Are you from the insurance company?”
I nod—is a nod the same as a lie?
“Do you have everything you need?” I ask the boy.
He doesn’t answer.
“I’ll come back again in a few days,” I say, anxious to leave. “If you think of anything, you’ll let me know.”
It’s funny how quickly something becomes a routine, a way of doing business. I stay with Jane, and it is as though we are playing house. That night I take out the trash and lock the door; she makes a snack and asks if I’ll come upstairs. We watch a little television and read. I read whatever it was that George had been reading, his newspapers and magazines, Media Age, Variety, The Economist, and a big history of Thomas Jefferson that sits beside the bed.
The accident happens and then it happens. It doesn’t happen the night of the accident or the night we all visit. It happens the night after that, the night after Claire tells me not to leave Jane alone, the night after Claire leaves for China. Claire goes on her trip, George goes downhill, and then it happens. It’s the thing that was never supposed to happen.
The evening visit to the hospital goes badly. For reasons that are not clear, George is locked in a padded room, his arms bound to his body. Jane and I take turns peering through the small window. He looks miserable. Jane asks to go in and see him, the nurse cautions her against it, but she insists. Jane goes to him, calls his name. George looks up at her; she sweeps his hair out of his face, wipes his furrowed brow; and he turns on her, pins her with his body and bites her again and again, her face, her neck, her hands, breaking the skin in several places. The aides rush in and pull him off of her. Jane is taken downstairs and treated in the Emergency Room, her wounds are cleaned and dressed and she’s given some kind of a shot, like a rabies vaccination.
We go back to the house. Jane heats hundred-calorie brownies in the microwave, I scoop no-fat ice cream onto them, she sprays them with zero-calorie whipped cream, and I cheer them further with chocolate sprinkles. We snack in silence. I take out the trash and change out of my clothes, the same clothes I’ve been wearing for days, and put on a pair of his pajamas.
I hug her. I want to be comforting. I am in his pajamas, she is still dressed. I don’t think anything will happen. “I apologize,” I say, without knowing what I am saying. And then she is against me, she puts her hands on the sides of her skirt and slides it down. She pulls me towards her.
There was a time when I almost told Claire about Thanksgiving—in fact I tried to tell her, one night after sex, when I was feeling close to her. As I started to tell the story, Claire sat up straight and pulled the sheet tight against her body, and I backed away from what I was about to say. I changed it. I left out the kiss and just mentioned something about Jane brushing against me.
“You were in her way and she was trying to get past you and not get to you,” Claire said.
I didn’t mention that I felt the head of my cock pressing against my sister-in-law’s hips, her thighs pressed together.
“Only you would think she was making a pass,” Claire said, disgusted.
“Only me,” I repeated. “Only me.”
Jane pulls me to her; her hips are narrow. My hand slides down into her panties. It is a new jungle. She sighs. The feel of her, this private softness, is incredible. And I’m thinking, this is not really happening—is it?
Her mouth is on me; she reaches for something, some kind of cream, it starts cold and then goes warm. She strokes me, looking me in the eye. And then again her mouth is on me and there is no way to say no. She pulls my pajamas out from under, is quickly upon me, riding me. I explode.
Drenched in her scent, but too shaken to shower or to fall asleep in their bed, I wait until she is asleep and then go downstairs, to the kitchen, and wash myself with dish soap. I am in my brother’s kitchen at three in the morning, soaping my cock at his sink, drying myself with a towel that says “Home Sweet Home.” It happens again in the morning, when she finds me on the sofa, and then again in the afternoon, after we visit George. “What’s the story with your hand?” George asks Jane the next day, noticing her bandages. He’s back in his room, with no memory of the night before.
Jane starts to cry.
“You look like hell,” he says. “Get some rest.”
“It’s been a difficult time,” I say.
That evening we open a bottle of wine and do it again, more slowly, deliberately, intentionally.
The hospital lets him out, or more likely he simply decides to leave. Inexplicably, he is able to walk out unnoticed in the middle of the night. He comes home in a taxi, using money that he’s found at the bottom of his pocket. He can’t find his keys so he rings the bell and the dog barks.
Maybe I heard that part—the dog barking.
Or maybe he didn’t ring the bell and maybe the dog didn’t bark. Maybe George took the spare key from inside the fake rock in the garden by the door, and, like an intruder, he came silently into his own house.
Maybe he came upstairs thinking he’d crawl into his bed, but his spot was taken. I don’t know how long he stood there. I don’t know how long he waited before he lifted the lamp from her side of the bed and smashed it onto her head.
That’s when I woke up.
She is screaming. The one blow isn’t enough. She tries to get up; the lamp isn’t even broken. George looks at me and then picks the lamp up again and swings it at her. The porcelain vase that is the base explodes against her head. By then I am out of bed. He tosses aside what remained of the lamp—blood streaming down his fingers—picks up the telephone, and throws it to me.
“Call it in,” he says.
I stand facing him, wearing his pajamas. We are the same, like mimes, we have the same gestures, the same faces, the family chin, my father’s brow, the same mismatched selves. I am staring at him, not knowing how this is going to work out. A disturbing gurgling sound prompts me to dial the phone.
Accidentally, I drop the phone. I bend to pick it up, and my brother’s foot catches me under the chin, kicking me hard; my head snaps back. I am down as he leaves the room. I see his hospital gown under his clothes, hanging out like some kind of tail. I hear George’s heavy footfall as he goes down the stairs. Jane is making an alarming noise. I reach across the floor, pull the phone towards me, and dial “0.” I dial “0” like it is a hotel, like I expect someone to answer. There is a long recording, a kind of spoken word essay about what the “0” button can do for you, and I realize it will be forever before a real person comes on. I hang up and after several shaky attempts am able to dial “911.”
“A woman has been beaten. Hurry,” I say, and give them the address.
I pull myself to standing, go into the bathroom, and get a washcloth, as though that will help, as though I can wipe the blood away. I can’t even find the spot; her head is a mash, blood and hair and bone and lamp, and I just hold the washcloth and wait.
It takes forever. The fire truck comes first. The house shakes as it pulls up. I leave Jane and go to the window. They come across the grass in full fire gear, hats and coats, immune to the predawn spray of the irrigation system.
I don’t know if he opens the door or they come in of their own accord.
“Upstairs,” I shout.
Quickly they are upon her. One stands apart, talking as if narrating into his radio. “We’ve got a middle-aged woman, open head injury with exposed matter; bring long board, full air, medic bag; request paramedic and police support. Who is this woman?” the narrator asks.
“Jane. My brother’s wife.”
“Do you have a driver’s license or other identification for her?”
“Her purse is downstairs.”
“Relevant medical information, allergies, underlying conditions?”
“Does Jane have any medical problems?” I shout down.
“A lamp hit her on the head,” my brother says.
“She takes a fuck of a lot of vitamins,” George says.
“Is she pregnant?” the narrator asks.
Just the question makes me weak.
“She shouldn’t be,” George says, and I can’t help but think that’s got an edge to it.
“Stabilize the neck,” one of the firemen says.
“It’s not her neck, it’s her head,” I say.
“Stand back,” the narrator says.
The paramedics arrive, slip an orange board under Jane, tape her to it with what looks like duct tape, and wrap her head in gauze—she looks like a mummy, a battle casualty, or maybe a Shriner en route to a convention.
Jane makes a noise, a low guttural growl, as five of them lift her and carry her out, leaving a trail of sterile debris and heavy footprints. Turning the corner, they knock into the banister, and with a crack it snaps. “Sorry.” They are out the kitchen door and into the back of the ambulance faster than you might think.
George is in the kitchen drinking a cup of coffee. There’s blood on his hands and flecks of something on his face, pieces of the lamp—shards. “No parking on the grass,” he says to the first police officer who arrives. “Please inform your troops.”
“Which one of you is Mr. Silver?” the cop asks. I assume he must be a detective because he is not wearing a uniform.
We both raise our hands, simultaneously: “I am.”
“Let’s see some identification.”
George fumbles as if looking for his, flapping the hospital gown.
“We’re brothers,” I say. “I’m the elder.”
“So—who did what to whom?” He’s got his notebook out.
George sips his coffee.
I say nothing.
“It’s not a complicated question; either way we’ll dust the lamp for prints. Dust,” the detective calls out. “Get a full evidence team.” He coughs. “So—is there anyone else home, anyone else we should be looking for? If it wasn’t one of you that clocked her with the lamp, maybe the person who did it is still in the house, maybe there’s another victim to be found.” He pauses, waiting for someone to say something.
The only sound is the tick-tock of the kitchen clock. I almost lose it when the cuckoo pops out—cuckoo, cuckoo, cuckoo, six times. “Rake the house,” the detective shouts to his men. “Make sure there’s nobody else. Any evidence—bag it. That includes the lamp.”
He turns his attention back to us. “It’s Monday morning, I got out of bed to come here. My wife gives it to me every Monday morning, no questions asked, she likes me to start the week happy, so I’m not exactly feeling fondly towards you.”
“What the fucking fuck are you fucking thinking, you fuck,” George blurts.
Two large cops move to block the kitchen door. Suddenly there is no exit.
“Cuff him,” the detective says.
“I wasn’t talking to you,” George says, “I was talking to my brother.” George looks at me. “And those are my pajamas,” he says. “Now you’ve gone and done it.”
“I’m not going to be able to help you this time,” I say.
“Have I committed a crime?” George asks.
“Hard to know, isn’t it,” one of the cops says, cuffing him.
“Where are you taking him?” I ask.
“Is there a particular place you’d like him to go?”
“He was in the hospital. He must have walked out last night—notice the gown under his clothes?”
“So he eloped?”
“And how did he get home?”
“I don’t know.”
“I fucking walked, in the fucking dark. Pussy Licker.”
The ambulance takes Jane, the cops take George, I’m left behind with an officer waiting for the evidence team. I start to go upstairs, the cop stops me: “Crime scene,” he says.
“Clothing,” I say, flapping my pajama legs—actually George’s pajama legs.
He escorts me up to the bedroom, which looks like a tornado hit, the lamp in pieces on the floor, blood, the bed undone. I change out of my brother’s pajamas, and without a word to the wise, I borrow George’s clean clothes, still in the dry cleaner’s plastic bag hanging off the closet door.
“Leave the dirties in the room,” the cop says. “You never know what’ll come into play.”
“You’re right,” I say, and we go back downstairs.
As the cop follows me down, I feel strangely like a suspect. It occurs to me that it would be smart to call George’s lawyer and update him on the turn of events, but I can’t remember his name. I’m also wondering if the cop is somehow watching me, if I should be worried about making fast moves, reaching for anything and so on. Also, how do I get away from him in order to make a private phone call?
“I think I’ll go put some laundry in the dryer.”
“Wait,” the cop says. “That you can do later. Wet clothes stay wet.”
“Okey-dokey.” I sit at the kitchen table and casually pick up the phone and go through the caller ID, thinking the lawyer’s name is there and will ring a bell. Bingo—Rutkowsky.
“Okay if I use the phone?”
“It’s your nickel.”
“Okay if I step outside?”
“Did I get you at a bad time?” I ask when Rutkowsky, the lawyer, answers.
“Who is this?”
“Silver, Harry Silver, George Silver’s brother.”
“I’m on my way into court,” the lawyer says.
I’m standing in the front yard, barefoot in the wet grass. “There have been developments.” I pause. “George walked out of the hospital last night, and Jane has been injured, a lamp got her on the head. The police are here, waiting for an evidence team, and…”
“How come you’re there?”
“I was asked to keep Jane company while my brother was in the hospital.”
“Where is Jane?”
“She’s off to the hospital.”
“They’ve taken him as well.”
“Is there the sense that the crime is serious?”
“When the police come, follow them even if they ask you to leave, you go wherever they go. Don’t allow them to move anything, and if they ask you to touch or move anything, keep your hands in your pockets. They can take photos, they can pick up things with tweezers and put them in baggies.”
“The neighbors are watching out their windows.”
“I’ll meet you at the house at four-thirty; until then, don’t disturb the scene.”
“I’ll leave a key under the fake rock by the front door, in case I’m not back.”
“Where are you going?”
“Let me have your cell in case I need you.”
I give him the number and he hangs up. In my head I hear Jane’s voice: “Condoms?”
Yes. And where are they now? Gone, used, finished, dropped in the kitchen trash, loaded with jism.
I go back into the house. “Mind if I make a fresh pot of joe?”
“I won’t stop you,” the cop says. “Was that dog always here?” The cop points to Tessie, who is licking the water from my feet. Her bowl is dry. “That’s Tessie.”
I give the dog fresh water and kibble.
The evidence team suits up on the front lawn, laying out white Tyvek onesies and then climbing into them as if mounting a hazmat operation, complete with booties and latex gloves. “No, really, it’s okay,” I say. “We’re not contagious and the carpet’s already wrecked.” They don’t respond. “Coffee anyone?” I ask, holding up my mug. Usually I don’t drink coffee, but this morning I’m already on my fourth cup; I’ve got my reasons. As directed, I follow them from room to room. “So you use film and digital?”
“Yep,” the photographer says, snapping away.
“That’s really interesting. And how do you know what to photograph?”
“Sir, if you could please stand back.”
Before they leave, the cop takes out his notebook. “A couple of queries before I go. There are some blank spots, holes in the story.”
“Were you having sex with her when your brother came home?”
“I was sleeping.”
“Have you been having a relationship with your brother’s wife?”
“I am here because my brother has been in the hospital.”
“And your wife?”
“She’s in China. It was my wife’s suggestion that I stay with my brother’s wife.”
“How would you describe your relationship with your brother?”
“Close. I remember when they bought the house. I remember helping them pick things out—the kitchen tiles. After the accident, I comforted Jane.”
The cop slaps his notebook closed. “All right, then, we know where to find you.”
When the cop leaves, I discover Jane’s purse on the front hall table and go through it, pocketing her cell phone, house keys, and, inexplicably—lipstick. Before I put her lipstick in my pocket, I open it, sweeping “Sweet Fuchsia” across my lips.
From the car, I call Claire in China. “There’s been an accident; Jane has been injured.”
“Should I come home tomorrow?”
In China tomorrow is today, and where we are today is tomorrow there. “Stay where you are,” I say. “It’s too complicated.”
Why was Claire so willing to let me go? Why did she send me into Jane’s arms? Was she testing me? Did she really trust me that much?
“I’m going to the hospital now and will call again when I know more.” A pause. “How’s work?”
“Fine. I’ve been feeling punk, I ate something strange.”
“Maybe a worm?”
“Call me later.”
When I get to the hospital, they tell me Jane is in surgery and George is still in the Emergency Room, shackled to a gurney in the rear.
“You stupid fuck,” he says when I part the curtain.
“What happened to your face?” I point to a row of fresh stitches above his eye.
“Call it a welcome-back present.”
“I fed the dog and stayed until the cops were finished, and then I called your lawyer—he’s coming later.”
“They don’t want me back on account of how I ‘ran away.’ It’s not like anyone told me what the checkout policy was and that I needed some sort of permission to go.”
A hospital housekeeper passes through with a metal mop and bucket.
“Is he contagious?”
“No, just violent; come in,” I say.
A young male doctor wheels in with an enormous lighted magnifying glass. “I am Chin Chow and I am here to pluck your face.” The doctor leans over him, plucking shards from his face. “You’ve got no tits,” George tells the doctor.
“And that is a good thing,” Chin Chow says.
I go to the nurses’ station. “My brother has stitches in his head—they weren’t there when he left the house this morning.”
“I’ll make a note that you’d like the doctor to speak with you.”
I go back to George, his face now a polka-dotted canvas of bloody red spots. “Chow Fun fucking plucked me, trying to get me to confess: ‘Oh, so what bring you here today? You have rough night at home?’ He fucking dug holes in my face with no anesthesia. ‘Stop,’ I said a hundred times. ‘Stop. Stop. Stop.’ ‘Oh, you a big baby, cry, cry, cry. You a big boy now, act like a man.’ That was no doctor, that was an undercover agent, trying to pry a confession out of me.”
“Really? I think he was making conversation. I doubt he knows why you’re here.”
“Yes he does, he said he was going to read all about me in the New York Post.” And with that George starts to cry.
“Aw, come on, don’t start that.”
He sputters a little longer and then, snorting and snuffling, he stops. “Are you going to tell Mom?”
“Your wife is having brain surgery and you’re worried I’m going to tell your mother?”
“What do you think?”
He doesn’t answer.
“When did you last see Mom?” I ask.
“A few weeks ago.”
“A few weeks?”
“Maybe a month?”
“How many months?”
“I don’t fucking know. Are you telling her?”
“Why would I? Half the time she doesn’t even know who she is. How about this: if she asks about you, I’ll say you were transferred overseas. I’ll send her tea from Fortnum and Mason and let her think you’re still a big macher.”
He wriggles on the gurney. “Scratch my ass, will you? I can’t reach. You’re a pal,” he says, breathing deep with relief. “A pal when you’re not a complete son of a bitch.”
An orderly brings George a lunch tray, and, arms and legs bound, he manages to contort himself sufficiently that with his knees he bounces it off the tray table and onto the floor.
“One per customer,” the lunch lady says, “try again tomorrow.”
“Start an IV on him so he doesn’t get dehydrated,” I hear the nurse say without missing a beat.
“They’re not fucking around,” I tell him, when she pulls back the curtain, needle in hand, with four guys singing backup behind her. “Speaking of lunch, I’m going to the cafeteria.”
“You may not die today,” he says, “but I will unwind you like a spool of thread.”
“Can I bring you anything?” I ask, cutting him off.
“Chocolate-chip cookies,” he says.
I go through the cafeteria line, circling steaming trays of mixed vegetables, stuffed shells, meat loaf, cold sandwiches made to order, pizza, doughnuts, cereal; I go around and at the end my tray is empty. I circle again and get the tomato-rice soup, a bag of Goldfish crackers, and a carton of milk.
When I tear the package open, orange crackers take flight, littering the table and the floor around me. I collect what I can. They are different from what I remember; I’m not sure if it’s the Goldfish in general or the flaw of the hundred-calorie pack—they’re smaller and flatter and now with facial expressions. They float on their sides, looking up at me with one eye and a demented half-smile.
I eat thinking of the “worm” in the Chinese food, of the way the man at the deli near my apartment says “tomato lice.” I eat picturing the pot of soup on my mother’s stove, soup that formed a membranous skin across the top as it cooled, and how she would obliviously serve me that stringy clot, which I always ate imagining that it was really blood.
I eat the soup, pretending it is blood, pretending that I am transfusing myself while Jane is upstairs having a “craniotomy and evacuation”—those are the words they used. I imagine a surgical stainless dust-buster sucking out the porcelain and bone. I imagine her coming out of it all with steel plates like armor and required to wear a football helmet twenty-four hours a day.
Did she even know it was happening? Did she wake up thinking, This isn’t real, this is a terrible dream—and then, when it was over, did she have a pounding headache? Did she think my hair was a mess?
She is in surgery, my spilled seed loose inside her, swimming furiously—as much as we did it with protection, we also did it without. Will anyone discover me swimming there? Do I need a lawyer of my own?
The soup warms me, reminding me that I’ve not eaten since last night. A man with two black eyes passes, lunch tray in hand, and I think of how my father once knocked my brother out, flattened him, for not much of a reason. “Don’t be confused who’s the boss.”
I think of George: the dent in the Sheetrock from his foot “slipping,” the coffee cup inexplicably flying out of his hand and smashing against the wall. I think of a story Jane once told me about heading out for Sunday brunch and George hitting a trash can as he backed out of the driveway and then getting so angry that he went back and forth over the can, rocking the gears from forward to reverse and back again, hurling the children this way and that, stopping only when Ashley threw up. Do outbursts against inanimate objects signal that someday you’re going to kill your wife? Is it really so shocking?
In the hospital men’s room, as I’m washing my hands, I glance in the mirror. The man I see is not so much me as my father. When did he show up? There is no soap; I rub hand sanitizer into my face—it burns. I nearly drown myself in the sink trying to rinse it off.
My face is dripping, my shirt is wet, and the paper-towel dispenser is empty. Waiting to dry, I carve Jane’s name into the cinder-block wall with the car key.
A hospital worker almost catches me, but I head him off with a confrontation: “Why no paper towels?”
“We don’t use them anymore—sustainability.”
“But my face is wet.”
“Try toilet paper.”
I do—and it catches in the stubble of unshaven beard and I look like I’ve been out in a toilet-paper snowstorm.
Monday, in the late afternoon, Jane comes out of surgery; they bring her down the hall attached to a huge mechanical ventilator, her head wrapped like a mummy, her eyes black and blue. Her face looks like a meatball. There is a hose coming out from under the blanket, a urine bag at the end of the bed.
I kissed her down there last night. She said no one had ever done that before, and then I kissed her again, deeply. I made out with her down there. I used my tongue—no one will ever know that.
I am telling myself that I did what I was told. Claire told me to stay. Jane wanted me—she pulled me towards her. Why am I being so weak? Why am I looking for someone else to blame? I ask myself, Did you ever think you should stop yourself, but in the moment you couldn’t or didn’t? Now I understand the meaning of “It just happened.” An accident.
The doctor tells me that if Jane survives she will never be the same. “Even in the short time she’s been with us, there has been a decline. She is retreating, folding into herself. We cleaned the wound and drilled holes to accommodate the swelling. The prognosis is poor. Does her family know? The children?”
“No,” I say. “They’re away at boarding school.”
“Let them know,” the doctor says, leaving me.
Do I call the children directly or do I call their schools first? Do I phone their respective headmasters and explain, Their mother is in a coma and their father is in shackles and perhaps you could interrupt study hall and suggest they pack a bag? And do I come right out and tell them how awful it really is—do I interrupt the children in the middle of their day to let them know that life as they know it is over?
I reach the girl first. “Ashley,” I say.
“Is it Tessie?” she asks before I can say more.
“Your parents,” I say stumbling.
“A divorce?” She collapses into tears before I say more, and another girl calmly takes the phone.
“Ashley is not available right now.”
To the boy I say, “Your father has gone insane. Maybe you should come home, or maybe you don’t want to come home, maybe you never want to come home again. I remember when your parents bought the house, I remember picking out things.”
“I’m not sure I understand.”
“Your mother has had an accident,” I say, wondering if I should tell him how bad it really is.
“Was it Dad?” he asks.
I’m caught off guard by the directness of his question. “Yes,” I say. “Your father struck your mother with a lamp. I tried to tell your sister, but I didn’t get very far.”
“I’ll call her,” he says. I am grateful for not having to go through that again.
I am standing in an empty hallway washed with stale fluorescent light. A man in a white coat comes towards me; he smiles. I imagine him like a wicked wizard whipping off his white coat, revealing a judge’s robe. Is it possible that your brother knew you were shtupping his wife and so he got up out of his sickbed and got himself home?
“I am going to limit my comments for now. I feel bad enough about the whole thing,” I say aloud in the hallway though no one is listening.
I move to the Family Waiting Room. Again, I dial. “George hit Jane with a lamp,” I say to Jane’s mother.
“That’s awful,” she says, not realizing the gravity of what I’ve told her. “When did that happen?”
“Last night. Is your husband home?”
“Sure,” she says, sounding a little vague.
In the background I hear him ask, “Who is it?”
“It’s your daughter’s husband’s brother,” she says. “Something happened to Jane.”
“What happened to Jane?” he asks, taking the phone.
“George hit her on the head with a lamp.”
“Is she going to press charges?”
“Most likely she is going to die.”
“That’s not the kind of thing you say to be funny.”
“I’m not joking.”
“Son of a bitch,” he says.
I want to go home. I want my life back. I had a life of my own. I was in the middle of something when all of this happened, wasn’t I? What was happening? I don’t have my date book, but there had to be something, a dentist appointment, dinner with friends, faculty meeting. What day is it? I check my watch. In five minutes I am teaching a class. Twenty-five undergraduates will file into a classroom and sit nervously in their chairs, knowing they have not prepared, knowing they have not done the reading. The course, Nixon: The Ghost in the Machine, a close examination of the unexamined. They sit like idiots waiting for me to tell them what everything means, to spoon-feed them an education. And while they numbly perch, they compose letters to the Dean; one complained that he was being asked to write in class, another calculated the cost per session of each of the twenty-two sessions in the semester and made a list of things he could have bought for the same or less money.
I have yet to put a dollar cost on the stress of having them stare blankly at me for ninety minutes two times a week and showing up during my office hours, asking me, “What’s new?” like we’re old friends and then sitting down as though they own the place and telling me how they can’t get “an angle on things.” And before they go, wanting me to pat them on the head and say, “You’re a good kid,” for nothing, for no reason. There is about them a kind of casual entitlement, the sort of thing that when I was growing up would have gotten you a lecture for bad attitude and a week of detention.
In all the years, I’ve never failed to show up, have only twice had to reschedule a class, once for a root canal and the other a gallbladder attack.
I call the university, I call my department, I call the secretary of the Dean of the school to which I am affiliated—voice mail everywhere. I cannot find a real person to talk to. What will happen if I don’t show up, how long will they sit there? I phone the security office. “This is Professor Silver. I have an emergency.”
“Do you need a paramedic?”
“I am already in the hospital, but I am supposed to teach a class in two minutes; could someone go and put a note on the door telling the students that I have canceled?”
“One of our men, an officer?”
“That’s not what we do.”
I try another tactic. “But of course it’s exactly what you do. If no one shows up, if no one of authority takes charge, there could be rioting. This is a course on politics, and you know what that means—radical ideas are loosened, the students feel empowered, mark my words.”
“What should the note say?”
“Professor Silver has had a family emergency and will not be in class. He is sorry and will make it up to you.”
“All right, then, and what building and room?”
“Can you look it up for me? I never pay attention to the names and numbers.”
“Hold,” he says. “Silver, there is no class today. You’re in the School of Arts and Sciences, your people are on vacation. Party on the beach…”
“Oh,” I say. “I forgot. I simply forgot. Thank you.”
I had a life. I was doing something.
I meet the lawyer later at the house. He arrives in one car, his men in another. They carry heavy cases and remind me of exterminators.
“Top of the stairs on the right,” I say, sending them up.
“What the fuck happened here?”
“What do you mean, what happened?”
“The place is a mess.”
“You told me not to touch anything,” I yell up the stairs.
“It fucking stinks.”
Tessie follows me up. Halfway, the smell hits me.
“Fucking shit,” the lawyer says.
The dog looks guilty.
Tessie, home alone, did a kind of clean and purge: she licked Jane’s blood off the floor, made bloody pink tracks across the floor, and then had diarrhea on the bed.
Tessie looks at me as if to say, “It’s been crazy around here. Something had to happen.”
“S’okay, girl,” I say, going downstairs and getting a box of Hefty bags. The dog has done me a favor. Whatever evidence might have remained on the sheets has been obliterated. I stuff the sheets into two Heftys, open the windows, and fire off a can of Lysol.
The trash has been taken out. The lawyer and his men are leaving. “The situation is less than satisfactory,” one of the men says to another as they make their exit.
“No shit, Sherlock.”
I stand in the kitchen, obsessing about the sheets: Is in the garbage good enough? Would it arouse suspicion if I took them to the dump? What would happen if I tried to burn them? Would it send shit smoke signals for miles?
I dial Speedy Mattress Service. “How quickly can I get a new mattress?”
“Where’s it going?”
“To 64 Sycamore.”
“And what are you looking for? Do you have something specific in mind: Serta, Simmons, plush, pillow-top?”
“I’m open to suggestions, it’s got to be a king, soft but not too soft, firm but not too firm, something just right.”
“You’re looking at twenty-eight hundred—that’s mattress and box spring.”
“I can do twenty-six fifty delivered, and if you buy our mattress cover you get a ten-year guarantee. It’s usually one twenty-five, but I can give it to you for a hundy.”
“And will you take away the old one?”
“Even if it has stains?”
“They all have stains.”
I dig Jane’s credit card out of my pocket.
“Between six and ten tonight.”
I get a bucket of hot water, scrub brush, roll of paper towels, Mr. Clean, Comet, a bottle of vinegar, and Jane’s latex gloves from Thanksgiving. I weep as I pull the gloves on.
I am on my hands and knees, scrubbing. The blood is dark, dry, and flaky. Wet, it softens to a swirling pink, spreading like beet juice through the paper towels. I slice my finger open on shrapnel, a shard of porcelain that tears the skin, and my blood mixes with the mess. Later, I use a tube of Krazy Glue to seal the wound. As I am working I have the sensation of being watched, spied upon. I feel something pass over, brushing against my leg. When I turn to look, something sails over my body, leaping. I spin. I slip on the wet floor, landing on my ass. There is a cat, sitting on the dresser, staring, his tail flicking this way and that.
“Motherfucker,” I say. “You scared me.”
He blinks and looks at me, hot green eyes like emeralds shining.
A creature of habit, I stop only when the job is done, the bloody water bucket emptied, the rags thrown away. I work, and then I look to see what’s for dinner. Standing inside the open door of the refrigerator, I pick at the leftovers, at what we had the night before. I eat random bites of things, thinking of Jane, of our evening snack, of our lovemaking. I make a plate and lie on the sofa in front of the television.
The echo of gunfire wakes me. I come to thinking George has once again escaped and has come to kill me.
Bang. Bang. Bang.
A heavy knocking on the door.
The mattress has arrived.
“Nice thing is, mattresses aren’t breakable,” one of the men says, as they wrestle it up the stairs. “I used to do plasma-screen televisions—that was a nightmare.”
They take the old mattress and box spring without comment.
As they exit, a flash goes off in the yard.
“What the…” Flash, flash-flash.
One of the men drops his end of the outgoing mattress and plunges into the darkness. I hear scuffling sounds from within the bushes. The mattress man comes up, holding an expensive camera.
“Give me the camera,” a stranger says, pulling himself out of the flower bed.
“Who are you?” I ask.
“That’s my camera,” the stranger says.
“Not anymore,” the mattress man says, hurling it towards the street.
I have to go home. It’s almost 11 p.m. I lock up the house, lead Tessie to the car, give her a boost up, and head for the highway. Tessie shakes.
“No shots,” I say. “No vet. We’re going to the city, Tessie.”
The dog passes toxic gases. I pull to the side of the road, and Tessie explodes onto the edge of the highway.
“Did you have a good trip?” the night doorman asks. I don’t answer. “Your mail, your packages,” he says, filling my arms, “your laundry.” He hooks the hangers over my crooked finger.
He says nothing about the dog, whose leash I’ve lashed around my wrist.
The apartment has a certain smell, familiar yet stale. How long have I been gone? It’s as though everything is frozen in time, has been frozen, not only for the days I’ve been away, but maybe the entire decade preceding. What once was modern, sophisticated, looks like the set of a period piece, Edward Albee circa 1983. The phone is a push-button trim-line, rarely used. The sofa arms are worn. The carpet pile is uneven along a certain path, a well-traveled route from room to room. The piles of magazines are dated eighteen months back.
And still I am grateful to be in a place where everything is familiar, where I could go blind and still find my way. I sink into it, want to roll in it, I want none of what’s happened to be true.
The orchid is still in bloom. I water it, and, as if I were watching a time-lapse sequence, within the hour the petals fall off, as if suddenly released, springing to certain death on the cabinet below. By morning, only the bare stick will remain.
The refrigerator seeps the curdled scent of sour milk, half of a dry grapefruit, a jar of ageless peanut butter, some brown bread white and furry on the edges, old rice pudding brewing a green bull’s-eye center in a plastic deli container. In a frenzy I open every cabinet and throw out what’s expired. I wonder, does everyone do it the same way—glasses here, dishes there, dry foods and cans together? Where do you learn it, the grouping of like things? I take the trash down the hall and order Chinese. The man recognizes my phone number and says, “You call late tonight, long time no see; hot-sour soup, fried chicken rice, moo-shu pork?”
While waiting, I take the elevator to the basement, unlock the storage bin, and wrestle out an enormous ancient blue suitcase. Upstairs, I open the bag on the bed and begin to fill it. Unsure of exactly what I am thinking, I pack as if to consolidate, to minimize myself. I assume that when Claire returns I will no longer be welcome. Pulling open the drawers, the closet, the medicine cabinet, I am impressed with the gentility with which things coexist, how they hang, nestle, rest side by side without tension or judgment. Her floss, toothbrush, Nair, mascara, my gargle, nose spray, nail clipper. All of it intimate, all of it human, all of it divided his and hers—there is little overlap.
We married late; Claire had already been married once, briefly. It was two years before I took her to meet my parents. The first thing she told them was “It was a small wedding, just friends.”
“Why did you keep her from us for so long?” my mother asked. “She’s beautiful and has a good job. You thought we wouldn’t approve?”
My mother took her hands. “We thought there must be something wrong with you—a reason he wouldn’t bring you, like you had a cleft palate, or a penis or something?” she said, raising her eyebrows as if to say, How ’bout it?
What is the take-away? There is no logic to what goes in the bag—a few photos, trinkets from my childhood, a couple of suits, shoes, the canvas bag with the most recent draft of my unfinished manuscript on Nixon, the small black clock from her side of the bed. I don’t want much, don’t want to be obvious; I purposely leave my favorite things—I don’t want to be accused of abandoning ship.
Long after midnight, the doorbell rings. I tip the deliveryman heavily and sit at the table eating straight from the boxes, eating like it’s been days since I was fed. The flavor is amazing, hot, spicy, the textures a treat, everything from slimy mushrooms and tofu to hard cubes of pork. I paste plum sauce on the pancakes and douse it all in soy sauce—the extreme sodium and glutamate breathe life back into me.
Tessie sits patiently at my feet. I give her a bowl of plain white rice—the starch will be good for her stomach. She eats quickly. I give her more, and then she again passes toxic gases.
I think of looking it up on the computer, Googling “Ill effects of drinking blood,” but don’t want to leave an electronic record of my visit.
“Tessie, how old are you? Are you twelve? That makes you over a hundred in human years—you’re someone Willard Scott should celebrate. Who was that cat? Do you know him from somewhere? You didn’t seem to mind that he was there.” I continue: “Here’s what I’m thinking: we’ll stay here tonight, and we’ll go back in the morning, in the full light of day.”
I’m talking to a dog.
I call Claire in China, figuring to give it one last go.
“I’m in a meeting,” she says.
“We can talk later.”
“Is Jane better?”
“She’s on a ventilator.”
“I’m glad she’s feeling much better,” Claire says.
The rhythm of the line is the same; the rest has been lost in translation.
In bed, I pull a pillow from her side, close, against my chest, missing her in a routine kind of way, Claire standing over my shoulder while I balance the checkbook, insisting that we have his/hers accounts as well as one joint. Claire in the bathroom, using a squeegee stolen from a gas station to rake the shower door dry, Claire at the kitchen sink taking a glass of water and then washing and drying her glass and putting it away. Claire, who leaves nothing out of place, nothing to chance, always on it. What I liked about her, of course, became the problem—she wasn’t there. She asked very little of me. And that meant she wasn’t there and gave very little back.
Tessie walks around, looking confused. I take a towel from the bathroom and make a place for her by the side of the bed. She is an old setter, bought as a pup at a time when there was hope and promise, when it still seemed like things might turn out okay.
She comes at me, whacking me with a pillow. “Get out of my house, get out of my house,” she repeats. A man in a suit stands behind her. “That’s enough for now. We’ll get him again later,” he says. I rush for the door; a man is there, changing the tumbler.
I wake. Who was she—was it Claire, was it Jane?
The dog wants to go out. The dog wants breakfast. The dog wants to go back to her own home.
The children are coming, arrangements have been made, cars have been hired to chauffeur them home. There have been phone calls behind their backs.
“What about the children? Where should the children go?” Jane’s parents ask on a conference call.
I don’t like the children, I’m thinking to myself, but remain silent.
“They can stay with me,” Jane’s sister, Susan, says. “We have an extra room.”
“An office,” Susan’s husband says.
“There’s a bed,” Susan says.
And twins on leashes looking for trouble. I am thinking of Susan’s toddler terrorists, who are in constant motion, often running towards a precipice. I imagine Susan and her husband on vacation with the children, having contests on the beach where they let the twins loose and see who can catch one first.
“They have a dog,” I say.
“You’re allergic,” the mother reminds Susan.
“Well, it’s too much for my parents,” Susan says. “Two mentally disturbed teenagers.”
It’s too much for the children as well. They would be driven crazy governed by grandparents who spend most of their time discussing the consistency of their bowel movements and whether or not they should drink more prune juice.
I ignore the reference to mental disturbance—they are no more or less disturbed than the rest of us.
“The children need to be in their own home,” I say.
“We have lives,” Susan says. “We can’t give up everything, and besides, I don’t even like that house, I never liked it.”
“It’s not about the house,” I say.
As we’re talking, I climb the stairs to the master bedroom. I’ve already made the bed, and moved the “matching” lamp from George’s side of the bed into the closet. As much as anything can look normal, it does. I take a plant from the kitchen windowsill and put it on the night table on Jane’s side of the bed.
Nathaniel gets home first; the car pulls into the driveway, and he climbs out, dragging an enormous duffel bag behind him.
With one hand on Tessie’s collar, I hold the kitchen door open. The dog is relieved to see the boy.
“Hi,” I say.
He doesn’t answer. He puts his bag down and talks to the dog. “What is going on around here, Tessie?” he says, mussing her ears. “What is it, girl? It’s madness!”
He turns to me. “Can I give her a biscuit?”
“Sure,” I say, not expecting to be asked. “Give her a cookie, give her two. Are you hungry? Do you want a sandwich?”
Without waiting for an answer, I take things out of the refrigerator and pile them on the table: bread, cheese, turkey, mustard, mayo, tomatoes, cornichons, the same things Jane and I were snacking on all last week. I get him a plate, a knife and fork and napkin.
“Aren’t you having anything?” he asks, after he’s built his sandwich and is about to sink in.
“I’m not hungry.”
“Do we have any cream soda?” he asks. It seems odd at a time like this to ask for something so specific. Digging around in the fridge, I find, on the bottom shelf, in the back, a six-pack of Dr. Brown’s. I take out two.
Ashley arrives with only a small My Little Pony rolling suitcase that’s clearly a holdover from her childhood.
She is immediately down on her knees with the dog. “Tessie,” she says. “Oh, Tessie.”
“Would you like a sandwich?”
“A glass of milk,” she says.
I pour one for her.
She sips. “It’s on the edge,” she says.
“The milk, it’s going bad,” she says.
“Oh,” I say. “We’ll get some more.”
There is silence.
“Is Dad coming home?” Ashley asks, and I don’t quite know what to say.
“No,” I offer.
“Where is our car?” Nate asks.
“I don’t know if your mother mentioned it, but this whole thing started when your father had an accident. The car is in the shop, but I’ve got mine. Do you want to go to the hospital?”
The children nod. They’ve not gone upstairs. They’ve done nothing but pet the dog.
As we head out, I feel a flash of childhood memory, my uncle Leon pushing me out the door, his knuckles digging into my back, my bones taking the knuckle with a great impression, fear and dependency. It still hurts.
I hold the door for the children. “Take your time,” I say.
At the hospital, walking from the car across the parking lot, Ashley slips her hand into mine.
“What is it going to be like?” Nate asks.
“Your mother is in Intensive Care, so it’s very bright. She’s hooked up to a lot of equipment; there’s a machine helping her to breathe, and she’s got an IV in her arm which gives her medicines and food. Her head is bandaged from the surgery, and she looks a little like a raccoon—she’s got two black eyes.”
“My father punched her in the eyes?” Nathaniel asks.
“It’s bruising from the surgery.”
In the elevator Ashley squeezes my hand so hard it hurts; she squeezes the whole way down the hall and into the ICU.
Jane’s mother bursts into tears when the children come in.
“Stop, you’re scaring them,” her husband says.
“Too many, too many, too many,” the nurse says, shooing people out.
The children are left alone with their mother
Jane’s parents stand in the hall, glaring at me. “Son of a bitch,” the father says.
“Let’s get some coffee,” he says to his wife.
I press myself to the glass. Ashley takes her mother’s hand. I imagine it warm, even though it is limp; she rubs her cheek and face with it, stroking herself, giving herself her mother’s affection. Nathaniel stands next to her, crying and then stopping himself from crying. A little later, when Ashley’s head is on her mother’s stomach, she looks up smiling and points to her mother’s stomach. “It gurgled,” she says, through the glass, as though a gurgle is a sign of improvement.
When the nurse needs to do something to Jane, I take the children to the cafeteria.
“What happens next?” Nathaniel asks, as he’s eating a second lunch.
“You should spend as much time with your mom as you want, let her know you love her, and know how much she loves you.”
When Ashley excuses herself to go to the bathroom, Nathaniel leans over.
“Did you fuck my mother?”
I don’t answer.
“She was into you; she used to tease my father by talking about you.”
Again, I say nothing.
“Where is Dad?” Ashley asks when she gets back to the table.
“This hospital?” Nate asks.
I nod. “Do you want to see him?”
“Should we see him?” Ashley asks.
“Entirely up to you.”
“I need to think he’s dead,” Nate says. “That’s the only way I can make sense of it. He did this and then turned the gun on himself.”
“There was no gun,” I say.
“You know what I mean. Why didn’t you stop him, why didn’t you kill him?” Nate asks.
Why didn’t I?
All too familiar with the hospital layout, I lead the children to the Emergency Room. George is parked in a back hallway, bound to a chair, slumped like he’s been sleeping for days, his face roughened with stubble.
“Either we sedate him or he’s out of control,” the nurse remarks, spotting me.
“These are the children,” I say, “Ashley and Nathaniel.”
“He ate a good lunch, and we’re awaiting his disposition,” the nurse says, slightly more chipper.
“Is that like his mood?” Ashley asks.
“It’s paperwork telling us where he’ll go from here,” the nurse says.
George opens his eyes.
“The children are here,” I say.
“Hi, Dad,” Ashley says. Nathaniel says nothing.
“Sorry,” George says.
There is an awkward silence. We all stare at the floor, at the patterns in the linoleum.
“George, I’ve been meaning to ask you, there’s a cat who scratches at the kitchen door, gray, with green eyes and a dab of white on the tail. It’s gotten into the house a couple of times. And it looks like no one feeds it, so I bought some kibble.”
“That’s Muffin,” George says. “Our cat.”
“Since when do you have a cat?”
“Years. Her litter box is in the guest bathroom—you’d better clean it.”
“She likes canned food,” Ashley says, softly.
“What were you thinking?” Nathaniel asks his father.
“No idea,” George says. “What day is it?”
We go back to Intensive Care. The doctor is there. “She’s recovering well from the procedure itself,” he says.
“Of course she is, she’s a good girl,” her father says.
“There’s still no sign of activity. Have you thought about organ donation?” the doctor asks.
“Would that help her? A donation?” Jane’s father asks.
“He means Mom being a donor,” Nate clarifies.
“Don’t you have to be dead to do that?” Jane’s mother asks.
“Something to keep in mind. We’ll know more soon,” the doctor says.
“We can stay if you want, or we can go and come back after dinner,” I say to the children.
“Let’s take a break,” Ashley says.
I take them to the mall. “Is this where you usually go? Is this what you do with your mother?” I buy them sneakers and frozen yogurt. The mall is uncomfortably empty; it’s a weekday, no one is there.
“Why are you being so nice?” Nathaniel asks.
I say nothing.
“It sucks. It all sucks,” he says. Back in the car, Nate asks, “Can you take me for a ride?”
“I want to get out of here.”
“Do you have a bike? Maybe when we get home you can go for a ride. It’s certainly warm enough out.”
“I’m not asking if I can go for a ride,” he says. “I’m asking you to take me on a ride.” There’s a pause. “I took some pills.”
“What do you mean, ‘pills’?”
“Not too many, but enough.”
“Enough to kill yourself?”
“No, to calm down. I’m a wreck.”
“Where did you get them?”
“From the medicine cabinet at home.”
“How did you know which ones to take?”
Nate stares at me as if to say, I may be dumb but I’m not stupid.
“Okay, so where do you want to go?” I ask.
“You’re kidding, right?”
At Nate’s insistence I phone the amusement park and find that due to the odd and unseasonably warm winter, they haven’t closed for the season. “The owner thought it was better to keep folks employed and have a snow day if needed—which so far hasn’t happened,” the guy says. Nate goes on ride after ride, roller coaster, Zipper, Bungee Rocket, Tower of Terror, Gravitron, which spins so fast he’s plastered to the side with an expression on his face like he’s been whipped through a wind tunnel.
“Do you think it’s weird?” he asks as we walk to the next ride.
“Who am I to judge?”
“I carry a diagnosis,” he says.
“Like supposedly there’s something wrong with me.”
“What’s your point?”
“Do you think it’s true?” he asks.
“Do you?” I ask.
“Do you want to go on a ride?” I ask Ashley, who at eleven is holding my hand and seeming more like six. She shakes her head no. “Are you sure? I’ll go with you.” She shrugs.
“I miss the snow,” she says, shaking her head sadly. “When I was young it used to snow in the winter.”
“It will snow again,” I say.
“When?” she asks.
“When you least expect it,” I say.
We leave Nate at the roller coaster. He seems relieved by the spinning, by hurling through the air again and again. Ashley picks out something called the Wave Swinger; it seems innocent enough.
Like the mall, the amusement park is empty. Nate and Ashley both have their own attendants, ride operators who are like mechanical tour guides. They walk with us from ride to ride, turning each one on and giving it a test spin before letting the kids board.
“Isn’t it hard to spend your days in an empty amusement park?” I ask one of the operators.
“Beats sitting home with my wife,” the guy says, shrugging like I’m the idiot.
“My mother’s in the hospital,” Ashley tells the operator as he’s turning on the chair swing. “We were sent home from school. Our father hit her in the head.”
“Rough,” the operator says, and it vaguely sounds like he’s saying “Ruff,” as in barking more than talking.
The Wave Swinger lifts gently off the ground. I am in the chair ahead of Ashley, suspended by twenty feet of galvanized chain. It makes a couple of graceful spins in a wide circle, rising higher each time, and then it takes off, spinning faster and faster. The chair swings out wide, it tilts, now we’re flying up high and then swooping down low. I am dizzy, nauseous, trying to find one thing to fix on, one thing that is not moving. I stare at the empty chairs in front of me, the blue sky overhead. I am losing my sense of balance; I fear I will pass out and somehow slip out of the chair and fall to the ground.
Nate is waiting for us when we land. I stumble getting off the ride and knock my head into the chains.
We head for the Haunted House, all hopping into our own cars, and the train bangs through the double doors and into the darkness. It’s warm inside and smells like sweat socks. Overhead there are howls and ear-piercing screeches from the dead, timbers crack, and ghosts fall from the sky, stopping inches short of our faces before being snatched away again. The mechanical soundtrack is punctuated by a frightful choking sound.
“What is that?” I ask.
“It’s Ashley,” Nate says.
“Are you choking?” I ask, unfastening my seat belt and trying to turn and look at her.
“She’s crying,” Nate says. “That’s the way she cries.”
As lightning is crashing around me and we’re climbing a hill into a dark castle, I’m turning and trying to crawl out of my car and into hers. Suddenly strobe lights are flashing and, as in some slow-motion Marx Brothers movie, I’m on my hands and knees on top of the train car. The train is heading straight for the closed door of the castle, and right before it hits, the train turns sharply and I am thrown overboard, banging into a wall, reaching out and grabbing at anything for balance, worried about landing on the third rail—if there is such a thing in a haunted house. And then it all stops. It’s pitch-dark. “Don’t move,” we hear a voice overhead. Ashley is still crying, sobbing in the dark. A minute later, the Haunted House is flooded with bright fluorescent light; every secret of the night is revealed—the lousy papier-mâché walls, the cheaply strung-together skeletons suspended on wire hangers, the yellow and purple glow-in-the-dark paint on everything.
“What the fuck,” the ride operator says, coming down the tracks.
“Sorry,” I say.
“Sorry, shmorry,” he says to me.
“The little girl was crying.”
“Are you all right, sweetheart?” the operator asks Ashley, genuinely concerned. “Is anybody injured?”
We all shake our heads. “We’re all right.”
The operator grabs a tow rope at the front of the train and pulls us all down the tracks, bending his head at the front doors, and we bang out into the daylight.
“You sure you’re all okay?”
“As okay as we can be, given the circumstances,” I say. I hand the guy twenty bucks. I’m not exactly sure why, but it feels necessary.
“Let’s go home,” I say to the children, herding them to the parking lot.
“It was all good until we got to the Haunted House,” Nate says.
“It was good,” I say.
For dinner we have Jane’s spaghetti sauce from the freezer.
“I love Mom’s spaghetti,” Ashley says.
“Great,” I say, worried that there are only two more containers in the freezer and they’re going to have to last a lifetime. I’m wondering if spaghetti sauce can be cloned. If we save a sample or take a swab of Jane’s sauce, can someone make more?
Spaghetti and frozen broccoli and cream soda and Sara Lee pound cake. You would almost think things are under control.
The cat walks by, flicking her tail at my ankles under the table. Ashley gets up and shows me the cabinet where forty cans of cat food are stacked in neat order.
“She likes the salmon the best,” Ashley says.
After dinner I take the children back to the hospital. Everything is slightly more hushed; the ICU has a dimmed glow-in-the-dark quality. The large space is divided into eight glass-walled rooms, of which six are occupied.
“Anything?” I ask the nurse.
She shakes her head. “Nothing.”
The children visit with their mother. Nathaniel has brought a paper he wrote for school. He reads it aloud to her and then asks if she thinks it needs something more. He waits for an answer. The ventilator breathes its mechanical breath. After he reads the paper, he tells her about the amusement park, he tells her about a boy at school that apparently she already knows a lot about, he tells her that he’s calculated that by the time he’s ready to start college it will cost about seventy-five thousand dollars a year and that by the time Ashley is ready to start it will be more than eighty. He tells her he loves her.
Ashley rubs her mother’s feet. “Does that feel good?” she asks, smoothing cream over her toes and up her ankles. “Maybe tomorrow I can bring polish from home and do your nails.”
Later, I walk through the house, turning out lights. It’s nearly midnight. Ashley is in her room, playing with her old toys; all the dolls from her shelves are down on the floor, and she’s in the middle.
“Time for bed,” I say.
“In a minute,” she says.
Nate is down the hall, in his parents’ room, splayed out on their bed asleep and fully clothed. Tessie is with him, her head on the pillow, filling in for Jane.
In the morning, a van pulls up outside. A man gets out, unloads six boxes. From inside I watch him carry them one by one to the front door. At first I’m thinking it’s a box bomb delivered by the surviving relatives of the family George killed. But there’s something so methodical, so painstaking about the way this guy works that clearly he’s a professional of another sort. The last thing out of the van is the enormous plant. He’s got everything all lined up before he rings the bell.
I open the door carefully.
“Delivery,” he says. “Can you sign for these?”
“Sure. What is it?”
“Office supplies,” the guy says, turning to leave. “How the fuck would I know? I’m just the messenger. Eight o’clock in the morning and people are already asking questions. When is enough enough?” He walks back to the van, yelling the whole way.
I drag the boxes into the house. It’s the contents of George’s office.
“Did you order something?” Ashley asks.
“It’s for your dad,” I say, and the three of us drag it all into his office and close the door.
“Can I have the plant?” Nate asks.
The decision is made to take Jane off life support, to donate her organs. “I didn’t sleep all night,” her mother says. “I made up my mind and then I changed my mind and then I made up my mind and I changed my mind.”
“Who will tell the children?” someone asks.
“You should,” Jane’s father says, stabbing his finger towards me. “It’s all on you.”
Nate and Ashley are taken to a conference room; they ask me to come with them. We sit, waiting and waiting, and then, finally, the doctor comes in. He’s got scans, charts, and graphs.
“Your mom is very sick,” he says.
The children nod.
“The damage to her brain can’t be fixed. So we’re going to let her body help other people whose bodies can get better. Her heart can help someone whose heart isn’t working. Does that make sense?”
“Daddy killed Mommy,” Ashley says.
There isn’t much more to say.
“When are you going to pull the plug?” Nate asks.
The doctor braces. “We’ll take her to the operating room and remove the parts that can be transplanted.”
“When?” Nate wants to know.
“Tomorrow,” the doctor says. “Today all the people who are going to be helped by your mom will get phone calls, and they’ll go to the hospitals near where they live, and their doctors will start to get ready.”
“Can we see her?” Ashley asks.
“Yes,” the doctor says. “You can see her today, and again in the morning.”
Somehow the police are notified and a cop shows up with a photographer, and they ask us all to leave the room, and they pull the curtains around her bed and start taking pictures. The white flash explodes again and again behind the curtain, lighting up the silhouettes of the cop and the photographer. I can’t help but wonder: Are they taking close-ups, are they pulling back the blankets? Are they photographing her nude? The flashes of light attract attention; the other families look at us strangely but silently. Stroke, heart attack, burn—MURDER—we are known to each other by ailment and not by name.
When the cops finish, we go back in. I look at the blanket. If they pulled it back, what did they see? What does a brain-dead woman look like? I fear I know the answer: like a dead woman.
Rutkowsky the lawyer and I meet in the hospital parking lot and go in together to talk to George. “He’s never asked how she is,” I tell the lawyer.
“Let’s assume he’s out of his mind,” the lawyer says.
“George,” Rutkowsky and I say simultaneously, as the nurse pulls the curtain back. George is in a bed, curled into a ball.
“Your wife, Jane, has been declared brain-dead; she’ll be taken off life support, and the charges against you will be raised to murder, or manslaughter, or whatever we can get them to agree to,” the lawyer says. “The point being, once this happens, wheels will be put into motion and your options become more limited. I am negotiating to have you sent someplace, to a facility I have worked with in the past. When you arrive, there will be a period of detoxification and then, hopefully, they’ll be able to address your underlying psychosis. Do you see what I’m saying, do you hear the direction I’m going in?” The lawyer pauses.
“She was sucking my brother’s cock,” George says.
And nothing more is said for a few minutes.
“What will she look like?” George asks, and I’m not sure exactly what the question means. “Well, no matter, I’m sure they can make a nice hat for her.”
The nurse tells us she needs a moment alone with George. We take the cue and leave.
“Have you got a minute?” the lawyer asks me.
In the lobby of the hospital, the lawyer asks me to take a seat. He places his enormous bag on the small table next to me and proceeds to unpack a series of documents. “Due to the physical and mental conditions of both Jane and George, you are now the legal guardian of the two minor children, Ashley and Nathaniel. Further, you are temporary guardian and the medical proxy for George. With these roles comes a responsibility that is both fiduciary and moral. Do you feel able to accept that responsibility?” He looks at me—waiting.
“You are conservator of assets, real-estate holdings, and other items that transfer to the children upon their majority. You have power of attorney over all transactions, assets, and holdings.” He hands me a small skeleton key; it’s like being indoctrinated into a secret society. “It’s the key to their safe-deposit box—I have no idea what’s in the box, but I suggest you familiarize yourself with the contents.” And then he hands me a new bank card. “Activate this from the home phone at George and Jane’s house. The accountant Mr. Moody also has access to the accounts and will monitor your usage. It’s a system of checks and balances: Moody checks on you, you check on Moody, and I check on the two of you. Got it?”
“I do,” I repeat.
He hands me a manila envelope. “Copies of all the related paperwork, in case anyone should ask.” And then, weirdly, the lawyer takes out a little bag of gold chocolate coins and dangles them in front of my eyes.
“Gelt?” I ask.
“You look pale,” he says. “My wife bought a hundred of these, and somehow it’s fallen to me to get rid of them.”
I take the small bag of chocolate coins. “Thank you,” I say. “For everything.”
“It’s my job,” he says, as he’s leaving. “My occupation.”
Where is Claire?
She has been lost in transit, was heading home and then rerouted. Along the way, she started hearing from her friends. I get a hostile call from Hawaii, where the aircraft has mechanical trouble. Accusatory.
“What are your comments based on? Hearsay?” I ask.
“The New York Post,” she says.
“And that’s the new paper of record?”
“Fuck you,” she says. “Fuck you. Fuck you, fuck you.” And she smashes her phone into the wall. “You hear that, that’s the sound of me smashing my BlackBerry into a wall. Fucking asshole.”
“I’ve got you on speakerphone,” I say, even though I don’t. “We’re all here at the hospital, the kids, Jane’s parents, the doctor. I’m sorry you’re so upset.” I’m lying. I’m alone in what used to be a phone booth that’s now been stripped of its equipment; it’s a denuded glass booth—powerless.
The day of limbo. There is the oddity of knowing tomorrow Jane will be dead. When the phone in the house rings, Jane’s voice answers: “Hi, we can’t come to the phone right now, but if you leave your name and number we’ll call you back. If you’re trying to reach George at the office, the number is 212…”
She is here, still in the house; I run into her coming around the corner, unloading the dishwasher, running the vacuum, folding laundry. She was just here—wait, she’ll be back in a minute.
The next day, at the hospital, Jane’s mother collapses at her bedside and everything is delayed until she is revived. “Can you imagine having to make a decision like this about your child?” she asks as they take her down the hall in a wheelchair.
“I can’t imagine, which is why I don’t have children. Correction, I can imagine, which is why I don’t have children.” I say this thinking I am talking to myself, silently in my head, not realizing that in fact I’m talking to everyone.
“We thought you couldn’t have children,” Jane’s sister says.
“We didn’t even try,” I say, even though that’s not exactly the truth.
The family takes turns saying goodbye to Jane privately. I am the last. On her forehead there is a mark from her mother’s lipstick, like the blood-and-earth dot of a Hindu. I kiss her; Jane’s skin is warm but uninhabited.
Ashley walks with the stretcher down the hall. As they wait for the elevator, she whispers something in her mother’s ear.
We stay, even though there is nothing to stay for. We sit in the ICU Family Waiting Room. Through the glass I see a housekeeper stripping the bed, washing the floor, preparing for the next patient.
“Let’s go to the cafeteria,” I say.
In the hallways, people hurry past. They carry Igloo coolers marked “Human Tissue” or “Organ for Transplant—Human Eye.” They come and they go. Through the large glass window of the cafeteria, I see a helicopter flying in, landing in the parking lot, and then taking off again.
Her heart has left the building.
On one end it’s like time has stopped, and on the other, time is of the essence, people are gearing up. Where do you go when it is over, when it is done? With every hour, with every part taken, she is a little further gone. There is no going back. It’s over. Really.
“It’s good she can help others, she’d like that,” her mother says.
“Her heart and lungs shouldn’t go to waste,” her father says. “Her eyes were good, so beautiful, maybe someone can use them; maybe someone can have a good life even if hers turned to shit.”
“Don’t talk like that in front of the children,” her mother says.
“I’m hardly talking at all. If anyone wanted to hear what I’d really like to say, I could give them an earful.”
“I’m listening,” I say.
“I’m not talking to you. You are a shmuck, as much responsible for this as your son-of-a-bitch brother. Slime balls.”
And he’s right—it’s unfathomable that this is how it ends.
The sister’s husband is going to pick out a coffin. He wants me to ask Nate if Nate wants to come along, to help make the arrangements. I ask, but he doesn’t hear me, he’s got his headphones on. I tap his shoulder. “Do you want to be part of the arrangements?”
He looks at me blankly.
“Arrangements. It’s another word for funeral plans. Susan’s husband is going to the funeral home to pick out the coffin—do you want to go? I did it for my grandmother,” I offer, as if to say it’s not so bad.
“What do you do?”
“You look at coffins, you pick one, and you think about what your mother should wear as her final outfit.”
Nate shakes his head no. “Ask Ashley,” he says. “She likes to pick out things.”
That night Nate comes to visit me on the sofa. “Have you Googled Dad?”
“He didn’t just kill Mom, he killed a whole family.”
“He had an accident. That’s what started this whole thing.”
“Everyone hates him. There are postings about how he ruined the network, about what a bully he was at the office—especially to women. It says that there were numerous claims settled quietly with regard to harassment of female employees.”
“It’s not new,” I say to Nate. “People have always had strong feelings about your father.”
“It’s hard for me to read about it,” Nate says, almost hysterical. “It’s one thing when I think he’s a jerk, but another when strangers say mean things.”
“Do you want some ice cream?” I ask. “There’s half a Carvel cake in the freezer.”
“It’s from Ashley’s birthday.”
“Does that mean it can’t be eaten?”
“Would you like some?”
Using an enormous serrated knife, I saw off chunks; the ice cream is old and gummy and hard as a rock, but as it melts it gets better, and by the time we’re done, it’s delicious. When we’re finished, Tessie licks our plates clean.
“She’s the prewash,” Nate says.
Nate lies with me on the sofa, his head on the opposite end, his stinky feet near my face. When he’s asleep, I turn off the television and put the dishes in the washer. Tessie follows; I give her a biscuit.
A long black limo pulls up to the curb outside the house. The children gather, dressed in their best. I stuff my pockets with Kleenex and snacks.
“I’ve never been to a funeral,” Ashley says.
“I went once, when the kid of someone Dad worked with killed himself,” Nate adds.
At the funeral home, two men hold the doors open for us. “The immediate family is receiving to the left,” one says.
“We are the immediate family,” Nate says.
The man leads us down the hall. Jane’s parents are there, the sister and her husband.
There’s something excruciating about this part. Strangers, or, even worse, friends, crouch at the children’s knees, touching them, hugging them, stressed faces one after another pressing into theirs, faces like caricatures. There is the awkwardness of people feeling the need to say something when there is nothing to say. Nothing.
I’m sorry for your loss. Oh, you poor babies. What will become of you? Your mother was such a wonderful woman. What does your father have to say for himself? I can only imagine. Is your dad going to get the electric chair?
They feel the liberty or the obligation to say whatever the hell comes to mind.
“I’m sorry, I am sorry, so, so sorry,” people keep telling the children.
“That’s okay,” Ashley says to them.
“It’s not okay,” Nate says to Ashley. “Quit saying it’s okay—it’s not.”
“When people say they’re sorry you can just say thank you,” I say.
We are led into the chapel for the service and sit in pews like at a wedding, Jane’s family on one side, us on the other. Behind us are people who know Jane’s family, people who the kids went to nursery school with, people who knew Jane from the gym, friends and neighbors. The anchorman from Thanksgiving is there, as is George’s assistant, a gay guy who did favors for the kids. He was the one who got them good tickets, backstage passes.
The coffin is at the front of the room.
“Is she really in there?” Ashley asks, nodding towards the coffin.
“Yes,” I say.
“How do you know they put the right clothes on her?” Ashley asks.
“It’s a question of trust.”
Susan’s husband comes up to me. “Do you like the coffin?” he asks. “It’s top-of-the-line. In a situation like this it seems cruel to be cheap.”
“Are you asking for my approval?”
I think of Nixon’s funeral. He had the stroke at home in New Jersey on a Monday night, right before dinner. His housekeeper called an ambulance, and they drove him into New York City, paralyzed but conscious. The initial prognosis was good, but then his brain swelled; he went into a coma and died. Nixon’s coffin was flown from New York to Yorba Linda, where people wound through the quiet streets on a chilly night, waiting for hours to see him. I was going to go, make a kind of pilgrimage the way Mormons flock to the mountain or groupies to a Grateful Dead concert.
Instead, I watched on TV.
Forty-two thousand people viewed Nixon’s coffin over a twenty-hour period. The fact that I was not among them is something I regret. I watched on television, but I felt nothing. I didn’t have the actual experience, the shared night out in the cold. I only made it to Yorba Linda once, years after Nixon’s death.
“How do I tell people at school?” Ashley asks.
“They probably already know,” Nate says.
“That’s not fair,” Ashley says.
I pass Ashley some Gummi Bears.
Jane’s sister sees and hurries over from their side of the room. She sits in the pew right behind me, leans forward, and whispers.
“Since when do you know about things like snacks?”
“I don’t,” I say without even turning around.
I don’t like kids, but I feel guilty; worse than guilty, I feel responsible; worse than that, I think their lives are ruined.
And me, under stress I reminisce about the stories of a life that is not my own. I suck on a sweet; I pop a couple of Gummis into my mouth, without offering any to Susan.
“Where are the twins?” I ask Susan.
“With a sitter,” she says, her Botox so fresh her face doesn’t move.
An older woman leans in and tugs on Ashley’s hair. “You poor children and your beautiful hair.”
Music begins to play.
The rabbi appears. “Friends, family, parents of Jane, her sister, Susan, and her children, Nathaniel and Ash.”
“No one calls her Ash,” Nate says flatly.
“How does one make sense of a death such as this, a life interrupted? Jane was a mother, a daughter, a sister, and a friend—and she was also the victim of a crime, denied the natural course of life.”
“I never liked George,” her mother says loudly during the service. “George was an asshole from the first date.”
The rabbi continues: “Out of Jane’s death comes a break with tradition; when a Jew dies, no one questions if there will be a ritual washing or a funeral, but what of the body? Jane’s family chose organ donation, so that the parts of Jane which remained strong, viable, could save the lives of others—they did the mitzvah of giving Jane to others. One of the purposes of the funeral ceremony is to help the friends and family adjust to the finality of their loss. And while the circumstances of Jane’s death leave us searching for logic, we celebrate her life and the life she will now give others. HaMakom yinachaim etchem batoch shar avlai Zion v’Yerushlayim. May God comfort you together with all the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem,” the rabbi offers. “This is the traditional Jewish expression of condolence.”
“Are we orphans?” Ashley asks.
“Yit-gadal v’yit-kadash sh’mey raba, b’alma di v’ra hirutey, vyam-lih mal-hutey b’ha-yey-hon uv’yomey-hon uv’ha-yey d’hol beyt yisrael ba-agala u-vizman kariv, v’imru amen.” the rabbi intones.
“Were we always Jewish?” Ashley asks.