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October 29, 2008
When the phone rings after midnight, it's never good news. The sound was startling, echoing off our wood floors and banging around in the hallway, but in the strange way that sounds penetrate sleep, it seemed as if the ringing came from deep underwater. Or maybe I was the one underwater, swimming to the top of my dream, and suddenly bursting through. I jerked upward, head foggy, propping myself up on my elbows.
Dad had picked up the phone, and from down the hall I could hear him repeating, "What? What
? What?" as if he were talking to a foreign telemarketer, someone trying to sell an upgraded something or otherexcept he wasn't cursing and hanging up, which was Dad's standard fare for unsolicited phone calls.
Then I heard Mom's voice demanding, "Who is it, Curtis? Who is it?" Her voice, although sleep-tinged, was panicky.
Dad was still on the line, now whispering, "I don't understand
." and I figured we could safely rule out both telemarketers and drunken prank calls from Dad's physics students. My room was just across the hall, and by this time I was fully awake, struggling out of a tangle of sheets and comforter. This was made more difficult by the presence of Heidi, our ancient basset hound, who was upside down next to me, her legs splayed open, her mammoth chest rising and falling with sleep. Heidi had never been the most diligent watchdog, it was truethe mailman held no interest for her, although she could hear a crumb drop in the kitchen from anywhere in the housebut she had recently passed into the stage of life where even an earsplitting telephone ring and raised voices were not cause for concern. "Move, Heidi," I ordered, nudging against the resisting bulk of her body.
A small amount of time had passedten seconds? Fifteen? Thirty? But between the first ring of the phone and the time I stood in the doorway of my parents' bedroom, I had the sense that my life had already changed.
One minute I had been in dreamland, my only worry the prealgebra test I had the next day in fifth period with Mr. Heinman, who was notorious for asking questions that had nothing to do with our notes or assignments. In the back of my mind, I was also thinking about the Halloween dance on Fridaythe first dance of my seventh-grade year. Simple stuff. The kind of thing you have the luxury to think about when the rest of life is going well, when your life isn't hinging on a middle-of-the-night phone call.
Mom had switched her bedside light on, and both of my parents were sitting up, looking rumpled and older than they did during the daytime. Dad's hair was sticking up in strange tufts, and his glasses, which always rested on his nightstand within arm's reach, had been perched lopsidedly on his face. "But how?" he was saying now. "I don't understand how. I mean, how?"
Mom was holding a throw pillow and was either kneading or throttling it in her hands. "It's not, it's not, it's not," she kept saying. When I was younger, I used to thank God for the food I was about to eat and say Now I lay me down to sleep at night, but this might have been the closest thing to a prayer I'd ever heard from my mom. She just wasn't the sort of person who prayed, at least not on a regular or official basis. I figured she didn't want to bother God with it unless the situation was really hopeless.
"Curtis," Mom pleaded, and he swallowed hard, trying to say something. But he didn't seem to be able to get the words out, so instead he nodded. Just once.
Mom moaned. I slipped onto the bed next to her and buried my face in her hair. She smelled of wood shavings and varnish, a smell that was as reassuring to me as the smell of flour and sugar probably was to other kids.
Then Dad asked, his voice thin and drifting, like a helium balloon that had slipped away, "What do we do now? I mean, what do people do?" He was speaking just as much to the person on the other end of the receiver as to us, or, it seemed, to the universe as a whole.
Mom was squeezing me as though she was holding on to me for dear life. Mine or hers, I couldn't have said.
Then Dad said, "Okay, I will," and hung up the phone.
The three of us sat very still for a long moment. Whatever was said next, I knew, would change everything. It was the last semi-normal moment of my life, and then we would all live miserably ever after.
Mom asked, "What happened to Daniel?" Her eyes gleamed wetly in the glow of Dad's bedside lamp.
I wished she hadn't asked that, because once my brother's name was out there, it was no longer possible that it could be someone else. If she had mentioned another name, I was sure, then maybe this late-night call could be about some other person, someone else's brother.
But of all the people in the worldbillions of them, more people than any one single person could ever meet even if that was a person's life goal; of all the people in big cities and small towns, in countries where it was too hot or too cold year-round; of all the men, women and children, even those who were so old that the Guinness Book of World Records had them on some kind of short-list, and even the tiniest of infants in neonatal units, hooked up to tubes and complicated computer systemsout of all these people, it was my brother, Daniel, who was dead. curtis After the phone call, Kathleen stayed in bed with Olivia. I could hear them there, crying, comforting each other. I should have been there with themI know that now, I knew that then. But I couldn't. I needed, in the fiercest way, to be alone. Not just in our house, but in the world. I needed the whole world to just stopmoving, thinking, talking.
I paced between the living room and the kitchen, picking things up and putting them down, staring at them stupidly as though they were foreign objects, things that didn't belong in my home. A picture of our familyfrom a time that already seemed distant, back when there had been four of us, all alive and healthyin a silver frame that said Family Forever in a fancy script. A booklet of fabric swatches from one of Kathleen's projects. The swatches were in shades of blue, and each was labeled with a different name: Ocean, Marina, Infinity, Reflection, Tidal Pool. I thumbed through them, thinking how pointless and trivial it was that someone had given names to these different shades of blue, that something so irrelevant could possibly matter in a world where my son was dead. Everything was pointless, I thought. Everything was nonsensical and ludicrous.
Suddenly my legs felt insubstantial, not quite up to the task of supporting my body. I reached for the door frame for balance, nearly tripping over Heidi, our two-ton basset. She looked up at me, confused, expectant.
"Not yet," I told her. "It's not time." The sky beyond our front porch light was a deep, middle-of-the-night black.
She thumped her thick tail and cocked her head, as if she were trying to understand.
"Go back to sleep," I ordered, nudging her with my shoe.
When she didn't budge, I snapped, "Fine, then," and opened the front door, ushering Heidi into the night. She stepped onto the porch and turned, watching me. "This is what you wanted," I told her, and closed the door too hard.
Kathleen came in a moment later, red-eyed, hair sleep-tousled. Her face was shiny from tears and snot that had been wiped haphazardly from her nose. "Was that the door? Did you go outside?"
I didn't answer.
She stepped past me and opened the door. Heidi was waiting on the porch, her jowls hanging. Kathleen turned to me, her face crumpled with grief and something elsedoubt. In me.
"What's going on, Curtis? Do you want her to wander off or something?"
"I wasn't thinking," I saida lie. I was thinking that Daniel was dead, and nothing in the world mattered. Let the dog go. Forget the color swatches. Get rid of the smiling family portrait that sat on the edge of a painted side table, mocking me. And the piano. Jesus, the piano. It had taken a Herculean effort to get the piano up our porch steps, only to learn that our front doorway wasn't wide enough to accommodate it. It had gone back down the steps, around the side of the house, up another set of stairs and through the French doors. So much careful effort. Now I thought: Burn it. Get it out of my sight.
Safely inside now, Heidi butted her head against Kathleen's legs affectionately. Kathleen reached out a hand to me and said, "We have to keep our heads, Curtis. We have to be strong."
I stared at her, feeling dizzy and unbalanced. It was puzzling that she was here, like seeing a familiar face in the middle of a nightmare. It wouldn't have been hard to take her hand, to fall into her embrace, to wrap my arms around her waist while she wrapped hers around my neck. But I couldn't do it. I couldn't move forward, couldn't take the one step and then another that it would require of me.
Behind us I heard sniffling and turned around. Olivia stood in the doorway to the living room, impossibly tiny, hugging a blanket around her body.
"I'm supposed to call him back," I said. "The sergeant. After I talked to you, he said I should
." And I stepped past them, leaving them there in the living room like two lost little planets, out of orbit, out of sync.
My fingers, thick and unfamiliar, fumbled with the phone. In those awful moments while I waited for the call to be answered, the dial tone buzzing in my ears, I allowed myself to hope that maybe, somehow, it was all a mistake.
But the voice on the other end was the same I'd heard not fifteen minutes earlier. "Sergeant Springer," he said.
I cleared my throat. "Curtis Kaufman."
He laid bare the facts, based on an investigation that was several hours old at this pointhours during which I'd watched David Letterman with Kathleen, and then we'd made love with the particular quiet that comes from having a twelve-year-old asleep down the hall. Impossible. Meanwhile Daniel had been motionless on the pavement. Someone from the pizza parlor had come outside, hearing the crash, and glimpsed the truck as it drove away. It hadn't been hard to identifya commercial truck, a small town. The suspect had been asleep already by the time he was apprehended.
"Asleep?" I demanded. "Was he drunk?"
He'd passed a breathalyzer; a blood draw had been taken later at the station. There were no other details at this time, Sergeant Springer said, but he would be in touch. He gave me his direct line, his personal assurance that
"Wait." I couldn't let him hang up. I reached for a yellow legal pad, turned to a fresh page. There was something I needed to know. "Tell me his name. I want to know his name."
The sergeant hesitated. "At this stage in the investigation
"His name," I repeated. The voice that came out of me was surprisingly low, almost a growl. It didn't sound anything like me. I was the soft-spoken voice in the back of the room at faculty meetings; I wasn't a teacher who yelled or threatened. I was the calmer parent on the rare occasions when Daniel or Olivia needed discipline. But this new voice had authority; it was intimidating. It reminded me, in an alarming way, of my father.
The sergeant gave a small sigh, a gesture of hopelessness or maybe regret. "Robert Saenz. That's his name."
"Spell that for me," I ordered. In the middle of a clean page I wrote ROBERT SAENZ, and then I drew a box around it, digging the pen deeper and deeper, a trench of dark lines and grooves, until the ink bled through the page. olivia Iwanted to know everything. Dad had spent most of the night in his office making phone calls. When he finally joined Mom and me in the living room, he was carrying a yellow legal pad full of notes that he refused to show me. Dad had a scientific mind-set, and I wondered if he had been trying to add things up, to find the flaw in the logic, so that somehow Daniel wouldn't be dead.
"I'm practically a teenager," I told him from the window where I had been looking out at our street. The neighbors were still sleeping; none of them knew yet. It was almost morning by then, although not according to my standards. Our cuckoo clock had clucked four-thirty, and the sky outside was beginning a slow shift from black to purple. I'd been twelve for less than a month, but that was too old to be shooed away from adult conversations. "Dad," I said, so sharply that he looked directly at me, then down again at his legal pad. "I'm not a child."
He slumped onto the couch like a deadweight, hair still flattened on one side from his pillow. Mom, perched on a chair across from him, was out of tears for the moment. She asked, "What did you find out?"
Dad looked at me for a long beat, and I stared him down.
"All right," he said softly. While he talked, he kept his gaze on the carpet, as if it were suddenly the most interesting carpet he'd ever seen. And even though I'd wanted to hear it all, I found that the only way I could handle the details was to leave the window and sit on Mom's lap with her arms wrapped around my waistexactly like a child.
As Dad spoke, I re-created the scene in my own mind. I was good at thatvisualizing scenarios. Daniel had met friends for pizza after a late-night practice session. It was after one when he left the restaurant, with snow starting to fall. He would have been bundled up in the coat Mom bought him online after a fruitless search of California stores for appropriate Ohio winter wear. He would have been wearing a knitted hat, pulled low over his ears. Maybe with his ears covered and his head down, he didn't hear the truck behind him, barreling down a side street and swerving, taking the corner too fast. Maybe he was replaying music in his headan aria, a sonata. The truck hit a metal speed limit sign, uprooting it from its concrete base and sending it through the air, as unexpected and deadly as a meteor dropping from the sky. The sign came crashing down on an oblivious Daniel, and just like that, my brother had died. Dad enunciated carefully: a blunt force injury to the head.