The secretary who alerted us to Walter’s disappearance said he worked late Friday then went out for drinks with the other young lawyers. Nine thirty-six Saturday morning he made an ATM withdrawal, his last official interaction with the world. He bought—what? Coffee, maybe, a beignet, the paper. When my father and my youngest brother and I flew to New Orleans to spend a day with the police, we found Walter’s wallet on his bureau, complete with driver’s license, credit cards, and a remaining one hundred and ninety-five bucks.
I’d last seen Walter on my honeymoon. I called him after checking into the Maison Dupuy and we said we’d meet for brunch. Then Isobel got in touch with a college friend, a violinist with the Louisiana Philharmonic.
“I invited her,” said Isobel. “Is that cool?” She was painting her nails in the bathroom, sitting on the edge of the old-fashioned tub, and we could see each other in the mirror on the back of the half-open door. She was one month pregnant with our son, Jasper, though we didn’t know it at the time. “Alix is a babe. Maybe they’ll hit it off.”
“I wouldn’t get your hopes up.” Walter’s few girlfriends had all been plain and kind of geeky, like him.
“He never dates anyone. I don’t get it. He’s such a nice guy.”
“He doesn’t do so great with girls. Poor old Beetle.” We used to call him that because he’d looked like one, with his big glasses and small head and skinny limbs and sleek black cap of hair. In college he got contacts and gained some weight and stopped answering to the nickname but I still slipped into it every now and then.
“There hasn’t been a single woman in his life, since we’ve been together.”
“I guess Torrey Harvey was three or four years ago. She painted that ugly eggplant picture my mom has in her kitchen.”
“Maybe Walter’s gay.”
“He’s just shy. Antisocial.” But as I spoke the words I felt a thrill in my stomach, a flutter in some digestive inlet, like she’d jumped out at me from behind a door. She saw a change in my face too, in the wavery old mirror, and she kind of smirked, a look I was beginning to recognize as one that said she knew she’d gotten to me.
“Your family is so conservative. He’d have to hide it.” She stood and ran her nails under the faucet. Isobel was Jewish. At our rehearsal dinner my father had made a joke about how Christian women wanted their husbands to buy Viagra but Jewish women wanted their husbands to buy Pfizer. He cherished his repertoire of off-color jokes. He liked to tell them at gatherings after he’d gotten sufficiently lit, pulling them out like contraband cigars. At the dinner he’d included the joke in his toast, for the whole party to hear. I remembered staring down into the crappy dessert, not wanting to look at him, or Isobel, or anybody. Isobel had put her hand on my knee, pressing beseechingly, and I’d known that already I was letting her down.
I picked up the remote and flicked on the small television. “He’s just a loner, is all. End of story.”
After Walter disappeared my mother gained twenty pounds, started smoking, and stopped coloring her hair. Christmas dinner opened with her going out into the back yard to cry. We took turns trying to get her to come in. It was a cold winter, dry, and as my mother and I stood against the old oak in the back yard I felt the wind through the weave of my sweater, working its way into my blood. A whirligig of dry leaves rose and spun on the dead grass. My mother’s hands shook as she dragged on her Marlboro Light, and the cigarette fell from her bare fingers, only half-smoked. Her shoulders convulsed.
I held her mink out to her. The coat was her pride and joy, and she regretted she had no daughter to pass it on to. Isobel didn’t wear fur—not that my mother thought of her as a daughter.
She waved the coat away. I draped it over her shoulders anyhow and she shrugged so that it slid to the ground. I picked it up and pulled it over my own shoulders. It smelled of her Givenchy. “You’re going to make yourself sick,” I said, “and that’s not going to help Walter, or anybody.”
“What if he doesn’t have a coat?”
“Hopefully he’s somewhere warm,” I said. She began to wail—she put her face in her hands and rocked back and forth in a way which seemed European to me, not her usual style, and affected, in a way it wouldn’t have been on an actual European woman. I tried to put my arm around her but she rocked out of my reach.
Lindsey refilled my mother’s drink and returned looking dazed and smelling of smoke—he was trying to quit, but he said he hated to let her smoke alone. Isobel pushed herself up out of the chair. She was eight months pregnant—her hair was thick and shiny and a dark brown line had developed on her stomach, running vertically over the curve, like someone had drawn on her with brown marker. She wasn’t sick anymore but the baby was crushing her diaphragm and her breaths came shallow and fast. She put her coat on and said, “I’ll go.”
My father and Lindsey and I waited at the table, the gravy congealing on the plates. My father cleared his throat and topped off his glass. Normally my parents drank wine at dinner but tonight they’d dispensed with that formality and put the Tanqueray bottle directly on the table. They drank it straight—they didn’t like anything messing with their gin. My father shook his head. “It’s hard to know what to say to her. It’s—this waiting is hard.”
Lindsey and I nodded in unison.
“It would be easier if we just knew, if his body turned up. Then we could have a service, say some words. We have to wait seven years before we can declare him dead, officially.”
“Maybe he’s not dead.” I poured a finger of gin, then a small fist, into my empty water glass, breathed in the acrid juniper smell. I downed it all at once. It tasted awful.
My father stared at me, frowning, looking exactly like Lindsey. I looked more like my mother, and Walter didn’t look like either of them. My father said, “I don’t see how that’s possible.”
“He should’ve at least left a note,” said Lindsey.
Our father looked at him sharply. “He didn’t kill himself. Not our boy.”
A log crashed in the next room. The Handel CD ended abruptly. I pushed back my chair. “I’m going to clear these plates.”
Lindsey stood too but my father said, “Let your mother do it. She needs to be busy.” My father couldn’t make a bed or iron a shirt; he couldn’t fry an egg without setting off the smoke alarm. I knew that if my mother died first he’d be one of those old guys who lived on cereal and cultivated ear wax a foot deep. His one contribution to their household’s domestic life came in October, when he roasted a whole suckling pig and served it with an apple in its mouth. But he’d refrained this year, saying he wasn’t in the mood.
The back door slammed and Isobel guided my mother into the dining room. “I’ll make you some tea,” Isobel said. She took the gin glass from my mother’s hand.
I grabbed a couple of plates and followed Isobel into the kitchen. “Whatever you said did the trick.”
“I didn’t say much. I went out, I put the coat over her, she was like, okay, I’ll come in now. She just didn’t want to talk to me.” Isobel filled the kettle with water and turned on the range. “On the other hand, I know this sounds bitchy, Adam, but I think she needed all of us to go out there. She should really see somebody. A shrink or something.”
“She says psychiatry is self-indulgent.”
“You guys are too much.” She turned to the sink and began to hand wash the plates, my parents’ wedding china. They couldn’t go in the dishwasher, something I would have forgotten. “You know what is self-indulgent, what she’s doing right now.”
Again I had that sense she’d jumped out at me. “My parents think he was murdered.”
She faced me and pushed her hair behind her ears, getting suds on her temples. “Of course they think that. If it was suicide, it reflects badly on them.”
“I think he’s still alive.”
She didn’t answer. She turned back to the sink. She dried a plate and placed it carefully in the rack.
Walter couldn’t come to our wedding. As he’d told me over the phone, his law school graduation was scheduled for the same Sunday. He went right from Tulane to a job downtown.
Isobel and I met him at a little place in the Garden District. Alix pulled up in a black Saab, as good-looking as Isobel had claimed she was—a real blonde, in a sundress with straps that crossed in the back. As I’d feared, Walter became shy. He told us what was good on the menu and I asked him about his new job, but after the food came I gave up, watching him eat his eggs then his fries then his melon, giving into the girls’ conversation. “She’s a genius,” Isobel said, stirring sugar into café au lait. She pointed her spoon at Alix. “I mean the last time I heard her play, I cried. I wanted that piece for our wedding, but my mother thought we should have the Purcell.” Her mouth twisted with an injury that seemed to come and go. “Not like I remember anything about the music, anyway.”
They went off together to the bathroom. Walter looked at me and raised his eyebrows. “How was the wedding?” he asked.
“Kind of surreal. Like it was happening to someone else.”
“I’ve heard that before.”
“It was like I couldn’t get a hold on it.”
“You guys are married now.” He crumpled his napkin and dropped it onto his plate. “That’s the important thing.”
“Dad made one of his jokes at the rehearsal dinner. In his toast. About Jewish women.”
“Mom didn’t tell me that.”
“Yeah. She wouldn’t, would she. I know he has his ways, but I kind of couldn’t believe it.”
“I believe it.”
“I guess he was trying to be funny.”
“He’s a bigot.”
I shook my head, ready to say that our father should have kept his mouth shut, but what I actually said startled me. “It ruined the whole weekend. For me, for Isobel too. She was really pissed.”
“I hope you told him off.”
“I didn’t want to completely alienate him right then, right there.”
“So you alienated your wife instead.”
At the next table, a small boy began to shout for juice. I passed my hand through my hair. “Fuck. I should have said something.”
The waitress came to clear plates and more coffee, and Walter busied himself helping her stack things. I watched her walk away. A thong reached from her jeans to cut over her hips. Alix and Isobel emerged from the ladies’ room and stopped before the flower arrangement at the front desk. Alix had put on bright lipstick and Isobel had done something different with her hair. They slid into their seats. I put my hand on Isobel’s knee. I felt the breath of her skin through her skirt. She looked at me like she had no idea who she was.
The waitress dropped the check on the table, and Walter and I both got a hold on it. “Give me the damn thing,” he said.
Jasper was born in January, eight months after Walter vanished. For the first six weeks of my son’s life I woke in the middle of the night and leaned over Isobel and watched him as he slept, in the co-sleeper attached to her side of the bed. His every motion and expression, it was like I could feel it the way Isobel must have, kneeing me in my gut—when he twitched in his sleep, kicked off his blankets, extended an embryonic hand, stuck out his lower lip in distress, coughed and sneezed with a cold I’d brought home from work. On bad nights he slept on my chest and I held him against me, a tiny huddle of bones and membrane, all floppy neck and dour, downturned mouth and curmudgeonous chin—so light, he rose and fell with my breathing. I knew that whatever happened to him would happen to me too.
Sometimes in those early weeks it seemed that Isobel and I had done a reckless and willful thing, acting without regard for the potential perils, the possibility that something might go wrong. I thought about Walter every day, every morning when I poured my coffee and opened the cabinet and saw the cup he used to select out of all the other ones when he would come to visit me, a Far Side mug that depicted a group of lemmings, running, one of them wearing a life jacket. Isobel and I had gotten rid of most of the random stuff we’d separately owned, but I’d kept this mug for Walter, remembering he liked it, and after he disappeared seeing it made me feel better, like he might walk in and take it down. What I felt in general though, concerning Walter, was a sense of limbo. It was like when I used to ride the school bus and it would come to a stop but fail to roll back on its wheels to settle, the way my body expected it to. Our phone would ring and I would jump to get it and when I hung up Isobel would look at me sorrowfully.
He’d been gone for almost a year when Lindsey and I decided to throw our parents an anniversary party. They shared an anniversary weekend, that last weekend in May, with Isobel and me. It would be their thirtieth, our first. Isobel got involved in the planning, and soon enough there were seventy people coming. “The lilacs will be out,” she said. We were drinking coffee at the wooden kitchen table. “We won’t even need flowers.” She wrote something on her list of things to do for the party, then made a funny face at Jasper. He was smiling and chortling by now, though I never could seem to amuse him the way Isobel could. She reached to wipe spittle off his face. He shrieked, his little hands flailing on the tray of his bouncy seat. “He wants out.” She unbuckled him and bounced him lightly on her knee. “I think this will be really good for your mom,” she said. “She needs cheering up.”
I’d begun to feel uneasy about the party as soon as the RSVP’s started coming in—wishing we hadn’t decided to do it, that it would rain so hard we’d have to cancel, or something. I wasn’t doing the things I was supposed to be doing, like ordering the booze and arranging to get the yard sprayed against May flies.
Isobel said, “You know, before I met Walter—when we were first going out—I thought there was something wrong with him. Like, he was schizto, or had OCD or something.”
“Are you serious?”
“The way you used to talk about him. It was like you were hiding something.”
“Why didn’t you ask?”
“I barely knew you.”
“We slept together on our first date.”
She covered Jasper’s little ears. “Seriously, when I finally met him, I was totally relieved.”
I checked the driveway for Lindsey. It had rained early that morning and mist softened the fence, the barn, the remote Berkshire hills. A Ford Escape rolled by, tires rushing against the damp road.
“I called him, you know. About our wedding. I said we’d change the date. I wanted him there. I’ve always kind of wondered if he really had his graduation that weekend, or if it was some sort of excuse. Maybe he just didn’t want to come.”
“Why the fuck wouldn’t he?” I got up and rinsed the Far Side mug and put it back in the cabinet.
She pointed at Jasper.
“He just always seemed like, he’d ended up in the wrong family.”
I heard gravel under wheels, heard Lindsey’s signature horn. The two of us owned and ran a tree service company. We’d started the business after college, a temporary career that had become permanent. I kissed Jasper, then Isobel. She turned her head so that instead of her lips I got a mouthful of hair. Jasper didn’t cry when I left, like he did with Isobel. He watched me eagerly and brightly through the mesh of the screen door, his little feet and hands moving, as always, with mysterious industry.
I slammed the door of the truck and Lindsey pulled out onto 41. “How’s Jasper?” he asked.
“Good.” On some level I couldn’t help but think he wasn’t really interested. Lindsey nodded ponderously, tapping his fingers against the wheel.
“Isobel just told me that she used to think there was something wrong with Walter. Like he wasn’t normal. Before she met him—from the way I talked about him.”
“She was right,” said Lindsey. “Normal people don’t off themselves.”
“That’s not what happened.”
“You didn’t know what was going on with him anymore than I did.”
“Yeah, well, we both should have made more of an effort.”
“That’s sweet, Adam.” He reached over with one hand and patted my knee. “You never used to be so sensitive. It must be Isobel.”
“What do you mean?” His constant snide remarks about Isobel made me think he had a crush on her, which bothered me for obvious reasons, but also because I knew he only lusted after women he didn’t respect.
“She ain’t no Yankee. There’s like, medication all over your house.”
“She gets migraines.”
“Well, walk it off.”
“Shut up, Lindsey,” I said. “It’ll be a long day if you don’t.”
I turned the radio to NPR and looked out the window. We passed a lustrous stretch of farm land. Silos gave off a gleam and cows walked single file from a low red barn. By the time we got to Millerton, the sun had come out and was dangling low over the hills, burning a hole through the mist.
We were taking down a diseased copper beech, in the backyard of a woman our mother knew from her quilting group. The woman was elderly and lived alone except for a Jack Russell terrier. “My grandchildren are going to be heartbroken,” she said. She was pressing at her eyes with a shredded bit of Kleenex. At first I thought she had allergies—the pollen count was high that year—but then I saw that she was crying. Tears hung in the complex wrinkles around her eyes and mouth. The dog jumped around her ankles, barking at me and Lindsey and the ground guys, who’d met us at the site. It seemed like one of her kids should have been there with her too.
“It doesn’t look sick to me,” the woman said.
“There’s some pretty obvious decay,” Lindsey said. I shot him a look. He was a good climber, but he didn’t understand, or seem to respect, the love people had for their trees.
“I suppose I’ll just have to trust you,” she said.
“It’s a shame,” I told her. “But we wouldn’t want any of your grandkids getting hurt.”
A wooden swing hung crookedly from the thick, twisted branches, the grass scuffed away underneath. Even with the leaves still budding the beech covered the ground in a tapestry of shade; without it the yard was going to look right over to the neighbor’s house, which was painted an ugly bright yellow. I put my hand against the trunk. It was rough and damp and solid under my palm, the bark ridged and gray like elephant skin.
Lindsey and I gassed up our saws, strapped on our saddles and spikes, and began to climb, reaching into the crevices and hollows, sodden and soft with cobwebs. The cars going by on 41 sounded different from inside that tree, far away and dreamy and secretive. Lindsey climbed behind me, like when we were kids, to the tree fort in the old oak—except that then Walter would be between us—going up there when our parents had parties in the back yard, over the summer. We’d lift a beer or two from the cooler and climb and watch the party, hoping to see down the women’s dresses.
I passed the knots of old rope that held the swing, worn smooth and gray, part of the tree by now. I climbed higher and heard Lindsey’s saw behind me. I looked back. He cut through the loops and the ends of the rope knocked through the leaves, going down.
“She’s watching us,” I said.
“Like I give a shit.”
We crotched our climbing lines around a branch and Lindsey set up a lowering line. I looked at what he’d done. “More,” I said. He drew the rope around again and tied it off. He shouted down to Kevin and Mack. They lowered the limb on the pulley we’d rigged, and Lindsey and I prepped for our next cut. I leaned back and dug my spikes into the trunk.
“This’ll be a two day job,” said Lindsey. We rested in the arms of the beech, getting our breath.
“At least.”
“Mimi Getchel called the office yesterday, about her red oak needing a haircut. I told her we could fit her in this week.”
We passed a bottle of water back and forth. I said, “I was watching a movie on television last night. It was about a guy in a witness protection program. He gets a new identity and everything. Then he shows up years later, when his brother needs a kidney.”
“Beetle’s dead,” said Lindsey. I stared at him, surprised that he’d used the old name. He looked away. He wiped his forehead with the crook of his arm, felt in his pocket and pulled out a cigarette.
I paused, feeling self-conscious. “I don’t think so.” Below, the guys shouted at each other, untying rigging and sawing up the limbs.
“He’s dead.”
“Isobel thinks he’s gay.”
“Yeah, I hope not.”
“He’s had, like, two girlfriends, ever. That time he brought Torrey home for Christmas, I shared a wall with them, and I didn’t hear anything the whole week, not one thing, not the bed, not anything.”
“Maybe she was on the rag or something.”
“What’s the big deal, if he is?” Leaves shook on a branch, going into the chipper.
“Was. You’ve gotta stop talking about him like that.”
“I know he left his wallet and stuff. But what if he had a boyfriend. They could have gone off together somewhere.”
“If that’s the case…” Lindsey said. He stopped. I glanced at him, saw him shaking his head into the brush below us. “If I ever find out that’s true, I will track him down and kill him personally. I swear to God I will.” He ground out his butt on the bark of the tree and flicked it away. He yanked the chain of his saw. There was a light in his eyes. He attacked a limb, and the serrated edge of the blade almost nicked my arm.
“Watch it,” I shouted. He looked back at me, his face smooth and stubborn.
We split up and he climbed above me. I walked out along a big limb, pulling my line tight. A branch struck my right shoulder, then my saw, knocking it from my grasp—it swung on its tether, hitting me in the leg, the motor shutting off, and I lost my balance and fell, grabbing at the bark. My rope dropped out straight and I took a ride forward twenty feet and smacked into the trunk. My saw thumped a second later. I spat out blood, saliva, a tooth. I watched my boots swing like a hanged man’s.
When I got my breath back I shouted to Lindsey. He peered down through a V where the trunk split off.
“You got me,” I said.
The morning of the party I slapped at Mayflies with my left hand and watched, my right arm bound in a cast, as Lindsey set up card tables and dragged the living room speakers onto the flagstones. Isobel covered the tables with Indian bedspreads and anchored the material with rocks.
At seven o’ clock people started showing up. I got a beer and drank it quickly and changed the selection of CDs. I sat in a foldout chair near the bar and watched Isobel move among the guests, Jasper on her hip, pouring wine into plastic glasses. The lilacs hung in heavy clusters from their thin, flexible branches, filling the whole countryside with their smell—besides Jasper after a bath, the prettiest smell in the world.
Another set of lights flashed in the driveway and my parents stepped onto the patio. My mother stopped short and looked around. She’d be comparing Isobel’s touch to her own, this to the parties she used to have. My mother used to cover the picnic table with linen, bring out her wedding silver and crystal and arrange roses, no matter what season, in a china vase that had belonged to her maternal grandmother. We were using plastic and paper but Isobel had lined candles along the low stone wall and hung colored lanterns in trees. I knew what my mother was thinking—both that it was too much and not enough.
I went to them, stopping at the bar to fill two plastic glasses with gin, Gordon’s—laid up, I’d forgotten to ask Lindsey to stock the bar and all we had were big plastic bottles of cheaper stuff, left over from a tailgate I’d held a few years ago. My mother said, “I didn’t know it was going to be such a big party. This dress—I never would have worn this dress.”
“You look great, Mom,” I said, but she didn’t look fantastic. Mascara clumped wetly along her eyelashes and lipstick wandered past the lines of her mouth. She’d continued to gain weight, as if harboring a phantom pregnancy. The hot pink dress didn’t fit her. She pinched at the material over her hip, pulled tight.
“I don’t know what I was thinking,” she said.
I handed over the drinks. The guests began to notice my parents, and approached in twos and threes, picking their way across the damp spring grass, not exactly in a hurry. They were weirded out by what had happened with Walter. I’d taken to noticing the way my father’s golf buddies talked too loudly and jovially, the way even my mother’s old friends from Miss Porter’s shifted their gaze around her, as if her tragedy was in bad taste somehow.
They climbed the patio steps, the men with their florid, weathered cheeks, the women in white pants and bright pinks and blues, their hair a ubiquitous shade of blonde. There was Patty Greene, getting over her third divorce; Wes Matthews, who’d dated my mother in college; Amy Clark, whose three daughters my mother had wanted us to marry. There was Billy Strout, a belligerent drunk; Linda Lavery, who used to model and had once confessed to me that she’d slept with Steve McQueen. They reached for my parents, touching them lightly. And then once they’d paid their respects they descended again to the lawn, clustering together like the lilacs in the soft darkness. My mother’s dress rode up over her knees and hiked in folds around her hip, as if trying to climb her. She yanked at herself, and drank.
“There’s Lindsey,” I said.
He and Isobel were engaged in conversation on the far side of the lawn. Isobel crossed one leg behind the other and rocked swayed a little, Jasper against her shoulder. She adjusted her hold and waved her right hand in front of her face. A horde of May flies hung there in the fuzzy lantern light. Lindsey reached for Jasper and Isobel gave him up, arranging a burp cloth over my brother’s shoulder.
My parents followed me. “Mrs. LePeter, you look beautiful,” Isobel said. She gave my mother a polite hug. After Jasper was born, she’d asked my mother if she could call her Edie, and my mother had said no.
My mother said, “I wish I’d worn a wrap.”
“Take mine.” Isobel held out her white shawl, and my mother took it, then handed it right back.
“It’s silk.” My mother had eczema, and she claimed silk caught on her hands.
“Bedtime,” Isobel said. She took Jasper from Lindsey and we watched as she walked towards the house. Her dress lit up and became transparent as she approached the glass doors, and the outline of her legs appeared through the thin, dark material. I looked at Lindsey, and he glanced down and swatted at a fly.
“Just like I told you,” he said. “Sensitive.”
Isobel dragged the patio doors closed and she and Jasper disappeared from the floating, lighted box of the living room.
Lindsey coughed and stuck his hands in his pockets, so forcefully he pulled his shirt out of his pants and I saw a half-moon of flesh and hair. My father pushed at his nose with his knuckle and sniffed. People danced gently in the grass, slow and careful with each other. Linda Lavery laughed somewhere behind us, a boozy cackling laugh. For the first time since Walter had vanished, we were alone, just the four of us.
“How about another,” said my father. He took my mother’s glass and moved over to the card table bar. He turned and raised the gin bottle in my direction. “Gordon’s?”
“Sorry,” I said.
They drank in unison, their eyes closed, as if taking poison. “We should mingle,” said my mother, to my father. He nodded, but they didn’t budge.
Isobel stepped back out of the bright living room, pulling the cord of the baby monitor behind her. She knelt and set the receiver down on the flagstones. The red light twitched along with Jasper’s breathing. She came towards us, the solid forward curve of her thighs and the triangle of her crotch sketched out under her dress. Lindsey stared openly. She lighted on us like a moth, then crossed her arms and looked away.
Jasper yelped and the light jumped. Isobel bit her lip. We waited—the light dipped and leapt, and the cry continued, that grinding, mechanical infants’ cry. “I’ll go,” I said.
“So fast?” My mother looked from Isobel to me. “Let him cry a little.”
“We don’t do that,” I said.
“I don’t understand why not.”
Isobel shook her head. “If he cries, and no one comes, he’ll learn that he’s not going to get a response. He’ll learn not to look for one.”
Lindsey and my father stepped back, disassociating themselves from this female dispute, making room for it. I had the urge to do so as well.
“That’s nonsense,” said my mother. “So he cries. Babies cry. They have to cry to sleep, it’s how they put themselves to sleep.”
I wasn’t even sure I disagreed with her, but I said, “This is how we do it. We have our own way.”
“He could be hungry, or wet,” said Isobel. “Or too cold or too hot. Or just lonely.”
“He’s tired.” My mother tipped back her head and drank defiantly. “That’s a tired cry. I know one when I hear one.”
Isobel turned and walked quickly back to the house. The disc jumped on a scratch, then skipped to the next song. Citronella candles sent lines of thick smoke into the air.
I said, “Remember when we used to call him Beetle?”
My mother cried out, and her body jerked as if she’d been shot. She reached for my father.
“I know he didn’t like it but I still think of him that way sometimes,” I said. I looked at Lindsey. “I never knew how much it bothered him until he freaked out about it all of a sudden.”
“Neither did we.” My father stroked my mother’s upper arm. She took a cigarette from her pink purse and lit it with shaking fingers.
“I wonder if he did all along, or if he just decided, suddenly.”
“Cut it out,” said Lindsey. He gestured towards our mother. “She’s upset.”
“Why shouldn’t she be. She lost her son.”
“Lindsey’s right,” my father said. “Now’s not the time.”
“You guys don’t ever want to talk about him.”
Lindsey said, “Adam thinks Walter was a fag.”
“I never said that.” My arm was starting to hurt.
“That’s right, Isobel said it.”
“She just said she wondered.”
“She has no right to cast judgments,” said my mother. “She barely knew him.”
“Neither did any of us, apparently,” I said. My mother flinched again and put a hand over her eyes. I turned to my father. “I know one thing though. He would have hated that wedding toast you made, maybe as much as I hated it.”
My father took the last sip of his drink and his face seemed to lose its interior structure, like a building in the final stage of collapse. I grabbed the bottle of Gordon’s and handed it to him. “Here,” I said. “Knock yourself out.”
Isobel was bent towards the oven, struggling with something. She straightened and set a pie on the table. I tried to kiss her on the mouth, but she turned and I got her hair instead.
“Why do you do that?” I put my hand on her shoulder. She shrugged me off. Lindsey busted in with a load of empty Heinekins. Jasper wailed and Isobel left, detouring around my brother when he didn’t move out of the way.
He dropped the bottles in the sink. “Nice job out there,” he said.
“You know I’m right.” I leaned against the wall and rubbed my neck with my left hand.
“You used to have a sense of humor.”
“That joke wasn’t funny. Not ever and especially not then.”
“I heard a good one from Kevin and Mack the other day.”
“Keep it to yourself.”
“What’s the difference between a JAP and a bowl of Jell-O?”
“Let’s say Walter is dead. That means it’s just us, now. You and me.”
He took another beer from the fridge and flipped it open. “Jell-O moves when you eat it.” He took a sip then clamped his lips shut, almost comically, the way Jasper did when he didn’t want the bottle.
I stepped forward and grabbed his face with my left hand and pushed his head against the fridge, knocking aside a bunch of colorful magnets and photos of Jasper. I felt Lindsey’s wet lips and the sharp bone of his nose underneath my palm. He breathed damply onto my skin. If it had been years ago he would have licked me. He tried to push me away and I dug my elbow into his chest and held him there—but after a minute, even before Isobel came back in for the pie, I let him go.
Isobel and I were silent as we put away what we could manage, leaving the rest for the morning. She went to wash up. I switched off lights and locked the patio doors. A moth thumped against the glass. I went to the den and got out my laptop. I typed in Tulane Law, our wedding date. The following weekend popped up. A list of names, Walter’s among them.
I opened the cabinet and took down the Far Side mug. I looked at it for a good few minutes, summoning up an image of Walter, of him holding it close with both hands the way he always did, his shoulders curved, ducking his head to drink. Then I pressed the cup down into the trash.
Isobel was asleep when I got to bed, a book resting on her chest. I took it from her and closed it, marking her place. I walked down the hallway to Jasper’s room and stepped over the board at his door that had to be the creakiest one in the house. I looked into the crib.
He slept with his arms thrown out, his blankets in a tangle at his feet. I covered him back up and he sighed, so sweetly. I put my left hand lightly on his little head. I wondered what was going on in there. It made my throat ache, to think I’d never really know.

from Backwards City Review, ’07

One Response to “Anniversary”

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