“DON’T EMBARRASS ME,” Shelly says, the conversational prelude I have been hearing more and more often of late. “Don’t sulk when no one talks to you. Don’t be a smartass when they do. No politics, no drinking, no sarcasm. No politics while drinking. No Trump jokes, no comments about comb-overs, red ties, or lies. No liberal smugness. Did I say no drinking? I mean it,
Herbie. You’re sixty-five years old. Act like it, please. No churlish behavior.”
“Okay,” I say. “No churlishness, check.”
At this time of day—four o’clock on a Thursday afternoon—traffic normally would be inching along I-205, but in this era of social distancing, we are practically flying since there is nothing to do and nowhere to go and no one to see except a mask once you get there. Unless it’s family whom you can hug and kiss and infect all you want. A COVID family reunion, in the aftermath of death. At this rate, we will be early, and Shelly and her sisters will have the opportunity without the presence of husbands or partners or children to renew their alliance of family and the bonds of place, both of which are exclusive and neither of which I meet. I will find a corner in which to sit until such time as I can politely depart without her for the breather that she has requested.
“Churlish,” I say. “Good word. Wherever did you find it?”
“Stamped on your forehead,” she says. “Don’t think I don’t see it.”
SHELLY’S SISTER, KELLY, and her husband Tom live on fifty-five acres of hillside forest outside of Eugene, a spot of paradise so removed from city or town as to seem otherworldly. A stand of old growth Douglas Fir forms a backstop to their aerie of grass and house and garden. Birdsong drowns out the traffic on the road beyond their driveway. Tom made a fortune in real estate, but saw the writing on the wall before the rest of us; he got out in mid-2007 in order to become a gentleman farmer of dubious grapes and wild plums and Christmas trees so finely manicured they might as well be artificial. His property is home to a guerrilla army of feral cats and two old St. Bernards who drool lakes while they sleep, which is the only indication that they are alive. They are known collectively as Tom’s Dead Dogs, and Tom, who is something of a St. Bernard himself, has been known to carry one or the other to a patch of grass so it can pee and deposit gigantic mounds of St. Bernard excrement, from what source no one knows since no one has ever seen them eat. Kelly and Tom live there, of course, in their Winchester Mystery House of a home, a structure that seems to be in a state of permanent renovation, remodeling, or addition.
They need such a space since, along with Kelly and Tom and the Dead Dogs, they also house their five financially-dependent adult children and a shifting assortment of spouses, partners, and transitional best-friends-with-benefits. He works harder now than he ever did to support such an enterprise, but he says that a clean life working the dirt doesn’t feel like work at all, that he’s building a legacy to be passed down. For a time, he constantly made noise about taking me on as well: (cue the theme song to Green Acres) a junior partner in artisanal farm life! If Shelly and I were ever to get married, that is. That was the deal, that was the condition, and that’s why that’s all it ever was—noise—and Shelly and I understood three things without having to talk about them: first, that Tom was and is a dreamer of good and kind things, and his dreams are often a substitute for reality and only rarely come to fruition, delight being the idea itself, rather than its implementation; second, Shelly and I were not likely ever to get married, marriage having burned her as it did; third, if he ever had offered for real, I’d probably have said no, and we would have been no better off.
“He’s a good man,” Shelly has said more than once. “Tom. He’s the real deal, and Kelly’s lucky to have him.”
And we both know that this is an indictment of her former husband and me by the negative. After all, her former husband was also my former business partner. In her estimation, I’m tarred by association and partnership, more like her former husband than I am like Tom, and there’s nothing I can say or do to overturn that assessment. Kelly got Tom. Shelly got me.
Shelly has a right to think of me as a shit and a potential embarrassment around her family. For example, she saw nothing wrong or suspect with the fact that her parents had named their six daughters with progressively more ridiculous -elly names. Shelly was first, then Kelly and Nelly, and then after the first three came the unfortunate food and body image variants: Delia (Deli), and the twins, Julie (Jelly) and Belinda (Belly). Her mother’s name was Elly for Eleanor, and there was no question from whom they had all derived.
“What’s wrong with that?” she asked after I had asked the obvious question. I shook my head, knowing that there could be no right answer, at least none that could be verbalized without bad blood coming to a boil. Fifteen years ago, when we first started dating during her separation, she told me that she was close to her sisters, and she was close to her mother, whose life and marriage had been a misery, and she made the warning clear: if her asshole of an estranged father couldn’t break those bonds, then no one else was likely to come between her and her “sister-Ellies.” When I said I had no intention of interfering with the dynamic of her family life, she clamped her mouth shut until the hinges of her jaw looked like two bags of marbles, an expression I have come to know only too well over the years. She’d had her experience of an unsatisfactory marriage before she met me, and she’d had a father who was a shithole on a grand scale; she knew what liars men can be to themselves and others, and she knew the basic motive behind such lies.
Then again, I was in my late thirties when we met and fifty when we moved in together, and I didn’t give her any reason to doubt me, not then. She’d had plenty of time to observe me up close as well as from afar, and she knew me for what I was: socially awkward from a life long lived alone and as unlikely to be unfaithful as I was to be violent. The doubts didn’t come until later, after I’d lost my job at Paradise Real Estate and our own house had been foreclosed, when I didn’t follow Tom’s lead and bail out when he said “jump,” when I could no longer be held aloft by a parachute of my own making.
LET ME TELL you a little more about Shelly’s family. She always describes her sisters and their respective husbands and broods as “THE SALT OF THE EARTH,” and you can read the capital letters in her voice as if the words were closed captioned above her head, but to my mind, that insistence only calls into question the worth of such salt. On the other hand, her father, an out-of work saw mill operator, could never be confused as salt of any kind of savor. He beat her mother regularly and abused each of the girls verbally; he used a belt on all six daughters in lieu of his fists and as a way to avoid an arrest warrant from CPS. He drank, he got mean, and he pissed in the flower beds in the front yard at midnight, and then their mother would stand at the front door to shield them from harm; he had no qualms about using her as a punching bag in those years, given police disinterest in meddling in domestic affairs. Although there were times when her mother gave as good as she got—she once knocked him cold with a cast iron skillet, for instance—by and large, she was the one using the bandages in the first aid box in the mornings.
All of this was a mystery to me when I first met Shelly; she likes well-made, high-quality clothing, her makeup and hair are equally immaculate, and she is a list maker, organizer, and planner. She doesn’t fit the profile of the cringing abuse victim, at least not as I understood it then. Now, I realize that she made up her mind early that she would not be downtrodden, that she would be the only one in charge of her life, and decisions were hers alone to make. She left her parents’ house when she was fifteen, leaving her mother and sisters behind to fend for themselves; she made her way by whatever means necessary and set her sense of guilt aside for the sake of her own life. I admire her history of fortitude and can only wish I had a similar reservoir.
And if her sisters, like their mother, are studies in a series of questionable choices, they are also exemplars of how one accepts consequences, no matter how messy or regrettable. Car crashes after drinking, lung cancer from smoking, children in juvenile detention, and babies, babies, and more babies, with or without partners.
When the phone rings after ten o’clock at night, I am the one putting the pillow over my head, but Shelly gamely takes the call. Every time. Because that’s the price she paid for the bargains that she made.
WE HAVE ERRANDS to run in Oregon City, and after we’re done buying Steelhead and romaine and enough vodka to sink a Russian destroyer, the quiet, inexorable voice of the GPS gives us the backwoods shortcut to I-5. I once knew how to use a map, but now? Get me away from the Portland grid, and I lose all sense of direction. Which means we are in Aurora in a heartbeat and a hesitation, but before I can say a word, Shelly stops me.
“Don’t,” she says. “I’ve heard all about it.”
“What?” I say. “What was I going to say?”
She gives me that look that says, Don’t play stupid. It’s a look that says, I know that you know that I know.
I know. I know. I once had my obsessions with a planned and orderly life. The story is too good, though, not to be repeated.
How Wilhelm Keil established the Aurora Colony as a testament of God’s grace, even as it was evidence of Man’s stupidity in the name of his unrequited, utopian desires. I suppose I should say one man’s stupidity since I don’t want to offend either the collectives of all human beings or all women, who have their own right to the stupidity of their choosing.
This Keil was a tailor and dressmaker and a pharmacist trafficking in patent remedies. He insisted on being addressed as Doctor. Despite his vocational shortcomings and his less-than truthful nature, he believed that God had better things in store. In 1855, he gathered a group of like-minded believers together and they traveled from Missouri to the Pacific Northwest. He had promised his son, Willie, that he would lead the caravan of God’s Chosen to their western paradise. But then with the inconsiderate nature of youth, Willie contracted malaria and died. Believing that a promise is a promise even to those no longer among the living, Dr. Keil ordered a coffin built. Lined in lead then filled with whiskey, the coffin was mounted on the foremost wagon of the caravan and Willie was interred. For two thousand miles, Willie Keil’s pickled body, sloshing in its coffin, led the colonists through plains and mountains.
After all that, after two thousand miles of hauling Willie’s body over mountain and plain, they buried him in the wrong place. They settled for a time in Willapa Bay, Washington, and yet for reasons known only to himself, Dr. Keil buried his son on the road between Raymond and Centralia. They sang a song of his own composition: “Das Grab Ist Tief Und Still” (“The Grave is Deep and Quiet”). Then, disappointed by the rain, the densely-forested hills, and the site’s remoteness from any other settlements, Dr. Keil led his followers back east, then south and across the border to the site of what would become the Aurora Colony.
Aurora thrived as a Christ-centered community for thirty or forty years. Until Keil died that is, and then, the colony fell apart. But Willie’s still in Washington. After all that. Willie’s still in Washington.
“You were going to say that Willie’s still in Washington,” Shelley says. “Like it’s a catchphrase or something, your emblem of cynicism that other people are supposed to understand.”
“Sorry,” I say, even if I’m not. “You understand.”
“Only because I’ve heard it a million times,” she says.
She exaggerates, I think.
“Isn’t that what couples do?” I say. “Listen to each other’s stories?”
“If that’s what we are,” she says. And that’s when the car goes quiet.
WHAT DO PEOPLE do when the economy tanks and their lives fall apart? They drink or they smoke or they drink more. A lot more. And more frequently. They take odd jobs, well below their skills and income requirements, in order to make ends meet.
They move in with parents or other family members and take up residence on the couch. They tend their gardens, flowers, and vegetables, raise succulents and cacti. They renovate the houses from which they have become too poor to move. They cook elaborate dinners and learn how to fold napkins so they stand up like rabbits.
They take up odd and esoteric hobbies—painting china plates and building fairy houses out of forest scraps and knitting booties for dogs and cats who live on hardwood floors—and because such activities have led them to a new understanding of the self, they have plans for memoirs and self-help books and Instagram posts in order to spread their particular version of the gospel.
They become bitter and mean and introverted, then turn their anger on the ones they love because they’re familiar and close at hand.
They look at all the angles and turn to a life of petty crimes.
Or they teach.
They teach: that last was the easiest option available to me. I’d had a credential way back when—just after college, when I thought I needed nobility in a profession, a job with security, and a career with benefits—but when I discovered how easy real estate was in the early ’80s and how lucrative, I had gladly turned in my chalk and eraser and overhead transparency slides. Then, the housing and subprime bubble burst and the bottom dropped out in late 2007, and I lost my job and my house and the nine other houses I thought I’d be turning over; with nothing else to do, I started substituting in whatever backwater district I could find that didn’t already have a cohort of credentialed housewives and bored septuagenarians. I had a secondary credential in math and eight years in the retirement plan, but I had forgotten most of what I had once known, and I was never that good around the middle-school set in the first place, certainly not if it meant seeing them every single day of the week.
Substituting, however, was just babysitting with a better paycheck and without long-term commitment, and I became known among the before-dawn secretaries for never turning down a job, no matter if it was eighth grade math or eleventh grade chemistry, ninth grade English or seventh grade PE. I taught Home Ec and Typing on extended contracts for women on maternity leave and Wood Shop for the alcoholic who cut off his right index finger in the table saw and needed a stint in rehab after the ER. The phone rang at six in the morning like clockwork, and for twelve years, I drove to Estacada or Damascus, Molalla or Colton with the regularity of a common commuter going backwards against the rush hour traffic. But then the Pandemic hit and the schools went online; no one needed a substitute since everyone was already at home, and drinking looked like my last, best, if not only option.
I was living the last of my best lives. God help me, Oprah.
THE DRIVEWAY TO Tom and Kelly’s is graveled and steep, and it’s always a question whether my twenty-year-old, arthritic Corolla with its 300,000 miles of backstory is up to the challenge. You would have thought that in my salad days as a real estate tycoon, I’d have had a better or fancier car, and you’d be right. I tooled around in a Jaguar once upon a time, and I gladly paid for the repairs that seemed to be written into the arrangement, if only for the impression it made on clients. Shelly didn’t mind it either back in the day, and out of the corner of my eye I often caught her sighing when she settled in. That all came to an end, though, along with the house and the houses and the job, and when I took the Jag into Harold’s for yet another problem with the transmission, he made me a deal I couldn’t pass up. We traded titles and keys, and I had a car that ran, even if no one was happy about sitting in it. It also doesn’t like steep hills or gravel, and without looking I can sense Shelly stiffen when I park on the grass berm at the bottom of the hill and phone Tom for some help with the groceries.
“Really,” he says, “when are you going to get rid of that thing?”
“You’ve got to be kidding,” I say. “With all the luck it brings, I’d be a fool to drive anything else.”
“Fine,” he says, “I’ll send Ray down in the quad.”
“What?” I say. “No, don’t…” but by the time I can object, he has already hung up. I don’t have anything against Ray, Deli’s husband, other than the fact he’s a dyed-in-the wool, gun-toting MAGA-maniac. He’s not above sneezing on those who wear a mask and making it seem every bit as intentional as it is. He’s lived in Eugene his entire life, but nothing of the university has rubbed off on him other than the football team and its various uniform combinations. I’ve never seen him wear the same jersey twice. Today, he comes flying down the gravel driveway, bouncing in the ruts like a skier through moguls. Even so, the red ball cap stays screwed down on his head like the lid on a mayonnaise jar.
“Hey,” he says, after sliding to a stop on the grass, “how’s my favorite illegitimate pansy ass-commie brother-in-law?”
“Ray,” Shelly says, a warning to us both.
“I’m kidding, I’m kidding. I know you’re not married.” He gives her a wink as though they’ve rehearsed and they’re in on the joke together. Which is when I hook my black mask over my ears and I can see the logo register in his eyes: “I can’t breathe.”
“You know,” he says, his voice darkening, “it’s more complicated than it looks.”
“Complicated?” I say. “How complicated can it—” but then Shelly spins me around and sticks an index finger in front of the billboard of my nose and face.
“Enough,” she says. “I knew this would happen.” She would hiss if she could. “Load the fucking groceries in the fucking cart.”
We do so, silently, moving the brown paper bags with the groceries and Shelly’s purple overnight bag from the trunk of the car to the bed of Tom’s glorified farm cart, and then I decline the offer to ride with the salmon and Shelly’s underwear and trudge up the hill on my own since it’s a vehicle that only has seats for two.
IF MY CURRENT car gives no indication of my former ride, the duplex where Shelly and I live would be an even greater mystery. As I said, the bottom fell out of the housing market, which is when I lost every house with more than two thousand square feet and I fell back on substitute babysitting. That was also when I found us a place to live after my last trip to the bank as a solvent man.
“This?” she said, looking at the cement steps leading to the metal front door, which had been tagged by a Sharpie with someone’s idea of a gang sign. She thought I was joking until I pulled out the key.
“It’s not much,” I said, “but you get what you pay for.”
As it turned out, I now owned it, so the rent was free, and that was just about what I could afford.
Did I say that everything had gone down the tubes? It’s not that I didn’t have some savings. I did. But it also turned out that when the bubble burst and the loans came due, I was more overextended than even I had realized. By the time everything was settled, there was nothing left, and we moved from new construction in a sub-development in West Linn to a tear-down across the river in Sellwood, sandwiched between two brand new townhomes, and Shelly never forgave me. Not entirely. Which begs the question: why has she stayed with me all these years? I could say that she’s loyal, that it would have been a sign of bad character (in her mind, anyway) if she had dumped me when things went south, and all that would be true, but there’s still some mystery. She could have taken a hike any time in the last ten years, and no one would have blamed her. More of her friends and family probably blame her for staying than would have blamed her for leaving, but since her divorce she’s guilty of holding onto a certain stubborn streak that I would call Catholic if she were. Maybe it requires a calculus beyond my ken. Then again, maybe the small suitcase Shelly pulled from the backseat looks like the indication of a decision-in-the-making long overdue.
I saw the face that Ray made when she dropped the overnighter next to the bags of vodka and fish. He might as well have said, “About time.” He didn’t need to make a political statement, be insulting or sarcastic. He didn’t have to. In any event, they’re probably at the house by now, unloading the back of the quad. I can imagine the conversation, Ray goading, Shelly resisting.
Now as I’m walking up the driveway, I hear two of Shelly’s nieces among the Christmas trees. They have brought out a blanket and they’re having a tea party and playing house among the rows.
“Uncle Herbie,” one of them says. She waves at me to come over to their blanket. They are maybe five years old and both are wearing plastic rhinestone tiaras because they are, after all, princesses. Pink plastic wands with stars at their ends are sure to be nearby.
“Hi, girls.” I don’t know their names, and as far as I can remember they are the daughters of the Jelly Belly twins, born two days apart. Twins of twins and, except to their parents, indistinguishable, but not-Ellies. They have perfectly wonderful names that, at the moment, I can’t remember. If I ever bothered to learn them.
“Do you want to play with us?”
“I’d love to,” I say, a little stunned to realize I’m telling the truth, even though as I sit cross-legged next to their blanket, I wonder how I’ll get up. Maybe I’ll just roll back to the car in a cloud of dust. “May I?”
“Yes, you may.” The second of the not-twins puts another tiara on my head, from what must be an inexhaustible supply.
“Your mask is funny,” the first one says.
This is not a teachable moment, nor do I believe their parents would appreciate it, even if it were. “Who are we?” I ask.
They laugh. “We’re Felicity and Charity,” the first of the two says, “and you’re Uncle Herbie.” They laugh and laugh at my silliness, and, yes, their names are a lot to live up to. More than I ever had to do since they are virtues and I am merely a garden for dilettantes.
“Who are we pretending to be?”
Charity says, “We’ll be the girls, and you be the grandpa. We’ll take care of you since you’re going to die soon.”
“Cheery,” I say. “That’s quite a story. What am I dying from?”
“You’re o-o-old,” Felicity says. “So, so, old.”
“I don’t have to pretend very much, then do I?”
They order me to lie down on top of the blanket; they fold the edges over me, and then, although I tell them it’s not a good idea, they proceed to strip branches from the nearest trees to lay over the top.
“We’re burying you!” Charity yells.
“You’re dead! So dead!” echoes Felicity with more intensity than I find comfortable.
For desecrating his perfect trees, Tom and the Jelly Belly husbands will have their hides later, and I won’t make but a token effort to intervene, but for now, there’s some comfort in being covered up.
“Nice, girls,” I say, “very nice,” because they are nice girls if too willing to vandalize their uncle’s harvest and too eager to see the generations pass away. Twenty years from now, they will miss us, but only objectively, since they will be looking forward to the years to come, rather than our virus-ravaged present from which they remain blissfully unaware given the bubble of their extended family. They put the largest branches over my face until the clouds and sun are blotted from view. I hear them laugh and laugh to the point of hiccups, and then there are the sounds of little girls scampering away, their voices lost to the hillside and the acoustics of the trees. I could get up, but I continue to lie in the bower of my grave, not at all uncomfortable, thinking there are worse things than being alone, such as not being alone and in the company of people who think you’re a wastrel and a fool, which is pretty much how Shelly’s family sees me and (politics aside) pretty much how I see myself. A sixty-five-year-old business failure, out-of-work substitute, and aspiring alcoholic who has never been married and is not likely to be.
I am too much of a believer that when Willie Keil was buried in Washington after making that long trek suspended in whiskey, it somehow invalidated the community’s entire enterprise, a revelation of the community’s most human flaws. His father’s counterfeit background, his father’s human error—an indication that all is illusion. When the real estate went south, I went south with it, but when the market recovered, I remained, stuck on the wrong side of the border. And when the Pandemic overwhelmed us, I drank, seeing no alternatives or optimism. Willie’s still in Washington.
These are the thoughts that are my companions until I’ve dropped into the deepest of reveries. The sun has set, and Shelly is prodding me with the toe of one boot. She lifts one branch from atop my eyes then points a flashlight directly at me, so I go from blindness by darkness to blindness by light.
“My God,” she says. “You are still here. The girls said you were, but I didn’t believe them. I thought you had more sense.”
“I’m here,” I say. “I was thinking things over, and I must have fallen asleep.” “Brooding?” she says. “Really? At your age?”
THE DUPLEX WAS a “gift” of sorts from one of my erstwhile partners. Not just any partner but Jerry, Shelly’s ex-husband, although I never told her that she was living in her ex-husband’s squat. Not at the time. Shelly and I have known each other since 1992 when she and Jerry got married. She was twenty-eight and a former flight attendant for Pan Am, and he was forty-three, a frequent flier, and rebounding from his third failed attempt at marriage. He flashed a good sized roll whenever he flew and Shelly was not immune to its charms nor ignorant of what she was getting into, a marriage of more convenience than romance. At least that was true for her; the lure of the open skies had dimmed considerably after she had traded assignments with a friend and didn’t work the flight that crashed in Lockerbie. She had been too much the orchestrator of her own life to worry about mishap, but now she questioned the roles of fate and meaning and randomness. Which was when Jerry bought her a drink at a layover in New York, then a second and a third in Seattle, and two weeks later they were on a commuter jet to Vegas. She’d had other opportunities and other men she’d liked better, but Jerry had his advantages, a fat billfold among them, and she figured it was time.
They were never a great match, and it turned out that there were reasons why Jerry had been married three times before. He was a good time until he wasn’t, he had money until he was broke, and he always told the truth except when he was lying, which was most of the time. The same qualities that made him a lousy husband and a great first date were the same qualities that made him a great lunch-time two-martini schmoozer and a terrible business partner. Shelly and I started going out while she and Jerry were separated, and she moved in with me the day that the divorce was finalized, and I have always felt that I was a refuge of last resort. She moved into the bright shell of fresh paint and triple-pane windows in West Linn, which was part of my little boom time empire, but that did not in any way prepare her for the Sharpied gang sign on the metal door in Sellwood three years later.
Jerry meant to tear the duplex down and build his very own overpriced and over referenced rental in its place, but when the bubble broke, it broke hard, and we were goners before we could take a breath. My reaction was to reorganize as best I could, pay the debts I had the money for and give the banks back the rest. Jerry’s reaction was a flight to Mazatlán, a waitress from his favorite diner, and a gift of the deed to a duplex that sighed each time the wind blew. This, in exchange for emptying the last of the funds from our partnership account. In our safety deposit box, I found the deed and a note that said, “Love to you and Shelly.” Fuck you, Jerry. Shelly’s reaction to our changes in fortune, home, and car, you already know, but what you don’t know is the next domino. I expected her to spend a day or two with me before throwing in the towel and looking for the next best opportunity. But a decision to love can be filled with unexpected surprises, and she displayed a loyalty matched by a grit I hadn’t expected or presumed. When I brought home cans of paint, she put on one of my tee shirts and grabbed a brush, and when I brought home samples of remaindered flooring, she grabbed the corners of the shabby carpet and began to pull. When I began to substitute at thirty-percent of my former income, she found a job as a secretary/receptionist for a rotating group of ten psychologists in a shared mental health cooperative; she made appointments, helped with billing, and fielded some of the more frantic calls, and not just a few patients said she’d been more helpful than the educated theorizing on offer in the outer offices. Now that the offices are closed for the duration, she has been working from our home of shabby chic, doing all the work by phone and computer that she had done before in person, only without the need for business casual attire.
It turned out that our sweet little dump had been built in one day in the 1940s for the workers at the Kaiser shipyards on Swan Island. The builders used prefabricated sections and cut every corner. It would never be a thing of any kind of beauty, architectural or lyrical, but little by little we had transformed it until it became comfortable enough, mainly because it was ours, while the owners of the townhouses on either side fumed about their proximity to an eyesore that was never going to be removed. We punched a door through the firewall and doubled our square footage. I blew insulation into the walls and in the attic, and we replaced the windows and the strip heaters. After a year, I thought we had established a sustainable equilibrium: I listened for the phone call at six each morning while Shelly readied herself for the emotional drama of the day; at night we reported our various adventures among my temporary high school and middle school students and the therapists and other nutcases of Shelly’s acquaintance. Then, the virus hit. Shelly began to work at home and I was left to mow our postage-stamp lawn as many times a week as I wanted. Many a morning of late has gone by with Shelly in pajamas and socks with a shower taking place during the lunch hour; I hit the bourbon the moment the hot water began to flow. I guess I got a little sour and, given her family history, uncomfortably familiar.
“WILL YOU BE civil?” Shelly asks as we walk past the family parking lot.
“Of course,” I say, “but I take no responsibility if Ray brings up Fauci as alarmist or face masks as governmental overreach.”
“Fair enough. If you promise not to mention hydroxychloroquine or bleach.” She looks at me underneath the porch light of the front door and picks a few Christmas tree needles from my hair and my shirt. “You were Felicity and Charity’s favorite uncle for about twelve seconds.”
“That seems to be all I’m good for these days. In so many ways.”
“You’re okay,” she sighs, “in spite of yourself. But if you won Publisher’s Clearinghouse, you’d bitch about the tax burden.”
“It’s a fair consideration,” I say. “Don’t you think?”
“If your team loses the last game, you’re morose. If your team wins the championship, you’re worried about next season.”
“You can’t live in the past,” I say in self-defense, “except when it’s lousy.”
“As if. The problem with you is that if you lived in paradise, you’d miss it waiting for problems to occur. When there is no such thing in the first place. Eden left in the third chapter, buddy boy, and I hate to tell you how many chapters there are before you get to the end. Life is messy, and you have to learn how to find the diamonds hidden in the landfill.”
“It’s that bad?” I say.
“Take a breath,” she says. “Don’t drink, please. I’m asking nicely. Did you hear me? And put on your big boy pants. Can you do that? Can you do that for me?”
HERE’S THE BASIC problem beneath our most recent problems, at least in the terms that Shelly sees it: she thinks I’ve always held myself as somehow better than her family and her past. That I’m older, with more education, holding more enlightened political opinions. That I freed her from Jerry and the sacramental bondage of marriage. That I saved her from a life among the MAGA hats and farm dirt and quads with mud on the wheels, the absurdity of life as one more -Elly amid the angers of her parents. That I rescued her from the clutches and chaos of a too-large family. That’s what she thinks, I think and—okay—I can’t say she’s not at least partly right. What she doesn’t understand is that I know that for every advantage for which I might be responsible, I can also be blamed for some intimacy among her sisters that she’s lost: the sisters she left behind while her father raged and her mother played punching bag. My mission ever since she left Jerry has been to spare her the chaos and confusion of messy domestic arrangements, which her family epitomizes.
And yet, if I’m honest, whose financial resources have gone down the toilet, not once but twice, a problem that has yet to be resolved? And who has lost heart, pouring the Basil Hayden into the coffee at eight and the Tito’s into the tonic at eleven while his partner works the phones in her pajamas and socks? Who eavesdrops on that soothing, encouraging voice and assumes it cannot apply to him?
That would be me, of course. I assumed that I had the secret to a happy and well ordered life. Until I realized that Willie would always be in Washington. Until I began to live on the kindness of the woman who has, over and over, refused to be my wife.
THEY ARE ALL in attendance when we open Tom and Kelly’s front door. Heads turn; conversations stop, as though in anticipation of the next installment of calamity. As though we’ve joined the clan in its messy disregard. Tom and Kelly, of course. Nelly and her soccer coach partner, Laura. Deli and Ray. The Jelly Bellies. Their put-upon husbands have been shanghaied into playing some sort of game, one that involves no rules and a great deal of running and shouting with Charity and Felicity under the lights of the backyard. Tom and Kelly’s adult children are not in sight, but they might as well be in the house, so palpable is their presence in the guitars and running shoes, the gun case with its assortment of rifles in the foyer and the extra cars on the grass by the front door. Even the dead dogs lift their heads an inch off the dining room floor to eye our approach.
When we come in, the family room is awash in multiple narratives, not to mention the blue haze and smell of skunk as the joints are passed from one to another. The neighbors to the north have ripped out their firs and replaced them with grow houses, now that the industry is legit, and they do a brisk business, especially among those who share their highway address. Nelly is telling Tom a story about the farmhouse she and Laura are renovating, and Kelly is telling the Jelly Bellies, who live in Salem, about the last time she and Deli saw their mother. It is hard, if not impossible, to keep one story distinct from the other, especially within the clouds.
“The thing is,” Kelly says, “she felt rotten, and she knew she was dying, but she insisted on getting her teeth cleaned. Because that’s what you do. She’s eighty-five, half of her teeth are dentures, but she still needs her cleaning.”
“So, we spent the entire day re-plastering and re-tiling the fireplace,” Nelly says, “and we’re sitting down to eat dinner in the kitchen when we hear this sound. Like a tin can hitting the wood floor.”
“I’m telling her, ‘Mom, we could delay this by a few months. Until you feel better.’ You know? I’m trying to buy a little time. But, no, she’s not having any of it. She always gets her teeth cleaned the first week of March. It’s the first week of March, so it has to be now. Okay, okay. We go.”
“I go into the living room, and there on the floor in front of the fireplace is the farm lantern we’ve always kept on the hearth as decoration. It was right there, and then it was on the floor. Somehow the glass isn’t broken, and the lantern is on its side. But it’s not like we had an earthquake. And our foundation is fine.”
Without asking, Tom hands me a water glass half-full of bourbon since he knows I’ve never smoked, one vice being vice enough, and all I can do is shrug while Shelly gives me the eye.
“So, I put the lantern back in its place,” Nelly says, “and we finish our dinner.”
“She gets her cleaning,” Kelly continues, “the hygienist digs and scrapes, polishes and flosses, and then I take her back to the nursing home. All she can do is complain that her mouth hurts.”
“We’re watching television, and the living room is dark except for the screen, when the lantern starts to glow and begins to move across the room on its own before it slowly comes back down to the floor.”
“Ooh,” Tom says. “Ghosties.”
“We get her back to her room,” Kelly says and Deli nods, “tuck her in bed, and leave. Half an hour later we get a call, telling us that she’s gone. ‘Gone?’ I say, ‘where’d she go?’ And then Deli says, ‘Duh, dummy,’ and that’s when the penny drops, you know? I mean, shit, she can’t die, she just had her teeth cleaned. And we can’t have a funeral because Queen Kate says no one can come.”
“Ghosties, is right,” Laura says.
“Kate Fucking Governor Brown,” Ray says. “There’s a story.”
“So, now we’re in the market for a truckload of sage,” Nelly laughs, “or learn how to live with company, from now until forever.”
“Maybe it’s Mom,” Kelly says, “trying to say goodbye.”
“Or maybe,” Deli says, “saying ‘What have you done with my teeth?’”
“Fucking Queen Kate,” Ray says again.
I slide my untouched glass onto one of the end tables, hoping no one, other than Shelly, notices.
“Well,” I say, standing, “on that cheery note…”
Shelly crosses the room to give me a hug goodbye, hurry me out before I say something or before Ray says something more.
“Oh, come on,” Tom says. “Stay over. Everything you need is here.”
“You know he’s right,” Shelly whispers to me alone and not unkindly. “Besides,” and here she punches me gently in my soft middle, “Willie’s still in Washington. You know that. Forever and forever, always and always.”
about From the Archives: Sick Day
Featured • Fiction
From the Archives: Sick Day
"I am usually the one in control, the one working, the one in charge of someone else’s life, their body, and appearance. But here at Singapore Electric, Cheng is taking charge of my body, my appearance, my life."
Featured • Fictionabout From the Archives: Sick Day
Featured • Fiction
From the Archives: Sick Day
From the Archives: Sick Day
"I am usually the one in control, the one working, the one in charge of someone else’s life, their body, and appearance. But here at Singapore Electric, Cheng is taking charge of my body, my appearance, my life."
about Lap Seat
"Bill looked past Joyce, out the window, imagining his son parked in the cell phone lot of the Minneapolis airport, awaiting his father’s call, like so many late nights innocently posed at the front bay window of their home, hoping his father could, at least, be home in time to tuck him in."Ends in: 2109 days
Fictionabout Lap Seat
"Bill looked past Joyce, out the window, imagining his son parked in the cell phone lot of the Minneapolis airport, awaiting his father’s call, like so many late nights innocently posed at the front bay window of their home, hoping his father could, at least, be home in time to tuck him in."