hobart logo

August 2, 2018 Fiction

You Are Not Alone

Catherine Uroff

You Are Not Alone photo

I’d been in the basement for two, maybe three years. My wife, Deena, preferred it that way. After I got used to it, so did I. Our kids knew enough not to grumble when I put away their Ping-Pong table to make room for my stuff. They were good kids, for the most part.

My routine was pretty fixed. I had a two-burner hot plate that I used to make coffee and oatmeal on in the morning. I worked all day in downtown Springfield and then I’d come home, holler hello to our kids, Mariel and Jack, grab a bag of chips from the pantry, and head downstairs again. Some days Mariel would join me. She’d eat chips with me and we’d watch some shows. Jack hardly ever came downstairs but sometimes he’d text me because he needed a ride and I’d come back up and take him places.

I always knew when Deena came home from work because I could hear the sharp taps of her heels on the floor above me. She’d make dinner for the kids and I’d hear that too. Pots and pans crashing into each other. The sizzle of meat in the frying pan. The teapot whistling. The oven timer going off. There were nights when I’d up the volume on the television so I wouldn’t have to hear too much. Sometimes smells would get down to me and I’d be able to tell what she was making. I could almost taste it. Red sauce. Cookies. Bacon. After Deena and the kids were done with dinner, I’d creep back upstairs and make myself a plate.

Was it the best life? No, clearly not. But I didn’t think like that. I was eating three meals a day. I had my television. I was on Facebook a lot. Sometimes Bessie, our old mutt, would lumber downstairs and nose me until I slid over. She’d sleep with me for a few hours before jumping down and trudging back up the stairs.

* * *

Then Deena came down one night. I was watching The Apprentice and laughing because I thought Donald Trump was funny. This was way before the election. I was stretched out on the pullout, scratching my belly underneath the sheets, but as soon as I saw Deena, I muted the TV and stood up.

“What do you want?”

I was embarrassed. I didn’t want her to see the empty, family-sized potato chip bag on the floor, the rumpled sheets on my makeshift bed, Donald Trump’s oily grin filling up the television screen.

“We need to talk.”

“Fine with me. So we’ll talk.”

She clasped her hands together.

“I’ve been worried about Jack lately. He seems so withdrawn these days. I’m not sure he’s doing his schoolwork either.”

“Well, this is a tough age, you know. Being fifteen and all.”

“And Mariel. She’s crying all the time because some girls were mean to her and she hasn’t even gotten her period yet and no matter how I try to console her, she won’t feel better.”

I had nothing to say to this.

“But kids are kids, right, Eddie? Not much you can do.”

“That’s true.”

“I figured that’s what you’d say.”

She took a few steps back. I thought that whatever this was was over.

“Nice talking to you,” I said. “Have a good night.”

I figured we were done. I was thinking about lying down again, grabbing the remote, listening to Donald Trump fire someone.

“By the way,” she said and she sounded very cheerful and determined, “I have a friend named Lionel and he’s moving in in a few weeks. He’s a good man. From England originally. He shouldn’t bother you too much.”

And then she went back upstairs.

* * *

There was an unfinished side of the basement that we used for storage. Its cement floor was always cold and slightly damp. The hot water heater was there, popping and rumbling. We used this side of the basement to put stuff that we didn’t have any use for anymore and I usually tried to avoid it but the night that Deena told me about Lionel, I prowled around that space, kicking things out of my way. Cracked plastic watering pots. Ladder-back chairs that were missing their rungs. Deflated soccer balls from back when Mariel played in the town league. Things from Allie’s apartment were there too but I stayed away from them. She was my sister and she’d died unexpectedly. Deena was the one who’d packed up her apartment. She’d boxed up all of her clothes and shoes and purses and books and brought them down to our basement where they stayed: tall towers of cardboard boxes stacked up against the outside wall. Sometimes, I dreamed that Allie was still alive, that there were pieces of her inside those boxes: her eyes, her ears, her heart.

* * *

Early the next morning, I met Deena in the kitchen.

“Look,” I said, “I have to tell you. This is a horrible idea.”

I’d been up all night thinking about it, the improbability and unfairness of it all. How could she invite another man into my house, to live with my children, to sit in my seat at the dining room table, to piss in my toilet, to pick up my newspaper from the front lawn every morning?  

“I said Lionel is a good man, didn’t I? You may even like him. And right now he needs a place to stay.”

 “Jesus, Deena, do I have to remind you? We’re still married here.”

“We’ve been living separate lives for a while now.”

 “What am I supposed to do? Just pretend like someone else isn’t here, taking my place? Nod and smile when we bump into each other in the hallway?”

“You’ve got your own exit. You could start using it.”

“What are you talking about?”

She led me back downstairs to the side door that opened up to the driveway. She struggled with its rusty bolt but eventually she unlocked the door and opened it. I’d forgotten all about it.

“Here you go, Eddie. You can come and go as you please.”

“It’s not just that,” I said as I followed her back upstairs. “What about the kids? I mean, this has got to be pretty strange for them, right? How can you do this to them?”

“I asked both of them for permission before I even brought up the idea to Lionel and they said OK.”

“Who is this guy anyway? What kind of man wants to live with a woman while her not-even-ex-husband is one floor below them?”

“He knows that, for now, we can’t afford two households.”

“But what exactly is your relationship with him? Friend? More than friend? What?”

“I’ll be honest, Eddie. I do like him. There, I’ve said it.”

“You didn’t answer my question.”

“We’re friends. OK? Does that make it better? Please. This is something I want to do. Sometimes, I swear, I look in the mirror and all I see is this hag. Like I’m a hag now. A tired, old hag.”

“You’re not a hag,” I said.

For a second, I wanted to touch her. Put my hand on her arm. Feel the softness of her cheek with the tips of my fingers.

“But when Lionel’s around, I feel different. I feel better.”

“Well, good for you,” I said and then I went back downstairs.

* * *

I developed some pretty big ideas about who this Lionel fellow might be. I pictured a jolly, soot-faced Englishman who wore a top hat and had a strange cockney accent, like the chimneysweeper in Mary Poppins. Or maybe he’d be some kind of refined intellectual from Cambridge who recited poetry and talked about literature and classical music a lot. Then I imagined that he looked like Hugh Grant. He’d have a long face and long teeth but there’d be something unexpectedly appealing about him anyway and he’d sweep Deena off her feet with his bumbling charm. 

But I slowly began to accept the idea. Deena made it seem so inevitable, so normal. It was Jack who pointed out how messed up everything was. I was driving him to hockey practice. It was a Saturday morning in March, a kind of brutal, bright time in New England. There were no other cars on the road. Jack was hunched over in his seat next to me, glaring at the phone in his hands. I was sailing through green lights. It seemed as if nothing was going to stop us. We’d get to the rink with time to spare. I was happy about that. I wasn’t thinking about Lionel at all. I was just thinking about how well the drive was going, the lack of traffic.

“This is embarrassing, you know,” Jack said.

“What is?”

“That guy moving into our house. I mean, come on.”

He turned to look at me and I could see the pointed fangs of his eyeteeth. He had inherited some of Deena’s delicate facial features: her thin nose, her high cheekbones. But on top of that he had some coarseness: shaggy eyebrows, big ears. That came from me.

“Hey, I agree with you there. You should talk to your mother about it. She’s hell bent on letting him in,” I said.

“Jesus, don’t you get it? You should move out already.”

“Hey, I’m not going anywhere. Why should I?”

“Why shouldn’t you?”

“I’m not getting pushed out of my own house by some random guy. Absolutely not, I’m not.”

And just like that, the conversation was over. Jack didn’t like where it was going or maybe the tone in my voice turned him off or maybe he just lost interest in the whole thing. He turned his focus back to his phone, swiping through the screens. When I got onto I-91, there was traffic because two cars had stalled out in the middle lane. We got to the rink twenty minutes late and Jack barely said goodbye as he jumped out of my car and got his gear out of the trunk: his stick, his skates, his gloves.

* * *

After that, Lionel became this other kind of person, this evil, cunning mastermind.  Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs. I started having problems sleeping at night. Three AM and I’d be clutching the bed sheets to my chin, moaning to myself about what Lionel was soon going to do to me, to everyone in my family. He’d win over Jack. Mariel too. He’d fuck Deena so well and so long that the entire neighborhood would be able to hear her satisfied moans.

* * *

The day Lionel moved in, it rained. When I woke up and saw the weather outside the small, single pane window above my bed, I thought it was fitting. Bad weather for a bad day. I was also extremely exhausted and the right side of my jaw hurt as if I’d been gritting my teeth throughout the night. The day before I’d half-heartedly looked online for apartments to rent but everything I found was on the wrong side of town or too expensive or at least that was what I told myself before I stopped searching.

Upstairs, there was a riot of footfalls. Deena running up and down the stairs, this way and that across the floor. I imagined she was making the house look nice for his arrival. Plumping up the cushions on the couch. Shaking out the runner in the front hall. Dusting the baseboards, polishing the banisters. Wiping down the glass windows that framed the front door. I got out of bed very slowly. I took a long hot shower, not minding for once that I was probably using up all the hot water for the rest of the family. By the time I was done, everything was quiet, so quiet that I thought the house was deserted. Maybe Deena and the kids had taken Lionel out for breakfast or something like that. I could creep upstairs and examine his luggage, unzip his suitcases, rifle through all of his belongings, take a measure of the man by what he’d brought with him.

And then I heard him. His wasn’t a booming voice and he didn’t sound jovial or bookish or particularly sophisticated at all but he wasn’t wicked sounding either. He was just a man. Talking to my wife in a clear and steady way. Deena, your house is lovely. Deena, thank you for taking me in. Deena, yes, I’d love a cup of tea. Thank you.

They were in the kitchen, sitting at the long table in front of the bay window that overlooked the back yard. Bessie thumped her tail twice when she saw me. Deena had put out a plate of homemade cookies and the tea that they were drinking was so freshly made that I could still see the steam wafting up from their cups. I also saw Lionel, the shiny, quarter-sized bald spot on the crown of his head, the gap between his collar and his neck, the tag that was up on his sweater. I knocked on the kitchen doorframe and they turned around at the same time. Lionel was smiling but it wasn’t anything malevolent. He honestly looked pleased to see me. He got up, walked across the room to greet me, his hand stretched out for me to shake. Boy, he was skinny. That was the first thing I really thought about him.

“Eddie,” he said, “I’m happy to meet you. I’m Lionel.”

“I know who you are,” I said.

We shook hands. I made my grip very tight, very fierce, but he didn’t seem to notice.

“Deena has told me so much about you.”

He had watery blue eyes that bugged out a little. His hair was very light and his chin was small and his posture wasn’t good and he looked so unappealing at first that I had a surge of confidence.

“This is a highly unusual arrangement,” I said. “And I’ve got to be honest with you, buddy. I don’t know if it can work.”

Lionel nodded.

“I can see why you’d have reservations. And I want to thank you for opening up your house to me.”

He spoke slowly and he kept looking up, as if he was trying to read words that were written on the ceiling.

“I mean, I don’t even know you and here you are moving in, living with my children. Deena might not care about these things but I do.”

“Hey,” Deena said, “don’t you do this.”

“No,” Lionel said, “I think I understand. You want to get to know me and that’s only natural. Right, Eddie? Well, I want you to know that you can ask me anything.”

“Yeah, well, I’ve got a few questions.”

“I’m ready for them.”

“Where are you from?”

“Originally? England. That explains my dreadful accent. I have dual citizenship, thankfully. My mother was from Boston. And I’ve been living in the Hartford area for about twenty years.”

“And what, exactly, is your relationship with my wife? You see how I refer to her, Lionel? Deena is still my wife, after all.”

“Stop,” Deena said.

“I still have my rights,” I said to her.

“No one’s saying you don’t.”

“And there’s got to be some guidelines for this.”

“That’s not a bad idea,” Lionel said. “So what are they? You just let me know and I’ll follow them. By God, I will.”

I didn’t have much for him. I sputtered some nonsense about my side of the refrigerator and if he saw Doritos in the pantry, especially the Cool Ranch kind in the blue bag, he should just assume that they were mine. But that was pretty much it. I didn’t bother telling him that the basement was off-limits because why would he ever want to go down there in the first place? So I started making stuff up.

“OK,” Lionel said to all my ridiculous demands (the garage door had to go down at exactly six o’clock every evening; the Sports section of the Springfield Republican had to be separated from the rest of the newspaper and placed on the kitchen table, next to the African Violet plant; the first floor bathroom was reserved for me and no one else; the first cup of coffee was always mine), “this sounds good. This makes sense to me. I appreciate you giving me the heads up. It’s always important to know the rules, to get the lay of the land.”

I thought I was done. I’d staked my claim, showed him who was boss. But Deena did something awful next. She put her arms around Lionel’s waist and gave him a little hug as if to reassure him, as if to say, ‘See, the worst is over.’ So I got angry again. I jabbed my finger at him.

“So, explain this to me, Lionel. Why are you here, exactly? Why is it that you have to live with us?” I asked.

Deena stepped away from him. She was shaking her head at me.

“That’s enough,” she said. “What are you doing? Giving him the 3rd degree like that.”

“No, it’s OK. He has a right to know. I’ve run up on some bad times lately. I don’t mind telling you that,” Lionel said.

“Leave us alone now, Eddie,” Deena said. “We’re done here. Please.”

 

 

Then came a strange period of time when we were seen together, the three of us, all over town. At church on Sunday mornings, there was Deena and Lionel, sitting two pews behind me. At the Stop & Shop on Saturday afternoons as I pushed my convenience cart up and down the narrow aisles, there was Deena and Lionel in front of the dried pasta section. At Jack’s hockey games, there was Deena and Lionel climbing up the bleachers towards me.

It wasn’t long before the questions started. “So, Eddie,” Jeffrey, the mechanic at the Mobil gas station on Route 5, asked as he wiped his grease-stained hands on the back of his jeans after changing the oil on my RAV4, “Who’s that Deena’s been hanging with these days?” At the bagel store in the Town Shoppes early on a Saturday morning, I overheard two women I didn’t recognize talking about it while we stood in line to order bagels. “I don’t know what’s going on but I heard the guy’s British,” one of them said.

I upped my apartment search but found faults in everything I found. Windows were too small. Carpets were a shade too deep. Kitchen counters were too narrow. There was never enough closet space. It got so that all I had to do was take one step inside the place and I already knew it wasn’t right for me.

I tried to quiz the kids, whenever I could catch up with them, on how they felt about Lionel. Were they as uncomfortable as I was? But neither one of them had much to add. The only detail I got from Mariel was that Lionel told corny jokes. When I tried to question Jack, he said that he refused to get involved in stupid parent shit.

So I was on my own. And I decided to handle it the best way I knew how. Which was badly. I played loud music that I knew Deena hated. Led Zeppelin. Jethro Tull. Pink Floyd. I parked my car in the middle of the driveway so that Deena had to park on the street. (Lionel, it seemed, didn’t have a car. She was driving him everywhere, for some reason.) I stopped washing my dishes, piling every fork, knife, spoon, plate and bowl that I’d ever touched into the sink and just leaving them there.

And nothing happened. No one seemed to notice. Deena didn’t come rushing downstairs, red-faced and shaking, to tell me to grow the fuck up. Lionel didn’t change either. Every time I saw him, he was very polite. He’d wave hello to me. He’d ask me if I’d had a good day.

* * *

I called in sick one morning. I stayed in the basement, listening to Deena make the kids their breakfast, ask Jack if he’d gotten his Chemistry test back, plead with Mariel to change her skirt because the one she was wearing was too short. After they’d gone—Jack slamming the door on his way out in answer to Deena’s repeated questions about his Chem grade—Deena and Lionel had a five-minute conversation about the weather and what their schedules were like that day.  Deena was a director at an executive recruiting firm, and she had a big presentation at some Fortune 500 company later in the morning. Lionel was—this I learned—unemployed but had a job interview with some environmental action firm in Hartford. After they put their coffee cups down—I could actually hear the clink of their ceramic mugs against the stainless steel sink basin—they left too.

That was when I went back upstairs. Even though I knew I was alone, I tiptoed my way back up. On the second floor landing, there were new photographs hanging on the wall: Mariel and Jack on a park bench, bringing ice cream cones up to their lips; Deena with her arms wrapped around both kids in front of the Disney entrance gates. I stopped in front of one photo because I hadn’t seen it in a long time. It was of Deena and Allie, standing on the cracked sidewalk in front of our childhood home in West Springfield. They looked to be about six years old, and they were holding hands. Allie’s hair was in pigtails. Deena had been best friends with Allie when we were growing up. She was always over at our house, playing dolls, skipping around in circles with Allie. “I’ve got two daughters,” my mother used to brag. In the photo, Allie was smiling and she was squinting too because the sun was so strong.

Eventually, I went into the master bedroom. Our house was old and we never did have much of a master suite, just a slightly bigger bedroom with two closets instead of one. I peeked my head in that room and I smelled Deena’s perfume and I saw the made up bed with its pillows carefully arranged against the headboard.

In the guest bedroom, I saw Lionel’s suitcase, zipped up and standing upright by the closet door. He’d lined up his toiletries on the top of the bureau: shaving cream, razor, fine toothed comb, aftershave lotion, deodorant, travel sized toothbrush and toothpaste. On top of the nightstand, there was a book with a creased cover and a highlighter on top of it. The book’s title was The Grateful Life and it had all these inspirational quotes in it with some of them highlighted in yellow. Keep your face towards the sunshine and shadows will fall behind you. Each new day comes with new thoughts. All the darkness in the world won’t extinguish the light of a single candle. That kind of thing.

I went back downstairs right after reading those quotes. I actually went into work a few hours later.

* * *

One night, I was in the basement, trying to stay awake to watch a documentary on World War II. Mariel was studying that war in Social Studies and I wanted to be able to talk intelligently to her about it, just in case she asked. Then there was all this activity upstairs. People calling out to each other. Doors slamming. It seemed as if everyone in the house was leaving. I kept my focus on the television, all those grainy, black and white shots of empty concentration camps, barbed wire fencing. The narrator’s voice was grim. They seemed accustomed to the smell and the horror. They had seen all there was to see.

I thought I was alone. My eyes were starting to slowly close. And then I heard something else. A cough, a strange strangled sound, a heavy thump as if someone had fallen. I sat up, muted the volume. Maybe it was my imagination. But I heard it again.

Upstairs, the first floor was dark. No lights were on anywhere: the kitchen, the living room, the foyer. In the hallway, I tripped on something, probably a shoe left by one of my kids, and fell down hard on one knee.

“Say, are you all right?”

It was Lionel standing above me. There was a pinch going down one side of my leg and my hip was sore but I managed to stand up without leaning on the wall for support or, God forbid, asking him for a hand.

“What are you doing here in the dark?”

“You’re right,” he said. “It’s gotten awful dim in here, awful fast.”

He flicked up the wall light switch. I was impressed by how familiar he was with my house. He already knew the location of every light switch.

“Where’s everyone?”

“Deena and the kids went to the movies.”

“But you stayed behind?”

“I wanted to give them their time together.”

“I heard something strange. That’s why I came up.”

“I’m sorry for bothering you.”

“What were you doing?”

“Sometimes it comes over me.”

“What comes over you? Look, what’s your deal?”

“Here, let’s sit down. We can talk.”

He was shepherding me into my own living room, as if I was a guest coming in for a visit. Deena had rearranged the furniture since I’d been in the room last. The long couch that used to be up against the window was now pushed against the far wall, facing the fireplace. The standup lamp was next to the recliner instead of the loveseat. There was a stack of newspapers on the floor by the recliner and I wondered if they were Lionel’s. Deena would’ve never let me leave papers on the floor, that was the first thing I thought when I saw them.

It was awkward, both of us standing in the living room, neither one of us wanting to be the first to sit down. Lionel kept inching over to the recliner. It was clear that that was his seat now and I should’ve put him out of his misery by saying, go ahead, take it, I haven’t sat there in years, but I didn’t want to make him feel any more comfortable than he already did.

Finally, I sat down on the couch. I adjusted the arm cover that had slipped off. I crossed my legs.

“So,” I said, “I should tell you right now. Before anything else. Just so there’s no surprise. I don’t like you here.”

“I am sorry to hear that.”

“This is still my house. Not yours.”

“And it’s a great house. They don’t make them like this anymore.”

“Well, that’s true.”

“Such possibility here.”

I relaxed a little, sat back in my seat.

“We used to talk about adding on in the back. Make some kind of den, some place where the kids could hang out with their friends. We went so far as to talk to an architect.”

“I can see it. You’ve got plenty of room for it.”

“I’ve got the plans somewhere.”

“I wouldn’t mind seeing them, if you’d ever care to share.”

The conversation was getting away from me. I stood up.

“OK, enough. I want to know what your plan is, Lionel. How long are you going to be staying in my house?”

“I was hoping for a bit longer.”

“You’re taking advantage of the situation, I’ll have you know, and that’s not right. Me and Deena, we’ve had some hard times but that doesn’t mean you can just come in here and make yourself at home.”

Lionel didn’t answer at first. He’d turned on the overhead track lighting when we entered the room but it seemed as if the lights had dimmed. Everything was getting dark again and I had a hard time making out his face.

“Let me ask you something, Eddie. If you don’t mind. Do you love Deena?”

“It’s none of your business, what I feel about my wife.”

“Because I was married before and I loved my wife very much,” Lionel said. “We lived in West Hartford, in a house like this. A bit smaller but pretty much the same. Old. Nice wood floors. Wainscoting. Lots of charm. Good bones, that was what it had. My wife, Clarissa, she loves flowers and she made sure our front garden was always full of them.”

“Well, if it was so wonderful, why don’t you just go back there?”

“Clarissa got the house in the divorce. I figured it was the least I could do. I still drive past it now and again. I like to see how the garden is faring. Sometimes I see her outside, tending to it, and I don’t stop but it makes me feel better. Just seeing her.”

“Does Deena know you’re still hung up on your ex-wife?”

He leaned forward.

“She hasn’t told you, has she?”

“Told me what?”

He didn’t answer at first. I held out my hands, palms facing him.

“Hey, buddy, we don’t need to do this.”

“No, you should know.”

I was about to protest some more. I wanted out of that living room. I imagined heading back downstairs, maybe swiping a sleeve of Ritz crackers from the pantry before I made my way down. The documentary would be almost over by this point but there’d be something else I could watch. But Lionel was still talking. He was looking up at the ceiling and speaking in that halting way he had all about a day in his life that I didn’t want to hear about because I could tell from the way his lips were twisted and he kept looking up at that damn ceiling and blinking his eyes pretty fast that it was going to be bad. It involved his two-year-old daughter.

“One day I was going to work and I was rushing because I had an early morning meeting and I backed out of the driveway too fast without really concentrating on what I was doing. I didn’t know that Polly had slipped outside to wish me a good day.”

“No,” I said.

“She was short. I didn’t see her. All I felt was a tap. I wouldn’t even call it a jolt. It was nothing, really. I wouldn’t have even stopped the car if it hadn’t been for Clarissa screaming.”

“You don’t need to go on,” I said.

“She stayed,” Lionel paused before continuing, “in Intensive Care for three weeks. There was a hospital chaplain who came and prayed with us every day. He told Clarissa that Polly was going to wake up soon and be as good as new and Clarissa believed him wholeheartedly and begged me to believe him too so I did but one night we went down to the hospital cafeteria to take our dinner and my cell phone rang and it was the night shift nurse telling me that we had to come back up, as quickly as possible, before it was too late.”

That was when I tuned him out. Lionel was still talking about Polly but I heard nothing. I was watching his lips move but, for me, there wasn’t any sound at all and it was just like the time we were in the New Haven County coroner’s office, my sister’s wallet and eyeglasses in a Ziploc baggie on top of the coroner’s desk, and Deena was asking all these questions about what had happened to her best friend, her sister-in-law, and I couldn’t listen to the responses. I just couldn’t hear it. I focused on the coroner’s small, square-shaped eyeglasses that were sliding down his pointy nose, and the shocking white teeth in his mouth. And I did the same thing at Allie’s funeral, so many people from the old neighborhood all dressed up in their finest black clothes, coming up to Deena and me, giving us their condolences. I stopped listening to them too and I got good at it, nodding and shaking their hands or kissing their cheeks and saying thank you for being here, but not hearing a word. I could tell they were pitying us, the whole lot of them were. They were thinking to themselves that it was a blessing my parents weren’t here to witness this, because by then everyone knew how Allie had died, which was in the worst way possible: alone and without dignity in her ratty, cluttered apartment on busy, six lane Whitney Avenue in New Haven, found by the landlord only after a neighbor called. She was dressed in a t-shirt that was on backwards, that was the only detail that got through to me.

* * *

Then I heard Lionel again.

“After Polly, we tried. We meditated. We prayed. We did yoga. We flew to Bermuda and swam in the ocean. We even tossed around the idea of having another child. But nothing worked. I’d beg Clarissa to forgive me and she’d assure me that it was an accident, that I shouldn’t blame myself, but one day I caught her crying and I asked her what was wrong. I was smiling a little although now I can’t for the life of me remember why and she took one look at me and said, ‘Get that fucking look off your face.’ I moved out the next day.”

He was staring at me. I wanted to tell him that it was tragic, unbearable, cruel, something that should never happen to anyone, but I couldn’t even open my mouth to let any sound out.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “There’s always an uncomfortable moment after people learn what happened. People in the group, though, and this includes Deena, they tell me to keep talking about it. They say it’s the only way.”

“What group?”

“Why, our group. Where I met Deena.”

Turned out, there was a support group that Deena and Lionel went to every Monday evening at 7 PM. It met in a conference room on the third floor of Bay State Hospital and there were people there who had lost a daughter like him and a sister-in-law and best friend like Deena and they came together every week to talk about their losses. They discussed how best to handle the holidays and ways to honor the dead and work through the numbing horror of it all and they were recently making plans to create a garden for his Polly, something beautiful with both perennial and annual flowers so that there would always be color there to see, although Clarissa didn’t want anything to do with it. Or with him for that matter. “I don’t want a garden, you utter fool,” she’d said to Lionel when he told her of his plans, “I want my daughter back.”

“I didn’t know about any group,” I said to Lionel.

“Deena goes to every meeting. She always makes sure that there’s coffee and some kind of snack that we can munch on. Cookies, cakes, that kind of thing. She picks me up beforehand because I don’t drive since the accident.”

“What’s it called? This group.”

“You Are Not Alone.”

I imagined Deena setting up the room before the meeting, arranging chairs around the conference table, making the coffee, peeling back the cellophane from the plate of cookies she’d brought. How did I not know about this?

“You are not alone,” I repeated.

“Yes.”

“And it helps?”

That was when Lionel put his hand on my shoulder. I couldn’t deny it. It felt good, that weight on me.

“It doesn’t hurt,” he said and I could tell, just like that, that Deena had told our story already, to the entire group or maybe just to him. He knew about the last time we’d seen Allie, when she was sitting at her kitchen table in her apartment, not six feet away from where she’d eventually die, and she’d just spent too long in the bathroom and she was talking really slowly and drifting from one sentence to another and losing her train of thought and I called her despicable and weak and a disgrace and Deena begged me to calm down but I didn’t. I told Allie that she was on her own. I wasn’t going to deal with any of this. I dragged Deena out of there and convinced my wife to turn against her best friend—my baby sister who wore pigtails until she was in fifth grade, who used to play hopscotch for hours in our driveway, who went to all of my high school football games even though I was on the bench most of the time, who cried at my wedding because she said she’d never been happier, who used to play hide-and-seek with my kids for hours, who wanted to be a nurse but never even made it halfway out of community college because she got with the wrong people and lost all motivation—and three weeks after that last visit, my sister, my Allie, did too much and her heart stopped.

* * *

My conversation with Lionel ended shortly after that. And in the following weeks, I did my best to avoid him. I made sure to eat my dinner out before coming home at night. I scooted down to the basement as soon as I got home. I used the basement door to leave the house in the morning. Then I found a studio apartment across town. It was small but the apartment complex had a swimming pool and hot tub and Mariel liked that. Jack didn’t have much to say about it but I told him I would take him out for pizza every Wednesday night and he seemed to approve of that idea.

One weekend, Mariel came over for a visit and told me that Lionel was gone. Apparently, he’d gotten a job in Boston and needed to move closer to the city. I called Deena that night but she didn’t pick up the phone. I couldn’t help but feel grateful for that. I wouldn’t have known what to say to her if she had answered. Maybe she knew that. Maybe that was why she let it ring.

Then I started driving around my old neighborhood at night. I’d check up on our house—had someone picked up the newspaper from the front yard? did the front lawn need mowing?—and then I’d look at all the other houses on the street, three-story colonials like mine with side porches; short yards; four windows, two on each side of the front door. Most of them had blinds or curtains covering their windows but I could still catch the rainbow-colored flickers from their television screens, the sparkle of mirrors on the walls, the shadows of people walking from room to room. Some of the houses had porch lights on, just waiting for someone’s arrival. They all looked so sturdy, even the empty ones.

As I drove, I imagined Lionel out there somewhere, doing the exact same thing. We were two men in the dark, coasting up and down familiar streets that had suddenly turned strange, looking into each house, trying to see something inside.

 

image: Robert James Russell


SHARE