Trig and I, we talked about driving over, late at night, say, with binoculars or telescope or tactical thermal-vision goggles, to idle in the dirt lot across the road and watch the windows, weep profusely, etc., but in the end, the talk was just talk, and we talked ourselves out of it. Was it always the same room? The same motel? The same mistress? Dad had died the consummate adulterer’s death. Rapture knocked the stent from his heart. The motel itself was a bland franchise affair that befitted the bland franchise affairs of his life. We imagined a young, troubled coed from the local community college—an unsociable girl, lonely and frazzled—with a nervous lip tic and peroxide-burned hair, squirming without clothes beneath his limp body, unsure if she should call her parents or the police.
The funeral was held at the same hardscrabble country church where Dad had been a cheerless parishioner for nearly sixty years, three heart attacks, five children, and a single duplicitous marriage. The woman was not as young as we imagined. She sat in the back row with a wet-spongy expression, as if she could not absorb all the surplus feeling on her face. She wore a strange, bedazzled Nudie suit. Cowboy cut, filigree stitching, a pair of stony skulls embroidered under each clavicle. The outfit was almost as gaudy as mine. Several times I caught Trig and Preston and Cristal and Buckminster glancing backwards to leer. Mom stared straight ahead, smiling stoically at the priest, who repeated the usual devout agitprop about the everlasting cosmic mystery, the vagaries of God, the foibles of man. Trig swiveled at me and mouthed the word “foibles?”
I shrugged and went back to leering.
After the service, the priest foisted upon us the cedar cremation urn, plus a kitschy laminated prayer card and ninety-some pounds of ailing greenery that forested the altar like a bargain-rate tree farm. Trig accepted the urn and card and a couple twigs, but declined most of the flora on the pretext his allergies were flaring up. His face was already permanently bloated and red from a lifetime of compulsive crying. The Grim Weeper, Dad used to call him. I didn’t see much point in accepting any of it. Nothing could survive very long in our household without excessive therapeutic or pharmaceutical intervention. Not plants, not people.
The next morning the car was parked on our yard. The woman sat atop the hood, chain-smoking menthols and discarding the butts in a kiln-fired flowerpot liberated from our porch. She hadn’t changed the outfit. The car was a Lincoln, just like Dad’s. Just like ours. We had a whole fleet amassed across the sprawling acreage behind the house, although we rarely did much more than sit in random vehicles and dream of highway pileups and phantasmagorical head-on collisions. Apparently none of this discouraged her.
“The Visigoths have arrived,” said Preston, all clench-jawed and skittish at the window. “She was out there the entire night.”
“You kept vigil,” I said. “You must be tired.”
Preston, a sometime-addict of white powders and lavish rehabilitation facilities, bunched together the window treatments and dabbed his nasal drip.
“You must be a fucking narc,” he replied.
He turned back to view the woman.
“The black widow,” he whispered bleakly.
“If she’s the widow,” Trig said, “what does that make Mom?”
“Has Mom seen her?” I asked.
“Are those my rhododendrons crushed under that car?” Mom asked.
“Hi Mom,” I said and fished her from the curtains.
“The Visigoth is driving Dad’s favorite shitty Lincoln,” Cristal said.
“Someone should tell Dad,” Trig said, still coddling the urn in the pre-arthritic crook of his arm. “Someone should do something that doesn’t embarrass us.”
Trig lay on the floor in a kind of fetal twist. He was the baby of the brood, born several minutes after Preston and Cristal, who were born several minutes after Buckminster and me, although, tragically, he needed a little more time to ripen. Most of us made the genetic journey with the appropriate chromosomes intact, but for some reason Trig was born without the capacity to grow hair. He staggered through adolescence a bald grotesque whose only solace was wearing chic blond wigs in his bedroom and chewing the paint off the walls. The Grim Weeper had long held out hope he might raise a few whiskers in middle age, some tardy gray shag to distinguish him. He was forty-three now. Hope wasn’t much on the menu anymore.
I rubbed his linty, dented scalp with my foot, then pried the urn from his clinch. I brought it outdoors with me.
“Which one are you?” the woman asked. “Milton Friedman? Tricky Dick? The Slow Capitalist Machine?”
“Charlie Parker Shooting Smack,” I said. “It actually says that on my birth certificate. The weird thing is, Dad didn’t even like jazz. I think he was just a bit stupefied, watching all those jaundiced babies slaloming out his wife’s chute. Charlie Parker played jazz, right?”
She lifted the morning beer that was nestled in her crotch and cheers’d me. I echoed the gesture with my cedar box of Dad slag. Then I circled the car and kicked its broken taillight, its half-flat tires, a rusty-dangling muffler udder that the woman had neglected to repair now that she did not have a solicitous philanderer to secure things for her with coat-hanger wire or twine.
“I’m the shameless woman,” she said, “who loves things until they die atop her.”
“You’re a Jill.”
“Every Jack has one,” I said. “Some broken, dispirited girl with really vivid dreams who tumbles downhill after him.”
“My dreams aren’t vivid. I don’t remember them at all.”
“I don’t think you get to make these distinctions.”
She nodded. “Jill the Home Wrecker.”
“Jill the Husband Killer. Jill the Day-Drinking Floozy You Want to Shoot Dead in the Yard.”
She tried to adjust the arm that propped her vertical while at the same time maintaining her beverage, but something faltered in the hydraulics. She tipped and sloshed, tipped and sloshed.
“Sorry, Chuck,” she said. “I’m not going anywhere.”
I checked under the car. “Neither are the rhododendrons.”
“You’re dressed like you’re ready to be baptized.”
Indeed: the white shirt, the white pants, the white socks, the white loafers, even the white-handle buck knife in my white pocket. Nobody commanded me to dress like a faith-healing ice cream vendor. I didn’t know why I wore the outfit. I didn’t know why I did any of the off-putting things I did. There is a strength of purpose, I suppose, a fortitude and integrity, in simply admitting yourself to be a malevolent presence skulking the dingy alleyways of your own life.
I explained I wasn’t very churchy or religious.
“I’ve never believed in that hereafter stuff, either,” Jill the Husband Killer said. “But I swear, in that moment, I felt his soul exit his body and thread its way into mine. It’s still gestating inside me. I’m gonna keep it.”
“Whatever the baby turns out to be. Boy, girl, libertarian, cryptofascist. I don’t care. I’m forty-one years old. This may be my last shot at the whole noble-single-mother thing.”
She sipped her discount redneck beer, then handed me the can. I sipped it and handed it back. Somewhere in the exchange, a few droplets of lager hit her suit leg. She grumbled, licked a finger, and tried to rub the gold splotch away. She only managed to mash it deeper into the weave.
“This silly getup,” she said. “Just one of the many wonderful and burdensome gifts he gave me. You should see the dry-cleaning bills.”
“He gave us lots of presents, too. Pets, appliances, automobiles, broken hearts. Then he waited until we forgot about them and he took everything back, every damn item, so he could re-gift it all to his rotating harem.”
“Harem?” she said. “That’s unkind.”
“I’m a registered libertarian. Callousness comes with the membership.”
“Do you want to know how we met?”
“Absolutely not,” I said.
“I was a toll worker. Every day, he’d drive through my lane. All he owed was a couple bucks, but he’d hand me a crisp twenty-dollar bill, real meek and gentlemanly, then drive away. His name and private phone number were always neatly printed on the back in black Sharpie. It’s not that he was a glamorous man, or handsome, or even all that interesting. I was just flattered someone had thought hard enough about renting me that he actually determined a dollar amount. I later found out he was passing these bills to hundreds of other ladies up and down the thruway. A class act, your old man. The Errol Fucking Flynn of I-88.”
“This has been truly enlightening, but I need to go back inside and debrief my awful family.”
She hopped off the car hood. “I want to meet the rest of them. Your poor dishonored mother, especially.”
“That,” I said, reaching again for her beer, “sounds like an excellent idea.”
Trig had been transported to the living room’s beige divan, his body swaddled in a crunchy plastic tarp to keep the furniture free of tears and snot and mold. I dug the house phone out from under him and checked the messages. For weeks I’d been waiting for the temp agency to call with a new assignment, something menial and dehumanizing. Like Ms. Love Killer, I relied on these low-caste labors to bestow some kind of arbitrary value system upon my shaky, arbitrary life. Lately, I had begun to suspect the milkman shtick wasn’t duping anyone, and potential employers were sniffing out the malevolency in me faster than I could manufacture it. Truly some feat.
I went to the liquor shelf, where, among the half-drained bottles, we kept our most sentimental knickknacks and obscure mementos, and I put Dad’s slag next to the other cedar box, the one that held the slag of our beloved family dog. Baroness was an Irish wolfhound with a long, draggy face and a bold nonchalance about automotive traffic that—while inspiring for the cowardly in our midst, which was pretty much all of us—only succeeded in truncating her lifespan. She cashed out early, the lucky thing. The urns were almost identical, a symmetry that our Dad, the benevolent misanthrope, surely would’ve appreciated. He always said he had more respect for the beshagged animal kingdom, rife with parasites and flatulence and ill grooming, than the tidy empires of man. Although, when I tried to visualize him frolicking among tick-and-burr-clung wildlife, I saw instead his nondescript face bent in one last seizure of self-loathing as he discharged his soul into a frumpish woman dressed like a rodeo clown.
I quit putzing with the urns and fetched the schnapps.
The dining-room table was at maximum capacity for the first time in years. Cristal and Preston and Buckminster kept glancing back and forth in a round robin of pained smiles and pan-seared nerves. Mom could only direct her gaze downward at her placemat’s baroque floral pattern, where she lingered, lost in the fabric labyrinth, like a narcoleptic game-show contestant. I tapped her shoulder and gave her a fistful of dead rhododendrons—my shabby prom bouquet—which I had brought to the table along with Jill the Husband Killer and the schnapps that I was not quite ready to share.
Seated across from us, our dead father’s mistress bore it all—all of us—with a look of cold amusement. Exactly who were the Visigoths here?
“She’s carrying Dad’s baby in that sexy stomach of hers,” Cristal said. “She told me last night.”
“You talked to her last night?”
“For a heartless, feckless tramp, she sure is a good listener.”
“Thanks, sweetie,” Jill said.
“All she’s missing are a pair of silver spurs and a six-shooter tied to her thigh,” I said. “Although maybe introducing firearms into the equation is not the brightest—”
“We might not be able to do anything about the love child,” Preston said. “But we can at least repo the car.”
“Burn the fucking thing,” Trig moaned from the couch.
“The car?” I asked.
“The tramp,” he said.
Then he added: “I don’t know. Maybe the baby, too.”
The woman was still tending to that breakfast beer, finger-dialing a row of zeros in the surface condensation. She must’ve had some kind of refrigeration system in the Lincoln. She must’ve been planning for a protracted stay. I reached over and delicately pried the beer from her. I held it under my chin and dribbled a tadpole of spit into it. She didn’t seem bothered, just took it right back, sipped it, and resumed dancing her fingernails on the lid.
“Why didn’t you use birth control?” Preston asked. “Why didn’t you just bury his body in an unmarked grave behind the Taco Utopia and leave us in peace? Is this a shakedown? This feels like a shakedown.”
She gave him a serene smile.
“Your father told me the five of you were a miraculous birth,” she said. “He expected one pup but got a quintet. Your mother went into a coma and never really came out.”
“That story is bullshit,” I said. “She’s here. She’s alive. Aren’t you, Mom? Hey, Mom? Can someone please get a spatula and pry Mom off her placemat?”
“Still here,” Mom said.
“A lot of people are transformed by childbirth,” I said. “The children, for example. They’re damaged—mercilessly, gruesomely—forever. It’s a traumatic ordeal. Almost as traumatic as life itself.”
Mom was trying to reflect the woman’s cool smile, but her approximation was decidedly more ghoulish and overcast. She looked like she was reading the rhododendrons their last rites. Localized melancholia notwithstanding, we could always count on her to manage a little decorum throughout the bloodbaths and havoc that constituted our family meals. I’m sure our father had his tendernesses, too. Somewhere, banked away like stolen bullion, he must have had them.
Mom saw me grousing, and she patted my arm. This may have been her subtle, decorous way of frisking me for the buck knife, which even I don’t know why I carried.
“Why doesn’t someone be a dear,” Mom said, in a rare eruption of clarity, “and fix up the guestroom for the feckless tramp.”
The Nudie suit and shirt and belt and bolo tie were arranged on the bed in facsimile of a disembodied person, someone who had been raptured up, say, or vaporized in a nuclear siege. Either fate would suit me fine. The outfit looked even more ludicrous without any living thing festering inside it. The woman stood in her drab underwear, staring down at her abdomen pudge, pulling chunks, jiggling them, like a hapless food inspector beleaguered by the pinching and groping of shrink-wrapped meat.
“You can keep that suit if you want,” she said. “Sell it, donate it, burn it in a barrel. It’s like wearing a dead man’s shadow, and I already have one of those percolating inside me.”
I had entered without knocking, and I didn’t realize how uncomfortably close to her I was standing until I caught myself examining the braille of bruised goose bumps, the blotches and hematomas, the fine swirling grain, that she had knuckled into her belly flab. I myself had no intention of pinching or groping anything, and I wasn’t trying to be a creeper. Preston and Buckminster had inherited our father’s lothario appetites and paucity of shame, and Trig and I paid whatever we had to pay to whomever we had to pay it for explicit services rendered, but at least we tried to be discreet.
I redirected her attention to the ceiling.
“The big drawback of the guestroom is Trig sleeps above you. It might wake you up after hours. The shrieking.”
“Is his name Trig like Trigonometry? Or the hamburger magnate’s horse?”
“Trig like hair-trigger,” I said. “But in his case, he’s harmless and bald. He was Dad’s favorite, you know. The old man feared him a little less than the rest of us. That’s usually how it goes with the baby of the brood. Although I guess this baby wears argyle sweater vests and has been treated for colon cancer twice. He suffers night terrors. Day terrors, too.”
“The baby is almost the same age as me.” She shook her head, shivering and clacking a little. She resembled a scantily clad actress dawdling on the makeshift set of an amateur horror movie, a distracted proxy, fearing not the lunge of a rabid maniac or sludgy zombie, but her own bored compliance with so much shoddiness and low-budget make-believe.
“Are you cold?” I asked. “I can adjust the thermostat. I can burn us all up in a goddamn barrel. Would you like to watch me tug the skin off my face?”
Maybe the guestroom itself was what deranged me. This was where Dad schlepped off to sleep those occasional nights he wasn’t away dying in motels. A restive insomniac, he spent his lost hours tacking the wall with photographs of the rare animals in which he illegally trafficked. He kept mug shots of each small critter, the portable models that resembled plush children’s toys, their adorable faces stunned by camera flash, overexposed and horrifically scrunched. Tarsiers, lemurs, langurs, ocelots, black-footed ferrets, neotropical sloths, all preserved in a Polaroid grid. Together, they glared out at us from the purgatory of the past. Their dreamless patriarch had abandoned them. Some day, I’d tape our faces up there, too.
“What are you thinking?” I asked.
“You have an interesting home,” she said. “I’m just not sure I want to be anywhere inside it.”
“I think all of us feel that way. It might be the only thing that unifies us as a family.”
I stood in the foyer and watched her march out in her underwear to the vehicle still beached on our yard. She rummaged the backseat, extracting items—a pair of jeans, a chambray shirt—and she dressed under a glut of mosquitos and moths beating themselves to pieces in the spillover streetlight. Her attire was topped with a toll collector’s neoprene vest, slim-fitting and safety orange, that gave all my prosaic notions of transportation infrastructure an erotic charge.
She lit a cigarette and climbed back atop the Lincoln.
A gloomy pall darkened the breakfast nook. Buckminster was thumbing back issues of Conservationist Quarterly, looking despondently at images of the rare and near-vanquished animals that he would pay young, insolvent tourists on international hostel tours to smuggle stateside in their luggage. Nobody knew why Dad bequeathed him the headship of the business. We were all equally inept and undeserving. For Buckminster’s first official act as CEO, he traveled to Tulsa to hand-deliver a cuddlesome import to an affluent buyer, a successful optometrist of the plains, who dreamed of stalking big game across the Serengeti but feared the judgment of indignant strangers on the internet. So the guy organized a private safari on the grounds of his estate. Buckminster showed up in his most debonair seersucker suit, complete with silk ascot and pith helmet, anticipating the spectacle of aristocratic sport. The eye doctor didn’t even open the box. He just shoved the barrel of a semiautomatic handgun into the air slot and squeezed off a round, blasting the marsupial pointblank. When the smoke lifted and everybody’s ears stopped ringing, the guy sat down on his cobblestone patio, folded his arms to his face, and sobbed inconsolably.
Now here was Buckminster a week later, glowering over his tofu scramble. Synthetic meat stuffs were all we could bear to consume anymore. In solidarity, I sat down with a fork and poked and stabbed and raked his plate for him. Mostly, I was trying to avoid the incriminating sight of the old man’s empty chair. Even when he was alive, Dad preferred to take his meals in downtown bistros and roadside diners, a taciturn man hunkered alone in an oak-paneled booth with his bloody T-bone and furtive moods. While he had already receded from the domestic scene long before his heartbeat burst him, these nightly silences carried an enigmatic authority. The Quiet Tyrant, Trig called him. It would be some years before I could understand his absence was a form of kindness, a mercy. Perhaps the only kind he was capable of.
Mom nudged me with another full plate.
“Ask her again,” she said.
“It’s her choice.”
“Everyone has to eat.”
“Maybe it’s a hunger fast,” I said. “Maybe the shame finally got to her.”
“That’s probably how she stays in shape,” Cristal said. “She looks astounding in her underwear.”
“If she’s going to waste the rest of her life loafing on our lawn, she could at least help with the landscaping or bring in the mail,” Buckminster mumbled. “Is all decency gone from this world?”
Trig came to the table. He was carrying the pair of cedar boxes.
“Hey,” he said, a small tremor in his throat. “Does anybody know which box is the dog and which box is Dad?”
Everyone squinted at me. I squinted at the boxes.
“Trig,” I said.
But it was too late. He skipped the frantic weeping stage of the implosion and cut straight to bludgeoning his forehead against Mom’s granite countertop. The granite proved shockingly durable. Preston materialized out of the curtains, strolled over, and maneuvered a fabric potholder under our dear brother’s freckled-hemorrhaging skull, and then he went back to finger-rubbing the white dust into his gums. He’d be pulling another all-nighter at the airport tonight, bribing customs officials and baggage throwers, whisking leaky boxes and stinky cages into the maroon Lincoln with fake tags. He wasn’t very good at the subterfuge, but nobody else wanted the night shift. Preston liked the long drives anyway, all those rest stops and tenement houses along the route, all those haggard men with puffy winter coats and tiny baggies of white dust.
I took the extra plate outside. She was sunning herself atop the car in her orange vest, her limbs in a starfish splay. Someone had spray-painted the flank of the vehicle with one drizzly word: Visigoth. I was confident the vandalism was not ours. No member of our clan would’ve been so pithy, or would’ve left three-quarters of the vehicle unmaligned.
“I’m told we shouldn’t let you starve to death.”
She pushed the plate away. The baby belly wasn’t bulging or gurgling yet. It wasn’t doing anything, really, aside from famishing out of spite.
“Maybe it’s another miracle child,” she said. “It won’t need to eat, or go to school, or earn a living by illegally transporting endangered teddy bears across state lines. How is Triggy? You guys still thinking about going on your ghastly secret mission? I saw you were upstairs talking again last night.”
“Don’t call him Triggy. It’s so infantilizing. And it’s not a secret. Our mother just doesn’t need to know. It’s only a motel. We could use a tour guide.”
She sat up and tried to light a cigarette, but she couldn’t get the butane to spark. She threw the lighter away, then she threw the cigarette away, then she was out of things to throw so she just fluttered her fingernail acrylic at me.
“You want to see the room where he died,” she said. “You want to lie in the same bed and stare up at the same meaningless patch of ceiling and watch your pitiful soul fizzle away and disappear, like a forlorn fart with a stupid woman in a banal place.”
“Not really,” I lied.
“Well, not a chance,” she said.
I flung the tofu scramble into the shrubbery, and I tucked my white shirt into my white pants because, even if psychotic, I can be a stickler for decorum, too.
“What if I paid you?”
“My god,” she said. “You really are your father’s son.”
I didn’t bother counting out the bills. I just handed her my whole wallet. Then I hoisted the two cedar urns.
“Do either of these look vaguely human to you?” I asked.
The motel was more or less what I expected, which should have reassured me, or disappointed me, or put some tumult in my gut, but I didn’t feel much of anything beyond the usual queasiness about leaving the house. I guess I had some remorse that we snuck out without telling Trig. Something in the situation, however, demanded there be only two of us here. The motel room didn’t have much room in it, for one thing, nor did it come with any tarps or hidey-holes or padded cubicles to accommodate my brother’s sodden thrashing. I was left to shuffle awkwardly up and down the narrow aisle between the bureau and the bed, struggling to obtain some kind of wide-angle vantage that would fix the room in a frame, memorialize or cinematize it. I don’t know what I was hoping to see. We had paid for the night, but maybe one night wouldn’t be enough. Maybe one night was too much. I can’t explain it, but I kept wondering: How many of these dreary, cramped rooms was my father still dying in?
The woman claimed the only chair. She had bummed a book of matches from the relentlessly sunny desk clerk and she now sat smoking, despite the fact we rented a non-smoking room and she was allegedly pregnant and I was not to be trusted around combustible materials or open flames.
“Can I show you something?” she asked, tapping a clump of cigarette ash on the floor. “Something your Dad taught me?”
“It’s not an athletic sex position, is it? I was never good at sports. He probably never mentioned that.”
She inhaled a generous lungful of smoke, and held it, her face steady and serious. At first I thought she was trying to choke herself out. Soon, loose gray wisps escaped her eyelids—some kind of boardwalk freak-show trick.
“Jill the Coney Island Lady,” I said. “Jill the Avenging Angel Spewing Hellfire and Smoke.”
Her mouth sagged open, incredulous, and she leaked the rest. “I think you’re confused. Hellfire? Chaos? That’s what your Dad dragged into my life. I was married, too, you know.”
“You can always abort it,” I blurted. “You imagined the thing into existence. Now just close your smoky eyelids and flush the idea away.”
“If I could do that, what would be left of my life? Whose lawn would I park my car on? Whose world would I wreck?”
“I’m sorry, lady, but if that’s your endgame, you’ve got a lot of catching up to do. Nobody is better at wrecking our world than we are.”
She shrugged. “Maybe I meant the baby’s world.”
“Touché,” I said.
Jill had insisted on splitting the cost of the room, but I wasn’t sure what that implied. She didn’t seem to have much interest in watching me pace a ragged trench into the rug or rip the flesh off my face and embarrass myself, and neither of us exuded any amorous pheromones of intent. She mostly smoked and stared at the room’s woodland-themed wallpaper. Patches of forest foliage had peeled away, revealing a substratum of earlier wallpapers that featured other torn nature scenes. A melancholy beach. A desolate ocean. A deserted desert. So many lifeless wildernesses stacked into geologic record.
All that emptiness must’ve made me thirsty. Suddenly, I wanted to fix a drink, something spicy and potent that would fix me, or part of me, at least temporarily, but I didn’t see a mini-fridge or the requisite midget liquor bottles anywhere. No amenities. No restitutions.
I sat on the moth-bitten bedspread. She looked at me skeptically.
“Don’t worry,” I told her. “I don’t like to touch people or have people touch me.”
“You hire whores. A little birdie told me.”
“Don’t call them whores. They’re not whores. They’re agents of mutual dissatisfaction. I only pay them to watch me lie on their brothel bed and pretend to weep over my corpse. There’s no fluids involved. Physical contact would spoil the moment.”
She watched me with a dry and impassive focus, and she did not blink when I reached anyway for her face. I wasn’t trying to fondle or irritate her, nor guilt her into some new realm of the debauched. I just wanted to feel whatever my father had felt, before the urgency of it obliterated him.
Her expression may have been blank, but her skin was surprisingly warm, welcoming, even. She didn’t seem in any rush to shrug off my hand. Maybe we’d be staying the night after all.
Then I noticed it. A feral noise. A blur of teeth. She latched her jaws around my forearm and bit out a knot of flesh.
I yelped and jerked away. Big blots of blood dappled my white shirt, my white shoes, my white everything. The woman lit another cigarette and waited a few minutes for some type of impression to settle over me. I wasn’t sure if I should curse her, or bite her back, or offer her a twenty-percent gratuity. She got up and fetched a pillow sham to stanch the bleeding.
“Do I need a rabies shot now?” I asked.
She licked the red smudge from her lips.
“I was going to ask you the same thing,” she said.
Waiting for me at home was a backlog of messages from the temp service. Document processing. Document copying. Document filing. Document shredding. I deleted all the offers, not because I didn’t want to work, but because I had already found the one vocation from which I could never be waylaid or furloughed or fired without cause, and that was to be a steward of all the sadness and regret my father no longer had the capacity to feel. What this stewardship looked like, whatever its dividends or levies, I couldn’t yet articulate. I had the rest of my agonizing life to ponder that.
I sat at the table with a dubious veggie rice dish that my mother had left for me, or someone who could’ve been me, smoldering blackly on the stove.
“What is this?” I asked. “Charred tree bark? Boot of hobo?”
Cristal was in the kitchen alcove, polishing an armory’s worth of spikily militant jewelry.
“It’s not that interesting, you know. Wherever you talk about going at night. All your stupid secrets. You’re just like him.”
“I have no secrets,” I said.
“You lie just as badly.”
“What do you care?”
“We took Trig to the emergency room.”
“The pica again?”
“Exhaustion,” she said, pausing her rag on a mace-like brooch. “Isn’t that hilarious? The old dude never goes anywhere, never exerts himself or expends any energy on anything other than wallowing in dread and self-pity, and the doctor says he needs to rest up. Mom is in her room, refusing to acknowledge the slow, corrosive tragedy of her life.”
“Our life,” I said.
Cristal rolled her eyes, the rims of which she’d been globbing with a most-sinister mascara ever since the funeral.
“Charlie Parker Shooting Smack? Really? You need to stop telling people that’s your name. Dressing like a crazed milkman doesn’t help matters.”
“We haven’t reached a critical mass of crazy here yet,” I said. “I’m just doing my part. I am a steward. I am my father’s son.”
“I say this with love,” she said. “You’re a fucking idiot.”
“That too.” I nodded at her bandaged arm. “Did you start cutting again?”
She caressed the gauze with adoration.
“My girlfriend did this,” she said, smiling dreamily.
I went up to Mom’s room. She was sitting in bed under a mask of nocturnal skincare product and reading a hefty, leather-bound book spotted with mildew. The tome was volume E of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Years ago, she had purchased the whole alphabet from TV, one of those late-night infomercials that are such a salve to sleepless shopping addicts and adulterating husbands whose only penance is bankrolling their pill-addled spouses’ scholastic whims. Dad had promised to build a walnut wall unit to accommodate the series, but the project never happened. We never read any of the books, either, never touched them. Still, random volumes gradually disappeared from the house. Now, two decades later, only the vowels remained.
“Mom,” I said.
“It’s late,” she said.
“Okay,” I nodded. “Okay.”
From the bedroom window, I had an uninterrupted view of the woman flat on the top of her car. She wasn’t alone. Trig in his hospital gown was curled up against her, his pale skull sort of pocketed in her armpit. She was wistfully stroking its liver-spotted plains and asteroid craters. The vehicle’s Visigoth graffiti had been supplemented with zagging fireworks and lumpy balloons, a new announcement: We’re Expecting!!! Part of me wanted to snap a picture and tape it to our guestroom wall of infamy and anguish. Another part of me, the part I didn’t know what to do with, wanted to throw open the window and greet the mild evening air by stepping out and vaulting to my death.
Weren’t all of us expecting something? Wasn’t that our fatal glitch?
“Do you want me to call the tow truck and have them haul that eyesore away?”
“My eyes do hurt,” Mom said.
“Bucky suggested putting her on the payroll. He said she could hide the deliveries under her big, flowy maternity gowns and travel unimpeded through every airport in the world. People will believe anything pregnant women tell them. Isn’t that so? Really, I think he just wants an excuse to bust out the tranq gun and shoot her in the buttocks and lock her in a cage along with the rest of us.”
“The lights in here.”
“I don’t know,” she said.
I pulled the curtain shut.
“There’s too many of us already,” I said.
She shut the book, but it was too heavy to heave at me or pitch off the bed, so she simply held it, hugged it, while trying not to upset the platter of antidepressants in her lap. Someday she, too, would send her thwarted spirit forth in a lonely, feeble fizzle. Maybe then she would return to our lives, the way Dad had, boxed and belated, to loiter forever on the crowded liquor shelf of our minds. For now, she seemed content to sit in a benign daze and that stained nightgown of hers, only half present. I leaned over and kissed her slick-pasty cheek, and then I went to the bathroom mirror to make murderous faces at myself and refill her glass of water so she could wash down her magic cheer pills. When I returned to the bedroom, the curtains were open again.
My mother stood at the window, staring out.