E. G. Fabricant
|From Matters Familiar. Two brothers try to make sense of their lives after their domineering mother’s death. Adult language.|
Flowers, candles, incense. Context is everything.
Jim traced the outline of his oxblood brogans against the dull, gray veins of the cathedral’s marble floor. Altar-boyhood artifacts that had matured into symbols of adult sensuality became the stuff of Gothic nightmares again, as he stood there. Smoke curled lazily out of the thurifer being dangled by a somnambulent acolyte. Christ. Twenty years of smoking and that crap still makes me dizzy.
“What do you think he’s going to say?” she hissed.
Jim looked at Laura, the baby, as his little brother, Cary—all six-and-a-half feet of him—embraced the rostrum. The meadow of blue, gray, and oddly strawberry heads that had known them all as children stirred slightly, as if anticipating a chilly gust—fed, no doubt, each by their own recollections of the rocky history between mother and son. Laura’s chrome-blue eyes summarized her, and their, concern. So did her fingers, tamping her notes to her silk-covered thigh. Jim’s were already pocketed, him having led the tribute. Candle flames jumped and bowed spastically at the corners of his vision.
“Not a goddamned clue,” he whispered.
Cary had no notes. He stood, feet apart, and stared hard at the dull silver casket under the floral sprays—his Superman to her Lex Luthor—to satisfy himself she was truly vanquished.
There they stood together, again, at the edge of what was weakly called a wake by such as themselves, two generations removed from the authentic. The lack of a propped-up stiff with coins on the eyes was a bargain, maybe even a blessing. Even a medium-watt look from the old girl while alive could etch glass at a considerable distance. Cary had bailed and planted his glass and elbows in front of the bartender, expiating the boredom he was loudly inflicting with clumsy gropes between pocket and tip jar. Jim and Laura had pretty much worked the room, getting their cheeks pinched ambiguously by Alzheimer’s candidates and flashing the mordant wit she’d passed to them to mollify her peers who retained some clarity.
Father John, the nephew canonized as her favorite by dint of his vocation and distance, drifted by, basking in his Jameson’s. “Nice touch, you two. She’d have been proud.”
She watched him leave to resume the cheerful falsehoods of ignorant comfort. “I need air. C’mon.”
They repaired to the stunted ballroom’s balcony. Jim lipped a cigarette and flicked at a balky flint.
He withdrew another, lit it, and handed it over. “When did you start smoking?”
Even half-hidden under her lids, her irises were huge. Lesser men had slipped into those pools and drowned desperately, like non-swimmers. Until Jon. In low heels, she was his equal. Six feet tall; blonde, gorgeous. My little sister, The Man-Eater. He entertained the phenomenon of magnetism between weak men and strong women again and almost as quickly dismissed it, still unresolved. She caught the quiver at the corner of his mouth opposite the butt.
She exhaled, her blue vapor creating a vortex in his. “Ever think of quitting?”
“Constantly. Should be a no-brainer. The old man croaks from lung cancer—not young, but not old. The grandkids nag her into quitting, so she lives another 20 years, then dies from emphysema. I was the athlete, and the only one who took it up.” He reflected, then pointed the tiny ember at her. “See, this is why my therapist’s Benz is never more than three years old.”
She laughed. Her head cycled up methodically, like an observatory’s telescope, measuring the winking constellations. “Did they really love each other?”
Pathos and guilt radiated in him like gin. Eight years old when Dad died. She missed so much, he thought. “Oh, yeah.”
“How do you know?”
“I’d catch ‘em.”
“Ick. Do I want to hear this?”
He realized, and waved the specter away. “No, I mean touching and kissing and stuff. It was weird; they tried not to fight in front of us, but the same restriction applied to PDAs. Like there was a rule that emotional neutrality equals stability.”
“Speaking of stability, and therapy…” Laura studiously crushed the low-tar menthol on the railing. “Do you think he’ll ever snap out of it?”
She nodded at bigger brother, hopefully. Jim pursed his lips. “After this? I wish I could say. Shit, for that matter, I wish I could say something.”
They stood, hips touching and hanging onto each other’s waists, looking out at nothing in particular.
Everyone had since pushed away from the decimated bird and congealing side dishes and collapsed in gluttonous disrepair around the house. That, football, and the mostly temporary gender détente of shared tasks made it Thanksgiving. Balmy from equal parts Chardonnay and the pleasant anesthesia of shared company and comfort food, Jim and Teri started shifting the carnage from dining room to kitchen. Entertaining taught them that a decent interval before dessert and coffee seemed less like piling on. Today, it made a serviceable excuse to let the charge in the air die away. Rhett, their fourteen-year-old, wandered in.
“Things calmed down any out there?”
“Yeah, Dad. Uncle Cary’s working Rory over pretty good right now. Something about the ratio of malt and hops to barley in most microbrews.”
“Just what every eleven-year-old jock needs to know. Was he all over your new Strat and your CD collection?”
Rhett stiff-armed a countertop, raising his feet off the floor. “Uh-huh. That, and the lecture about the role of live music in bringing balance to a working man’s life.” He watched the heels of his hands go white. “He’s gonna take me blues-clubbing in the city when I’m old enough.” He smiled slyly. “Maybe before.”
“Peachy—as long as you’re old enough to drive, because you’ll wind up having to.”
Rhett’s stepmother circled behind him, balancing half-bowls of potatoes and dressing, and matter-of-factly blew at the thick hair fraying at the nape of his neck. Surprised, he dropped and slapped away a spasm of pleasure. Jim took it all in, with satisfaction. Teri left for another round-trip. Rhett found a green bean and dipped it into a nearby glob of cold Durkee’s onion pudding. He munched, seriously; Jim shuddered.
“Dad, can I ask you something?”
“Why do you and he always get into it?”
Jim stopped slicing, released the turkey medallions onto the foil, and tapped the carving knife’s tang on the cutting board, softly. “You know, son, I have no answer. Lots of working theories.”
“How about, ‘because we’re brothers?’”
Jim grinned. Rhett couldn’t separate his father’s congenital gift for sarcasm from defensiveness. It wasn’t material. Either way, good or bad, it was usually about deflection. “Oh, I get it—like Rory and me?”
“But you two are old, so testosterone and immaturity are no longer issues. Right?”
“So, you’re saying Theory Number One is bogus?”
“Well, then—there’s genes. History. Presence. Absence. Admiration. Jealousy. Theories Two through Seven—in no particular order.”
Rhett frowned. “Explain, please.”
Jim draped an arm around the boy’s shoulders. “Remember what Grandma—my Mother—was like when she lived here?”
“In a word—exactly. So, we’ve both got that going for us. But she wasn’t always like that—at least, for me.”
“She was barely 40 when my Dad died. Cary was 12. They both really needed him around then, in spite of themselves, and neither ever forgave him for leaving them.”
“How was it different for you?”
“When I was younger and Cary and Laura weren’t much more than babies, she wasn’t like that. There was at least as much sunshine as lightning. My Dad and I grew close, starting when I was about your age. Thinking back, Mom was menopausal or depressed, or both, and I was old enough to be emotionally available. Anyway, she’d get crazy and he’d run interference for the three of us.” He gave Rhett the once-over. “’Paging Doctor Freud!’ Aren’t you bored yet?”
Rhett swallowed. “No.”
“Damn it! Well, Dad was diagnosed when I was eighteen and away at college—end of my freshman year. Wasted away in less than six weeks. Mom was nuts the whole time. I remember standing by his bed, that last day. He and I made our peace, alone, before the delirium set in, so I was more or less a bystander by then. Little Laura couldn’t really process any of it. Cary, though—bright, sensitive Cary—was aware enough to be panicked. When Dad went, he blurted out something like, ‘Well, that’s it!’ Mom just went black, and turned on him.”
“Wow. What did you do?”
“Nothing. Everything after that is a blur. I was still stupidly adolescent enough that my grief came out selfishly, as anger. I had a summer job lined up, so I made tracks. Finished college and law school got married. Left those two alone. With her.”
Jim took to messing with the spikes of hair at the top of his son’s forehead. Rhett pushed Jim’s jaw down with his index finger so he could connect with him.
“Don’t worry, Dad. When I run away, I’ll take Rory with me.”
They hugged, then separated at the sound of escalating voices from the living room. Jim rounded the corner in time to see Cary snatch his jacket from the extended arms of Mimi, his common-law girlfriend, and hurl it to the floor. He was unsteady and loud. Teri, Rory, and the host couple’s friends were all either rooted to their chairs or in some stage of futile assistance.
“GodDAMN it, woman!” he roared. “I’ll decide when it’s time to go home, and not one minute before!” He cast a bleary eye at Jim. “And you. I suppose you have something to add. As usual.”
“Always,” Jim said, calmly. “I am an Irish Catholic lawyer, after all.” He picked up the jacket and clapped his brother on the back. “We should probably go to bed, anyway, on account of being much older than the two of you. No more action here tonight, but I’m fairly certain there’s a club or two in full tilt closer to home. What do you say, Meem?”
She looked back, her face blending embarrassment and relief. They both knew that he’d be snoring ten minutes into the trip. Cary softened and stuck his arms into the jacket without a word, like a child being dressed for school. He turned, tossed off a small wave and half-glance, and ducked out the doorway. Mimi took her wrap and bag from Teri and hugged everyone, especially Jim.
“Good night, and thanks. For everything.”
“’Night, Meem,” Jim said. “Be careful, and call when you get there.”
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