I left the airport without compensation for the bag or my feelings. I asked for miles and Regina dismissed me with a customer service number I could call, but as soon as I got outside I dropped the piece of paper and the wind took it away. Maybe it would bring somebody else luck.
My Lyft finally came and I jumped in the back. The driver turned around and asked where I was going. Even though I had input the address, I told him Burnside and Maywood.
“Nice neighborhood,” he said.
Before he pulled away he asked, “Hey, what happened to your bag?”
I repeated the address and he stepped on the gas.
For the first three miles, my Lyft driver told me he’d been born and raised in Portland. He’d grown up in Hillsdale, went to school at the University of Portland, met a girl from Humboldt, got married in Buckman, and bought a house in South Burlingame. This all seemed like a nice story, but he got lost three times along on the way. Each time I had to redirect him back on track, to which he replied, each time, “Are you sure?” It took over an hour to get to my mother’s and the ride set me back a fair amount of change. I thought about not tipping him, but he laid on some sob story about remortgaging his house and I couldn’t help but feel bad for the guy. He pulled away without helping with my bag and I wondered if any of what he had said was true or not. After all, a Lyft is the perfect place to tell a few lies.
I stood on the sidewalk in front of my mother’s house, shifting uncomfortably. I scanned the neighborhood I had grown up with as my portrait. There were the Murphys who owned a split-level across the street. Their house had been painted yellow as a child, but in the years since it had been altered to a strange shade of blue. Next to the Murphys were the Belangers; they owned a more modest home with a bright red door and massive wraparound porch. Next door to my mother was Mr. Willem. He was a beast of an old man who always seemed on the verge of his 90th birthday. He was old when I was a child and he was old when I was an teenager. And, if I had to bet, he was still old today. There was very little one could do to charm him other than leave him alone. He always groused about the kids playing hide-and-go-seek or stickball in the street. If there were things to complain about, Mr. Willem would be the first to voice his displeasure. Not much had changed in the twelve years since I’d left, and I suppose that’s what most people liked about living on Maywood Drive. But Maywood was never for me. Next door to Mr. Willem’s, in a brick home with three chimneys, an older woman emerged onto her front porch to retrieve her morning paper. The woman’s face was one I didn’t recognize. She was dressed in a dingy green robe and had pink curlers in her hair. There was a cigarette stuck between her lips. It had been burning so long the ash was twice the length of the remaining cigarette. She stooped and picked up the paper, grabbed her back as her old bones cracked, then looked up and saw me. She had grey eyes and pallid skin, but there was still an attractive quality about her, something buried deep down, dormant, but ready to strike. She puffed on her cigarette and exhaled. I watched the sex swirl around her and felt momentarily ashamed. The woman waved to me, but I didn’t wave back. She went back inside, mumbling something as she went.
I finally turned to my own childhood home and strode toward the front door. The home’s navy-colored siding with white Roman columns and green shutters was still the same. The two columns, though, had been recently painted. I could make out chips and bubbles near the bases; another cheap contractor my father had hired to save a couple of clams. To my father, it didn’t matter if things looked like shit, just as long as he could tell Mr. Willem he’d gotten a better deal than anybody else in neighborhood. He’d brag to any other old codger about a transaction he’d negotiated or a contractor he’d swindled. In the driveway was my father’s grey Mercedes and his even greyer BMW. My mother’s dusty Jaguar was parked behind them. The home looked like the entrance to some snooty country club and I immediately remembered why my childhood had all the charm of a cleft asshole.
I was just about to open the door when it suddenly swung open. Standing there, her peppery hair done up in a tight bun, was my mother. I hadn’t seen her in over a year, but time had always been kind to my mother. Her skin was quite fair with nearly indistinguishable crow’s feet around the edges of her eyes. Her hair was greying at the temples but, otherwise, black throughout. There was a fragility to her—perhaps a result of mild osteoporosis. She always stood hunched over, brought on by years of pulling our dinners out of the oven or carrying my brother and me around. She was the world’s most attentive distant mother.
I set my blue duffel on the ground and she looked at me with glassy eyes that were almost uncomprehending. Finally, she glanced down at my feet and asked, “What happened to your bag?”
“It tore,” I said.
“How did that happen?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know?”
“Somewhere between the airplane and baggage claim, I guess.”
She forewent a hug and picked up the duffel. It was heavy (maybe that had to do with the thirty pairs of underwear—I never learned how to pack correctly) but you’d never know it by how she snatched it up.
“That’s quite a tear,” she said.
“I think I can fix it.”
“It’s fine, Mom.”
“I said I can fix it, so I’ll fix it, never you mind.” She waved a dismissing hand at me and disappeared inside the house. I heard her voice call back through the doorway, “Well, don’t just stand there letting all the heat out.”
I heard Mr. Willem’s front door open and someone descend the front steps. I hurried inside so as not to see him. It seemed like the smart thing to do.
Inside, I found my mother’s kitchen to be a wasteland of casserole dishes and baked goods wrapped in cellophane. There was a pot of coffee on the stove and two empty mugs on the kitchen table. My mother set my duffel next to the oven and went about configuring the best possible way to fit the casserole dishes in the freezer.
“I’ll sew your bag later,” she said. “How was your flight?”
“It was all right.”
“I really wish you would have told me you were coming,” she said. “And why do you take cabs? Those things are money pits.”
“It was a Lyft, Ma.”
She ignored me. “Why pay somebody to do a job I could have done? You wouldn’t give me fifty dollars for picking you up, would you? Of course you wouldn’t. Honestly, paying your mother to pick you up from the airport? That’s just ridiculous?”
I looked around and saw my mother had removed all of the photographs of my father and me. The only pictures left standing were the ones of my brother, Jimmy, and his wife Barbara. There was an absurd number of them on her refrigerator: Jimmy and Barbara in Tahiti, Jimmy and Barbara in the Philippines, Jimmy and Barbara in Paris, Jimmy and Barbara in Tokyo, and my personal favorite: Jimmy and Barbara at Epcot. They looked ridiculous, as if smiling through something rotten, their aura of uneasiness drowning out the content of the photographs.
“Have you heard from your brother?”
“I told him to call you.”
“Well, I told him to.”
She momentarily stopped loading the refrigerator. I thought she might turn to look at me. In the end, she gathered a dish of tuna casserole and shoved it under the lasagna. Tuna casserole was always the last to be eaten.
“Look at all this food,” she said. “I told people not to fuss and what do they do? They fuss! It’s so sweet, but, honestly, such a fuss! All this food and your father died only yesterday. I swear, I had no idea the old grouch had so many friends!”
“They weren’t his friends, Ma. People just bring food because they don’t know what to do when someone dies.”
“Well, regardless, I still think it’s sweet, fuss or not. You know who stopped by? Ophelia Green! Can you believe it? Lord, I hadn’t seen her in ages.”
I felt lifeless. “Ophelia was here?”
“Yes, indeed.” My mother was smiling. “In fact, she just left. I made a whole pot of coffee and she only had one cup. Can you believe that? It sure was good to see her, though. I mean, I know what you two went through. All that fuss, was that really necessary? Come to think of it, why was it again you two broke up?”
“Anyway, I always thought you two were a handsome couple. I remember your senior prom like it was yesterday. She had on that blue dress—at least I think it was blue—it might have been green. Anyway, she was wearing a dress of some color and—”
“Ophelia was here?”
“Didn’t you hear me?”
“And she just left?”
“That’s what I said.”
“When did she leave?”
“I’d say not more than two minutes before you got here.”
“That’s something.” I chewed away the last good fingernail I had. I had to shift gears. “Ma, who’s the woman who lives next door to Mr. Willem?”
“There was a woman who came out of the house next door to Willem’s. The brick house. She was older, had curlers in her hair. Was smoking.”
“Oh, that’s Mrs. Willem.”
“He was married. She left him.”
“Why did she move in next door?”
“To drive him mad, I suppose. Apparently, he wasn’t a very good husband.”
“I guess she had had enough. But he was holding out in the divorce proceedings or something—at least that’s according to Mrs. Belanger. Do you remember Mrs. Belanger? Not much to look at, but boy, she certainly had a bosom on her. I’d give anything for a bosom like that. Not so much anymore, I suppose, but in my youth—I tell ya, a pair of—”
“Oh, yes—Anyway, Mr. Willem was being particularly nasty during their divorce, dodging phone calls and dodging emails and all sorts of dodgy things. And Mrs. Willem was living in this terrible studio apartment over on Fourth Avenue. You know, sort of over by the Red Stag Tavern. No, that’s not it. Red something...Red Star Tavern! Yes, that’s right! I remember now because—”
“Yes—Anyway, the house opened up next door to Mr. Willem’s and Muriel—Mrs. Willem—bought it. Just like that. It drove him up the wall. He complained to just about everybody. Including his lawyers. But his lawyers said there wasn’t anything anybody could do about it. She bought it fair and square.”
“I admit, it was odd at first. And, every so often, you’d hear them shouting at each other from across their yards. But things have settled down. Especially since he’s put up that fence. There was even a little block party recently and they both attended. Not together, mind you, that would have been far too awkward for any of us.”
“Mr. Willem is awkward in general.”
“Be nice to Mr. Willem.” My mother tore out a sheet of tinfoil and secured it over a plate of ricotta and shells. I took her hands away from the foil and, for the first time since arriving, she finally looked in my eyes. I searched her for sadness, for hidden regret, for anger, for anything that would indicate emotion toward my father’s passing. But my mother was placid, serene. She looked up at me with a barrenness that expressed neither hurt nor longing. My father was dead. And in the eyes of my mother, that’s just the way the cookie crumbled.
“Ma,” I said. “How did Dad die?”
She took her hands away from me and secured the tinfoil. “They think it was a heart attack, or some kind of heart thing. His heart was never that good. Remember when we went to Seal Beach for Easter—or was it Huntington Beach?—no, it was Seal Beach. I remember because we saw all those seals and your brother had said—oh, anyway, we were at Seal Beach and your father was complaining of chest pains. Well, I suppose that was the start of it. He had an...an...an...oh, what’s that called when there’s something wrong with your heart? A urethra? No. That doesn’t sound right. A rhythm?”
“Yes! That’s it!”
“How long have you known he’s had an arrhythmia?”
“Well, when was that trip to Seal Beach?”
“22 years ago.”
“Then I’ve known for 22 years.”
“You knew Dad had an arrhythmia for 22 years?”
“Did Jimmy know?”
“Well...Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Oh, honey, we didn’t want to upset you.” My mother took the tray of shells to the freezer.
“What do you mean you didn’t want to upset me?”
“You know how you get?”
“Well, you get upset. You know...you worry.”
“Not about Dad!”
“Oh, don’t be like that. Your father’s already gone, there’s no need to go getting all sour about it.” She put the tray of shells on the top shelf and closed the door. “Say, how’s that new restaurant of yours going? As soon as I get out to New York I’m coming. Not sure when that’ll be, but I really should come and see it. Shouldn’t be too much of a problem getting a table for one, should it? Now that your father’s gone, at least getting dinner reservations will be easier. Besides, your father never liked French food much, anyway.”
“It was Italian food, Ma.”
“My restaurant was Italian food.”
“That’s right, Italian food! I remember now. How is that restaurant, anyway?”
“It closed, Ma.”
“When did it close?”
“We talked about this, remember? It closed a couple months back.”
She grabbed a deli tray. One of the ends of plastic wrap hadn’t been sealed correctly and a few slices of cheese had fallen out onto the kitchen island. My mother scooped them up and placed them delicately back inside. She rewrapped the plastic and slid the tray into the crisper. “Well, that’s too bad. You were always such a good cook, dear. Always creating those recipes and all.”
I stared deeply at the stainless-steel door blocking my mother’s face. She went about arranging and rearranging the dishes that were proving to be trouble. I heard a bottle of salad dressing fall and land in the open crisper. “Oh dear!” She retrieved the salad dressing and put it back in its place.
“Does Dad still have the bar in his study?”
“Make yourself comfortable,” she said. “And if you want any of this food just help yourself. We got more than enough. Well, I suppose I have more than enough. There is no we anymore.” There wasn’t a whisper of sadness in her voice. “And you know how I feel about the tuna casserole. I swear—that Mrs. Murphy—it’s the only thing she knows how to make. Any time somebody kicks the bucket, there she is with the tuna casserole. Remember when Mr. Belanger passed away? That must have been three summers ago—no, it was four—Yes, that’s right! It was four summers ago. Yes, I’m sure of it! Anyway, Mr. Belanger passed away and Mrs. Murphy brought over her...” But my mother’s voice faded away as I made my way down the narrow hallway to my father’s study.
During my childhood, the study had always been forbidden. Once, when I was six, I wandered in because one of my toy trucks had caromed off the hallway trim and steered itself into the study. Stupidly, I followed it through the doorway and saw my father sitting behind his desk, reading glasses tipped low, a book with no cover in his hand. He looked up at me as if I’d caught him reading the worst kind of smut you could imagine. He was embarrassed, shocked, panicked. He asked me what the hell I was doing. He shouted all kinds of vulgarities, some familiar, others tantalizingly new. Spittle was everywhere. All I could do was look at the truck that had tipped over on the Moroccan rug. I remember its back wheels were still spinning as my father screamed his obscenities.
Anyway, that was the final time I entered my father’s study. Occasionally I’d steal glances of it as I passed by on my way to school or on the way to the kitchen. For a room with a large mahogany desk, two leather bound chairs, and wide colonial windows, the study was quite sterile, void of any actual character. I imagined all the other studies in all the other parts of the world were exactly like my father’s: full of age, but empty of memories.
Behind my father’s desk, in front of the bay window, was where he kept his booze. Always it was kept in liquor decanters, and always the decanters were arranged as such: Bourbon, Brandy, Gin, Rum, Scotch, and Vodka; alphabetical order, just like his books, just like his movies, just like his life. Predictability was my father’s favorite vice.
I picked up the bourbon and uncapped the decanter. Its scent was tart, pungent. I took a swig and felt every inch of me warm. My father always used glasses. One cube, one glass, three ounce pour. I returned the bourbon to the shelf and uncapped the scotch. It smelled of apples and must. I drank down a quarter of the bottle and felt nauseous. The room spun, his books blurred, the Moroccan carpet looked like a mad tapestry.
In the front hall I heard my mother suddenly squeal with delight. She was shouting something, but the length of the hall made her words indistinguishable. Then I heard a man’s voice, low and hoarse, brought on by years of too many Marlboros. A woman’s voice followed the man’s, soft and subtle, but slightly impish. My mother’s voice returned, lively, full of emotion, unlike anything I had experienced since arriving. Even though we were rooms away, I could tell my mother was full of joy, and it made my heart sink knowing that my brother, Jimmy, was standing in the foyer with his $500 suitcase wearing his $4,000 suit. Jimmy had this force about him, an energy to which everybody was attracted. He was insatiable for life and life was insatiable for him. His wife, Barbara—the one with the impish voice—was beyond gorgeous, a stunning blonde with legs that stretched from Portland to Baja. Christ, and she was smart, too. Almost too smart. Everybody loved Jimmy, which boggled my mind because he was so unlovable. He was arrogant, self-centered, selfish, misogynistic, insensitive, boorish, and, somehow, exceedingly popular. He was the guy that could cut you down with a flurry of insults and you’d still find him charming. Everybody except me. And that drove him up the wall. There are few things more satisfying than deciphering the transparency of a certified putz.
I heard their footsteps coming down the hall, my mother talking excitedly. I bee-lined for the double doors leading to the backyard. I slipped it open and, just before I closed it, I heard my mother’s voice ask the study’s emptiness, “Billy, are you in there?”
I rounded the back of the house and made my way for the front door. The hinges squeaked as I pushed it open and I cringed against the sound. The voices in the back hallway stopped and I tiptoed through the foyer into the kitchen. I felt certifiably devious.
I made my way through the dining room into the kitchen and retrieved my bag. I didn’t know if I intended on leaving or not, but, in case I did, it would be wise to take my duffel. At the very least, I figured I could walk a block or two down the street and find some place to be alone. Walk three blocks just to be sure. The others would probably assume I went to see Ophelia. Best case scenario: they would think the loss of my father was just too much and I couldn’t bear the tears that were sure to fall in front of Jimmy and his judging wife. Yes, that would be the optimum outcome! Surely my mother and—
“Oh, Billy, there you are.” My mother’s voice was exclamatory, but there was no joy in her notes upon seeing me, only manufactured excitement. Most of her sentences seemed fueled by snorts of Venlafaxine, Mirtazapine, Agomelatine, or some other kind of “ine” to which she was familiar. “Look! Your brother got in early!” With these words, I heard the real joy, not the synthetic kind. “And he brought Barbara! Isn’t that wonderful?”
“Wonderful,” I said.
“Are you going somewhere, shithead?” my brother asked, gesturing to the duffel in my hand.
“I was just taking this to my room,” I said. “Good to see you, Jimmy.”
“You’re goddamn right it is!” he smirked.
Jimmy donned a freshly pressed grey suit and recently polished Oxfords. His hair had receded considerably since I last saw him and he’d put on a bit of weight, mostly in his jowl. He still looked like my brother, just a worn-out version of him.
Barbara stood next to him wearing a white skirt, white polo, and a white sweater draped around her shoulders. She looked more inclined to play tennis than attend a wake. But Barbara had always done things a little differently. She twisted a few strands of her platinum-blonde hair, looking on disinterestedly.
“How are you, Barbara?” I said.
She said nothing. She stuck a piece of gum in her mouth and smacked her lips.
“All right,” I said. I turned to Jimmy. “How’s the real estate business? Los Angeles treating you well?”
“You’re goddamn right it is,” he said. “You see this suit? Can you believe this thing cost me four grand? And it means nothing to me. I could have spent ten grand and I wouldn’t have given two fucks.”
“Jimmy, language!” said my mother, though she was smiling, and, like Jimmy, also couldn’t have given two fucks.
“Ma, I’m in real estate! That’s how every mother fucker in real estate talks.”
“Oh, you’re just awful,” she laughed.
“I just sold a three million dollar McMansion last week. Did you know that?” Jimmy said to me.
“Why would I have known that?”
“Three million smackaroos! Three million clams! You know how much cabbage that is in commission?”
“Ninety thousand dollars,” I said.
“Lucky guess, shithead. Anyway, this guy is totally trying to swindle me. He’s one of those Jews, you know. Like a certified Jew. A real Jews Jew.”
“He was Orthodox?” my mother asked.
“No, just real cheap. One of those Jews.”
“Jesus, Jimmy,” I said.
“Let your brother finish his story,” my mother said.
“Thanks, Ma. Anyway, I’m selling this Jew this house and he’s bitchin’ at me about the price. Keep in mind: this place is in a pristine part of Hollywood, maybe the most pristine part. It’s way up in the hills and it’s got this hot tub and this infinity pool. You know, Ma, one of those pools where, if you’re swimming in it, it seems to go on forever. It’s a real beaut. Anyway, I’m selling this Jew this house and he’s talkin’ a real big game, trying to play hardball, trying to play me like all those other Jews in that town do. And I ain’t budging! I’m not even thinkin’ about budging. You know why? Because a Jew isn’t gonna tell me how much a house is and isn’t worth. Do I go to their Temple on Sunday and tell them how to pray?”
“Saturday,” I said.
“Jews go to Temple on Saturday, not Sunday.”
“Jesus, what crawled up your butthole, butthole? Anyway, I’m selling this Jew this house—”
“Jesus Christ, Jimmy, stop saying ‘anyway!’”
“Stop interrupting your story with ‘anyway!’ Jesus! You start telling a story and it takes you thirty minutes to get to the point. Which, in this case, is that you’re a raging anti-Semite.”
“Billy!” my mother said.
“What’s your glitch, shithead?”
“Just stop saying ‘anyway!’ All right? Can you just do that? Can you just tell a story from point A to point B without sounding like a complete fucking asshole?” My arm was feeling numb and I noticed I was still holding my bag. My knuckles were white and the tips of my fingers had turned purple. I set the bag back on the floor and watched the color return to my knuckles, but the numbness was still there.
“What’s his problem, Ma?” he whispered as if I wasn’t in the room.
“He must be upset.” She dropped her voice even lower than Jimmy’s. “You know how sensitive he is.”
“Oh...right...” Jimmy looked at me, stuffed his hands in his $1,500 pants, and said, “Too bad about Dad, huh?”
“Yeah,” I said.
We stared at the kitchen floor, both feigning sadness.
“He was...well...he was a great man.”
I didn’t say anything.
“He was a saint,” said my mother.
“Ma, you hated him,” I said.
“I most certainly did not!”
“Jesus, Billy, why’d’ya gotta be such a prick all the time for, huh? Pop just died and you’re telling Ma how she feels? Christ! You better not act like this during the bequeathing.”
“The reading of the will.” He paused for effect. “It’s today.”
“Pop didn’t have a will.”
“Yes, he did,” my mother said.
“Why do ya think we’re here?” Jimmy laughed and slapped Barbara’s ass. She seemed not to notice. Or care. Or her butt implants had swelled. She flipped open her compact and wiped the front of her teeth clean, making sure her pink grapefruit lipstick hadn’t smudged.
“Why didn’t you tell me Dad had a will?” I asked. “More importantly, why didn’t you tell me they were reading it today?”
“I’m positive I did,” my mother said.
“I’m positive you didn’t.”
“For fuck’s sake, Billy, will you relax? Quit gettin’ on Mom’s case. Don’t you know Pop just died? She’s got enough on her mind. Look at all these casserole dishes! That’s enough to send most women over the edge; let alone Mom! No offense Mom.”
“None taken, dear.”
“What? Why wouldn’t you take offense to that?” I said.
“Oh, Billy, you’re too sensitive.” She turned and faux-whispered to Jimmy and Barbara, “I’m always telling people how sensitive he is.”
“What is happening right now?” I said.
“Never you mind. Now go throw on a tie; the bequeathing is in an hour and I don’t need you looking like a hobo. My god, honestly, why can’t you dress like your brother? He looks so dapper.” My mother ran her hands across my brother’s lapels and briefly straightened his tie. He put it back in the position it was and my mother laughed heartily. She turned to Barbara and said, “Don’t you just want to eat him up?”
“I guess,” Barbara shrugged. She put her compact away.
“Now, off with you, Billy! If you don’t have a tie you can borrow one of your father’s. Surely you should be able to find something in one of his closets. He was a very handsome man, your father, not unlike your brother. Honestly, Jimmy, I don’t know how your wife doesn’t just eat you up.”
I stared at Jimmy’s jowl and wondered the same thing. Roasted over a spit with a few good bastes of apple cider vinegar, I was beginning to see where my mother was coming from. A jowl is a terrible thing to waste in an animal.