Featured in Colorado Review
Ghosts (Winner of the 2012 Nelligan Prize for Short Fiction, Selected by Jane Hamilton)Featured, Fiction
Published Fall 2012
The old man will die in the river room. This is decided before they arrive, by a primly efficient nurse named Anna, who has been hired at great expense from the hospice center in Bristol. She greets them in the driveway, coffee cup in hand. Her face is bright, scrubbed clean. From the backseat, David listens as she explains to his mother the parameters of the illness—the erythropoietin deficiency, the renal failure, the vascular dementia, the probable onset of tubercular meningitis. Phrases designed to obscure the nearness of human decay, David thinks, to maximize the distance between them, the blithely living, and his grandfather, the almost dead. His mother nods, jiggles the stick shift. She has already lost one parent and knows, more or less, what to expect.
David and his sister are the last ones into the house. They stand for a moment at the mouth of the barn. The night is immense. To the east, the sky is smudged by a yellow glow. David searches his memory for the name of the closest neighbor. Erskine. Tebbits. Deutsch. He remembers a splintered and sagging porch, a wreath of hay and cranberry.
“Are you ready?” Lucy asks.
Unlike David, who prepared fastidiously for the trip, matching wool socks with lined jeans and a heavy canvas shirt, Lucy is dressed loosely, carelessly. Their mother’s barn jacket hangs off her thin shoulders, and her T-shirt, bright pink, bears the crest of a punk band from Somerville, where Lucy is taking classes. At twenty, three years older than David, his sister is becoming even more of a child.
“Absolutely not,” David answers. “Are you?”
Inside the kitchen, the nurse, Anna, is making tea. The house has not changed. The books on the shelves are the same, the black and crouched woodstove the same, the chipped ceramic mugs. Pete stands slowly and, stretching both front paws out in front of him, totters stiffly in their direction.
“Oh, buddy,” David says. “What happened to you?”
“Lyme disease,” Anna says. “Your grandfather thinks he was bitten by a tick out in the back pasture.”
“He couldn’t check him for ticks?” David’s mother says.
“He doesn’t move so well either. You’ll see.”
There would be piss and shit and blood, Lucy had predicted, on the drive from Boston. She grabbed her nose, and fixing David with a pleased smile, wondered if he might be asked to wipe the ass crack. “Someone is going to have to do it,” she added. “I’m the oldest grandkid. You’re the youngest. I’m just saying, so you can be prepared.”
But now, standing in the kitchen, duffel bag still slung over one shoulder, her mouth is thin and suspicious. She has run out of jokes. David finds himself wishing for the presence of his father, who possessed the ability to find the light in any situation—who would, if he were here in Maine and not in Indiana, draw Lucy and David into a tight embrace and remind them that the old guy had lived a pretty good life, all things considered. Who would kiss his mother on her forehead. Who would puncture the unbearable heaviness that has settled over the house.
“He just woke up,” Anna says. “Before you came. Do you want to say hi?” Through the door of the river room, David can see his grandfather’s bare feet, horned and blue. The cuff of a pair of corduroys.
“We should all go,” his mother says.
“I don’t want to go,” Lucy says.
David does not want to go either, but he wants very badly to be brave.
“I’ll go,” he says.
His mother nods. “Is there anything we need to know?” she asks.
“Christ, Mom,” Lucy says. “He’s not going to bite.”
“No,” Anna says. “Just that I’ve been reading to him. He might like that, before he goes back to sleep.”
David examines his mother. She looks small and hard, like a water-worn pebble.
“Why don’t we go upstairs?” Anna says to Lucy. “We can get all the sheets together. You’ll probably need a hand.”
David follows his mother into the river room. His grandfather lies on a hospital bed. Metal stanchions, metal rests on the sides, to prevent the patient from falling to the floor. The morphine bag, strung up like a jellyfish.
His grandfather arches his neck to look at them. His body has retained some of its youthful heft—under the folds of his sweater, muscle and sinew pulse. He had worked every day of his life, and been proud of it. First as a newspaper reporter, and then as a columnist, and then finally as a failed farmer. He and David’s grandmother bought four plots, and although the crops were sometimes good, in the end, they ground each pasture down to fallow dust. When his wife died of a stroke, in the summer that David was eleven, he had sold off three plots, and retained the fourth, which he used to grow radishes and carrots and lettuce. He beat back the legions of invading squirrels and raccoons with his rifle, sometimes angling the barrel out the kitchen window like a turret gunner.
The produce he sold at a market in Bristol. Tourists bought it readily. But the money wasn’t enough, and so he turned to the savings. He chewed through his pension and the money his dead wife had inherited from her parents. The problem, David’s mother often said, was that he lived too long. He was too healthy. If he had died at a reasonable age, at seventy or even eighty—the age his parents knocked off—that would have been one thing. Then there would have been money for his daughter, for David and Lucy. But by the time he turned eighty-five, there was nothing. There was only Pete and the house.
David’s mother had driven in a panic to Maine, and told him he had a responsibility to leave it to his heirs. They fought. He turned cantankerous and foul, and promised to donate the whole thing to a local land trust. No one had believed him, until a letter arrived in the mail, signed with a fountain pen and carbon-copied to a lawyer in Hampden. The house and the remaining land were not his any longer. They belonged to the Leyden Coast Preserve.
“I think there are legal remedies,” David’s father had suggested. “I’ll ask around at work. We’ll get that house. Don’t worry.” But soon he was gone, too, out to Indiana, with a thirty-two-year-old caterer named Sheila. David’s mother, doubly betrayed, had decided on the only route available to her—she would seal herself off against both of the men in her life, ignore whatever entreaties they might muster, devote herself to her children. In fact, she had agreed to travel north only after Lucy, in a rare burst of piety, had sat their mother down in the living room of the Boston apartment, and administered a brief sermon on the psychological value of saying goodbye. “Even if you don’t want to do it,” she said, “David and I might. We might regret it. Think about that, Mom, please.”
And so their mother had arranged to get a few days off from work, and David and Lucy a few days off from school, and they had together driven the five hours north. David does not doubt that his mother, if she’d had her way, would not even have shown up at the funeral. Would have remained at home. Would have worked longer hours than usual. Upstairs, he hears Anna and Lucy thumping through the three bedrooms, the low, circuitous clucking of their conversation.
“David,” his grandfather says. “Petra.” His ears, covered in a thin white pelt, protrude starkly from his head. His remaining hair is swept back in strands over his forehead. The stark Teutonic planes of his face, so flushed and bright in David’s recollection, have faded to sackcloth. David feels the old man grab his hand.
“You look very big,” his grandfather says.
“He’s seventeen, Dad,” his mother says.
“The last time I saw you,” his grandfather says, and trails off. His breath comes rasped and broken.
“I saw Pete,” David says, stupidly.
“It’s the damned Lyme disease. I told him, stay away from that pasture. I knew the ticks were out there, in the grass.”
“He’s a dog, not a person,” says David’s mother.
“I know it.”
“He can’t understand detailed instructions.”
“That’s why you buy a leash.”
“Well,” his grandfather says. He uses the word in the old-fashioned manner—not as a space-filler, but as a kind of agreement. “He’ll be ok.”
“He won’t, goddamnit,” David’s mother says. David reaches for her, but she shakes him off.
“It’s ok. I can do this. How are you feeling?” she says to her father.
His teeth are sharp and yellow, painted with phlegm.
“They say six days or so.”
“Insurance. And I sold the truck. I never wanted to die in a hospital.”
“The funeral, I mean.”
“I don’t need a service.”
“Fine. Can I read to you?”
“Yes. Or David.” He pushes an invisible button on the back of the bed, and the headrest inches forward. “Big,” he repeats to David. “Where’s the other one? Where’s my Lucy?”
“Upstairs, Dad. She’s tired. She’ll say hello tomorrow.”
The old man nods. He has not taken his eyes off David. He has the fixations of the very ill. Each living body, with its smell of moisture and ease, must astound him anew. He gestures toward the mantel.
“No, I’ve had enough of those. The book.”
David fingers the spine.
“You know him?” his grandfather asks.
“I’ve read him. In class.”
“What does your teacher say?”
David thinks of Mrs. Gardner, his honors English teacher, peeking back at him over the top of her textbook. “That he is one of the greats,” he says.
“She’s right.” He taps one finger against the bed rail. “Would you start at page 250?”
David begins to read. His mother arranges herself on the couch.
In the story, a nameless man rides a subway car into the center of Manhattan. He finds Times Square bathed in a corona of icy, refracted light—the stars, the moon, and even the sky seem a million miles away. The man walks past the shops and buys a beer from a liquor store and, placing the beer in a paper bag, walks around the square in concentric circles. The bag is soon drenched. One circle is soon wider than the next. In his mind, the man maps out each circle; he imagines he is tracing figures and equations over the island of Manhattan. After three hours of walking, the man locates the landmark and follows the alleyway a mile south, until the pant and rustle of the city has subsided.
When David looks up again, both his grandfather and his mother are asleep. He places the book back on the mantel, marking the page with a prescription slip. His mother looks infantile, contented.
“Mom,” he whispers. “Time for bed.”
He gets his hands under her armpits and slowly brings her to her feet.
“Thank you,” she says.
His grandfather shivers, but his eyes remain closed.
“Do you want to kiss him goodnight?”
“OK,” David says. He leans down. There is an unexpected sweetness to the flesh. His mother turns off the light behind him. The woodstove chortles, and opening the grate, David is greeted by a plume of scented smoke. The odor of pine, burnt moss. On the hearth dances a bent husk of birch. He finds a poker and shovel and beats the bark until the glimmer has gone out.
Upstairs, in the third bedroom, his sister lies in the smaller of the two beds, the sheets collected under her chin. There are no curtains and the night sky crowds the windows. David undresses quickly, self-consciously. This room, which they had shared as kids, had always worried him. Waiting for sleep to arrive, he had squinted into the corners of the ceiling, where he expected spiders were spinning funneled webs, smothering in silk coffins the bodies of lesser insects. When he was eight, he had watched as a long bug, shaped like a twig, hustled up the far wall, and over the ceiling, in his direction. He trembled, buried his head under the pillow, and somehow drifted off. When he awoke, the carapace of the thing was on his sheets—a thin cylindrical shell. He had pictured the remainder of the insect, now wormy and wet, wiggling in the trenches of the bedclothes. He passed the next night in a state of panic.
“How is he?” Lucy asks.
“Can he talk?”
“Of course. He asked about you.”
“I’ll see him tomorrow.”
“I know. That’s what I told him.” David climbs into the other bed. He steeples his fingers behind his head.
“My stomach really hurts,” Lucy says.
“Do you want me to get you something?”
“No. Thank you. I think I’ll just try to sleep.”
On the far side of the wall, Anna is talking to their mother. David can make out the pertinent words—waiting, pain management, arrangements. They become a kind of lullaby. A pleasant fuzz gathers in his sinuses. He turns onto his side. In his dream, he and his grandfather are running to catch a train. His grandfather is young again. His legs are long. David struggles to keep pace. At the top of the stairs, his grandfather leaps onto the train. The doors suction shut behind him. From the steps, David can see his grandfather waving goodbye. The scenario repeats.
Try as he might, David never catches his train.
Then it is a fall morning, a wonderful fall morning. They lace their boots in the loamy darkness of the shed and set off together toward the river. Snow, the first of the season, scallops the fringes of the pasture, and in the thin white air, David senses the precise contours of the months to come—a hard fall, a long winter, heavy enough to threaten the fields. He can remember a time when the seasons were to him little more than bookmarks. There was the anxious day in fall when school began and the wet day in spring when the last bell rang, and somewhere in between, close to Christmas, there was his birthday.
Now, at seventeen, the passing of each season seems an occasion for mourning, one more step away from childhood, when the years were big and elastic, and another toward adulthood, when they will become abbreviated and unspeakable.
Lucy stops at the pasture gates. The cattle bump sleepily against the metal, their mouths bristling with icy grass, chewing even now, at this early hour, at half past six in the morning. Cows, David’s grandfather is fond of saying, are the closest thing in the animal kingdom to a plant. David leans across the gate and grabs a fistful of fur. The cow shimmies, tosses her nose high in the air.
Her eyes are moony and dull, so different from the pupils of a horse, which always seemed to David, with their coiled strands of elastin, to be perfect models of the universe itself. Lucy produces a pair of red apples from her pocket and hands one to David. A struggle ensues, and the largest cow, a plump roan, burrows her anviled head past the shoulders of her peers.
“Whoa, girl,” David says. Large animals have always made him nervous. When he still rode, he had possessed a natural sense of the way a horse was supposed to move under his knees, the distinct shivers that connoted fear or acceptance or even pleasure. But if a horse refused to obey, he turned frantic, tearful. Once, run around an indoor ring by a tetchy Appaloosa, owned by his mother and boarded at a barn in Topsfield, he had dropped the reins entirely, gripped the neck with his arms, and begged the animal to halt, to come to a stop. Instead, the horse—a good one, it turned out, which eventually won Lucy a few ribbons—bucked rightward, crushing his leg between the stirrup strap and the paneling of the ring. He was not hurt, only shamed and shocked, but he rode rarely after that, and then not at all.
David pulls back the apple and walks over to a dun cow, small and sag-bellied, hardly more than a calf.
“Here,” he says. “You look like you could use the calories.”
She approaches him cautiously. Her sternum—that pack of muscle, David notes with dismay, which will eventually become a brisket—is covered with long scratches, pink and raw.
“Coyotes, probably,” Lucy says. “They know to look for the smallest cow. Mom says the Erskines are worried sick.”
David has never seen a coyote in the wild, but he imagines a stringy beast, green eyed and toothy. “So why is she still here?” he asks.
“Who knows? Maybe something scared them away.”
“Maybe it was Pete,” David suggests.
“I very much doubt that. Go on, she’s waiting.”
The cow suctions the apple into her mouth. Her teeth flash. Pieces of the fruit appear—the core, the skin, the dimpled crown, the curled stem—followed by the tongue itself, fat and purple, oscillating in wide circles, sweeping up the last foamy bits of flesh.
“What a pig,” Lucy laughs.
David follows her south down the road. Soon he is sweating. He opens the top button of his shirt. After a half mile, Lucy turns right onto a narrow trail, hardly more than a seam, overgrown and veined with roots. They climb in a high arc over the fields, and in the distance, David sees a tiny figure emerge from the house. Pete staggers behind.
“Lucy,” David says. “Look.”
Together, they watch their mother fasten both arms around the waist of the old oak tree, and shimmy upward, in small and precise convulsions. The sound of Pete’s barking carries up to them.
“Oh my God. What’s she doing?” Lucy asks.
“Climbing a tree.”
“In the middle of winter? She’s lost it.”
“I don’t want to look anymore,” David says. He feels an unnatural sense of power, peering down from this great distance at his mother, who believes she is alone, unwatched. He pushes past Lucy and settles into a jog. The sharp air tears at his lungs. The top of the hill is shorn to a stony smoothness. Using a stick, he clears a small patch of ground and sits. The sun settles overhead.
“She made it,” Lucy says, collapsing next to him.
“The tree. I watched the whole thing. She climbed it, and then she just sort of sat there, on a big branch.”
“You shouldn’t be so hard on her.”
“Me? That’s an interesting thing to say. I’m the reason we’re here.”
The white flank of the house is visible through the pines. In the upstairs window, there is a flicker of movement, and then darkness.
“I used to think the house was haunted,” David says.
“Remember the time you woke us all up? I started screaming too, just because you were screaming so hard.”
“You were a baby, basically. You said there was a ghost in the closet. Dad had to sit with us both until you fell back asleep.”
David grunts. “There probably was.”
“He even checked the closets.”
“Just an old dress.”
“What a relief.”
“Yeah.” She uses both hands to pack a snowball. “It seems stupid to give it up.”
“I don’t think we have a choice.”
“Mom could fight for it.”
“It’s not that simple, Lucy.”
“He defeated her, you know. She doesn’t have the will to do it.”
“And I’m not talking about money,” Lucy says, “in case that’s what you were implying.”
“No, that’s not what I was implying.” He closes his eyes. “How is your stomach?”
“It’s fine,” Lucy says.
“Not much to talk about. Another semester, then I walk.”
She had not wanted to go in the first place, David knows. There had been arguments, begun in indoor voices and ended in screams, this not long before his father had left. His sister screamed at his mother, and his mother screamed at his father, and his father listened, then screamed at them both. A set of keys were thrown across the living room, shattering the glass of an antique print. A can of beans went through the back window. But in the end, threatened with the withdrawal of funds, faced with the prospect of paying her own rent, her own phone bill, her own car insurance, Lucy had relented and enrolled at a community college in Somerville, not far from Union Square.
Unlike the rest of her friends, who had escaped to universities in Amherst, or private colleges in Vermont, she did not want to leave Lawrence; in fact, she actually liked it, planned to stay forever.
David had heard this from one of their shared friends, a pale ferret of a girl called Sally. “Your big sister,” Sally had confided, “can’t think of anywhere else to go.” So it was a failure of imagination, then. Or it was a sense of camaraderie with their mother, who was also unable to conceive of a life elsewhere. Or it was the boys—the failed banker, who had returned to Lawrence to marshal his mental resources; the high school hockey star, who had never left to begin with, floating instead like a ghost around the margins of the town, handsome still but puffy and unwell.
Most recently, there was Kim, an adjunct instructor at the community college, a decade older than Lucy, and loose in the joints, like a puppet. David has met him twice and found him pleasant enough, if a little tedious. When he thinks of Kim, he thinks of a talking beard, an earring, and the poem “The Red Wheelbarrow,” by William Carlos Williams.
“And how’s the poet?” he asks.
“I’m just wondering.”
“Kim is fine.”
“Do you have him again this next semester?”
She ignores the question. “He’s married, you know,” she says.
“That’s weird.” David does his best not to act surprised. Surely, once you reach your twenties, this kind of thing is normal. Life becomes a bazaar of sex, some of it marital, some of it not.
“Hey, I knew it going in. I knew what I was signing up for.”
“Yes, I did. And I should do my best not to act like a child.”
“You should.” David cannot bear to look at his sister.
They stand. “Do you think he’ll leave his wife?” David asks.
“There is a difference,” she pronounces, in an unfamiliar tone, “between the sex we have for love and the sex we have for fun.”
Gross, David almost says. He catches himself. “I see,” he says.
The trail drops through a narrow gorge. The rock is slippery and black. He reaches out both hands for balance.
“The answer is no,” Lucy says. “In case you were still wondering.”
“Have you met her?”
“Yes. She doesn’t know. It made me feel really powerful.”
“Is she pretty?” David asks.
“No. Well, maybe she used to be. Now she’s all pouchy.”
“I’m sorry, Lucy.”
They stop above the river. The water is fast and loud. On the far bank, a young deer wades through the undergrowth, spine proudly arched.
Lucy tucks her head into her brother’s neck so he will not see her cry.
When they return to the house, the table is set for lunch. Anna and their mother are working at the sideboard, elbow to elbow. A thin vein of smoke rises from the electric oven. David counts: five placemats, five red plates.
“I thought we might wheel him out,” says Anna over her shoulder.
“He can’t eat solids.” Lucy says. “Can he?”
“Depends on the day,” Anna says. She has traded her scrubs for a pair of high-waisted corduroys and a pilled turtleneck sweater. David searches fruitlessly for the outline of a figure—hips, drawn waist, breasts—but the woman is a mass of straight lines and hard right angles.
“I need to change,” Lucy says. “I’m filthy.” She presents both palms as evidence.
“Be quick please,” their mother says.
David kneels down at the stove. The wood in the trough is too young. The flesh and pulp are flecked with green, and a thick green moss grows on the husk. Anna must have collected it. Ripped it from the trunk of a living tree. His grandfather would never have sanctioned such a thing—long after moving up to Maine, the old man had managed to retain his sentimental reverence for the natural world. It was probably that sentimentalism, his mother had always said, that prevented him from becoming a successful farmer. He read too much Emerson. A real farmer would think of a tree only as firewood, the fields only as sustenance, cowshit as cowshit.
David breaks the largest of the branches and jams it through the hatch. The fire leaps away, as if allergic.
At half past two, Anna retreats to the river room and returns with their grandfather. Upright, he looks worse. The blood has fled his face and his hair is rumpled, screwed into a single greasy lick, which dangles over one ear. A high metal mast, holding the morphine bag, protrudes from the back of the wheelchair. Anna smiles encouragingly.
“Bill wanted to get a little dressed up,” she says.
And so he is: pressed khakis, leather belt, felt hunting shirt, buttoned to the throat. His feet, no longer bare, jangle anxiously in the stirrups.
“Back up, Pete,” David says, and takes the dog by the collar.
“Well,” his grandfather says. “Quite a spread.”
“Petra’s been working all morning,” Anna says.
“I have not,” their mother says.
“She was always a worker,” says the old man. For the first time in two days, David hears his grandfather’s voice as it had been—unyielding, abundant. “She always worked. In school,” he continues, “the teachers had to tell her to stop studying. They were worried for her.”
“That’s not true, Dad,” his mother says. “I was a terrible student.”
“You’re mixing me up with Mom.”
“No,” his grandfather says. “I don’t think so.” David and his mother quietly find their seats. Anna nudges the wheelchair closer to the table.
“I’m going to help out a bit,” she says. “With the food.”
“Where’s the other one?” his grandfather says.
“Lucy is upstairs,” his mother says. “They had a long walk today.”
“We went down by the pasture, Opa,” David offers. “There’s snow today. Looks like it’s going to be a bad winter.”
“Well,” his grandfather says. “Is that so?” His pupils are dark and unseeing. He appears not to recognize David. Anna holds up a forkful of braised sprouts. “Your favorite,” she says.
“Sprouts,” he repeats, and allows Anna to fill his mouth.
“Hi, Opa,” Lucy says brightly. She flounces across the room and, gripping their grandfather by the shoulders, kisses his cheek. She kneels down next to the wheelchair.
“It’s Lucy, Opa. Your granddaughter.” She says it loudly.
“I can hear, you know.”
“Oh, I believe it.”
“Beautiful,” he says. With one wavering hand, he touches her hairline. “What’s your name?”
“He’s a little out of it,” Anna whispers. “Extra morphine.”
“I am not,” their grandfather says.
“Nothing wrong with your ears, is there?”
Lucy sits between David and their grandfather.
“How old are you now?” the old man asks.
“Twenty,” Lucy says.
“She was always such a good worker,” their grandfather says to Anna. Anna arches her eyebrows obligingly. “She never stopped working,” he adds. “There was a conference at the school, and the teachers told us, ‘Well, she works too much.’ They were worried for her. Can you imagine?”
Lucy smiles. “Sorry. That wasn’t me.” Across the table, their mother is examining her plate.
“Oh, don’t tell me I don’t remember. You worked so hard.”
“I barely graduated.”
“You worked so hard.”
“A 2.2 gpa. I was close to failing.”
Anna lifts the fork. “Maybe you’d like some turkey?” she says, but the old man shakes his head.
“A two point what?”
“Lucy,” their mother says.
“How bad?” their grandfather asks. His gaze is clear and stern.
“Cs, mostly. Some Ds.”
“How do you expect to get anywhere with those marks? I remember, you worked so hard. So hard,” he repeats.
“You’re remembering wrong. It’s the drugs. You’re all mixed up.”
“I’m not,” he snaps.
“You did this to her, too, didn’t you?” Lucy says, and looks at their mother.
“Back when I was young, people worked.”
“Both of you!” their mother stands. “Stop.”
“I want him to know. I want him to wake up.”
“He’s not going to suddenly wake up, Lucy. That’s not the way it works.”
“So you’re just going to let him walk all over you?”
“I thought,” their mother says, slamming her hands on the table with a sharp clatter, “that we might just be able to have this one meal together, in peace.”
Underfoot, Pete whimpers.
“In peace?” Lucy shouts.
“Lucy,” David says. He takes her wrist. Her pulse is frantic.
“You let him do this to you, Mom,” Lucy says.
“I didn’t let him do anything.”
“Oh, please. Opa, tell us—why did you give away the house?”
A grave confusion spreads over the old man’s face.
“I’m pregnant,” Lucy says.
“What?” David removes his hand from her arm. He turns to his mother. Her lips are drawn tight. She already knows, David thinks. Of course she knows. They share everything, the two of them. It was only him they left out.
“Two months,” Lucy says. “I was going to tell you.”
“OK,” Anna says soothingly, to no one in particular. “OK.”
“Who’s pregnant?” their grandfather asks.
“Your granddaughter, Dad. Lucy.”
The old man considers this. “Lucy,” he says.
David is the first to leave the room. Behind him, there is silence.
That night, he dreams a shard of steel has been driven through his stomach. Waking, greasy with sweat, he prods the area around his navel with the tips of his fingers. Under the skin, a fleet of organs thrum—the small intestine, the bladder, the pancreas. He has never been much of a science student, but he knows the appendix is down there somewhere, too, encased in purple tissue, delicate and engorged, ready to split at any moment, to rupture and flood the rest of his body with dancing toxins.
He kicks off the sheets. The sky through the windows is wild with stars. Lucy is on her back, snoring. Her arms are crossed protectively over her chest. It seems to David incredible, improbable, some terrible trick—downstairs, one is going, and up here, another is coming. He wonders if they will pass each other in transit. Small sparks of bioluminescence. Trails of pale fluid.
As kids, unable to make the long and unaccompanied trip to the downstairs toilet, they had pissed in plastic tubs, Pyrex measuring cups. David recalls holding aloft one of the containers, marveling at the deep gold hue of the urine. Before that, he had seen his own piss only when it was disappearing down the drain. In the morning, the cups were always gone, quietly disposed of by his mother.
The door of the master bedroom is ajar. He cups his hands over his brow and peers into the half-light. He sees hands, feet, raised cheeks. A book on the bedside table, draped in shadow. Anna does not stir. David pulls the door shut. His mother had insisted that the nurse, who has been at the farmhouse for two weeks, and will likely stay on after them, to manage the dispersing of the medical supplies, should sleep in the master bedroom. Meanwhile, his mother has remained in the office, on a pull-out bed.
But at the bottom of the stairs, David finds the office empty, the bed still made. The clock blinks 3:23. In the kitchen, he pours himself a glass of water, then leans down to pet Pete, who is curled up at the foot of the stove. The lids are slow to open, and even then, the eyes are rheumy, bewildered. A snarl builds somewhere in the chest, but when David says his name, the dog stands and stretches, yawns. The stove still throbs with heat. Through the grates, David watches the embers dance.
Pete, panting, follows him into the river room. There is the earthy, warm scent of shit. His mother has turned his grandfather on his side and is dabbing at his buttocks with a knot of toilet paper. She tears off another foot and begins again, repeating the process until the paper is white. “Good,” she says to David, and points. “Hold him there.”
David cannot see his grandfather’s face and is glad for it. He holds tight. His mother works a sponge over the old man’s furrowed skin. When it is done, she hands the basin and a plastic trash bag to David.
“You can just pour that into the toilet,” she says. “Sponge in the plastic bag, and plastic bag in the trash.”
He takes the bag and walks through the kitchen and stands in the center of the shed. The roof is torn, and a pallid light plays over his feet. He wrestles the bag into the bin, then stands at the door. He can make out their boot prints in the snow. He remembers another walk, this one taken a decade ago, with his grandfather. The day had been dark, not so different from night, and the closer they got to the river, the darker it became. The bluebirds, unaccustomed to the sight of human visitors, shrieked in disgust from one high branch to the next. David had felt the miniature breeze stirred by their feathers. The trail became a tunnel, a bleak thing, the entrance to the underworld. He stepped carefully.
“Here,” his grandfather said.
“I don’t see.”
“Right in front of you.”
It was not a house after all, David had noted with disappointment. Only a foundation and three walls, seething with ivy. A puckered patch of earth. “The door would have been next to that baby fir,” his grandfather said. “We’d be standing in their front yard.”
“A fire. Back then, there was nothing for it. No fire department. If your house burned down, you ran, and built a new one.”
David walked through the hole on the west side of the foundation. “Did they make it out ok?”
“There was a baby. Died of smoke inhalation.”
“How do you know?”
“I learned it when I bought our house.”
“Maybe they were lying.”
“I’m sorry, David. I didn’t mean to scare you.”
“I’m not scared, Opa,” David lied.
“Well,” his grandfather said. They trekked the two miles back to the house without speaking. David had been unable to shake the image of the two farmers, faces rumpled by years of hard labor, bent over the corpse of a baby. Smoke slipping in heavy whorls over the treetops. The catch of the shovel in the frosted topsoil. The grave of perfect dimensions.
People were tougher back then, David told himself. His grandfather, after all, had lost his older sister. Dead of pneumonia. His grandmother had lost two brothers, both to an unnamed disease of the heart. “You moved on,” his grandfather had explained. “You had no choice.” And yet that must mean the world was teeming with ghosts, specters.
In the river room, his mother is leaning over the old man. Her hair falls in a veil across his face. David cannot hear the words. He feels a rustle against his pant leg. Pete leans hard into him, pressing his head forward to be rubbed. David rumples the fur between his fingers and, squatting, buries his face between the dog’s shoulder blades.
There, amid the dander and the leathered scent of dead skin, David attempts to summon an image of his own death. He knows death, even at seventeen, can be close—the previous fall, Matt Corey, a grade-school friend, had been killed by a delivery truck while on a field trip to Manhattan. Although the Coreys were Catholic, the coffin, out of respect for the family had been closed.
It seemed to David to be the worst kind of joke—Corey, out of all of his friends and acquaintances, that constellation of smooth, pink faces that flicked in and out of his memory, was the most trusting, the most irreverent. Had someone told him that his last vision would be the grill of a white Ford van, Corey would have laughed.
He expected, like they all did, to live forever.
Matthew Shaer is the author of Among Righteous Men, a book of nonfiction. His reporting appears regularly in New York Magazine, Harper’s, and the Washington Post, among other outlets. He teaches writing at New York University and Drew University and lives in Brooklyn.