Steve married Susan on a bright blue afternoon in the middle of May and she was already showing. Steve had wanted to elope, had wanted to just drive off somewhere in the middle of the night, but Susan couldn’t help mentioning that to her Mom and that was the end of that. So there everybody stood, on the flagstone steps of the Assembly of God and smiling into the camera. Susan looked pretty, everybody agreed, and Steve hadn’t seemed so happy in years. They made a handsome couple, they were going to be fine. Steve’s father got drunk at the reception and he couldn’t stop crying.
Before the ceremony Matt and his son took a spool of fishing line and tied an old pair of sneakers, some balloons and a couple of tin cans to the trailer hitch of Steve’s 86 Chevy shortbed, all spit-shined and gleaming. Matt’s wife and daughter were already inside the church with the rest. Even in the parking lot Matt could hear the organ, playing “Nearer My God to Thee”. Steve had parked in the shade of the elm trees, and black birds leapt from branch to branch above them as they crouched down together behind the truck. Matt tried not to get parking lot dirt on the knees of his suit.
Matt had written “Just Married” across the rear window in car-lot soap, and tied a long white ribbon around the antennae, the whole thing looked pretty good.
Matt’s son was seven years old, and buried deep in concentration. He jammed his tongue into the corner of his mouth as he threaded the fishing line through the holes in the trailer hitch and looped it around. His eyes darted across to his father as he started tying the knot, and Matt held back the urge to help him.
“Over and through,” he said. “That’s it.”
His son finished the knot and pulled the slack line as taut as he could before Matt finally helped him, trimming off the extra length with his pocket knife.
From inside the church the organ playing suddenly got louder and Matt stood up, holding out his open hand. His son took it, and together they headed off across the parking lot toward the church, the gravel crunching beneath their shoes.
Matt’s cousin died later that summer out on Hebron Valley Road. It was dark, the roads were wet, and he must’ve really been flying. He wrapped himself around a telephone pole in his girlfriend’s yellow Honda and his blood alcohol level was way off the charts. A couple of factory kids found him the next day at dawn. They were on their way to work, ran out of the car yelling, but there was nothing they could have done.
Highway Patrol got Matt’s number off of Billy’s cell-phone, which they found undamaged at his feet, on the floor of the car. His cousin had him in the address book, on speed dial or whatever it was called, and Matt was awake when they rang. It was six-thirty in the morning, the gray, pre-dawn light was beginning to seep in through his kitchen window. Apparently there were only a couple of numbers his cousin had bothered to save there in his phone, and Matt was the only one who answered. He talked to the tired-sounding woman on the other end of the line, thanked her for calling and said he’d take care of everything, then he called his boss and explained things. That’s fine, his boss said, take as much time as you need.
“What is it?”
“Billy,” Matt said. “I’ve got to go down to the hospital.”
His wife didn’t say anything for a minute, rolled over on her side in the bed.
“Don’t wake up the kids.”
As Matt drove to the hospital he tried to remember the last time he had seen his cousin, and he couldn’t. Last Christmas, the summer before, he couldn’t pin it down. It threw him a little, the way his number had popped up so readily in Billy’s cell-phone. Matt certainly didn’t have Billy’s number, wouldn’t have taken it on a bet. Thanksgiving, he decided. Must’ve been right around Thanksgiving sometime, ran into him pretty much by chance. Some restaurant downtown. Even if he couldn’t quite remember it, he could still imagine the scene pretty clearly. Billy red-faced and laughing too hard at his own stories, talking too loud at the bar. His wiry little girlfriend nervous behind him. Matt saying how good it was to see him again and looking for the door. Must’ve been Thanksgiving.
Billy had gone down to Florida not that long back, thought he’d go down there and make some money, never did say how. Get fat and happy, sit out in the sun. Drink Coronas and fish for Marlin all day, that was the plan. He was convinced a whole new life of ease was just down there waiting for him, that’s what he called it. All he had to do was go down and grab it. He was back home within the year and he’d gotten fat alright but Matt couldn’t say he seemed particularly happy. He’d brought the girlfriend back up with him, the thin nervous girl with the auburn hair. The girl with the yellow Honda.
Matt stood in the bright, empty lobby of the University Hospital, waiting for the receptionist to get off the phone. It was cold, and there was some kind of floral chemical smell they used that Matt couldn’t get out of his nose.
The woman behind the desk was rake-thin, and she sat at her desk with the ramrod straight posture of a classical pianist. Matt could see the bones moving around in her wrists as she typed something into her computer keyboard. She was dressed head-to-toe in purple, and her skin was the color of coal. Her hair swept up high above the sharp angles of her face. She wore one of those wrap-around microphone headsets and she was reading something into the little silver microphone at her mouth, a long string of numbers and letters Matt couldn’t begin to decipher. He could see the computer monitor reflected in the lenses of her purple-framed glasses as she read.
There was a huge flat-screen TV mounted to the waiting area wall, CNN showing a cluster of West Virginia coal miners standing together in a muddy field. The volume was off but Matt knew what was happening, the story had been on the news for a week. One of the miners had his arm slung over another one’s shoulder, and through their sunglasses they both looked mournfully down at the ground.
The only other people in the hospital lobby were an older couple sitting side-by-side in a row of empty chairs. They were dressed in a hurry, and they stared silently into the empty space ahead of them. The older man was having a tough time with whatever was going on. He’d open his mouth a little and let out a kind of low, shuddering moan. The woman reached across to him and put her hand on his knee, but otherwise they stayed as they were.
“Sir?” The receptionist called to him, and Matt turned.
He had taken in the room all at once. Florescent lights and tiled walls, a stainless steel table and a drain in the floor. A radio. The hospital attendant stood at a respectful distance as Matt stared down at his cousin, at what was left of him. It was even colder now, and the chemical smell was stronger.
“Take your time.”
Matt hadn’t known what to expect, but Billy’s face looked more or less the same, bruised and swollen but more or less the same. There was a fine mist of dried copper-red blood sprayed across his chest and collarbone, his hair was flattened down on one side. Matt guessed that the real damage was lower, under the sheet they used to cover the body. He just looked battered and empty. Tired. Matt stood there for a long minute, trying to think of something to say, something appropriate, but nothing came. There wasn’t anything left of his cousin at all.
“If you need another minute…”
“No, it’s OK. It’s him. Where do you need me to sign?”
He called his aunt from back in the hospital lobby, he was alone now, the older couple had gone and the receptionist’s chair was empty. Matt dialled up San Mateo directory information and in another minute he was talking to his mother’s sister, who’d given up on all of them and left for California years before. He could hear the TV on wherever she was, blasting away in the background.
“So?” she asked him after saying nothing for a long time. Her voice was a little slurred already. “So? You knew it was coming.”
In the background Matt could hear the TV pretty clearly. Too loud shouting and clapping, the sound of a studio audience baying out for blood. What time was it in California?
“Are you still there?”
There was no answer on the other end, but the TV audience kept shouting. Then his aunt hung up and the line went dead.
Susan in the kitchen, making her mother a cup of tea. Slicing the lemon the way she used to as a girl. Same paring knife, same chopping board. Waiting for the kettle to boil. She’d lost a lot of weight all of a sudden, was smoking too much. Her rings fit loose on her fingers. She couldn’t stand the smell of herself in the mornings anymore, the smell she got off her sheets when she first woke up. Steve said it was all her imagination but she didn’t believe him. She was worried she was sick. She went to the doctor but the doctor said no. Doctor said she needed rest, needed more iron in her diet. He wrote out a prescription that Susan carried around with her in her bag. The kitchen smelled like lemons.
From the next room Susan could hear the TV playing. She could hear her mother cooing into the blinking face of her own little baby girl. Who’s a good girl? You’re a good girl. Who’s a good girl? You’re a good girl. Susan stood on the linoleum where the sunlight hit the floor and listened. She closed her eyes.
Steve wouldn’t come back down here anymore. Wouldn’t come into the county at all if he didn’t have to. She tried to talk to him but he just said no. Didn’t want to bother anybody, didn’t want anybody bothering him. He could be like a wall sometimes, he’d get these ideas. Susan still came down most Saturdays, brought down the baby and sometimes took her mom out to lunch. Sometimes she stayed the night, it depended. She never mentioned Steve and when her mom brought it up she’d just ask How’s Steve and Susan would say He’s Fine. On Sunday afternoons, after the baby was in the car seat and Susan was ready to go home, her mom would fold forty dollars into the diaper bag and they let it go at that.
Matt poured a small shot of bourbon into the bottom of his coffee cup. The cup was a birthday present from his son, it had a baseball painted on the side of WORLD’S GREATEST DAD written in big bold letters. Matt had seen the mugs on sale at the mall downtown and guessed that’s where his son had found it.
He looked through the kitchen window at the scrubby yard outside. It was already raining lightly, rippling across the surface of the kiddie pool out there surrounded by toys. Bicycles and hula-hoops. A disconnected garden hose. He imagined his son in the pool, suspended just under the surface. Eyes closed, very still. Listening for something.
Matt drank down the whiskey and rinsed out his cup in the sink. Enough. He filled the cup with yesterday’s coffee and turned the radio on.
The long-haired man had been sitting at the counter for over an hour, the waitress told him. He had sat there stirring sugar into his coffee and drinking down glass after glass of ice water like he was on fire. The waitress knew right away that that man wasn’t right. She knew that just looking at him. He had that kind of pinwheel look in his eyes, and she’d seen that look before. There was something wrong with that man, she said again. Agitated. Nobody wanted to sit near him.
When the woman with the baby came in he was still sitting there and she was looking straight at him. She called out his name across the floor, everybody got real quiet but that long-haired man didn’t even turn his head. The woman with the baby started walking across to him and the waitress tried to stop her, she did. She got up real close and she knew something about these situations herself. She tried to stop her but the woman with the baby walked right past her. Walked straight up to the long-haired man.
Matt nodded. He nodded and he listened and he wished he was a long way away.
Well, the woman said his name again real soft and for a second the man didn’t do anything at all. Just drained down another glass of ice water and set it down real careful on the counter. Then he turned and he hit that woman as hard as he could. He used his fist on her and sent her reeling to the floor, still clutching that baby close to her chest. The long-haired man walked right out of the restaurant, nobody tried to stop him. Just disappeared out through the door. They were going to call the police but the woman with the baby said no. Whole thing happened about an hour ago, the waitress told him. Less. Certainly didn’t need that kind of thing in here.
Matt walked out, numb and heavy. He found Susan waiting for him in the passenger seat of her car, jiggling the baby up and down in her lap. He walked right past her and climbed into his own truck, parked out there on the edge of the gravel lot. He sat there for a long time, staring out through the windshield and the field beyond. He watched the starlings rise up out of the long grass. They rose up in small black clouds, twisted up and around each other, and then disappeared back into the grass again.