Authors: Claire Lombardo
“But he’s okay?”
Her father softened. “He’s fine, sweetheart. Not a scratch on him. You just need to call and let them know you let him use it. Then he needs to be picked up.”
“Are they— Is he in trouble? Are they going to— This is my fault, I shouldn’t— Dad, I’m so— I didn’t— I was so tired and I didn’t even—”
“I know that, Lize. It’s all right. Should we come home? It’ll take us— The drive’s about four hours from here, honey, so you’ll need to go get him regardless, but we’re happy to—”
“No, it’s— Jesus. Couldn’t Violet be taking care of this?”
“She’s not answering her phone,” her dad said.
Liza breathed out slowly. “Of fucking course she’s not.”
he whole thing was so fucking stupid, and
he hadn’t seen the person pulling out of the gas station parking lot, and when he did he’d jerked the wheel instead of just trying to stop, and so he’d hit the mailbox, and the cops were acting like he was some kind of hilarious anomaly, like a dog or a baby in a business suit driving a car instead of just a fifteen-year-old without a license, and to add insult to injury they also seemed to suspect him of stealing the car, which, no offense, but if he was going to do that he would set his sights elsewhere, because while Violet and Wendy both drove super-tricked-out, totally-worth-stealing luxury cars, Liza’s was a fifteen-year-old Camry with hand cranks for the windows.
He wasn’t hurt, and once his grandparents and Liza had had several phone conversations with the cops, all seemed to be resolved, and it was then that he realized how frightened he was, how you could get kicked out of foster care for way less than crashing someone’s car, and plus Liza was like the most sympathetic victim ever, pregnant and vomiting, single because Jonah had accidentally spilled the beans about the Subaru guy. It was totally possible that Ryan had already told Liza what he’d learned. It was possible, even, that Liza would pass on that news to her parents, the news that Jonah was a total dick who couldn’t keep his mouth shut. He wasn’t locked up or anything, at the police station, just sitting on a stool behind the front desk with a lady wearing a sweatshirt that said
GIVE ME CHOCOLATE AND NO ONE GETS HURT
. It occurred to him that maybe he could leave—Jesus Christ, should he leave? David and Marilyn had been so nice on the phone, but then again it hadn’t been their car that he wrecked. He was considering this—he could pretend to go to the bathroom, skip out a side door, figure out the rest later—when he heard a woman’s voice, high and anxious: “I’m here to pick up my nephew. He was in a car accident.”
He was in a car accident,
He totaled my car
. He looked past the chocolate lady. Liza was near tears, stark white. When she saw him her face lit up.
“There he is,” she said.
“You be careful out there, Evel Knievel,” the chocolate lady said.
“I’m really sorry that I— I didn’t mean— Liza, I’m—”
sorry,” she said, drawing him into a hug, soft and warm and motherly, and he felt the trembling almost turn into crying, and he wasn’t used to feeling this emotionally reactive to people; with every family before the Sorensons it had been easy enough to say
not worth it
but with them there seemed to be more at stake. “Hey, hey, hey,” Liza said. “It’s okay. Everything’s fine. Gosh, what a day we’ve had.”
She took him home and he fell asleep that night counting his lucky stars.
He had never before fully experienced how long a year could feel. They had so much going on, which tended to make days fly by but currently seemed only to bog them down. He and Marilyn barely spoke; their separate existences barely brushed against each other. Weeks passed, then months, as a pall hovered over their household; Wendy was mopey and Liza was moody and Violet had her sights set on the East Coast once she finished high school. And his father’s decline was speeding up; Marilyn returned from her Sunday visits with puffy eyes and he envisioned her crying in the car, which is what he did when he stopped by the house in Albany Park after work on Tuesdays and Thursdays to bring his father meals he didn’t have the energy to eat.
When the inevitable news arrived, Marilyn was in the next room—they had become highly, strategically adept at avoiding each other—but when she heard his end of the call she came in immediately.
“Peaceful, like an angel,” the home health aide said to David over the phone, and he marveled, sitting next to Marilyn at the kitchen table, because his father had been many things, but
had never been on the list. Marilyn had taken his hand for the remainder of the call.
This was what marriage could be, he learned: months of intensely powerful loneliness, nearly a year of isolation that at first felt unbearable but slowly melted into routine. But mostly it was this, the amazing reality of Marilyn’s hand in his, the seamless return to form after such a long stretch of adversity, the weight of his wife against his arm when she knew he needed her. That was the kind of love he had never known until her and, at that moment, remembered how lucky he was to have. He put his arm around her, pressed his cheek against the top of her head. Her hair was thick and silky, citrus-scented. He inhaled her and held her and let himself be held and that, he knew, softened the blow of the news.
His father had been a steady, quiet presence in their lives, but one who existed mostly at a point of remove, an occasional visitor, the stalwart of Second Thanksgiving, and a sporadic babysitter or bleacher occupant at floor hockey games. At the wake, Liza and Violet sat at the back of the room, leaning unhappily together, occasionally looking up when prompted to respond to some stranger from their grandfather’s past. Wendy was at home with Grace; she had been profoundly upset by the sight of Richard’s body and volunteered shakily hours earlier to go relieve the sitter. He was proud of them, his little crew, his beautiful, mature girls, and his wife, sweeping around from older to oldest guests and doing her thing: touching forearms, listening attentively, providing brief and charming stories about Richard to his old friends, neighbors, work buddies.
And then Marilyn came to his elbow, rested her head gently against his bicep, touched the back of his neck with an intimate, insistent pressure in just the right spot that made him feel protected and invigorated.
She picked me,
he wanted to say.
She picked me and we did this
. His dad had to have been proud of him, of the choices he’d made, of the kind, brilliant women with whom he’d surrounded himself. David felt the newfound warmth of his wife’s hand as he stared at the waxy replica of his dad situated in the casket, and he marveled over all of the things he would never know about him.
This awful year they’d had. This terrible, off-kilter alternate universe in which everything was quiet and loaded with resentment and terror and a savage stubbornness. He and Marilyn were now utterly orphaned, and that required a kind of standing up. Concession, the high road, bitten bullets. All of which seemed smaller now, alongside the magnitude of loss. Her hand in his—the cool metal of her wedding ring now growing warm against his palm—felt the same as it had a year ago, as it had when he had first gripped it in the hallway of the Behavioral Sciences Building.
He squeezed her hand three times quickly, their Morse code,
I love you.
She looked up at him again—confirmation, that loaded click that made this eye contact different from the fleeting glances they gave each other over the children’s heads in the kitchen in the mornings—and then she lifted her face to kiss him.
That, too, felt as familiar to him as breathing.
hen they got home that night, he went in to check on Gracie. He was so tired, suddenly, picturing his dad leaving for work in the evenings, navy Dickies and a T-shirt, off to oversee one of the major trolley fleets for the 85 Central line. Picturing him showing up for his high school graduation, leaning against the doors of the gym at St. Clement’s, his dark, hardened face looking almost malleable.
He found Gracie still awake, snuggled in her bed against Wendy.
“Okay but,” Grace was saying, “where
He should’ve stepped in—it was their job, as her parents, to field these kinds of big questions—but something stopped him. Curiosity, maybe. Fatigue.
“It’s not so much a
Goose,” Wendy said, and David saw then that his daughter—that
that first baby who had shaken up his and Marilyn’s life together with such delightful, frenzied, terrifying fervor—was unquestionably an adult, a woman, nineteen years old. “He’s everywhere, I think. Kind of. And he’ll be there forever.”
Grace’s eyes were wide. “But I don’t—”
“It’s not scary, Goose. It’s actually really nice.”
“But what do you mean
” Grace said. “How long is that?”
“It’s a really long time. Like the longest time ever.”
“Hey, girls,” he said softly. “You want me to sub in for you, Wednesday?”
She nodded, seeming relieved, and kissed Gracie’s head before she got up. “Sweet dreams, Goose,” she said, and she touched David’s shoulder as she walked past him out of the room. “You okay, Dad?” That was what you got when you were the only man in the house: his wife and daughters sniffed out potential weaknesses with acute drug-dog noses, suspicious, nurturing German shepherds who could spot his oncoming head colds or emotional fragility in a way that seemed almost superhuman. Or perhaps this was what happened when you became an adult orphan: the slippage started, the shift where your children began to parent you.
“I’m just fine, honey,” he said. He sank onto Gracie’s tiny bed and stroked a hand over her hair and she moved groggily to rest against him. “Hi, polar bear,” he said, his throat full. She’d always looked the most like him, which by extension meant that she looked the most like her grandfather: dark hair, wide eyes. One of his aunts had presented him with an envelope full of old photos, the first baby pictures he had ever seen of his dad. It was eerie how familiar he looked in some of them; he couldn’t tell if he was recognizing his father or himself or his daughter as a baby. His eyes welled up; Gracie wasn’t a baby anymore, was no longer the androgynous little bundle staring up at him in a vacated delivery room.
“Papa, what’s forever?” she murmured, but he could tell she was drifting, headed to limbo. “Why are you so fancy?”
“Shh,” he said. “Everything’s okay.”
“Are you sad?” She stuck her thumb into her mouth, her other arm across his rib cage.
“No, Goose,” he said finally, and he hugged her to him for another minute before he settled her back in bed. “Dada’s fine, little one.”
He changed out of his suit and went to join his wife, who was seated Indian-style on the couch with a glass of wine, still in her dress, heels kicked off before her, leaning her head back.
“The food should be here in twenty minutes,” she said without opening her eyes. “Violet’s on the phone. Lize’s in the shower. Wendy’s out back. She’s thrilled I ordered pizza; she claims that all she’s eaten today is the body of Christ.”
“I’m going to go check on her.”
“The most energetic man in Illinois,” she said, smiling. “Kiss me, Doctor Strange.”
He came over and kissed her; she smelled weakly of her perfume and strongly of the holy-water scent of the funeral home.
“I like you better in your street clothes,” she said.
t was, presumably, as far as her family was concerned, a walk in the park for Wendy, away from the soulless processional of the wake, away from the inquisitive relatives, away from the bloated frightening body of her grandfather, to whom she hadn’t been able to say goodbye. Her grandfather, who’d been her friend during a time when no one else wanted to be. And now he was dead, and she’d accidentally told her four-year-old sister about infinity, a concept that she remembered having endless nightmares about when she was a child. This was one of the great injustices of being an older sister, these occasional times the universe challenged you to not traumatize your siblings for life—a task that, under normal circumstances, should belong to the parents. But it was hard to be mad at Grace, who was warm and microscopic and so genuinely unwitting. And her dad had come to rescue her. How weird it must be for him, that his own dad was in a box. That he’d never see him again.
“Hey, Wednesday,” he said, startling her. She was sitting on the back stairs, wishing she had a cigarette. This was the first time she’d ever been concerned about her dad’s emotional vulnerability, about the fact that he could be hurt by something that didn’t pertain directly to their immediate family. He sank down beside her. “How goes it, honey?”
She shrugged, nodded.
“I know today was hard for you,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
“I just—” She shook her head. “I just don’t…”
He wrapped an arm around her shoulders. “Oh, honey,” he murmured. “It’s okay, Wendy. Hey, it’s okay.” He rubbed her arm. “It’s kind of a shitty day, isn’t it?” he finally said. She nodded into him and he rested his head against the top of hers. “Today sucks.”
“Hey, Dad? You know how they have—like, people? To hold the—like, the casket?” She moved slightly away from him, straightening her spine, readying her case.
“Pallbearers,” he said. “What about them?”
“Who’s doing that tomorrow?”
“Me,” he said. “A few of my cousins. A couple of men from the funeral home.”
“People who didn’t
“Your grandpa’s friends are mostly octogenarians. We take what we can get.”
“Do women ever do it? Hold the casket.”
“Not that I’ve seen.”
“Is it allowed?”
“Whatever we want to be allowed is allowed with this stuff, I think. Why do you ask?”