My brother Johnny and I have been driving three days, left San Diego on a whim in this kind-of stolen car. The BMW belongs to Ryan, Johnny’s boyfriend, this older, very tanned, very rich guy Johnny’s been living with for ten months.
On the cold leather back seat I huddle into Johnny’s bony chest. My head’s swollen and phlegmy, my toes frigid, and it takes me way too long to remember we’re in Boise, Idaho, and that it was my idea in the first place to drive out here with Johnny to see the house where we all grew up ten-plus years ago—me, Mary, Johnny, Mom and Dad. Mary was Johnny’s twin, my big sister, only twenty-three. She died two years ago yesterday. One stupid early morning she drank too much rum then ate too many pills. This knowledge still scares me so much.
Johnny murmurs my name, “Sam . . . Samantha,” and sounds scared, too, as I push at his shoulder.
“Don’t.” He shuts his eyes tighter. “Please.” We’re parked in the empty lot of an abandoned grocery store close to downtown, I think. It’s March, somewhere near the Ides of March, I’m pretty sure, and the smell of the cold, dry air takes me back to when I was in third and fourth grade—playing Barbies with Lori B., our neighbor, or following Johnny and Mary down quiet neighborhood alleyways. My breath clouds and dissolves as I spoon tighter into my brother.
The bluing predawn light pours in, peaceful and harsh. My headache feels like tiny soldiers marching around in my skull. I clench my jaw against it. We’ve been eating ugly little roadside meals, and drinking vodka and gin cut with Red Bull and Sunny D. Folded cans and cigarette butts and grease-spotted fast-food bags are tucked under the seats. Smelling the sweet rot of it, I feel we’re almost worn through. But touching my brother’s shaggy black hair and tanned neck, smelling the oily musk of him, it seems we still possess some momentum, and it’s right for us to be together in this place, in this moment, coming back here.
I shift my weight off Johnny, and the leather groans as he turns away into the crook of the seat. I reach to let myself out. It’s been so many years since I’ve set foot in Idaho. A whole long life ago.
The lot around the BMW is mostly empty, only a couple of rusting, tipped-over carts. Snow’s piled in speckled, dirty mounds melting slowly, glossing the pavement like varnish. I stretch toward the angle of yellow clouds creeping from the east. Shadows are just beginning, and I turn toward my own long body distended across the BMW and flap my arms like a silly, sad bird trying to signal something wise to my brother—the world is a dubious place, the sun cannot be trusted, come save me, Johnny, rescue us.
Then I go crouch behind this snow pile and pee.
Squatting, feeling my pale hands tremble and jangle my knees, I’m pretty sure I’m about to break into a hundred jillion jigsaw pieces. This parking lot is one of the edges of the earth. It’d be easy to walk to that cyclone fence over there, hop it, be lost for good in some murky abyss. That wouldn’t be the worst thing. That’s probably where Mary’s hanging out.
I stand hitching my pants, and the first thing I see are the cops, or some rent-a-cops, rolling our way. I light a cigarette and feel my headache chase away as the cruiser stops thirty yards from me. I still can’t tell for certain if it’s real cops or fake cops, but when the two of them get out holding flashlights and wearing khaki jumpsuits, it’s pretty obvious.
“Morning, ma’am,” the one on the right says, walking my direction slowly, smacking his flashlight into his gloved palm. He’s short, has this tight-cut beard, and looks serious enough to make me laugh. The other guy is tall with a round, clean-cut face, and he nods, smiles a sweet little smile—bad and good rent-a-cops.
“It’s fucking cold out.” I cross my arms, take another long drag.
“What’s going on here?” the beard says.
“Those jumpsuits keep you warm?” I say, and the round-face nods.
“Were you urinating over there?” The beard nods toward the mound.
“You could see that?” I smile and look over, hoping to see Johnny.
“You can’t just wiz in public,” the beard says sternly. “At least not here, on our watch.”
“What happened to this grocery store?” I toss and stomp my cigarette.
“Belly up,” the round-face says. “Two years ago. The recession.”
“I’m sorry.” I look over at the snow mound. “But I had to go.”
“Listen,” the beard says, “you can’t park here, or piss here, or do whatever you were doing in that car here.” He points his flashlight toward the BMW, flicks it on even though it’s plenty light out now and you can’t even see the beam.
“What do you think we were doing in that car?” I hear the back door open, and I turn to see Johnny, with his rumpled hair and squinty eyes, emerge confused.
“Sam?” he says. “Who are the storm troopers?”
“This is my brother,” I say, and the bearded guy winces. “We’re not from Idaho. Not anymore.”
“California plates.” The beard points again with the flashlight.
Johnny walks to my side, puts his arm around me, and I can feel him shaking with the cold. He’s redolent, smoky, a piece of the earth.
“And this is my little sister Samantha, detectives, or officers, or whoever you are.” Johnny reaches into his breast pocket, pulls out the photograph we’ve been carrying around of me and him and Mary in front of our old Boise house. “Have you seen this house?”
“We’re looking for our sister,” I say, and Johnny squeezes my shoulder hard as I point at the glossy image. He doesn’t like me even slightly pretending Mary’s alive. “That’s her in the middle. She lives there now.”
“Looks like a north-ender.” The round-face leans in, kind of innocent and cute.
Johnny lights his own cigarette, holding out the photo, taking a couple of steps toward the rent-a-cops who both take a step back. “That’s right. Close to the high school.”
“The ancient neighborhoods.” The beard smirks, crosses his arms. “I wouldn’t live there.”
“Looks like one of the houses the church bought,” the round-face says. “It might be torn down by now.”
“What does that mean?” I say. “What church?”
“He’s an elder,” the beard says, pointing the flashlight at his partner now, rolling his eyes. “Every Sunday and Wednesday. Sings in the choir, too.”
“It’s true.” The round-face nods, smiling wide. “It’s a good church. He should go.” He snaps a funny look at the beard who won’t look him in the eye.
Johnny turns the photo over, pointing to where Mom scrawled June, ’85 / 1125 Fort Street. “We want to find this house, whoever owns it, whatever shape it’s in.”
“The church property is on Fort Street.” The round-face takes the photo and studies it for thirty seconds, maybe a minute. We’re quiet—Johnny and I smoking and shivering, the bearded guy staring at us. Then the round-face points his gloved hand up and over Johnny’s shoulder. We all look in that direction, where thin clouds outline the crisscross of two jet contrails like a target in the big Idaho sky.
“This is it. Yes. We’re building apartments there.” The round-face looks at us timidly. The beard just shakes his head.
“There’s no way it’s gone.” Johnny grabs the photo back, slips it into his pocket.
“Old houses,” the beard says, still sort of smirking, “get torn down.”
I give him my best cute-girl look, clap my hands. “You’ll show us? We were just kids there, and now Mary’s living in our old house, or she was. We just want to find her.”
Johnny turns away. The round-face winks at me—the good, nice man.
“It’s pretty close,” he says. “You can follow.”
I walk to kiss him on the cheek. He smells clean, soapy, and I want to give him a hug, but I don’t because Johnny says, “Come on, Sam,” all serious, then we all get in our cars.
All this, driving the BMW to Idaho, was my idea. There are several reasons.
First, we had access to this really sweet car, and neither Johnny nor I have been back to Idaho after we moved, and I thought it’d be nice to see where we all grew up and remember how it was when we were just kids, and Mary was still alive, and we still believed the world was a big, fun place. I thought maybe we could regain something here—one of those intangible, ineffable, spiritual things. Even if it was only for a few minutes standing in front of our old house, maybe meeting the people who lived there now, having them let us in and walking up and down the hallways and through our bedrooms, I figured it would be worth it.
Second, Johnny and I haven’t spent time together in way too long. Since Mary’s funeral, and even before that. Since he left Seattle for UCSD when I was a high school junior.
Third (and this is the big “weird” reason), ever since I started college last fall I’ve been telling everyone that Mary’s alive and living over here in Idaho. I’ve been figuring out this whole life for her where she’s in our old house, in this quaint picket-fence neighborhood, and she’s studying and teaching anthropology at the university. I’ve got her dating this cool shaggy-haired musician named, get this, Alexei Calypso, a singer-songwriter, and they have a great social life with a bunch of arty types—clever painters and sculptors, edgy playwrights and novelists. There are a few poseurs in the group, but they’re cool, and they all live pretty much satisfying lives here in Boise.
The Mary stories started close to the time I moved into the dorms. At college I only know a couple of people from Nathan Hale—I got to be a loner my senior year after Mary died—and I moved in with this stranger chick named Connie. When she started asking about the family pictures I was tacking on the walls, I started in about Johnny in San Diego, and my sister Mary who lives in Boise. The rest just came. I had cool Mary stories for strangers at parties, friends I made in class, even Mike and Charlie, two guys I dated briefly. I started really getting into telling them about Mary and the whole new life I’d started for her.
The thing is, I haven’t been to Boise in so long that I didn’t have enough details right. It’s the little things that sell the stories, that really get people in the gut and make them cry, or laugh like hell, or pass it on. I mean, I needed stuff like these rent-a-cops, and the way those clouds looked this morning, or the way the recession shut down a lot of grocery stores here, or the fact there are half-melted snowmen on people’s brown front lawns as we drive down State Street on the twelfth of March. These are the gems, and I have to say I’m really happy Johnny and I could come out here, even if we are tired and hollowed out. Even if our house isn’t standing any more.
Johnny doesn’t really know about the stories. I want to tell him, but he’ll be super pissed, or way weirded out, or maybe jealous. He’ll want me to stop, and I don’t want to quit yet. I’ll have to some time, but if I’m smart and creative and careful it’ll be a while before I have to let Mary be all the way dead again.
“I can’t believe Barney Fife knows where our house is.” Johnny steers the BMW close behind the rent-a-cop’s Lincoln. We drift across quaint neighborhoods beneath a canopy of leafless skeleton trees. “Or where it isn’t anymore.”
“Maybe he’s an angel,” I say. “You know, like one of those hitchhikers people pick up and who talks them out of stopping at some roadside diner, and it turns out later that a murderous trucker was killing people in that diner at the exact moment they were wanting to stop, and the hitchhiker has saved this driver from a certain and painful death. Then, of course, the hitchhiker just disappears into the ether when the driver looks away.”
“A mall cop angel.”
“Spooky,” I say, “but it makes sense.” In the dusty blue sky our big X has begun to dissipate and smear. “You remember this place very well?”
“It seems like I should.”
“I know. It’s hard to be exact.”
The Lincoln turns right, stops beside a wide vacant lot. You can tell there were houses here not long ago—the soil’s torn up and fresh looking, some foundations are still intact, and there are a couple of houses standing on holdout lots. My gut’s tight and worried that maybe our old house truly is gone, and I know Johnny’s got that same rot-belly feeling.
“I think about Boise,” I say, smoothing my hair, then smelling the oil of it against my palm. “And I have all these memories, but they’re runny at the edges.”
“You were pretty young.” Johnny pulls to a stop behind the Lincoln. “And the way your mind works sometimes, it’s easy to get confused.”
“It is,” I say. “It really is.”
How we got this car and started out driving is that the boyfriend, Ryan, has been in rehab the past month, out at Rancho Mirage. He and Johnny had been doing a lot of coke, and chasing too many amphetamines with too much Scotch. Ryan checked himself in. Johnny was lonely, and called me up in Tacoma and offered to fly me down. I told him yeah, sure, absolutely. I’d dropped half my classes already. Plus, it’s been those two years since I’ve spent time with my big brother. Mom and Dad haven’t seen him since the funeral, either. After Johnny came out, about being gay and all, they haven’t been close with him; and after Mary, well, our whole family fragmented.
When Johnny called, I was sitting alone in my tenth-floor dorm room that looks over an especially verdant stretch of south campus. I was smoking a joint I’d stolen from Connie, standing at the window watching wet gloom. I was thinking about Mom and Dad, who are traveling in Africa for ten weeks, wondering where they were, precisely, and what the savanna or jungle or desert air tasted like. I was supposed to be writing an American history paper.
Johnny was talking fast and funny, telling me all about Ryan and their swank life. But I could tell he was lonely, and a little sad. Just the fact he’d phoned meant he was thinking about the old days.
I feel bad about school, about not putting in the effort. I’ve always been an A student, but the shine’s come off studying and Johnny’s offer sounded perfect.
I was happy to see Johnny in his new digs, though it was clear he’d been living pretty hard. He’s still so super good looking, but when he met me at the airport and started showing me around San Diego, Johnny reminded me of a vase or a figurine that had been dropped and glued neatly back together. It made me uneasy, but I quickly understood.
Ryan owns a high-rise condo looking over downtown, the bay, Coronado and the green stretch of the Pacific. Ryan has money and cars and fancy modern furniture Johnny loved showing me. Johnny’s impressed by what Ryan has and had a constant look on his face like he was getting away with something living in that life, too.
Johnny’s this magnanimous and charming guy—tall, green-eyed, pretty—a lot like Mary. People like Ryan always want to take care of Johnny, give him gifts and affection, and Johnny lets them, though I don’t understand how it could ever satisfy him. Probably it doesn’t.
Johnny and I went at it hard in San Diego—drank big fruity umbrella drinks downtown with his friends from the bar, did lines off Ryan’s Italian marble kitchen counter, popped Vicodin and watched the morning sun turn the velvety sky purple. It was good to be close to my brother again. At times it’s been like we’re brand new, talking about traveling to New Zealand and writing novels, or how we both lust after balding, sinewy men. I told him about the dream I have where I’m a Ukrainian princess made out of birch wood, though I don’t even know if they have princesses in the Ukraine, and he and Mary are carving hearts and initials all over me. Johnny told me about his recurring dream where Mary and he and I are all wound into this 10-foot-high ball of tinfoil, and we’re rolling down Queen Anne Hill, smashing cars and pedestrians, wreaking havoc all over the place. We laughed over that one for a long time.
Other times it’s been big brother/little sister, the weight of our history shoving us into these typecast roles where Johnny tells me what to do and how to do it, and I’m subservient. We’ve rarely partied, or really hung out as friends, that was always for him and Mary, and right now I feel privileged he’s let me come into his world this way.
When Ryan came home, he was indignant and self-righteous, pissed I was there, and that Johnny and I’d been f’n partying, and f’n his place up. He’s all clean and sober and in that mode where he thinks the whole world should be that way, too. He threatened to boot Johnny out if he didn’t send me home and clean himself up, and Johnny said fine, fuck you then, I’ll take my sister home. He took my hand, and marched me down to the garage where we got in the BMW and drove up I-5, a day and a half straight through to Seattle where we parked in the driveway of our parents’ big Victorian.
“The old neighborhood,” he said. “You can’t go home again, Sam, but here we are.”
“I read that novel last semester—Thomas Wolfe.” I put my bare feet on the dash, squeezed my toes together. The wet day smelled like dying fruit. “You were here for the reception, for Mary’s wake.” Her name choked the air.
“Couple of years ago, today.”
I said, “I’ve been thinking, we need to drive to Boise. That’s home.”
We sat idling. It was a low, rainy afternoon, Johnny smoking a menthol, me chewing at my thumbnail, tasting salt and spilled Shasta diet cola.
“Does Mom still have the old pictures of Boise?” Johnny said. “In those albums, in the den?”
I told him I thought she did, and we went in to grab the photo we have with us now, and to eat tuna fish sandwiches. It was weird and sad to be at the kitchen table with Johnny, the two of us alone and quiet and figuring out what to do next. The refrigerator hummed against the slate tile.
I didn’t want to be there—at that house, in that city—and I was happy when we went back out to the BMW, Johnny slipped it in gear, and we kept driving. On the way out of town Johnny drove us past Mary’s old apartment up on Capitol Hill, the place where they’d found her body in the hallway. He slowed, and we both looked up at the redbrick smear of the building, but didn’t say a word.
When the round-face security dude gets out, Johnny opens his door, too, and steps into the scene. Right now I almost feel I can tell him about the Mary stories, about the lies and the tiny wants and all the blurriness that comes from making shit up about our dead sister. But, like always, I can’t tell him, because I know that even if I tried to explain all the thrills and the fears and the bullshit-joy and the god-blaming nonsense I feel every time I light into a story about Mary, there’s no way I’ll explain any of it right, ever. It seems like I want to, really, but what I want and what I have never meet eye-to-eye.
“Johnny,” I say, and he stops short, one leg in the street. “If our house isn’t here, do you think we really lived here?”
“I think so.” He presses the photograph against the steering wheel, studying. “But, maybe we lived in Denver.”
This makes my heart clutch, because maybe it’s true, maybe I’ve really got it all wrong. But Johnny looks at me, shaking his head like, Jeez-us, Sam, of course we lived here. Then he’s out of the car and standing next to our round-faced friend, and they’re pointing across the muddy vacant lot toward this newish sandstone-steepled church.
I crack the window and smoke while Johnny talks kind of frantically to our deliverer. It takes a minute before I realize Johnny’s left the photo on the dash, and I grab the thing and take a good hard look. It’s been in Johnny’s breast pocket, and I haven’t really even gotten a chance to study it closely, too. It’s the cutest picture. We’re all standing on the front lawn beneath one of those perfect, blue Idaho summer skies I tell people about. Johnny and Mary have me splayed out between them, and they’re tugging on me like I’m some sort of torture puppet, or a tug-of-war rope. I’m screaming and smiling all at the same time. Johnny’s got me with one arm, and he’s flexing his other bicep. Mary’s looking at the camera all mock serious, all tough and sweet and loving and strong. It’s seems impossible that this moment took place somewhere within half a block of where I’m sitting now.
I hold the photo up to the windshield and take in a sort of panorama—the sprawling church abutting the earthy vacant lot, tall gangly maples and cottonwoods casting spindly shadows, one perfectly fine craftsman house boarded up at the far edge of the lot, cute pastel bungalows lined up across the street.
Johnny waves to me to get out of the car and come with him. The security guy sort of lowers his head and quickly gets in his car to drive away as I stride up next to Johnny.
“They did it,” he says, kicking at the cracked sidewalk. “I think they mother-fucking tore our house down.”
“How?” is all I can think to say, because I’m shocked and excited and let down and clumsily happy right now. And how do I say that to Johnny. It’s like the perfect twist, a joke, a punch line—we come all this way to pay homage to our dead sister, and we can’t because some church tore our old house down so they could build an apartment complex for parishioners, and some security guard/elder guides us to the exact spot, and we’ve been sleeping in a stolen car for a week, and our sister is still dead and we can’t do a thing about it, and fuck the fuck if they didn’t tear our house down!
I like the story of it, if not the facts.
“What do you mean, how?” Johnny stomps into the muddy lot. “With cranes and wrecking balls, I suppose. With hammers. With saws and Bibles and big wooden crosses, for all I know!” He’s throwing his hands up and whipping them around, laughing maniacally. I follow him into the open, spongy lot.
Johnny and Mary were close in a together-in-the-womb type of way that I think always made my parents nervous, uncomfortable. So, when I came along three years later, Mom and Dad left them to each other and embraced me. Since I can remember, though, Johnny and Mary relished their outsider status. All through high school they dressed up in weird thrift store garb, penciled eyeliner on each other, went to all-hours parties and raves together, listened to the same crunchy, trippy, pop-guitar bands. They even started their own two-person band called Airplanes Crash—it was catchy, hard-driving. Mary was on drums, Johnny on guitar. They both sang lead on different songs they’d written. All originals.
The very last time they played—a week before Johnny was moving and Mary was getting her apartment a few blocks from Seattle U—they let me roadie for them. They played this windowless, black-walled underground club called The Rabbit Hole down in the Central District. A pretty big crowd showed. Lots of riot grrrllls and grunge boys. Lots of nitrous balloons and X. I was fifteen, and felt important and adult-like for the first time, hefting speakers and mic stands and Mary’s drum kit up onto the low, beer-sticky stage.
After the show Johnny and Mary got me high and a little drunk. It was my first time, and I liked it. I’d always kept clean, like the schools and my parents told us to, but that night I felt warm and alive in a new way. At some point I wandered outside, into the rainy back alley where I watched a boy get punched in the face three times by two different men. I remember it smelled like overripe bananas and cigarettes out there next to the dumpster, and the violence seemed weak, slow motion. When the boy fell down, the other boys kicked him once then walked away. I ended up at the beat-up boy’s side, helping him off the asphalt. He didn’t seem hurt too badly, though half his face was blood-smeared. Minutes later the punched boy was kissing me up against the alley wall—he tasted sour, but his tongue felt nice on mine—and Johnny and Mary were running toward us, yelling.
“Get the fuck off my sister, Dylan!” Mary said, yanking at his flannel. “Jesus, she’s fifteen.”
Dylan pulled away. He didn’t say a word as he loped down the alley. Even when Mary ran up and slapped him on the neck Dylan kept his head low, just walking away.
“Nice, Sam,” Johnny said, all sarcastic and smirking. “Bloody and speechless.”
“I like this party,” I said, and Johnny took my hand. “You guys played awesome.”
“Let’s go home,” Mary said.
“Okay,” I said, and we did.
On the drive home we sang old Smiths songs—“Hand in Glove,” “Frankly Mister Shankly,” all the good ones. It was 2 a.m., foggy and cool, streetlamps casting shimmer-cones of light. We were about the only ones on the road, and it felt like coursing our way through a dream. Mary held my hand. Johnny steered us. The two of them harmonized: “If a ten-ton truck kills the both of us, to die by your side well the pleasure, the privilege, is mine . . .” their voices just barely off-key.
So, here we are on the muddy, torn-up ground where our house once stood. Old pieces of cement and foundation sandstone are scattered; a few long, splintered pieces of siding lie akimbo. I’m standing where the living room used to be, or maybe where our parents’ bedroom was, and I’m trying to reconstruct the house around me—the leaning wooden porch, the dark-wood floors, the yellow-painted kitchen, the hallway closet where I used to take my flashlight and hide out reading Gulliver’s Travels, or Nancy Drew. It wasn’t the greatest house, not fancy like the one we ended up living in in Seattle, but still, it was a real piece of our history.
“Are you sure this was it?” I say to Johnny, who’s stopped stomping around and flailing his arms and is crouching near the corner of the lot. He’s got palms pressed into the earth, and I wonder what he’s remembering, and how he might tell this story to Ryan, or his San Diego friends.
“Fuck,” is all he says. “Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.” Three times. “This, Sam, is far too strange.”
“Because maybe it’s down a block.” I walk to him. “Maybe it’s on the other side of the high school. It seems like I remember it over there.”
“This is it, Sam,” he says. “I remember this soil right here. Mary and I used to play on this soil. And Jesus, this is where our bedroom used to be. Remember when I hung football posters on my walls?” He walks to the periphery, his skinny form a specter. “Check this out.” He picks up a round, plastic thermometer. “This thing hung off the kitchen.”
“I remember.” It’s cracked, and the orange Seventies daisies are all faded and mud-splattered.
“It was always wrong.” Johnny flings it like a Frisbee into the middle of Fort.
All sorts of memories rush. This fat kid who lived down the block from us—Tony Dinconza—comes directly to mind. Everybody made fun of him—even Johnny and me—but Mary was always real nice, telling Tony he was cute and funny. I remember she lectured Johnny about calling him Tony “Dick-gone-za.” I’d started calling him that, too, even though I really didn’t know what it meant. It was right over there, I think, on the sidewalk near the Rileys’ house, where I watched Mary put her hands on her hips and yell at Johnny about being nasty to people for no good reason. She had this brow scowl, and I was scared of her for a week after. She told Johnny to apologize, and later he did, but he flipped Mary off when she walked away. It was one of the few times they fought.
“Remember Kick the Can with Reggie Dawson down the block?” I point toward a line of yellow apartments that I think Reggie lived in with his dad and mom. “Wasn’t his mom sick?”
“She had a tumor,” he says, reaching down, grabbing fistfuls of the dirt, tossing them in the air. “She’s probably long dead.”
From behind us comes: “Not supposed to be here messing around on church property!” It’s a man’s voice, squeaky and high. “Not at all!”
We turn, and on a porch 50 feet away this square-jawed, muscled, bald man is standing in his tank top, Lycra shorts, little sheer socks, and running shoes. He’s leaning forward against the railing. “Church doesn’t like people rummaging around these lots.”
“Who are you?” I yell back, blinking a couple of times, a little scared to laugh even though I feel like I have to.
“Come over here!” the big guy says.
“This is our house,” Johnny says, not loud enough for the guy to hear. “We have the right.”
“Church property!” the guy yells with this lisp, “Church of the Rockies. Methodists!” He points at the two sprawling church buildings across the street.
“Yeah, yeah.” Johnny looks at me and shrugs, and he has this defeated look in his eyes. It makes me want to cry. “Jesus, Sam,” he says in a low, angry voice. “Why the hell is everybody in our business?”
“Over here!” The guy waves again, and I follow Johnny through our old backyard and over the bones of two gone houses.
“Bought ‘em up, took ‘em apart, hauled ‘em away,” the guy says when we get to the edge of his porch. He grips a beer with thick pink fingers. The cold sun is angling off his shiny head, and he’s attractive in a rubbery Stretch Armstrong way. “Seems like a load of shit. A church shouldn’t be in the real estate game!”
“We grew up right there.” Johnny points to where we were a moment ago, and the guy winks at Johnny, then scrunches up his ruddy face to say he feels sorry for us.
We turn, and it’s an odd moment, looking back at the open lot. I feel like I’m watching a slide show—the old house, the empty lot, the wild and sagey way it probably looked four centuries ago, the cheapo new apartments.
Sometimes it’s easy to see how one thing becomes another, but not very often.
“In that case, we’re allies, friends. I saw that one come down two weeks ago.” He kills the beer, crumples the can. The dome of his big bald head gets redder and redder. “My name is Maxwell. Let’s talk about what’s happening here.”
“Wow,” I murmur, thinking this guy will be a perfect neighbor for Mary in one of my stories.
“We came from Denver,” I say loudly. “To relive the past.”
“Wait here!” He turns to walk into his house, and across his thick neck we can see an image of Popeye eating a can of spinach tattooed in bright blue.
“This should be interesting,” Johnny says.
Mary had one tattoo. It said Petri Dish, and was scripted in blue-green ink across her belly. The only time I ever saw it was the night she died. After we got that horrible phone call, I went with Mom and Dad to identify her because I was scared to stay home myself. My head was humming, everything muted as we drove speechless to the hospital at sunrise. I was crying and cold-sweating and stiff. They didn’t want me to go into that little room with Mary, but I had to. We all stood together. The room smelled like bleach and perfume. They pulled the sheet back all the way. Mary was wearing a cute plaid skirt, and a half-shirt—it looked like she’d been at a party. Mom was bobbing up and down, heaving breath. Dad squeezed his hands together, wrung them impossibly hard, and nodded his head yes, that was Mary, their daughter, my sister. She looked so thin, so waxy. I could tell it was a new tattoo.
I told Johnny about the tattoo at the funeral. We’d walked through the cemetery after the service, and stood alone on a little knoll 100 yards from where they buried her.
“She sent me a picture of it,” he told me. He was dressed in a slim black suit.
“You look handsome,” I said, looking up into the warm, blue sky. “I hope Mary can see.” I leaned into his chest and cried.
“I know,” he said. “It feels like being split in two, or fifteen, just fucking cut up into pieces.”
“It’s a mistake,” I said. “It seems like it has to be a goddamned mistake.”
“I want to cut that tattoo off of her.” Johnny squeezed his eyes shut. “I want to keep it in my wallet.”
“I dreamt that I was the one who gave it to her.”
“I wish I could have it,” Johnny said. “It’s mine.”
Maxwell emerges, holding a case of Miller Lite cans and a disembodied doll’s head. “It’s my day off. Got my workout in first thing.” He’s wearing a scritchy, slippery nylon sweat suit.
“I found this over there in the remains.” He cracks a beer, holds the doll’s head at arm’s length, points across the lot where mounds of dirt are now steaming with the warming day. The blank blue eyes and powdery white skin of the doll make my stomach tight. “It’s an antique. Twenties, or Thirties. It didn’t come from your house, did it?”
“Not that I can remember,” Johnny says, coyly. I just shake my head and return the doll’s stare.
Maxwell nods, starts talking loud and fast in that lispy voice, and we find out Maxwell is very pissed off because of what the church has done. After we introduce ourselves, and pretty much tell him why we’re here, he gives Johnny another longing glance, then offers us cans. We accept, and he proceeds to talk about all the perfectly good houses the church bought and left vacant so they would decay and they could get the permits to tear them all down and build apartments.
“It’s a travesty. A lot of these were historical homes.” He drinks the entirety of his can. “Like this one.” He lightly punches the porch railing. “And the one you lived in. It’s bullshit—the waste, the people and traffic it’s gonna cause, the greed of it.”
Johnny and I say we agree and take another can apiece, then stand there drinking them, looking out at the lot. The beer is warm and sour, but I like the way it tingles my belly. He invites us up on his porch, and we accept.
“You know a woman named Mary?” I scuff my feet on the worn porch. “Lived in that house, our house, before they bought it.”
“Somebody named Clyde lived there ever since I bought this place,” Maxwell says. “Old guy without a wife. Church pestered him into selling.”
“Our sister lived there.” I take a long swallow. “Mary.”
Johnny tilts the beer down his throat, looking over at me sideways.
“I thought she was dead,” Maxwell says matter-of-factly. “Isn’t that why you’re here?”
“Samantha doesn’t always get it right,” Johnny says.
I stick my tongue out, and give Johnny the finger. “You have a bathroom, Popeye?”
“Feel free,” he says, not turning to me, but looking straight at Johnny the way I’ve seen so many people look at him. Even in his ragged-ass condition Johnny has that draw. “There’s a bag of chips on the fridge. Be a good girl and get it, will you?”
Inside Maxwell’s house it’s immediate freaky déjà vu. The layout is so similar, and it’s from the turn of the century like our place. But his place is all miasmic potpourri and incense, nothing like Mom’s Pine-Sol and bleach had our place smelling. Still, walking through the amber light past his overstuffed old furniture, it’s weird and off-putting.
I see our whole family gathered on some long-ago Christmas, opening presents, drinking cocoa, munching down cookies. Christmas tree and cinnamon.
Down the hall I see Dad getting pissed at Johnny about one of the times he was being a jerk to me. Dad wagging a finger at Johnny and smacking his head. Johnny turns, gives Dad an icy look. Dad slaps his face.
But then I’m in Maxwell’s bathroom taking my pee, smelling Maxwell’s lemon air freshener, and on this wrought-iron shelf beside the sink is an antique ivory-handled hairbrush that I swear is the same one our grandma Mildred gave Mary when we were kids. I reach up and grab it, and it’s got the same frilly design carved into the handle.
My head gets tight, blurry. I see Mom combing Mary’s hair, singing her a pretty nursery rhyme. Mary, she’s right here with me. Hi, Mary.
I turn the brush over in my hand, feeling the smooth, oval heft. I run it through my greasy hair, and for a few minutes have a short, quiet cry sitting on Maxwell’s toilet. Then I put the brush in my coat pocket.
On the fridge, in the yellow light of the kitchen, there’s a framed photo of Maxwell all dressed up in feathers and beads for Mardi Gras. He has this pose going—pursing his lips, jutting his hip out, looking like he really thinks he’s something. I don’t know why it makes me so mad. I just feel like an exposed nerve, jittery and alive, unpredictable. So, whatever, I take the magnetized framed-up Maxwell off the fridge, set it on the old-style blue Formica counter. I whip the brush out of my pocket and whack Maxwell in the face three times, breaking the glass all over the place. It feels good, but makes a lot of noise, and I do a little tiptoe dance and try not to laugh. Then I’m real quiet and perfectly still. Maxwell’s voice carries through walls and the dead space of the living room. I hear Johnny laugh in a fakey way. It all mingles with the ticking and vibration of the refrigerator, just like Mom and Dad’s 900 miles away. I pull a couple of paper towels off the roll and cover the glassy, glittery mess.
Back on the porch I hand Maxwell the potato chips. He and Johnny are sitting close, and Maxwell’s still holding up his side of the heated discussion about the church. He’s pointing up the block from where we parked.
“You’re very agitated by this, aren’t you Maxwell,” Johnny says, flirty.
“It’s a travesty.”
“You said that already,” I say, thumbing the soft bristles of the brush in my pocket, rolling my eyes so Johnny can see. I’m betting Maxwell found the brush over on our lot. I picture him rummaging the lots for kitschy artifacts. I bet that’s why he shooed us off our property. Johnny doesn’t acknowledge my gesture, and it makes me wonder what Johnny wants from this guy. Maybe just the beer; maybe a place for us to stay tonight. I kind of really want to hate this guy who’s taking Johnny’s attention, and who maybe went digging around our old yard. But I guess it doesn’t matter, we’re here, we made it this far, and I can’t let stupid Maxwell ruin it now, can I?
“You remind me of a guy at the clubs,” Johnny says. “In San Diego. A bouncer. A real zealot. A funny guy, though.”
“And handsome,” Maxwell says slyly, then kills off another beer. “Of course.”
Maxwell’s voice, I’m thinking, I’ve got to remember this voice for my stories—that and the shrimp-like hue of his bald head, the cloaked light, the Mardi Gras photo. I wish I had one of those little tape recorders, for when I start using this stuff. But I know I can get the inflections just about right, story-right, after a couple of versions.
“Almost handsome,” Johnny says, patting Maxwell lightly on the head.
Down Fort Street two rumbling fire trucks slowly turn the corner toward the far end of the lot, roll over the curb, and stop where one of those fire chief SUVs is parked beside the boarded-up house.
“They’re burning that house today,” Maxwell says.
“How’s that?” Johnny throws an empty can out into the lot.
“Church donated it to the fire department,” he says. “I think the fire chief is one of the elders. They’re gonna burn it down so they can practice some of their fire-fighting maneuvers.”
“Cool,” I say.
“There they go,” Johnny says, as two firemen pull the boards off some windows and throw burning canisters through the breach. A minute later licks of flame are visible, and a minute after that the firemen-in-training are dousing the flames with fat blasts of water. It’s quite a scene—the group of them lighting and dousing different parts of the house—and the three of us sit back on Maxwell’s porch drinking beer and watching it like all a movie.
“They won’t get to burning down the whole thing for a few hours,” Maxwell says. “After they practice all their techniques. They did a different house last week. Took ‘em all day. My house still smells like smoke. Soot all across the porch. We should head for the bar. Come back when it’s really cookin’.”
“Absolutely,” Johnny says.
“I could get her in,” Maxwell says, still not looking my way.
“I’m plenty old,” I say, and Maxwell smiles up at me.
“We’ve been to a lot of bars,” Johnny says.
“See,” I say, feeling good. I grip the brush again hard, wanting to run the bristles over Maxwell’s head.
I look around, and don’t see any evidence of soot, anywhere. In the distance the firemen are laughing as four of them scramble after a hose that’s gotten away and is snaking violently in the mud. Another group has begun to light up the second story, and a captain-type is yelling at the rookies to take heed, and put this motherfucker out!
I like the scene—the chaos and inevitability of it, the volition and intent, the randomness of our being here as witnesses. It makes sense to me—like X-mark clouds make sense; like the way Maxwell is touching Johnny’s shoulder and telling him what he always liked best about living in southern California makes sense; like the way our old house is gone forever makes sense; like the way it makes sense right now that when eventually my Mary stories get too convoluted, or boring, or unbelievable, I’ll have the story of her final day—the smells, sights, sounds, tastes of the day I let her die.
I will have this:
Her house caught fire at dawn, and a rookie fire crew was called to the scene. They bungled the job. Her boyfriend was out of town playing a show. Her neighbor, Maxwell, tried to coax her to jump out the second-story window. He was too scared to rush in himself (he’s kind of a flakey wuss of a man—I met him at the funeral, and just seeing him pissed me off). She decided to try to make it down the stairs, then out the back door. Something happened. She never emerged. God, I hate to think of what it must have felt like. God, I love my sister. Now, sometimes I have this dream, at the exact time they say the house was giving in to the flames. It’s a bluish Idaho dawn, and I’m standing in the middle of Fort Street. My skin’s on fire—big, dancing, mean flames. My gut is filled with glowing coals. Mary’s there with me, and Johnny, too (you remember him, Mary’s twin, he lives in San Diego). They walk to me, one of them grabs my legs, the other my arms, and when they do, they both catch fire, too. It makes them laugh. Them laughing makes me laugh. The whole neighborhood wakes up, and comes to their porches to see what the commotion is all about, and they start laughing, too. That’s when Mary and Johnny set me on my feet, and we all grab hands to go joyously marching down Fort Street Wizard of Oz–style, catching bikes and cats and houses and snowmen and lampposts and laughing people on fire, knowing deep down it’s what we were always meant to do.