Margot Tenenbaum still lives in the house on Archer street. Chas moved back into his apartment about a week after the wedding that wasn't, much to Ari and Uzi's relief. Richie isn't quite sure where he lives anymore. Ostensibly he stays in his brother's spare room and listens to Chas' entrepreneurial ideas about What He Should Do Next—right now Chas is enthused about an elite competitive tennis program for eight to ten year olds, which Richie isn't too sure about--and plays scrabble with his nephews after their bedtime.
Sometimes, though, he sleeps in a tent on the third floor of his mother's house, and paints pictures of his sister while she sits crosslegged next to him with a typewriter. She hits the keys harder than is generally required, but part of that is just her wooden finger clicking against the plastic.
"What's it about?" he asks her one day.
"It's about a shipwreck," she says, not looking up. "A wrecked battleship, and only six survivors. And then a safari. I'm going to call it The Levinsons in the Trees."
Richie carefully puts down his paintbrush. "Can I see it?"
She shifts slightly to the side, leaving her hands on the keyboard but allowing him room to look at the paper. He leans in and lets his chin almost rest on her shoulder. He reads:
Caracas. A street.
Is there a concrete or brick wall in which a big hole has been blown so that we see a garden with trees through the hole?
Are there easy chairs around on the sidewalk and in the street, or sitting in the dirt, so here, outdoors, we have indoor furniture?
1. The Prologue
A long, slow first scene so as to make the second scene even more stunning when it comes. The doctor/apothecary enters quietly and begins to set out his herbs and other medicines neatly. He speaks to us as though to a customer.
How do bad things happen (when most people are so good)? [he sets out his herbs] Nobody I know gets out of bed in the morning and says: now, today, I am going to do something bad. No.
[he sets out his herbs] The worst a person might say is: today I may have to choose the lesser of two evils. And who can blame us for that? This is the human condition. Nothing comes without a price and so on and so forth as they say. Today we may have to choose to be silent. Today we may have to close our eyes and stop wanting.
As he finishes, Margot's fingers move, and the next sentence appears.
He snaps his fingers, and the Beatles song "You've Got To Hide Your Love Away" starts playing. Enter the Family.
"What do you think?" she asks, and Richie looks up.
She's looking sideways at him, a quiet glimmer of grey tilted through eyeliner and long lashes. He feels a familiar ache in his chest.
"I think it sounds interesting," he says. He picks up his paintbrush, and pats it dry on a paper towel. "It'll make a good show."
"Yes," she agrees, and presses her lips together for a moment. "I think so too."
Richie inhales slowly, and looks back at his canvas.
"I miss Eli," he says, and concentrates on filling in the outline of her hair with pure undiluted yellow.
What's really quite simple about Margot and Richie is the way they both take after their mother. Everything everyone says about Etheline—that she is quiet, and no-nonsense, and more herself than anyone can usually stand to be—applies equally to two of her children. Chas, as much as he would love to deny it, takes after Royal, with his quick confidence and his thinly veiled insecurities and his dogged persistence, although unmasked by Royal's sense of humor.
Sometimes Margot thinks that she and Richie are all that is good and bad in Etheline, split into two different people. Margot got the healthy cynicism, the practicality, the love of secrecy and mystery. Richie got the honesty, the compassion, the belief in the relative goodness of all human beings. Their mother is a healthy person, her odder qualities tempered by her gentleness. Apart, they don't work so well. It's only natural that they want to come back together.
"I think that what we've always been drawn to is that sense of understanding," she says into the phone. "Nobody else can understand us. Not the way that we understand each other."
"I'm not quite sure where you want me to go with that," Eli replies, voice echoing tinnily all the way from North Dakota.
She pulls a cigarette box from her dresser table, and pulls two out. She looks at them for a minute and then pushes one back in.
The silence draws out, and finally Eli exhales shakily and speaks again. "The thing is, Margot, I don't really understand you either. Do you know what I'm saying? You're both just very complicated people."
She places the remaining cigarette between her lips, but doesn't light it. She sucks in air.
"I just don't see how I can help," Eli says finally. He sounds tired suddenly, bone-tired the way Margot remembers from her bathtub days.
"When will you be back in New York?" she asks.
An exhausted laugh. "I don't really know."
"I hope you get better, Eli," she tells him, and imagines what his smile looks like, crooked and knowing and wishing it didn't.
"Well I hope the same, Margot Tenenbaum. For both of you." He hangs up first.
Margot is left listening to the dial tone. She pretends she doesn't feel like crying, and gets up to hunt for a light.
Royal's funeral reception is held at the house on Archer street, which is not decorated at all in honor of the occasion. Richie spends a good half hour staring at the bison head on the second landing of the stairs, and thinks his father would have preferred it that way.
He spends the rest of it watching Eli eat cheese squares and talk about life in rehab, as always sounding both distracted and intent. Margot stays close by his side, a hand rubbing gently at his back in a way that is only to be expected for grieving siblings. Sometimes she rests her cheek against his shoulder. It should be awkward, but instead Richie thinks about family.
Eli is using his experience to write a new book.
"That's wonderful," Richie says. Chas asks if it's about a recovering drug addict. Margot smiles a little against Richie's shoulder as Eli shakes his head.
It's about a cowboy, a saloon girl and a Mexican doctor, which isn't surprising, and it's a romance novel, which is.
"It starts out with a guy walking into a bar, when Curtis comes in looking for the Royales gang, and they get into a shootout. And then Curtis accidentally winds up shooting the saloon girl in the hand. Ricardo is this native doctor who nurses her back to health and winds up giving her an entirely new hand strung together from the bones of the Aztecs. Curtis comes back looking for redemption, and Ricardo starts looking for revenge, and they both end up in love with the saloon girl, even as they end up bonding closer than brothers. It's this whole love triangle thing."
"That's an incredibly sexist premise." Margot says blandly.
"Well, maybe," Eli admits, scruffing his fingers through the hair at the back of his neck. "But that's sort of the pitfalls of the genre, you know what I mean? There's all these conventions and structures that you just have to go along with. Even if you don't want to."
Richie feels Margot's hand press a little harder on his back, but all she says is "It sounds a little racist, too."
"It's definitely a departure from your usual work," Richie interjects.
Eli smiles, and it's a little less bright than his usual smile. Maybe 'hesitant' is the right word. "Yeah. My agent's a little bit iffy so far, but I'll talk her around. I'm kind of attached to the thing."
"That's great," Richie says, and means it, holding Eli's gaze.
"How long are you staying?" Margot wants to know.
"Not too long," Eli says, glancing at the window seat, where Uzi and Ari are eating tuna casserole. "I got to get back to North Dakota."
When he leaves, they walk him to the door. Eli clasps Richie's hand tightly between both of his. His fingers press against the last part of Richie Margot kissed. The memory of those two kisses burns on the back of his hand like the scars on his forearms—they're always there, but he tries not to think about them anyway.
"Eli," Richie whispers. "I missed you."
"Yeah," Eli says back. "Yeah." A smile flickers on his mouth, and then he looks at Margot.
"So, here's a philosophical question for you," Eli says softly. "Are you allowed to be in love with more than one person at once?" He doesn't let go of Richie.
Margot reaches forward and pulls one of Eli's hands away, twining her fingers with his. They stand like that in the doorway, in a circle too small for personal space to really matter, everyone touching everyone else.
Margot's perfect mouth is softly parted, and Eli's eyes are bright like Richie remembers from their childhood, and both of them are warm and gold and familiar.
"I mean," Richie says, "I guess. Yeah."