"Never you mind, honey. Never you mind."
THE LAST PICTURE SHOW
"Listen carefully,” Sally says. “I want you to listen to me carefully. Mom is dead.”
She looks from Gene’s face to Bobby’s; neither boy reacts. She continues. “Gene: I want you to ignore what Bobby says. Bobby: I want you to stop frightening Gene. She is not here. She is not in this house. I want you both to repeat after me: Mom is dead.”
“Mom is dead,” Gene says, quiet but without delay. She looks to Bobby expectantly.
“Mom is dead,” he hears himself say, the words reluctant but appeasing to Sally all the same. At least it appears that way – her mouth goes a little softer and she leans back into Henry’s armchair, crosses her legs at the knee, not the ankle.
“Good,” she says.
He finds it very curious she did not tell him to stop lying. That, he thinks, means she must believe him, too. Just a little.
The house came alive at night.
This was what Bobby believed the entire year after his mother’s death. The house was as alive as she used to be. The darkness of the hall was a thing that beckoned, threatened to swallow you down whole. He did not know this part for certain for the simple reason that, like the house, he was still alive. It had not swallowed him.
“Not yet,” he had told Gene.
It was a strange season, the late fall of 1970, the early winter of 1971. Sally invented her own curriculum at home and read late at night, didn’t sleep much at all. She fired and hired four different nurses to take care of their mother but she knew: there was no taking care of a woman like that. There was the vase full of the flowers sent to them in mourning; they were rotated out, different flowers, different vases, but each arrangement fell from the table, spilling water onto the rug. The vases were replaced, as were the flowers, but the vases kept tipping, the flowers still scattering, even after Henry finally shouted, “What is wrong with you why are you doing this,” only then to bury his head in his hands and shake as he muttered, “I am sorry, I am sorry, I’m so goddamn sorry.” It was a goddamn sorry season. A cowboy actor elected to run California and Janis Joplin dead and the trial of Linda Kasabian; “I am not killing you,” she had said, “you have killed yourselves.” And then, Betty’s funeral. She went quick.
“You have to cling to it,” Betty had said to Sally. Before she left. Her voice was no longer hers but belonged to a harder, more exhausted woman. That voice had been full of disgust; Sally could recognize that. “They always want to take it from you. Every scrap of dignity.”
Don looked tan and wrong standing there in the snow at the cemetery. His shoes were shined and flecked with dried mud and salt.
Bobby takes down notes. Bobby starts keeping notes on other people, a mirror of what he remembers Don used to do – scribbled tags on cocktail napkins, the beginning of an idea of what people should want, how to tell them: you deserve nothing less than Lucky Strike cigarettes. Than a Maytag washer, Palmolive soap, Butler shoes. You deserve nothing less than this.
Bobby doesn’t do that. Bobby takes notes on how people actually are. The way the woman at the bar at the corner of 23rd and 8th held her head when she laughed, how her fingers looked like talons as they clutched at her martini. The nails were red, the martini dirty, her hair brown and messy and wind-blown. The man at the same bar, who needlessly explained how to make a Rusty Nail to the bartender; he kept saying, “Drambuie,” with increasing impatience, even as the bartender poured. The girl waiting outside the bar, a fringed leather coat with dirty cuffs hiding her hands, who asked Bobby when he left if Louie was waiting for her. She had an underbite, a crooked row of bottom teeth. Bobby was nineteen and he thought she was beautiful so he told her no and waked away, unsure why he lied.
There’s a specificity to his note-taking and as a result, people like to suggest unsolicited career paths for him. Writer. Journalist. Private investigator. He will not heed any of this advice. He will continue to take notes.
The girls he dates, the friends he never learned how to trust. Henry. Gene. Sally. Sally has a mouth like their mother which he thinks might just be another way to say hateful.
Like their mother, he still trusts every word that mouth says.
Sally eyes him at Christmas dinner. He has his small notebook out and Sally is seated across the table. They are the only two who remain; he can hear the clank of dirty dishes dropped into the sink. He writes that down.
“Look at you,” Sally says, more awe than disapproval. His pencil scratches at the page. “Like you think there’s something about people worth learning.”
Sally and Bobby are sitting in a soda shop, opposite sides of the table. The boy Sally’s seeing gets up to use the pay phone, a kiss dropped to the top of Sally’s head, and Bobby eyes her, his mouth a thin line.
“Are you going to marry him?” Bobby asks her. The boy does not get a name, at least not in Bobby’s records.
“Please,” she says. She reaches into her purse and pulls out a small silver flask. She unscrews the top and pours it into her milkshake, watches Bobby through her lashes. The impulse burns bright inside of him to tell on her, but she’s of age, he is too, there’s no one to tell. That does nothing to lessen it. Doesn’t lessen the feeling that something is awful and terribly wrong. She’s left smudges of her fingerprints on the silver.
Sally can read his face plainly. She smirks as she slips the flask back into her bag.
“My god, Bobby. One would think you were born a Catholic.”
He scowls. He writes the line down later.
The first Christmas after Betty died, a package is delivered to the house for her.
The three kids stand staring at the package in the foyer, a hesitant combination of fear and curiosity. Bobby would later swear the address was written in their mother’s hand – the curl of her B and the drop in the tail of her y. No return label – it only furthered his theory.
The three agree: they will hide the box. They never tell Henry and they never open it. They agree to hide it in the closet where Betty kept her furs and her fine dresses and the shoes she wore only for special occasions. Sally is the one to do it. She parts the heavy coats and pushes the box, heavy in weight and mystery alike, to the back. She pauses there, on her knees, and drops her hands to her sides. The coats swing back into position, dry-cleaned wool brushing her face on either side. All she smells are chemicals and dust. Her eyes water. She stays there for a little while.
Gene gets into fights at school. That’s not entirely accurate nor is it entirely fair. Gene falls into fights at school. It’s like the boy is a magnet for trouble, intractably marking him as a target of petty violence. He comes home from school with dried blood under his nose and on his collar, another time a black eye, yet another time with a scraped chin.
Bobby understands it. There’s a stillness to Gene – gives you the urge to challenge him. Knock into him and see if he’ll keep standing.
Sally does not understand.
Sally went to the school instead of Henry, once, having intercepted a letter from the school in Gene’s muddy backpack. Gene held a raw steak up to his swelling eye as he watched her with one eye grab her coat.
“I’d like to understand what the problem is here,” Sally had said before the principal could even speak. “I’d like to understand why you let these things happen.”
“Who are you?” the principal asked after a stunned silence.
Gene likes game shows. Gene is a relatively peaceful boy – schoolyard fist-fights aside – but nothing gets his competitive edge up like a game show. He will sit cross-legged in front of the television, holding his breath as he watches, always certain of which contestant he hopes will win.
But the only trivia he teaches himself are the capitals of the world. Tripoli. Cairo. Nairobi. Brasilia. Buenos Aires. Santiago. He recites them under his breath – Tokyo, Beijing, Saigon – almost like if said in the right order they’ll prove a code set to crack the secrets of the universe open for him. Bobby’s tried it. Baghdad. Kabul. Rabat. Nothing happened, or maybe, he just wasn't saying them right.
Even though Gene likes the capitals, he has no love for maps. Maps frustrate him.
“Who decided this?” he asked Sally when she placed an atlas in front of him. He had flipped through the pages, pausing to consider varying maps, his finger tracing boundary lines and rivers that intersected those same boundaries. “Who got to make this?”
“Do you think Megan is still alive?” Bobby asks Sally.
It’s late, the room dark. He still visits Sally’s room at night. When he was younger, he used to attach an excuse with his entrance. His stomach hurt. He had a nightmare. Mom was dying. Now, he does not offer and she does not ask. She doesn’t lock her bedroom door. As it stands, no one locks any of the doors in this house, not even the door to the room where their mother died. A grievous oversight, if you ask him. But no one ever asks Bobby anything, or at least, not anything worth asking.
She died in the guest room. “Medieval to turn the marriage bed into the death bed, don’t you think,” she had said, her voice weak but cruel, and Bobby had not understood what that was supposed to mean. Sally must have, because she had snorted but had not laughed, her eyes bright.
Now, Bobby is on the floor beside Sally’s bed, wrapped in an old comforter of hers. It smells musty and he likes to pretend it smells like their old house, their old home when Don was their dad and the kitchen was brighter and there were far fewer doors to lock, but he knows that is impossible.
“Why wouldn’t she be?” Sally grumbles, voice already stained by sleep.
“We never see her anymore.”
“How’s that work? You think every person who’s stepped outside your holy light just, what exactly? Keeled over and died?”
“That’s not what I mean,” he says, sour.
“I’m sure she’s alive and well two thousand miles away from here.” She pauses, the sheets rustle against her body as she turns away from him. “Though she did always look ripe for barbiturate abuse.”
Bobby shakes his head, rolls to face Sally’s closet. “She’s dead. Jesus, she must be dead.”
Megan is not dead. In fact, she had turned straw into gold – manufactured a bit part in a Clint Eastwood film he shot in Mexico into a bigger role as his girl of the moment. Sally would read about it in a magazine at the hairdresser. There would be a girl in a photograph. The girl in the photograph not a girl at all but a woman, gaunt, all cheekbones and black-and-white legs in a macramé bikini, eyes hidden behind oversized sunglasses. Sally would never know it was her without the caption beneath: ACTRESS MEGAN CALVET . It would be a tabloid magazine and Sally would read the small article over and over again, her back to the women cooking under the hairdryers. The dryers would remind her of her mother and the smell of burnt hair would make her sick. She would take the magazine with her as she fled the salon, dropping it in a trashcan on the corner of the street. She would remember Megan as she knew her, that enviable woman with the long legs and the good perfume and the too-wide mouth with too many teeth, her mother’s opposite in every way. It would not match the photo of the ghost girl now in the trash. Sally would walk away; she would not cry but her mouth would taste like bile. Goddamnit. Goddamn.
Glen Bishop doesn’t come back from the war. Sure, someone named Glen Bishop returns stateside from the Mekong Delta, but it’s not the same Glen Bishop who left.
Sally meets him for dinner anyway.
He’s grown a patchy beard and he still has that thousand yard stare, but it’s tempered by something new, which is what she thinks is called experience. A bright flash of envy makes something in her curdle.
She tells him that Betty died.
He slams his fist down so hard against the table it makes her knife rattle against her dinner plate. Unfazed, she lifts an unlit cigarette to her mouth.
“Spare the dramatics. She’s hardly here to enjoy them.”
He looks at her with nothing but futile anger and contempt. She finds she likes that in a man. She finds, she thinks, it’s the only thing worth liking about Glen Bishop.
In this house, in Henry’s house, there are a great many things they do not talk about. They do not talk about the house itself. They do not talk about the broken vases and the dead flowers. The unlocked doors and what may lay beyond. Sally’s boyfriends. Henry’s girlfriends. Sex. The late hours Sally keeps. The things that Bobby swears he's seen. The pictures Gene draws. The same song Henry listens to enclosed in his office. Where the silverware has gone to and who took it. Don, their father. Betty, their mother.
Sally sleeps with a married man. It is Christmastime in New York and her mother has been dead for three years.
His name is Adam, like the first man. She keeps a list of the men she sleeps with in a small black notebook, the same way people harbor grievances or a list of debts. The same way Bobby tries to keep track of the world and the people in it. She writes their names down as if they owe her something, and maybe they do.
There are three other names on that list. Adam is number four. Adam is the first married man she sleeps with.
He hits on her at the glove counter at Macy’s and she notices – he’s wearing a ring. That doesn’t stop him, doesn’t make him still his gaze, keep it above her chin and off her lips, doesn’t do anything for the way his eyes go dark and lazy, predatory and certain no effort to corner her and take her will be required on his part. Perhaps he’s right. She thinks she hates him, but it’s a good kind of hate, the sort of hate that can get blurred and misunderstood as something else. It’s a hate she can act on, and she does.
Adam, the first man. He takes her to a hotel room because neither can take the other home. Lying across his naked chest she wants to tell him that she came from him. That all girls like her came from men like him. Men like her father. That God saw fit to take his bones and give them to her, make her belong to him. The same bone that cages in his heart. She wraps her body around his and she doesn’t say anything but bites his shoulder instead, hard enough to make him hiss and say, “Stop that.”
She starts to cry on the street when she leaves the hotel, quiet ineffective tears. He told her she could have the room, like she was a girl that needed a tip or at the least a favor. The bad kind of hate then. She starts to cry so she forces herself to turn it into a laugh, bitterly forcing it up her throat. She wishes it would snow.
She hails a cab, tells the driver he needs to take her to Rye.
“Gonna be a long ride.” Pause. “Pricey, too.”
“That’s fine,” she says. She raises a cigarette to her mouth, elbow bent, other arm wrapped around her waist. Like her mother. “It’s not like I’ve got anywhere else to go."
Sally is thirty-one and divorced when she finally makes it to Spain and to Europe.
She recites, under her breath: Minsk. Kiev. Helsinki. Paris. London. Berlin. Madrid.
The old house in Ossining is for sale. Bobby goes; he is older now. Sally finds him there; she is older, too. The two stand together on the darkened lawn.
“How’d you know I’d be here?” he asks her.
That tilted grin, her dark mouth, that deep fear in the pit of his stomach that has never gone away. “You’re my brother.”
Her fingers skim his, beckoning him.
“C’mon,” she says. “We don’t live here anymore.”
In the old house in Rye, Sally feels someone’s breath at the back of her neck.
“Don’t,” she says aloud, before she remembers. Before she remembers there’s no one there. She is alone, the hall is empty.
What’s the line? It was only the wind, my dear. That’s right.
Henry dies when Bobby is twenty-six years old. Healthy and then he isn’t, something about his heart. It works, and then it doesn’t. He meets Sally at the hospital. Sally has dark eyes that say she hasn’t slept, but he doesn’t think it’s because of Henry; he thinks that is merely how she lives: without rest.
Bobby asks her how Henry is. “He’s worried about Times Square,” she says, distracted, disappointed. “He’d like to speak to the mayor.”
Three mayors attend the funeral one week later, none of them currently holding office.
Bobby overhears Henry’s daughter talking; she says that she hardly saw her father over the past several years. Something about those kids, she says, none of them turned out right.
“Blood will out,” the stranger says and they all agree that this is true.
But that is many years from now. For now, they live. The future is unknowable. Bobby knows this because he has tried every method he can imagine to discover what lays ahead. He has asked the walls and they do not answer back; they merely close in around him and offer space to hide. He cannot master it. He cannot keep them safe. In the kitchen of Henry’s house they eat dinner and they are alive but their mother is not here. The future is unknowable save for this: someday, soon, they will all be –
“Can someone please pass the salt?” he asks.