This story first appeared in the collection Stay Awake.
Twenty years passed. Then one summer my sister Cassie began to call me on the phone. She’d call me up every week or so, just to chat, and it was a kind of weird situation. I hadn’t known anything about her whereabouts since I was very small, and at first I didn’t really know what to say to her.
But Cassie acted as if it was the most natural thing in the world. “Hey, Babe!” she said. “What’s up?” She had the kind of voice that made her sound as if she were smiling affectionately as she talked, and I found that I enjoyed hearing from her. “What’s been going on, Sweetie?” she’d ask me, and we’d end up talking for hours, talking until her voice began to blank out and get static as her cell phone ran out of power. She would go on about some movie she’d seen, or tell a story about some eccentric person she used to know; she would ask me to describe my friends and my job and my daily life, and when I said something she thought was funny she would laugh in this great way that made me actually feel a kind of glow.
Sometimes, she would call very late, or extremely early in the morning, and she would be in a strange mood. She would want to talk about our other brothers and sisters, who she was also in contact with; or she would go into very inappropriate subjects, like her sex life; or, a few times she even wanted to talk about our mother, who she referred to as “Karen.”
“What do you think Karen’s doing right now?” she asked me once, and for a minute I didn’t even know who she was talking about. It was about five in the morning, and I was in my apartment above Mrs. Dowty’s garage, sitting in my narrow twin bed with the covers wrapped around my middle.
“Who’s Karen?” I said, groggily, and Cassie was silent for a moment.
“Our mother,” she said. Outside the window, some branches were moving in the darkness when I looked out. I noticed how the spaces between boughs cut the sky into shapes.
“Don’t you ever feel sorry for Karen?” she asked me. “I mean just a little?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I never really thought about it.”
To be honest, until Cassie started calling, there were a lot of things that I hadn’t thought much about. I knew the basic facts, of course. I knew, for example, that my mother was thirty-two years old when she was sent to prison. She had given birth by that time to eight children. They were:
Cassie Cecilia Joy Ashlee Piper Jordan Me LaChandra and Nicholas
We all had different dads. All of us were living with her when LaChandra and Nicholas were killed. Then our mother’s parental rights were terminated, of course, and we all went to different foster homes, and she was sentenced to life without parole.
So we had been sent on various separate paths away from her, and from each other. I guess I had always assumed that this was for the best, but Cassie didn’t see things that way. She told me that she had been gathering information for years, tracking each of us down one by one. She was the oldest–she was almost fifteen when our mother got sent away–and she said she’d always felt like it was her responsibility to keep an eye on all of us. “They can tear us apart, but they can’t make us stop loving one another,” she had told me the first time she called, and I soon came to recognize this phrase as one of her mottos. “Only connect, Robbie,” she said to me from time to time. “That’s what I firmly believe. Only connect.”
“Uh-huh,” I said, though to be honest I wasn’t totally sure what she was talking about. I guess what she meant was that we were all still connected, even though we were scattered, even though so much time had passed. I guess it was a legitimate way to feel about things.
According to Cassie, most of us had done very well for ourselves, despite our rough beginnings. Cecilia Joy, for example, lived with her husband and two beautiful children on a sheep ranch in Montana and she’d had some of her poems published. Ashlee was taking acting classes while working as a receptionist for a movie studio in Los Angeles, and Piper had taken her first job as a mechanical engineer for a company in Houston. Jordan had come out of her coma, recovered completely, and now was attending Medical School at Princeton University.
Sometimes, I have to admit, I wasn’t completely sure I believed everything Cassie told me. It seemed like she might be exaggerating certain things, maybe stretching the truth a bit. She claimed, for example, that her ex-husband was a rich construction contractor with mob connections, which was why she was always changing her cell phone number. She said that she spent some time in law school, and that she was a certified public accountant, though now she worked as a home caregiver for the elderly in St. Augustine, Florida. Sometimes she would call and I’d think I could hear the background noise of what sounded like a bar or a party.
Once, I thought I could hear the boxy voice of some kind of official announcement being made in the distance–maybe the last call at an airport terminal: all ticketed passengers must be on board.
“Cassie,” I said, “Where are you right now? What are you doing?” And she made a shrugging sound in her throat.
“I’m at home,” she said, innocently, though I could’ve sworn that I very clearly heard the murmur of people in the background, and a baby crying.
“I’m just sitting here at the kitchen table, having a cup of tea,” she said, thoughtfully. “Just sitting here looking out at the moon shining over the ocean.”
My own life wasn’t as interesting as the stories that Cassie told about herself and our siblings. Perhaps that was the problem; perhaps that was why I didn’t always quite believe her. My foster parents, the Dowtys, were simple, kindly, middle-of-the-road people: a math teacher and his wife. I grew up with them in Cleveland, Ohio, and then I remained there afterwards, mostly of my own free will, with one year of college to my credit and four years working as a housepainter for my foster cousin, Rob Higgins. I lived in a little converted apartment above my foster mom’s garage, and I paid her a hundred dollars a month for rent. I was twenty five years old, and I’d visited only three other states, and zero foreign countries. These were the bare numbers of my life, which I kept in my head. I had 7,891 dollars saved up in the bank. I had ten toes and nine fingers. I got up at six in the morning, six days a week. Sometimes I worried, wondering what Cassie was telling the other siblings about me, because there was so little interesting to say.
It was funny, I suppose, that Cassie and the others had so quickly come to occupy such a large part of my daily thoughts. The truth was, I’d hardly considered them at all in those long years since I’d last set eyes on them. They had almost completely faded out of my mind before that one day when Cassie called me for the first time.
“Happy birthday, Robert!” Cassie had said. Those were the first words out of her mouth when I answered the phone. “You’ll never guess who this is!” she said.
It was actually the day after my birthday, and I was still a little hung over. I was sitting in my recliner, watching TV, and I put the sound on mute with my remote. I sat there blankly for a bit.
“This is your sister Cassie,” she said at last. “You probably don’t even remember me, do you?”
I hesitated. What does a person say to a question like that? I thought I could feel a kind of glimmer of recognition, though I wasn’t sure if it would officially be considered “remembering.” For some reason, I pictured her with red hair and freckles, and I thought hard about it until I pulled up a momentary flash of recollection. Here was the kindly policeman who carried me on his shoulders; here were the tops of the heads of my siblings below me; here was the weeping voice of my mother, who was locked in the bathroom with the water running. My babies! My mother was crying, Come help mommy! Come save mommy! And from my perch on the kindly policeman’s shoulders I could see more policemen coming with crowbars, and a shiny puddle of water was emerging from under the crack of the door.
I sat there silently for a moment, considering this memory. Then I slid it slowly to the back of my mind again, and shifted the phone from one side of my face to the other.
“Cassie,” I said. “Sure I remember you.”
I opened my eyes.
The electricity had been off the night before, another power outage, but now it was back on. The bedside lamp bent brightly over me. The digital clock was blinking, the television over in the corner had come on and was sending a mist of static into the room. I noticed that there were some hard objects in the bed and when I felt underneath me I discovered my flashlight and the cordless phone, and I sat up. It was morning, basically. Late August.
The night before, I’d fallen asleep while still talking to Cassie, and little scraps of our conversation floated back into my head. Tell me, she’d said. What’s the first thing—
“—the first thing you remember,” she said.
“I’m thinking,” I said, and she let out a breath.
“Don’t blow a gasket,” she said. “Geez. It’s not such a difficult question.”
“Well,” I said. I considered again: Nothing.
“Okay,” she said. “So just tell me about Cleveland, how about that? Tell me about the first time you came to your new—”
Your new family, she said, and I shifted.
“Um,” I said. I considered. I tried to think of interesting anecdotes.
I was so boring, I thought.
I had become aware of it, more and more, as the summer wore on, as the first rush of enthusiasm and excitement began to grow cooler. I thought of Cassie a lot while I was at work. What kinds of things could I tell her, next time we talked? What would I say? I tried to save up little jokes I’d heard, articles from the newspaper. I moved through the days, watchfully, waiting for a quirky little moment I could package up for Cassie.
I arrived in Cleveland the summer I turned twelve. A social worker put me on the train in St. Louis. I guess things had been explained to me in some fashion or another and I was aware that my new foster parents were going to meet me when I got to my destination. I was given some papers to carry with me and someone had packed me a lunch in a paper bag, a juice box and some baby carrots and a peanut butter sandwich.
It must have been around 2 AM when we got in. I remember, at least, that it was the wee hours of the morning, though I don’t know why I would have come in at such a time. I only remember that the conductor came to the seat where I was sleeping and ran the beam of his flashlight gently across my face. “This is your stop coming up, young man,” he whispered. The social worker had spoken with him when I was being put on the train, so he must have known some part of my story. He looked down as if he knew some terrible secret about me, stern and sorrowful the way old working men get in the years before they retire and he stood there waiting to be sure I was awake before he moved on down the aisle. There was the faintly dusty smell of the old air conditioning and the hiss of the pneumatic door opening between the train cars. Beyond the window was dark but you could hear it raining.
Mr. and Mrs. Dowty were there on the platform when the train stopped. Water was trickling down from the awning that led toward the station building and passengers were opening up their umbrellas as they got off the train. I stepped down the metal stairs with my old alligator skin suitcase and that was when I saw Mrs. Dowty looking right at me. She was a skinny little woman in a blue navy pea coat, and I saw that her eyes had rested on me—hopefully, though also a little concerned I thought. She had a little sign that she had made on which she had printed my name. ROBERT POTTER, it said. WELCOME HOME.
Mr. Dowty had been standing there holding her hand, and when he saw me coming forward he untwined his fingers from hers and came forward smiling. He was a short man, only a little taller than Mrs. Dowty was, with a bald head and square black glasses.
“Robert?” he said to me. “Robert?” And I was surprised to see that his hands and fingers had a lot of dark hair growing on them, despite his baldness.
“How do you do?” he said, and we shook hands.
“Let me take that for you!” he said, and he slipped the handle of my suitcase out of my grasp.
“Did you have a good trip?” he said. “It’s awfully early in the morning for a boy to have to get up and around!”
I nodded and followed along beside him. All during this time Mrs. Dowty had continued to stand there holding her sign, the two of us watching each other as I approached and I wasn’t sure what to make of it at first. I thought maybe she had been expecting something else, a different type of boy altogether, and there were butterflies in my stomach.
She had her hand up holding the throat of her coat closed and there was a gust of wind off of the lake.
“Anna,” Mr. Dowty said. “I believe this is our boy,” and she stood there for a minute longer.
“Yes,” she said.
We drove home through the silent, faded city and I sat in the backseat with my head pressed against the window. Did we talk? I don’t remember that we said anything—Mr. Dowty driving, Mrs. Dowty next to him in the passenger seat, planes of light tilting and passing across our faces. I saw some men sleeping on steaming grates on a sidewalk, and blank brick fronts of empty warehouses. The halogen streetlights bent their heads over us, the traffic lights hanging like lanterns from braided black wires. No one else seemed to be awake, and we passed under a cement train bridge and curved up a hill lined with dark trees, houses and apartment buildings hidden between the branches. I closed my eyes and opened them and then we were pulling into a driveway and here was the house where I would be living from now on.
I don’t remember what I was feeling at the time. I could never very clearly recall the foster home where I was living before I came to the Dowtys’, and perhaps even then I had almost forgotten it. I thought of myself as an object, a box, and my mind was clenched in the center of it and muffled under layers of packing, in hibernation, and I imagine that I must have moved mechanically when Mr. Dowty opened the door of the car, holding my suitcase in his hand, speaking in a voice so soft that it seemed to be only inside my head. Come on now Robert let’s go to sleep in a nice soft bed, come on now, and I followed him through the backyard gate and through the doorway and up the stairs where a room had been prepared for me.
It was a small, neat room on the corner of the second floor, and even at that hour, sleepy and dazed as I was, I was aware of the room as a kind of empty space, a place that hadn’t been lived in for some time. The carpet had been freshly vacuumed, you could see the lines where the vacuum had brought the shag of the blue carpet up into tufts like artificial grass. The bed was tightly made, the pillow folded under the bedspread and tucked like a package, a quilt folded over the foot. There was a little desk with a lamp on it and a blotter with a single pencil in the center, and above the desk was a bookshelf with the books arranged, it seemed, from shortest to tallest, the spines all even with one another in a single, smooth wall as if they were bricks. Mrs. Dowty went in ahead of me with the polite, careful steps of a nurse, which she was, and I stood in the doorway as she went to the dresser along the wall and opened the top drawer, displaying its dustless vacancy as if she were showing me a cabinet of knick-knacks that mustn’t be touched.
“You can put your clothes in here,” she said. “But you don’t need to do that tonight. I imagine you’re very tired and want to go right to sleep.”
“Yes,” I said. I looked down at my shoes, a pair of ragged, cracked high tops with laces the grey color of dishwater, and I felt lonely and ashamed.
Later, I would learn that this had been the room of the Dowtys’ son Douglas, who had been dead three years by the time I came. Douglas had been sixteen, had died in a diving accident, Mrs. Dowty said, he broke his neck on the cement bottom of the town swimming pool, and by the time he was pulled out of the water his brain had been deprived of oxygen for too long.
“We were able to donate some of his tissue. His bones,” she said. “Corneas….” She considered, and I assumed that there was a long list of things that she had memorized, items that recited on in her mind though she was silent. “So,” she said, after a pause, “So. I like to think that not only does his spirit live on in our hearts, but his physical body lives on to some extent as well.”
I had been there for months when she told me this, we were sitting at the kitchen table and Mr. Dowty had already gone off to work at the high school, but I was staying home with the flu. It was winter and outside it was all snowy white and shoveled pathways along the sidewalks.
I was glad that I didn’t know, that first night, that I was going to be sleeping in the room of a dead boy. Still, I suppose that in some ways I did know, as I unbuttoned my shirt and unlaced my shoes and took off my jeans. There was a kind of steady, weighted stillness in the room as I folded my clothes as best I could and put them into a pile. I got into the bed, in-between the cool, dry sheets and put my head against the thick pillow and folded my hands over my chest as if I were in a coffin. After a moment my eyes closed without my noticing.
When I woke up the next morning, it had been daylight for a while. It was a day in April and for a moment I expected to still be on the train. I could not remember where I was, I didn’t recognize the room and I felt that blank, open space in my mind, which is what it must be like to have amnesia or Alzheimer’s disease, that sense of grasping, a foot coming down and not finding the ground. I sat up, and I could just barely hear them talking in some other part of the house and my brain pulled out a little flash: the Dowtys standing on the train platform in the rain, in the night, two silhouettes under umbrellas, but it might as well have been an old black-and-white movie I had seen a long time ago on a television in the recreation room of the group home, a memory light as a piece of ash.
I was aware again of the room I was in, that silent feeling of disapproval, and I could see Douglas’s collection of books looking down at me from their shelf. A Field Guide to Insects of North America. The Observer’s Sky Atlas. From Atoms to Infinity! Half Magic—
I was moving my eyes along the shelf, reading each title, and I heard a young man’s voice say, very distinctly: You mean he’s sleeping in there right now? In Douglas’s room?! Or so I imagined. I pulled back the covers and slipped on the jeans and t-shirt that I had been wearing since I had left St. Louis.
I didn’t want to stay in bed while they were awake—thinking I was a lazybones. And although I wanted to take a shower I didn’t want to be naked in the house with all of them out there, talking about me. And so I found my way down the stairs, following their voices, and around the corner from the foot of the staircase I could see the yellow wallpaper of the kitchen and a young man, a teenager, sitting at the kitchen table, I could see through the doorway his tennis shoe and the ham of his calf and his hand reaching down to scratch the sock on his ankle. This, I would learn later, was Rob Higgins.
Rob Higgins was 18 years old that year. Only six years older than me—though the distance between 12 and 18 is very far, maybe the longest six years we ever travel. Spying on him from around the corner, I guessed that he was in high school. He looked like one of the boys that went to the Catholic High School near the group home back in St. Louis, a certain kind of face that I associated with bullies. Reddish hair under a baseball cap. Freckles. Small, upturned nose. A sort of wiry, quarterback build. I thought of the names that such boys would call after us as we hurried back from our school to the blocky, narrow-windowed cluster of buildings where we were kept. “Retards!” they called. “Faggots! Niggers!” And though these words didn’t even apply to us, they were still scary—they had a blunt force, the ugliest, dirtiest names that these dull-witted high school boys could think of. That was what we were to them.
Maybe at one point in his life, Rob Higgins might have been one of those types, with their boisterous, unimaginative confidence, but he wasn’t that way any longer. Even then, I could see that something about him had been subdued and broken down, and I relaxed a little.
Rob Higgins was having a hard time, Mrs. Dowty told me later. A tough life, she said, some of it his own making, some of it just bad luck. Whatever cockiness had been a natural part of him had withdrawn and would probably never really return to him.
He was Mrs. Dowty’s nephew, her sister’s son, and he and Mrs. Dowty had grown close since the death of Rob’s mother and Mrs. Dowty’s son in the same year. They had bonded, Mrs. Dowty said, and Rob had started to spend a lot of time at Mrs. Dowty’s house, though this didn’t turn out to be a cure for anything necessarily. He continued to have problems—issues with drugs and depressions, I gathered. Trouble getting along with his teachers. An intense and destructive relationship with a girlfriend.
He was sitting there eating cereal and he looked up and regarded me when I came in. It was the kind of look that you would give if a small animal—a squirrel or a stray cat—walked brazenly into your house and stood in the doorway of your kitchen while you were bringing a spoonful of Corn Pops to your mouth.
“Well! If it isn’t young Robert Potter!” Mr. Dowty said. He was at the stove making some scrambled eggs in a skillet and he was the first one to speak. “I was just about to come and wake you up!” he said.
“Oh,” I said.
“Are you hungry, sweetheart?” Mrs. Dowty said.
Rob Higgins said nothing—but he kept his eyes on me steadily, a kind of mild hostility emanating out from him. A drop of milk fell from his spoon and he blinked.
I was telling this to Cassie one night when we were first getting into our mode of marathon telephone conversations.
“Wow,” she said. “That’s a great story, Robbie!” She had been making appreciative sounds the whole time—“yes,” “mm-hmm,” “right!” “Oh! I get it…”
And of course when you are in the presence of a good listener you can start to feel as if you actually have something interesting to say.
“I don’t know why you say that you can’t remember anything,” she said. “That all seems pretty detailed to me!”
“I guess so,” I said. “My memory has actually been pretty good since I came to Cleveland. Or at least it seems like it is.” I considered for a moment. “I guess the big problem is that I’m not always sure about whether anything is accurate.”
“Hmmm,” she said. “That’s a problem for everyone, sweetie.”
Sometimes, I thought about asking Mrs. Dowty.
She came up to my room above the garage, looking for unwashed glasses and dirty dishes, and I sat there in bed, in my underwear, embarrassed. It was two o’clock on a Saturday afternoon.
“Hey,” I said. But she was in a mood. She picked up one of my socks from the middle of the floor and looked at it gloomily.
“You don’t have to do that,” I said. “I’m going to do it.”
“Then you should have done it already,” she said. “What were you doing up at all hours last night? I saw that light of yours was still burning at four in the morning!”
“Nothing,” I said, though for a moment I wondered if she had been able to see me through the window as I talked with Cassie on the phone. I should just tell her, I shouldn’t lie, I thought. “I was just…thinking about stuff, I guess,” I said, and she gave me The Eye.
“If you’re having problems with the insomnia, you should go talk to Dr. Bloom,” Mrs. Dowty said. “She could probably give you some medication for it.”
“Mom, I’m fine,” I said. “Geez. I haven’t seen Dr. Bloom since I was fourteen.”
“She did you a lot of good,” Mrs. Dowty said. “You were in pretty rough shape when you came to us. You know that, Robert. And Dr. Bloom got you calmed down, didn’t she?”
“I guess so,” I said, though the truth was I hadn’t thought of Dr. Bloom in years. I didn’t recall that she’d done me that much good. Mostly, it seemed to me, the two of us just sat around and played cards for an hour every week, and then she would write me a prescription for something.
“Well,” Mrs. Dowty said. “You’re a grown-up now, you have to make your own decisions, don’t you? I can’t force you to do anything.”
“I just like to stay up late,” I said. “That’s all.”
Mrs. Dowty sighed, and nodded a little. She held three drinking glasses in her right hand, clustered between her fingers like bells, and for a second it seemed as if she were offering them to me. I held my hand out, awkwardly. The pads of her fingertips inside the rims of the glasses, the formation of
flesh pressed and wet against a
“You can’t go on like this forever,” she said.
She peered out of the window, down at the driveway and the basketball hoop that she and Mr. Dowty had set up for me when I first came to live with them. For a moment, maybe we both thought about the kind of kid I’d been back then, picturing me down there dribbling and shooting, twelve years old, small for my age, dribbling and shooting, smaller than anyone else in my class, seventy pounds maybe, circling in the driveway and dribbling and shooting and I could remember that so much more vividly than anything in my life up to that point that it seemed as if I must have spent seven years in that driveway and only a few long summer afternoons in various foster homes instead of vice versa. What was the name of that family I lived with before I was sent to the Dowtys?
Lamb? Lambert? Something like that. I sat there, sending out feelers into my memory, tracing it back past the Lamb/Lamberts and it was like trying to place stepping stones down from one bank of a creek to the other side
The group home in St. Louis and The Lamberts
And the Holroyd sisters And that lady Darlene who was my mother’s cousin And those ones that were religious.
I had never been a very good rememberer. That was one of the downsides of being in contact with Cassie. It reminded me of the things I didn’t like about my own mind, the problems with the ways in which it worked and didn’t work.
I knew the basics of my own life story, of course. I was five when LaChandra and Nicholas were murdered and then there were several foster families, one after another, each one further and further away from my old home. I came at last to rest in the home of Mr. and Mrs. Dowty when I was twelve, and that was where I went to school from seventh grade on to graduation. I began to work for my cousin Rob’s house painting business during my freshman year at the community college, the year that Mr. Dowty died, and I continued to work for him after I stopped attending classes. I lost the ring finger of my left hand during a fall from a ladder.
Mostly, I thought, I was an average, normal person. I paid my bills. I went out to the bar on a Friday night with my buddies and had a decent time. I liked to laugh at funny shows on TV and I did my work and I tried not to take stuff too seriously.
Still, sometimes I felt worried. On Friday nights, sitting in Parnell’s, I’d listen to the other guys talk about themselves, retelling a memory of something that happened to them when they were kids, and I realized that my own brain worked differently than theirs. Their minds were built up of stories–Tony, with his sagas of girlfriends and breakups, or Tino, with his rambling supply of misadventures in which he was always the prankster or the victim, or even Rob Higgins, who had his life sorted and categorized into a catalog of best and worst moments.
I loved the way that they could maneuver through their pasts so easily. I loved the way the events in their lives had beginnings and middles and ends, the way their stories had points to them–morals, or punch-lines, or twists.
But when my turn would come around, I never knew what to say. I can’t really think of anything, I’d tell them. I don’t really recall, I’d say, because I didn’t know how to describe the place I went when I sat home at night, when I sank down in the old claw-footed bathtub with my eyes closed, when I stared at the mirror, watching my reflection run its fingers across its face. I’d ask my mind to remember simple things: the house where I lived with my first foster family, for example; or the Christmas of my eleventh year; or my oldest sister’s face.
But what I got was another thing entirely. Even though I’d concentrate, the pictures my brain would send me often didn’t make much sense. I’d conjure up a vivid image of a row of brownstone apartments and a cobblestone street; I’d imagine that I recalled an organ grinder and his monkey on the corner, and people passing by in clothes from a hundred years ago. I’d call forth a farmhouse in the middle of cornfields, and I’d see myself walking on a winding dirt road, looking up as a pterodactyl slowly flapped its wings, passing across the moon. I’d picture a crumpled potato chip bag, or a snowy tundra, where a woman was pinning white sheets to a clothesline in the wind, or the sound of something scratching on the door in the night. Maybe, I thought, the memory-recording apparatus in my head had been damaged in some way.
But when I mentioned all this to Cassie, she seemed unimpressed. “That’s all very poetic,” she said. “But that’s just whimsy, Robbie. It’s not memory. I mean, you do know the difference between fantasy and reality, don’t you?”
“Yeah,” I said.
“You’re not a schizophrenic, are you? I mean, you don’t really believe you once saw a pterodactyl, do you?”
“No,” I said. I hesitated for a moment. “No, of course not.”
“Well, then,” she said. I was sitting there on my narrow bed, picking at my bare feet. It was about one-thirty in the morning. We had been talking nearly every night for months, and this wasn’t the first time that I didn’t know what to say.
“You don’t have to make up stuff to impress me, Robbie,” she said. “I love you just the way you are.”
“Thank you,” I said, and she laughed lightly in that way that usually made me feel a kind of glow but this time did not. I wished I could see the expression on her face.
But I couldn’t picture it. Actually, I still didn’t know what Cassie looked like, and that, in fact, was another small point of contention that had developed between us. She had promised on several occasions to send me a photo, but it never arrived.
“What!” she had said, the first time I brought it up. “You mean you haven’t got those photos yet? I sent them two weeks ago!”
“Well,” I said. “They never came.”
“That’s crazy!” she said, after another week had passed. “ I can’t believe your cruddy mail service! They must have gotten lost again!”
“They must have.”
“Well, I’ll send some new ones. I’ll send them certified this time.”
“Okay,” I said, and waited as June had turned into July. But when I asked her again, her voice got a little chilly.
“I really don’t like to have my picture taken,” she said. It was one of the times when there were weird noises in the background again, as if she were just outside the door of some busy, unhappy place, like a police station or a hospital waiting room.
“Actually,” she said, “those photos I sent you were basically the only ones I had. Now I’ll have to get some new ones taken.”
“Well,” I said. “I’d really like to have a picture of you.”
“Ha!” she said. “It’s probably better if you remember me like I was! I’m basically the same as I was twenty years ago–just older and fatter!”
“Uh-huh,” I said. And she didn’t seem to understand that when I talked about my memory, I was partially trying to explain to her that I didn’t remember anything at all about her, not even her face. I wanted to ask if she still had curly red hair, but maybe she never had curly red hair. After all those years of searching for me, she would doubtless be offended, I thought. It would hurt her feelings to know how little of her had held fast in my mind.
Walking home from Parnell’s on a Friday night, I’d sometimes think of talking about it with Rob Higgins. Sometimes the nights were beautiful–a little fog, or the moon–and we’d be side by side, two old friends with a lot of beer between them, and it seemed like it should be easy to talk. People called us “the two Robs,” and said that we were “inseparable.”
But it was difficult. The stuff about Cassie was hard and complicated to explain, for one thing. For another, I had the feeling that Rob Higgins would be upset. He had been slow to accept me, and when he finally did, it was as if he had decided to invent me out of something else—out of Douglas, out of a person he’d imagined.
He was big on the idea of family, and was always telling me how great my foster parents were, and how he’d wished, growing up, that they could be his parents. “Yer mom makes the best pickled cucumbers I’ve ever tasted,” he’d say. Or: “I miss yer dad so much,” he’d say. “He had the greatest sense of humor–how did he come up with all those jokes?” Or: “Yer parents had the nicest taste in furniture. I used to love going over to your house just to sit in that one recliner.”
Every time I would think about telling Rob Higgins about Cassie, comments like these would arise in my mind. He would be stumbling along down the sidewalk, grinning affectionately at me, and I couldn’t help but feel that if I told him about all the time I spent talking to Cassie, I would seem like kind of a traitor. He had always just assumed that I had melded completely into my adoptive role, as if I didn’t even realize that I wasn’t a blood relative. He would joke that we probably seemed kind of trailer-park-esque to people, two cousins with the same first name—as if he’d forgotten that I already had the name of Rob before I became part of his family. He even told me how much I looked like my foster father.
“I see him in your face,” Rob Higgins would say, after Mr. Dowty had died. It was a compliment, but it was also a little weird and uncomfortable. Despite our years of friendship, there was always a certain level of pretending going on between us.
I couldn’t help but consider it when I got home that night from Parnell’s. A certain level of pretending, I thought, as Mrs. Dowty’s face appeared in the little window above the kitchen sink. She was waiting up for me, and I waved to her and smiled to show that I was on my way to bed. It was touching that she worried about me, I thought, but I also felt aware that it was complicated for her. Even though I’d called her “Mom” for almost ten years now, there was also a part of me that still felt like a stranger, a certain part that she didn’t know.
“Of course she’d be a little nervous,” Cassie said. “I know I would be. You’re the son of a killer! And let’s face it, Rob: you’re not the average twenty-five year old guy. You’re a little weird, you know? I can imagine her sitting there in the morning with the newspaper: “Oh, look. Here’s an unsolved murder. Here’s a rape over at the community college. I sure hope Robbie isn’t involved…”
“Thanks a lot,” I said.
“You know what I mean,” she said. “Partially I’m joking.”
But partially, I guess, she wasn’t. We had talked for a while about the idea of meeting, maybe Cassie coming to Cleveland for a visit. But Cassie never felt like it was a good idea.
“I don’t think any of us are ready for that kind of thing, yet,” she said.
From the beginning, she had been very firmly opposed to me telling Mrs. Dowty about our conversations. “It’s better,” Cassie repeatedly said, “It’s better if you don’t bring it up,” and as I struggled to get my key into the door, I knew that Cassie was probably right. There were times during the week when I’d feel so natural with Mrs. Dowty that it seemed like she had been my mom for my whole life. I’d eat oatmeal at her table in the morning and she’d gently, affectionately put her palm on the back of my neck. We’d watch television in the evening, gossiping about the characters on our favorite programs; we’d shop for groceries together on Sunday afternoon, and I’d fix the things around the house that needed fixing.
Sometimes, I’d try to imagine how it might be. “Hey Mom,” I could say, one afternoon while we were playing chess in the kitchen, and Mrs. Dowty would lift her round, thoughtful head. “Do you remember those other kids…the brothers and sisters I had? The biological ones?”
And she would say: “Oh honey, that’s in the past. You don’t want to think about that anymore.”
And I would say: “Well–actually, there is this woman who called me. Named Cassie. And she says she’s my older sister. I’ve talked to her. A couple times now.”
And I thought that we could have really had a conversation about it–she would have been interested in it, I thought, and she’d have been happy when I expressed a few concerns about Cassie’s honesty. She would have some solid advice.
But then I’d come home from the bar and I’d know that Cassie was right. I could feel the moonlight of Mrs. Dowty’s gaze on me as I fumbled with the key and the jagged mouth of the keyhole. Remembering what Cassie had said—the son of a murderer, she said—I could now imagine the lapping of Mrs. Dowty’s worries and doubts passing over me.
Robbie is a good boy, I imagined Mrs. Dowty thinking—He’s like my very own son, she was thinking. Just like my own flesh and blood! He’s a good boy, a good boy.
I don’t know. Maybe I was only projecting such thoughts onto her. Projecting: that’s the term that Cassie used.
“It’s natural for you to be concerned about these things,” Cassie said. “We’ve all of us got to come to terms with it. Whatever is in our genes. You’d be foolish not to be a little scared.”
“What do you mean?” I said. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, Cassie,” I said. I was sitting at the little table near the window that looked out onto the driveway, cleaning paint off of my skin with a rag and a little bowl of turpentine. I didn’t like the direction our conversations had been taking lately.
“You know,” she said. “You remember how Karen used to get. All those lies and her little fake hallucinations and trances and stuff. Before the twins—.”
I was silent for a moment, the phone held in the crook between my ear and my shoulder, and I rubbed the little freckles of paint off of my forearm. “Actually,” I said. “I don’t remember things that well. About what happened.”
“I doubt that,” she said. “What we experienced, that’s not something you just forget.”
“Really,” I said. “You were older than me, so I think it’s probably a lot clearer to you.”
“Well, then,” she said. “I envy you your forgetfulness.”
“I guess,” I said.
“I’ve had nightmares every single night of my life since it happened,” she said. “God! All of us have. Poor Cecilia Joy said that she was contemplating suicide for a while, before she met her husband. She thought about killing herself, just to get away from the bad dreams!”
“Oh,” I said. Hesitantly, I touched the stump where my finger used to be. In my mind, something almost remembered itself, but the fumes of turpentine were making me a little lightheaded; whatever memory was on the verge of coughing itself up was gone even before it materialized. Out the window, I could see a squirrel was stumbling erratically around in circles underneath the old basketball net. Then I realized that it wasn’t a squirrel; it was brown paper bag.
When Cassie said things about craziness, mental illness, schizophrenia, that sort of thing, I couldn’t help but feel a bit self-conscious. Concerned. I thought about the way the world played tricks on me—squirrels, for example, that transformed into paper bags, phone calls that seemed half whited out when I woke up, memories spotted with imaginary pterodactyls and organ-grinder monkeys and glacial lakes—little things that perhaps added up.
Such things might give a person pause.
Nearly every week I would come across some little thing: a car parked alongside the road, a tree with its branches held up in some kind of sign language, a pattern of wallpaper or a certain color of hair that brought tears to my eyes like an old remembered lullaby—just minor things that would startle me as if I recognized them. What is it? I would think. What is it? Even worse, I’d notice things that should have been there but weren’t—Rob Higgins and I would drive by a park and for a moment I’d be certain a brownstone apartment ought to be there, a building where a pregnant girl should be sitting on the porch steps with her dog. I’d open a drawer in the kitchen and expect to find it full of pennies and postcards and costume jewelry when in fact there was only silverware inside.
The day I lost my finger was something like that. One minute I was on the ladder, three stories up, painting along the frame of an old round window near the peak of the house; the next minute a swimmy feeling trickled up my spine and into my brain. The window was empty and then the face of a woman floated up like a transparent reflection on the surface of water, moving toward me, pressing up against the glass, a face like someone who had loved me once, leaning over my bed at night to kiss my hair. I don’t even remember falling, though I recall the feeling as my ring caught against a nail, the finger separating from my body, not so much pain as a kind of gasp. I hit the ground and the wind knocked out of me. For a second, I thought I felt my soul, my spirit, bounce out of me and fly up a few feet before fluttering down and settling back into my body.
Rob Higgins and Tony and Tino teased me afterwards about it, how they thought I was dead when I hit the ground, the way I sleepily opened my eyes as they rushed over to gather around me. “Where am I?” I said, like a sleepwalker, like a coma person or blackout drunk, and they all laughed with relief. “You were like a little kid waking up from a dream,” Rob Higgins said. “Ha! Like you just woke up from a refreshing nap!”
I didn’t tell them what I’d seen up there, through the window. The bathroom, the bathtub filling up with water, the naked lady with her long red hair, arms held out to me, gliding swiftly toward where I was peering in.
This wasn’t something I told Cassie about either. It was too—what?—upsetting, probably. It would take things too far, I thought, and I could sense that she was growing bored with me. Frustrated? I imagined that maybe there was something the other brothers and sisters had, which I lacked.
“What would you do if you saw her again,” Cassie said, almost casually, almost dreamily, the last night I talked to her.
“Saw who?” I said.
Cassie made a soft sound, like swallowing. “Oh, Robbie,” she said. “Don’t be ridiculous. You know who I’m talking about.”
“Oh,” I said. It was probably about three thirty in the morning, and I hadn’t turned on the light, so Mrs. Dowty wouldn’t know that I was up. “Right,” I said.
“Well?” she said, and she coughed lightly. There were some strange echoing sounds in the background—as if she were in a busy public space. An announcer or a conductor was speaking sternly; it sounded as if a nearby child was making a whining request, and a mother responded irritably. But Cassie didn’t seem to notice any of this noise. “It’s a simple question,” she said.
“I don’t know,” I said. I had to be up in the morning, Rob Higgins would be pounding on my door and jiggling the knob. But it had always been hard for me to go to sleep. I brushed my eye with my thumb, rubbed my feet together beneath the covers.
“No, really, Robbie—” Cassie was saying. “Really. What would you do? Do you think you would you talk to her?”
“I guess so,” I said. Then I thought of that face in the window on the day that I fell off the ladder. “I don’t know for sure,” I said. “Maybe I wouldn’t.”
She sighed. I think I must have sounded bored and evasive, though really I was just tired. I would have tried harder, I guess, if I had known that it was the last time I would talk to her.
“I can’t believe you haven’t considered it,” she said. “Of course you have. What kind of person wouldn’t think about it? What kind of person wouldn’t remember?”
It was a good question, I guess, but by that time there had accumulated a lot of good questions which were competing for my attention. What kind of person, Cassie said, and I wondered about that.
What kind of person was I? This was yet to be decided.
It had been a particularly hot summer, with a lot of thunderstorms. The power was always going out, and sometimes I would wake up in complete darkness—no bedside lamp, no streetlight, no moon. The fan no longer turning, so the air grew close and still. I could hear the cicadas in the boughs of the trees, a vibrating held note that sounded like hissing.
Of course I thought of her then. Our mother.
I looked out from the window of my apartment above the garage and I could see Mrs. Dowty moving through her kitchen carrying a candle. She had a brass candlestick that one of her ancestors had brought across the ocean when they immigrated, and now Mrs. Dowty went padding barefoot through her kitchen, holding her light aloft. Her heirloom.
I myself had a flashlight which I kept in the drawer of the night table along with some packages of alkaline batteries. Even through the walls of sleep I’d sensed the lights going out, the electricity shutting off—that face floating down, I could feel it, moving toward me in the dark, the kiss of the breath, that sweet voice that sounded as if she were smiling, the face looming down as she lifted me from the bed, the sound of water running in the bathroom wake up sleepy head wake up my little one
—Oh yes I remembered I remembered and I jolted up and grabbed for my flashlight even before I was fully awake.