A Bridge of Years

Robert Charles Wilson

Orb Books

1
 

It was a modest three-bedroom frame house with its basement dug a little deeper than was customary in this part of the country, pleasant but overgrown with bush and ivy and miles away from town.
It had been empty for years, the real estate agent said, and the property backed onto a cedar swamp. Frankly, I dont see a lot of investment potential here.
Tom Winter disagreed.
Maybe it was his mood, but this property appealed at once. Perversely, he liked it for its bad points: its isolation, lost in this rainy pinewoodits blunt undesirability, like the frank ugliness of a bulldog. He wondered whether, if he lived here, he would come to resemble the house, the way pet owners were said to resemble their pets. He would be plain. Isolated. Maybe, a little wild.
Which was not, Tom supposed, how he looked to Doug Archer, the real estate agent. Archer was wearing his blue Bell Realty jacket, but the neat faded Levis and shaggy haircut betrayed his roots. Local family, working class, maybe some colorful relative still logging out in the bush. Raised to look with suspicion on creased trousers, which Tom happened to be wearing. But appearances were deceptive. Tom paused as they approached the blank pine-slab front door. Didnt this used to be the Simmons property?
Archer shook his head. Close, though. Thats a little ways up the hill. Peggy Simmons still lives up thereshes nearly eighty. He raised an eyebrow. You know Peggy Simmons?
I used to deliver groceries up the Post Road. Came by here sometimes. But that was a long while ago.
No kidding! Didnt you say
Ive been in Seattle for most of twelve years.
Any connection with Tony Winterup at Arbutus Ford?
Hes my brother, Tom said.
Hey! Well, hell! This changes things.
In the city, Tom thought, we learn not to smile so generously.
Archer slid the key into the door. We had a man out here when the property went up for sale. He said it was in fairly nice shape on the inside, but Id guess, after its been closed up for so longwell, you might take that with a grain of salt.
Translated from realty-speak, Tom thought, that means its a hellacious mess.
But the door eased open on hinges that felt freshly oiled, across a swatch of neat beige broadloom.
Ill be damned, Archer said.
Tom stepped over the threshold. He flicked the wall switch and a ceiling light blinked on, but it wasnt really necessary; a high south-facing window allowed in a good deal of the watery sunshine. The house had been built with the climate in mind: it would not succumb to gloom even in the rain.
On the right, the living room opened into a kitchen. On the left, a hallway connected the bedrooms and the bath.
A stairway led down to the basement.
Ill be damned, Archer repeated. Maybe I was wrong about this place.
The room they faced was meticulously clean, the furniture old but spotless. A mechanical mantel clock ticked away (but who had wound it?) under what looked like a Picasso print. Just slightly kitschy, Tom thought, the glass-topped coffee table, the low Danish Modern sofa; very sixties, but immaculately preserved. It might have popped out of a time capsule.
Well maintained, he said.
You bet. Considering it wasnt maintained at all, far as I know.
Whos the owner?
The property came up for state auction a long time ago. Holding company in Seattle bought it but never did anything with it. Theyve been selling off packets of land all through here for the last year or so. He shook his head. To be honest, the house was entirely derelict. We had a man out to evaluate these properties, shingles and foundation and so on, but he never saidI mean, we assumed, all these old frame houses out here He put his hands in his pockets and frowned. The utilities werent even switched on till late last week.
How many cold winters, hot summers had this room been closed and locked? Tom paused and slid his finger along a newel post where the stairs ran down into darkness. His finger came away clean. The wood looked oiled. Phantom maid service?
Archer didnt laugh. Jack Shackleys the listed agent on this. Maybe he was in to tidy up. Somebody did a phenomenal job, anyway. The listing is house and contents and it looks like you have some nice pieces heremaybe a little dated. Shall we have a look around?
I think we should.
Tom circled twice through the houseonce with Archer, once to get his own impression while Archer left his business card on the kitchen counter and stepped outside for a smoke. His impression was the same both times. The kitchen cupboards opened frictionlessly to spotless, uniformly vacant interiors. The linen closet was cedar-lined, fragrant and bare. The bedrooms were empty except for the largest, which contained a modest bed, a chest of drawers, and a mirrordustless. In the basement, high windows peeked out at the rear lawn; these were covered with white roller blinds, which the sun had turned brittle yellow. (Time passes here after all, he thought.)
The building was sound, functional, and clean.
The fundamental question was, did it feel like home?
No. At least, not yet.
But that might change.
Did he want it to feel like home?
But it was a question he couldnt answer to his own satisfaction. Maybe what he wanted was not so much a house as a cave: a warm, dry place in which to nurse his wounds until they healedor at least until the pain was bearable.
But the house was genuinely interesting.
He ran his hand idly along a blank basement wall and was startled to feel what?
The hum of machinery, carried up through gypsum board and concrete blockinstantly stilled?
Faint tingle of electricity?
Or nothing at all.
Tight as a drum.
This was Archer, back from his sojourn.
You may have found a bargain here, Tom. We can go back to my office if you want to talk about an offer.
Why the hell not, Tom Winter said.
***
The town of Belltower occupied the inside curve of a pleasant, foggy Pacific bay on the northwestern coast of the United States.
Its primary industries were fishing and logging. A massive pulp mill had been erected south of town during the boom years of the fifties, and on damp days when the wind came blowing up the coast the town was enveloped in the sulfurous, bitter stench of the mill. Today there had been a stiff offshore breeze; the air was clean. Shortly before sunset, when Tom Winter returned to his room at the Seascape Motel, the cloud stack rolled away and the sun picked out highlights on the hills, the town, the curve of the bay.
He bought himself dinner in the High Tide Dining Room and tipped the waitress too much because her smile seemed genuine. He bought a Newsweek in the gift shop and headed back to his second-floor room as night fell.
Amazing, he thought, to be back in this town. Leaving here had been, in Toms mind, an act of demolition. He had ridden the bus north to Seattle pretending that everything behind him had been erased from the map. Strange to find the town still here, stores still open for business, boats still anchored at the marina behind the VFW post.
The only thing thats been demolished is my life.
But that was self-pity, and he scolded himself for it. The quintessential lonely vice. Like masturbation, it was a parody of something best performed in concert with others.
He was aware, too, of a vast store of pain waiting to be acknowledged but not here in this room with the ugly harbor paintings on the wall, the complimentary postcards in the bureau, pale rings on the wood veneer where generations had abandoned their vending-machine Cokes to sweat in the dry heat. Here, it would be too much.
He padded down the carpeted hallway, bought a Coke so he could add his own white ring to the furniture.
The phone was buzzing when he got back. He picked it up and popped the ring-tab on the soft-drink can.
Tom, his brother said.
Tony. Hi, Tony.
You all by yourself?
Hell, no, Tom said. The partys just warming up. Cant you tell?
Thats very funny. Are you drinking something?
Soda pop, Tony.
Because I dont think you should be sitting there all by yourself. I think that sets a bad pattern. I dont want you getting sauced again.
Sauced, Tom thought, amused. His brother was a wellspring of these antique euphemisms. It was Tony who had once described Brigitte Nielsen as a red-hot tamale. Barbara had always relished his brothers bon mots. She used to call it her visiting Tony yogamaking conversation with one hand ready to spring up and disguise a grin.
If I get sauced, Tom said, youll be the first to know.
Thats exactly what Im afraid of. I called in a lot of favors to get you this job. Naturally, that leaves my ass somewhat exposed.
Is that why you phoned?
A pause, a confession: No. Loreen suggestedwell, we both thoughtshes got a chicken ready to come out of the oven and theres more than enough to go around, so if you havent eaten
Im sorry. I had a big meal down at the coffee shop. But thank you. And thank Loreen for me.
Tonys relief was exquisitely obvious. Sure you dont want to drop by? Brief chatter in the background: Loreens done up a blueberry pie.
Tell Loreen Im sorely tempted but I want to make it an early night.
Well, whatever. Anyway, Ill call you next week.
Good. Great.
Night, Tom. A pause. Tony added, And welcome back.
***
Tom put down the phone and turned to confront his own reflection, gazing dumbly out of the bureau mirror. Here was a haggard man with a receding hairline who looked, at this moment, at least a decade older than his thirty years. Hed put on weight since Barbara left and it was beginning to showa bulge of belly and a softness around his face. But it was the expression that made the image in the mirror seem so ancient. He had seen it on old men riding buses. A frown that announces surrender, the willing embrace of defeat.
Options for tonight?
He could stare out the window, into his past; or into this mirror, the future.
The two had intersected here. Here at the crossroads. This rainy old town.
He turned to the window.
Welcome back.
***
Doug Archer called in the morning to announce that Toms offer on the housemost of his carefully hoarded inheritance, tendered in cashhad been accepted. Possession is immediate. We can have all the paperwork done by the end of the day. A few signatures and shes all yours.
Would it be possible to get the key today?
I dont see any problem with that.
Tom drove down to the realty office next to the Harbor Mall. Archer escorted him through paperwork at the in-house Notary Public, then took him across the street for lunch. The restaurant was called El Ninoit was new; the location used to be a Kresges, if Tom recalled correctly. The decor was nautical but not screamingly kitschy.
Tom ordered the salmon salad sandwich. Archer smiled at the waitress. Just coffee, Nance.
She nodded and smiled back.
Youre not wearing your realty jacket, Tom said.
Technically, its my day off. Plus, youre a solid purchase. And what the hell, youre a hometown boy, I dont have to impress anybody here. He settled back in the vinyl booth, lean in his checkerboard shirt, his long hair a little wilder than he had worn it the day before. He thanked the waitress when the coffee arrived. I looked into the history of the house, by the way. My own curiosity, mainly.
Something interesting?
Sort of interesting, yeah.
Something you didnt want to tell me until the papers were signed?
Nothing that would change your mind, Tom. Just a little bit odd.
So? Its haunted?
Archer smiled and leaned over his cup. Not quite. Though that wouldnt surprise me. The property has a peculiar history. The lot was purchased in 1963 and the house was finished the next year. From 1964 through 1981 it was occupied by a guy named Ben Collierlived alone, came into town once in a while, no visible means of support but he paid his bills on time. Friendly when you talked to him, but not real friendly. Solitary.
He sold the house?
Nope. Thats the interesting part. He disappeared around 1980 and the property came up for nonpayment of taxes. Nobody could locate the gentleman. He had no line of credit, no social security number anybody could dig up, no registered birthhis car wasnt even licensed. If he died, he didnt leave a corpse. Archer sipped his coffee. Real good coffee here, in my opinion. You know they grind the beans in back? Their own blend. Colombian, Costa Rican
Tom said, Youre enjoying this story.
Hell, yes! Arent you?
Tom discovered that he was, as a matter of fact. His interest had been piqued. He looked at Archer across the tablefrowned and looked more closely. Oh, shit, I know who you are! Youre the kid who used to pitch stones at cars down along the coast highway!
You were a grade behind me. Tony Winters little brother.
You cracked a windshield on a guys Buick. There were editorials in the paper. Juvenile delinquency on the march.
Archer grinned. It was an experiment in ballistics.
Now you sell haunted houses to unsuspecting city slickers.
I think haunted is kind of melodramatic. But I did hear another odd story about the house. George Bukowski told me thisGeorge is a Highway Patrol cop, owns a double-wide mobile home down by the marina. He said he was up along the Post Road last year, cruising by, when he saw a light in the housewhich he knew was unoccupied cause hed been in on the search for Ben Collier. So he stopped for a look. Turned out a couple of teenagers had broken a basement window. They had a storm lantern up in the kitchen and a case of Kokanee and a ghetto blasterjust having a good old party. He took them in and confiscated maybe an eighth-ounce of dope from the oldest boy, Barry Lindell. Sent em all home to their parents. Next day George goes back to the house to check out the damagethe kicker is, it turns out there wasnt any damage. It was like theyd never been there. No matches on the floor, no empties, everything spit-polished.
Tom said, The window where they broke in?
It wasnt broken anymore.
Bullshit, Tom said.
Archer held up his hands. Sure. But George swears on it. Says the window wasnt even reputtied, he would have recognized that. It wasnt fixedit just wasnt broken.
The waitress delivered the sandwich. Tom picked it up and took a thoughtful bite. This is an obsessively tidy ghost were talking about.
The phantom handyman.
I cant say Im frightened.
I dont guess you have any reason to be. Still
Ill keep my eyes open.
And let me know how it goes, Archer said. I mean, if thats okay with you. He slid his business card across the table. My home numbers on the back.
Youre that curious?
Archer checked out the next table to make sure nobody was listening. Im that fucking bored.
Yearning for the old days? A sunny afternoon, a rock in your hand, the smell of a wild convertible?
Archer grinned. The grin said, Hell, yes, I am that kid, and I dont much mind admitting it.
This man enjoys life, Tom thought.
Heartening to believe that was still possible.
***
Before he drove out to the house Tom stopped at the Harbor Mall to pick up supplies. At the A&P he assembled a weeks worth of staples and a selection of what Barbara used to call bachelor food: frozen entrees, potato chips, cans of Coke in plastic saddles. At the Radio Shack he picked up a plug-in phone, and at Sears he paid $300 for a portable color TV.
Thus equipped for elementary survival, he drove to the house up along the Post Road.
The sun was setting when he arrived. Did the house look haunted? No, Tom thought. The house looked suburban. Cedar siding a little faded, the boxy structure a little lost in these piney woods, but not dangerous. Haunted, if at all, strictly by Mr. Clean. Or perhaps the Tidy Bowl Man.
The key turned smoothly in the lock.
Stepping over the threshold, he had the brief but disquieting sensation that this was after all somebody elses house that he had arrived, like Officer Bukowskis juvenile delinquents, without credentials. Well, to hell with that. He flicked every light switch he could reach until the room was blisteringly bright. He plugged in the refrigeratorit began to hum at onceand dropped the Cokes inside. He plugged in the TV set and tuned the rabbit ears to a Tacoma station, a little fuzzy but watchable. He cranked the volume up.
Noise and light.
He preheated the ancient white enamel stove, watching the elements for a time to make sure everything worked. (Everything did.) The black Bakelite knobs were as slick as ebony; his own fingerprints seemed like an insult to their polished surface. He slipped a TV dinner into the oven and closed the door. Welcome home.
A new life, he thought.
That was why he had come hereor at least that was what hed told his friends. Looking around this clean, illuminated space, it was possiblealmost possibleto believe that.
He took the TV dinner into the living room and poked at the tepid fried chicken with a plastic fork while MacNeil (or Lehrer, he had never quite sorted that out) conducted a round-table discussion of this years China crisis. When he was finished he tidied away the foil plate into a plastic baghe wasnt ready to offend the Hygiene Spirit just yetand pulled the tab on a Coke. He watched two nature documentaries and a feature history of Mormonism. Then, suddenly, it was late, and when he switched off the set he heard the wind turning the branches of the pines; he was reminded how far he had come from town and what a large slice of loneliness he might have bought himself, here.
He turned up the heat. The weather was still cool, summer still a ways off. He stepped outside and watched the silhouettes of the tall pines against the sky. The sky was bright with stars. You have to come a long way out, Tom thought, to see a sky like this.
Inside, he locked the door behind him and slid home the security chain.
The bed in the big bedroom belonged to him now but he had never slept in it, and he felt the weight of its strangeness. The bed was made in the same Danish Modern style as the rest of the furniture: subdued, almost generic, as if it had been averaged out of a hundred similar designs; not distinctive but solidly made. He tested the mattress; the mattress was firm. The sheets smelled faintly of clean, crisp linen and not at all of dust.
He thought, Im an intruder here
But he frowned at himself for the idea. Surely not an intruder, not after the legal divinations and fiscal blessings of the realty office. He was that most hallowed institution now, a Homeowner. Misgivings, at this stage, were strictly beside the point.
He switched off the bedside lamp and closed his eyes in the foreign darkness.
He heard, or thought he heard, a distant humming barely audible over the whisper of his own breath. The sound of faraway, buried machinery. Night work at a factory underground. Or, more likely, the sound of his imagination. When he tried to focus on it it vanished into the ears own night noises, tinnitus and the creaking of small bones. Like every house, Tom thought, this one must move and sigh with the pulse of its heat and the tension of its beams.
Surrounded by the dark and the buzzing of his own thoughts, he fell asleep at last.
***
The dream came to him after midnight but well before dawnit was three A.M. when he woke and checked his watch.
The dream began conventionally. He was arguing with Barbara, or bearing the brunt of one of her arguments. She had accused him of complicity in some sweeping, global disaster: the warming of the earth, ocean pollution, nuclear war. He protested his innocence (at least, his ignorance); but her small face, snub-nosed, lips grimly compressed, radiated a disbelief so intense that he could smell the rising odor of his own guilt.
But this was only one more variation of what had become the standard Barbara dream. On another night it might have ended there. He would have come awake drenched in the effluvia of his own doubt; would have rinsed his face with cold tap water and staggered back to bed like a battle-fatigued foot soldier slogging to the trenches.
Tonight, instead, the dream dissolved into a new scenario. Suddenly he was alone; he was in a house that was like this house, but bigger, emptier; he was lying on his back in a room with a single high window. There was a diffuse moonlight that illuminated only his bed and left the margins of the room in cavernous darkness.
Hidden in that darkness, things were moving.
He couldnt tell what sort of things they were. Their feet ticked like cats claws on the hard floor and they seemed to be whispering to one another in a high, buzzing falsettoa language he had never heard. He imagined elves; he imagined immense, articulate rats.
But the worst thing was their invisibilitycompounded by what he recognized suddenly as his own helplessness. He understood that the room had no door; that the window was impossibly high; that his arms and legs were not just stiff but paralyzed.
He strained forward, peering into the darkness
And they opened their eyesall at once.
A hundred eyes all around him.
A hundred disks of pure, pupil-less, bone-white light.
The whispering rose in a metallic, clattering crescendo
And he awoke.
Woke alone in this smaller, brighter, but still moonlit and unfamiliar room.
Woke with his heart pounding wildly in his chest.
Woke with the sound still ringing in his ears:
The hiss of their voices. The clatter of their nails.
***
Of course, it was only a dream.
The morning house was clean, hollow, blank, and prosaic. Tom paced from bedroom to kitchen listening to the unfamiliar shush of his feet against the broadloom. He put together breakfast, fried eggs and a bagel, and stacked the dirty dishes in the sink when he was finished. Bachelor housekeeping. Maybe the Genius Loci would clean up.
Yesterdays overcast had spilled away across the mountains. Tom opened the screen door at the back of the kitchen and stepped out into the yard. The lawn had been slashed down to stubble but was starting to grow back, as much weed as grass. No housekeeping elves out here. A stand of tall pine rose up beyond the margin of the yard, enclosing ferns and fallen needles in its darkness. An overgrown trail led away from the corner of the yard and Tom followed it a few paces in, but the trees closed out the sun and the air was suddenly chill. He listened a moment to the drip of water somewhere in this spongy wilderness. Archer had said the forest ran a long way back, that there was a cedar swamp behind the property. (Archer would know, Tom thought. Archer the car-stalker, trailblazer, rock-climber, truant these childhood memories had begun to freshen.) A damp breeze tickled the pale hair on his arms. A hummingbird darted up, regarded him querulously, and darted away.
He turned back to the house.
***
Tony called after lunch with another dinner invitation, which Tom could not gracefully decline. Come on over, Tony said. Well stoke up the barbecue. It was an order as much as an invitation: tribute to be paid.
Tom left the dirty dishes in the sink. At the door he paused and turned back to the empty house.
You want to clean up, go ahead.
No answer.
Oh, well.
It was a long drive to Tonys place. Tony and Loreen lived in the Seaview district, a terrace of expensive family homes along the scalloped bay hills south of town. The neighborhood was prestigious but the house Tony lived in wasnt especially flashyTony was very Protestant about overt displays of wealth. Tonys house, in fact, was one of the plainer of these homes, a flat white facade which concealed its real, formidable opulence: the immense plate-glass windows and the cedar deck overlooking the water. Tom parked in the driveway behind Loreens Aerostar and was welcomed at the door by the entire family: Tony, five-year-old Barry, Loreen with cranky eight-month Tricia squirming against her shoulder. Tom smiled and stepped into the mingled odors of stain-proofed broadloom, Pine-Sol, Pampers.
He would have liked to sit and talk awhile with Loreen. (Poor Loreen, Barbara used to say. Playing Tonys idea of a housewife. All diapers and Barbara Cartland novels.) But Tony threw an arm over his shoulder and marched him through the spacious living room to the deck, where his propane barbecue hissed and flamed alarmingly.
Sit, Tony said, waving a pair of tongs at a deck chair.
Tom sat and watched his brother paint red sauce over steaks. Tony was five years older than Tom, balding but trim, the creases around his eyes defined more by exercise and sunshine than by age. It would be hard, Tom thought, to guess which of us is older.
It was Tony who had come roaring out to Seattle like an angry guardian angelsix months after Barbara moved out; five months after Tom left his job at Aerotech; three months after Tom stopped answering his phone. Tony had cleared the apartment of empty bottles and frozen food wrappers, switched off the TV that had flickered and mumbled for weeks uninterrupted, scolded Tom into showering and shavingtalked him into the move back to Belltower and the job at the car lot.
It was also Tony who had offered, as consolation for the loss of Barbara, the observation Shes a bitch, little brother. Theyre all bitches. Fuck em.
Shes not a bitch, Tom had said.
Theyre all bitches.
Dont call her that, Tom had said, and he remembered Tonys look, the arrogance eroding into uncertainty.
Well you cant throw your life away for her, anyhow. There are people out there going on with their businesspeople with cancer, people whose kids were smeared over the highway by semi trucks. If they can deal with it, you can fucking well deal with it.
This was both unanswerable and true. Tom accepted the chastisement and had been clinging to it since. Barbara would not have approved; she disliked the appropriation of public grief for private purposes. Tom was more pragmatic. You do what you have to.
But here he was in Tonys big house beside the bay, and it occurred to him that he was carrying a considerable load of guilt, gratitude, and resentment, mostly directed at his brother.
He made small talk while the steaks charred over the flames. Tony responded with his own chatter. Tony had bought the propane barbecue practically wholesale from a guy he knew at a retail hardware outlet. He was considering investing in a couple of rental properties this summer. You should have talked to me about that house before running off half cocked. And he had his eye on a new sailboat.
This wasnt bragging, Tom understood. Barbara had long ago pointed out Tonys need for physical evidence of his worth, like the validations punched into bus tickets. To his credit, he was at least discreet about it.
The problem was that he, Tom, had no such validation of his own; in Tonys eyes, this must render him suspicious. A man without a VCR or a sports car might be capable of anything. This nervousness extended to Toms job performance, a topic that had not been broached but which hovered over the conversation like a cloud.
Tonys own reliability, of course, was unquestioned. When their parents died Tony had staked his share of the estate on a junior partnership in an auto dealership out on Commercial Road. The investment was more than financial: Tony had put in a lot of time, sweat, and deferred gratification. And the investment had paid off, handsomely enough that Tom sometimes wondered whether his own use of the same inheritancefor his engineering degree, and now the housewas ultimately frivolous. What had it bought him? A divorce and a job as a car salesman.
But he was not even a salesman, really. For now, Tony said, carrying the steaks in to the dining room tableTopic A surfacing at lastyou are strictly a gofer, a lot boy, a floor whore. You dont write up sales until the manager says youre ready. Loreen! Were gettin hungry here! Where the hell is the salad?
Loreen emerged dutifully from the kitchen with a cut-glass bowl filled with iceberg and romaine lettuce, sliced tomatoes, mushrooms, a wooden spoon and fork. She set down the bowl and went about tucking Tricia into a high chair while Barry tugged at her dress. Tony sat down and poured himself iced tea from a sweating jug. The steaks look wonderful, Loreen said.
Tom spent the salad course wondering what a floor whore was. Loreen fed Tricia from a jar of strained peas, then excused herself long enough to install the baby in a playpen. Barry didnt want the steak even after she cut it for him; Loreen fixed him a peanut butter sandwich and sent him out into the back yard. When she sat down again her own steak was surely stone coldTony had just about finished his.
A floor whore, Tony explained, was a novice salesman, viewed mainly as a nuisance by the older hands at the lot. Tony shook his head. The thing is, he said, Im already getting some flak over this. Bob Walkerthe co-ownerwas very much opposed to me putting you in this job. He says its nepotism and he says it frankly sucks. And he has a point, because it creates a problem for the sales manager. He knows youre my brother, so the question becomes, do I handle this guy with kid gloves or do I treat him like any other employee?
I dont want any special treatment, Tom said.
I know! Of course! You know that, I know that. But I had to go to the managerBilly Klein, youll meet him tomorrowI had to go to him and say, Hey, Billy, just do your job. If this guy fucks up then tell him so. If he doesnt work out, you tell me. This is not a featherbed. I want the maximum from this man.
Sure enough, Tom said, inspecting the greasy remains of the steak on his plate.
There are basically two things I want to make clear, Tony said. One is that if you screw up, I look bad. So as a favor to me, please dont screw up. The second is that Billy has a free hand as far as Im concerned. You answer to him from now on. I dont do his job and I dont look out for you. And he is not always an easy man to please. Frankly, he wouldnt piss down your throat if your guts were on fire. If it works out, then fine, but if notwhat the hell are you smiling at?
Piss down your throat if your guts were on fire?
Its a colloquialism. Jesus, Tom, its not supposed to be funny!
Barbara would have loved it.
Barbara would have repeated it for weeks. Once, during a phone call, Tony had described the weather as cold as the tits on a brass monkey. Barbara laughed so hard she had to pass Tom the receiver. Tom explained patiently that shed swallowed her gum.
But Tony wasnt amused. He wiped his mouth and slapped the napkin down on the table. If you want this job youd better think a little more about your future and a little less about your hippy-dippy ex-wife, all right?
Tom flushed. She wasnt
No! Spare me the impassioned defense. Shes the one who ran off with her twenty-year-old boyfriend. She doesnt deserve your loyalty and you sure as shit dont owe it to her.
Tony, Loreen said. Her tone was pleading. Please, not here.
Barry, the five-year-old, had wandered in from the backyard; he stood with one peanut butter-encrusted hand on the armoire and gazed at the adults with rapt, solemn interest.
Tom desperately wanted to be able to deliver an answersomething fierce and finaland was shocked to discover he couldnt produce one.
Its a new world, Tony said. Get used to it.
Ill serve the dessert, Loreen said.
***
After dinner Tony went off to tuck in Barry and read him a story. Tricia was already asleep in her crib, and Tom sat with Loreen in the cooling kitchen. He offered to help with the dishes but his sister-in-law shooed him away: Im just rinsing them for later. So he sat at the big butcher-block table and peered through the window toward the dark water of the bay, where pleasure-boat lights bobbed in the swell.
Loreen dried her hands on a dish towel and sat opposite him. Its not such a bad life, she said.
Tom gave her a long look. It was the kind of bald statement Loreen was prone to, couched in the slow Ohio Valley cadences of her youth. Her life here, she meant; her life with Tony: not so bad.
I never said it was, Tom told her.
No. But I can tell. I know what you and Barbara thought of us. She smiled at him. Dont be embarrassed. I mean, we might as well talk. Its all right to talk.
You have a good life here.
Yes. We do. And Tony is a good man.
I know that, Loreen.
But were nothing special. Tony would never admit it, of course. But thats the fact. Down deep, he knows. And maybe it makes him a little mean sometimes. And maybe I know it, and I get a little sadfor a little while. But then I get over it.
Youre not ordinary. Youre both very lucky.
Lucky, but ordinary. The thing is, Tom, whats hard is that you and Barbara were special. It always tickled me to see you two. Because you were special and you knew it. The way you smiled at each other and the way you talked. The things you talked about. You talked about the worldyou know, politics, the environment, whateveryou talked like it mattered. Like it was up to you personally to do something about it. I always felt just a little bigger than life with you two around.
I appreciate that, Tom said. In fact he was unexpectedly grateful to her for saying itfor recognizing what Barbara had meant to him.
But thats changed. Loreen was suddenly serious. Her smile faded. Now Barbaras gone, and I think you have to learn how to be ordinary. And I dont think thats going to be real easy for you. I think its going to be pretty tough.
***
Tony didnt apologize, but he came out of Barrys room somewhat abashed and eager to please. He said hed like to see the new house and Tom seized on the offer as an excuse to leave early. He let Tony follow him down the coast in the electric-blue Aerostar. Moving inland, up the Post Road and away from the traffic, Tony became a glare in Toms rearview mirror, lost when the car angled around stands of pine. They parked at the house; Tony climbed out of his van and the two of them stood a moment in the starry, frog-creaking night.
Mistake to buy so far out, Tony said.
I like the place, Tom offered. The price was right.
Bad investment. Even if the market heats up, youre just too damn far from town.
Its not an investment, Tony. Its my house. Its where I live.
Tony gave him a pitying look.
Come on in, Tom said.
He showed his brother around. Tony poked into cupboards, dug a fingernail into the window casements, stood up on tiptoe to peer into the fuse box. When they arrived back at the living room Tom poured his brother a Coke. Tony acknowledged with a look that this was good, that there was no liquor handy. Fairly sound building for its age, he admitted. Christ knows its clean.
Self-cleaning, Tom said.
What?
Nonothing.
You planning to have us out for dinner one of these days?
Soon as I get set up. You and Loreen and the whole tribe.
Good thats good.
Tony finished his Coke and moved toward the door.
This is as hard for him, Tom recognized, as it is for me.
Well, Tony said. Good luck, little brother. What can I say?
Youve said it. Thanks, Tony.
They embraced awkwardly. Ill look for you at the lot, Tony said, and turned away into the cool night air.
Tom listened to the van as it thrummed and faded down the road.
He went back into the house, alone.
The silence seemed faintly alive.
Hello, ghosts, Tom said. Bet you didnt do the dishes after all.
But the thing was, they had.

 
Copyright 1991 by Robert Charles Wilson