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FOR THE FIRST NIGHT in months, Brother dreamed of the sea.
The great mother, Mem called it. She'd grown up on the coast, said sea dreams ran in the family. Which explained his dreams, she told him, and why a boy who'd never seen the ocean chased dolphins in his sleep, heard waves crash shores he never reached, woke shaken and soaked in sweat like something half-drowned.
"I swam with dolphins when I was a girl," she'd said. "They're good luck, you know." He did know. She'd told him many times. But last night's dream had been the same vain chase. The dolphin swam ahead of him, just out of reach.
He lay still, breathed deep, and let the dream ebb before opening his eyes. His head throbbed, and the glare from the window showed he'd way overslept. The clock said ten. Even at her sickest, his grandmother rose every day by five, before the sun dawned or the paper thwacked the front stoop. He'd wake to her filling the kettle, hear the scrape and creak of her chair, smell coffee brewing—things that had stirred him since he was three. Until today.
The dead silence jarred him fully awake. He rushed to her room, knocked without hearing any answer, knew before he saw her.
He sat on the bed beside her, took her cold hand in his. She looked upset, whether from pain or anger he couldn't have said. He'd come in late the night before and passed the dark under her door without looking in. Tired after a double shift, too much to drink, and a fight with Cole, he'd spaced her first and second life rules: Never assume anything and Pay attention, pay attention, pay attention.
At The Elms Rest Home where he and Cole worked, death visited more often than relatives. Jerry had been his first. Brother remembered the old man's utter stillness, his no-one-at-home stare. After that, the names and stony faces blurred. "Dying's what they're here to do," Cole had said once, eyeing two dementia patients who paced the locked ward all day, hand in hand. "You couldn't call that living."
Mem was different. Even dying, she'd been so alive. What-ifs crowded Brother's mind. What if he'd come straight home after work? Left Cole's early? Would she still be alive? He shut his eyes till his inner voices quieted, sat for a long while holding her hand.
When he calmed, he found the phone in the bedsheets, the battery dead. He righted the tipped-over lamp and picked up the spilled library books from the floor, along with a crossword book and yesterday's paper. Gideon Grayson scowled at him from the front page. That scoundrel, Mem called him. His eyes blazed with some fresh hatred. He pointed a scolding finger at the camera. Enough to scare a body to death, Mem had said. Her mother had kept house for the senator's parents when she was a girl, and Mem followed Grayson's career. Little tyrant even then, she told Brother, and not one bit changed, the way he butters the rich's bread, while sending poor boys like you to die in his sort's needless wars.
She'd hoped to get Brother to eighteen, some months away, before she joined her husband Billy, Brother's grandfather and her true love, killed in Vietnam before Brother was born. Our generation's war, she'd said, nodding at Billy's showy urn on her dresser. Every generation's got at least one.
Brother studied the urn, the seascape painted there so like his dream. His mother's simpler urn stood beside it, a robin's egg blue. He thought of the rainy night she'd left him and died, his father's identity dying with her. He'd been barely three when she yanked him from the car, thrust him with his belongings at the dumbstruck stranger—his grandmother, Mem. Don't argue, Mama. I'll be back tomorrow to explain. His last and only memory of his mother. Hours later a state trooper in a yellow slicker and black hat stood dripping on the stoop and delivered the gruesome news. Brother could still picture the man's long, serious face, the rain pouring off him, his cruiser's hard blue light spinning behind him at the road.
"Brother, Brother," Mem had said, shaking her head, after the trooper left. He was called Brother to avoid confusion, as Billy was his name, and his mother's and grandfather's too. "Brother, Brother," Mem said again, and thereafter whenever life disappointed, words failed. Gazing on her now, he said it to himself.
They'd known she was dying—last visit, the doctor said weeks. Still, Brother sat stunned on the edge of her bed, his thoughts morbid and drifting. He wished he'd pressed her more about his family, especially about his mother. But asking about either made Mem cry, so he'd learned early not to. And when her cancer returned, he skirted even everyday questions. "How are you?" invited answers he didn't want to hear, while "You look better today," let him believe what he liked. He was a genius at that.
"What in hell's happened to you?" Cole had yelled at him the night before. "Last year you were the smartest guy I knew, full of fire and plans. Now, you're like the zombies at The Elms. Check into the locked ward, why don't you? You've effing caved."
Brother couldn't argue; it was nothing he hadn't said to himself. Even so, it wasn't like Cole to be so negative or cruel, to lay into his best and only friend. He whined now and then, but mostly their late-night highs were relaxing and a release valve, both.
Like Brother, Cole had left school at sixteen. Before that, they'd run with different crowds, but fell in together studying for the GED. A drunk driver had killed Cole's parents, orphaned Cole and his kid brother, Jack. But if Cole's tragedy resembled Brother's, he wasn't one inch resigned, hadn't let it beat him down like Brother had. In spite of everything, Cole was upbeat and ambitious—if his plan to win big playing cards or the lottery and "rocket out of North-nowhere Carolina" could be called ambition. Yesterday something had changed though, something major; what, Cole wouldn't say.
Brother supposed he should call someone about Mem, but he couldn't make himself act—a fair description of his entire last year. He willed himself into the kitchen. Mem's foil-wrapped dinner plate sat untouched in the fridge, a small consolation. It meant she'd died before dinner, when he was working and couldn't have been home. He made a pot of coffee in her memory. He brewed it strong and black with a pinch of salt against bitterness, the way she liked it, how he would drink it now.
Afterward, he showered and dressed and walked the half mile up Sutter Highway to Warren Alfred's. The flat, stubbled countryside where he'd spent most of his life looked foreign to him. Time seemed altered, the day too bright. The red dirt might as well have been underfoot on Mars.
He stopped at Warren's mailbox and stood staring at it, reluctant to bear his news. Warren was a nice old guy. He was a widower, twenty years older than Mem and sweet on her, though she hadn't felt the same way. Resigned to Mem's friendship, Warren had kept a watchful eye on them as far back as Brother could remember. Mem's jobs—waitress, cashier—hadn't paid for much, but Warren worked forty years for the county, had benefits and a pension. He'd helped her get her disability and paid for things they couldn't afford: medicines, plants for her garden, her morning paper. He let Brother drive his car.
Brother thought of Mem alone and dead and nearly turned back, but Trooper started barking and clawing behind the door. To Trooper's glee, Warren opened it. The dog shot out as though sprung from a bow, a gray-and-white blur that nearly knocked Brother down. Trooper was Brother's dog, though he lived with Warren because of Mem's allergies. But Trooper loved Brother best of all, and this morning Brother was glad for his happiness, for the sheer dog joy in him. He smiled and squatted and let Trooper lick his whole face.
"Hey, True; hey, boy."
Warren shuffled out onto the stoop and motioned them in with a toss of his white head. Trooper, an Australian shepherd mix, had to herd Brother, make sure no harm came to him between the mailbox and the door. Today, as every other day since Brother was nine, the dog ran dizzying circles around him, shepherding his flock of one. By the time they reached the house, Warren had lighted a fire in the fireplace. He sat beside it, rocking back and forth, sucking on his pipe stem, scenting the air with cherry tobacco. Warren had a friendly quietness about him that Brother liked. Trooper paced the hearth rug between them, his ice-blue eyes fixing each of them in turn, as though asking an urgent question.
"Trooper stared and paced all night," Warren said, and then, "Mem's gone, isn't she?"
It was said in Schuyler, North Carolina, that Warren had a kind of knowing. No one took it too seriously or held it against him, both because his knowing seemed so matter-of-fact and he was the eldest elder of the Schuyler Baptist Church. When the subject came up, Warren said that any knowing he had was due to the restless way Trooper behaved when something of moment was about to happen. "That dog," he said, "has an instinct for change."
"Last evening sometime," Brother told him, settling in the second rocker.
Warren closed his eyes like he was praying, and Brother let the fire's warmth wash over him. He listened to it crackle and to the jingle of Trooper's license tags as he looked anxiously from one of them to the other.
"There's more change coming," the old man said quietly. "We're not done yet."
Brother eyed Trooper uneasily then. He was used to Warren's claim that Trooper's restlessness predicted things like sudden hail, record snowfalls, found money, or flat tires, but until today, he'd never heard Warren make any connection between the dog and anyone's death.
"I know," Warren said, divining Brother's thoughts. "An old man's fool ideas."
"That's not what I think," Brother said, though it was, more or less.
"Ordinary animal instinct, one hundred percent natural, scientific even. Remember those animals running to higher ground before that tsunami?"
Brother nodded politely. He'd heard this before. He knew animals sensed things people couldn't, but Warren was a missionary on the subject.
"Two hundred thousand people died when that wave hit," Warren went on, "but no animals. They sensed it coming and ran inland, ahead of that wave. Animals feel earthquakes before we do, too. And any child knows animals can smell and hear things people can't. Trooper's instincts are like that—an early warning system to tell you that conditions are ripe for change and consistent with instability and upheaval. I believe that's what he somehow reacts to. Gives us a chance to suit up."
"Suit up?" Brother said. This was new.
Warren nodded. "You know how I feel about Reverend Harvey's sermons?"
"About like Mem," Brother said, making a face. Missing the minister's blistering sermons almost made working Sunday double shifts at The Elms worthwhile.
"He gave one last week that made me sit up in the pew. Said most things that happen are over before we realize. And because they're past before we know what's hit us, we don't experience them while they're going on. Too many folks drift through their lives, experience things in memory after the fact, but that's not the same as being fully aware as things occur. That's been Trooper's gift to me. Being more awake as life happens. When he stares and paces, I listen harder; I open my eyes a little wider and notice more. I don't worry so much about what's going to happen, I just try to notice what does."
"Pay attention, pay attention, pay attention," Brother said.
Warren sighed. "I'm going to miss your grandmother."
"You knew, though. You said, ‘Mem's gone, isn't she?'"
"I guessed. Trooper kept me up pacing half the night, and then you show up looking like you'd lost your whole world. Plus she's been awful sick. One plus one plus one."
Brother nodded, like this made perfect sense to him, though it didn't really.
Warren set his pipe on the hearth and stood. "I'll phone Bayliss."
Melvin Bayliss ran the Schuyler Funeral Home, one of the few small businesses to survive the closing of the mills and the opening of the chain stores on the highway. With his raven-black hair, pale skin, and white shirt with black suit and tie, Bayliss was starkness personified. He had a black-and-white way of speaking too, and Mem said a metaphor would've seemed as odd as Aramaic in his mouth.
After Warren spoke over the kitchen phone for a few minutes, he sat down again in front of the fire. "He'll call when he's done. You got other kin?"
"Mem said she and I were it that she knew." Brother thought of his father, who, if alive, likely didn't know he'd fathered a child.
"We'll ask Bayliss. He's got a head for family lines, and experience locating kin. Dullness is an asset at times like this. You eaten?"
While they waited, Warren scrambled eggs with cheese and Worcestershire sauce and toasted thick slabs of his own homemade bread with butter, a vast improvement over Mem's frozen dinners and Brother's own cooking. Mem had learned nothing from her mother. Even when she was well, she and cooking were strangers, and she hadn't been much acquainted with housework either. Brother mostly did their chores. You've been cheated of your youth, she told him. You squandered it on a sick old woman. Maybe so, but he didn't relish going on without her.
After they ate, Warren added a log to the fire. He took the World's Smallest Harmonica, no bigger than half a stick of gum, from its small, so-labeled box. He put the instrument between his lips and moved it from eyetooth to eyetooth, playing "Amazing Grace" without using his hands, and truly, his playing was amazing. If Brother hadn't seen it, he'd never have believed it. Warren didn't miss a note, and it seemed a right remembrance for his grandmother. Trooper paced as Warren played, his tags accompanying the music like a revival tambourine.
"A fine duet, True," Warren said when he'd finished.
The whites of Trooper's eyes showed all round, and Brother thought the dog looked crazed.
Warren patted his head, and Brother remembered the day he and Warren had found Trooper in the hardware store parking lot, how Warren had let Brother name him. True's gray parts were the exact color of that state trooper's cruiser, the one who'd brought the news about his mother.
"After I phoned Bayliss, I took the liberty of calling the nursing home, said you were taking family leave."
"Thanks," Brother said. He'd completely forgotten his shift. His mind was mush.
"You thought about your future? What would happen after?"
Brother shook his head.
"Don't hurry to make decisions. You've got your GED and steady work, more than most have around here. You're a free man. A free man with a good dog. You've got a week left on your rent. After that, you can bunk here till you work things out."
"I appreciate that." Warren's solicitude eased Brother's mind. He didn't have the first idea what was next. He was tired, as tired as he'd ever been.
The phone rang—Bayliss, saying he'd collected Mem. "For her date with the Lord," Warren added, which made Brother picture a red convertible and Mem laughing like a girl as a long-haired, white-robed Jesus helped her into the front seat. Even at her age she'd been a striking beauty, everyone said so, with her easy laugh, silver braid, and large, interested eyes.
Mem had "prearranged" everything, paid Bayliss in advance years ago at the same time as her daughter Billie's cremation. She was adamant: no service. After the diagnosis, she went over this with Brother and Warren many times, making sure they understood what little she wanted following her "demise."
"I've got an emergency vestry meeting about termites," Warren said, "but you and Trooper can stay here by the fire."
Brother eyed Trooper, who had quieted for now. "Thanks," he said, rising, "for everything. But I think I'd like to go home."
Hearing the last word, Trooper's ears pricked and he shot, forever hopeful, to the door.
"No point in denying him now," Warren said. He went to the kitchen and returned with Trooper's bowl, two cans of dog food, and a bag of kibble. "Call if you need me."
Brother walked home in a daze, Trooper panting happily by his side. Once home, he filled the bowl with dry dog food, a stew pot with water, and left the kitchen door ajar so Trooper could go in and out. He got Mem's brandy from the kitchen cabinet, leaned in her doorway, and took long snorts while staring at her bed, empty now, stripped to the bare mattress.
The sound of someone sucking the dregs of a spent drink through a straw made him turn toward his own room. There, he found Cole's five-year-old brother, Jack, and the greasy trash from a fast food burger and fries in his bed.
"What are you doing here?"
Jack pointed to his cheeks full of food with the straw from the empty drink cup.
The boy shrugged.
Brother tried to remember if he'd agreed to anything the night before. He felt pretty sure he hadn't, but it was like Cole to presume, to drop off Jack with Mem or Brother for an afternoon, even a day or two. The night before, Cole had gotten as high as Brother had ever seen him. He'd warmed up razzing Brother, but then went on a tear about Jack. How he loved Jack, but he was owed his own life. How their parents dying wasn't his effing fault. That one day the little bugger might wake up and, brother or not, he'd be-the-hell-gone. Maybe he'd just pack up and park the kid with Brother—who had no life anyway, so what the hell? All of which he shouted with little Jack sleeping in the next room. Usually Jack slept like the dead through their noise, and thank God, because the walls were as thin as Cole's brotherly devotion. But last night Brother had turned to see Jack standing in the doorway, wide-awake and pissing his pajamas.
"Swallow, Jack, then tell me where Cole is."
Jack swallowed but took another bite.
Brother waited. Jack was a sweet kid, but like Cole he had a way of clamming up when someone wanted answers he didn't want to give.
"Where'd he say he was going?"
Again Jack shrugged.
"Tell me where Cole is."
"Or you'll tickle me till I puke?" Jack said, and laughed.
Brother set the brandy bottle on the floor. He went to the bed, grabbed Jack's ankles. "I'm not kidding."
Jack squealed like this was a fine game—which it usually was, one Jack loved—but Brother wasn't in the mood to play.
"Tell me, buddy."
"You're choking me," Jack said, laughing more.
"You can't choke somebody by the legs." Brother tightened his hold and looked Jack straight in the eyes. "Listen to me. I'm not playing today, you understand?"
Jack put his hands over his ears, shut his eyes tight, and started humming for good measure.
"I mean it, Jack. Take your hands off your ears and look at me. Something's happened. Something serious."
A sucker for a mystery, Jack's eyes popped open and he uncovered his ears.
Jack stared, processing this, for a long minute. "You mean, like Jeepers?"
Brother remembered the goldfish belly-up in its bowl, how Jack cried for Brother and Cole to "do something!" when nothing could be done. "Like Jeepers," he said, nodding.
Jack seemed to think on this. "Are we going to bury Mem in the backyard?"
Brother thought of the little funeral, Jeepers shrouded in tissue in a mint-tin coffin and laid to rest in the backyard as Brother, Cole, Jack, and Trooper looked on. Mem had read the Bible story of the loaves and fishes.
"Mr. Bayliss from the funeral home is taking care of everything. He came and got her."
Jack sat up, interested now, while Brother lay down and put one arm over his eyes.
"Is he going to bury her in the backyard?"
"No, he's not," Brother said.
"If you want, you could bury her next to Jeepers."
"Thanks, buddy. That's kind of you. So kind I know you're going to do me a big favor."
"Remember how bad you felt after Jeepers died?"
Jack bowed his head, nodded. "Yeah."
"Remember how much you cried?"
"And do you remember how we curled up in your bed and just let ourselves be sad?"
Jack nodded again.
"Do you think we could do that now? Take a little sad nap?"
"Will you buy me another cheeseburger?"
"You bet. But later, okay? When Cole gets back."
Jack seemed about to speak, but didn't. He turned to glance at something by the door. Brother followed his gaze. A little suitcase. What a day.
* * *
When Brother woke, it was dark and Bayliss stood over him like a giant vulture. "I phoned six times, got worried, and came over."
"I guess I forgot to put it on the charger," Brother said. "What time is it?"
Bayliss looked at his watch. "Eight eighteen."
Bayliss glanced at the empty brandy bottle on the floor and switched on the lamp beside the bed. "Still Wednesday. All day. Whose boy is that?"
Brother sat up suddenly, remembering Jack.
"He's fine, out back, playing with the dog," Bayliss said.
Brother heard Jack squealing as Trooper barked.
Bayliss's brows arched slightly. "They were eating dog food together when I came in."
Brother sighed. "Is Warren with you?"
"Warren's home with a sprained ankle."
"Fell off a ladder at the church. Asked me to check on you."
"How's he doing?"
"He'll mend. Why don't you splash water on your face while I make coffee? We need to talk."
Brother joined Bayliss in the small living room where he sat before two steaming mugs of coffee. The seascape urn belonging to Brother's grandfather stood between them on the table.
"We've encountered a couple of hitches," Bayliss said.
"What kind of hitches?"
"Before I get to that, you're sure you don't want any service? Reverend Harvey inquired."
"Mem said no."
"Well, begging your pardon, but she's gone and you're not. Sometimes a service lets the living say good-bye and feel that they've done right by their kin. Wouldn't be any charge."
Brother imagined the hidebound eulogy Harvey would deliver. For years, whenever the reverend's sermons expressed views opposed to Mem's own, she hadn't just sat silently and listened. "Don't just spectate, Brother: witness, question, think for yourself." Often, to Harvey's chagrin, she waited until he finished, then stood to politely offer rebuttal. Brother particularly remembered the Sunday Harvey preached on the evils of abortion to a nodding congregation. At the sermon's end, Mem rose in the pew and in her soft, old-lady voice told all present that considering the opinions just expressed, she knew the church adoption rate would rise tenfold in the coming year. She could attest to the joy these adoptions would bring, she said, and ignoring Harvey's glare, took her seat and wiped Brother's snot-crusted nose.
"God, no," Brother said. "She'd haunt me if I let Harvey have the last word."
Bayliss nodded. "I took the liberty of putting the notice in both state papers." He drew a typed page out of his breast pocket and offered it to Brother, who read: "Mem Grace, widow of the late Billy Grace and mother of the also late Billie Grace, died at home on March 23. She is survived by her grandson, Billy Grace.
"Don't know if I'm alive, dead, or my own grandfather," Brother told him.
"It's her precise formulation," Bayliss said defensively. "I never deviate."
"I was kidding."
Bayliss frowned, as if this were no time to joke. "If you didn't all have the same name—"
"Thank you," Brother interrupted. "It's just right. I'm a singular people now, anyway, a family of one. There's nobody to differ."
"Begging your pardon, but relations have a way of surfacing after a death," Bayliss said, "if only to find out if there's money coming."
"They'd be disappointed there." Brother thought of the ten in his pocket, all he had till payday, and his paycheck already owed.
"Even so, in my experience, when there's this much lacking in a family's past, there's a story there somewhere. Bringing me to what we need to discuss."
Brother nodded for him to go on.
"Before I came for your grandmother, I reviewed her directives in the file. She indicated that she wished her ashes to be placed in an urn similar to your grandfather's. I took the liberty of removing the so-described urn when I came earlier. I hope you weren't alarmed."
Brother shook his head. He hadn't noticed it was gone.
Bayliss eyed the urn on the coffee table as if it were a lovely girl. "Porcelain," he said, tipping it to show Brother a date and someone s illegible signature on the bottom. "Italian. 1672. Hand-painted. Probably wasn't made to contain cremains, but for a more general, decorative purpose."
"She didn't get it from you?" Brother asked.
"Oh no. I don't stock anything like this. No idea where she got it?"
Bayliss paused and looked around the sparse living room. "Forgive me, I don't know how you're fixed, but I took the additional liberty of sending a photograph of it to a colleague who knows something about antiques. He said he might be able to find something of a similar style and quality for as little as two thousand dollars."
"I understand. Normally, since they were married, I might suggest commingling the ashes of the two in the same urn, as many spouses do…"
Brother looked at him hopefully.
"But she was specific that they should be kept separate, besides which the urn's too small."
"Of course it is," Brother sighed.
"I'm happy to provide a simple urn, free of charge, as part of the original arrangement."
"Thanks, Bayliss, that's fine until I can manage something else."
The back door slammed, and Jack and Trooper raced nosily inside. Jack stopped short before Brother and looked at the urn, which Trooper sniffed.
"I'm hungry. Are there cookies in there?" he said.
"Ashes," Brother said.
"From a fire?"
"Can I see inside?"
"No," Bayliss said.
"I don't think he understands," said Brother.
Jack glared. "I understand a lot."
Bayliss cleared his throat. "Actually, you don't understand, Brother. The lid's fixed on with some kind of glue. It would take somebody who knew what they were doing to open it without damage, if it can be opened at all."
"Hah!" Jack said, and shot Brother a so-there look.
"For your grandmother, I have a simple urn in ash," Bayliss said, without irony. "No charge, as I said. And I'll be happy to tell my friend to keep his eyes open for something similar to the other one. Something reasonably priced."
"Thank you, Bayliss. Is that all?"
"Actually, that's the smaller of your problems."
"How many are there?"
"Time will tell," Bayliss said, and if Brother hadn't known Bayliss to be deadly serious in all things, he would have thought he was making fun, but he wasn't. He drew a wrinkled section of newspaper from his breast pocket and set it folded on his knees.
"When I came for your grandmother this morning, I found a newspaper on the bed."
"I saw it," Brother said.
"I guess you didn't look at it?"
He handed the paper to Brother, who saw Senator Grayson's angry, faultfinding face.
"I saw that too."
"But I guess you didn't look at the whole article?"
Brother shook his head.
"I did only because I opened the paper to wrap your grandfather's urn for transport."
"See for yourself."
Brother looked more closely, and underneath the senator's picture, read the headline: Senator Grayson Criticizes Press Coverage of Son's Overdose. Article, Section B, Page 1.
"Keep going," Bayliss said. "Front page, state section."
Brother turned to the page. At the top, under the headline, Senator's Son in Guarded Condition was a photograph of a boy—his school picture from the look of it—a boy who, except that he was well-rested, clean-shaven, and wearing a jacket and tie, was the spitting image of Brother. Someone had circled around the boy's head with a blue ballpoint pen.
"Did you draw the circle?" Brother asked Bayliss, though already he knew the answer.
Bayliss looked affronted. "I did not. I found the pen in the bedclothes. Must've been some shock, and sick as she was…" Bayliss stopped, but Brother saw what he meant.
Jack had been setting little pieces of kibble on Trooper's patient head, but the dog shook them off like so much rain, and Jack turned his attention to the newspaper. "Brother!" he cried, proving even a five-year-old could see the striking resemblance. "Why's your picture in the paper? Did you win the lottery?"
"No, buddy. And that's not me," Brother told him, staring at the caption underneath: Gabriel Gideon Grayson III. "But I'm pretty sure it's my brother."
Copyright © 2013 by Clay Carmichael