by Topper Lilien
Lester stood next to Carly at the end of the small pier. It was a brilliant August morning, and people were already on the beach—summer people from the city. She pulled the ashes from her bag, one of those ubiquitous straw numbers they sell in the markets in Provence, where she’d been living for the past twenty years. Lester studied her profile as she gazed out over the flat water. She still looked young, even though the past decade had been a disaster for her; she kept in shape by running daily, rain or shine, in the hills around the little perched village where she’d settled. Running was her way of holding things together—ten kilometers a day. The locals at first thought she was nuts, then an eventual begrudging respect took shape. The winters were brutally cold, the summers brutally hot, yet there she was, l’Américaine, her sneakers thwap-thwap-thwapping up the ancient narrow cobbled streets. Once the villagers understood the ferocity of Carly’s determination, they came to embrace her. They thought there was something French about it.
Lester stood next to Carly at the end of the small pier. It was a brilliant August morning, and people were already on the beach—summer people from the city. She pulled the ashes from her bag, one of those ubiquitous straw numbers they sell in the markets in Provence, where she’d been living for the past twenty years.Lester didn’t run; liquor was the glue with which he held his life together. He liked to think he looked young for his age, too, certainly not forty-six. He still had his hair, he was still thin, and he didn’t have any of the things that might brand him as middle-aged: no wife, no children, no mortgage. He also had no retirement, no savings, and no health insurance. And no job, for that matter. He scrutinized his sister, trying to figure out who was more of a fuck-up: her with her bitter divorce, her years in the French courts, losing her kid and all her money to her prick of a husband, or him, who’d never had anything to lose. He’d tried a number of things, each atrophying under the weight of his ambivalence: writing, selling real estate, two Internet start-ups, advertising, a couple of magazine jobs. He had no particular gifts, and the acceptance of this was something he’d begun to see as a sign of maturity. Some people’s lives added up—his somehow hadn’t. But it was still his life, and most of the time being eager to see where it led was enough to get him out of bed in the morning.
Today, the day after their mother’s funeral, his life had led him to the Greenport Municipal Pier at the public beach in Greenport Harbor, about a hundred miles east of New York City, where Lester still lived in the same cramped one bedroom he’d first rented right after college. Carly was staying with him; their mother’s funeral had been at the Unitarian church near the Upper East Side apartment where they’d both been raised. The last couple of days had been spent sorting through the family belongings, the heavy wooden antiques going to an auction house and everything else to Goodwill. And now they were finishing things.
They’d tried to dump the ashes on the Shelter Island Ferry but it had been too windy, every handful blowing back onto the decks and the lines of cars. It was Lester’s idea to find a pier on the North Fork—their mother had only specified Gardiner’s Bay, so this seemed to comply with her wishes. And it was certainly easier than braving the South Fork, which was much more crowded with vacationers and tourists. They found the pier after five minutes of driving, which Lester took as a good sign. It cut out into the water, past anchored sailboats and motorboats, past a floating swimmer’s raft, past the shallow water already filling with kids. They wanted to dump the ashes before the town lifeguards showed—they weren’t sure if this kind of thing was legal. They had about twenty minutes.
Carly held up what remained of their mother; on the ferry, she’d kept the ashes hidden, but there was no one around now.
“Let me see,” Lester said, holding out his hand. Carly hesitated, then gave him the bag.
He was surprised by how heavy it was. The ashes looked like the sand from one of those beaches in Hawaii—like something spewed from a volcano.
“What do you think that is?” Lester asked, pointing at a small white chunk the size of a large pebble.
Carly shrugged. “Bone,” she said. “Tooth?”
She was remarkably incurious; Lester had been reminded of this over the last few days, and he found it annoying. To him, everything was fascinating: the funeral home, the undertakers, the minister at the church, how people behaved at the little get-together after the service. And going through everything in the apartment—he found that fascinating, too. He never knew his mother had so many pairs of gloves, for instance. Dozens of them, most barely worn, if ever.
And the photographs, the love letters from their father who’d died when they were both young. The detritus of a life, all seeming as lifeless now, and as faraway, as the person who’d once lived it.
Lester told himself that his father’s death was why he had so much trouble doing anything. All that hard work, all those plans—where had it gotten him? It didn’t seem to matter what a person did: you could be an astronaut, you could live in a gutter and you’d still ultimately end up in the same place.Lester had been close to his mother, at first mainly because he’d stayed behind. And then, mainly out of guilt. Every Friday night, he took her to the same restaurant they’d gone to for years, a little brasserie off Lexington, where she enjoyed bullying the snooty little waiters in her bad French. She wore her ancient Chanel suits and her little old lady shoes, and they had carafes of the house wine, both of them drunk by the meal’s end, wobbling the five blocks back to her apartment. She’d always been a Francophile, which is why Carly had developed such an interest in things français. Their parents had settled in the Pyrenees for a few years after they were first married, only coming home when the money ran out. Lester’s father then took over the family business, a manufacturing company that made sliding doors and windows. The company grew until he sold it, comfortable enough to retire at forty, not much older than Carly was now. A year later, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer—he didn’t even make it to forty-two. Lester told himself that his father’s death was why he had so much trouble doing anything. All that hard work, all those plans—where had it gotten him? It didn’t seem to matter what a person did: you could be an astronaut, you could live in a gutter and you’d still ultimately end up in the same place.
He tested the heft of his mother’s ashes, passing the bag from hand to hand. “So now what?” he asked.
Carly shrugged again. He was really losing his patience with her, how she managed to diminish every moment. This was their mother! The woman who’d carried them, from whose womb they’d sprung, first him, then Carly five years later. Whoever would have thought this is where she’d end up? There was something far-fetched about it, maybe even funny.
“What I meant was,” said Lester, “should I just dump the bag, or you want to do something first?”
“I don’t know—a prayer?”
“We did that at the church.”
“Yeah, but…” It was useless to go on. She had no imagination, he decided, looking at her sharp little features, too chiseled to be delicate and too set to allow room for thoughtfulness.
“I’ll just dump them,” he said.
“Fine,” said Carly.
He took the bag by its corner and turned it upside down. A sudden gust of wind kicked up, sending whitecaps across the water, seizing the ashes as they fell, swirling them up into the sky, a small gray cloud that dissipated as quickly as it formed.
“Bon voyage,” said Carly, her accent perfect.
Later, as Carly drove them back to the city in the car they’d rented, Lester thought about how much money he was going to inherit. Insurance, trusts, stocks, the apartment – what else? He didn’t know enough about these kinds of things to venture even an educated guess, but he suspected he was rich now, even after splitting everything. He didn’t really care about money, but he still thought about all the things he might do now that it wasn’t an issue. Maybe he’d move to a bigger apartment. Maybe he’d travel. He could go to France, visit Carly. Then he thought about what that would entail—a passport, booking tickets, being in a place where he didn’t speak the language—and he decided he wasn’t interested: he’d never left the country and why start now? He could go to better restaurants, instead of eating most of his meals at the Greek luncheonette over on Third. When he took Carly there, she was appalled.
“You call this food?” she said, and Lester’s feelings had been hurt. What was the problem? They made a good burger; they had a liquor license. Plus, they all knew him and they never let him get too drunk, at least at lunch. They kept an eye on him; they were like family.
Carly talked about the tiny village where she lived: there were two Michelin-rated restaurants, one with one star, one with three. Even at the little cafe you could get a lovely meal. And the market in town: the most beautiful vegetables—and rabbit, for God’s sake.
Lester looked at her, surprised by how angry he was. Fuck you, he thought. Who’d want to eat a fucking rabbit?
* * *
Carly glanced at Lester as she drove back to the city. He was asleep, after insisting she stop at a 7-11, where he’d bought two tall cans of beer, not even good beer. It was barely noon, and there he was, drinking. At least he didn’t complain when she smoked. In fact, he commented on the smell of the Gitanes, how much he liked it. She thought about tobacco, one of her great pleasures, something she’d definitely have to stop now. She wondered if the same went for coffee—she probably drank four or five espressos a day. That would be tougher to quit, she suspected, especially in the mornings, at the cafe where she read the International Herald Tribune, her daily ritual. Was there a link between caffeine and breast cancer? Probably. And what about her diet? What would she have to stop there? Meat? Dairy? This made her sad as well, thinking of all those gorgeous French cheeses she so loved, how much she’d miss them.
She’d noticed the lump around Christmas and kept it to herself. It was small, maybe it wasn’t a lump, maybe it would simply go away on its own. When the lump got harder and more pronounced, she finally went to her doctor, an improbably handsome man a few years younger than she, in Avignon.She hadn’t told Lester about the lump in her breast, the biopsy that had come back positive, the lymph nodes they’d removed and that she was still waiting to hear about. She wasn’t feeling good about what the news held in store. She’d noticed the lump around Christmas and kept it to herself. It was small, maybe it wasn’t a lump, maybe it would simply go away on its own. When the lump got harder and more pronounced, she finally went to her doctor, an improbably handsome man a few years younger than she, in Avignon. She’d known him for a decade, but they were still both embarrassed when she burst into tears after he told her the lump was malignant. He gave her an awkward hug, the first hug she’d gotten from a man in years.
She wished she could have enjoyed it more.
The worst part was the drive. The hospital where all the procedures were to be done, where she’d probably have her treatment, was in Marseilles, and the A7 depressed her. All the dismal little industrial towns strung along the way reminded her what an illusion la vie provençale was, her village nothing but a fragile oasis in the middle of all the encroaching shit. But Marseilles was better than Paris, her other option. Her doctor assured her that the treatment would be just as good; she probably wouldn’t need chemo—if she was lucky, she’d get away with a lumpectomy and ten weeks of radiation. Some people, he told her, barely suffered any side effects at all. There was a chance she could handle everything on her own, that she could even keep up with le jogging.
While she was awaiting the results on the lymph nodes, Lester called with the news of their mother’s death. Carly considered skipping the funeral, but then she quickly realized her brother would just fuck it up, and there was no one else upon whom she could depend—no cousins, nieces or nephews, uncles or aunts, no friends even. So early the next morning, she drove the A7 down to Marseilles, where she caught a direct flight to Kennedy. It was the first time she’d been home in nearly ten years.
Lester met her at the airport; she almost didn’t recognize him—he was alarmingly thin, and he seemed to have grown shorter. Or maybe not shorter, but smaller rather, like something pickled. It was just the drinking—his entire complexion had gone ruddy, like someone who’d fallen asleep under a sun lamp. From a distance, in his blazer and blue oxford shirt, in his loafers sans socks, wearing what their mother would have referred to as white ducks, he looked like a yachtsman. Up close, however, he looked like one of those pampered drunks who boozed their summers away on the yacht club porch. But he’d thrown his arms around her as she came out of customs—the second hug she’d gotten from a man in as long as she could remember—so glad to see her that she forgot about his appearance and found herself unexpectedly overjoyed to see him, too. That evening, after a long dinner in the French restaurant where he’d always brought their mother, where the waiters seemed suspicious of her French, but where the food was comforting to her, halfway decent—especially the escargots she’d had as an appetizer and the homemade pear sorbet she’d had for dessert—she decided to stay with him, rather than in the big empty airless apartment where they’d both grown up.
His place was in the east 20’s, not really Murray Hill, not really Kips Bay or Gramercy Park, more a non-neighborhood even the real estate people couldn’t figure out how to spin. It was small, in need of a good cleaning, and noisy, but Carly was happy to not be alone, and touched when Lester insisted she take the bedroom and he the living room couch.
She’d lain awake most of the night, jet-lagged, her fingers periodically prodding her breast, the lump familiar to her now, part of her, yet separate at the same time, something with an agenda all its own. She couldn’t imagine why she hadn’t told Lester about her cancer—the timing hadn’t seemed right when they went to look at their mother’s apartment, nor had it seemed right at dinner, especially with Lester reminiscing about all the meals he’d had with their mother at the very same table where they were seated now. Carly tried to understand why it felt so awkward: she was his sister, after all. And then a different thought struck her—why tell him at all? Wouldn’t that simplify everything? She realized she didn’t want to have to go into all of it, the treatment, the prognosis, the French doctors. She knew he’d want her to get treated in the States, at Sloan, where their father’d been treated, where they knew the hospital director. The more she thought about it, the more she realized that even though Lester was her brother, the man sleeping on the couch on the other side of the wall was a stranger. She looked around his bedroom—the flat screen TV, the shelves filled with the same books he’d had in college, books he had probably never read, the frumpy hand-me-down furniture from their parents’ apartment, the two framed Edward Curtis photographs on the wall, posters, not originals—and she knew she’d keep her cancer to herself. Especially if she wanted to get out of there as quickly as she realized she probably would.
Carly and her mother hadn’t spoken much since Carly had left the States; there were a couple of disastrous visits, Carly’s mother not approving of her French-Tunisian husband, refusing to buy that he was Jewish, disparagingly referring to him as an Arab behind his back. And when they were divorced, when he took everything he could from Carly, including their three-year-old daughter, her mother had proclaimed it good riddance: now she could come home and find a real husband. The fact that he took everything only reaffirmed her mother’s beliefs: You couldn’t trust Arabs. You couldn’t trust a Jew, either, nor could you trust a Frenchman, even though the French culture was magnifique.
Carly never told her mother the reason he’d been so vindictive—that he’d caught her in bed with their upstairs neighbor. This was something Carly still had trouble believing she’d done—though at the time she’d felt it was very sophisticated, worthy of a great novel. But when everything fell apart, there was no Emma Bovary arsenic for her, no Anna Karenina train: she just wanted to be left alone. She briefly considered moving back to America, then fled Paris for the south of France. Her daughter, Anique, was sixteen now; she’d come down for summers until she was twelve, then village life got boring for her. But they talked often on the phone, making plans for all the exotic places they’d go together—to Africa, to the Far East and China, to the remotest corners of Patagonia—trips they both knew they’d never take.
Even if Carly hadn’t been jet-lagged, she wouldn’t have slept easily. There was something about having cancer growing in you that she felt sleep might enable. If she stayed awake, she could fight it. It was like the palm roaches in Provence, or the rat that got into her kitchen cupboards: she never saw them during the day. She knew it was silly, but so were a lot of things. For instance, all the ridiculousness at her mother’s memorial service at the church, the Bible reading. Carly had lost herself studying the minister, a ghost of a man with a surprisingly deep voice, wondering how anyone with any intelligence could buy into all the fairy tales. Carly didn’t want to die, but she wasn’t going to lie to herself just because she was afraid—heaven, St. Peter, eternal life. She was sad because she knew that when it was over, it was over, one piddling little shot of which she’d not taken any advantage. There were billionaires, great artists, leaders of mankind—Christ, even an idiot accomplished more than she had. How had she squandered so many decades?
She daydreamed about having someone in her life who’d tell her she hadn’t failed. Wouldn’t that be lovely? Some tender voice pointing out all the things she’d done. She spoke fluent French, didn’t she? And she’d run marathons and triathlons. And, and… She really had to think hard. Her eyes grew heavy, and she drifted off.
* * *
Lester woke up early these days—sick, heaving, shaking and gasping. Many mornings, he started the day throwing up, dry-heaving generally, but still it was an inconvenience. He kept a bottle of vodka in the medicine chest above the sink in the bathroom. He didn’t know whether Carly had found it, but it was too late to worry about that at this point. If he had a few shots in the middle of the night, the mornings weren’t too much of a problem. And he slept better.
He didn’t much care for the sex, either—it was a responsibility, a quid pro quo system the intricacies of which he could never quite figure out. What he liked better were prostitutes—nowadays, anyway. He’d even gotten it to a more basic level: what he liked were massage parlors.He didn’t like to think about his drinking. It depressed him at moments, made him ashamed. But there were also times he loved it—walking up First Avenue, for instance, eight AM, the clarity of the light as rush hour buzzed around him, everything filled with hope and good cheer. One day, he would quit—the same day he’d start getting into shape, the same day he’d change his eating habits and put a budget together to live by. He’d started drinking in college—it made him feel comfortable around women, if he cared to admit it. If he had enough drinks, he could be charming and funny, and the things that came out of his mouth sounded half-intelligent. For years it worked: he always had a woman in his life—a woman he could be proud of. Good-looking women, none of whom he particularly liked. He didn’t much care for the sex, either—it was a responsibility, a quid pro quo system the intricacies of which he could never quite figure out. What he liked better were prostitutes—nowadays, anyway. He’d even gotten it to a more basic level: what he liked were massage parlors. In the last month, he’d become obsessed with a Korean girl at a joint over on 32nd Street. She’d let him have anal sex with her, but she wouldn’t let him kiss her on the lips. The thing with hookers: he didn’t have to make them come—and he could come anytime he wanted, usually almost immediately. So what? The girls were happier that way, it was less work for them. Plus, he tipped well so they always fussed over him. He was the ideal John. He laughed: it sounded like a toilet—a green toilet, the toilet of the future, where all your shit would just simply disappear.
He lay awake, watching the waves of light thrown up his wall and across the living room ceiling by the traffic on the avenue. He was looking forward to his rendezvous with the Korean girl. He’d fuck her, then go downstairs and have some bibimbap. It didn’t seem extravagant— there were always leftovers to bring home. And as for the girl, he saw her every Monday, then spent the rest of the week thinking of her as he jerked off. So that was money well-spent, too.
The booze was making it tough to get a hard-on though; it had been awkward last week, him lying on his back on the masseuse table, Jeon pulling at his pud till he was afraid her skinny little arm would fall off. He paid her and tried to leave, but she insisted on sex: she didn’t want to lose the ideal John as a customer. She finally got him hard with her mouth. He thought about how many men she saw a day; he was always careful not to touch anything in the room. As she was going down on him, he noticed a wadded-up Kleenex under the sink—and was surprised to find that it aroused, rather than repulsed, him. Was it the thought of other men fucking her? His tastes in pornography always featured cocks: guys fucking women, never lesbian sex or women jerking off. And the cocks had to be nice-looking. So did the guys they were attached to: no paunches, no love handles, no hairy backs or grotesquely receding hairlines. And he always liked a good cum shot, though not necessarily a facial. He liked to see a guy come on a woman’s tits, actually. So maybe that’s why the Kleenex excited him somehow. Now that he thought back on it, the Kleenex was what helped him get hard. He laughed again. What would his shrink say to that?
Maybe soon he’d have to make a decision—quit sex or quit drinking. He wondered which it would be. Probably sex.
Lester thought about his mother, and decided he wouldn’t miss her. Or, rather, that he missed her already as much as he was ever going to. She had not liked him—she hadn’t really liked anyone. The only reason she tolerated Lester was because she liked having someone to drink with. Drinking with her had been a chore, because it always unleashed her rants—about Carly, about Arabs, Jews, the French. Carly was the one she loved. It was so obvious. Carly was the one his mother had really had hopes for.
* * *
It was drizzling in the morning. Carly lay in bed—she had nothing to do, nowhere to go until the day when they were to see the estate lawyer. She listened to Lester in the bathroom, running the shower as he gagged and retched. She grew concerned as it went on, calling out his name, but either he couldn’t hear or he was ignoring her.
And then she remembered her cancer—it was always this way, a few minutes when she first awoke, free of worry, and then it would hit her, a jolt. She’d try to analyze what she was truly afraid of if the cancer was going to kill her. Was it the pain? Was it never seeing all the places she loved again? Maybe. She wasn’t sentimental, but lately all kinds of things had been affecting her. On the plane, for instance, some movie with Sandra Bullock in it, dubbed into sloppily-translated French. Even so, she’d sobbed, and then had to spend forty minutes in the bathroom, trying to pull herself together.
Was it not seeing Anique again? The last time they were together, they’d watched American TV on the satellite, Carly translating everything, the two of them laughing and laughing—and then Anique had fallen asleep on the couch with Carly awake, looking closely at her, looking for the child she’d once held in her arms. Shit—the child she’d once carried in her belly. And Carly couldn’t find her. Or she couldn’t remember what she was looking for. The truth was that Anique looked more like her father, and looking at her made Carly think of her ex-husband, something she tried never to do. She wanted to think that Anique was hers and hers alone, no father, just a mother.
When the call came from her doctor in France, she looked at the number flashing on her cell phone’s screen a long time before answering, not sure if she felt like hearing bad news, if that’s what it was going to be. For a brief second, she considered not answering at all, that maybe by ignoring it, the disease would go away, but curiosity got the best of her: she took the call.
* * *
Once, when Carly and Lester were young, her five to his ten, he’d saved her from drowning, jumping into the pool, her little friends watching in shocked silence. He’d been wearing a blazer and a tie—that’s what Carly remembered most, how ridiculous he looked as he marched to the changing rooms afterwards, a trail of wet footprints in his wake.Once, when Carly and Lester were young, her five to his ten, he’d saved her from drowning, jumping into the pool, her little friends watching in shocked silence. He’d been wearing a blazer and a tie—that’s what Carly remembered most, how ridiculous he looked as he marched to the changing rooms afterwards, a trail of wet footprints in his wake. And then she’d felt guilty for thinking this—he had just saved her life, after all. She had bragged for weeks that she’d learned how to swim over the winter; when no one believed her, she convinced herself it was true and dove into the deep end of the pool.
She remembered thrashing about. She remembered the brilliance of the summer’s day, the deep blue of the sky, the smell of the mown grass on the yard behind them, the sunlight glistening over the surface of the water.
She was underwater. Refracted rays of light oscillated on the pool’s bottom. Everything was silent and mysterious—and then she was on the surface of the pool, panic propelling her there, lifting her. Splashing, coughing, her friends frozen poolside.
Down she went again, time expanding as she gulped water into her desperate lungs, the silent calm beneath the surface malevolent now, a place to be afraid of. And she was afraid.
Terrified, so much so that she was able to rise again, to get her head above the surface, not long enough for air, but long enough to see Lester running from the Clubhouse and leaping over pool furniture. She missed him jumping in—she was already back under. He dragged her up, a matter of a few measly feet, and hauled her to the side.
When she asked him about it years later, he didn’t remember the details—he thought it had been at the bay, in a lake, maybe. And he didn’t remember what a close call it had been. Where were the adults? The lifeguards, the babysitters? Where were her friends, some of whom knew how to swim?
The doctor in Avignon spoke loudly into the phone, as if the distance between them made this necessary, slowing his French so Carly would understand everything he was telling her. The lymph nodes were clean, so she’d only need a lumpectomy and a course of radiation. He didn’t think chemo was necessary, but that was up to her. The main thing was to get the lump out, then start with the radiation right away.
Lester was coming out of the bathroom just as Carly hung up the phone. She’d gotten out of bed after answering, and the bedroom couldn’t accommodate her pacing—so she was in the living room, moving from the windows to her bedroom door and back again.
She and Lester looked at one another, then Carly broke down and started sobbing. He watched awkwardly for a few moments, then wrapped her in his arms. She let herself go, big heaving sobs, gasping for air. He thought she was crying about their mother.
* * *
Two days later, Lester was antsy for Carly to go. He wanted to be back in his own bed, he wanted to act as he did when he was alone, which was most of the time. To eat bad food, to fart loudly, to have the TV on and the CD player, too, to not do his dishes, and to leave his dirty clothes on the floor. She’d started making remarks about his drinking, very interested, it seemed, in whether he’d seen a doctor lately. He suspected it had something to do with the reading of the will, which was scheduled for the following Monday—they still had a weekend to get through together.
To make matters worse, Carly had become restless—wanting to go out, to see the city, go to galleries, to plays and movies, to go shopping. He couldn’t understand what had come over her. On Saturday she dragged him to the Metropolitan, a place he hadn’t been to in over a quarter of a century. She crowed over the Yuan Dynasty porcelains, Lester wondering what she saw that he couldn’t: they all looked the same to him—like something you could buy in those grubby little gift shops on Canal Street.
Chinatown got him thinking of Koreatown, how a little visit to his favorite massage parlor might be a way to salvage the day. What he wanted to do first was go back to the apartment and see if it was worth his time, if he could get a hard-on—but he couldn’t really do that if Carly was there. Maybe a simpler solution would be to have a few drinks.
But when he tried to leave, somewhere deep in the Egyptian wing, Carly had looked so crushed, he’d stayed, trying not to look sullen as he trailed her from room to room to room.
In the gift shop, she impulsively bought him an expensive little replica of an Etruscan sculpture, a bronze horse, its back arched, its geometry all out of whack, strangely modern.In the gift shop, she impulsively bought him an expensive little replica of an Etruscan sculpture, a bronze horse, its back arched, its geometry all out of whack, strangely modern. It was the last thing Lester wanted in his apartment—he thought it looked like something he’d once seen in a shrink’s waiting room—but Carly insisted, a house present for letting her stay with him. He tried to stop her, telling her it cost too much.
“Lester,” she said, “we’re rich now.” She laughed as she said it, her eyes sparking in a way he’d never seen before. He wondered if she was bipolar—and then felt guilty for thinking this, guilt that quickly turned to sadness. He began to wonder if he was bipolar.
This sadness had been happening a lot lately, wild swings for the most ridiculously unlikely reasons: a mother walking a six-year-old boy home from school—why had that made him want to break down and sob? The child’s uncluttered optimism? The bond between a mother and her son? Lester didn’t know—he didn’t even like kids. Or mothers, for that matter.
Or how about that doorman holding a cab door open for an old man with a walker—what prompted that wave of sorrow? A man opening doors for a living? Or maybe a man no longer able to walk unaided?
He realized he hadn’t had a drink in almost two hours. That could be the problem. He used to carry little airplane bottles of vodka for moments like these, but stopped because he still had some pride. He thought about a flask. Maybe he’d see if he could find one online.
He brightened, realizing the museum had a wine bar. He told Carly he wanted to buy her lunch.
The food was good; he let her pick the wine, which she knew a great deal about—two very pricey bottles of Beaujolais. Carly had a glass, Lester had the rest, and he felt much better.
He looked at her as she chatted on and on, wondering if she weren’t his sister would he want to fuck her. She really wasn’t that bad looking; she had nice breasts, and he liked her neck and he thought her hands had a strange awkward elegance about them. He tried to imagine her having sex, then stopped himself: it was too perverse. The truth was, he couldn’t imagine anyone having sex—there was something grotesque about it. But then he had to wonder why he liked pornography so.
He wondered if Carly would ever have another husband—shit, another boyfriend. It wouldn’t hurt that she actually was rich now. He wondered if her crying the way she had the other day was something she did often. Labile was the word that came to mind: he wondered if she were labile. He wondered if labile had the same root as labia, which got him thinking about a visit to Koreatown again. He poured himself another glass of wine and concentrated on his drinking.
* * *
After lunch, Carly wanted to go shopping, something she hadn’t done in as long as she could remember. She’d decided she wanted new clothes: she wanted to look beautiful, she wanted to be noticed. She knew when she got back to the Luberon, she’d have no use for them, that her neighbors, seeing her dressed up, would be more suspicious of her than they already tended to be—but she wanted to spend her last days in New York looking glamorous. She wanted to fly home looking glamorous. She wanted new luggage, new shoes, sunglasses.
Lester said he was tired from all the walking; she let him leave, then set off down Madison Avenue.
At Barney’s, she stood in the dressing room, a pile of clothes to try on behind her—and stared at herself in the three-way mirror, the gauze bandage still covering where they’d taken lymph nodes out.
She unclasped her bra, letting the straps slide off her arms, the bra falling to the ground, her breasts casting shadows on her flesh in the overhead light, her reflection going on forever.
* * *
On Monday, they went to the lawyer’s offices, Carly in a new dress, with her new haircut and sunglasses, and Lester in a foul mood—they’d overslept, then the trains were snarled, running to midtown, and it had taken them forever to get a cab.
Somewhere, he hadn’t changed, he was still who he’d always been, and it filled her with a strange comfort and joy. She knew that once she got on her plane, in less than 24 hours, she could count the number of times she’d ever see him again on one hand—but for this moment, here they were, Carly and Lester, a sister and a brother.The lawyer, a lipless man with thin white hair over a bright pink scalp, read the will: they were rich, more money than either had imagined. Lester was begrudgingly impressed by how sharp Carly was, asking about how to keep the money from being taxed into oblivion, if there were bonds they could put it into, trusts. A notary came, and various papers were signed, and they were done by early afternoon.
They had reservations at the French restaurant by their mother’s, a symbolic choice, a final goodbye—but they still had hours to kill. Carly wanted to go back to Lester’s apartment and pack for her flight, and Lester wanted his nap, the nap he took every afternoon so he could get up and start drinking again, so they headed back downtown.
The day had turned humid, Lester’s shirt drenched with sweat as they walked, Carly imagining his pores opening up and purging themselves. He stopped at a deli and bought two bottles of beer—good beer, a bottle for him and one for her, each in its own brown bag, each with a straw. They walked in silence, slowly sipping.
Carly’s thoughts drifted to her mother. It seemed strange she wasn’t around anymore; it hadn’t fully hit her until they’d left the lawyers: she was dead.
“Poor Mom,” she said aloud, without meaning to.
“We’ll all be there soon enough,” Lester said.
“I suppose we will,” said Carly. She looked at her brother. The way the sunlight caught his profile, he looked like a young man for an instant, a boy even—as he had when they were kids: head thrust forward, in an inexplicable hurry to get wherever he was going, oblivious to everything else. It used to annoy her, but on this day her heart went out to him. Somewhere, he hadn’t changed, he was still who he’d always been, and it filled her with a strange comfort and joy. She knew that once she got on her plane, in less than 24 hours, she could count the number of times she’d ever see him again on one hand—but for this moment, here they were, Carly and Lester, a sister and a brother.
He turned, catching her staring at him, an odd smile on her face. “What?” he said.
She shook her head. “Nothing,” she replied. And she took his hand, leading him home.
* * *
This piece won one of the AWP’s Intro Journals awards for fiction in 2011, and was published in Controlled Burn.