Short story from the 2012 issue.
By Andy Plattner
Two weeks after their daughter Rebeca left for college, Henry and his wife were seated on their living room sofa. They talked pleasantly about which DVD they wanted to watch. Henry heard a car pull into the driveway. The deadbolt at the front door turned. He tried to evenout his breathing. Rebeca walked into the living room, and she carried a suitcase in either hand. Before she had left for school, she had her hair cut short, a style from a Winona Ryder film. Rebeca lowered the cases to the carpet. I quit, she said. She smiled at them and shrugged.
It took a moment for Henry and his wife to lift themselves from the couch. They walked over to embrace her. After their embrace, Rebeca stepped back. She said, the taxi driver is waiting to be paid, Daddy. Outside, the taxi’s headlights were on and the engine was running. Henry went to the driver’s side window, which was rolled down. That’ll be a hundred and twenty-five, the driver said. Henry hesitated. The driver said, Hey, we drove from Pittsburgh. That’s a lotta twists and curves, buddy.
Later that night, Henry and his wife were in bed. Their bedroom was dark and Rebeca was down the hall, in her old room. The quiet voice of Henry’s wife said, Is she going to turn out like Christopher?
He said, No. He did not say another word.
His brother, Christopher, was ten years older than Henry. They both had grown up in Steelage, West Virginia, and when Henry was a little boy, still in grade school, Christopher had forsaken college so that he could fight in the Vietnam War. The evening before he was to be shipped to Fort Wright, Christopher had a terrific argument with his parents. His parents had a friend of a friend in the state capitol and they said they could still get him out of military service. Christopher explained that he had to fight. Christopher was over six feet tall and had wavy brown hair. His parents worshiped him. Once he was sent to Vietnam, his parents went to mass at St. Joe’s every morning. They always took Henry with them. Henry was just a small boy but he understood something was terribly wrong. Why wasn’t Christopher as scared as the rest of the family?
Christopher wrote postcards from Hanoi and eventually he took a bullet that shattered his collarbone. When he returned home, Christopher was thin and his teeth had turned gray. He moved stiffly. Everything that had been youthful about him was gone. At the dinner table, he told stories. For example, a soldier who everyone called the Musket Man would put the tip of his rifle into the anus of a captured, stripped-down Vietcong soldier. The prisoner would weep, beg for mercy or swear his revenge. If the prisoner did not give up information, the Musket Man pulled the trigger. Afterward, the prisoner was left for dead. Christopher openly smoked marijuana in the house. Both Christopher and Henry knew their parents were helpless. Christopher finally packed his duffel and hitched all the way out to Las Cruces, New Mexico, where some old war buddies of his lived. There, Christopher worked odd jobs and collected his disability pension.
Years later, Henry flew out to see Christopher, and though Henry was a grown man by then, he spent much of his time with Christopher talking about their parents. Christopher looked haggard. He was a recovering drug addict. His hands seemed big and bony and when he shook with Henry, Christopher’s skin felt cold. Henry asked Christopher to move back to West Virginia, but Christopher said it was too late for that. I was worshiped there once, he said. I knew it would be the end of me. Don’t you see? Henry and Christopher were seated in a diner not far from Christopher’s apartment and they had a booth by a window. Beyond the highway were yellow-gray hillsides, sparsely covered with trees. Christopher slowly raised one hand and this gesture made Henry think of a statue of a saint. Christopher said, After I left, you were everything. They gave you everything, so you’d never leave.
Why? Henry said.
Christopher shrugged. Just all they know, he said.
Henry wanted to make a joke and he said, I hope you are praying for me.
Christopher said, It wouldn’t help.
When their parents died in the automobile accident—they were on a simple Sunday drive to Morgantown for a fried chicken dinner— Henry phoned Christopher and arranged for him to fly home for the funeral. Christopher missed his scheduled flight, so he wasn’t at the church service. A taxi brought him to the cemetery. A priest was reading from the scriptures as the taxi drove away and Christopher began to walk up the hillside. On one side of the grave, mourners sat in rows of fold-out chairs. Christopher wore a denim jacket and blue jeans and his long hair was gray. Henry pictured George Harrison. For the first time since he had received news about his parents, Henry brought a hand up to his eyes and began to sob. Rebeca, who was in high school then, sat between her parents. She began to weep uncontrollably. She said, in whispers, Oh no, oh no. Her shoulders began to shake. Henry wiped clear his tears and then stared forlornly at the large caskets before him. His brother arrived at his side and took the open seat next to Henry. Rebeca continued to weep and Henry understood this was why he had not wanted to cry in the first place. He understood that Rebeca was crying because she had seen him cry.
There was no hope for either of them.
Christopher leaned over to Henry and Henry tilted close to him.
What’s wrong with her? Christopher said, in a whisper.
Henry reached his arm around his brother’s shoulder. He left it there for a moment. When he spoke, Henry said, in a firm voice, I’m glad I got to see New Mexico.
Henry’s father owned an insurance company and Henry had worked in the company since his late teens. In his father’s will, it stated that when Henry’s father died, the company must be sold. Henry would receive the proceeds. He was relieved. He hated the work. There was so much to keep track of. The company certainly would have gone broke with Henry running it and his father had understood as much. Henry sold his parents’ house, too, and talked with his wife about moving away from Steelage. But, her parents were still alive. The talks Henry had with his wife about moving astounded him. Where would we go? they asked one another. What would we do when we got there? Henry and his wife stayed in Steelage and he set up a trust fund for Christopher. A nice dividend check was sent to his brother in Las Cruces once a month. Christopher never called to thank Henry, and Henry was grateful for this.
After she dropped out of college, Rebeca tried her hand at different jobs and a variety of relationships. She moved away, back home, then away again. She became an alcoholic and she was able to get her hands on credit cards, usually because Henry would co-sign for her. He received a steady stream of statements and collection agency notices. Rebeca was 32 years old, when, one evening, she phoned her father from a motel in Newport News, Virginia. She said, Daddy, I know that you and mother adore me. I want to tell you that I don’t blame you for anything about how my life is turning out. I’ve been thinking about it for a long time now and I want to just move home for good. I have been away for a long time. How long has it been? I live with a buddy, her name is Sarah, and she’s volunteered to drive me to Steelage. But I’d rather fly. Can you send me a ticket? I think they have an airport here, but I’m not sure.
Rebeca spoke without pause, which was a tendency of hers, especially when she wanted something. Henry waited for a time and then he said, I will send you a ticket, but when you get home I want you to think about attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. Every day.
After a moment of silence, Rebeca said, Okay. All right. I know Ineed to.
He said, I’ll send you a ticket. Be careful, darling.
Rebeca moved in with her parents again and began to attend AA meetings. She watched television, drank coffee, smoked cigarettes and sometimes slept all afternoon. She lived in the same room she’d had when she was growing up. Henry understood that she would not try to get a job, so he began to give her $100 a week in allowance.
Some nights, Henry and his wife and Rebeca sat up and watched old black and white movies together. Or, Rebeca attended an evening AA meeting, then went out for coffee with her AA friends. Whenever Rebeca did this, Henry’s wife retired to their bedroom before he did. One night, Rebeca returned home a bit later than usual from one of these outings. Henry was by himself in the living room, right at the end of a James Garner comedy-western called Support Your Local Gunfighter. When the headlights from a car reached into his living room, he heaved himself forward, reached for the remote, turned down the sound. Rebeca stepped inside and he smiled and said, Howdy, pard.
She held a lit cigarette and carried a solemn expression. Her blond hair was long and thin and she wore lipstick.
Rebeca said, Obviously, we need to talk. Henry continued to smile and he switched off the set with the remote. Rebeca walked over to an armchair that faced the couch where Henry was seated. She sniffed once and said, First thing is, I don’t blame you for everything. Rebeca placed the cigarette in her mouth.
Oh, he said. Oh, all right.
I mean, look at me, she said. I can’t keep anything going. I can’t work, I didn’t go to college. I can’t keep a relationship. I can’t do anything.
Henry opened his hands and he said, You can do anything you want, sweetheart.
Rebeca took the cigarette from her mouth and pointed it in his direction. See, this is what I am talking about, she said. That kind of thing is not useful. It is not helpful at all.
You have been drinking, haven’t you? he said.
That’s right, she said. What are you going to do about it?
Henry shook his head and clasped his hands together.
That’s what I thought, she said. I called Sarah. Her old man is on the run again, so she has room. She’s driving up here to get me, be here in the morning. I keep trying to get away and get something started of my own. But it’s like I don’t know how. If I don’t try, I won’t have anything. She waved her hand in the air. Nothing can save us! And you, giving me an allowance! A hundred dollars a week. Like I am still in high school. Like I am some kind of beggar! Why can’t you set me up like you did with Uncle Chris? You love him more than your own daughter? What is wrong with you?
Henry said, I’m no good at this. He brushed at the knee of his trousers. He looked at her when he said, Jesus Christ, isn’t it obvious? He wished she wasn’t drunk, and that she would remember him saying it. He did not want to say this again. I am going to bed now, he said. He stood and, as he walked by the chair where she sat, he paused. Rebeca sat in a sprawled out way now, like a puppet without strings, and he took the burning cigarette from her fingers. She did not move.
Henry’s wife did not stir when he slipped into bed. He laid awake in their bed and tried to remember if he had an outlook as a boy and when it had begun to change. He pictured his brother walking up the path at the cemetery, in all that worn denim. Henry closed his eyes. He pictured himself as a boy and in his ears he heard the sounds of his parents voices, whispering prayers as they knelt on either side of him.
Henry said, I don’t want her to cry at my funeral. I don’t want anyone to.
If his wife was awake, he could not tell.
In the morning, Henry’s eyes fluttered open and in the driveway outside, there was the sound of a ragged car engine. His wife was lying next to him and he supposed her eyes were already open. Rebeca is going back to Virginia, he said. Henry watched at the ceiling as he spoke. He folded his hands over his stomach.
Will she need anything? his wife’s voice said.
She’ll call when she does, he said.
You always say that.
Henry did not want to snap at his wife. But he thought, Then why do you keep asking? He drew in a breath and said, It always is the truth. Outside, a car door closed. The sound of the car’s engine faded as it went up the street.
Do you love me? he said.
We’ve been over this, she said.
Outside, the street was quiet again. Henry understood that he was not going to leave the house at all today. It did not feel as if he would have the energy. In a while, he would walk downstairs. He was going to live the rest of his life in this house and he told himself not to worry about anything anymore.