Authors: John Searles
Tags: #Fiction, #General
This story is for Thomas Caruso
ALMOST FIVE YEARS AFTER RONNIE CHASE'S DEATH, THE PHONE
rings late one windy February evening. Ronnie's older brother, Philip, is asleep on the foldout sofa, because the family room has served as his bedroom ever since he moved home from New York City. Tangled in the sheetsâamong his aluminum crutch, balled-up Kleenexes,
, three remote controls, and a dog-eared copy of an Anne Sexton biographyâis the cordless phone. Philip's hand fumbles in the dark until he dredges it up by the stubby antenna and presses the On button. “Hello.”
A faint, vaguely familiar female voice says, “Philip? Is that you?”
Philip opens his mouth to ask who's calling, then stops when he realizes who it is: Melissa Moody, his brother's high school girlfriend. His mind fills with the single image of her on prom night, blood splattered on the front of her white dress. The memory is enough to make his mouth drop open farther. It is an expression all of the Chases will find themselves wearing on their faces in the coming days, beginning with this very phone call. “Missy?”
“Sorry, it's late. Did I wake you?”
Philip stares up at the antique schoolhouse clock on the wall, which has ticked and ticked and ticked in this rambling old colonial for as long as he can remember, though it never keeps the proper time. Both hands point to midnight, when it's only ten-thirty. Back in New York City, people are just finishing dinner or hailing cabs, but here in the Pennsylvania suburbs, the world goes dead after eight. “I'm wide awake,” Philip lies. “It's been a long time. How are you?”
“Okay, I guess.”
He hears the steady whoosh of cars speeding by in the background. There is a thinly veiled tremble in her voice that tells him she is anything but okay. “Is something the matter?”
“I need to talk to you and your parents.”
If she wants to talk to his father, she'll have to track him down in Florida where he lives with his new wife, Hollyâthe woman his mother refers to simply as The Slut. But Philip doesn't bother to explain all that, because there is too much to explain already. “What do you want to talk about?”
Before Missy can answer, his mother's heavy footsteps thunder down the stairs. A moment later, she is standing at the edge of the foldout bed, her worn-out white nightgown pressed obscenely against her doughy body. A few nights before, Philip had caught the second half of
on cable. Now he thinks of the scene where Kathy Bates bares all before getting in the hot tubâthis moment easily rivals that one. He shifts his gaze to his mother's curly gray hair springing from her head in all directions like a madwomanâwhich is fitting, because to Philip, she
a madwoman. “Who is it?”
“Hold on,” Philip says into the phone, then to his mother, “it's Missy.”
“Melissa? Ronnie's girlfriend?”
And then there is that expression: her eyebrows arch upward, her mouth drops into an O, as though she too has been spooked by the horrible memory of Melissa's prom dress splattered with Ronnie's blood. “What does she want?”
He gives an exaggerated shrug, then returns his attention to Melissa. “Sorry. My mom just woke up and wanted to know who was on the phone.”
“That's okay. How is she anyway?”
All the possible answers to that question rattle around in his mind. There is the everyday fact of his father's absence, his mother's binge eating and ever-increasing weight, her countless pills for blood pressure, cholesterol, anxiety, and depression. But all he says is, “She's fine. So what do you want to talk to us about?”
“I'd rather tell you in person. Can I come by sometime?”
“When would be good?”
Philip thinks of his life in New York, the way he asked perfect strangers over to his camper-size studio in the East Village at all hours. The buzzer was broken, so he had to instruct each one to yell from the street. “How about now?” he hears himself say into the phone.
“Now?” Melissa says.
He waits for her to tell him that it's too late, too dark, too cold. But she takes him by surprise.
“Actually, I've waited too long to tell you this. So now sounds good to me.”
After they say good-bye, Philip presses the Off button and tosses the cordless back into the rumpled mess of the bed. The skin beneath his cast itches, and he jams two fingers into the narrow pocket of space just above his kneecap, scratching as hard as he can. His mother stares down at him as an onslaught of questions spill from her mouth like she's regurgitating something and she cannot stop: “Aren't you going to tell me what's going on? I mean, why the hell would that girl call here after all this time? What, she doesn't know how rude it is to phone someone so late? For Christ's sake, aren't you going to answer me?”
Philip quits scratching and pulls his fingers free from the cast, which looks more like an elongated ski boot with an opening for his bruised toes at the bottom, instead of the plain white casts kids used to autograph when he was in high school only a decade ago. “If you shut up for a second, I'll answer you.”
His mother crosses her arms in front of her lumpy breasts, making a dramatic show of her silence. The other night he'd watched
Inside the Actors Studio
and one of those actresses with three names (he could never keep track of who was who) had talked about playing her part for the back row of the theater. That's how his mother has gone through life these last five years, Philip thinks, her every move broad enough for the people in the cheap seats.
“She wants to talk to us,” he says.
“I don't know. Whatever it is, she's going to tell us in person.”
“Now? She can't come over now. It's the middle of the night.”
“M,” he says. The letter is a nickname Philip has used for her ever since he moved home one month ago. She's never questioned it, but he assumes she thinks it stands for
. By now you might realize that it stands for that other
. His own private joke. He goes on, “Two
. is the middle of the night. Technically, it is still early evening. In New York, people are just finishing dinner.”
At the mention of the city, she squeezes her lips into the shape of a volcano and shoots Philip a disgusted look. It makes him think of the only time she came to see him there, after the police called to tell her that he was in the hospital. She took Amtrak in. His father caught a JetBlue flight up from Florida. They had a Chase family reunion, right there on the tenth floor of St. Vincent's as Philip lay in bed, the wound on his neck buried beneath a mummy's share of gauzy bandages, his leg freshly set in its ski-boot cast, his body black and blue beneath the sheets.
“This is not New York,” she says before turning and thundering back up the stairs, offering him a glimpse of her dimpled, jiggling ass through her threadbare gown.
A whole new meaning to the words
, Philip thinks.
When he hears the dull clamor of her opening drawers and slamming them shut, Philip reaches for his crutch and uses it to leverage his thin, aching body out of bed. The lights are off in the family room, but there are tiny ones everywhere: the red dot on the cable box, the flashing green numbers on the VCR, the blinking green light on the charger of his cell, the orange blur on all the dimmer switches. Together, they leave him with the vague impression that he is gazing out the window of an airplane at night. That image stays with Philip as he limps down the wide, echoing hallway. He takes the shortcut through the dining room no one ever uses, with its long mahogany table and Venetian glass chandelier, then crosses through the foyer into the bathroom beneath the stairs, which is about as small and confining as one on an airplane.
Philip's face in the mirror looks older than his twenty-seven years. There are no crow's-feet or creases in his brow or any of those obvious signs of aging. There is, however, a distinct pall of sorrow and worry in his eyes. It is the face of someone who has seen too much too soon. Then there is the matter of that woundâwell on its way to becoming a fat red zipper of a scar across his throat that the doctors said would fade but never go away. Philip finds one of his baggy wool turtlenecks on top of the hamper, puts it on for camouflage, then combs his tangled brown hair and brushes his teeth. He's about to go back into the hallway when something makes him stop and open the medicine cabinet. The inside is still untouched, just like his brother's locked bedroom upstairs. He reaches in and pulls out the retainer. Ronnie's most obvious imperfection: an underbite.
“What are you doing?”
He turns to see his mother dressed in her librarian clothes, or rather the kind of clothes she wore when she was still a librarian. A beige cowl-neck sweater and beige pants that she must have bought at the plus-size store at the King of Prussia Mall. She should have picked up a new night-gown while she was at it, Philip thinks. “I don't know,” he tells her.
She steps inside, bringing with her a cloud of Right Guard for Women sprayed on upstairs in lieu of a shower. Her pill-swollen hand snatches the retainer from him and returns it to the exact shelf where he found it, between a dusty peroxide bottle and a tilted pile of cucumber soaps. When she closes the cabinet, her reflection in the mirror speeds by him in a dizzying flash, causing Philip to flinch. “I don't want you touching his things,” she says.
It is an argument they've had before, and he won't allow himself to get caught up in it. Melissa will be here any minute, and the last thing he needs is to get his mother more worked up. He steps past her and heads down the hall to the kitchen, where he snaps on the lights. After making do with the camper-size kitchen in the studio he sublet in New York from that kook, Donnelly Fiume, Philip can't help but marvel at how sprawling this one is. It has dark wood cabinets, recessed lighting, and a porcelain-tiled floor that's made to look distressed, as though it belongs in a Tuscan monastery rather than a house on the Main Line of Philly. Most of their meals have been microwaved these last four weeks, but no one would ever guess, judging from the mountain of pots in the sink and bowls scattered across the granite countertop, all smeared with green. A few nights before, his mother had been possessed by one of her cravings. Pea soup, this time. Years ago, they had a cleaning woman who came twice a week for just this reason, her services paid for by his father's hefty salary as a heart surgeon at Bryn Mawr Hospital. Not anymore. Philip pulls open the refrigerator and takes out a paper sack of coffee to brew a pot the way he used to in the city when he was waiting for one of those strangers to shout up to him from the street.
“You're making coffee now?” his mother says from behind him.
This time, he doesn't turn around. He scoops two tablespoons into the filter for every cup, remembering how his heart used to beat hard and fast after he tossed his keys out the window and listened to the clomp-clomp-clomp on the crooked old stairway. “Yep.”