The Alexander Baldwins never argue, but they are arguing now. Urgent whispers, rising up the stairway. Their three-story colonial is massive, beautifully restored (thick champagne-colored carpet recently installed throughout, even in the bathrooms; double-paned windows; an expensive new central heating system that works inaudibly), and so solid that it retains all sounds, all passions. The Baldwins stand in the dining room, where they’ve just eaten lunch, or perhaps in the wide foyer with its teal-blue Persian rug, where Laura confronts Alex before he can escape out the front door.
The foyer just at the base of the stairs. Where Alex has begun to shout.
“For heaven’s sake,” Laura hisses, “keep your voice down.”
“You know he can’t hear us—it’s affected his hearing, the doctor said so.”
“I remember very well what the doctor said. That’s why I can’t believe you’re doing this.”
“My God, you act like I’m throwing him out! He wants to go, you heard him yourself. It’s December; Joey’s expecting him. The routine is established, Laura.”
“Routine, that’s a hell of a word to use. And as for Joey—”
“Let’s not get into that.”
Silence. Alex has that way about him: a gift for deflecting you, for having the last word. I can remember him one evening 30 years ago, slamming his small fist on the dinner table, very precisely, then announcing that he must be excused, he had to continue work on his science project or how would he win first prize? His mother and I stayed silent, watching his erect little frame march defiantly from the table. Joey giggled in his hand.
Laura, cowed but still resourceful, now says in a wounded voice, “How would you feel, being expected to leave at a time like this. We have so much room, Alex, and he’s gotten to like the new doctor so well—”
“He has a doctor in Atlanta, remember? It’s the weather, you know that. He always winters down there.”
“But this winter is . . . different.”
Alex pauses, considering. “Maybe so, but you know how he hates Chicago when the weather turns. And anyway the plans are made—he has his reservation; I called Joey and gave him very clear instructions—”
“Your plans, your instructions—is that all you think of?” Her whisper is thin, disgusted. “What about feelings? Your father’s more than—than part of your damn schedule.”
Alex, severely: “Speaking of which, you’re making me late.”
“And Joey is so inept, so irresponsible. What if something happens?”
“I’ll be back by six,” Alex says obstinately. “We’ll drive him to the airport then.”
“What if you had a child?” Laura says, her voice cracking.
“What if someone did this to you?”
The front door, opening. “But I don’t have a child,” he says sarcastically. “I only have you.”
When the door slams, there is the sound of Laura’s soft weeping. With a kind of malice, it seems, the house contains us all: our every sigh or whisper. I back away from the polished oak banister, thinking this.
Old men are permitted such thoughts.
Consciousness, anger, dread: do they diminish with advanced age, or do they retrench, slyly, for some final and invidious attack?
The first quarrel with Marguerite concerned, ostensibly, my contemptible dread of airplanes. Her father, one of the richest men in Georgia (farming and real estate interests, mostly, and a profitable dabbling late in life in the international oil business) and the first in his club to purchase, and then learn to fly, his own airplane, had offered us a free ride to New York, the boys (then four and six) included, where he would wrap up a land-purchase deal and where I could meet a few of his stock market cronies. My fledgling career as a “broker” would be helped by such contacts, and there would be plenty of time for Marguerite and the boys to see the sights. My wife, who had led a typically sheltered Southern-debutante existence followed by two difficult pregnancies and two intense, protracted postpartum depressions, was elated about the trip. Not that she was concerned about my brokerage career, since the tacit assumption had always been that she, already possessed of an immense inheritance from her maternal grandfather and eventually to become even richer when her own father died, would be my only client. Nor, oddly, did her enthusiasm come from her own need to get away, prodigious as that must have been. Rather it was the six-year-old Alex, his alertness and curiosity already showing themselves as serious, focused, and forward-looking, who needed the stimulation of new sights and experiences, and she even insisted that Joey, though lethargic and fussy as his brother was lively and precociously well-behaved, was old enough to profit from the trip. When I had tried, the night before our departure, to dissuade her by admitting the real reason I wanted to stay home—my heart-stopping fear of that flying machine, the nightmare of my conscious wide-eyed self caught helpless within its tumbling, fiery descent—Marguerite exploded. She was brushing her long hair, angrily. She hissed that I was a coward and a poor example for my sons. Behind her, I was a shadowy reflection in her gilt-edged mirror. We argued for awhile, but quickly the argument became a monologue, a tirade—my wife’s anger was disproportionate, wild, and I sensed that during most of our seven-year marriage I had lived on time borrowed against the Southern code of wifely submission and my own disinclination to hamper Marguerite’s quietly forceful style. Now, she’d had enough; from that night forward, she abandoned her old oblique, feminine manipulations and daily proved that her power had always involved more than money. We went on that trip, of course. While her father and his copilot happily prevailed in the cockpit, she and Alex perched at the window and exclaimed over rivers, mountain ranges, and swiftly moving rags of cloud. In the seats behind them a whimpering Joey huddled against his father, whose bowels had turned to lead.
Since my wife’s death of cancer six years ago, flying has become easier for me, and the biannual exercise in dread can even, at times, seem instructive. For this evening it came to me that I didn’t dread the flight itself but rather my destination; and I knew that although my son remained deliberately obtuse, his wife had seemed, somehow, to understand.
Laura has always felt an instinctive sympathy for me, perhaps a displacement of some unacknowledged pity for herself, and in deference to this I kept quiet during the ride to the airport. To trade upon the “poignance” of the moment would have been distasteful, and anyway I’ve never been a vindictive man.(Alex was correct, after all, when he claimed that I wanted this trip, for I had told him so.) I sat between them in the spacious front seat of their Continental, wearing the benign, even slightly addled expression that I’ve developed as a way of reassuring Alex that I mean no trouble to him, that preternatural docility has become a way of life. Not surprisingly, he chatted and laughed during the long drive (the Alexander Baldwins live in Lake Forest, more than an hour from O’Hare), talked about their plans to visit Atlanta frequently this winter (plans that are talked about every year, and which never materialize), lavishly praised my new doctor in Atlanta, a young neurologist at Emory University Hospital (whom Alex has never met). As he talked, his cheeks seemed to glow. His suede-gloved fingers flexed on the steering wheel. My son’s smell was as fresh, new, and leathery as the interior of his expensive car, and I felt embarrassed for my sour odor of old age, of illness, that must have been apparent to both Alex and Laura. To avoid such thoughts, and to insure that my silence wouldn’t be misunderstood, I made feeble comments about the weather as we drove along: how surprisingly warm for December, how the low-slung, soupy clouds appeared to hold summer rain rather than malevolent bits of ice.
“Yeah, but it won’t be long,” Alex said comfortably. “They say it’ll be a severe winter, much worse than last year’s. You’re lucky to be getting out.”
I nodded. “Yes, and last year’s was hardly mild. Even in Atlanta, it snowed three times.”
“Really, did it? Three times?” Since boyhood, unusual facts had always pleased him. But again I feared being misinterpreted.
“It melted quickly, though. Usually the next day.”
“That’s good,” said Alex.
Laura, who had stayed morose and self-absorbed thus far, said abruptly, “Where did you hear that?”
Alex looked over, irritated. “Hear what?”
“About this winter. Its being so severe.”
He shrugged. “I don’t know. The newspapers.”
“Those predictions never amount to anything.”
I wasn’t watching him, but I could imagine his lips flattening against his teeth—a gesture that meant he’d had enough.
“Chicago winters,” he said flatly, “are always severe.”
This brought a few moments’ silence. I had begun to feel unusually awkward, sitting there between them. The Alexander Baldwins, after all, are a very good-looking young couple. Alex has his mother’s high, prominent forehead, her clear, imperious green eyes, her fine olive-dark complexion. Laura, dark-haired and demure, has the faultless poise of upper-class Southern wives, cheeks and hands of an unearthly paleness, and unexpectedly full, sensuous lips. Next to them I’m a sack of bones, wispy yellowish hair and patchy skin where unexplained purplish marks, like bruises, come and go without warning; my eyes are faintly bluish, watery. I don’t blame Alex for wanting to get rid of me, and I wished Laura would not protest. But the awkwardness came out of a sharp, familiar longing that, during that silence, rose ungovernably in me: a longing to stay here, to spend the winter with these two healthy, well-dressed adults, safe inside their well-managed and well-insulated house.
Perhaps that was why I said, out of nowhere, “One thing your mother disliked about the South was the weather—she always loved the snow. She never felt happier, she once said, than when she could stand at the window and watch the snow falling.”
Alex glanced aside, irritated yet curious. “Mother said that?”
“Oh, were you thinking of her too?” Laura broke out. She had, suddenly, the exuberance of nostalgia. Looking her way, I saw that her eyes were moist. “I do remember,” she said, nodding, “how she used to talk about the snow. Whenever the two of you came for the holidays, she always hoped for a big snowfall on Christmas eve.”
Alex picked up speed, though rain had begun to spatter the windshield. “I don’t remember that,” he muttered.
We stayed silent for the rest of the drive. I sat thinking how despicable it was, trying to use the specter of Marguerite on Alex. To the guilt I’d felt when overhearing their conversation was added the guilt I’ve always suffered, helplessly, at the spectacle of my own self-pity. Advanced age makes self-pity even harder to bear, because no one minds it. People pat your hand, they smile reassuringly. So I was grateful for the silence. Compared to this weight of guilt, my consciousness of dread or anger shrank to nothing. I could even imagine Joey’s quick, furtive smile of greeting without a shiver of revulsion.
Standing alone amid the crush of travelers, his shoulders hunched, Joey at first looks defensive, as if fearing contamination. When he glimpses me, however, he springs forward like a wind-up toy, long-limbed, grinning, all gangling solicitude. He snatches the flight bag from my shoulder. He queries me about the flight, his breath reeking of gin.
Unlike Alex, my second son drinks to excess.
“It was fine,” I tell him. “Excellent weather.”
“Oh, that’s a relief. I’d heard about this rainstorm, out in the Midwest. So I wasn’t sure. . . .”
“You fly above the clouds.”
Already walking along, father and son. He keeps lurching ahead with his long legs, then stopping while I catch up. He makes bantering conversation, he grins sheepishly. Tonight he has a rabbity, woebegone look, longish hair a bit tousled, nostrils pink and sore-looking. Anyone encountering him, I think uncharitably, might be the one to fear contamination, for his boyish, awkward, half-sickly grubbiness has never left him. When we reach the baggage claim area, he actually does turn aside in the middle of a sentence—he was narrating the story of this new airport, the largest in the world, his excitement obviously genuine—for a long, raucous sneeze. When he turns back, his cocoa-brown eyes are glistening.
“Sorry, I have a cold. Whenever the seasons change, I get one. And then it stays for a week.”
“You should take vitamins.”
Guiltily, “I know.”
We wait for the baggage, a prim and well-dressed elderly man with his son, a thirtyish slump-shouldered man/boy wearing Levi’s, a khaki shirt, a fawn-colored suede jacket that has seen better days. Yet not an unhandsome man, my Joey. He has the Baldwin sturdy build and strong jaw, his mother’s clear skin, high forehead, good bones. These advantages, however, are apparent only to the most sympathetic observer; what people notice are the red nostrils, the slack posture, the ridges of dirt beneath his nails. Comparison with his brother is, and always was, inevitable. Even their mother remarked, when they were boys, that she felt she’d given birth to Jekyll and Hyde.
The carting of luggage, the maneuvering of Joey’s rattling, malodorous car—only two years old but already despoiled— take up the next few minutes, but then we’re on the Interstate and an eerie silence arises between us. Joey shifts in his seat, fiddles with the rear-view mirror. I sit looking at the shimmering skyline, limned by a crisp starry night.
“It was raining in Chicago,” I tell him, conversationally. “And much warmer than here.”
“Are you cold? I’m afraid this heater doesn’t work.” He fiddles desperately with some knobs on the dashboard, then curses.
“No, I’m all right. Keeps the blood moving.”
“I meant to have that fixed, I’ll do it tomorrow. You want this jacket? Here—” and he’s already halfway out of it, letting the car swerve to the side. A car in the other lane blares its horn.
“Keep the jacket, Joey. And watch the road,” I tell him.
The jacket falls on the seat between us; Joey grabs the wheel and glances aside at the passing car. “Bastard,” he mutters.
Patience. With this son, I need patience and fortitude and a certain measure of abandon. If you ride with him, you know that your life could end momentarily. His mother often remarked, in a rueful tone, that the first funeral in the family would be Joey’s—he was so vulnerable, so clumsy and helpless. The first day of spring training for his junior-high football team, he broke his collarbone. On his 16th birthday he received his driver’s license and, from his mother, a new Thunderbird, and three weeks later was hospitalized with a head injury and countless minor lacerations, the car having become scrap metal. As a young man, he was given an honorable discharge from the Navy only three months after his impulsive enlistment; he never told us why, but there were predictable jokes that he had wrecked a battleship or had been unsuccessfully offered to the Russians. Poor Joey. And yet he survived. Though his mother left him very well-off, he has worked for the past several years as a magazine illustrator, a tame nine-to-five job that has occasioned no mishaps we’re aware of. He does drink too much, and his marriage to a willful, discontented woman—a failed ballerina—has been quite tempestuous, not to mention a considerable embarrassment to the family, but as Alex remarked only last week, he does well simply to remain among the living. I try, as best I can, to share my eldest son’s condescension—as though I, too, the whole year round, could boast a thousand miles dividing me and Joey.
“So,” I ask now, “how is Barbara doing?”
“She’s all right,” Joey says gloomily. “She’s gotten this part-time dancing job. It makes her feel—validated.”
“Well, good for her. We all need that.”
“It’s her word, not mine.”
So they’ve had some argument, and this accounts for Joey’s dour mood. I’ve begun to breathe easier when he half-turns to me and says, imploringly:
“I hate to ask this, but what did the doctor say?”
“The doctor? Which one?”
“The one in Chicago, Dad. They did some more tests last week—?”
“Right. It’s not benign,” I say quickly. “I wish you’d keep your eye on the road.”
Unconsciously he has slowed to about 40, and on either side the cars are whizzing by. Obedient, as always, to the letter but not the spirit, he sits with his eyes trained vacantly ahead, all his earnest attention still on me. I seem to feel his body heat, radiating from his side of the car.
“We knew that already, Dad”—I feel a pang at his tone of weary patience: an adult dealing with a precocious, intricate obduracy—”but I thought these new tests were meant to—to determine—”
Why should his faltering give me a surge of joy?
“They estimated anywhere from three months to a year,” I say prosaically, “depending on what decision is made down here.”
“But why would anyone choose a shorter—” but then, comprehending, he stops himself. Audibly, he takes a gulp of air. “This young guy at Emory hospital, you know, he’s had amazing success with these so-called hopeless cases. They even did a story on him on the six o’clock news.”
“We didn’t know that, “I say idly.
A brief pause, as if stymied by the “we,” but then: “And Alex seems impressed with him, just from talking with him on the phone. And the two doctors have been in touch, of course. Alex thinks—”
“All of Alex’s opinions are well known to me.”
I spoke more harshly than I intended but decide to let it stand. Poor Joey, who’s only trying to assume his part in all of this, glances quickly aside, hurt, then accelerates the car and, after a moment, sneezes. I sit erect and watchful. The skyline, once we’ve left the freeway, becomes an unassimilable surrounding of lighted towers, neon signs, slowed traffic. With a maximum of jolts and cursings Joey maneuvers us along Peachtree Street where, in the midtown section, Joey and Barbara live in their high-rise condominium. I find myself hoping that Barbara won’t be home. The car’s chill has, after all, begun to affect me, bringing a dull ache to the joints of my knees and hands. I imagine lowering myself, slowly, into a tub of lukewarm water, my glasses left beside the sink so that only in a blurred, wavering fashion can I contemplate my hollowed-out chest and abdomen, desiccated genitals, long thin bluish spindly legs. If I should feel a familiar throbbing near the base of my skull, then a slowly radiating darkness whose source is that spoiled part of me, that smallish clump of festering, rotted fruit, perhaps I’ll sit in my twelve inches of colorless water and wait for the final dark wave and not even cry out for help.
We are stopped for the ticket at Joey’s parking deck, and though my thoughts have exhausted me I say, irrelevantly, “I wonder if your mother could have intended this.”
For reasons of his own, Joey doesn’t answer.
Several days pass, and then one afternoon I find myself at the door of my smallish middle bedroom, straining to hear an argument between Joey and Barbara that is taking place in the living room. The door is opened an inch, half an inch. Here the doors squeak; sounds carry cruelly through the small rooms; the children don’t bother to lower their voices. When Marguerite and I first walked through here, eight years ago, she remarked that the place didn’t seem well built—the floor creaked in places, she felt a draft coming from somewhere—but that nothing was well built any more and at least it was new. It would suit Joey and Barbara for a few years, until they decided to make a normal life for themselves out in the suburbs. I can still see Marguerite’s precise, sharp gestures, noting a wallpaper she liked or a door frame that seemed slightly crooked. Here, there. Pro and con. Finally she had pronounced herself satisfied, and naturally the children were pleased with their wedding present—though unaware that years later Barbara would still be a failed ballerina and Joey stuck in a time frame where, as if a mediocre, mildly comical film were being endlessly replayed, he broke things and walked into walls and fell victim to small, vexing illnesses normally reserved for children. Since arriving, I’ve noticed with an old maid’s disapproval how they’ve let their home fall into an alarming desuetude— the furniture ratty and stained, the carpet soiled, every shelf or knickknack blurred by dust, ashtrays heaped with Barbara’s peach-colored cigarette butts. The kitchen sink is full of unwashed dishes. A stale, sickly-sweet odor, tinged with the faint smell of rot, hangs in the air like heavy, invisible gauze. No, Marguerite could not have intended this for me. I stand with my ear to the door’s crack, straining.
“Let him do whatever he wants,” Barbara says for the third or fourth time. “It’s as simple as that, really.”
“There’s a difference, Barbara, between what he says he wants and what he wants.”
My son, the psychologist. When I informed him, this morning over “breakfast”—two pieces of burnt toast, a cup of cloudy tea—that I really felt I must return to Chicago, he gave me what, for him, is a penetrating stare, his exhaustion-ringed eyes suddenly narrowing and his own cup quickly set down, sloshing tea into the saucer. “Have you been talking to Alex?” he asked and then, more darkly: “Or to Barbara?” “I called Alex last night,” I replied, “and told him what the doctor said. He was reluctant, he made me repeat the doctor’s words a dozen times, but finally he agreed. As for Barbara, how would I talk to her? She’s never home.” Joey had stared into his teacup, frowning mystically. He was already half an hour late for work and had yet to shave or change out of an old pair of iridescent-orange overalls, left over from the sixties, that he wears around the house like a second skin. “I don’t know what you told Alex,” he said finally, “but the doctor told me that you should stay here. The weather’s warmer, and the facilities are better.” My lips formed a smile as I flung a skeletal hand toward the breakfast-room windows: “This is your glorious weather?” I asked. It was drizzling steadily, the temperature in the low forties. “As for the doctor, I don’t like him much. He’s a know-it-all and far too young. And anyway,” suddenly intense, self-righteous, “an old man should be able to choose where he wants to die.” That took the wind out of Joey’s sails. Getting up from the table, he said, whining, “I really don’t want you to leave,” but in my imagination I was already back inside that large, solid, well-lighted bedroom, the smiling moist-eyed Laura bringing me something on a tray.
For the first time since my arrival I’ve spent all of today indoors. No doctor’s appointment, and thanks to the cold rain, I missed the prescribed morning walk. Joey telephoned from work every couple of hours, but aside from this I’ve had relative peace. Barbara was gone the whole day, as usual, to dance lessons or to the stylish coffee shops, where she meets her rowdy friends, other “artists” whose lives are as pointless and unproductive as her own. Yet I don’t dislike her—she has a certain feistiness, a blindness to her own mediocrity—and have not resented her neglect. For much of the afternoon I sat in the overstuffed wingback in the living room, staring out at the bleak drizzling cityscape and dreaming myself northward, back into the home of “the Alexander Baldwins”—as they’re known in the society pages—where I am often, between the regimented Alex and the sympathetic Laura, a bone of contention but am myself left in some white shadowless sphere of contentment, a soul’s eternal, placid winter that forces troubling memories and internal frettings and even physical pain to recede, to diminish, to become attenuated and drained of color. Here that peace is threatened every moment. Accidents happen. Unexpected things are said. I sometimes find myself hobbling around my bedroom in circles or mentally drafting long, plaintive letters to Marguerite, crammed with devotion and senseless pleading. Is it any wonder I should want to escape, despite Marguerite’s own wishes? Even the pain has increased since I arrived, my spine and the back of my head throbbing in the dead of night.
So this afternoon’s taste of peace was blissful, a prevision of days to come, and later, still straining to hear, I’m pleased even by the children’s argument, the antiphonal and almost predictable back-and-forth of it, as if some monolithic pendulum were to swing between weakness and strength, anxiety and comfort.
Joey is saying, weakly and anxiously enough, “You don’t even give a damn, you’re just like Alex. Purely selfish, absorbed in your own routine.”
Barbara snorts with laughter. “And what are you absorbed in?” I can picture the shake of her thin, rather equine head, its small ponytail whishing in punctuation to every gesture. “The point is, he’s not a child but an old man. He has the right to make his own decisions.”
She speaks in her pragmatic, offhand way, as if she could simultaneously be doing other things—paying bills, knitting a sweater—and still comfortably win any argument with Joey. I can see him slouched in the wingback, pink-nostriled, staring morosely at the floor.
“You neglect him,” he says pointlessly. “He might like it here if you’d be more attentive. I’ll bet Laura doesn’t leave him to make his own lunch.”
“No, because Laura’s a nonentity who doesn’t have anything better to do. I’ve got a career, Joey, or anyway as much of one as you have. Why don’t you stay home and take care of him?”
Good for her. Joey is sighing, as he always does when he throws—literally—his hands up into the air. With weak sarcasm, he says, “And I suppose Mother’s wishes don’t count for anything? Her saying that he should winter down here with us?”
Barbara exhales noisily; she must be smoking. “You’re not conscious of it, I know,” she says tolerantly, “but you speak of her as if she were a dictator, laying down the law for everyone else. The fact is that she’s dead, he’s alive. So I vote with him.”
“Don’t speak disrespectfully of Mother,” Joey warns. But his voice is about to crack.
Barbara’s manner can soften, very suddenly, once Joey is thoroughly vanquished; she is a graceful winner. I see her crossing to him, putting fingers in his tousled hair. She says, “Just try not to worry, you sweet dope, things will work themselves out. You’re really a lot like him, in certain ways— I’ve noticed that through the years. And that’s why you don’t get along.”
There is just enough time for Joey to say, in a strangled voice, “But this is the last winter, Barb, and if he goes back now—” before I manage, struggling, to get the door closed.
My Joey is drinking. As we inch forward, here on this crammed expressway, he takes regular swigs from the small metal flask he keeps in the glove compartment and talks a great deal—whining, pleading, arguing with himself or with me—and has begun weeping openly, unashamed. I sit staring forward, trying to ignore his jagged sobs, the sweetish stench of the liquor. Outside the sky is gray, the clouds low-hung and threatening, and the air is unusually warm. I try to pay attention to this weather, to the other cars, to watch for signs announcing the number of miles left between us and the airport. . . .
Joey is saying, “It’s always been the same, that’s what gets me. It never changes. Even before Mother died, it was always what Alex wanted, what Alex thought. . . . Hell,” he says, taking a long swig, “he had the wool pulled over her eyes, didn’t he?” But he isn’t asking me, of course; he’s just asking. “. . . And he was never fair to you, even Barb noticed that. Always talking about the Holloway investments, the Holloway money, as if you hadn’t earned some of that money yourself. You were a broker, you knew how to invest it. That’s what counted.”
At this I glance aside, irritated. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
But Joey is nodding to himself, not hearing. He began this drive with a plea for reason, insisting that I must stay in Atlanta, that my illness could be reversed with the very best treatment, and by now has become reasonless himself. He says wildly, “You see what has happened, don’t you? You see what he did to us? He cut us off, made us into nothing, big clever Alex with his white strong teeth and his fancy brains and his charm, his charm. Even Mother fell for it.”
“Quit blaming Alex for everything,” I tell him. “He’s just the type who likes to take charge, to keep everything moving along efficiently. Your mother was like that, too.”
“Hah, he takes charge all right. He’s like one of those computers he loves so much, spitting out the answers for everybody. Take it or leave it, that’s what he says. I’m the Fascist and you people are the slaves, I’m the great white hope and you people out there, you little peons, you’d better just listen to me. That’s what he says to himself.”
“You’re drunk,” I tell him calmly. “Now look, that inside lane is starting to move.”
“And the hell of it is, everybody listens. Everybody bows and says, Yes, Allah, anything you damned well say. Not just the family, I’ll bet—everybody.”
“Joey, don’t make me late for the airport.”
At this he straightens, begins trying to change to the faster lane. But still he mutters under his breath. He takes a drink from the flask. “God,” he says, husky-voiced again, sentimental, “do I feel sorry for Mother. What she must have gone through, in those last years. Seeing how Alex had turned out.”
“What, are you crazy? She adored Alex.”
“No, she knew better.” He jabs his finger into the air. “At some level, she knew better than that. I promise you.”
He has changed lanes, but now the traffic is clogged again. “Joey, maybe we should exit and take a side street. We’re in danger, really, of missing that airplane—”
“Everything would have been so different, without him. We would have had a normal family. Why should we be separated, anyway? Why are we always driving to airports, always wrangling long-distance over when you’ll visit or when you won’t visit? It’s not natural, it’s not good for people to live like this. . . . This stupid plan, having you fly back and forth all the time—”
“Joey, that was your mother’s plan.”
“It’s not right somehow, it’s inhuman. You can say what you want, but I know Alex is behind your flying back like this—I know how he manipulates people, makes them feel guilty. Even Mother, he even manipulated her.”
“Listen, will you stop this talk? Will you pay attention to the driving and get me there in time? It should be obvious that I want to leave, I’m not feeling well, and I need to go home. Even the doctor said so, he said I should be wherever I feel safest. Because they can’t do anything, the doctors. They can’t.”
He looks over, blinking. “But—but this is your home—”
“No, this is not my home, this is crazy-land.” It has begun at the base of my skull, that insidious throbbing. When this happens, I weaken quickly, the blood rushing to the place of rot. And here is my son, thwarting me. Spouting these ridiculous lies. “It’s true,” I tell him, “that I often do things just to please Alex, just to keep the peace. But today, this is not one of them. In fact, he doesn’t want me back; he wants me out of his hair, and I don’t blame him. But today I’m being a selfish and stubborn old man, I’m going back where I belong. I don’t belong here, and I never did. Your life is crazy, your house is a mess, I can’t stand it there. After this past week, it’s a wonder I’m not already dead.”
“What—why are you—”
“Yes, dead. I’ll get there soon enough, but at least I want some peace. I deserve that, don’t I? Don’t I deserve, at long last, to get what I want? Yes, it’s true that Alex is somewhat manipulative, but you want to know where he learned it? Do you? From your bitch of a mother, that’s who.”
Joey, dead pale, seems utterly stymied; he doesn’t try to speak. Only a moment passes before we are jolted forward, my head slamming against the doorframe before I can raise an arm for protection. In his shock, Joey has relinquished control of the car and let it ram into the car ahead of us, which then hit the guard rail. Now both cars are stopped. Before it even began, it is over. We were driving only five miles an hour, no one is hurt seriously; we both sit for a moment in shocked silence. My head is throbbing. Spinning. I’m thinking that I must get out of here, there is somewhere I must go. . . .
Finally Joey opens his mouth. “You take that back,” he says childishly. “You didn’t mean that.” But he is weeping again; he doesn’t count. “We have to stick together, you and I. They’re so damn cold, so heartless, but we can’t let them— can’t let them kill us—”
I struggle to open the door, keeping my other hand cupped at the back of my skull. Must get out of here, must get away. . . .
“My God,” Joey cries, “what are you doing! The lane next to us is moving, you can’t—” but I don’t listen, I get the door open and stumble away from the car.
Outside it has begun to rain. Enormous, tepid raindrops gently pelting me. I hear the blaring of horns, the sound of someone shouting from behind. But I must get away from here. Hobbling, clutching my head with one hand, I navigate toward the side of the expressway: my entire body struggles blindly forward, as if coaxed by some imagined wintry sphere in the far distance, out there, where Marguerite is waiting. Around me there are screechings, raised voices. So much noise and strife!—so much confusion! I move aimlessly through it all, a stumbling and contemptible old man. My head throbs wildly, even my eyesight seems to fail, yet before that moment of crashing, inevitable darkness I’m able to think, quite clearly, Yes, she must have intended this for me—