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Authors: John Gregory Brown

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Though she appeared to be happy as a recluse, though she let Henry be, rarely asking where he was going or how he spent his free time, she never wanted Mary to leave the house except to go to school. It seemed strange to Henry that this was the one thing she took the trouble to care about, as if all the usual parental concerns had been boiled down or stripped away to this single preoccupation. Henry wondered if she was somehow worried about boys, worried about what kind of trouble Mary might get herself into. She liked to say that Mary was
and though Henry wasn't sure exactly what she meant, he understood that there was both pride and disparagement in this description. She would keep Mary busy, asking her to read out loud—they both liked Shakespeare's plays and Victorian novels—or hunt for particular paintings in the art books stacked on the floor in her room. She taught Mary to stretch and prepare canvases, to name the constellations and types of cloud formations. They designed their own tarot decks with a ludicrous cast of characters, ones they'd made up together: the Pigeon-Toed Gardener, the Belated Henchman, the Flummoxed Maiden, the Angel of Debt, the Alabaster Raven, the Coruscating Fool. And his mother talked with Mary in a way she did not with Henry, the two of them curled up on the bed together, whispering and laughing. Once Henry had asked Mary what they talked about, and she'd shrugged and said, “I don't know. Nothing, really. I think she just likes to hear my voice.”

“All the junk in her room, the mess—doesn't it bother you?” he'd asked her.

Again Mary had merely shrugged. “She's not exactly the most normal person in the world, if that's what you mean.”

He wasn't sure exactly what he'd meant. He wanted to ask Mary what she thought was wrong with their mother, why she lived the way she did, but the question seemed too important to speak out loud. And besides, Mary was nearly three years younger than he was—what would she know, what would she understand, that he didn't?

The one thing their mother didn't seem to mind Mary doing was babysitting for neighborhood families on Friday and Saturday nights. If Henry was around, if he didn't have plans with his friends, he'd sometimes go with her. They'd watch television together once the kids had been put to bed. Mary was good with the children she watched—she'd get down on the floor and pretend she was a pony or a dog; she'd hold them when they cried; she'd patiently read them the same book over and over. Her greatest gift, though, was her voice. She could quiet even the most distraught child by simply singing. She sang lullabies and nursery rhymes, but she also sang some of the blues songs they'd heard their father play on his stereo, songs whose lyrics made the little children laugh:
Let me be your wiggler until your wobbler come,
she'd sing, dancing, flailing her arms.
If she beats me wigglin' she got to wobble some.

Or she'd sing,
I've got a merry-go-round, little girl, don't you want to ride?
And she'd grab the children's hands and swing them around and around.

All you ladies gather 'round,
she'd sing, glancing at Henry, raising her eyebrows and smiling.
That good sweet candy man's in town.

Henry would look away, embarrassed that his younger sister understood what these songs were really about, that in one way or another, they all had to do with sex.

His stick candy don't melt away,
Mary would sing, clearly enjoying Henry's discomfort.
It just gets better, so the ladies say.
And Mary would strut back and forth, stick out her bottom and shake her hips.
Henry decided, was exactly the right word for what Mary was.

Eventually, Mary began babysitting on Saturday nights for the Broussards, a new family, she said, that had just moved into the neighborhood. They had twin blue-eyed boys who were two years old. She told her mother that the Broussards lived over on Chamberlain, that Mrs. Broussard was young and blond and beautiful, that Mr. Broussard looked like a movie star, handsome and broad-shouldered and very, very tall, with a cleft in his chin like Kirk Douglas's, a voice as deep as Gregory Peck's. He'd told Mary he worked for the government but also suggested with a shrug of his broad shoulders that he couldn't talk about it, couldn't tell her much more than that. He'd wanted to know if she could be discreet, and she'd told him that she could, that she wouldn't give out their address or phone number, that she wouldn't let anyone know where they'd gone to dinner, when they'd left or when they'd be back. He didn't say so, Mary said, but she figured he must be some kind of special agent or spy.

“Maybe he's in the Mafia,” Henry had said, thinking about an elementary-school classmate named Sandra Corso. When she and Henry were in fourth grade, her father had been shot dead in his bed by a man who had broken into their house. Word spread around school that her father had been part of the Carlos Marcello crime family, that he'd been a hit man himself, dumping bodies in the swamps out in St. Bernard Parish, leaving them as delectable dinners for the alligators there.

“He's not in the Mafia,” Mary said, looking from Henry to their mother. “I know he's not.”

“Of course not,” their mother said. “Not with a name like Broussard.”

“Maybe he changed his name,” Henry said, but then he saw that Mary was on the verge of tears.

“That's enough, Henry,” his mother said. “You're frightening her.”

Mary came back home with stories about the cute things the Broussard twins had said or done, about the beautiful dresses Mrs. Broussard wore, about what she'd learned of their life—how they'd lived in New York for a while and then in San Francisco, how they'd spent two years in London and one in Paris. “They both speak French,” she told her mother. “It's so beautiful. You should hear them.”

It was a while before Henry discovered that the Broussards didn't actually exist, that Mary had invented them as a way to go out with her friends. He'd offered to keep her company one Saturday night when he had nothing else to do, and Mary had told him that he didn't need to, that the twins kept her busy. “Well, I want to meet this guy,” he told her. “I've never met a spy.”

Mary said she didn't know if that was a good idea, but their mother said she was sure the Broussards wouldn't mind if she brought her brother along. Mary turned to Henry; he could see the pleading look in her eyes but didn't understand it. “It'll be fine,” he said. “I've got nothing else going on.”

When they left home, Mary walked down to the end of the block and then headed in the wrong direction, away from Chamberlain, the street where she'd said the Broussards lived.

Henry stopped and Mary turned to look at him. Just from her posture, from the way she stretched out her arms, the palms of her hands turned toward him, her shoulders slumped, he realized what was going on.

“Oh my God, Mary,” he said.

“Please,” she said, desperate. “Please don't tell her, Henry.”

He shook his head and laughed. “They don't exist?” he said. “You just made them up?”

“Please,” she said. “Please.”

And he'd laughed and laughed, amazed—and a little frightened—by Mary's imagination, by the fact that she had conjured this family from thin air, that she'd had the nerve not just to create such a lie but to embellish it from one week to the next. What else had she said she'd done that hadn't been true? “What do you do?” he asked her. “Where do you go?”

“We just hang out,” Mary said. “Just Julia and Eleanor and me.”

“But where?” Henry asked.

“Just around. Julia's got keys to her father's office.”

“His office?” Henry said. “What does he do?”

“He's an optometrist,” Mary said. “He doesn't care what we do as long as we stay out of the examination rooms and don't mess with the machines.”

“What do you do, then?” he said.

“I don't know. He's got a radio there. We listen to music. We talk.”

“And boys?” Henry said.

“Jesus, Henry,” Mary said. “It's nothing. We just all hang out. It's just I know Mama wouldn't understand. She wouldn't let me.”

“What happens when she finds out?” he asked.

“She won't,” Mary said, and she gave Henry the same pleading look she'd given him earlier. “She won't find out,” she said.

“Okay, okay,” he said. “It's not like I'm going to say anything.”

“Yeah, but now she thinks you've met them.” He watched Mary stop and reach into the pocket of her jeans. She pulled out a crumpled pack of Camels and some matches.

“Jesus, Mary,” he said, pointing to the cigarettes.

“And Joseph,” she said. “Get it? Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.” She lit a cigarette and expertly flicked the match away. “So now you've got to help,” she said, exhaling the smoke. “You've got to make her keep believing it.”

Henry almost said but didn't. He already knew why. Without this family, without somewhere she could go, his sister would be trapped at home with their mother, and the idea of that was too awful for Mary, too awful for both of them.

So Henry did what she asked him to do. When he got home that night—he'd met up with Mary at midnight in front of their house—he'd told his mother all about the Broussards, about the twins crawling over him, wrestling him to the ground.

“Is she as beautiful as Mary says?” his mother asked, patting the bed for Henry to sit down next to her.

“I guess so,” Henry said, embarrassed. “She's pretty.”

“But is she beautiful?” his mother said, and though Henry didn't know why Mrs. Broussard's appearance would matter to his mother, he understood that it did.

“She's very beautiful,” he said. “She was wearing a long black dress and she had her hair up, with a pearl necklace, like she was a princess or something.” In his head he pictured an actress he'd seen in a magazine. It had been an old picture, black-and-white—of Audrey Hepburn, he thought.

“Hmm,” his mother said, kissing Henry good night. “A princess.”

And Henry felt as though he'd found himself in some strange new place. The house, his mother, Mary, the sound of his own voice—everything seemed somehow different, unfamiliar. It even felt strange to him when he lay down in his bed and pulled the covers up, as if he weren't sure exactly where he'd wake up in the morning.

He couldn't fall asleep and so instead had tried to picture Mrs. Broussard as he'd described her for his mother—in the long black dress, the shiny fabric tight against her breasts and hips. He imagined her removing the strand of pearls, loosening her hair, twisting and reaching behind herself to slowly unzip the black dress, and stepping out of it, her feet delicate and tiny. And what would happen then? He couldn't really imagine it, couldn't conjure up the story, couldn't complete the picture. All he could do was feel the rush of desire, the swell and ache in his groin. All he could do was provoke, with his hands, some rough approximation of relief until, exhausted and ashamed, he fell asleep.

wanted to run. He had considered standing up and walking out the door and seeing just how far he might get, seeing whether or not they'd grab him, throw him to the ground, and toss him into one of the two empty cells.

But he hadn't, of course. The sheriff had finished his report and then driven Henry back to the motel. They drove straight past the spot where the accident had happened—it had not been an
of course, but what had it been? What were the words he was supposed to use? The sheriff simply glanced over at Henry as they drove past and let out a long breath. “Awful business,” he said, and Henry turned and looked out the window. His car was gone, towed away, but the highway was still stained, a darker black against the black, bits of glass shining in what was left of the daylight.
Awful business.
Was that how Henry was supposed to think of this?

The sheriff pulled into the motel parking lot, stopped in front of the office, and kept the patrol car idling while Henry got out, fished the room key from his pocket, walked down to his room, and opened the door. His hands were still shaking. Henry looked back and waved, and only then did the sheriff nod and drive off.

It just made no sense, Henry thought as he lay on the motel bed and stared at the ceiling. It made no sense that a man was dead and that his city was in ruins and he had no wife or friends or family to whom he was able or willing to turn and that what he felt was not anger or grief or loneliness or guilt.

He felt nothing.

No, to feel
would be a relief.

He had wanted that child. Why had he not managed to tell Amy how devastated he'd been? What had prevented him from speaking?

Why had he walked away from what he wanted, the only thing he wanted—but there had been all that blood on the highway, and the single V-shaped scratch on his arm, and the thousands and thousands gone in New Orleans, and Amy, and the girl,
girl. For the first time he did not require sleep, did not need the absurd machinations of his dreams, to summon her. Oh, he did not feel
What he felt—what he had become—was desire.

He did not understand his own thoughts, his own mind. How, in the midst of such ruin and horror, was there this: He watched, his eyes closed, as the girl stepped to the foot of the bed, stood there exactly as his father had stood there holding the bass, though that was in a house that was now gone, a house that was underwater or had been washed away, a life that he had given up, that he had forsaken. The girl wore faded jeans and a red T-shirt, low-rise jeans that rested below the bones of her hips, a torment of bare skin between jeans and shirt. She smiled at him, coyly slipped her hands into the pockets of her jeans, and said,
Oh, you know who I am, you just won't remember.

“I don't remember,” he said. “Tell me.”

she said, and he felt a sharp stab in his back, a pain that arced up through his ribs and then down along his left leg. The girl knelt on the bed, leaned forward, and cradled his feet in her tiny hands. He closed his eyes, felt her press her breasts against his thighs, felt her hands reach beneath his back, her fingers tapping along his spine as if she were searching for the precise place where the pain had begun.
You don't have to remember,
she said, whispering now, playful.
You don't have to think at all.

“Please just tell me,” he said, or tried to say, and he felt the girl stretch over him, felt her tiny hands, her fingers, brush against his lips, felt her hair spill across his chest.

“I killed a man,” he said. “A man is dead,” he tried to say, but he knew that the girl couldn't hear him, wasn't listening, and he lay there with his eyes closed and heard the slow thrum and groan of his father's bass and he tried to speak, tried to say the girl's name,
Clarissa Nash,
but he knew now that he was asleep and so did not have to open his eyes to see that the girl was undressed, that she understood the delicious agony of her breasts and thighs, her scent and skin, that he could do anything to her, that he could do nothing, that he
nothing but his own desperate longing.

He was asleep, of course. He had been asleep all along.

How long?
When the man stood in the road and raised his hands and the car struck him and there was terror and blood and the skunk smell of death?

Had he been asleep then? Had that, too, please God, been a dream?

He woke up to a knock at the door, a pause, another knock. Before he could move, he heard the jangling of keys, and he opened his eyes to see the door swing open and Latangi step inside.

“So sorry, Mr. Garrett,” she said, and she stepped back out of the doorway, surprised. “The light was off and I knocked. I thought perhaps you were out.”

“No, no,” he said, sitting up, his back sore. “I'm here.” He reached over and turned on the lamp by the bed, the shade swinging side to side, Ganesh swaying as if the earth beneath him were quaking.

Latangi remained outside a moment and then walked into the room. “Again I am so sorry,” she said. “There was a telephone call. They asked if you would appear at the courthouse at nine o'clock.” Henry turned to sit on the side of the bed, put his feet on the floor. He ran a hand through his hair, then looked at the clock. It was a few minutes past eleven. At night? In the morning?

“There was an accident,” he said.

“Yes, yes,” Latangi said. “I have learned. Sheriff Roland telephoned. He explained. I am so sorry. How terrible. These men on the side of the highway road, I have seen them. Such a terrible fate. And this man—” She threw her hands up, just as if she had watched it happen.

“I am so sorry for him and for you and—well, it is terrible, all this.” She walked over to him now, her hand outstretched. “Sheriff Roland will send a car for you, he says. Eight-thirty pickup. I was bringing you this note.”

“Yes, okay,” Henry said, accepting the paper from her. He saw Latangi take a quick look around the room.

“You have not had your dinner,” she said.

“No,” he said. “I fell asleep. I—”

“I have made a dinner. Would you please join me?”

“It's very late,” he said. He could not get himself properly awake. His father. Amy. The girl. The old man stepping out onto the highway in front of his car, directly in front of him—he had been real—the man who had raised his arms as if, absurdly, to fly. Or had he been trying to suggest that he was a target, that he meant for Henry's car to strike him?

“It's very late,” Henry said again, closing his eyes, opening them.

“I am accustomed to eating late, Mr. Garrett. Plenty of work to do and little time for food. That is how I keep this figure.” She smiled and stepped awkwardly to the side, shifting her weight as if she might spin around in her sari, the red and orange one she had been wearing when he arrived yesterday. He thought about Mary dancing while she sang for the children she watched. He needed to call Mary. Why hadn't he called her?

“Even so, we must eat, yes?” Latangi said. “You must eat.”

Henry nodded. Yes, he needed to eat.

“Ten minutes, then?” she said. “Will that be enough?”

Again Henry nodded.

Latangi brought her hands together as though she were going to begin clapping. “Through the office,” she said. “It is modest but clean. And I am an excellent cook, you will see.”


Latangi was waiting in the office when Henry arrived. She led him through a door behind the counter to her apartment, the living room larger than he would have predicted for so modest a motel but crowded with so much furniture—sofas and slipper chairs and ottomans and end tables and lamps—that it reminded Henry of Endly's. In one corner of the room was a tower of woven rugs, in another a stack of wicker baskets. Latangi noticed Henry looking around and said, “Yes, it is a mess, I know, Mr. Garrett. My husband, he passed away five months ago. He operated a business. Imports from India. This is how we lived, I am afraid, like bulls in a china shop, as they say. I am forever knocking into this and into that, and he says, ‘Latangi, you are as graceful as a butterfly. You go here, there, here. You must be graceful as a snake instead, moving carefully, twisting and turning.'” She smiled and then sighed.

“I'm sorry,” Henry said.

“He was a clever man,” she said. “A good man. When he was ill, he told me that he had been wrong. ‘All that flittering and fluttering,' he said. ‘It is indeed better to have a butterfly than a snake for one's wife.'” She looked around as if she might begin trying to straighten up the apartment, but instead she threw up her arms and turned back to Henry, tears in her eyes. “Yes, he was a good man.”

Henry did not know what to say, but Latangi stepped toward him. “Also this, Mr. Garrett. Mohit was a poet as well. More of a poet than a businessman, you see.”

Latangi looked closely at Henry as if she were studying him, attempting to discern some hidden quality or avocation of his own, then she went to the table and reached for a bright blue teapot. “He composed long works of poetry, so very many pages,” she said. She made the
noise of a typewriter. “Page upon page. Poetry of a spiritual nature but also poetry of love, if you understand.”

Henry nodded, and Latangi poured the tea from the bright blue pot into two small cups.

“I am afraid I am not much for poetry, Mr. Garrett. I am not equal to it, I would say. Mohit, he loved these words more than food. Once, he said to me, ‘I have married you, Latangi, for your words the way other men marry for wealth.'” She laughed and sipped her tea. “Yes, you should hear him. ‘You are a bottomless well of words, Latangi, and so you are a treasure to me,' he would say. Even upon our marriage he declared that my only task was to fill his life with words.”

“Did you?” Henry asked, accepting the cup of tea that Latangi offered him.

“Yes, yes,” Latangi said, laughing, leading Henry through the living room into a small kitchen with a Formica table spread with ceramic pots, a vase of dried flowers at the center. “I am so full of words, I am afraid, Mr. Garrett, I have allowed you too few.”

“That's fine,” Henry said, sitting down. “I don't have so many. They stay here,” he said, pointing to his head.

“Yes, yes,” Latangi said. “When Mohit passed away, I no longer wanted to speak. My whole life I had done nothing but speak. Suddenly the words were gone. Without Mohit's ears to listen, I felt as though I had no mouth.”

“Yes,” Henry said. “I understand.”

“This hurricane,” Latangi said. “So terrible. It is all beyond words.”

“Yes,” Henry said, and he realized that he had not turned on the television again, that he had no idea what was happening in New Orleans. He wondered if the water had receded but then realized that it could not have. Where would it go? As a child, he had marveled every time he and his father drove past the Orleans Canal pumping station, its smoky red-brick walls pierced by the giant green metal pipes that emerged from the ground like secret passageways to the underworld. Would the city simply rot away beneath the water? Who was left there now? Who had failed to obey the order to leave? How many had not been able to get up from their beds and so were now dead? How many had climbed stairs as the water rose and then could climb no higher?

Henry looked down at the plate Latangi had placed before him. He wondered if anyone he knew had stayed there, had died in the storm. He tried to think of who might have been foolish enough to remain in the city, who might not have had the means to get out. There had been so many people coming in and out of Endly's—homeless men, their heads filled with voices, too angry or disturbed to distinguish the real threat of a hurricane from the threats they lived with every day, the snakes that leaped from the mouth of anyone without a beard, as one man had told him, or the deadly poison that women could inject through your ears simply by speaking at a certain pitch. Henry thought about Tomas Otxoa, whom he hadn't seen in weeks. Maybe he had already left New Orleans, had gone back to San Sebastián or Caracas. Or maybe he had taken his own life, drunk and consumed by despair, certain he'd never find his brother. Henry tried to listen to Latangi, tried to quiet the clatter in his head, but he could not stop himself from hearing Tomas's voice—the way he cleared his throat and closed his eyes before speaking, as if he were trying to summon the smallest details from his memory.

“There was, in the city of Tolosa,” he'd begun one afternoon, “as there is, I suppose, in every small town, a person who in English is called, I believe, a village idiot. Village idiot, yes?” he'd said, and Henry had nodded even though Tomas didn't open his eyes.

Latangi was saying something about one of the dishes she'd made, but Henry felt his temples throb, felt shooting pains behind his eyes, and he couldn't get Tomas Otxoa's voice out of his head.

“A village idiot, then, though Bernardo Belaga was not so much an idiot as a drunkard,” Tomas had told him, sipping his gin, and Henry had known what would come next, Tomas's meandering description of this man Bernardo Belaga—how he'd worn a dusty navy beret to hide the few strands of straw-colored hair remaining on his head, how his tattered clothes were forever stained with the cheap wine from the Navarre by which he achieved and perpetuated his intoxication, how he had worked for his father, a butcher, but after slicing off, on three separate occasions, two of the fingers and half of the thumb on his left hand—in the final incident, the digit in question had been wrapped in paper and taken off by a customer before the drunk Bernardo recognized the extent of his injury—he had become instead a crossing guard for Tolosa's primary school, though his habit of studying too closely the legs and hindquarters of the children's young mothers as they paraded before him, as though he were peering at deliveries destined for his father's shop, ensured that Bernardo was quickly deemed unqualified for this position as well, and how, after that, Bernardo no longer pursued employment of any kind, content to spend his days happily wandering Tolosa's streets, sleeping on hot afternoons in the city square beneath the shadow cast by the Convento de San Francisco, though, by some miracle, even three hours' sleep did nothing to diminish his intoxication, nor did the news one day that his father had died of a heart attack after hoisting a particularly large lamb's leg upon the scales for sale to Mr. and Mrs. José Domingo Azurza, whose youngest daughter was to be married that Sunday morning.

BOOK: A Thousand Miles from Nowhere
11.13Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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