A Death in the Family ~ Laurie Hertzel

My mother was leaving to run some errands and she invited me to go along. My father, Guv, was tying his shoes, about to leave for a tennis match, and I was torn. I loved riding in the car with Trish, sitting in front, having her all to myself. But there was also a chance that Guv might let me be his ball-getter, racing after errant tennis balls that rolled to the far corners of the court, or sometimes even flew over the fence. I was good at this, and I never got in the way.

I chose Trish. The twins came too, sitting side by side in the back seat of the station wagon, but I got to sit in front, like a grown-up. After the grocery store, after the library, our last stop was Scarlett’s, to pick up some birdseed for Larry’s little peaked-roof feeder in the back yard. That red feeder attracted squirrels and chickadees all winter long—yellow-gold seeds and black sunflower husks scattered across the deep snow under the birch tree—but now that it was summer, my brother was hoping for more colorful visitors.

Scarlett’s was an old feed store on the edge of downtown where the oddball businesses were —Mr. Fix-It, where Trish had taken our toaster and blender more than once; the Union Gospel Mission, where the bums hung out; and a dusty shop that sold what I thought were antiques but which Trish said were junk. I loved Scarlett’s, which was just like the general store in the Little House books, unchanged in a hundred years, with scuffed wooden floors, long narrow aisles, and high ceilings. Its wooden shelves held clay pots and trowels, rat poison and tomato cages. The place had an earthy, musty smell, perhaps from the bags of fertilizer and potting soil slumped on the sidewalk out in front. The big garage-style doors were always wide open, and birds flew in and out.

As Trish threaded her way down the aisle toward the birdseed, twins in tow, I stopped at a shelf of cast-iron miniatures and reached out to touch a little black pot-bellied stove. It had a round grate that lifted off with a tiny silver tool, and its fire door, which opened and closed on two hinges, was painted with blue morning glories. I thought it was a wonderful, beautiful thing, far superior to the stocky square cast-iron stove that my dollhouse already had, especially now that I’d lost the cast-iron frying pan and coal scuttle it had come with. Also, the door on mine had no flowers and hung crooked from one hinge.

I knew that my trolls did not need two stoves—and at nine I seldom played with the dollhouse anymore anyway—but I wanted that pot-bellied stove, those blue winding flowers, that fat little base. I reached out, touched it, opened its little door, willed Trish to notice me and buy it for me, or, at least, remember my desire when my tenth birthday rolled around in a mere five months. I whispered under my breath, mind control, hypnotism: “Buy this for me. Buy this for me. Buy this for me.”

Trish paid for the birdseed, loaded it into the back of the station wagon with the groceries, and called to me. We drove home, up Twenty-fourth Avenue East to Fourth Street, around the corner, parked in front. We always took the same route.

Guv was not out playing tennis. He was standing on the front porch, arms folded across his chest, and Trish frowned. “I wonder what’s the matter with him this time?” she asked, and I thought, he always looks like that. She turned off the engine and waited, hands in her lap, and I have since wondered about those ten or twenty seconds that it took Guv to walk down the front steps, out into the street, and around to her window—how much she thought about them later and whether she held them precious in her heart, those ten seconds before she knew.

Guv did not bend down, did not look at her. He stood in the street next to the car and he said, “John Patrick drowned this afternoon,” and Trish began to cry.

“Oh, Leo,” she said, and I thought how odd it was to hear them use real names. “He tried so hard.” She bent her head and Guv reached through the window and gripped her hand.

I sat in the front seat, small, forgotten, intensely aware that I was witness to something intimate and terrible, something I was not supposed to see, and I grew so nervous, so agitated, that I had to fight an intense and wild urge to laugh.

I got out of the car, leaving the twins sitting in the back seat, and I walked up the front stairs.

David came out of the kitchen. “What’s wrong?” he asked, and I thought how young he was, how innocent, not yet knowing this terrible thing that had happened. But it didn’t seem to be my place to tell him. “Nothing,” I said, feeling old and superior. She was old beyond her years, I thought.

“You’re mad because I’m going with Guv to be his ball-getter,” he said.

“You’re not going,” I said. “Guv isn’t going to play tennis today.” And I headed for the stairs. I didn’t know what to think. I didn’t know how I was supposed to feel.

John is dead, I told myself, over and over. John is dead. But it didn’t feel real. Nothing about it felt real. Who was John, anyway? My brother was Bobby. Using his real name just added to the unreality of it all. What is dead? I didn’t know anyone who was dead, except for Uncle Doc, and that was a long time ago, and he was old. Dead? Drowned? These things did not happen to us. These things happened to other people.

I went into the Girls’ Room, climbed the ladder to my top bunk, and lay down. No one was around. The house already felt heavy with sadness and a terrible hush. I didn’t know who knew and who didn’t. I didn’t know who I could talk to. I pressed my face into the pillow and thought, I wonder how long it will be before things get back to normal.

Through the thick silence, I heard a noise: a high-pitched sound that hurt my ears. A scream. It grew louder, louder, and I could also hear footsteps coming slowly, heavily up the stairs, stumbling past my bedroom door. The scream was loud and high, a wild, desperate sound, and it didn’t stop. It was coming from my mother. Out in the hall, Guv held Trish’s arm tightly as he guided her to their bedroom. She kept on screaming. I put the pillow over my head and held my breath. I heard the sound of Trish and Guv’s bedroom door close.

That night Kristin’s stories weren’t funny. She had a new job, working at Penney’s at the Plaza, and on her way home she had stopped at the florist to buy a carnation. She walked in the front door, holding the flower wrapped in fragile green tissue, and Guv told her about Bobby. About John Patrick. He was shaking so hard she could barely understand him, and then he told her that she had to go with him to identify the body because he was not sure he could drive.

“I was holding that flower,” she said. “Why did I have to buy that stupid flower?” And I heard her sob. I didn’t know why holding a flower would have made things worse, so I just lay in my top bunk and listened.

When they got to the hospital, Guv couldn’t make himself go in—he was shaking too much to open the car door, and sobbing—so Kristin did. “I had to identify the body,” she whispered in the dark, and that was all she would tell us. No story. Just, “Why did I buy that flower?”

Nancy spoke. “My last memory of him was right after commencement,” she said. “He said, ‘Congratulate me, Nancy, I’m a graduate!’ And I shook his hand. He was still wearing his cap and gown.”

It was such a perfect last memory that I could not share mine: Me rushing up the stairs, Bobby rushing down, shoving me into the wall, snapping at me: “Move!”

John is dead, I told myself again, but it didn’t feel true.

The dining room table was loaded with food. Although it was mid-June, the cloth was spread as though for Christmas, or Thanksgiving, nearly every inch covered: A bowl of meatballs. A platter of brownies. Breads and cold cuts, and a pineapple upside-down cake glazed with melted brown sugar and studded with maraschino cherries. Hot dishes topped with tater tots and melted cheese. Two big crockery pots of baked beans. I wandered around and around the table, and I wondered where the food had come from, and could I have a brownie? But there was no one to ask. Trish and Guv had not come out of their room for days, and none of my siblings were around. I didn’t know where they were. There was a strange woman in the kitchen; I didn’t know her name, I didn’t know where she had come from or why she was there. She came into the dining room and she was wearing one of Trish’s aprons. She said, “Don’t touch that food! That’s for your poor mother.”

But Trish was upstairs and did not come down for meals.

I knew the story now, of how Bobby had died. There had been an article in the newspaper, with the headline, “Duluth Youth Drowns While Water Skiing.” Now everyone will know, I thought. Everyone will know our private business.

I had assumed he had drowned in enormous Lake Superior. It was the only lake I knew. But the story said he drowned in Maple Lake. I wondered where Maple Lake was.

Bobby had been at a friend’s cabin; that’s where he was headed when I saw him on the stairs. He had been waterskiing, his three friends in the speedboat as they rocketed around the lake. I pictured him, in his glasses and white jeans—no, he wouldn’t have worn his jeans to waterski, he must have had a swimming suit, but I had never seen him in a swimming suit. I changed the picture in my brain: Bobby, his dark curly hair, his dark-rimmed glasses, his white legs, holding onto the rope handle, skimming across the blue water glinting in the sun.

But something had happened—a pin had broken in the engine of the boat, but I didn’t know what that meant: A pin? A safety pin? A what? And the boat stopped. And when the boat stopped, the skis were no longer being pulled along, and they began to sink. And Bobby began to sink.

It was a terrible story, but I went over it and over it my mind. Bobby got out of the skis, began to swim to the boat—Bobby could swim? When did he learn to swim? I didn’t know that anyone in our family could swim, we never did anything more than wade in Lake Superior, which was so cold that even on the hottest days of summer it made me gasp, freezing my feet, turning them a bloodless white.

Bobby began to swim toward the boat, but he got a cramp and then he couldn’t swim anymore. He started to go under. One friend jumped off the boat and swam to him. The other friend continued frantically to tinker with the engine, trying to get it started again. I added the word “frantically” myself because surely he must have been working as fast as he could so that he could swing the boat around and rush to my brother’s aid. I didn’t know his friends. Maybe that friend couldn’t swim either.

The first friend got to Bobby and tried to help him but Bobby panicked, flailed, splashed. The friend was being pulled under, and he had to let go.

The day before the funeral, Kristin took the twins and Heidi and me on a walk, to get us out of the house, to get us out of people’s hair, maybe to give herself something to do. We walked up Twenty-Fourth Avenue East beyond Fifth Street, beyond Sixth Street, to Kent Road, past the big houses, along the deliciously scary Slanted Sidewalk that always threatened to slide us into the deep ravine it bordered. It was not as scary in the summer, but in the winter, when the sidewalks were icy, I always ran when I got to that stretch.

Heidi was four, and she skipped along happily, holding onto Kristin’s hand. “Now Bobby won’t have to go seek his fortune,” she said merrily, and Kristin stopped. “Don’t ever say that again,” she said to Heidi. “Don’t ever say that to Guv or Trish.”

The funeral was at Johnson Mortuary, but I was afraid to say that out loud because it had the word “John” in it, and any mention of John would make people cry. Uncle Patty was here, and Jane. Iny was here, and her husband, Bill, who was so nice. Gramma. John, the other John, the real John, our grandfather: they were all here.

I sat on the living room couch and watched the adults mill and talk. They filled all available space, packed the living room and spilled over into the dining room. They spoke softly. There were no fights. There had been fights, earlier, on the phone; Gramma had sobbed when Guv told her the news and then had stopped crying and said, “This would never have happened if you had let him live with us.”

But now here she was in our dining room, her silver hair curled, wearing a navy-blue dress and low heels.

Guv walked outside in his suit, came back in from the front porch. He held out both hands; they were full of dollar bills. Tears streamed down his face. “Someone stuffed fifty dollars in our mailbox,” he said.

At the funeral home, I sat on one of the folding chairs and waited for everything to be over. I wore my Pilgrim dress, my nice gray dress with the square linen collar and the tie belt in back. I swung my feet. I wanted everything to go back to normal. Would things be normal by fall? Would I get birthday presents? Would Trish buy me the pot-bellied stove? Would things be normal by Christmas? Somehow I knew they would not.

Nancy had grabbed my arm as we walked into the funeral home, pulled me aside, warned me to stay quiet and behave myself. This annoyed me. I was not a child. I was nine years old. I knew how to behave. Holly was sitting in the back row with Tony and Tommy, keeping them quiet, ready to whisk them outside if they fussed. They were only six. Heidi had stayed home. I didn’t know who was watching her. Jane, maybe. I was not the youngest person here. And I knew how to behave.

Uncle Patty came up, put his arm around my shoulder. “Go say goodbye to your brother,” he said. “Take a good look. You’ll never see him again.” And he led me to the coffin in the front of the room. I did not want to look; I had never seen a dead body, and I knew that I would never forget my brother, ever, would never forget calling him Punky and screaming with delight when he chased me, never forget spying on him when he typed his poems in his basement room, never forget him shoving me out of the way, yelling, “Move!” as he ran down the stairs and out the door.

I looked. A wax figure lay in the coffin, thick with makeup that hid the red of its acne, but not the bumps. Its eyes were closed. Its wiry hair was brushed flat. Its glasses were folded neatly and had been laid next to its left shoulder. It was nicely dressed in a button-down shirt, but I could only see as far as the waist; the rest of the figure was covered by the bottom half of the coffin lid. This was not my brother. My brother did not wear makeup. My brother always wore his glasses, except when Guv hid them. My brother’s eyes were open, and watchful, and blue. Sometimes he squinted. I looked and looked until I thought that Uncle Patty would be satisfied, and then I turned and sat down. I would never forget my brother, but I knew I would never forget that wax figure, either.

The funeral was long and boring. A priest spoke, swishing up to the front in white robes. I could hear weeping coming from all corners of the room but I did not dare look around. I swung my feet and waited. And then the long line to the cars; we did not take our own car, but Guv and Uncle Patty and I got into one of the long black funeral cars. Now I understood the black cars that I had seen so often glide past our house. I was afraid we were in the hearse, that we were traveling with the wax body, but Uncle Patty said we were not. It was in front of us, and we followed it.

Our car had a driver, and there were little dangling straps to hang onto, like on a bus, and the back seats were different than in our car; they faced each other. Guv faced Uncle Patty, and I sat by Uncle Patty and faced Guv, and as the car pulled away from the funeral home and headed up Twenty-First Avenue East, Guv grabbed one of the little straps and held on.

Uncle Patty cracked a joke. I looked at him, uncertain if I should laugh. It wasn’t a very funny joke, and I knew this was not a time to be laughing, but I didn’t want him to feel bad. I gave him a small, disapproving smile. “Shut up, Pat,” Guv said. Uncle Patty cracked another joke. “Shut up, Pat,” Guv said, and his voice trembled.

The big black car turned onto Fourth Street. Were they taking us home? Were we not going to the cemetery? Guv said to the driver, “Do we have to go this way?” His voice was shaking and it sounded meek, meeker than I had ever heard him.

The driver looked at him in the rear-view mirror. “It’s the fastest way,” he said, and he sounded apologetic.

“But it’s the hardest,” Guv said, and tears rolled down his face.

We passed our house, and it looked so ordinary and homey, as though the front door might open and all of us dash out into the yard, Bobby in the lead. We passed the church-across-the-street, passed Holy Rosary Cathedral, turned onto Wallace Avenue, headed to Woodland Avenue and the cemetery. There was a long line of cars behind us, all with their lights on. We didn’t stop at stop signs, we didn’t stop at red lights, we didn’t slow down. We just kept going. Everyone got out of our way.