Image: “Harakiri” by Seyo Cizmic, redesigned hammer and nail, 13x7x2 in.
Next of Kin
By Sarah Freligh
Richard Nixon is dying.
The radio in Sophie’s car burps to life with this news, then mysteriously quits. A short in the electrical system, according to her brother Kevin, something tricky and too expensive to bother with in a car this old. Sophie stops and slaps the dashboard twice the way Kevin showed her, but the news has moved on from Nixon to a pending execution on Florida’s Death Row. Sophie yawns and reaches in her purse for a cigarette before she remembers she’s no longer a smoker: nine days, one hour, and four minutes now. It’s too early for bad news, much too early to be out of bed, out of her bathrobe, out in the world.
Sophie pulls up in front of her childhood house and shuts off the engine. Breathe, she reminds herself. In through the nose, out through the mouth. Deep, calming breaths, the way she learned in SmokeEnders. Visualize a peaceful time, a safe place. A wading pool. A twin bed. The screened porch of her childhood.
She takes a final breath and opens the car door, steps out into the street. Everywhere there are ghosts, stepping out from the porches and the yards of her childhood to stare at her; there, just under the layers of new paint and brick. Inside her old house, a light goes on, revealing a shadowed figure inside. Mom,Sophie thinks for an absurd moment. Then the door opens, and the shadow grows a nose, mouth and eyes, becomes Cecile Harper.
“Thanks so much for coming,” Cecile says, holding open the door.
“Sure,” Sophie says. The cellar entrance of her childhood, a jumble of muddy boots in winter and grass-stained canvas shoes in summer, has been renovated out of existence, replaced by an atrium full of plants. Sophie follows Cecile through the hallway and into the kitchen.
“Coffee?” Cecile says. Though it’s barely six in the morning, Cecile looks like a clothing ad in ribbed black leggings and an oversized burgundy sweater, her face poreless under a mask of beige makeup.
“Please,” Sophie says.
“Cream? Sugar?” Cecile asks.
Sophie shakes her head. She accepts the mug of coffee, sips it gratefully. Even the coffee is perfect, dark as a root and tasting of vanilla.
“Where was he this time?” Sophie says.
“Over by the rose bush. With his pants down around his ankles,” Cecile says, twisting the platinum wedding ring on her finger.
“God,” Sophie says.
“Bill found him when he let Sugar out. Tried to get him inside, but Kevin fought him. He claimed he was Plutarch, sent by God to bless the household.”
“That’s what he said.” Cecile raises her chin and looks at Sophie. “I put him in the television room so the kids wouldn’t bother him.”
So he wouldn’t bother them,Sophie thinks. “He’s not dangerous, Cecile.”
Cecile studies her fingernails. “How can you know that?”
“He’s my brother. I’d know if—”
“He needs help.”
“He’s seeing someone. A shrink. Every week now for a year.”
Deep breaths, Sophie tells herself. In-two-three-four then out again. It’s that or throw her mug across the room. She imagines rivulets of coffee staining Cecile’s pristine walls and stuffs down a smile. “I don’t know what else I can do,” Sophie says finally.
She finds Kevin in what used to be their dining room, sprawled on the floor, his chin propped in his hands. He is watching one of the morning shows on a large-screen television built into a wall of books. The other two walls have been painted white, stripped of the silver fleur de lis paper their mother had hung. The furniture is gray and black and chrome, straight out of a design magazine—a far cry from the lumpy, mismatched sofa and chairs of Sophie’s childhood.
Nixon is dying, all right. An NBC correspondent is stationed outside the hospital, talking into a microphone. His brow is furrowed in what passes for concern as he glances at his notes. Nixon’s brain is swelling. He’s fallen into a deep coma. His daughters, Tricia and Julie, are by his bedside, with their husbands and children. The next of kin, the correspondent says, running the syllables together so that it sounds Russian.Nekstovkin.
“Kevin,” Sophie says softly, careful not to startle him.
“What?” he says, eyes fixed on the television.
“We have to go,” she says. She jingles the keys in her pocket, waits. “Kevin?”
He turns finally, looks up for the first time. “What are you doing here?”
“Cecile called me. She was worried.”
He snorts. “Right.”
“Kevin, I have to take you home,” she says.
“In a minute.”
She checks her watch, sighs, and sits down. The old, gray-faced Nixon gives way to footage of a young Nixon, bullet-headed, grinning and almost handsome; of Eisenhower and Nixon in the fifties, arms entwined, waving to a crowd. Now it is Nixon alone, climbing the stairs of a helicopter for the last time, an ex-president now. He turns and sweeps his arm awkwardly across his body in what he must have thought was a jaunty wave.
Sophie had watched this live on a black and white television in a bar with people she worked with at K-Mart, people she barely knew. They were the only ones in the bar at the time. The bartender was someone’s boyfriend. He kept buying rounds for them, urging them to drink up. Sophie drank five shots of ouzo and made out briefly by the cigarette machine with a man who sold guns in Sporting Goods. They clinked glasses and toasted the television until the helicopter became mosquito-sized and they were sure that Nixon was really gone.
Now, looking at Nixon, Sophie is struck by the kinship she feels with him, the recognition of a fellow fake. The bared teeth, the tight grin: the exact way she’s arranged her own face to keep it from shattering.
In the car, she helps Kevin fasten the buckle on the seat belt. Brushing against his stomach, she thinks of a bag of cat litter, the shifting, unstable weight of it. Punctured, he would empty out, leaving a shell of crumpled paper.
She steers the car into the street, waving to Cecile, who is watering a bed of daffodils next to the driveway. The radio comes on again, and Kevin sings falsetto accompaniment to the Four Tops. At the corner, Sophie waits while a yellow school bus stops to admit three children.
“I don’t like what they’ve done to the dining room,” Kevin says.
“No?” It amazes Sophie how quickly he can sound like the old Kevin.
“Why’d they take off all that walnut molding?” He pulls down the visor, stares at himself in the little mirror.
“Cecile said she wanted a lighter look for that room,” Sophie says. “She thought the walnut was too dark.”
She passes a cyclist, a woman pumping up a hill, cheeks puffing with exertion. Maybe that’s what she should do, buy a bike and ride it as fast as she can until all the nicotine is purged from her system. Then come back and step into her life again.
“Waste of good wood,” he says. He flips the visor up and hums under his breath with the radio. When the song climbs up and out of his range, he grunts and switches the station.
“Hey, Soph? You got a cigarette?”
“Quit again?” He grins.
“I’m going to do it this time, Kevin.” She downshifts, turns the corner to his apartment.
“Sure you are.”
“I am.” A pause. “Why do you do things like that?”
“Like show up at Cecile and Bill’s house in the middle of the night.”
He shrugs. “I sleepwalk.”
He shrugs again. She pulls up in front of the sidewalk leading to his apartment and the courtyard beyond and lets the engine idle while Kevin unbuckles his seat belt.
“Well,” she says.
Kevin hunches his shoulders, tucks his chin into his neck, and narrows his eyes. “I am not a crook.”
Sophie shifts from neutral into first. “Come on, Kevin,” she says.
“Pat doesn’t own a fur coat. Just a respectable Republican cloth coat.”
Sophie laughs in spite of herself. “I have to get ready for work.”
Sophie was working the night Nixon announced he was resigning. The manager had interrupted the loop of Muzak playing over the loudspeakers—“Attention, K-Mart shoppers”—and directed customers to the Audio Visual Department as if the resignation were a Blue-Light Special. Sophie was waiting on a customer who had bought a pair of canvas sandals in black the week before and was back for the same pair in off-white. Sophie looked through the boxes under the counter and told the customer they were out of them. She hoped the customer wouldn’t ask her to check the stockroom, which was draped with cobwebs and overrun with mice. Sophie had once discovered small brown mouse turds in the heel of a pair of oxfords she was preparing to shoehorn onto a customer. She’d flipped furtively through the tissue paper in the box, half-expecting to find the mouse, dead or alive.
Sophie put up the sign telling customers to get assistance in the Sports Department and walked across the store to the Audio Visual Department. A crowd of employees and customers was arrayed in a semicircle around the stack of televisions. Jim, the manager of Notions, gestured to Sophie to join him in the front. She excused herself through the thicket of bodies until she stood three feet from an entire wall of gaunt, haunted Richard Nixons. She felt hot and itchy in her polyester smock with the press of people at her back. She watched Nixon’s speech for a minute, then left, murmuring something to Jim about work she had to do back in Shoes. She stopped in Housewares to retrieve a pair of small blue canvas sneakers someone had dumped in a colander. Behind her, the crowd in Audio Visual cheered as if they were watching a football game. She kept walking.
Kevin picked Sophie up from work, sipping from a can of Budweiser and singing “Ding Dong the Witch is Dead” at the top of his lungs until Sophie told him to shut up. He had been back from Vietnam for nearly a year and was working, when he felt like it, at Doc’s Garage.
Which was rarely, Sophie pointed out to her mother that night.
“He just needs some time, honey,” her mother said. She took a load of towels from the dryer, began to fold them. “The same as your father did.”
After World War II, Sophie’s father had bought a silly beret with the idea of becoming a novelist. He sat in a sidewalk cafe in Paris drinking espresso and writing the same sentence over and over again: “He was a boy when the war began and a man when it ended.” Then his money ran out and he came home and married Sophie’s mother and took up tax accounting and never wrote another sentence again except, “Your father sends a big HELLO,” at the bottom of the letters her mother wrote to her at YMCA camp.
“It’s not the same, Mom,” Sophie said.
“Kevin’s working things out,” her mother said.
“He’s not working at a damn thing,” Sophie said.
Because of Kevin, Sophie is forty-five minutes late for work. She tiptoes past the receptionist’s desk, putting her finger to her lips as she passes. May, who’s talking on the phone, rolls her eyes and raises her hand in a silent greeting.
Sophie eases into her chair, sneaking a look at Rene’s office. The door is closed, which is unusual. For a boss, Rene is all right. She understands her employees—or tries to. She has long conversations with Sophie about what Rene calls her “passivity.” Rene likes to perch a tight-skirted buttock on the edge of Sophie’s desk and talk about the opportunities for smart, middle-aged women, the need to constantly change and grow. She leaves pamphlets on Sophie’s desk about college scholarships for women over forty. Sophie stows them unread in a drawer on top of the other things she can’t bring herself to throw out.
Rene is a lawyer, the head of the small legal publishing company. Her work is her life; the staff is her family. Anything is cause for celebration—a birthday, an engagement, a promotion, a new contract, the beginning of spring—a reason for Rene to come out of her office, pushing a cart with candles blazing away on a sheet cake. Anymore, Sophie mouths the words to “Happy Birthday” and usually doesn’t eat the cake unless Rene insists.
Sophie hangs her jacket on the hook inside her cubicle and hits the space bar on her computer. She tunes her Walkman to NPR and adjusts her earphones. She arranges her copy in the rack and begins to type: “The form of protest outlawed under Statute XII…” Her fingers have their own memory, allowing her mind to break away and wander like a tourist in an unfamiliar city.
The news is full of Nixon: his deeds and his misdeeds. An expert talks about “the brain” as if it were some kind of exotic pet. Sophie imagines the brain to be short-legged, like a Dachshund, only pink and round as a ham. She imagines the brain will go missing and end up in a jar on a flea market shelf in Abilene, Kansas, where a woman named Ida May Winston will find it, believing it to be Eisenhower’s liver until a brain expert from Harvard does a biopsy and confirms that it’s Nixon’s lost brain. Ida May will work her way through the talk shows, the morning guys first—Phil Donahueand Sally Jessy Raphaeland Regis and Kathie Lee—and say each time how lucky she feels to have found Nixon’s brain. By the time she reaches the afternoon circuit—Oprah andMaury—she’s hired a personal trainer, lost twenty pounds, and acquired a power wardrobe. When she finally appears on Nightline, she’s dispensed with the luck stuff, the happy accident. You bet she was looking for Nixon’s brain among the piles of Depression glass and antique bedpans. The really hard part was trying not to laugh when the man at the cash register charged her three dollars for the bottle it was in and oh-so-helpfully pointed out the little crack running along the underside of the bottle—
“Sophie. Hey.” It’s May, leaning into her cubicle. Sophie lifts the headset from her left ear. “Rene wants to see you.”
“Now? What about?”
“Shit,” Sophie says. She switches her Walkman off and hooks the earphones over her chair.
Rene’s door is open, but Sophie knocks twice on the doorframe anyway. Rene, holding court behind her desk, is dressed impeccably—a suit or a pantsuit, Sophie can’t tell—in some expensive, suedey-looking purple material over a red-silk blouse. Clearly, Renee’s mother never warned heragainst wearing purple with red, as if putting the two colors together would cause the clothes to ignite and melt from her body, leaving her standing pale as an uncooked chicken in her baggy Lollipop panties.
“Sophie, hi.” Rene stands and smiles at her. “Sit, sit,” she says, sweeping past her in a swish of nylons and suede to shut the door. She sits in the chair across from Sophie and crosses her legs. “I got your message.” She picks up a pencil, rolling it off her fingernails onto her palm. “Your brother again?”
“Sweetie, I may be out of line when I say this, but you can’t put him on your back and carry him through life.”
Sophie nods again.
“It’s just too heavy a burden.”
“I know,” Sophie says, twitching back a smile in spite of herself. She imagines Rene leaping onto her desk, yanking a top hat from the sleeve of her purple suit and breaking into song: He’s too heavy, he’s your brother.
“You need to do for yourself for once,” Rene says. “Take care of yourown life, you know what I mean?”
“Did you check into that scholarship I told you about?”
She nods again. She hasn’t. “I’m looking into my options.”
“I don’t mean to interfere,” Rene says.
“No, it’s okay.”
Rene stands and yanks at her skirt. “I do it because I like you.”
Sophie stands too, wondering if she should thank Rene or shake Rene’s hand or both. “Okay,” she finally says.
Back at her desk, she fits the earphones over her head and tunes her Walkman to a classical music station—a piano concerto, weeping chords full of romantic angst. Perfect. Sophie plays along on her keyboard “…when the writ of habeas corpus is granted…” She’s faster and better than anyone, more graceful, too; look at the arc of her wrist, so perfect, never a missed key, that clear, clear tone. When the applause comes, she accepts it with an angry flourish. Everyone needs her to do something, to be someone or something. She just wants to be.
Once upon a time, she was Kevin’s little sister, moon to his sun, consort to his king. Their neighborhood was filled with boys Kevin’s age, the space taken over by sprawling arms and dingy canvas sneakers. They tolerated her because of Kevin. They let her chase the foul balls that rolled into the woods beyond the field, where bums were known to squat on fallen logs and sip from bottles of cheap, sweet wine. When the builders dug a hole and poured the concrete for the Morrisons’ house, the boys moved their games to the street, flashing the finger at anyone who honked or told them to get out of the way.
Summer nights, they’d lounge on the front porch, trying out dirty words, savoring the taste on their tongues. They’d whistle under their breath at college girls walking by in their hard, pointed bras, bragging afterward what they’d do to her if they got that onehome alone. Sophie would sit on the periphery of the porch, hugging her knees, letting the loose boy talk wrap round her like a blanket.
One night, somebody—Billy Mizinski or Eddie Strayer, she can’t remember—accidentally backed against her, knocking her from the railing to the ground. Her teeth slammed into her bottom lip. Red sand floated up behind her eyes as the sky fell away.
When she could see again, a huddle of faces rose over her like full moons. It was Kevin’s face she picked out, whiter and more worried than the rest. He was actually crying, Sophie saw, loud enough so the other boys would hear him and make him pay for it later.
The phone on her desk rings as she’s shutting off her computer and preparing to go home.
It’s Kevin. She can hear men’s voices, the blare of a television in the background. He tells her he’s at the VA hospital, no big deal. Just a little accident. “I need some stuff from my apartment,” he says.
“An accident? What happened? Why are you in the hospital?” she says.
“My bathrobe, a carton of cigarettes. You know. Stuff.”
“Jesus, Kevin,” she says, but he is gone, cut off or else he has hung up. She is left with a dial tone ringing in her ear, left with questions and no answers.
She locates him in the lounge at the end of the hallway, watching television, sitting next to a man in a wheelchair whose head is bowed as if he is praying. A third man sits across the room, turning magazine pages, moving his lips.
Kevin’s hands are mittened in gauze. He’s wearing a plaid hospital gown and raveling canvas high tops on his feet.
“Good, I’m freezing,” he says when he sees her.
Sophie helps him into his bathrobe, trying not to look when his gown gaps, showing his white thighs and heavy ass. She remembers Kevin at eighteen, the summer before he was drafted, brown as a buckeye in faded cutoffs, standing on a ladder propped against the house, covering gray paint with white. By July, his hair was so bleached, the paint didn’t show anymore. The college girls would linger on the sidewalk in front of the house to light a cigarette, straightening their shoulders to display braless breasts.
She hands him the carton of Pall Malls and sits on the couch.
“Light me a cigarette, will you?” One of Nixon’s daughters, the one who was married in the Rose Garden, is walking into the hospital where Nixon is, holding the hand of a young man with Nixon’s nose and chin.
“I quit, Kevin. I told you that.” The tape is running in her head again: the red cellophane string, the foil, the cushiony feel of the filter as she eases the cigarette from the pack. She ejects that one, inserts the lung-cancer tape instead: tar bubbling up from the road on a hot summer day.
“So how am I supposed to smoke? Huh? See?” He dances his hands like puppets in front of her eyes.
“I don’t know,” she says. She looks at the bridge of his nose—a trick her mother had taught her to use when she wanted to appear sincere. “Kevin. I talked to Mr. Stevens. It’s going to cost a lot of money to fix the damage.”
Kevin swings his head around. His eyes are little slits of light in his head. “They should give us fire extinguishers,” he says.
“People shouldn’t smoke in bed and fall asleep,” she says.
He holds up his hands again. “I put the fire out. With these very hands. I sacrificed them to the greater good of the Wheaton Street Apartments.” He laughs and stomps his feet.
“Sssh,” the magazine reader says.
“Kevin, Mr. Stevens doesn’t want you back there,” she says. She had found him kicking through the wet ruin of Kevin’s charred apartment, muttering to himself, a used-up root of a man. Said a guy like Kevin would be as likely to buy a high-powered rifle and go to the top of the Federal Bank Building, start shooting at anything for no reason at all. Happened the other day, in fact, out there in South Dakota or Nevada. One of those states you forget is there. A guy, a Vietnam vet like Kevin, had shot up a post office because they didn’t deliver a Valentine his ex-wife had sent him. Turned out the ex-wife had lied; there never was any Valentine. All those people, dead for no reason.
“So? I’ll crash with you for a while,” Kevin says.
Sophie shakes her head. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
“Just for a little while, Soph.”
“No,” she says. The word cracks like a whip, slicing the air.
“Come on. A week?”
She swallows to wet her throat. Her fingers crave a cigarette. “I called the Home.”
“I called the Vets Home.”
“Those nuts? Nope. No way. Nyet. No, thank you.”
“You can have your own apartment if you want. A one—”
“I don’t want,” he says. He stands, spilling the cigarette carton from his lap. He kicks it across the room, under the couch of the magazine reader. At the door to the lounge, he turns and raises a mittened fist at her. “Fuck you, Soph,” Kevin says.
The magazine reader looks up. “Hey, fuck you too, buddy,” he says.
A message on her answering machine promises to change her oil, rotate her tires, check her points and plugs and clean her car inside and out, all for the low, low,low price of $44.95. The voice sounds like it’s coming from the bottom of an empty soup can. Sophie waits for the number and scribbles it on the back of her electric bill.
There are no more messages.
She washes the dishes she left in the sink that morning. Already, it feels like a week ago, another day. Cecile’s face floats up from the lace of soapsuds, concern layered over her features like makeup she might have applied for such an occasion. She is sitting on the edge of her daughter’s bed. The bed has four posts and a canopy. She is reading her daughter a book, explaining the words to her as she goes along. Cecile will pull the covers to her daughter’s chin and tell her she loves her before she turns out the light. Then she’ll go downstairs, where she will watch a documentary on PBS with her husband Bill. They will hold hands, caressing the fat pads on the tips of their fingers, their own special erogenous zone.
Sophie sprinkles some parmesan cheese over the top of some leftover spaghetti, sets the microwave for forty-five seconds. She pulls grapes from a bunch and drapes them on the plate, the way her mother used to. “For color,” she’d tell them. No one noticed. They’d duck their heads and plow into the food, ask to be excused, scattering throughout the house and the neighborhood, leaving her alone with stacks of dirty dishes and the radio.
Sophie’s mother died of nothing. One day, her heart just quit on her, the way a clock stops when it winds down. No warning, no clue, just nothing. Sophie’s father had died the year before. “A stroke,” her mother said when she broke the news to Sophie. Sophie imagined the head of a golf club striking her father in the hollow behind his ear, felling him like a Sequoia. In reality, he had been mowing the lawn when he died, edging the mower around the shrubs bordering the front sidewalk.
Sophie handled everything after her mother died. She tagged the furniture for auction, scrubbed the bare wood floors. She scraped the mold from between the kitchen tiles with a screwdriver and filled the scratches on the bathroom door where their cat Matthew had sharpened his claws. She had done all this as if acquaintances had been living here rather than her family, hardening herself to the smell of her father’s pipes, the feel of her mother’s chipped white coffee mug.
In the upstairs bathroom, Sophie finally broke down and sobbed, remembering Kevin in the shower, whistling away the hot water before finally, finally emerging, wet hair spiked in devil’s horns, wrapped in a bath towel that he flapped at her, revealing a white slice of bun. Kevin, laughing like a maniac, happy once.
Sophie switches the channel to a situation comedy where nothing is happening. The characters in the sitcom are sitting in a diner, talking about cream-filled doughnuts. One of them has eaten a cream-filled doughnut that is a day old; the other characters joke about what they will do when he dies. They divvy up his possessions. The short, fat guy and the woman fight over who will get his collection of Indian-head pennies.
Sophie yawns and switches the channel. The sitcom is depressingly similar to a conversation she might have at work.
Sophie used to think that if she could pry off the back of the television, she could tumble smack dab into the middle of The Mickey Mouse Cluband become best friends with Annette and Darlene and Spin and Marty. She was sure the place called California was inside her television, a string of swimming pools shaded by palm trees, connected by wide streets crammed with red convertibles. Kevin told her she was stupid, a lame brain, and finally unscrewed the back of the television set to show her the cave of tubes and alleys, nothing else.
Nothing, she thinks, but cream-filled doughnuts.
She clicks the remote again, and Nixon’s face crowds the screen, a younger Nixon, half-smiling, his face unlined and open, unweighted by jowls. Sophie turns up the volume in time to hear a voice say that Richard Nixon, the thirty-seventh President of the United States, has died.
On Wednesday, Kevin is waiting for her in front of the hospital, militarily straight in his wheelchair, wearing pink-framed children’s sunglasses that squeeze his cheeks into apples. The gauze on his hands is gone, replaced by flesh-colored gloves. He’s holding a paper bag in his lap, staring straight ahead.
Sophie pulls up and taps the horn lightly, twice, to get his attention. When he turns, she sees what he’s been concealing; half his head is shaved to his scalp. Only his head isn’t round and sexy, like the guy in Kojak, but gray and bumpy and bloody where he has nicked himself with the razor.
She parks and walks around to open the door for him. She pulls the seat belt around him and fastens it, tries not to look at the shaved side of his head.
“You’re welcome,” she says. Kevin faces straight ahead, his palms resting on his thighs.
“Okay, be that way,” she says.
Unaccountably, she thinks of Lynette Hughes, Kevin’s girlfriend the summer he painted the house. Unable to sleep one night, Sophie crawled onto the roof outside her bedroom and saw them in the front seat of Kevin’s car, Lynette’s bra wound around her neck like a bandage, Kevin’s head bending over the white headlights of her breasts.
She takes a detour along the river and up through the old neighborhood. Gardeners are in front of their old house, planting shrubs where the front porch used to be, the very porch where she had her first kiss. She was playing hide and seek with Bobby Mizinski, which was just an excuse for the neighborhood boys to get the girls into dark places. It was on that porch where a boy, David O’Toole, felt her breasts for the first time and afterward passed her in the hall without looking at her. And it was on the porch where Kevin and some friends had unfurled the American Flag on Veterans Day while the parade passed, the field of stars covered with a skull and crossbones Kevin had sewn there. Their picture had been in the newspaper; standing on the porch, Kevin looking pleased, the only one of them smiling. Their father had shuffled to his armchair and cried behind the newspaper; in the kitchen, their mother cried into the ground beef she was molding for meatloaf.
Only Sophie had confronted him. “You asshole,” she screamed. “Are you crazy?”
“Yes,” he said.
She should have listened. She should have paid attention.
She turns into the parking lot of the Vets Home and pulls into a parking space in the back row. Someone has scrawled over the “compact cars only” sign in black marker, changed it to “combat scars only.” She locks her car door and walks around to Kevin’s side.
“Come on,” she says, opening the door.
Kevin doesn’t move.
“Get out of the car, ” she says. She folds her arms and waits. “Please, Kevin.”
“I told you,” he says. “You have to drag me in there.”
She sighs. “Okay, jerk.” She grabs him around the chest, the way she was taught in Senior Lifesaving to save a drowning man, and tries to pull him from the car. He is dead weight, but she manages to bump him down from the seat and onto the ground, where he collapses in a boneless heap.
She digs her hands under his armpits and starts to drag him across the pavement. Twice, her flip-flops trip her up, causing her to stumble and nearly fall. Renee should see her now, see how hard she is trying. “Help me,” she says. “Please.” She drags him a few more feet, then falls and kneels on the pavement next to him, breathing hard, barely aware of the gravel digging into her knees.
“Asshole,” she says.
Rene is right. Heistoo heavy, and she is so tired.
She doesn’t know how long she sits there crying. It’s only when she’s wiping her nose with her hand that she sees his hand in front of her, dangling a dingy piece of Kleenex.
This is what she can expect from Kevin—a used tissue. This is all.
She wipes her eyes and blows her nose. She remembers how, years before, she’d loaded him into her car and driven south on I-81 to Washington. She drove straight to the Vietnam War Memorial and waited for a parking place in the gathering twilight while a family from Saskatchewan stowed blankets, thermos, cooler, and lawn chairs into a station wagon and edged cautiously out into the traffic. Once there, Kevin had simply walked the length of the wall, stopping once to inspect a Teddy bear with a penciled note pinned to its neck: “Next year in Saigon.” At the motel later, Kevin asked Sophie if she didn’t think his hair was too long in the back; most of the men he had seen at the wall seemed to be wearing their hair short.
“You look like Mr. Slick Dick,” she says finally.
His lips twitch. Mr. Slick Dick was their secret name for a neighbor who was hairless as the result of a rare and unpronounceable disease. He wore a wig to work, but for chores like mowing the lawn, he preferred to be bald. The sight of his gleaming head bouncing up and down behind his shoulder-high hedge would send them into hysterics.
“It’s stylish,” Kevin says. “Very Michael Jordan, don’t you think?”
“It’s ugly,” Sophie says.
“What do you know?”
She reaches up and straightens his shirt collar. “Those sunglasses are ridiculous,” she says.
“What will you do without Kevin to kick around anymore?” he says.
“When did I ever kick you?” she says.
“I’m speaking metaphorically, of course.” He jams his hands into his pockets and faces her.
“I probably should have,” she says. “Once or twice.”
He looks at her. “Maybe.”
“Metaphorically speaking,” she says. “Anyway, I’ll be around.”
She hands him the paper bag. He gives her the sunglasses.
“Don’t go in with me, okay?” he says.
She nods. “I’ll call you in a couple of days.”
She turns and walks to the car, fumbling to connect the key to the ignition. The radio comes on, as if rewarding her for her new resolve: Janis Joplin, brimming with fury. Take another little piece of my heart, now. Sophie tosses her hair and sings along. Maybe she’ll check with Rene, see if there’s a school where she can go to be a singer.
When she turns onto the street from the parking lot, she sees Kevin at the door to the Vets Home. Sophie slows and honks her horn at him. When he ignores her, she pulls over to the curb, parks, and gets out of the car.
“Hey,” she shouts. “Hey, Kevin.”
She climbs on the hood of her car, denting the metal. It’s old; she doesn’t care. The view’s interesting from up there. Maybe she’ll go to mountain-climber school instead and trek the Himalayas. All that cold, clean air scrubbing out her lungs.
“Last chance, Kevin,” she shouts.
When he turns, she sweeps her arms across her body and raises both hands above her head. Waving as if she is celebrating something, she grins until it feels like her face will break.