What Langen noticed most, arriving in his sister’s village, was the emptiness. “Little City by the Sea,” a peeling sign announced, yet the place was home to just four hundred souls. Around it were fields and marshes, loblolly pines, a scattering of farmhouses and trailers, and every few miles a squat brick Methodist fortress or white-framed Baptist chapel. Langen was unused to sparse places; in Connecticut, they barely existed. WE’RE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER! read a billboard he’d seen as he passed through Maryland. Was that true? Mostly people were in this apart. Safety in lack of numbers. And in distance.
The village consisted of two streets running east to the bay and six north-south ones. One crappy motel, a P.O., a marina with a bar and restaurant—closed. A gift shop and gallery, also closed. Every fifth house looked abandoned. That wasn’t just the current calamity. The economy had long ago swerved elsewhere; retirees ruled the roost.
He had come to Virginia for a stay of uncertain duration. “Trev!” his sister yelled when he parked the Audi and got out, slipping on his mask as he stood, stiff after a six-hour drive on near-empty interstates. “Air hugs!” She mimicked an embrace.
“Quarantined and tested, so I’m game for the real thing if you are,” Langen said, and they hugged. He hadn’t touched another human in eight months. Behind them Liddie’s two dogs clamored against the fence, whining. The huge hollyhocks loomed, their pink blossoms monstrous.
“Little Shop of Horrors,” Langen said, and his sister laughed.
He was relieved to find her in good spirits. Liddie’s husband, Jason, had died nine months before, just after Labor Day and his seventieth birthday. Three days of upper-back pain, a fruitless visit to the doctor, ibuprofen, heart attack, bigger heart attack: Langen’s phone had rung at 2 a.m. His sister was riding in the ambulance. I made him a birthday cake, she said, sobbing. We just finished it tonight.
Langen’s visit had been planned for the fall, then delayed by the virus. Now, in mid-May, he had decided to go anyway. His brother-in-law had been hoarder-ish, and his sister needed help clearing stuff out. Getting away was the other goal. The virus had raged across greater New York; the new disease made COVID-19 look like a tea party.
“Welcome to Chaosville,” Liddie said, as the dogs howled. “Max, CUT IT OUT!” His sister had never had children; dogs were her kids, and he had forgotten how she greeted their every ruckus with fresh, fond scolding. She was sixty-eight, five-and-a-half years older than Langen. Soon she’d be a little old lady with her dogs. If she was lucky.
“By the way, you look great,” she said, as he unloaded his bike.
“Deceptive packaging. Don’t look inside.”
It was true. Langen had already chalked up an impressive list of health crises and interventions, including hip replacement, skin cancer, bilateral cataract removal, and an unexpected coronary misadventure. Like him, his sister had inherited the arthritis gene. Her knees were a mess; descending a staircase she turned sideways and hobbled down. Langen couldn’t imagine how she managed her art shows—hauling everything around in her van, setting up tents and displays, breaking it all down again.
All that, of course, was on hold now, indefinitely.
In his sister’s years on the Eastern Shore, he had visited just twice, and he was struck anew by the modesty of her life. Her house, a battered ranch, needed paint. The chain-link fence sagged, the driveway lay in bits. In the yard stood the old boat shed where she painted. It had pleased Langen over the years, when asked about his sibling, to say, “She’s a painter.” Did he mean housepainter? No, he meant the Van Gogh kind. Indeed, her painting, with its blazes of color, resembled Van Gogh’s. She used a palette knife, spreading paint on the canvas like butter. In art and in life, Liddie proceeded with the opposite of Langen’s methodical thoroughness. She knew instantly if something felt right, while Langen, newly retired from practicing law, had subsided over the decades into a gradually thickening doubt.
In the shed she showed him her latest works. During the confinement she’d been prolific, her studio crammed with portraits of cows, horses, reptiles, birds, pets.
“I love this room,” she said. “I think of it as Noah’s ark.”
It struck him as too apt, given how things were going in the world.
Later, after Langen unpacked, they opened a bottle of wine—he had brought a mix-and-match case from the dwindling collection in his basement—and made a start on his sister’s mountain of stuff. From the garage they hauled boxes onto the lawn, pulling out objects wrapped in newspaper. Mice had feasted, reducing the paper to confetti and leaving seedlike poop behind. From this icky mix they rescued oddments of the Langen family past.
“Oh God, Trev, look.” Liddie held up a baggie containing crayons, flattened at their tips. “Remember melting these on your radiator? And how furious Mom got?”
“Your Jackson Pollock phase.” Langen pulled out a batik banner Liddie had made in eighth grade, emblazoned with their father’s personal mantra. “‘The Magic Fingers of the Bone Surgeon,’” he read, holding it up.
Their father, Ted, had been an orthopedic surgeon in Boston. He’d made a good living, but in retirement he bemoaned missing out on the golden age of orthopedic surgery. These guys today, he’d rant on the phone from New Mexico. You’re the local hip guy, and you’ve got a fucking house in Aruba? Following a lifetime of debonair wit, he had developed a disheveled and raving aspect. After Langen’s mother died, Ted had had the good luck to meet Fran; twenty years younger, she doted on him and eventually cared for him. Always a workhorse, at ninety he had hiked and played golf. Then came 2020: a fever, hospitalization, the ventilator. It all happened with stunning suddenness.
“What did we talk about back then?” his sister asked. “The four of us, at dinner.”
“We’d each talk about our day, right?” The memory blurred into later scenes of Langen’s own family’s catch-as-catch-can dinners, him and his ex-wife, Miranda, and their two daughters grabbing a hectic bite at the kitchen snack bar.
“Remember Dad’s voices?” Liddie said. “‘Who knows—what evil—lurks—in the hearts of men?’”
Langen finished it off, sinisterly. “The SHADOW KNOWS—ah hah hah hah hah!”
His sister fished out an unopened pack of Silva Thins. Langen recalled their mother’s triumph at finally quitting the habit. In the end it got her anyway.
“Jesus. What do I do with all this crap?” Liddie tossed the cigarettes back and stood. “I’ll get some dinner ready.”
Waiting, Langen surveyed the family archaeology arrayed on the grass around him. He picked up a cracked and stained bong. When he was at Harvard, his sister had lived close by in a cavernous house near Inman Square full of artists and musicians, dedicated stoners all. It was half a mile from Langen’s dorm, and he would walk down Cambridge Street on Saturday nights to visit. He tossed the bong back onto the grass. There was so much to get rid of. He remembered the Great Purge, when their mother, a lifelong saver, turned sixty and suddenly began to unload. “Ditch!” she would say, with a strange, fierce jubilance, holding up this or that relic in the attic. Only later did he and his sister understand: she had known what was coming; she had wanted to spare them the task of cleaning up after she was gone.
Sunset approached. In the yard, birds dove at the feeder, a dog snapped at a fly. Langen had nothing to do and nowhere to go. Time seemed to replenish itself, pooling and eddying in the shadows of the yard, as if in one of Liddie’s magic landscapes. An illusion of normalcy lingered in places like the village. If you simplified enough, you could create your own bubble. But every bubble had an inside and an outside.
His sister came to the screen door and announced dinner. They ate shrimp and grits and watched the news. It was the usual direness: food rationing, riots, the border lockdown; the death toll approaching 2 million in the U.S. alone. The president, pale and corpselike, spoke from his bunker. He wore an eagle-and-stars mask.
Liddie snapped off the TV. “Enough of that,” she said.
After dinner they did the dishes, then watched a movie as Liddie stretched out on the living-room sofa and the dogs assailed Langen on the loveseat. At 9 p.m. his sister limped off, dogs in tow. Langen himself was not much of a sleeper, and typically stayed up late, watching TV or reading or talking on the phone with his daughters. He decided they didn’t need a brooding late-night call from him tonight, and texted instead.
Hey Guys, I’m in VA with Aunt Liddie, we’re fine, Be Safe, Love, Dad. During the first pandemic his younger daughter, Serena, had fled grad school to stay with him, and for ten weeks the two of them had made the most of it, cooking, watching movies, hanging out. The 2020 crisis had brought a sense of heroic coping, even adventure. Not this time.
He turned off the light. Through the picture window, a lone streetlamp cast a feeble bluish glow. He imagined it going off; imagined all of them going off, hundreds of millions of lights extinguished one by one, coast to coast.