(Frank Tozier/Alamy Stock Photo)

Wachapreague

Fiction | Part I

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. 

An illusion of normalcy lingered in places like the village. If you simplified enough, you could create your own bubble.

Some time passed—he might have dozed, he wasn’t sure. On a shelf he found a bottle of his late brother-in-law’s Scotch. In the bathroom he took his heart meds from the pillbox, the sequence of opened compartments reminding him that it was Tuesday PM. Strange, after all the decades of tightly scheduled work, to think that his only calendar now was a pillbox. Langen’s nightly allotment was a blood thinner and the horse pill of a statin. He washed them down with a fiery shot of Laphroaig, imagining with pleasure his cardiologist’s disapproval, and went to bed. 

the two of them developed a daily routine. It began with walking the dogs through the village to what his sister called the Magic Pennies: a pair of coins, sunk in a street on the far side of town. Stepping on them for luck was a local custom. 

“Maybe we should sit on them,” Langen suggested. 

The rest of the day mixed chores and errands with trips to the dump, meals, and bike rides for Langen while his sister painted. He took country roads along the coastline, with views across marshes and tidal creeks to barrier islands. Few souls were about. In Connecticut he would hew to the tightrope of a narrow bike lane amid a roaring rush of traffic, but on these lonely roads he was king. He cycled through tiny hamlets, Chancetown and Locustville, Temperanceville and Oyster, that were little more than the road signs announcing them. Out here he could feel the starkness of country life—the isolation, the immediacy of everything, your small house, your tidy garden, your propane tank. Hot water: you need it, you fire it up. Grow a tomato, eat a tomato; kill a chicken, eat a chicken. There was an aura of self-sufficiency and tightly guarded shelter. You could hunker down with your garden and your gun, far from the cities and the florid, ever-amplifying source. 

Yet even here it had arrived. His third day out riding, he rounded a bend and found himself before a row of immense red barns. The poultry plants had begun appearing ten years ago, his sister had told him, when Tyson and Perdue set their sights on the Eastern Shore. A family farm would be bought, and overnight came the giant barns. The plants proliferated, along with their fallout. Langen had noticed it: the wind would shift, and a waft of rancid air shoved by. It was literally a shitstorm. Chicken sludge containing dander, feathers, blood and, yes, chickenshit, was pumped from the slaughterhouses as fertilizer. And shit wasn’t the worst of it. Langen had done some googling. At one plant nearby, aliment—a highly acidic liquid food supplement—had leached into a wastewater treatment system, where it killed bacteria that reduced ammonia in water discharged into a creek. That in turn killed some two hundred thousand fish. 

“I would sue the hell out of these people,” Langen had told Liddie. 

“Do it!” His sister was enthusiastic. “Everyone hates them. One time they spilled gunk on the road from one of their trucks, and a guy drove over it and crashed. Death by chicken fat.” 

Now Langen sipped from his water bottle and studied the red barns, huge exhaust fans projecting from their sides like rocket engines. A gaily painted sign announced, “Summer Rest.” For whom? he wondered. Not the workers, that was for sure. Each of those plants, he had read, held fifty thousand chickens, the processing line speeding them by, a hundred per minute. Workplace distancing was impossible. In 2020 the toll among poultry workers had been bad, and this time was far worse. 

In the adjacent field stood a row of featureless trailers. They housed migrant laborers, his sister had said, mostly Mexicans. The first trailer was larger than the others. A black hound dog sat on a chain, eyeing him. As Langen eyed him back, a man came out. “Can I help you?” he called. He wore a skull-and-crossbones mask and carried a shotgun. He wasn’t threatening Langen, exactly, just showing him.

 “Just stopped for a drink of water. My sister lives back in town.” Langen nodded in the direction he had come from. “I’m visiting.” 

“Oh. Well, in that case.” The man’s expression softened; he seemed embarrassed. “You enjoy your day, sir,” he said, and went back into his trailer. 

Langen hopped on his bike, and seconds later, back in the serene countryside, it was as if the poultry plant was a bad dream. His sister had done a painting of one of the chicken houses, a visible miasma wreathing it in lurid crimson. She titled the painting “Blood Red.” Langen noticed that she kept it half-hidden in a corner of her studio. Despair and anger were not her usual themes.

His phone vibrated, and he pulled over. His older daughter, Chloe, calling from LA. “Hey honey,” he said.

“Hi Dad. Where are you?” Ever since his heart escapade, his daughters had treated him with touching solicitude.

“I’m riding my bike. Right now I’m standing by a cornfield near a place called Chancetown. Which is near nowhere, basically.”

“That sounds like fun.” Something in his daughter’s voice alerted him, and Langen asked what was wrong. 

“Nothing really,” she said. 

 “Nothing really? Is Audrey okay?” Chloe was a lawyer, her partner, Audrey, a social worker; together they ran a community legal services counseling center. 

 “Audrey’s fine. We’re fine. I don’t know.” His daughter heaved a quavery sigh. “Audrey’s cousin died. In San Diego. She was in the ambulance for eight hours outside the hospital. They wouldn’t let her in. And then our neighbors got broken into. Jill and Jerome. They’re our best friends.” Chloe and Audrey lived in a small Victorian house near Dodger Stadium, part of a gentrifying wave in a neighborhood long known for gangs. The break-in had happened at 2 a.m., she told him; her friends had bolted their bedroom door and cowered while the thieves noisily carted away TV, computers, microwave. “They called 911, but nobody came. I read that half the LAPD has quit or is sick. I don’t know, Dad. It’s all just a big nightmare.” 

Langen felt helpless. “I want you to be safe,” he said. “You need to be safe.”

“Well, we do have Rufus.” A new bulldog puppy. “But he doesn’t really bark yet, just eeps and yeeps. Audrey and I keep saying, Rufus, grow up, we need you now!” 

Only when his daughter laughed did Langen hear that she had been crying. “I’m sorry, Dad,” she sniffled. “You don’t need my bullshit.”

“It’s exactly what I need.” Langen gathered his thoughts. “Here’s what I want you to do. If the situation gets any worse out there, I want you and Audrey to leave. Come to me. Go to Serena in Bozeman. Or go to your mother. Just pack everything in your van and drive, and keep driving until you get to one of us. You promise me?” 

“I promise.” His daughter cleared her throat. “How’s Aunt Liddie? Is she still painting animals? Does she know about Petey the Kangaroo?”

“Petey who?”

“The kangaroo. The one in Florida that escaped. He’s hopping around like—hold on a sec.”

He heard background noise, and when his daughter came back, she was all business. “Dad, I gotta go. Talk soon, okay? And will you please take care of yourself? You are not allowed to let Heinie get you!” 

They said their goodbyes, and Langen put his phone away. He winced to think about Chloe and Audrey in their cute cottage off Sunset Boulevard. The world had become a place where almost anything could happen at almost any time. Staccato pops in the night: Were they firecrackers or gunfire? Would the police come if you needed them? Would firefighters? He recalled when his daughters were young, and Chloe an anxious sleeper. Robbers, kidnappers, assassins creeping up the roof with poison blowdarts: she’d appear at his and his wife’s bedside in the middle of the night. Don’t worry, he would say, bringing her back to her room. Nothing can get us here. Tucking her into her bed and stroking her forehead.

Langen found himself recalling a conversation with his own father. Weeks into the Covid outbreak, Ted was still going to cocktail parties, showing a physician’s bluff disregard for medical risks. Dad, Langen had lectured him, you have to be careful with this thing. You’re low-hanging fruit! Now, just four years later, it was his turn; now he was the one ripe for picking. The sickness began with headache and proceeded to diarrhea and vomiting, raging fevers, organ damage. In lab photos the virus looked harmless, its rod-and-chain structure strangely jewelry-like, a pile of bracelets and pearl necklaces. It had originated in pigeons, or geese, or a bioweapons lab. Its lethality rate was 15 percent. There was no real treatment. I want you to be safe, he had told his daughter. But being safe was not an option. There was only being scared. That, and falling ill, and dying alone in a strange hospital with no one who loved you present.

Langen considered calling his ex-wife, but thought better of it and called his other daughter, Serena, instead. Her phone was off—she was often out of range, up in the mountains with her boyfriend—and he left a message. He put his phone away and looked around. Before him was a ramshackle farmhouse, apparently uninhabited. A plow, rusted and overgrown, stood abandoned in the adjacent field—left in mid-furrow, as if whoever had been using it years before had abruptly fled, never to return. 

As he stood there, a raccoon emerged from the grass and tiptoed, with comical villainy, across the road. Was that normal, in broad daylight? Beyond the farmhouse a bank of honeysuckle spilled forth. Langen mounted his bike and rode on, through the sickly-sweet perfume. Out of the corner of his eye he glimpsed a wooden cross sticking up out of the bush, its top barely visible, drowning amid the blooms.

 

He had told his sister he would sue the poultry companies, but with the career he’d actually had, Langen more likely would have been defending them. 

He had never intended to become a lawyer. The plan was to be a doctor like his father; I hope a career in medicine will suture liking, a high-school classmate punned in his yearbook. But Langen had preferred the neatness of concepts and arguments to the messiness of blood and tissue. He could no longer recall how he had once envisioned the life of a trial lawyer; presumably a daily drama of courtroom battles and eloquent summations. In reality, a litigator’s work was mundane. Yet he had enjoyed it—doing case assessments, drafting discovery motions, prepping witnesses, leveraging settlements—and over time he’d won a name for himself. There was the story in the Hartford Courant, headlined “Sword and Shield,” profiling Langen and another partner. The partner was the firm’s lead plaintiff attorney, and thus the Sword. 

Langen was the Shield. 

His daughters had been teenagers when the article came out, and on his forty-fifth birthday they presented him with a medieval shield. He’d been led blindfolded into the garage to receive it, a massive thing of wood and leather, emblazoned with a gothic L and coat of arms. In truth, Langen had not made his name through any gladiatorial heroics. Being a litigator was more like being a storyteller. Using statutes and precedents, evidence and arguments, you created a story and told it, presenting a version of reality that excluded other, competing versions. Legal judgment took place within a series of artificial enclosures: in conference rooms and courtrooms; in the carefully constructed box of a legal brief. Langen had never been self-deceiving enough to view this as justice pure and simple.

In his retirement he found himself returning to two cases in particular. One involved chlorinated solvents, volatile compounds used to clean industrial machinery. The solvents traveled readily into water supplies, and in the nineties the belief spread that they caused cancer. A group of residents in a gritty ex-mill town had sued one company that made the solvents and another that used them. Langen had defended the companies and their insurers. In court, he demolished every link the plaintiff’s lawyers tried to make between the solvents and their clients’ illnesses: the science wasn’t there, he argued, the EPA hadn’t weighed in. Causality could never be assumed from mere contiguity; if you can’t show me how X did Y to produce Z, it didn’t happen. Later, the Sword and Shield article would depict the moment when Langen produced a handful of soil, ostensibly from the contested site (it was, in fact, from his backyard) and told the court, “You could eat this dirt, and nothing would happen to you, except that you would be eating dirt.” The jury agreed and found for the defendants.

The other case had begun in horror-movie fashion, when a suburban couple remodeling their home removed a ground-floor wall and were astonished to see hundreds of photos tumble out—Polaroid snapshots of naked children. It turned out that a prior owner of the house, dead for years, had been the chief endocrinologist at one of the city’s hospitals, and under pretense of conducting medical research had sexually abused dozens of children, immuring a cache of incriminating photos in his house. The case gained national notoriety, and the victims sued for hundreds of millions of dollars. 

Defending the hospital, Langen had acknowledged the heinousness of the doctor’s crimes, then addressed the principle of respondeat superior—let the master answer—to take on the question of legal responsibility. Meticulously he distinguished negligence from criminality. If you owned a trucking company, he argued, and one of your drivers drove too fast on a wet road, injuring someone, then clearly you were responsible. But what if your employee, with no history of violence, pulled out a gun and shot someone? Criminality is an unpredictable anomaly; with no reason to suspect that the doctor was a sexual predator, the hospital could not be held legally responsible. 

Despite intense publicity in the case, Langen was able to force a minimal settlement. His opponent was a plaintiff’s lawyer known for his flamboyance (ponytail, cowboy boots, Italian suits) and incessant media-seeking. Langen was highly allergic to the man, and savored his victory, as he had in the industrial solvents suit. Yet over time, his view of both cases changed. In the industrial case, studies eventually showed that the solvents could in fact cause cancer. As for the sexual-abuse suit, years later it came back to him when a fellow member at his country club committed suicide, and an acquaintance disclosed that the man had been one of Dr. X’s first victims. “He thought time would heal,” said the friend, who seemed not to know Langen’s role in the case. “But that kind of thing is like cancer.” The man had killed himself with a shotgun on his front lawn on a snowy day. He had two daughters in middle school. 

Langen had always felt contempt for the money-grubbing, spotlight-seeking kind of lawyer, but looking back, he wondered if he had been worse. What he had he cared about, he’d told himself during his career, was jurisprudence itself—the consistency of law, the quality of judgment. That made little sense to him anymore. He had been self-righteous in doubtful causes and had defended the already well-defended; he had ransacked his education for instrumental purposes. It pained him to picture himself as a freshman at Harvard, sitting in T. M. Scanlon’s Intro to Moral Philosophy class in Emerson Hall, scribbling notes. At the time he had thought he was pursuing wisdom. In fact, he had been assembling weapons. He wondered what kind of person he would have become if he had made different decisions in his life. Or was it the other way around? 

As a white, male, Ivy-educated American lawyer, Langen had understood he was the beneficiary of a lopsided system of rewards. Accordingly, he had taken on his share of pro bono work; had volunteered; had embraced fundraisers and charities. He had given back. He had been able to uphold an idea of himself and feel justified. 

That was the problem. That, and cancer that flows through the ground, or a man who scatters his brains on his snow-covered lawn for his daughters to find. 

 

They invited his sister’s austrian friend, Helga, to dinner. She came through the back gate promptly at 5 p.m. and stood waiting in the yard. No one came to the front door anymore; it seemed to Langen that he could barely recall the days of ringing doorbells and a surge of people into the living room. 

Helga was an attractive older woman with perfect posture, ice-blue eyes, and a silver Doris Day–like bob. She wore a mask bearing an image of the Rock of Gibraltar, and carried two bottles of wine and a platter of schnitzel bedecked with lemon wedges. Despite having lived in the U.S. for half a century, Helga retained a comically heavy German accent, like the movie villains of Langen’s youth. Her last name was polysyllabic and unreproducible. It was a funny name even in German, she said; it literally meant “thunder weather.” 

“Nice to meet you, Frau Thunder Weather,” Langen said.

She had a surprising, fruity laugh. Thunder Weather had been her husband’s name, and she’d kept it when they divorced. “It is the one enjoyable thing I received from him. Along with my house.” 

The world had become a place where almost anything could happen at almost any time.

They ate at a weatherbeaten picnic table, Helga distanced at the far end. Liddie and Helga were part of a group of women called The Liars Club. The name derived from a sign formerly posted by the town gas station, now long closed, where men would sit around and jaw. The sign remained for years, until one night when, under cover of darkness, the women took it. Helga had it at her house. “I keep it hidden,” she said. “They would not appreciate such insolence from the come-heres.”

The village was divided into “born-heres” and “come-heres,” and the Liars Club were all come-heres. They met to take walks or to garden; they read books together, dined and drank together. But the group had dwindled. One had gone to stay with her kids when the new virus hit. Another had dementia. A third had cancer. “Lydia and I are the last two remaining Liars,” said Helga. “And your sister typically tells the truth.”

Over dinner the two women parsed village sociology for Langen’s benefit. The born-heres did the real estate, the policing and plumbing and tax collecting. The come-heres spent money. Helga and her ex had bought their house in 1973 as a getaway. The town had lost a lot in half a century, she said. “Back then we had the school, the movie theater, the stores, the oyster shacks. The Ocean House.” Langen had seen the old Ocean House Hotel photos: a Saratoga-style ocean liner of a place, built in 1900 to attract Northerners of leisure. All of it was gone now, his sister said. People had stopped coming. Tourists wanted beaches, not marshes. There were also environmental factors. Land use had ruined the bay, Helga explained—soil, fertilizer and pesticide runoff silting the creeks and choking off the vertical mixing that brings oxygen to the depths. “The fertilizer feeds algae, which blocks light and photosynthesis. Eventually the bottom-dwelling plants die, and oysters and crabs too. The water is a living being. It must breathe.” For decades, the potato grower’s pesticide of choice had been a compound of arsenic and copper marketed as Paris Green. Helga chortled. “A lovely name for a poison, no?” 

When Liddie cleared plates away, Helga leaned over, slipping her mask on. “I was anxious for your sister when Jason died,” she said. “But she keeps always moving forward. And she cherishes her friendships.” She lowered her voice, as if confiding a secret. “My friend Amy used to stay frequently with me. She died in the last crisis, like your father. Now I have her three cats. And I don’t even really like cats.” 

Liddie returned, carrying a cake with a lit candle. “Happy Geburtstag!” she said.

Helga blew it out, harrumphing in a friendly way. “I really preferred nothing to be done,” she said. “When you are becoming eighty-five, you’re not eager to be festive.” 

“Eighty-five?” Langen felt disbelief. 

She nodded. “My mother became pregnant two weeks before the Germans went into Poland. My father was in the army and soon to leave. I am a true war baby.”

Over dessert Helga delved into the wartime, when she and her siblings were sent to live with relatives in the countryside. “I recall the planes overhead, the bomber planes. That was you Americans.” She smiled. “In Vienna there was no food, but in the country we had animals and gardens. My job was to go to the forest for firewood. And to feed pigs. My mother the whole time was in a state of panic. Without my father she was helpless.” She held up the second bottle. “Austrian Weissburgunder, my last two bottles. My friend presented a case of it to me, five years ago today. Then nine months later she died.”

“These were your last bottles?” said Langen. “Don’t you want to save them?”

Helga shrugged. “For what?” She uncorked it with a resounding thwop! “You know, when we heard those planes, when I was a child, we feared the world would end. And eighty years later, here I am.”

Strangely enough, they heard the telltale buzz of a delivery. Overhead a black drone zoomed off. Langen’s sister went around to the front and came back carrying a package and her decontaminating kit. “It’s for you and me,” she said to Langen as she swabbed the package down. 

It was from Chloe, a pair of medical masks, one embroidered with a bottle of wine, the other a glass. To Dad and Aunt Liddie, the note said, Vintage Family

“How did she know we’d be drinking wine right now?” Langen asked. 

“We’re always drinking wine, Trevor,” said his sister. 

“I know you have two daughters,” Helga said. “Are they all right?”

“Serena and her boyfriend live in Montana. They’re out in the woods a lot, so I don’t worry much. But Chloe and Audrey in LA, I do worry. It’s bad out there.” 

 “And in New England, where you live?” Helga asked. “How is it there?”

Langen cited recent numbers trending in a possibly hopeful direction.  

“I don’t believe it.” Helga waved a hand. “It’s all propaganda.” It was like the poultry plants, she said. “I am convinced that workers are falling sick and dying. Dying routinely. But they take them away in the night. A company vehicle pulls up, and leaves, and nobody knows.” 

Langen related his encounter with the suspicious security guard. 

“He perhaps assumed you were a journalist. You are lucky he didn’t shoot you.” She sighed. “It seems that yesterday people chased one of the Mexican workers away from the convenience station.” That was the local, curious name for the dump, Langen had learned. “I think they might have killed him if they caught him.” 

His sister produced a sound of rash disbelief. “Why, in God’s name?” she said. “What’s wrong with people?” 

“They are afraid,” Helga said. “Afraid of the infection.” 

“They should be,” Langen said. “We all should be.” 

“But what the hell are we supposed to do?” his sister said. “Just wait until some mob of yahoos breaks the door down? Or until this thing gets us and we get dumped in some tent outside the hospital? I do not want to be dumped somewhere and triaged.”

“I will not let that happen,” Helga said. “I have a plan.” She was keeping a bottle of pills in her bedside table, she explained. 

“Pills?” his sister said. “For what?”

“They are medications remaining from my back surgery and from Amy’s anxiety. So we will be collaborating even at the end. Amy’s pills plus my pills plus a glass of champagne.” 

“You mean, kill yourself?” Liddie said. “No, Helga. I’m sorry. We can’t just give up.”

“I don’t view it that way. I view it as preserving a decision that belongs to me in the first place. It belongs to me as a free human being.” 

Liddie was shaking her head. “It’s not right,” she said. “Things will get better.” 

“Perhaps. But perhaps not.” Helga spoke with calm certitude, and Langen saw that she was choosing her words carefully. “In my opinion, the one thing that distinguishes a human from an animal is the capacity to choose. To be aware, and to choose. If I relinquish my awareness, if I relinquish my capacity to choose, I am relinquishing my humanity. I am eighty-five years old, Lydia. There is no reason for me to allow that.” She offered a gentle smile. “And I am told it will be a simple thing. One just falls asleep.”

“I’m sorry, but that’s not a plan, Helga.” Langen recognized a panicky fury that his sister was prone to under stress. “That’s self-euthanasia. It’s like some Nazi thing.”

“I disagree.” On Helga’s face Langen registered a flicker of annoyance. “But perhaps shall we not discuss such gloomy topics? As my late former husband would say, Your birthday is your mirthday.”

“Mirthday,” Langen repeated. “That’s actually pretty witty.” 

“Yes, he was quite pleased with himself. It was his first wordplay in English.” 

“Well, Happy mirthday, Frau Thunder Weather,” Langen said, raising his glass. “May you enjoy many more.”

When Helga left, the two Langens stayed outside talking. “I’m an idiot,” Liddie said. “I should never have said that.” 

“I don’t think she took it personally,” said Langen.

“I’m not sure how else she could take it. Her father was a Nazi. She told me about it once. He was in that organization. You know, with the black uniforms.” 

“The S.S.”

His sister nodded. “One time after the war was over, Helga caught him in the attic, putting the uniform on. He saved it. This was years later. She made him throw it away.” She sighed. “I kind of hate myself right now. She’s my best friend.” 

“I wouldn’t worry about it. She knows how good a friend you are.” Langen sipped wine and pondered the contrast between his and Liddie’s serene suburban childhood in the 1960s and Helga’s twenty years earlier, amid privation and war. 

“Do you think she’d really do it?” his sister said.

He thought about it. “She’s a formidable woman. She reminds me of some judges I’ve known.” 

“I think maybe she’s gay. When she calls Amy, ‘my friend,’ I think in German it’s more like, ‘my lover.’” Liddie shrugged. “She doesn’t talk about it.” 

The sun was down, soon the fireflies would be out. Langen poured the last of the wine provided by Helga’s dead lover.

“What do you think they’d be doing now?” his sister said. “Mom and Dad, I mean. How do you think they’d deal with all this?”

 “Dad wasn’t great with situations where he couldn’t do anything. Classic surgeon’s mentality. But I don’t think he’d be scared. At least, he wouldn’t have shown it. Who knows what actually went on inside him?”

“God, remember the whole floozy thing? His Little Tramp?” 

Langen smiled. It had been a rocky passage in their parent’s marriage—their father’s dalliance with a nurse, followed by colossal battles and Ted’s ejection from the house. In a sensational turn of events, the nurse’s pickup-driving, ex-Navy husband had shown up at their father’s dismal bachelor pad, where an actual fight had ensued. Riotously Langen and his sister, then in their twenties, had playacted their father grappling with the boyfriend, pleading, Don’t hurt my fingers! The sorry episode had ended not long afterward, on Thanksgiving, with their father skulking home. 

“Remember how we thought Mom would lop his head off when he came crawling back? But then she just hands him his drink and says, ‘Edward, nice to see you again. Especially on Turkey Day.’” 

“That grin on her face,” Langen said. “I never knew it was possible to combine menace and mirth in one look.”

They were quiet. “How do you do that?” his sister said, after a while. 

“Do what?”

“Always come up with a perfect way of saying things. ‘Menace and mirth.’” 

“Must be that pricey education of mine.”  

“No, really, I mean it.”

Langen shrugged. “It’s only words,” he said.

They sat silently. Through the window of the studio Langen could see his sister’s paintings, lit up in a spotlight. He had left Connecticut one week ago. Three times he had accessed his home-security system, the cameras showing nothing unusual. He thought about the rabbits who lived under the shed, and the fox who stalked them; the bobcat who made an occasional appearance. The first pandemic had seen a big uptick in animal activity, and this time it was bigger still. He wondered what intruders might have breached his home, human or otherwise.  

Liddie reached out and patted his shoulder. “I know it’s weird to say this, but you’ve always been my rock, Trevor. Even when you were fifteen and I was twenty.”

“Really? How?”

“I don’t know. You always had an answer.”

Langen pondered.  “It didn’t feel like that. Not to me, anyway.” 

Before calling it a night, they took a selfie. “We’re so old,” his sister said, studying it. It was true. Liddie’s once-red hair was mostly white; Langen’s, while still brown, had thinned to nearly nothing on top. Both had their mother’s mouth—the long and curvy upper lip, the Cheshire-cat grin they’d called the Lyle Smile, after their mother’s family. Back in the day, Liddie had deployed that grin to seduce men, while in Langen’s case it had ignited more than a few grade-school fistfights (“What the fuck are you smiling at?”); later, as a lawyer, he’d made an effort to superimpose some gravity. 

They took another selfie with their wine masks on, for Chloe. 

“I forgot,” Langen said. “Chloe wants you to know about Petey the Kangaroo.” He related the story. “She thought maybe you’d do a Petey painting.”

They went inside, and Langen turned on the news. Daily U.S. deaths had hit 12,000. The White House was announcing a $20 trillion Marshall Plan for America. Progress continued in the quest for a vaccine. The spokeswoman wore a Stars and Stripes mask. Liddie muted the sound, and Langen watched the spokeswoman’s neatly plucked eyebrows going up and down.

“Why is it called Heinie, anyway?” his sister asked. “I know it’s H and N, but what do they stand for?” 

“Hemagglutinin and neura something,” Langen said. He thought about Helga, the doomsday pills stashed in her bedside table. “They’re proteins.”

“Who would have thought we could get this screwed by a protein?” Liddie turned off the TV. “Let’s find out about Petey.” She took out her phone, and in short order had fetched up a website, wherespetey.com. “So it turns out Petey’s a red kangaroo.” She read from the site. “‘Their bounding gait can cover twenty-five feet in a single leap.’ Petey’s a bounder!” 

“Faster than a speeding bullet,” Langen said. “Leaps tall buildings in a single bound!”  

Night fell, and they spent a half-hour ignoring global calamity and focusing instead on the adventures of a marsupial on the lam. 

 

Part II of this story appears in our April 2022 issue. 

Published in the March 2022 issue: 
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Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal. His fiction has appeared in Harper’s, GQ, Esquire, the Atlantic, and many other magazines, as well as in Best American Short Stories. His novel, The Last to Go, was produced for television by ABC, and he has been a writer-in-residence at Amherst and Emerson colleges. 

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