You Will Be Missed

A Short Story
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Brian was sixteen on that Saturday morning in 1986 when his father woke him by tapping a hand that smelled of shaving cream against his cheek. “Get dressed and come with me,” his father said, and then added, “Get dressed for church.”

Downstairs in the kitchen, his father made instant coffee for them both. He cut two pieces from the sticky coffee cake still in its box and set them out on paper napkins. His father was in one of his old business suits. His thinning hair was wet from the shower. “What’s up?” Brian asked and his father replied somewhat shyly, as if to acknowledge the delicacy of what he had to convey.

“My sister’s husband has passed away,” he said. “The funeral is this morning on the North Shore.”

The icing on the coffee cake was a bright white shell, solid along the top, a thin, arrested dribble at the side. The cake beneath was somewhat damp, easier to break apart than to bite into. Brian broke it in half. “That’s where we’re going?”

“It seems only right,” his father said. He moved his own uneaten piece across the table. “Finish this up and go brush your teeth. We want to get a seat.”

His father’s sister was eight years younger and had an odd name, Bronagh. As a child she had been red-haired and freckled and, in his father’s words, hell on wheels. On West 65th Street where they had grown up, she was a collector of stray cats and lost dogs. Bronagh didn’t find them, according to his father, the dogs and cats found her. As did any fledgling bird fallen from the thin trees, any injured pigeon flapping on the tar roof, one of which, the story went, she named Georgiana and led around like a dog on a leash made of sewing thread. Bronagh had a lisp and spoke to these various creatures in a precise and demanding tone, not like a child cooing to a pet, his father said, but like a foreman instructing a makeshift crew. “Look,” she would tell some tomcat, holding him firmly by the scruff of the neck. “Pay attention now.” To a shivering mutt that was suddenly trotting behind her, bumping his nose against the back of her knees, “Listen to me, you dope, here’s what you’ve got to do.”

She was christened on the same morning their poor mother was buried. Their father was already gone—a heart attack when Bronagh was only three months along in her mother’s womb. A tragedy that ended in the happy circumstance of both orphaned children being taken in by their father’s older brother—the legendary Uncle Jim—and Aunt Mary, his dear, if less storied, wife.

Whenever Brian’s father made pancakes on a Sunday morning, he would recite a hilarious, lisping version of the children’s tale Bronagh used to repeat, about how the big fwat cook made the big fwat pancake that would noth, noth, noth be eaten. He said, “Apple bwon Betty,” whenever Brian’s mother served it, quoting Bronagh. He recalled walking beside her one morning on the way to church, aunt and uncle behind them, and seeing her hold out her hand as if to feel for rain but catching instead a blue robin’s egg in her small palm. She wrapped the egg in a handkerchief and kept it in her purse through Mass and then convinced their uncle on the way home to give her brother a boost—threading her fingers together to demonstrate—so he could return the thing to its nest.

And what else? Brian looked at his father as they walked out to the garage. He had his learner’s permit by then, but his father didn’t offer to let him drive. Given the solemnity of the occasion, Brian was hesitant to ask. He asked only if Mom was coming along and his father said, “Your mother’s a little under the weather.”

Brian could not be certain if they had even met, his mother and his father’s sister. Certainly, Brian knew he had never met her, Bronagh. Aunt Bronagh, to be precise. She was a feature of his father’s childhood tales, a character among the many: jolly Uncle Jim, frail Aunt Mary, pals with names like Willie Fitz and Corny Donleavy. She was, in these stories, a perpetual child—lisping and wise—furious, too, always telling someone off in an admirably effective way. But until this morning she was also a shade, a figure from a time long past. Brian was the last of his parents’ six children. His mother was forty-eight when he was born, his father fifty-seven. It seemed to Brian that everyone in their childhood tales was already dead.

It was as if the coffee and the sugar had finally brought him fully awake. He realized that he had not known until now that little, lisping Bronagh was still alive—never mind grown old, with a husband, and living on the North Shore. “What did she do, call you or something?” he asked.

His father briefly slid his eyes from the road to his son. “I saw the obituary,” he said. “In the paper.”

Only a year ago Brian would have accepted the answer quietly, understanding that his father had said all he wanted to say. But that was before he had begun to spend his evenings alone in his room, or in the crowded cars of his laughing friends. Just last week, one of them had announced as they pulled away from the curb, “As usual, Brian’s old man and old lady are in there sucking whiskey. Getting plastered.”

These were his high-school friends. They were smart, clever guys who liked to be funny. Without much effort of his own, Brian had somehow earned their affection. He was grateful to be among them.

“Come on, man,” he had cried in response, laughing as well. “They’re old. Give them a break, what else do you want them to do?”

Not the worst betrayal, perhaps, except that he had not known until then that his parents were getting plastered every night, sitting in front of the TV with their after-dinner whiskies. Meant to ease digestion, they said. Except that the memory of it, of turning his parents into a joke, still filled him not so much with shame as with a kind of vague disappointment. He’d had some intention to be better than that, as he grew older.

But it was a joke, he thought now: the drinking on the couch, the way-too-late-in-life baby, the vivid little sister of the sunny childhood tales suddenly made flesh because of a newspaper obituary. “Who the hell reads obituaries?” he said to the glass in the car window—mumbled it because he wasn’t sure he wanted his father to hear, but wishing, too, that his father, having heard, might cuff him on the ear for the impertinence. Because he was pretty sure his words said, too, What kind of people don’t see their only sibling for years, then show up at her husband’s funeral? What kind of Irish joke are you?

He didn’t turn to see how his father received the words, but, angry at himself for the impertinence, he was ready to be angry at the old man for any reprimand. None came. He looked. There was the familiar movement along his father’s jaw, the brief pursing of the lips that meant he was being visited by a thought that struck him as tremendously amusing. “We’re all peculiar in our own way,” his father said.

The church was small, a chapel, really, and there were only three cars in the short apron of parking lot. Brian saw his father look at his watch. “Are we too early?” he asked him, and his father shook his head. “Right on time.”

They went inside. The place was mostly empty—a trio of middle-aged people in winter coats, two women and a man, sat together in a pew to the far right. A woman in a sweater and a long wool skirt and squeaking shoes came and went across the altar. Brian and his father reached for the holy water, blessed themselves, and then slid into a back row. They both sat on the edge of the seat while his father pulled the kneeling bench down and then father and son knelt side by side. Brian watched the church lady light the candles on the altar. She genuflected again and again disappeared. Another couple came up the aisle—they brought the odor of cigarette smoke with them as they passed. They sat on the opposite side, waving as they slid into the pew to the three toward the front. Then the couple turned to Brian and his father and nodded. Brian nodded back. He understood that all of them were hoping for more people to appear.

His father blessed himself to end his prayer and Brian did the same. They both sat back in the pew. His father unbuttoned the suit jacket he had just buttoned as they got out of the car and again looked at his watch. He leaned his shoulder against Brian’s and whispered, “I used to tell her she’d be late for her own funeral.” Brian breathed a small laugh. The nearness of his father, the thin shoulder against his own, both pleased and saddened him in ways he didn’t want to consider. “How long has it been since you saw her?” he asked. He watched his father’s cupped fingers move with his calculations. His father’s hands were lined and speckled, the blue veins so pronounced they seemed to ride above the skin, an old man’s hands.

“Thirty-seven years,” he whispered.

There was the snap—although in the silence it reverberated like a rifle crack—of the hinges on one of the double doors as it was pushed back. All seven of them turned to see a man in a suit efficiently using the toe of his polished shoe to hook the door to the wall. They watched him swing open the second and do the same. Then he walked out.

There was a metallic rattle in the vestibule, and then the silver coffin appeared. It was rolled up the aisle, not carried, only two men in dark suits—one of them the man who had secured the doors—for pallbearers. The priest was at the foot of the altar now, the lady who’d been coming and going now dressed in a white surplice and standing at his side—a sure sign, Brian knew, that the scheduled altar server had not shown up. The priest watched the men maneuver the coffin so that it was parallel to the altar and then he doused it with holy water. As he was doing so, Brian followed his father’s lead and blessed himself. The priest then shot a glance at the man who had opened the doors. The man hurried back down the aisle. Brian looked to his father. He saw that ripple of amusement move along his jaw. “Late,” his father whispered. “Always late.”

There was the sound of another car just outside, a car door closing, and then another. And then a small woman in a deep blue dress, high black heels, and a straw hat better suited to a country fair, walked quickly down the aisle. Her head was bent, her shoulders straight. Behind her walked the man in the dark suit with a boy of about ten beside him. The boy wore a blazer and a wrinkled pair of khaki pants. He was blonde, pale, and handsome. It was clear that he had been crying.

Brian glanced at his father and saw that tears stood in his eyes as well, but there was no way to tell if the sight of his sister or the boy had sparked them.

The two took the first pew. The priest walked around the coffin to say a few words to them before he began the Mass.

It was quick. The priest was a large, florid man, all business. He read the story of Lazarus and then addressed his remarks to the woman and the boy. He called them “Bronagh and Mike,” using their names warmly and perhaps too often, but speaking in generalities about sadness and redemption, what you savored about life and what you looked forward to at its end.

At Communion, Brian followed his father to the front of the church. He glanced at Bronagh, but saw just the top of her straw hat. She and her son both had their faces buried in their hands, the way people used to do, post Communion, when Brian was young.

It wasn’t until the Mass was over and the man who sat with the other two women on the far side of the church stood up stiffly and went to the pulpit that Brian realized the late husband’s name was Hugh. (What Hugh savored about life...what Hugh looked forward to at its end.) Hugh was great and easygoing, the man said. He had his disappointments, who didn’t? But he was bowled over by the arrival of little Mickey here—you (Hugh?) just knew the kid was the apple of his eye. “In closing,” the man said, “Hugh will be missed. That’s a definite.”

After the priest made the last blessing over the coffin, the two undertakers guided it out on its metal stand. Bronagh and the boy came down the aisle behind it. Now Brian could see that she had a small face, freckled in the faded way older people wore freckles. Washed blue eyes in the way of redheads. He saw the eyes fall briefly on his father and he saw, too, as she passed, the familiar movement along her lips and the curve of her jaw—a great, silent laugh roiling beneath the skin.

They waited for the other few mourners to precede them, so that by the time they passed through the vestibule and into the sunlight she and the boy were already in the limo that was parked behind the hearse. They watched it pull out. Through the window, Brian could see the straw hat, the white face beneath. He saw her hand brush the glass. His father raised a hand to wave back. Then Brian and his father walked the short distance to the car.

Inside, his father said, “Let’s get some breakfast. I saw a couple of good-looking diners on the way.”

Brian only waited a beat before he leaned back against the door to say, “That’s it?”

Brian had three older sisters of his own—all in their thirties then, with jobs and children and homes—but he had not thought of them and their fist-to-his-jaw, Brian-can-do-no-wrong affection until he saw that suppressed amusement in Bronagh’s small face. Had she given that shout of laughter she appeared ready to give, coming down the aisle, seeing his father, he knew it would have had the exact ring of his sisters’ voices when they called out their delight—even after the shortest while—in seeing him again.

“Do you know how weird this is?” he said. “After thirty-seven years. We’re just going home?”

The old man pursed his lips. “No,” he said softly and Brian knew the voice with which he had spoken to his father, his dear, beloved father, was the same one he had used in the car that night with his friends—jokey, detached, indifferent to the affection, the loyalty, that he felt for the man—the voice he had used when he said, “Come on, they’re old.” He felt a stirring of that same regret. He had disappointed himself again.

“No,” his father said carefully, shaking his head. “We’re not just going home. We’re going to get breakfast.”

In the diner, they slid into a booth. His father lifted the heavy menus and elaborately handed one to Brian. He opened his own and groped for the glasses he kept in his suit jacket. He held them to his nose and said, “Eggs Benedictine sounds good. Though I don’t suppose there’s a drop of Benedictine in them.”

Brian kept his eyes on his own menu. “It’s Benedict,” he said. It seemed he could not wrestle his own, gentle voice away from the SOB who now wielded it.

“There’s probably not much Benedict in them either,” his father said easily. “Unless Benedict’s the chef.”

When the waitress arrived, Brian ordered elaborately: eggs, bacon, home fries, bagel, a blueberry muffin, in some vague anticipation of smothering the vicious words he feared he might speak to his father, who was now looking around the shining place with a kind of happy satisfaction, as if the morning’s work had been good and this respite well earned. The waitress returned with their coffees. And a tall glass of juice for “the grandson.” His father winked at him when she turned away, but Brian raised the glass and drank quickly—it was bitter and too full of pulp. His father took a paper napkin from the dispenser at the table and lifted his mug to wipe up the spilled coffee beneath it. “Your mother wouldn’t be happy with this,” he said. “You know how dedicated she is to cups and saucers.”

Brian said, “She didn’t want to come?” Knowing there was a challenge in his voice.

“She was weary this morning,” his father said. “Feeling a little under the weather.”

Brian said, “I’m not even sure what that means,” and saw his father let it pass. Even this strange new voice of his would not let him say, “Does it mean she’s hungover?” Even the teenager in him was unready for the pain such words would inflict. He said instead, “Who was this guy anyway? Whose funeral we just went to?”

His father was blowing gently on his coffee. He tasted it and then lowered the mug. His eyes said I surely hope this is not sheer stupidity on your part, but his voice was kind enough. “My sister’s husband. I thought I told you.”

“Yeah,” Brian said. Even the possibility of his father, his old father, condescending to him in this way suddenly annoyed him. “You told me, but, I mean, who the hell was he? Did you ever even meet him?”

His father poured a bit more cream into his coffee, stirred it gently, and then, fastidiously, took another napkin from the dispenser and placed the wet teaspoon upon it. “No,” he said. “We never met. I didn’t even know she was married. And had a son. I saw it yesterday. In the paper. He looked like a natty little man. In the photograph. A bowtie and a small mustache.”

Brian threw himself back in the seat. The plastic upholstery of the booth was overstuffed but uncomfortable. “I’m not getting it,” he said, speaking to his father as if he were speaking to a friend, or—less friendly than that—a peer. “Why we even came out here.” He had left his blazer and his tie in the car, but now he unbuttoned his cuffs and began to roll up his sleeves, as if to show his father how unnecessary the dressing up, among other things, had been. “When you didn’t even know the guy.”

The waitress came with their food. His father had only the one plate, but Brian’s order seemed to fill the table. He didn’t really want any of it. He had a sudden image of a small balding man with a mustache, a bowtie, a checked sports jacket, lying in the darkness inside the metal coffin. Hugh.

“If you don’t go to other people’s funerals,” his father was saying wryly, cutting into his eggs, “No one will come to yours.” He looked at his son again, there was that bright amusement in his eyes.

“It’s weird,” Brian said. “You’ve got to admit it, Dad. It’s kind of weird.”

His father shrugged. “When my Uncle Jim died,” he said. “This was back in 1946, we had the wake, and on the second day, after the dinner break, I come back into the funeral parlor and there’s a man sitting there, the spitting image of my uncle when he was younger. Spitting image, size, shape, everything. Except younger, maybe thirty years younger. More in his prime.” His father suddenly squinted at him, gauging something. “Do you know Banquo’s ghost, from Shakespeare?”

Impatiently, Brian said, “Yeah, sure,” and his father nodded, relieved. “Well that’s what I thought of. Here’s my Uncle Jim in his prime, coming toward me. Here’s my old, worn-out uncle in his coffin at the front of the room.” He laughed and took another hearty bite of his eggs. “So you talk about weird,” he added, finishing the tale.

“Well who was he?” Brian asked.

His father shook his head, as if this part of the story were irrelevant. “Some cousin from the other side. He’d seen the obituary in the paper and recognized the name. So he came to the wake.”

“Did they know each other?”

“They might have met once—the man wasn’t really sure. He said he might once have written to my Uncle Jim to ask if he’d sponsor him to come over. And my Uncle never wrote back.” And here again was that shivering amusement that ran itself along his mouth and jaw, that would have, in a more demonstrative man, erupted in laughter. “The man said he wasn’t sure if he wrote the letter, but he was certain Uncle Jim hadn’t answered it.”

His father studied him with that suppressed smile. It was the way another kind of father would study a child to whom he had just proposed a complex riddle: a hushed moment in which the progenitor is assessing the intelligence of his offspring.

 “So he brought a bit of a grudge with him to the wake,” his father went on, deferring the decision. He raised his coffee mug, a kind of salute. “But it was a great thing anyway, on a day like that, to see Uncle Jim’s young face again.”

“Was Bronagh there?” Brian asked.

Without hesitation, his father said, “Of course.”

“Was that the last time you saw her?”

“No,” he said. “She was at our wedding. That was the last time I saw her.”

Brian took a small packet of jelly from the tiny metal stand on the table, peeled it open. Slyly he asked, “She didn’t like Mom?”

His father shook his head. “No,” he said. “She liked her well enough. I suppose. Who knows, with women, how much they ever like each other?”

Brian bit into the bagel. He was aware of how the food, the morning smell of bacon and coffee and toasted bread was, perhaps, calming the beastly kid inside him, soothing that bitter voice. Here he was in a diner with his father, just the two of them on a Saturday morning in the fall, shooting the breeze. Or here he was—not such a bad person after all—letting his old man talk.

“So how come?” Brian said. “How come you haven’t seen her? How come you didn’t say anything to her? She’s your sister.”

His father said, slippery, “I’m sure the poor undertaker had somewhere else to be. She was always late, Bronagh. She liked to shake her fist at time.”

“That’s not what I mean,” Brian said. “I mean, thirty-seven years. I can’t see the girls”—their collective name for his three sisters—“letting me get away with not seeing them for thirty-seven years.”

His father raised his coffee mug in a salute. “Everything you need to know about getting along with women you learned in your crib. I’ve seen it. You’re not afraid of girls, young or old. You’re not in awe of them, either. You’re lucky in that.”

Flattered, Brian asked, “When have you seen me with girls?” He knew his father was right. He spoke easily to women, more easily than his friends did. Whether or not this had to do with being born into a family already equipped with three teenage girls he couldn’t say.

“Oh, I’ve seen it,” his father said coyly. He pointed to the untouched muffin. “Should we have them wrap that up and take it home to your mother?”

Brian looked down at his plate and was surprised to see how much he had eaten. “Sure,” he said and then watched his father call to the waitress to ask her if she had some wax paper so they could take that “monstrosity” home.

She took the muffin away and brought them more coffee and the bill. His father was reaching for his wallet before Brian understood how well his question had been deflected.

“So I still don’t know,” he said. “Why thirty-seven years since you’ve seen your sister. Was it a fight or something?”

His father considered this, as if a reply involved some struggle to recall. “No,” he said. He had the check and the bills in his hand. He had already turned in the booth as if to stand and so it seemed it was something beyond his control that required his answer be short and succinct. “You make a decision in your life: Are you going to be happy or not? I made my decision when I married your mother and it’s worked out very well. I’ve had a good life. But with Bronagh there could be no peace in this world as long as a stray mutt was out in the rain or some clerk wasn’t speaking politely. She’s a scold. Maybe it had to do with the circumstances of her birth, orphaned so early.” He raised his eyebrows, his brown eyes amused. “The mortal universe never quite met with her approval.” He placed the knuckles of his free hand on the seat beside him, helping himself out of the booth. “I love her dearly,” he said, sliding to his feet. “But there’s enough misery in life. Why rub it in?”

It was a point of pride for his city-bred father that he knew his adopted homeland—Long Island—so well that he could take back roads all the way to Montauk. Brian thought they were only taking a short cut home, through a leafy neighborhood of small narrow houses, when his father suddenly pulled to the curb. He took the keys from the ignition and said, “Slip into your jacket, you don’t need the tie.”

The brick house they approached had a narrow stoop and a screen door with aluminum scrolls and vines. His father had barely raised his hand to rap at it when a mob of small, yapping dogs appeared in the hallway, scratching their black nails against the linoleum. And then Bronagh herself appeared, without the straw hat. She eased the dogs away with her foot, speaking to them in that annoyed and impatient way his father had described (“What are you barking at, you dummies? Do you even know what you’re barking at?”), before she looked up to say, “Hello, Bill. Nice of you to come.”

His father slipped inside and Brian followed. “Hello, Bronagh,” his father said. “Sorry for your trouble. This is my youngest, your namesake, Brian.”

Bronagh looked up at him. Her face was small and wrinkled about the eyes. The roots of her red hair showed gray. Brian had never been told that he was named for her. “You’ll have to meet my Mickey,” she said and then said to the crowd of dogs at her feet, “Oh, yeah, aren’t you a ferocious bunch?” Ferwocious. They were all ugly: two fat-bellied mutts with small heads and ratty faces, an ancient blonde spaniel, a beagle with a hoarse croon. “Says you,” Bronagh told the hound over his baying as they walked into the living room. She had exchanged her high heels for house slippers.

The two women from the church were perched on the couch with teacups on their knees. The man was in the leather recliner. They all nodded at Brian and his father as they were introduced.

There were small sandwiches on the dining room table and the same boxed coffee cake he’d had at home. They followed Bronagh into the kitchen, where there was a bar set up on the wet counter beside the sink. The boy was there, now in just a white shirt and a loosened tie. He was pouring himself a glass of soda from a large bottle and he seemed to do a double take when they entered the narrow kitchen, the dogs still following. He had a girlish face, large brown eyes with long lashes. “Give Brian here a soda,” his mother said, and then to his father, “What will you have, Bill?” There were bottles of whiskey and gin on the counter and Brian was pleased to hear his father say, “Just a ginger ale.” If his parents were alcoholics, he knew, they were, at least, home alcoholics. His father would never take a drink if there were car keys in his pocket.

 Bronagh leaned to push open the screen door at the end of the short room. She waved the dogs toward it, saying, “You boys go out and get some fresh air.” It took Brian an extra, awkward second to understand she meant animals and humans both.

He glanced briefly at his father, who was smiling, and then followed his new cousin out the door and down a few steps to a small concrete patio. An ancient yellow lab stood up to greet them. A fat tabby cat on the picnic table did not. There was a narrow yard beyond the patio. There was a small, rusty-looking swing set in the far corner. The two boys sat at the table. Brian spent a few minutes patting the old lab, collecting dog hairs on his blazer.       

“Sorry about your dad,” he said, after he had asked the lab’s name—“Reginald Van Gleason,” Mickey said—and how old he was—“really old” was the answer. Mickey said, “Thanks,” and looked away.

There was an awkward bit of silence: birdsong and cars driving by and a strange hum to the sunlight which, Brian was beginning to understand, was what thinking about death—this boy’s father with his bow tie lying inside the steel casket, his own father saying “I’ve had a good life”—could do to a sunny autumn day.

 “What grade are you in?” Brian asked.

“Tenth,” the boy said.

Brian heard himself say, “Really?” They were only a year apart. “What are you, thirteen, fourteen?”

 Mickey said, “Fifteen. Sixteen in December.”

They were born the same year then.

They both drank from their stubby glasses. Brian felt the sun on the shoulders of his blazer. “So we’re cousins,” he said.

Mickey said, “Strange, right?” He smiled shyly. His face was smooth and pale, with something of that tired look people got when they were finished crying. “I guess they had a fight or something,” Mickey said cautiously. “My mom and your dad.”

Brian only shrugged. There was no way he could repeat for this poor kid, his natty father just laid in a grave, any version of what his own father had said. Your mother’s a scold. You make a decision in life. Hugh.

“My parents fought a lot too,” Mickey offered.

“Oh yeah?” Brian asked. “Like cats and dogs,” Mickey said and then looked up and laughed. “Except that these guys”—he gestured toward the cat, and the dogs who were now scattered across the grass, studying them—“never fight.”

“What did they fight about?” Brian asked. He felt the awkwardness of speaking unkindly about the dead.

 “Everything,” Mickey said. “All the time,” he added. “I only realized it in the last few days, when it’s been so quiet here—they fought all the time.” He looked at Brian from beneath his long lashes. “Your parents fight a lot?”

Brian tried to remember. “Not really,” he said, and when he saw his cousin’s disappointment, he added. “They’re pretty old, my parents.”

“Well, yeah,” Mickey said. “So are mine.”

Brian nodded, conceding the point. “Your mother ever talk about my dad?”

Mickey said, “Oh, yeah. 65th Street. Uncle Jim and Aunt Mary. And Mr. Bannister who had the bakery.”

“Banana-nose Bannister,” Brian said. He knew the story too.

Mickey laughed. “Right,” he said, brightening. No one would believe this kid was almost sixteen. “You know the one about Georgiana, my mother’s pet pigeon?”

“Yeah,” Brian said.

Mickey said. “How about the time your dad hocked Uncle Jim’s gold watch to get a Mass said for my mom because he thought she was dying?”

Brian shook his head. “Never heard that one.”

Mickey rolled his eyes. “He got like five bucks for a watch that was worth fifty. And then ran to church with the money. When all she had was a head cold.”

“Pretty funny,” Brian said. “I guess they liked each other then.”

“I guess,” Mickey said. He touched the shut-eyed cat behind the ear. “So what happened?”

Brian shrugged again. “Who knows?” He looked into the yard. The old swing set was listing to the right. There had been a similar set in his own yard when he was very young. His only memory of it was the way the rusting chains pinched his fingers, the way his three sisters would descend on him when he cried out, vying to kiss away his tears.

 “I sure can’t see going thirty-seven years without talking to my sisters,” Brian said.

The boy looked up casually. “How many sisters do you have?”

 “Three,” Brian said. And then, as if to make up for bragging about something he had never before thought of as an advantage, he added, “But I hardly see them. They’re a lot older.”

“Any brothers?” Mickey asked.

Brian said two. “Also older. I’m the only one left at home.”

Mickey nodded, twisting his mouth a bit, as if weighing the mitigating benefits of Brian’s siblings’ ages. As if considering whether such a circumstance was better than, or equal to, being an only child left home with a widowed mother. “Same here,” he said finally.

Brian drank from his soda. The sun was warm on his shoulders.

It was a fall afternoon so much like summer that it was hard to believe, looking back, that only another winter followed. The winter that Brian too would become an only child, left home with a widowed mother.

Mickey leaned across the wooden table. He squinted at Brian. “Here’s what I want to know,” he whispered. “They’re old. Your dad, my mom.”

Brian said, “Yeah,” ready to defend his father against what he himself had only recently accused him of. “So?”

“So,” Mickey said. He closed his lips over what he wanted to ask. The sun was on his downy cheek and a muscle was moving along his smooth jaw. His eyes were large and brown and heavily lashed. For a moment Brian felt the thrill of it—the certainty that he was looking into his father’s face as it had once been, back when his father and Bronagh both were young. A great thing to see, as his father might have put it. A great thing anyway, on a day like this.

 “So what I want to know,” Mickey was saying, “is why the hell did they have us?”

Published in the December 19, 2014 issue: 

Alice McDermott is the author of eight novels. Her latest book, What About the Baby?: Some Thoughts on the Art of Fiction, will be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux on August 17, 2021.

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A Short Story by Alice McDermott
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