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My mother reaches forward and clicks off the radio. I see her flex her hands around the steering wheel, pushing her wedding band up off her knuckle. I am in the backseat of our van, my knees pulled up and pressed on the back of the driver’s seat. Her eyes meet mine in the mirror for a brief moment. She inclines her head toward my father.
“How much farther?” She asks.
My father glances down at the map and flicks his wrists to fold it toward himself. He pushes his glasses up the same way every time—with his pinky, one smooth motion that perches them up on the bridge of his nose again. “A few more miles,” he says.
He returns to staring out the passenger window, his chin resting on his knuckles. Streetlamps throw his face into focus with every few feet, lighting his glasses and catching on the surface of his large golden watch. Our house is filled with portraits of him, painted by my mother before he needed glasses. His knees are angled away toward the door, his shoulders rounded over his chest. In a few minutes, I can see Uncle Bill’s porch light ahead, a lone figure sitting under it.
As we pull up, he walks to the curb to meet us, rolling his suitcase. He sits down next to me in the backseat. I glance up at the mirror. My mother’s lips are pressed tight, small ridges forming perpendicular to the line. She pulls away the moment he shuts the door. He reaches out to me and we hug sideways.
I heard my parents arguing about this in the kitchen after dinner. I had been on the phone with my friend Erin, talking about our swim club when their voices carried up the stairs. I crept over to the banister to listen.
“How will Cassie feel? She’ll have to leave her room for the summer.”
“It’s just until he’s better.”
“So how long?”
“He’s just in a bad place right now.” Silence. Then, “He’s my brother.”
In the car, Uncle Bill touches his fingertip to my nose like he always does, saying “How’s it going, Peanut?” I catch a sharp whiff of rubbing alcohol. I try to snatch his finger, the gesture bringing a smile to his face. It feels like a tradition we won’t ever outgrow.
My mother’s eyes flick back to me. I sneak glances at my uncle when he turns his face to the window. He looks like my father, but his features are softer, older but filled out. While my father has stayed pinched thin, Uncle Bill has rounded in both face and stock. His thick fingers clasp in front of his belly. Erase a few lines and carve out his jaw and there is my dad—the same ridged nose, the same parenthesis around the mouth, the same crinkles around his eyes when he smiles at me. Uncle Bill’s stomach has grown since Christmas. He pushes his glasses up with his pinky, rests his head on the window, and closes his eyes.
I help my mother carry Uncle Bill’s suitcase up to my room. I grab a change of clothes and take them to the room that was once my mother’s studio. Her art supplies are packed in the corner, covered by the enormous gray tarp she used to lay her paintings on. My father has unfolded the sleeper sofa for me, put sheets on it, and placed my pillow in the middle.
“Looks comfortable enough,” my mother says. She’s plumping my pillow, adjusting the corner of the fitted sheet.
I nod, chewing on my lip. “How long is he staying?” I ask.
She looks at me, but she is illuminated from behind by the light of the window, leaving her face in shadow. “I don’t know,” she says. “Ask your father.” She pulls the covers up around me, then shuts the door without a sound as she exits.
The studio looks out over the front of the house. I can hear the noise from the street, a soft roar as every car passes, a sound very different from the buzz of the crickets out back. My mother’s easel, the only thing not covered by the cloth, stands in the corner. It holds a still-life in the early stage of sketching. It has begun to fade, but still looks real, as though the penciled fruit might one day be edible. When I close my eyes, I can see the easel on the backs of my eyelids.
Uncle Bill is silent when he moves about the house. I watch how he walks, placing his toes first and his heels last so that even the floorboards don’t creak. Sometimes the door to what is now his room stays closed all day. When he comes out, he is always holding a duster, or a mop, or a vacuum. My mother stops wiping down the countertops. He is always wearing the grey hoodie. He is always popping popcorn. The hoodie accumulates butter tracks down the front. He does not go outside.
Last Christmas, he drank two beers and sang carols until his voice cracked. He put his
arm around my waist and twirled me around, while my mother and father clapped along and laughed. I laughed too, until my eyes were teary and I had to stop to breathe. But at the end of the night, while my parents were clearing away the wrapping paper, Uncle Bill sat in the armchair in the corner, staring at the ceiling. He didn’t try to catch my hand when I bounced my finger on his nose. I don’t think he’d try now, either.
On the morning of my first swim meet, my mother asks Uncle Bill to drive me to the pool. It’s only a few miles away. She hands him the keys to the van, says she has a lot of clients to call, and heads into the kitchen, already on the phone discussing taxes. My father has been at work for hours.
Uncle Bill swings himself into the car and pats the front seat, smiling at me. The hot leather seat sticks to my thighs as we speed down the road, and Uncle Bill hands me a CD to slide into the stereo. The cigarette lighter pops. Jazz piano tinkles through the van.
“So, swim club?” He says.
“Every summer,” I say. “It’s my last year swimming with this group though.”
“Why’s that?” Uncle Bill asks. His elbow is propped on the side of the van. He has the cigarette held carefully through the cracked window.
“Once I turn 14, I have to try out for the teenage swim team,” I say. There is a strangevexcitement in my stomach at this conversation, an energy that has my foot bouncing up and down. The air conditioner is blowing on my face. Loose strands of hair tickle my forehead. I want him to keep asking questions.
“You’ll be with the teenagers?” he says. “Unbelievable. That happened fast.” He laughs, and it sounds exactly like my father, gravely, as though it came through the static on the stereo. I try to breathe in the sound, feel it rumble in my chest. I haven’t heard him laugh since he’s been with us.
“I’m going to stay here,” he says as we pull up into the parking lot. He switches off the engine, tossing the keys in the cup holder. “Go ahead, Cassie. I’ll be waiting here.” The corners of his mouth twitch upward, but they don’t move far enough to become a smile. I feel my face fall. I hesitate for a moment. There are words pulling at my lips, and I want to ask him, “Aren’t you coming to watch?”
He lights another cigarette. Heat rises off the black gravel of the lot as I swing my plastic flip-flops down and slide off the seat. A candy wrapper sits in by the front wheel of the car, and a crushed 7-11 cup is half-buried in at the base of the stairs that lead up to the gate around the pool. The day is scorching, the air stagnant. There is no breeze, not a single cloud in the sky. I can feel the sun burning my skin, hear the hum of the highway not far it the distance. I wrap my arms around my towel and look back at Uncle Bill. He has reclined the seat, the cigarette pinched at the corner of his mouth, still wearing his hoodie. My nose is stuffy. I’m trying hard not to cry. I wipe at my eyes with the backs of my hands and straighten up, tucking my towel under my arm.
Before I dive into the pool, I look up one more time at where the adults are sitting, scanning for a face just a little rounder than my father’s.
My mother tells me it’s time to learn to sew a button. She is holding one of Uncle Bill’s collared shirts in one hand and her sewing kit in the other. I am nestled on the couch next to my father, my hair still damp with chlorine, watching Jeopardy and eating chips. Uncle Bill volunteered to go out to pick up groceries, an offer that my mom accepted with the same expression she wore when I said I’d wash the dishes. She stares at me until I set the chips aside. At the edge of my vision, I can see my father looking at her. She used to join us to watch Jeopardy every night, but lately she has been staying in the kitchen, or in their room. Her eyes do not leave my face. My father shifts, resigned, to look back at the television.
I follow my mother into the kitchen, to the small wooden table that functions as the dining table as well. A blue mug is sitting on one of the corners next to the newspaper, half filled with coffee, resting on top of a series of circular brown stains from years of spills on that exact location. My mother scoops it up and dumps it in the sink. Some coffee lands on the countertop. She tosses the newspaper in the trash and instructs me to sit.
When I was younger, I used to play with her sewing box as she was patching rips in my jeans or sewing holes in shirts where they’d worn through. I would place the thimbles on my fingers and spin them around, watching my mother’s needle move in and out of the fabric. Most of my clothing had come from my older cousins then, back when my mother had been painting full time and my father had worked weekends, too.
She hands me the green button and lays a part of the cloth out on the table in front of me. “Here,” She says, “You see where there are threads poking out?” I touch the fabric and feel where the button broke off.
“That’s where you’re going to hold the button.” She hands me a needle and pushes the sewing box toward me. “You want to pick a thread that’s similar to the colour of the shirt.” Her box has many small compartments, each holding a unique colour of thread. I pull out two different shades of green. The phone rings.
She stands to answer it, her back toward me. I start to unravel the lighter of the green threads. I see her bow her head. She puts her hand over the receiver and turns, taking long strides out of the kitchen. I wrap the thread tightly around my index finger as I wait, just above first knuckle. I wind and unwind it, watching my finger turn purple.
They tell me he drove through the guardrail that protects our road from the cliff below, very fast, his foot pressing down on the gas without stopping. They tell me when our car went off the edge, it flipped over, and killed him instantly. They tell me it was quick, but they tell me he meant to do it.
I listen to all of this and it feels like my ears are underwater. I can hear the echoes of the other kids jumping in the pool around me, see the bubbles rising to the top while I am suspended, floating weightless between the surface and the bottom.
I listen to all of this while I’m sitting at the kitchen table, where he sat eating toast this morning. It feels like the room has turned sideways, and I’m no longer certain which direction to come up for air.
“Did he have our groceries in the back?” I say.
“I don’t know,” my mother says.
“You didn’t ask?” I say. It feels important. My mother stands. Her dress sweeps out of the room after her.
A pipe in our sink gurgles. I hear a lawnmower start up. Wind pushes the chimes outside the window. A bird lands on the feeder. I can feel my feet on the floor, my hands flat on the cool surface of the tabletop. My father clears his throat and I jump, bumping my knee on leg of the table.
He tells me about when he met my mother. He says when they were young and in college, he ran to her dorm room one day and asked her out. She blushed crimson and said yes, and they stood for a minute, staring at each other, blood rushing through their ears. He tells me while his fingers run circles around his watch, and when his voice drops lower, I think he is going to cry. But he doesn’t. He continues telling me facts, as if he is setting them on the table and pushing them across to me, bite by bite. He tells me that when they met, he had long hair and she wore red lipstick so that her smile always looked like the sun. Even when she was angry, her lips looked like the swirl of a rose. He stole a golf cart and she made a picnic, and they drove out to a part of the course that had become overgrown. They talked until the stars came out and my mother had pulled the picnic blanket over her sundress against the breeze. He tells me these things like they’re memories from another man’s life, like he is just borrowing them so he has something for his daughter.
I only have one dress for the funeral. It is dark velvety purple with a white satin collar and frills around the cuffs. It squeezes my arms and leaves most of my thighs uncovered. My mother takes one look at it and shakes her head. She goes through the back of her closet and pulls out a black dress that hits just below my knee. It hangs a little loosely off my shoulders and chest. I try to stand up as straight as I can and puff my stomach out.
“Turn,” she says, looking at me. She takes my shoulder and tilts her head. “Okay. This will do.”
The dress is larger at the bottom, and when I twirl, it fans out around me and piles on top of itself. My mother hands me a pair of black tights. She holds my chin up and runs her thin fingers through my hair, parting it off to the side, throwing the loose curls to the right of my face. It feels odd, the displaced hair tingling now that it is no longer split down the middle.
“Hold still,” she instructs. She shakes a can and sprays it so that it stays frozen in place. She’s never let me use hairspray before, but it doesn’t feel like the time to ask why.
She hands me a cardigan to cover my shoulders. I follow her outside, slide into the back seat of our rental car. My father drives. I watch his hands on the steering wheel. Brown liver spots have begun to appear between his veins. His knuckles seem to stick out farther than I remember, covered by loose skin, a thin blanket thrown over his bones.
I do not know anyone else at the funeral. My mother and father nod to a few faces in the pews. The priest stands next to the closed casket, floats his hands over the body, saying quiet prayers. My father watches the priest. My mother stares straight ahead. I am sitting between them, but they have left a few inches of space on either side of me, so that I am alone. I look at my lap and flip Uncle Ben’s green button over in my fingers. I wonder what he’s wearing now. I wonder what would have happened if I had fixed his button.
I’m fidgeting with the hem of my mother’s dress, rolling the button between my fingertips. The room has started to smear in my vision and I can’t bring it into focus. Suddenly I wish that I fit into my purple dress with the white collar. I wish that I couldn’t see Uncle Bill sitting in the car all alone. I wish that I could sit between my mother and father back when she smiled and he had long hair, when he posed for her and she painted the angles of his face. I feel as if I’m looking out of a rainy window, where all the shapes run together like watercolour. My parents are not looking at me, and not looking at each other. I wonder if anybody can see me there at all.
I open the door to my bedroom when we get home. Nothing is moved. Nothing is displaced. My bed is made, my floor clean except for Uncle Bill’s suitcase, where his hoodie sits folded on top. It smells like popcorn and air freshener. I pick up the hoodie and pull it over my dress. It hangs past my waist. I walk down the stairs like he did, placing my toes first and lowering my heel slowly. I have to hold on to the railing so I don’t fall.
My father sits under a lamp across the room, watching Jeopardy with his fingers pressed on his temples. I look at the sharp bones in his face. He moves like he is going to push his glasses up with his pinky, but they are still on his forehead. My mother has reclined on the couch, eyes closed, palms on her stomach. Her feet are propped on the coffee table and her toes are ringed with a red wedge from where her shoes were too tight. I lower myself next to her. She does not move. Her face looks softer, somehow, her jaw less sharp, fewer frowns on her forehead, the lines around her mouth ironed out. I look at her and imagine the girl with the smile like the sun, who rode a stolen golf cart to sit in the grass and talk until night.
I breathe in the smell of her perfume, musty and full, so that the smell hits my nose and catches in the back of my throat.
I want to touch her, to stroke her face and see if her skin is as silky as it looks. I shift over closer and tentatively place my head on her chest. She opens her eyes, looking down at me. I wait to be told that I need to sit up because I will wrinkle her dress and mess up my hair. But she leans back again and stretches her arm around me. I pull my knees up and press myself closer. Her chest is rising and falling, my head a raft on the pool drifting over the surface after the splashing has stopped. Underneath, I can her heart, beating quiet and steady beneath the waves.