Home > The Burgess Boys(4)

The Burgess Boys(4)
Elizabeth Strout

Helen shook her head. “Imagine living like that. Do you want a drink?” She rose and went to the mahogany cupboard, where she poured whiskey into a crystal tumbler. She was a short, still shapely woman in her black skirt and beige sweater.

Bob drank half the whiskey in one swallow. “Anyways,” he continued, and saw a small tightening on Helen’s face. She hated how he said “Anyways,” though he always forgot this, and he forgot it now, only felt the foreboding of failure. He wasn’t going to be able to convey the sadness of what he had seen. “She comes home,” Bob said. “They start to fight. He does his yelling thing. Then he takes the dog out. But this time, while he’s gone, she calls the police. She’s never done that before. He comes back and they arrest him. I heard the cops tell him that his wife said he’d hit her. And thrown her clothes out the window. So they arrested him. And he was amazed.”

Helen’s face looked as if she didn’t know what to say.

“He’s this good-looking guy, very cool in his zip-up sweater, and he stood there crying, ‘Baby, I never hit you, baby, seven years we’ve been married, what are you doing? Baby, pleeeease!’ But they cuffed him and walked him across the street in broad daylight to the cruiser and he’s spending the night in the pens.” Bob eased himself out of the rocking chair, went to the mahogany cupboard, and poured himself more whiskey.

“That’s a very sad story,” said Helen, who was disappointed. She had hoped it would be more dramatic. “But he might have thought of that before he hit her.”

“I don’t think he did hit her.” Bob returned to the rocking chair.

Helen said musingly, “I wonder if they’ll stay married.”

“I don’t think so.” Bob was tired now.

“What bothered you most, Bobby?” Helen asked. “The marriage falling apart, or the arrest?” She took it personally, his expression of not finding relief.

Bob rocked a few times. “Everything.” He snapped his fingers. “Like that, it happened. I mean, it was just an ordinary day, Helen.”

Helen plumped the pillow against the back of the couch. “I don’t know what’s ordinary about a day when you have your husband arrested.”

Turning his head, Bob saw through the grated windows his brother walking up the sidewalk, and a small rush of anxiety came to him at the sight of this: his older brother’s quick gait, his long coat, the thick leather briefcase. There was the sound of the key in the door.

“Hi, sweetheart,” said Helen. “Your brother’s here.”

“I see that.” Jim shrugged off his coat and hung it in the hall closet. Bob had never learned to hang up his coat. What is it with you?, his wife, Pam, used to ask, What is it, what is it, what is it? And what was it? He could not say. But whenever he walked through a door, unless someone took his coat for him, the act of hanging it up seemed needless and … well, too difficult.

“I’ll go.” Bob said. “I have a brief to work on.” Bob worked in the appellate division of Legal Aid, reading case records at the trial level. There was always an appeal that required a brief, always a brief to be worked on.

“Don’t be silly,” said Helen. “I said we’d go across the street for supper.”

“Out of my chair, knucklehead.” Jim waved a hand in Bob’s direction. “Glad to see you. It’s been what, four days?”

“Stop it, Jim. Your brother saw that downstairs neighbor of his taken away in handcuffs this afternoon.”

“Trouble in the graduate dorm?”

“Jim, stop.”

“He’s just being my brother,” Bob said. He moved to the couch, and Jim sat down in the rocking chair.

“Let’s hear it.” Jim crossed his arms. He was a large man, and muscular, so that crossing his arms, which he did often, seemed to make him boxy, confrontational. He listened without moving. Then he bent to untie his shoes. “Did he throw her clothes out the window?” he asked.

“I didn’t see anything,” Bob said.

“Families,” Jim said. “Criminal law would lose half its business without them. Do you realize, Helen, you could call the police right now and accuse me of hitting you and they’d take me away for the night?”

“I’m not going to call the police on you.” Helen said this conversationally. She stood and straightened the waistband of her skirt. “But if you want to change your clothes, go. I’m hungry.”

Bob leaned forward. “Jimmy, it kind of shook me up. Seeing him arrested. I don’t know why. But it did.”

“Grow up,” Jim said. “Sheesh. What do you want me to do?” He slipped off a shoe, rubbed his foot. He added, “If you want, I’ll call down there tonight and make sure he’s all right. Pretty white boy in the pens.”

In the next room, the telephone rang just as Bob said, “Would you, Jim?”

“That’ll be your sister,” said Helen. “She called before.”

“Tell her I’m not home, Hellie.” Jim tossed his sock onto on the parquet floor. “When was the last time you spoke to Susan?” he asked Bob, slipping off his other shoe.

“Months ago,” said Bob. “I told you. We argued about the Somalis.”

“Why are there Somalian people in Maine anyway?” Helen asked as she walked through the door to the next room. Calling over her shoulder, “Why would anyone go to Shirley Falls except in shackles?”

It always surprised Bob when Helen talked like this, as though her dislike of where the Burgesses came from required no shred of discretion. But Jim called back to her, “They are in shackles. Poverty’s a shackle.” He tossed the second sock in the direction of the first; it landed on the coffee table, hanging from its corner.

“Susan told me the Somalis were invading the town,” Bob continued. “Arriving in droves. She said three years ago just a few families were there and now there’s two thousand, that every time she turns around a Greyhound bus unloads forty more. I said she was being hysterical, and she said women were always accused of being hysterical and regarding the Somalis I didn’t know what I was talking about since I hadn’t been up there in ages.”

“Jim.” Helen returned to the living room. “She really wants to speak with you. She’s all upset. I couldn’t lie. I said you’d just come home. I’m sorry, honey.”

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