Home > The Burgess Boys(7)

The Burgess Boys(7)
Elizabeth Strout

“I’m driving up there tomorrow, Susan.” He had told her this when he first called. “I’ll take him in with you, help contain this. Don’t you worry.”

“Oh, I won’t worry,” she said. “Good night.”

How they hated each other! Bob cracked open the window, shook out a cigarette, then poured wine into a juice glass and sat down in the metal foldout chair by the window. Across the street, lights were on in different apartments. There was a private show up here: the young girl who could be seen in her bedroom walking around in her underpants and no top. Because of how the room was laid out, he never saw her breasts, just her bare back, but he got a kick out of how free she seemed. So there was that—like a field of bluets in June.

Two windows over was the couple who spent a lot of time in their white kitchen, the man reaching into a cupboard right now—he seemed to be the one who cooked. Bob didn’t like to cook. He liked to eat, but as Pam had pointed out, he liked the stuff that kids ate, things without color, like mashed potatoes or macaroni and cheese. People in New York liked food. Food was a very big deal. Food was like art. To be a chef in New York was like being a rock star.

Bob poured more wine, settled himself at the window again. Whatever, as people said these days.

Be a chef, be a beggar, be divorced a zillion times, no one in this city cared. Smoke yourself to death out the window. Scare your wife and go to jail. It was heaven to live here. Susie never got that. Poor Susie.

Bob was getting drunk.

He heard the door open in the apartment below him, heard footsteps down the stairs. He peered out the window. Adriana stood beneath a streetlamp, holding a leash, her shoulders hunched and shivering, and the tiny dog was just standing there shivering too. “Ah, you poor things,” Bob said quietly. Nobody, it seemed to him in his drunken expansiveness, nobody—anywhere—had a clue.

Six blocks away, Helen lay next to her husband and listened to him snore. Through the window in the black night sky she saw the planes on their way into La Guardia, every three seconds if you counted—as her children had when they were young—like stars that kept coming and coming and coming. Tonight the house seemed full of emptiness, and she thought of how her children used to be asleep in their rooms and how safe it had been, the soft buoyancy of nighttime. She thought of Zachary up in Maine, but she had not seen him for years and could only picture a skinny pale boy, a motherless-seeming child. And she did not want to think of him, or a frozen pig’s head, or her grim sister-in-law, because she saw how the incident was an irritant rubbing already against the fine fabric of her family, and she felt right now the small pricks of anxiety that precede insomnia.

She pushed on Jim’s shoulder. “You’re snoring,” she said.

“Sorry.” He could say that in his sleep. He turned over.

Wide awake, Helen hoped her plants wouldn’t die while she and Jim were gone. Ana was not particularly good with plants. It was a feel, and you had it or you didn’t. Once, years before Ana, the Burgess family had gone on vacation and the lesbians next door had let the lavender petunias that filled Helen’s window boxes die. Helen had tended those plants every day, snipping off the sticky dead heads, watering them, feeding them; they were like sweet geysers gushing forth from the front windows of the house, and people commented on them as they walked by. Helen told the women how much attention was needed for any flowering plant in the summertime and they said yes, they knew. But then, to return from vacation and find them shriveled on the vine! Helen had cried. The women moved soon after, and Helen was glad. She’d never been able to be nice to them, not really, after they had killed her petunias. Two lesbians named Linda and Laura. Fat Linda and Linda’s Laura is how they’d been spoken of in the Burgess home.

The Burgesses lived in the last of a row of brownstones. On their left was a tall limestone, the only apartment building on the block. Co-ops now. The Linda-Lauras had lived in the street-level co-op and then sold it to a banker, Deborah-Who-Does (short for Deborah-Who-Knows-Everything, as opposed to the Debra in the building who didn’t know everything), and her husband, William, who was so nervous he had introduced himself as “Billiam.” The kids would sometimes call him that, but Helen asked them to be kind because Billiam had, years ago, been in the Vietnam War, and also, his wife, Deborah-Who-Does, was a terrible nuisance and Helen thought it had to be awful living with her. You couldn’t step out into the back garden without Deborah-Who-Does stepping out into hers, and in two minutes she’d be mentioning that the pansies you were arranging wouldn’t last on that side of the garden, that the lilies would need more light, that the lilac bush Helen planted would die (it had) because there was so little lime in the soil.

Debra-Who-Doesn’t, on the other hand, was a sweet woman, tall and anxious, a psychiatrist and a bit dippy. But it was sad: Her husband was cheating on her. It was Helen who had discovered this. Home alone during the day, she heard through the walls the most appalling sexual sounds. When Helen peeked out the front window she saw Debra’s husband emerge down the front steps with a curly-haired woman behind him. Later, she saw them together in a local bar. And once she had heard Debra-Who-Doesn’t say to her husband, “Why are you picking on me tonight?” So Debra-Who-Doesn’t-Know-Everything didn’t know everything. In this way, Helen didn’t always care for living in the city. Jim yelled like a crazy person when it was basketball season. “You dumbfuck asshole!” he’d yell at the TV, and Helen worried the neighbors would think he was yelling at her. She had considered mentioning it to them in a laughing way, and then decided that in issues of veracity the less said the better. Not that she’d be lying.


Her mind raced and raced. What had she forgotten to pack? She didn’t want to think of herself dressing one night to meet the Anglins for dinner and finding she’d not packed the right shoes—her outfit ruined just like that. Tucking the quilt around her, Helen realized that tonight’s telephone call from Susan was still here in the house, dark and formless and bad. She sat up.

This is what happened when you couldn’t sleep, and when you had an image in your mind of a frozen pig’s head. Helen went into the bathroom and found a sleeping pill, and the bathroom was clean and familiar. Back in bed she moved close to her husband and within minutes felt the gentle tug of sleep, and she was so glad she wasn’t Deborah-Who-Does, or Debra-Who-Doesn’t, so glad she was Helen Farber Burgess, so glad she had children, so glad to be glad about life.

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