Home > The Burgess Boys(8)

The Burgess Boys(8)
Elizabeth Strout

But such urgency in the morning!

On a day when Park Slope opened with its Saturday’s munificence—children on the way to the park with soccer balls in netted bags, their fathers watching the traffic lights and hurrying the kids along, young couples who arrived at the coffee shops with hair still wet from showering after morning love, people who, having dinner parties that night, were already near Grand Army Plaza at the end of the park in order to browse the farmers market for the best apples and breads and cut flowers, their arms laden with baskets and paper-wrapped stalks of sunflowers—in the midst of all this, there were of course the typical vexations found anywhere in the country, even in this neighborhood where people, for the most part, exuded a sense of being exactly where they wanted to be: There was the mother whose child was begging for a Barbie doll for her birthday and the mother said no, Barbie dolls are why girls are skinny and sick. On Eighth Street there was the stepfather grimly trying to teach the recalcitrant boy how to ride a bicycle, holding on to the back of the bike while the child, white-faced with fear, wobbled and looked at him for praise. (The man’s wife was finishing her chemo for breast cancer, there was no getting out of any of it.) On Third Street a couple argued about their teenage son, whether he should be allowed to stay in his room on this sunny autumn day. So there were these disgruntlements—and the Burgesses were having problems of their own.

The car ordered to take Helen and Jim to the airport had not shown up. Their bags were on the sidewalk, and Helen was directed to stay with them while Jim went in and out of the house, on his cell phone to the car service. Deborah-Who-Does stepped out onto the sidewalk and asked where they were headed off to on this nice sunny day, it must be wonderful taking so many vacations. Helen had to say, “Excuse me, please, I need to make a call,” taking her own cell phone from her bag and pretending to call her son, who (in Arizona) would still be sound asleep. But Deborah-Who-Does was waiting for Billiam, and Helen had to fake a conversation into her phone because Deborah kept smiling her way. Billiam finally appeared and off they went down the sidewalk holding hands, which Helen thought was showy.

Meanwhile, Jim, pacing around the foyer, noticed that both car keys were hanging on the key holder by the door. Bob had not taken the key last night! How was he going to drive the car to Maine without the goddamn car key? Jim yelled this question to Helen as he joined her on the sidewalk, and Helen said quietly that if he yelled like that any more she would move into Manhattan. Jim shook the key in front of her face. “How is he supposed to get there?” he whispered fiercely.

“If you would give your brother a key to our house, this wouldn’t be an issue.”

Approaching around the corner, driving slowly, was a black town car. Jim waved his arm above his head in a kind of backward swimming motion. And then finally Helen was tucked into the backseat, where she smoothed her hair as Jim, on his cell phone, called Bob. “Pick up the phone, Bob.” Then: “What happened to you? You just woke up? You’re supposed to be on your way to Maine. What do you mean you were awake all night?” Jim leaned forward and said to the driver, “Make a stop at the corner of Sixth and Ninth.” He sat back. “Well, guess what I have in my hand? Take a guess, knucklehead. The key to my car, that’s right. And listen—are you listening? Charlie Tibbetts. Lawyer for Zach. He’ll see you Monday morning. You can stay through Monday, don’t pretend you can’t. Legal Aid doesn’t give a crawling crap. Charlie’s out of town for the weekend, but I thought of him last night and spoke to him. He should be the guy. Good guy. All you have to do in the next couple days is keep this contained, understand? Now get down to the sidewalk, we’re on our way to the airport.”

Helen pushed the button that lowered the window, put her face to the fresh air.

Jim sat back, taking her hand. “We’re going to have a terrific time, sweetheart. Just like the farty-looking couples in the brochures. It’ll be great.”

Bob was in front of his building wearing sweatpants and a T-shirt and grimy athletic socks. “Hey, slob-dog,” Jim called. He tossed the car key through the open window, and Bob caught it in one hand.

“Have fun.” Bob waved once.

Helen was impressed at how easily Bob caught the key. “Good luck up there,” she called.

The town car rounded the corner, disappeared from sight, and Bob turned to face his building. When young, he had run into the woods rather than watch the car that took Jim off to college, and he wanted to run there now. Instead, he stood on broken cement next to metal garbage bins, and shards of sunlight stabbed his eyes while he fumbled with his keys.

Years earlier, when Bob had been newer to the city, he had gone to a therapist named Elaine. She was a large woman, loose-limbed, as old as he was now, which of course back then had seemed pretty old. He had sat in the midst of her benevolent presence, picking at a hole in the arm of her leather couch, glancing anxiously at the fig tree in the corner (a plant that looked fake except for its marked and sad leaning toward the tiny sliver of light that came through the window, and its ability to grow, in six years’ time, one new leaf). Had Elaine been here on the sidewalk right now, she would have told him, “Bob, stay in the present.” Because dimly Bob was aware of what was happening to him as his brother’s car turned the corner, left him, dimly, he knew, but—oh, poor Elaine, dead now from some awful disease, and she had tried so hard with him, been so kind—it did no good. The sunlight shattered him.

Bob, who was four years old when his father died, remembered only the sun on the hood of the car that day, and that his father had been covered by a blanket, also—always—Susan’s little-girl accusing voice: “It’s all your fault, you stupid-head.”

Now, standing on the sidewalk in Brooklyn, New York, Bob pictured his brother tossing him the car key, watched the town car disappear, thought of the task that was waiting, and inside him was the cry Jimmy, don’t go.

Adriana stepped through the door.


Susan Olson lived in a narrow three-story house not far from town. Since her divorce seven years earlier she had rented the top rooms to an old woman named Mrs. Drinkwater, who came and went with less frequency these days, and who never complained about the music coming from Zach’s room, and always paid her rent on time. The night before Zach was to turn himself in, Susan had to climb the stairs, knock on the old woman’s door, and explain to her what had happened. Mrs. Drinkwater was surprisingly sanguine. “Dear, dear,” she said, sitting on the chair by her little desk. She was wearing a pink rayon robe, and her stockings were rolled to right above her knees; her gray hair was pinned back, but much of it was falling down. This is how she looked if she wasn’t dressed to go out, which was a lot of the time. She was thin as kindling.

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