Home > The Burgess Boys(9)

The Burgess Boys(9)
Elizabeth Strout

“You need to know,” Susan said, sitting down on the bed, “because after tomorrow you might get asked by reporters what he’s like.”

The old lady shook her head slowly. “Well, he’s quiet.” She looked at Susan. Her glasses were huge trifocals, and wherever her eyes were, you could never quite see into them directly; they wavered around. “Never been rude to me,” she added.

“I can’t tell you what to say.”

“Nice your brother’s coming. Is it the famous one?”

“No. The famous one is off vacationing with his wife.”

A long silence followed. Mrs. Drinkwater said, “Zachary’s father? Does he know?”

“I emailed him.”

“He’s still living in … Sweden?”

Susan nodded.

Mrs. Drinkwater looked at her little desk, then at the wall above it. “I wonder what that’s like, living in Sweden.”

“I hope you sleep,” Susan said. “I’m sorry about this.”

“I hope you sleep, dear. Do you have a pill?”

“I don’t take them.”

“I see.”

Susan stood, ran a hand over her short hair, looked around as though she was supposed to do something but couldn’t remember what.

“Good night, dear,” said Mrs. Drinkwater.

Susan walked one flight down and knocked lightly on Zach’s door. He was lying on his bed, huge earphones over his ears. She tapped her own ear to indicate that he should remove them. His laptop lay on the bed beside him. “Are you frightened?” she asked.

He nodded.

The room was almost dark. Only one small light was on, over a bookshelf that had stacks of magazines piled on it. A few books lay scattered below. The shades were drawn, and the walls, painted black a few years earlier—Susan had come home from work one day and found them that way—were empty of posters or photographs.

“Did you hear from your father?”

“No.” His voice was husky and deep.

“I asked him to email you.”

“I don’t want you to ask.”

“He’s your father.”

“He shouldn’t write me because you tell him to.”

After a long moment she said, “Try and get some sleep.”

At noontime the next day she made Zach tomato soup from a can and a grilled cheese sandwich. He bent his head close to the bowl and ate half the sandwich with his thin fingers, then pushed back the plate. When he looked up at her with his dark eyes, for a moment she saw him as the small child he’d once been, before his social ungainliness had been fully exposed, before his inability to play any sport had hindered him irredeemably, before his nose became adult and angular and his eyebrows one dark line, back when he had seemed a shy and notably obedient little boy. A picky eater, always.

“Go shower,” she said. “And put on nice clothes.”

“What’s nice clothes?” he asked.

“A shirt with a collar. And no jeans.”

“No jeans?” This was not defiant, but worried.

“Okay. Jeans without holes.”

Susan picked up the phone and called the police station. Chief O’Hare was in. Three times she had to give her name before they let her talk to him. She had written down what she would say. Her mouth was so dry her lips stuck to each other, and she moved them extra to get the words out.

“Any minute now,” she concluded, looking up from the notebook paper she’d written on. “I’m just waiting for Bob.” She could picture Gerry’s big hand holding the telephone, his face without expression. He had added a great deal of weight over the years. Sometimes, not often, he came into the eyeglass store at the mall across the river where Susan worked and he’d wait while his wife’s glasses were fixed. He’d nod to her. He was not pleasant, or unpleasant; she’d have expected it that way.

“Yuh. Susan. The way I see it is, we got a situation here.” His voice over the phone was tired, professional. “Once we know who the perp is, I’d be wrong not to send someone to get him. Lot of publicity with this.”

“Gerry,” she said. “Dear God. Please do not send a cop car. Please do not do that.”

“Here’s what I think. I think we’re not having this conversation. Old friends. That’s what we are. I’m sure I’ll see you soon. Before the day is over. That’s it.”

“Thank you,” she said.

Bob drove comfortably in his brother’s car, the motion steady beneath him. Through the windshield he saw signs for shopping outlets, or lakes, but mostly there were the trees of Connecticut always moving closer, then whizzing by, then gone. Traffic moved quickly and with a sense of community, as though all drivers were tenants in this fast forward-moving form. The image of Adriana appeared in Bob’s mind. I’m scared, she had said to him, standing by the doorway in a maroon sweat suit, her streaky blond hair moving in the breeze. She had a throaty voice he’d not heard before—she had never talked to him before. Without makeup she looked much younger; her cheekbones were pale, her green eyes, rimmed with red, were large and questioning. But the fingernails were bitten, and this broke his heart. He thought: Almost, she could have been my daughter. For years Bob had lived with the shadow of his not-children appearing before him. Earlier in his life it might have been a child on a playground he passed by, yellow-haired (as Bob had once been), playing hopscotch tentatively. Later a teenager—boy or girl, it happened with each—on the sidewalk laughing with a friend. Or, these days, a law student interning in his office might reveal a sudden aspect of expression that would cause Bob to think: This could have been my kid.

He asked if she had family nearby.

Parents in Bensonhurst who managed apartment buildings. Shaking her head, she wasn’t close to them. But she had a job in Manhattan as a paralegal. Except how would she work, feeling so— And she made a circular motion by her ear. Her lips were very pale. Work will help, he told her. You’ll be surprised.

I won’t always feel this way?, she asked.

Oh no. No. (But he knew: The end of a marriage was a crazy time.) You’ll be all right, he told her. He told her that many times, as the shivering dog sniffed the ground; she had asked him many times. She said she might lose her job; a woman was coming back from maternity leave and it was a very small office. He gave her the name of Jim’s law firm; the place was big, they hired frequently, she was not to worry. Life had a way of working out, he said. But do you really think so?, she asked, and he said he did.

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