“Oh, shit. I gotta pick up my brother.”
“That’s today?” Corinne, fresh from the shower, breezed into the bedroom, where Everett lay on his back on her big queen bed, gazing at the ceiling after a nice round of morning lovemaking. She had a pink towel around her hair but wore nothing else. Everett loved how she paraded around her apartment naked. On days when she didn’t have to work she sometimes sat across the breakfast table from him with her perky breasts exposed like the most natural thing in the world, and the sight often aroused him enough to take her back to bed. But today she was due in at nine, twenty minutes from now. Everett had been lying back on the pillow, enjoying the view, until he remembered that his day wasn’t free of obligations, either
“Yeah, it’s today,” he said, with an exaggerated sigh. “I guess I better get up.”
“You want to take my car?” Corinne unfurled the towel and fluffed her short blonde hair with her fingers before reaching for the hair dryer. “You could drop me off and pick me up later.” She liked to run and had the body of an athlete: short muscular legs, a flat stomach, nice round butt, shapely breasts that Everett thought just the right size, large enough to cup in his hands but too small to invite undue ogling. Her face was lightly freckled and friendly, not what most men would call beautiful, though he liked her pale blue eyes, turned-down nose and squared-off chin. He’d been with a couple of beautiful women and found them a pain, always needing to be the center of attention. Corinne was funny, easy to be with. She wasn’t a musician – another plus in his book.
“No, that’s okay,” he said, as he watched her brush out her hair. “The bus to the airport goes right by my place.”
Corinne adjusted a lacy blue bra around her ribs and inserted her arms into the shoulder straps. She frowned at him. “You’re going to make your brother ride the bus?”
“Why not? That’s what I do.” He sat up, reached to the floor for his boxers and blue jeans, began pulling them on.
“Yeah, but won’t he be tired after flying all the way across the country? He might appreciate the small comfort of a ride home.”
“Hey, it’s my home, not his,” Everett said, looking around for his shirt. “He invited himself. He can’t just assume I have a car at my disposal.”
He saw her scowl into the full-length mirror, and went to her. Bending down, he kissed a spot between neck and shoulder. “I know you’re just trying to make it easier for me, and I appreciate it,” he said. “But it is possible to live without a car in America. It’ll be good for Jeremy to see how the other half lives.”
She twisted away from him and began buttoning a plain white blouse. “The other two percent, you mean. I wish you’d give it a rest sometimes, Everett. Aren’t you going to shower?”
“I will at home,” he said. “I can take the nine-forty-five to the airport, which should get me there just in time.”
“Why don’t you just take the car, and stop being such a fucking purist?”
“I’m not a purist,” he retorted. “I drove to Ellsworth to see my mom just last week, remember?”
“In a rental.” Corinne was still miffed at him for not asking to use her car. She drove half a mile to work, as a surgical technician in Bangor’s largest hospital, where she scrubbed in on operations she loved to tell him about in every gruesome detail. He had made one comment about frivolous use of a car. She had given him the silent treatment for three days. It was an ongoing argument.
They were still getting used to each other, five months after mutual friends with feet in Bangor’s musical and medical circles had introduced them at a holiday party. Most of the fights they had were about whether to walk or drive, though they had argued recently about his mother. “That hospital’s a death trap,” Corinne had told him. She based this opinion on a year of employment there a decade ago, but she was adamant that he and his sisters should move her. Everett had defended his mother, precipitating another three days of silence.
“Riding a bus from the airport to my place is not going to kill my brother.”
“Oh, Everett, you can’t save the world by yourself. The Greenland ice sheet isn’t going to melt any faster if you drive my car for one day.” She had her pants on and began scanning the floor for her sandals. Random piles of clothes lay at the mouth of the closet, underneath the dressing table, against a wall. Corinne had a huge bedroom and didn’t bother much with organizing it. She found the sandals and slipped her feet into them.
“That’s not the point,” he said.
“You’re being selfish. You’re thinking about yourself, not your brother.”
“And how much does he think about me? He’s only staying with me because I live in town. We’ve never been close. He’s lived in California since I was a little kid. He asked me to meet him; I’m meeting him. Only I’m doing it by bus.”
Corinne applied a light coat of lip balm and checked her face in the mirror. She rarely wore makeup. She didn’t wear jewelry to work because it could get in the way in the operating room. Everett had bought her exactly one necklace in the time they’d been together: a little silver turtle on a chain. She had bought him several shirts and pairs of pants, new winter boots to replace the ones with duct tape around the right toe, a down vest, a belt with musical notes all along it, colorful knit boxers featuring patterns of frogs, guitars and national flags, and a matching set of plates, bowls and coffee cups for his under-furnished kitchen. Once, when she had arrived at his apartment with another bag full of presents for him, he had protested that he didn’t need so much stuff and could not possibly reciprocate in kind; she had fumed and told him that she bought him things out of love and the least he could do was be fucking grateful. He had shut up after that.
She grabbed her keys from the dressing table and dangled them in front of him. “Last chance,” she said.
“Thanks. But I’ll be fine.”
“Suit yourself.” She kissed him quickly and roughly. “Why don’t you call me tonight, let me know your brother got in safely. Don’t forget to lock up.”
When he heard her car back out of the driveway, he went into the kitchen and poured a cup of coffee and said hello to her cat, a neurotic longhaired calico named Nala who hid from strangers but had taken a liking to him. She rubbed up against his leg and he scratched behind her ears. Corinne said she knew he was okay when he bonded with Nala. “A man who likes animals is a good person,” was what she had said. Everett didn’t have pets, aside from the mouse that made the rounds among the four apartments in his building. He didn’t have the heart to trap it.
He finished the coffee, found his jacket, and went out into the sunshine. After weeks of soupy skies and damp chill, spring had finally arrived. He walked toward the bus stop on Broadway, caught a bus downtown, then walked to his apartment, beating the connecting bus by about 30 seconds. Nonetheless, he took a too-long shower and missed the next bus to the airport.
When Everett entered the terminal, he saw immediately that Jeremy’s flight had arrived. A crowd had gathered around the suitcases and duffel bags rolling out along the conveyor belt in the baggage claim area. He scanned the heads for a glimpse of his brother. Airports made Everett uncomfortable. Crack wise about a bomb or a pair of box cutters and they could throw you in jail. Leave a roach in a jacket pocket by mistake and the same thing could happen. What if he had a knife in his pocket? He patted the front of his pants and tried to relax. He wasn’t going through security; he was here to meet his brother. Still, the vibe unnerved him.
But here was Jeremy now, suitcase in hand, wheeling it toward him and waving. His gray hair was a little longer than it had been three years ago, curled in back of his ears, though still only half as long as Everett’s darker and thicker mane, just beginning to acquire a sprinkling of salt. Both brothers prided themselves on their full heads of hair. In all the old family photos Everett had seen, their father was already bald on top, like a Franciscan monk. “Dad was thirty-two when I was born,” Jeremy had told him once, “and I never saw him with hair.”
“Welcome home, brother.” Everett held out his hand, but Jeremy, the Californian, released his suitcase and went for the hug. Everett noticed anew how short his big brother was – no more than five-seven. He had never known his father, but he had inherited his height, measuring a solid six feet in his socks. Annabelle had quit smoking sometime between Pilar’s birth and his, so maybe that had something to do with it. Whatever the cause, Everett enjoyed towering over his older brother, who had gotten everything else.
“Thanks for meeting me,” Jeremy said.
“It’s no trouble. How was your flight?”
“Long,” Jeremy said. “But we came in over Penobscot Bay. I was afraid it would be cloudy, but you could see all the islands, all the way out to the horizon.”
“You’re lucky it was clear. Maybe you brought some good weather from California. Sorry I was late.”
“It’s fine. I just got my bag a minute ago.”
The sliding doors opened and they stepped outside. “Where to?” Jeremy asked, casting his eyes over the rental car lot and the parking area beyond.
And here it was, the first test. Everett nodded at a nearby concrete post bearing a bus stop sign and a route map and schedule. “Right here,” he said. “The next bus’ll be by in about twenty minutes.”
Jeremy looked at him blankly. Everett took a deep breath. “I gave up my car, Jeremy. It’s been over two years now. The bus goes right by my house.”
People trickled out of the terminal in twos and threes and headed for taxis and cars. Everett expected a bunch of questions, but Jeremy surprised him. “I don’t blame you,” he said. “I spend more time in my car than I’d like to admit.”
“The only time I come to the airport,” Everett said, “is when I need to rent a car from Budget. Happens one or two times a year. It’s surprising, really, how little you need a car in your day-to-day life.”
“How much does it cost to ride the bus?” Jeremy asked.
“For you, it’s a buck and a quarter, but I’ll treat,” Everett said. “I get to ride for free, on account of my job.”
“What are you doing for work these days?”
The second test. “I’m a technical assistant and studio stand-in for the music department up at the University,” Everett told him. He smiled at his brother. “It’s great, isn’t it? A two-time community college dropout working at the University of Maine.”
“Congratulations, Everett,” Jeremy said. “That is great.”
“It’s part-time during the school year, but all students, faculty and staff get to ride the bus for free, anywhere in the system. Between that, my feet and my bicycle I get around just fine. My car wasn’t worth the money I was sinking into it.”
“I’d live without a car if I could,” Jeremy said.
“I’ll bet you could if you really tried.”
“It’s just that everything’s set up around it. In California, whole towns spring up around exit ramps on the freeway. Every house with a two-car garage, and the nearest store three miles away.”
“That’s why I live in town,” Everett said. “A real town, with stuff you can get to on foot. I’ve still got my license, but I don’t miss all the other shit that goes along with owning a car. The maintenance, the insurance…”
“The traffic,” Jeremy said. “Sometimes it takes me half an hour to get to work. And it’s only a couple of miles.”
“Shit, you could walk a couple miles in half an hour.”
“Nobody walks in San Diego.”
“Or L.A., right? There’s a song in there somewhere.”
Jeremy laughed at this. “I’d be lost without my car,” he said.
“All it takes is an attitude adjustment,” Everett replied. “But you’re old. And old people don’t change.”
“Says who?” Jeremy retorted.
Everett assessed his older brother’s appearance. Not out of shape, exactly, but rounder than he was. Everett had lost ten pounds the first month after selling his car. He hated exercise for its own sake, had never been inside a commercial gym. But the habit of walking rather than driving had flattened his stomach.
“Tell you what,” he said. “Try it for a week, while you’re here. Live without a car, like I do. I’ll bet you a hundred bucks you can’t do it.”
“Do you have a hundred bucks to bet, Everett?”
He suppressed his annoyance at his older brother’s quick appraisal. “I got a job. And I don’t have to drive to it, either.”
“Okay,” Jeremy said. “But how are we going to get down to see Ma? Is there a bus to Ellsworth?”
“No. But we’ve got sisters.” Everett grinned, recalling the argument he’d had with Corinne little more than an hour ago. “Maddie goes down a lot, and she comes right through Bangor.”
After the bus dropped them off, Everett wondered what Jeremy would make of his modest apartment. He lived in the back of an old building close to downtown, with a deck that looked out over a small city park. “You hungry?” he asked, as he unlocked the door.
“A little. Wanting a shower more than anything.”
Everett took Jeremy’s suitcase from him and steered it toward the couch in his living room. “That I can take care of. I got a righteous shower,” he said. “Lots of pressure, lots of hot water, even a view out over the park.”
“What is it with this family and scenic showers?”
“Mom’s still got me beat by a mile,” Everett said. “Here, I’ll show you around. We’ll start upstairs. That’s where the bathroom is.”
He led his brother up to the small second floor, where he slept, showered and kept his clothes. The ceiling slanted downward toward a single dormer window; he had his bed in the half of the room that accommodated his height. But the bathroom was spacious, and a person standing in the tub under the shower could look out at an oak and a maple, now in full leaf, partially concealing the park below from view. In the winter it was a vista. A flash of red caught his eye. “Check it out,” he said to his brother. “There’s my cardinal. See it?”
Jeremy followed his finger. “Wow. Maine never had cardinals when I was growing up. I didn’t know they came this far north.”
“There’s the female,” Everett said, pointing at another branch. “See her? Sort of yellow, with red around the edges?”
He watched Jeremy scan the trees. “Oh, yeah, I see her.”
“They’ve got a nest nearby, I think. I see them fairly often.”
They went downstairs, where Everett opened two Shipyard beers and led his brother through to the deck. The new leaves had filled out; the long view he had enjoyed all winter had given way to a canopy of green. “This is why I took the place,” Everett said, handing Jeremy one of the bottles. “I know it’s still before noon, but cheers, and welcome.”
“It’s great, Ev,” Jeremy said. “It’s more room than I’ve got in San Diego.”
“Yeah, it works out.” Everett sank into one of the deck chairs around a spool table. “It’s quiet back here, away from the street. I like to come out here and play my guitar. In another month the mosquitoes will chase me inside at night, but most of the year it’s pretty nice.” He had a small grill, and a utility table. He also had a large flowerpot in which three baby marijuana plants had sprouted their first few leaves. Had Jeremy noticed them? The deck faced north; he’d have to find a better spot for the plants eventually, where they wouldn’t attract animals or thieves.
Jeremy lifted the bottle to his lips and gazed out at the park. Everett noticed the deepening lines around the corners of his eyes – had they been there three years ago? For most of Everett’s life his brother had been a mystery, hardly ever around, fawned over by their mother whenever he made an appearance in Maine. He liked all his sisters, though Gretchen could exasperate him with her fixation on planning and schedule, and Joanie’s effortless success in matters of money aroused his envy. He smoked pot with Maddie and exchanged long, philosophical letters with Pilar. But his older brother was an enigma.
Everett had visited him once in California, ten years ago, during a period between jobs. Jeremy had paid for everything. They caught a baseball game, visited the La Brea Tar Pits, swam at Coronado Beach, went drinking in Tijuana, and drove up to the observatory on Mount Laguna to see the rings of Saturn through the large telescope. After a week Everett had been exhausted. “I don’t know how you stand it,” he had said to his brother on the day he left. “Everything you want to do, you’ve got to jump on the freeway and battle everyone else trying to do the same thing.”
He didn’t need the frenzy of a big city. Bangor suited him just fine. He had a job, an affordable place to live, a circle of musical friends, and a girlfriend whose job kept her too busy to try to direct his life on a day-to-day basis. Everett didn’t take well to direction – probably most of the reason the relationships and employment situations in his life had lacked permanence. Music had been the only constant. But how do you make a living as a musician? Turn over a rock in Bangor and there was another guitar player. Everett didn’t delude himself that he was anything special, though he could play several instruments well enough to sit in with bands and land the occasional paying gig. He worried about getting through the summer. The University job was on hiatus until August. He’d get one more paycheck at the end of May, and then he’d have to scramble. He’d already filed for unemployment, which would keep the rent paid and the lights on until September. Corinne urged him to take a job at a convenience store or a construction site, anything to keep him afloat, and he had half-heartedly filled out a few applications, but so far he’d had no nibbles.
“You like Thai food?” he asked his older brother.
“Sure,” Jeremy said “I guess I am a little hungry, now that you mention it.”
“There’s not much in the refrigerator beyond beer, milk and condiments,” Everett said. “Why don’t you take your shower, and I’ll run downtown and get some take-out. What do you like?”
“I dunno. Something with seafood. Whatever you get.” Jeremy started to reach for his wallet, but Everett held up his hand.
“Your first day back, it’s on me.”
Happy to be back outside in the sunshine and momentarily away from his brother, Everett walked toward town singing a snatch of a song he was trying to write. He laughed when he saw an abandoned toilet sitting in the small green space between sidewalk and curb a few doors down from his apartment. The streets of Rome might be filled with rubble, he thought, but the streets of Bangor were filled with crap. Unwanted furniture and appliances appeared outside any time of year. Last winter, one particularly garish puke-green couch had sat on the curb through two snowstorms; the city had only removed it when springtime came and a family of squirrels had moved in and its innards were frothing out and blowing down the street like dandelion fuzz.
The houses along his street bespoke Bangor’s heyday as the lumber capital of the world in the 1800s. The city was filled with magnificent buildings, most of which had been chopped up into apartments. It was easy to find a place to live in Bangor, and inexpensive, which is how he could almost afford to live on a part-time job and whatever musical gigs he could scare up. Some owners kept up their places well and some didn’t. His own landlord fell somewhere in the middle. He mowed the grass and made sure trash didn’t accumulate around the edges of the property, but he was lazy about things like painting, replacing a rotten board in the deck, and shoring up a leaking window.
A few people hung out on their porches or stoops and nodded to him as he passed by. Two graying, overweight men in tee shirts that didn’t cover enough sat on either side of a chained Doberman, drinking from twin sixteen-ounce cans of Budweiser. The dog made a rumbling noise as Everett ambled past, but a “Hey, pup,” from him and a less friendly “Shut up!” from one of the men quieted the animal. This was all so routine that Everett gave it no more attention than he spared for the store at the traffic light, where a group of idle men and boys – man-boys – stood smoking cigarettes and shooting the shit.
The restaurant was deserted, save for an elderly couple at a booth by the window and the lone waitress, whom Everett recognized as a local singer. He’d seen her here before. Bangor was big enough that people left you alone, but small enough that you could walk downtown and, more often than not, run into someone you knew.
“Hi, Stella,” he said. “How goes the life of my favorite female vocalist?”
“Oh, you’re too kind.” She gave him a smile and an exaggerated flutter of her eyelids. “It’s nice to see you.”
The young woman was dark-haired, blue-eyed, and nearly his match in height. He’d seen her front several acts, from blues to jazz to classic rock. She had heard him play once, when she had wandered into one of his gigs with a guy who looked about eighteen. He’d flubbed the chords on the song he’d been playing, and made some lame joke to atone for it. She was friendly whenever he saw her, but he noticed that she seldom used his name. That didn’t stop him from flirting with her, as he did with most attractive women.
He placed his two orders. “What’s a rock star like you doing in a place like this, anyway?”
She laughed. “Paying the bills. What are you doing these days?”
“Oh, a little of this, a little of that. My brother’s in town, from California.”
“That’s nice. Is he a musician, too?”
Everett shook his head. “He’s an astronomer.”
Stella showed a flicker of interest at this, and said, “That sounds exotic.”
“My brother says it’s mostly about crunching numbers.”
“I wouldn’t know,” she said. “I haven’t met many astronomers.”
She disappeared into the kitchen and re-emerged with a pitcher of iced tea, which she poured into the elderly couple’s glasses. Two more customers came in and Everett watched Stella seat them. She wasn’t hard to watch.
The next time she went into the kitchen she returned with two take-out bags and a smile for him.
“When’s your next gig?” he asked her.
“Saturday, in Bar Harbor.”
“I mean in town,” he said.
“Saturday after that.” She named a local bar.
He left her a large tip, and winked at her on his way out the door. She laughed, and he left feeling sheepish. He had a perfectly nice girlfriend, not a beauty to be sure, but she had brains and a job and a sense of humor and a certain amount of sex appeal. His wandering eye had gotten him into trouble before. He shouldn’t be looking around. But years of habit were hard to change.
On his way home, he saw that someone had smashed the toilet. Large, sharp pieces of porcelain littered the sidewalk. He laughed out loud. Why would someone do that? Boredom? Unresolved anger issues? An appetite for destruction? Or simply because it was there? It was a toilet out of its context, and someone’s impulse had dictated that it be annihilated.
When he got back to his apartment, Jeremy was dressed and barefoot on the deck, his cell phone to his ear. He was doing more listening than talking, punctuating the silence on his end with the occasional “right” and “uh-huh.” He looked up when he saw Everett, and said, “Hold on, I’ll ask him.”
“Ask me what?” Everett said, setting down the twin bags on the spool table.
Jeremy lowered the phone. “Gretchen wants to come pick us up tomorrow and take us to see Ma,” he said. “You available?”
“I’ll be on her shit list if I don’t go,” Everett said. “What time?”
“What time?” Jeremy said into the phone. He listened for a beat and turned back to his brother. “Ten in the morning,” he said.
He winced at the early hour, knowing at the same time that Gretchen would have suggested nine had she not been familiar with his habits. She was always the first to arrive at any family function, and the most ardent about adhering to a schedule. Maddie called her “The Planner.” Gretchen accepted the nickname in good humor, but Everett thought his oldest sister might be happier if she allowed herself a few more unstructured moments.
Well, he could nod off in the back seat on the way down to Ellsworth while his brother and sister caught up and gabbed about old times – the good old days when his father was alive and he wasn’t. Their father had been 46 when he took his tumble, a mere six years older than Everett was now. Both Jeremy and Gretchen had already lived longer. Everett often wondered what it had been like for them, to have their father suddenly disappear from their lives. Was it better or worse than never having known him at all? The doctor’s death, forty years later, remained the family’s defining event. Yet Everett could recall few real conversations about it.
“Sure,” he said to his brother. “Tell her ten is fine.”