The Absolution of Atticus

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12 :: RED

— Cooper —

NOVEMBER LIVES more of its yearly designated hours painted in unassuming overcast shades of grey than any other color. Sunlight is a rare and valuable commodity, and these days tend to take more than they give.

Jennifer Maverie is dancing over me, a red visage against the window backdrop of colorless 6 am sky. She seems to like my place. Minimalist… go figure, were her exact words. Now, she doesn’t seem to care that much, and it’s better than criticism. I’m just a stop on the way to work.

Her vivid orange curls bounce up and down as she bobs her head to the rhythm of the song crackling over the record player. “Benson, you’re monthly reports have been coming in negative.”

We’re sprawled out on the couch, her legs parted across mine, hips hovering. She’s got me pinned down, pressing my arms back with her clawed hands. I look up from the crease of her collarbone, disoriented. “What?”

“You heard me.” She gravitates closer, breath hot and heavy. “Corporate doesn’t take well to slackers…” She runs her fingers across my lips. “It’s lucky I’m on your side, hm.”

I don’t even question the rest of it, and there’s too much in the dark, under the covers, blackmailed and sealed shut type of shit that happens. But the woman does what she does best. Somewhere out on the west coast, the sun rises, and I’m watching the bare ceiling as she slides back into her wrinkled blouse and pencil skirt. She draws me out to the kitchen with a few more blurry kisses, the tongue twisters that put your head in a fog when it’s too dark to be considered morning. I pour her a drink as she browses over my book collection. It’s the first time Maverie has hung around longer than three minutes after.

She sips wordlessly, floating around my living room in a trance. With my books under her hands, the claws don’t seem so threatening anymore. As soon as she’s finished with her drink, she turns and looks me in the eyes. The next words are genuine and concise, like she’s decided on something. “You’re a mess, aren’t you honey?”

She leaves a battered copy of Oedipus Rex on the coffee table, glides over and kisses me, softer than ever. Then she whispers up into my ear. And she sounds like the oracle, a hissing prophetess. “Forget about this Cooper. Forget about this town. Go try again somewhere else. For your own good.”

She pulls away, fingers twisting goodbye in my hair, and almost smiles before she disappears out the door.

I’m overwhelmed by a sense that this is the last I’ll see of Jennifer Maverie in candid. For your own good. I’m not even sure what that is anymore. All I know is the whiskey goes back into the same drawer as the painting and the box of letters, which are both starting to gather dust. It’s been almost a week now. I deadbolt my front door and bring the box over to the coffee table.

Apparently, Grace has spent the week figuring things out with Mason. She told me to stop coming over. She told me to let Mason through the halls. Let Mason into apartment 7A. Grace said she could handle him. She assured me she’d have it under control. Grace lied.

Unsurprisingly, November doesn’t suit Mason well, and I’ve found that my study sessions are better equipped with a set of earplugs to accommodate his rage. The very walls are accustomed to the pounding now. That’s why, when I can feel the familiar rumble through the floorboards or the clatter of overturned furniture, I have to lock the front door. More so to keep myself in than to keep the sound of Mason out.

Atticus’s box is cluttered. Mason’s shouts reverberate through the panels. The thought of Grace hits like a bullet to the chest. I can picture her guarding these letters at whatever cost, taking the blows because it’s her father whose voice she’s protecting. If I were to give them to her now, it would be another thing to shield from Mason’s catastrophic grasp, another secret for her to feel ashamed of. So I keep the locked box of letters in the locked drawer in my kitchen which is located in my locked apartment. I keep rationalizing it in my mind, reaching a point at which my hands are wringing together and my throat is cracking, burning for a drink. It dawns on me as the blue morning light reaches its peak flooding in through my window; this is for her own good. I reach for an envelope, any envelope. Order doesn’t matter anymore.

Grace,

Last night was another foggy performance at the Willow Club. Cece and I spent hours talking. Now there’s a girl who can hold her liquor. Not that I’m complaining. She’s something else.

We traveled up to Michigan this weekend, got a few gigs in Detroit and South Haven. The music is really picking up. I’ve got this plan. We’ll take it out singing, all the way to Los Angeles. I’ll write the songs and carry the guitar on my back. We’ll hitchhike through the Rockies if we have to.

The mountains are supposed to be beautiful, but there’s something keeping me here with her. Something that’s not about words. It’s not even about music.

It’s about silence.

I can’t fight it. Can’t hardly get out of bed in the morning for fear of it. Maybe it’s the girl herself. Cece. Cecelia. She’s a firebomb. She’s a balancing act, too, and I always feel like I’m tripping. I guess that’s the way it goes. We’re still young.

She’s pumped to go to New Orleans and dance on a riverboat, put her feet in the Gulf of Mexico and take some sand home with her. If times weren’t so tough, I would take her wherever she wanted to go. But, like time, sand slips through my hands too easily these days. All I can do is keep singing.

Atticus R. Sinclair, June 23, 1982

+++

My little brother has a voice that’s always reminded me of the rustling branches of a tree. Quiet and always moving. I can’t seem to hold the phone steady in my hand as it rings. If there’s one thing I remember from the last time I called, it was the hollowness of his voice. The distinctive sound of rotting at the core.

It’s an ugly way to phrase it, but my mind tends to compartmentalize situations. Life is black and white. Jaden is doing good or he’s doing bad. Or maybe I’m the one with the sickness.

“Hello?” The voice that picks up the line is brassy, solid, female. It’s not my brother.

I wait a few beats, stomach in knots. “Hi mom,”

“Good Lord, Cooper,” She sighs through the speaker, shocked. “It’s… it’s good to hear your voice.”

“I…” Gulping down all the words I can’t seem to find, I find myself back at square one, pulling on a hangnail. “Uh, how’s Jaden?”

“Coop,” Her voice becomes somber, and the sudden lack of surety forms knots in my chest. “It’s been eight months…”

I shudder and think about Atticus’s words. Sand slips through my hands too easily these days. That man prompted me up here, didn’t he? In my mind, I can almost hear him, haunting me. Some mirage on the edge of the rooftop, a balancing act, he called it. That’s what love is? A toppling, an upheaval, a suicide? Where did we formulate this concept of belonging to each other? When did beauty become a force to be reckoned with? I want to hang up the phone and scream Grace’s name from the rooftops, because something tells me that she, of all people, knows the answers.

My mother only has more questions, and right now I’m desperate for validation or some almighty intervention. Not a scolding. She continues in painful, gentle tones. “What right do you have calling his cell phone? What makes you think he even wants to talk to you?”

I have to give her credit for her honesty. If words were tangible blades, I’d be strewn out in a bloody wreckage across the rooftop. It’s bright out here, a crack of sunlight at midday and colder than I anticipated. I’m shivering in a flannel shirt, the top few buttons undone from where Maverie tore them out early this morning, and wondering how much worse I can get.

“Mom,” the name comes out broken on my tongue, choked through a red haze of panic. My throat is tight and my hands are shaking. I am alone out here.

There is a long silence. She sighs, softer this time, and whispers, “He’s not good, Cooper.”

A brisk wind whips at the sleeves of my shirt. I close my eyes. The city is dead at this time of day. I can’t make my body any smaller, but it’s as though the very air is closing in. And I need to survive through this. Somehow. The burning starts in my chest and buries itself at the base of my neck like a parasite. The familiar urges come in rhythmic waves of nausea, the onset of dread. Suddenly I’m afraid of the seven stories down, the diabolical force of gravity, and the weight of a surprisingly volatile human experience. My brother is dying.

“I wish…”

“You wish things were different.” My mother says. “Well, unfortunately, not all of us can afford to change our circumstances.”

I’m holding back a storm, pleading for her help. Suddenly, I’m just a boy, watching her get abandoned, abused, all over again. Alcoholism is a vicious cycle and, though I refuse to blame genetics, I remember the haze over my father’s eyes as he would throw her around like a rag doll. He never hit her, but he might as well have. It is this memory and the inherited pain at the base of my skull, the same one that drove my father to an early grave. My agitated peace becomes an apology. “Ma,”

“No, no,” Her voices trembles. “You—you made your choices and I never held you back. I never stepped in and tied you down. I never said my piece. But, son, you don’t understand—”

“I didn’t realize—I didn’t want to know how bad it would get.” The words escape me with pressurized, shuddering force. “I know. I’m—I’m just like him, aren’t I? I left you and Jaden… just like him?”

“You are not your father, Cooper.” She breaks into abrupt, hesitant sobs and settles into an equally hesitant silence.

I swallow, hard. “It’s my own fault. I was drinking back then. When I left home, I mean— it was a lot, and… But lately I’ve been… I’ve been different—better, maybe? I don’t know—I don’t,”

“Don’t what, Cooper? Don’t bother to call anymore? Don’t ever remember his art shows? Don’t even text him a happy birthday?” She pauses, sniffling. “Maybe… maybe it isn’t any of my business anymore, Cooper. But you owe him. You owe him more than phone calls twice a year.”

I sigh, inhale, settle. “I know.”

She wants to tell me more. I remember the silence of her holding back, always protecting me and my brother from the dangers of reality. More likely covering up my father’s drunken mistakes. I used to hate her for defending him. I hated her for crying at his funeral. I hated her when I left home, for keeping her wedding ring on a chain around her neck in all of Jaden’s early hospital rooms. For gripping it against her heart as they took every MRI and CT scan. For keeping it close during the treatment sessions, cancer parent group therapy sessions, and doctor consultations.

I graduated and got drunk and barely got a college degree. But at least I got out before Jaden got worse.

“I could…” The sentence seems like a mountain. I kind of have to fight it out. “I could come home.”

My mom’s breath hitches. “You—it wouldn’t be asking too… too much?”

“Nah, mom, no problem at all,” I laugh through a few tears, like seeing the view from the summit; the sight of home not so far away after all.

“Cooper, that’s—that would be wonderful.” She is crying softly now. “We—we could put you up in the guest room, no trouble. And Jaden will be able to show you his newer pieces. He’s improved so much since that last painting he sent you. Oh Lord, that boy… so much talent…”

She goes on like this for several minutes, but it’s kind of like music to my ears. My mom finishes in near hysterics, she’s so excited. I can’t help but laugh with her. It’s been too long.

“I’ll see you soon.” She says near the end, when the sun has come out in slightly warmer shades and the wind has calmed.

“Yeah,” I reply with steady hands. “Soon.”

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