~This piece previously appeared in New Virginia Review (1993)
When Byrne's brother arrives, Byrne doesn't recognize him. At first, watching the passengers emerge from the gate, he wonders if Thomas missed the bus, or decided not to get on board. But not even Thomas is that irresponsible. Byrne must have overlooked him. Thomas is, after all, not a large man, and the station is in turmoil. An early spring blizzard has moved in, making buses late. Byrne has been waiting for an hour and a half in the midst of the lines of angry passengers, the masses of people planted on upturned luggage because there aren't enough benches.
He is shoving toward the ticket counter to ask if a second bus is due from St. Louis when he spots Thomas, standing a few feet inside the gate. He was one of the first passengers off the bus, Byrne realizes, but it's no wonder he didn't recognize him. In his uniform, Thomas looks like a different person, with the starched creases in his trousers and the black necktie just visible at the collar of his coat. Byrne is amazed at the transformation. His brother seems innocent and young, like someone playing soldier. It's the short hair, he realizes. The long hair Thomas had before he enlisted hid his face, as did the blond wisps of the beard he tried to grow. Now that face seems exposed, naked. Byrne is reminded of the schoolboy in the pictures his mother had on her bureau at the nursing home. Thomas in the second and third grades; Thomas before he turned bad.
Byrne raises his hand to wave but sees that his brother isn't alone. A woman cradling an infant is talking to him, her mouth close to Thomas's ear. Byrne lets his hand fall. Thomas hasn't said anything about a woman, and the circumstance of the visit -- their mother's funeral -- is hardly social.
Thomas seems in no hurry to find Byrne. Other passengers strain on tiptoe, scanning the station for families or friends, but Thomas listens to the woman as though he has all the time in the world. He is holding his duffel and what must be the woman's luggage, a dirty, mustard-colored suitcase patched with duct tape at one corner. Perhaps a full minute passes before Thomas looks in Byrne's direction. When he does, Byrne gives a slight wave to catch his brother's attention, and pushes through the crowd.
"You made great time," Byrne says sarcastically.
"It's all my fault," Thomas says. "I pulled a gun and forced the driver to take Indiana at twenty miles an hour."
It's not funny, but the woman gives a short laugh, a single hiss with her tongue between her teeth. Byrne stares at her, and she looks away, tucking her chin against the baby's head.
She is past thirty, older than Thomas by at least a dozen years, a woman closer to Byrne's age. Byrne wonders what Thomas could see in her. All of his previous girlfriends have been skinny, sullen teenagers. But this woman -- Byrne wouldn't call her fat, but she seems on her way there. Her cheeks are puffy and her eyelids droop as though it's only through an effort of will that her eyes are open at all. Her red hair, falling just past her shoulders, seems as if it hasn't been washed in days.
"So," Thomas says, his face abruptly clouded. "When my sergeant told me, I couldn't believe it."
"I told you at Christmas the doctors said she wouldn't live much longer," Byrne says, feeling vaguely accused, as if he'd failed to keep Thomas informed of their mother's condition.
Thomas shakes his head. "But, still." He looks intently at Byrne, and drops his voice. "What was it like when she died?"
Byrne glances from Thomas to the woman. What sort of question is that to ask? Besides, he wasn't with his mother when she died, but was eating a sandwich in the hospital coffee shop. When he went back upstairs, the heavy door to her room was closed. "Just a minute," the nurse said, preventing him from opening it. When she knocked, the doctor slipped into the hall. With the door open for a moment, Byrne could see only the mound of blankets at the foot of the bed and his mother's bare soles.
"I think we better just get out of here," Byrne says.
"Wait," Thomas says. "Sandy, this is my brother."
"I do have a first name." Byrne holds out his hand. "Francis." The woman still won't meet his eye. Thomas must've told her horror stories. Genghis Byrne. With the baby in her arms, all Byrne can do is squeeze her fingertips for a moment.
She gives him a nervous, close-mouthed smile. "I was very sorry to hear about your mother."
"Thanks," Byrne says, leading the way to the exit. When he steps outside, the snow is falling hard. When he left home three hours ago, there'd been no sign of a storm, but already half a foot is down. He hopes the plows are working the interstate. They have a forty-mile drive to the funeral home.
Thomas follows him into the storm, but Sandy hesitates in the doorway. "How far's your car?" she asks. "I'm worried about Mikey." She nods toward the baby.
"It's about a block," Byrne says.
"Why don't we get it and swing back by?" Thomas says. "You be all right by yourself 'til then?"
The blowing snow stings Byrne's cheeks. "She'll be fine. This is Cambridge, Ohio. A parking violation is a crime wave."
Byrne and his brother set off for the car. It's slow going. Byrne isn't wearing boots, and the snow soaks through his shoes. He slides on the walk and several times almost falls. Thomas, in his military boots, takes long easy strides and is soon well ahead. Byrne lets him go on, beyond the car.
"Hey, want a ride?" he shouts, brushing the snow from his door lock and taking out his keys.
"When'd you get this?" Thomas says, coming back.
Byrne had forgotten he'd bought it since Thomas left. "Four months ago," he says, getting in to start the car and turn on the defroster before opening the trunk for the luggage.
"A Volvo. Pretty snazzy. Business must be good."
"It's not new," Byrne says. "It had 12,000 miles on it."
"Still. A Volvo. That's capital 'S' success."
Byrne expects Thomas to help clean the windows, but he gets in and sits in the front seat while Byrne does it himself. Where does he get this "capital S success," Byrne thinks. Thomas never talked like that before. Besides, Byrne wants to tell him, business is no better; he just doesn't have a $300 grocery bill every month now that Thomas is gone. "Be kind to your brother," his mother said last week. Actually she said, "Buh ki' ta yuh bruh," in her monotone and it was the candy striper who translated for Byrne. I have been, he wanted to say. For years.
It takes fifteen minutes to clean all the windows. Beneath the snow, there is ice on the glass. Byrne has to dig at it with the corner of the scraper until the defroster softens the ice enough that it slides on the glass. When he cleans the windshield on the passenger side, he sees Thomas smoking a cigarette. Byrne taps the glass and shakes the scraper at his brother. Thomas puts down the window and flicks the cigarette into the street.
"Thanks," Byrne snaps, getting into the warm car. He turns the fan down a notch. "And I don't want smoke on the upholstery."
"Yes, boss," Thomas says.
Byrne puts his car in gear and pulls slowly away from the curb. Ahead, the traffic light changes from green to amber.
"Run it," Thomas says.
But Byrne stops, the car sliding a few feet into the intersection. He backs up slowly.
They sit at the traffic light in silence until Byrne becomes uncomfortable. "Tell me about this Sandy," he says at last, trying to make his voice sound interested but not challenging.
"I met her on the bus."
Byrne turns to look at his brother. "What?"
Thomas gives a slight shrug. "She got on in Vandalia."
"On our way to Mom's wake we have to play taxi service?"
"She lives near the Pagedale exit," Thomas says. "Two and a half miles off the interstate, she said. How long can it take to drop her? It's not like it's Wheeling or something."
"You don't have any sense of propriety."
"The light is green," Thomas says.
Byrne turns the corner, his car fishtailing even though he takes it much slower than he would like. After a moment, he laughs. "A new world's record. One minute, twelve seconds."
"A minute-twelve for what?" Thomas says.
"Until you do something stupid and we start fighting."
"Charity is hardly stupid."
Byrne starts to say something but catches himself, remembering his mother's request. Besides, they'd be at each other all the way home, fighting in the funeral parlor in front of all the relatives. Giving scandal, his mother called it.
When they reach the station, Thomas gets out to open the door. "Sandy," he calls cheerily, waving to get her attention.
"I worried you left me," she says, getting into the back seat. "I kept thinking about everything that was in my suitcase."
"It's just slow driving," Thomas says. "We're not bad guys. We're not thieves."
Not both of us, anyway, Byrne thinks.
Driving is no easier once they get onto the highway. Snow swirls furiously in Byrne's headlights. He has to shake his head periodically to keep from being lulled. All along the highway, cars crawl at ten or fifteen miles an hour. In places, they are stopped dead, some on the shoulder, others in the middle of a lane. They pass a car with its hood up, a man peering into the engine. He looks up as they drive by.
"Do you think we could give him a hand?" Thomas says.
"If we stopped, we'd get stuck, too," Byrne says. "He'll be okay as long as stays with his car and keeps the engine running."
"Didn't look like his engine was running," Thomas says, turning to look over his shoulder at the stranded man.
After an hour, they are only a dozen miles outside Cambridge.
"This is nuts," Byrne says. "It's going to take half a day."
Thomas turns on the radio. The loud static hiss startles Byrne, causing him to jerk the wheel. "Turn it off," he says.
Thomas starts to say something about a weather report, but Byrne interrupts. "I think we've got a pretty good idea of the weather. I'm trying not to put us in a ditch."
"Sorry, boss," Thomas says and switches it off. He turns to the back seat. "How are you guys doing back there?"
"We're just fine," Sandy says, quietly.
"Little Mikey," Thomas says in a high-pitched voice, reaching toward the baby.
"He's sleeping," Sandy says.
Byrne flexes his neck and shoulders. "The last thing we need right now is a crying baby."
"I said I was sorry," Thomas says. After a moment, he says, "You probably noticed a pattern here, Sandy. My job's to fuck up. My brother's is to make sure I know it."
"Let's don't get started, here," Byrne says.
"Did I tell you how I happened to be in the Army?" Thomas says. "It's one hell of a story."
"Tom," Byrne says in a warning tone.
"Once upon a time there was a bad boy who stole things, and his brother, who was a good boy, had him arrested so that he wouldn't have to deal with him anymore." Thomas sucks in a breath that whistles in his chest.
"I can't believe you're doing this."
"Sandy needs to know the truth," Thomas says. "She's taking a risk being in a blizzard with total strangers. She has to know how it is. She has to know who she can count on in an emergency."
"You're something." Byrne shakes his head. "Your mother's dead, and all you can do is pick at old scabs."
"I've still got a year and a half in the Army. That's pretty fresh in my book."
I wouldn't complain about being in the Army, Byrne thinks, but he says, "Tom. I know what you think and you know what I think. But how's it going to be if we go into the wake fighting?"
Thomas lets out a bitter laugh but doesn't say anything more.
The truth is, Byrne wants to explain, he couldn't have done any better for his brother. Anyone but Thomas could see that.
One afternoon last summer, Byrne came home unexpectedly from his store and Thomas was lying on the living room couch in his underwear, talking on the phone. He didn't see Byrne.
"Sure. I got it," he was saying. "No. . .Hundred and a half." While he talked, he played with the loose corner of the shipping label on a carton beside him. Sanyo, it said. "I think that's more than. . .Look, this retails at two seventy-five. . . Remote. On screen. . .I'm telling. . ." Thomas reached over his head for his cigarettes and saw Byrne standing in the doorway. "Jesus," he said, quietly. "Call you later." He hung up.
"What are you doing?" Byrne asked.
Thomas sat up and lit his cigarette. "Business."
"You stole that, didn't you?"
His brother shrugged, stood, and picked up the VCR.
"I'm calling the police," Byrne said.
"Right." Thomas headed toward the door, the VCR under his arm. "Like you're really going to do that." Byrne heard him slam the door to his bedroom. He was still there when the police came.
Byrne told everyone that he'd done the best he could for his brother; Thomas was incorrigible. It was little things until now: skipping school, staying out late, disappearing for two days. Byrne was a single man with a business to run and a mother in a nursing home. How could he take care of a teenage boy as well?
Thomas was lucky. He was seventeen. If he'd been a year older, he'd have been in worse trouble. Not that the judge couldn't put him in jail. But he didn't like doing that to boys so young, he said. Thomas could choose: jail, or the military.
In the month before he left for camp, Thomas didn't speak to Byrne, except occasionally a grudging, "Where's the sports page? We out of soda?" Byrne wouldn't have believed that two people could live so long in the same house and not speak, but they did it. Several times Byrne thought of trying to talk to Thomas, but the opportunity never arose.
On the day of Thomas's departure, Byrne woke having decided he would drive his brother to the bus station. A gesture of reconciliation. He went to Thomas's room, but Thomas wasn't there. The room was cluttered; magazines on the floor, McDonald's bags and soda cans on the bureau and windowsill. Bed unmade. He must be in the bathroom, Byrne thought. Then he saw that the closet was open and only a few things remained, some shirts and sweaters Thomas had outgrown, a tangle of wire hangers.
Byrne never told his mother about the theft, or about Thomas' arrest. She didn't need the upset, he thought. All he told her was that the two of them had decided it would be better if Thomas spent some time in the Army. "It's not as if there's a war on or anything," Byrne said, reassuringly.
For three weeks he didn't know if his brother had actually reported for induction or run away. When he heard of a liquor store robbery or a house being broken into, he wondered if it was Thomas. Then he received a letter. Not a letter, a tiny photo, the sort that costs four-for-a-dollar in a booth at the bus station, so small Byrne almost overlooked it. His brother's face was rigid, his lips tight, his jaw clenched. He was in uniform, olive shirt and black tie. Byrne wondered if Thomas had sent it to make him feel guilty. The grim look would suggest that. He decided Thomas had meant to send the picture to their mother but, having forgotten her address, mailed it to Byrne for forwarding.
He put it into a new envelope and mailed it, but the next time he visited his mother, she had a framed portrait of Thomas in his uniform on her bedside table and when she asked Byrne to get something out of the drawer in the table, he found three or four letters from his brother. He read one. It described a long march Thomas had been on and mentioned that the food was bad. There were several misspellings. Byrne wondered if Thomas's sergeant required recruits to write to their parents once a week.
Twenty miles beyond Cambridge, a highway patrol car sits across the interstate. A patrolman in a parka waves cars toward the exit ramp. As Byrne creeps past him, he can see frost in his mustache and eyebrows.
"Poor guy," Sandy says.
"This is just great," Byrne says, stopping at the bottom of the ramp. "Where are we supposed to go, now?"
"You needed gas, anyway," Thomas says.
Byrne looks at the gauge. It shows an eighth of a tank. He is surprised. For the last few days, he has been doing so much driving. First, to and from the hospital and then the mortuary, the florist, the mall to buy his mother a blouse to be buried in.
"Where are we supposed to get gas here?" he says. There is nothing at the interchange.
"The sign says Bascomb, three miles north," Thomas says.
"And what's in Bascomb?" Byrne says. "Six houses and a Jehovah's Witness Kingdom Hall?"
Sandy says something but too quietly for Byrne to hear.
"What?" he says.
"I don't think there is a gas station. I've been there."
A horn honks. Byrne looks in his mirror. Three cars are lined up behind him. Two more crawl down the ramp.
"You can take this road to Pagedale," Sandy says.
The horn honks again.
"How far is that?" Byrne asks.
"Left, about seven miles. There's a station in town and you can get back on the highway, there, too." Several cars honk simultaneously. The car behind pulls around and creeps past.
Byrne tries to turn, but his tires spin in the snow. He lets off the accelerator, then tries again. His tires only spin. "Wonderful," he says. Another car in the line pulls around and goes slowly past. "Thanks for your help," Byrne says, waving at the driver. But the woman is hunched forward, intent on the road and does not notice his gesture. Thomas shakes his head; Byrne knows he remembers his refusal to help the stranded man. That was different, Byrne thinks; these people are stopped already.
"Try dropping down a gear," Thomas says. "Put it in low."
"I've been driving since you were in diapers," Byrne says, again depressing the accelerator slowly. The car only drifts sideways, and Byrne lets off the gas, letting the engine idle.
After a moment Thomas sighs. "I see where this is heading. 'Get out and push, Thomas.' " He gets out. In the moment the door is open, snow swirls into the car. Byrne watches his brother in the mirror, a silhouette in the headlights of the car behind them, bent over, braced against the trunk. When he sees his brother is ready, Byrne shifts into low and depresses the accelerator slowly. The car drifts. He lets off the gas. Thomas bangs on the trunk.
Byrne depresses the accelerator again. When the car starts to drift, he lets off the gas, but Thomas bangs on the trunk again. Byrne glances in the mirror. Thomas waves furiously: Go on, go on. Byrne leaves his foot on the gas. He can't be certain, but the car seems to inch forward, the rear tires whining in the snow. Then the car gradually rolls forward. "I'm going to turn the corner," he says.
"Shouldn't you wait?" Sandy says.
"I want to make sure we're not going to get stuck." Byrne turns left and slowly comes to a stop.
"Oh God, it's cold out there," Thomas says, getting in and hunching over, his hands still over his ears. He is blanketed with the snow Byrne's tires showered over him, his hair, his face, his coat, his trousers. "What are you waiting for?" he says.
The drive to Pagedale is eerie. A quarter of a mile from the interstate, the road narrows from four to two lanes. In the storm it seems even narrower. Byrne has to drive by watching the yellow reflectors planted along the shoulder. He can go no faster than twenty miles an hour and, in places where the markers are either gone or obscured, he has to go slower.
Until now, he hasn't had a chance to think. His time since the day before yesterday has been so filled with the business of his mother's death -- contacting Thomas, calling relatives, receiving condolences -- that, paradoxically, he has been able to avoid accepting the truth that she is no longer alive.
Now, in the silence of the drive, it strikes him that she is no longer there. For years, he has, at any moment, been able to picture her in her room at the nursing home, but now he sees the room empty, the bed stripped, the bureau top cleared of her photographs and her porcelain statues of saints. Byrne is stunned by the thought of how quickly she could vanish.
He imagines her alive.
She is in her wheelchair, the candy striper pushing her down the hall toward the lobby. Byrne waits for her, thinking of what news he can tell her this week. Mrs. Neudeck dyed her hair red. Father Delaney went to Lourdes. The wildflowers were blooming all along the road.
His mother is answering. Pree.
Yes. Very pretty.
Here is his mother, slim and attractive, a long while before the stroke. When Byrne was still an only child. She is in the kitchen. What is she wearing? Her powder blue blouse and tan skirt. Where is Byrne? In the breakfast nook, coloring in a book. No. Playing mass. The table freshly cleared and wiped. His father (still alive, as well) at his store. His mother at the kitchen sink, her hands deep in soapy water. Byrne, dressed in his pale green terry cloth robe for the vestments, one of his father's neckties draped over his shoulders for the stole, utters the words he can only approximate. In nom pat eh fil eh spirsantus. My little priest, his mother said.
There is the whistling of slow, deep breathing. Byrne glances at Thomas. He is slumped against the door, sleeping.
"He's pretty tired," Sandy whispers from the backseat.
Byrne looks into the mirror. Sandy is little more than a shadow, the baby nestled against her, making quiet gulping noises. Byrne realizes she is nursing the child.
"Bus trips are no picnic," she says.
"I offered to buy him a plane ticket."
"That was nice."
For a minute or so they ride in silence and then Sandy says, "Tom said you took care of your mother for the last ten years."
"More like eleven."
"That must've been hard."
"Did he say that?"
"No. But that's what it sounded like. Supporting her after your dad died. Visiting her every Sunday in the nursing home."
Byrne cannot imagine Thomas saying any of this.
"What else did he say?"
Sandy hesitates. "He said he wondered what you were going to do, now that you were alone."
It takes them more than half an hour to reach the Pagedale gas station, which is dark. Byrne pulls onto the lot anyway. Maybe it's just that the lights are off. But it's closed.
"Of course," Byrne says. The needle on the gas gauge quavers, nearly touching the red E; the fuel light blinks.
"Is there another station?" he asks.
Sandy shakes her head. "The closest one is a 24-hour Sohio at the Rosemont exit, maybe six or seven miles."
Byrne sighs. "We'd never make it."
"If you take me home, you can use the phone and find out what's open."
Byrne puts the car into gear and pulls onto the street. "I guess we don't have much choice."
There is something odd about the town, Byrne thinks as he drives along the main road, but he cannot put his finger on it until they come to an intersection with a traffic signal that is not functioning and he realizes there is no light anywhere. No street lights, no store lights, no lights at any of the houses they pass. When they reach Sandy's, it too is dark.
"Wake up," Byrne says, tapping Thomas's shoulder.
"Where are we?" Thomas's voice croaks from sleep.
"My house," Sandy says.
"We get gas?"
"Afraid not," Byrne says. When he steps outside the car, he sinks mid-shin in the snow.
Thomas helps Sandy out of the car and offers to carry Mikey, but Sandy refuses. Byrne opens the trunk and hands Sandy's suitcase to Thomas and the three of them trudge across the yard to the porch. Every step is a labor.
Inside it is little warmer. Sandy flicks the light switch in the hall, but nothing happens. "I'll get a flashlight."
She leaves Byrne and Thomas in the front hall. Even though Byrne cannot see his brother, he can feel that he is standing nearby. He can hear Thomas's breathing, that slight click in his throat from the mucous he always seems to have. When Thomas was eight, shortly after their father died, he developed asthma. Sometimes he'd have coughing fits so violent that Byrne thought they would tear his throat apart. On other nights, Thomas wouldn't cough, but Byrne's mother would suddenly feel alarmed. She and Byrne would be watching television and she would urge, "Go check him." She couldn't go herself. Byrne knew she was afraid of finding him dead. It was as though she thought his father's death could somehow infect Thomas, as if it were contagious.
Byrne would go the doorway of his brother's bedroom and stand there, holding his own breath so he could hear Thomas's breath whistling in the dark. More than once, caught up in his mother's fear and walking along the dim hall toward Thomas’s room, his skin prickled. I'll find him dead, he thought. When he didn't, when he heard the uneasy breathing, he felt guilty for having imagined him dead.
Byrne looks at his watch. All he can really see are the luminescent lines on the face. "Eight o'clock. The wake is starting. I should've called Aunt Clare from the station."
"Don't you think they know what happened?" Thomas says.
Sandy comes back with a candle. The flame illuminates only bits of the hall, a slash of flowered wallpaper, a decorative mirror. "Sorry it took so long. I wanted to put Mikey down."
"That's sweet," Thomas says. "What a good mom."
"I've got some bad news, though," Sandy says. "The phone's out. But the gas stove works. I put some water on for coffee."
"We really should get going," Byrne says.
"Why don't you have some coffee and figure out what you want to do," Sandy says. "It'll at least be warmer out there. I turned on the oven and opened the door."
She is right. The kitchen is warmer. With the oven door open, the room is cast in a faint blue light.
"Sit down," she says, setting the candle at the center of the table. She rummages in a high cupboard until she takes down a box. Something in it clinks. When she sets it onto the table, Byrne can see it is filled with crude candles poured into baby food jars, as many as two dozen.
"From my artsy days," Sandy says, laughing and beginning to distribute the candles onto the table and counters. Thomas takes out his matches and begins lighting the candles on the table while Sandy lights those on the counter. Slowly, the room brightens, filling with a flickering white light.
"This looks like a church," Thomas says, shaking his match out. He strikes another and resumes lighting candles. "Remember, Francis? How we used to light candles to get the souls of people who died into heaven?"
"You could be lighting these for your mom," Sandy says.
"I didn't think of that." Thomas lights the last candle and sits down, holding the match until it burns close to his fingers.
Sandy spoons instant coffee into the cups, pours the hot water, stirs it, and sets the cups onto the table.
"I'm trying to remember," Thomas says. "I think the last time I lit a candle for anyone was for dad." He plays with a baby food jar, tipping it slightly, bringing the melted wax to the lip of the jar and then tilting the jar the other way just before the wax spills out. "That's right." His tone brightens abruptly. "You should feel at home here, Francis." He turns to Sandy. "My brother was this close to being a priest." He holds his thumb and forefinger an inch apart. "He was even in the seminary."
"Give me a break," Byrne mutters. He lifts the cup to his mouth, but the coffee is too hot.
"What happened?" Sandy says. "Did you meet a woman?"
Thomas lets out a snort, but Byrne ignores it. "My father died and I had to leave to keep the family from starving," he says. He has explained this so often over the years that the words come automatically. He blows on the coffee. Steam rolls back warm against his face.
"What do you do now?"
"He runs a religious store." Thomas takes out a cigarette and lights it from a candle. "It was our dad's. Now it's his."
"I think I can speak for myself," Byrne says. He waves his hand in the air to clear Thomas's smoke.
"It used to spook me," Thomas says. "There was all this dead stuff." He flicks his ash into one of the jars.
"Tom," Byrne says.
"It's true. There was this life-size crucifix that no one ever bought. Blood dripping from Jesus' head and from his hands. It was just paint but Francis used to tell me it was real blood."
"No, I didn't."
"You did. When Mom sent me to the store to help you. 'It's not paint,' you said. 'It's a miracle because the plaster Jesus really bleeds.' I believed you."
Byrne can't remember doing it, but he may have. During the summer when Thomas was out of school, their mother would send him to the store if she had a headache or felt depressed and wanted the house to be empty. Byrne put him to work, filling the plastic trays of religious medals, or putting the children's bibles into the racks. But Thomas worked slowly, often glumly. Byrne scolded him. "Do you think I like being here any more than you do?"
"I was a kid," Thomas says. "Mom wanted you to take care of me, but you'd only scare me. Remember the bones you showed me?"
"Bones?" Sandy says.
"'This came from a skeleton,' you'd say."
"They were relics," Byrne says. "Besides, I only remember one, a bone chip from St. Rose of Lima."
"No," Sandy says. Her voice sounds a little frightened. "They don't have saints' bones."
"Real bones," Thomas says. "Like in those old Vincent Price movies." He picks up the jar and holds the candle near his chin. The pale light makes his face look almost white. He grins, showing his teeth, and laughs a wicked laugh.
Byrne shakes his head. "Tom."
"You're scaring me," Sandy says.
"Sorry," he says, setting the jar back onto the table.
"Someone tell me a nice story," Sandy says.
"I'd like to hear the story about how we get to Osterville in time for the funeral, much less the wake," Byrne says.
Thomas ignores him. "Once upon a time," he starts.
"No," Sandy says. "A true story. Not a fairy tale."
"Are there true stories that are nice?" Thomas says.
"Sure." Sandy nods vigorously. "What's the best thing that ever happened in your life?"
"I'd have to think about that," Thomas says.
"I'll tell you one," Sandy offers.
Doesn't his brother care about getting back to the wake? "We don't have time to play this game," Byrne says.
"Let's hear her story."
"It's short," Sandy says. "Once there was a woman who had a baby. That's it."
Thomas smiles. "Sometimes the shorter the story, the better. Knowing when to start, when to stop.”
And knowing when to stop this, Byrne thinks. “Can we go?”
“You’re right,” Sandy says as if Byrne hasn’t spoken. “I mean, I could tell the story this way: Once there was a woman who made a mistake. She got pregnant even though she wasn’t married. If you tell the story that way, it’s not a nice story. But if you tell it my other way, it is.”
“See?” Thomas says.
“Tell me your story,” Sandy says.
“Really,” Byrne says, but Thomas interrupts him.
“Okay, I do have a story after all.”
“Maybe there is more gas in the car that I think,” Byrne says.
“You might get stranded,” Sandy says.
“Doesn’t anybody want to hear my story?” Thomas asks.
“I do,” Sandy says.
“First, I want all the lights out,” Thomas says. He gets up and blows out the candles on the counter and then the candles on the kitchen table. When he closes the oven door, the room is dark.
“I don’t like this,” Sandy says.
“I’ll hold your hand,” Thomas says. “You’ll be okay.”
It is so dark, Byrne cannot see if they are holding hands. Maybe he should just leave on his own. But people would ask, “Where is your brother?” He’s with some woman, Byrne would say.
Thomas is silent for what seems a long while. If he gets on with it, Byrne thinks, if he tells his story, they can leave.
“Once upon a time,” Thomas begins. “A long time ago, when I was seven, I came home from school one day.” Something in his voice causes goose bumps to rise on the back of Byrne’s neck, as if it’s a story boys tell in the dark to scare other boys. “It was spring. The leaves on the maples in our yard were so thick it was cool and dark. I go in the back door.”
What story is Thomas telling? Byrne wonders. He tries to think if it could be one in which he is the villain.
“Right away, I know no one’s home. The house is so still. I get a soda from the refrigerator, some cookies from the cupboard, and go turn on the TV. It’s terrific. No one says, ‘Do your homework, Tom.’ ‘Don’t spoil your dinner, Tom.’ I’d never been left alone before.” Thomas pauses.
“Weren’t you worried being all alone?” Sandy asks.
“I wasn’t worried. It was nice. As long as no one came home, I could have another soda if I wanted. I could finish the package of cookies. I could watch TV.”
Byrne suddenly imagines their mother’s casket in the parlor, candles and flowers around it but, because of the weather, she is alone. He grips the table. “How can you go on like this?”
“I had another soda,” Thomas says. “And I ate two dozen cookies and no one found me. I put the rest of the cookies away and threw the soda cans in the trash. Then I thought, my mom’ll find them. So I decided to take them out to the garbage.”
“That was smart,” Sandy says.
“It was.” Thomas pauses as if considering going further, but he says, “That’s it. The end.”
“I can’t believe you,” Byrne says.
Thomas strikes a match and lights a candle. The lights come on. “That was some match,” Thomas says.
Byrne blinks in the sudden brightness. Then, just as abruptly, the lights go out again.
“Shit,” Thomas says, and resumes lighting candles.
“Now you tell a story.” Sandy touches Byrne’s arm.
“I know his nice story,” Thomas says. “When I went off to the Army.”
Byrne gets up. “Let’s go.” His voice is cold, “There is probably enough gas in the car to get to that station. I have to call the funeral home. We have no right to sit here like this.”
“You go ahead,” Thomas says. “I’m going to stay with Sandy until the lights go on.”
“What?” Byrne is incredulous.
“I’d rather take my chances here than break down and freeze to death. Besides, I wouldn’t feel good about leaving her and Mikey all alone.”
“You really should go,” Sandy says. “We’ll be all right. Lots of mothers and kids are by themselves tonight.”
“But I don’t know about them.”
Byrne takes his keys out of his pocket and jingles them in his hand. “Don’t you think it will look bad not to show up for the wake? What am I supposed to say?”
“What you always do. ‘You know Tom.’ ”
Byrne stands there, trying to decide whether to go. He has given Thomas every opportunity to do the right thing. “I can’t believe this. This is Mother.”
“It can’t make much difference to her at this point.”
Byrne looks down at Thomas. His brother’s expression is defiant; he doesn’t blink. “All right. Good luck. I suppose you expect me to pick you up tomorrow for the funeral.”
“I’ll get there,” Thomas says. “Don’t worry about me.”
Byrne shakes his head and leaves the kitchen, groping his way along the dark hall to the front door.
It wasn’t the whole story; Thomas barely told the preface.
He did take his soda cans to the trash by the garage. That’s true. The garage was twenty yards behind the house. When Thomas reached it, he heard a car running inside. He waited a moment, thinking someone would open the garage door and pull out. He’d been warned, after all, about watching for cars, about how difficult it was for drivers to see little boys. When no one pulled out, Thomas went to the side door.
When he got into the garage, he could see his father inside the car, slumped over, his forehead mashed against the steering wheel. Thomas tried to open the door. It was locked. He knocked on the window, but his father didn’t seem to hear. He knocked louder. His father didn’t move.
Was it then that Thomas suspected something was wrong? Byrne has always wanted to know that. He wanted to be able to see it as if he were there. He wanted to know exactly what Thomas did and when he did it. Thomas tried the back door on the driver’s side. Locked. He went around to the passenger door. A garden hose ran from the exhaust pipe to the rear window. Thomas tried pulling the hose out, but it wouldn’t come. He was too small and he couldn’t get the leverage. Byrne can see his brother trying to wrest the hose from the window. He pulls on it again, but still it wouldn’t come out.
The third time his brother pulled on the hose, it came out, knocking Thomas to the garage floor. A hot wind of exhaust poured against his face. He dropped the hose and tried the doors on the passenger side. Everything was locked. His father was sealed inside breathing exhaust. No. Not breathing anymore.
Thomas ran back to the house. Maybe he could call someone. Who? No one had taught him about 9-1-1; no one had taught him about zero for the operator.
He went next door to the neighbor’s house. There was no answer, nor at the second house. At the third house, a woman was home. She called the store and his mother came home.
What a terrible thing, everyone said, his finding his father like that. But, Byrne wanted to know, how long had he sat watching television and eating cookies? How long had he sat drinking soda? What time did their father die? More to the point, what time was he still alive?
“Don’t ask,” Byrne’s mother said.
Suicide is the unforgivable sin. Murder, adultery, theft—all can be forgiven. But suicide? No. The services were held at a mortuary; suicides cannot be buried from the Church.
Thomas lit candles for their father. That was true. Byrne did not. What would have been the use?
That was when Byrne left the seminary. He planned to return after he found someone to run the store for his mother. But business was poor. Who will buy bibles and prayer books and statues of saints from a store that was owned by a suicide? By the time business was good again, Byrne was twenty-six. All the men he had gone into seminary with were in parishes. Associate pastors. It was too late for him.
It takes Byrne much longer to scrape his windows this time, since he does not want to run the engine until he is ready to drive off. He has to conserve the gas. When he is half-finished, the lights come on again. It’s something to see—first everything is dark, pitch black, as if everyone has fled the neighborhood in the face of a catastrophe. Then suddenly light comes on simultaneously in the windows of a dozen houses and it’s easy to imagine people living there.
Byrne looks back at Sandy’s house. In a front window, a light shines palely behind the sheers. He waits to see if the door opens, Sandy calling out to him that the telephone works as well. Or his brother. If his brother comes out now, Byrne will forgive him and drive him to the funeral home without asking any questions, without saying a word about any of this.
No one comes. Byrne finishes the windows and gets into the car. The engine runs roughly at first, so he lets it idle for a minute, just enough so that it won’t die. Waiting, he stares at the house again.
It was true, what Thomas said about Byrne’s wanting to scare him with stories about the miraculous blood on the crucifix or the bones of Rose of Lima. Byrne’s life had been ruined, and he wanted to make Thomas so frightened he would have nightmares, wake in the dead silence of a dark and sleeping household, and scream, or lie quaking in his narrow little boy’s bed, too afraid of things he couldn’t see to move. But Thomas never did. He slept the sleep of children and it was Byrne who suffered insomnia.
Byrne watches Sandy’s house through the snow streaming over the wide expanse of yard. Already the footprints are filling in; before long, the snow will appear undisturbed and smooth, as if no one had crossed it since the storm began.
Byrne imagines Thomas standing in one of the dark windows, looking outside, at his brother sitting alone in his car. Could he actually see Byrne, or would the darkness and the thick snow obscure Byrne from Thomas?
No, Byrne thinks. The picture is false. He imagines Thomas in the warm kitchen, unaware that Byrne still sits at the curb. Sandy’s baby is awake now, and she holds him cooing. No, Thomas is the one holding the baby, his face bent close to the infant’s, so close he can feel the steady sweet warm breath from the baby’s parted lips, the baby’s eyes dancing, taking in Thomas’s face, memorizing it, the kind stranger who stayed behind to protect him. Byrne imagines the three of them there: a family.
Byrne sees himself driving along the highway, crawling at an inexorably slow pace toward where his mother lies dead until, inevitably, he does run out of gas and stalls, stranded.
Byrne continues to sit there, his engine running. To someone looking at him, he thinks, a stranger from a window at the house across the street, he would appear to be a patient man, a man waiting, a man with someone to wait for, instead of a man about to set off, alone, for some place he may not get to.
THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY
Maybe because I write so many magazine articles against tight deadlines, meaning I don't have time to work through multiple drafts to get them "just right," when I write fiction, I take a long while to reach the point at which I'm ready to let something go into the world.
“Driving in Snow” took three years and I don't know how many drafts to reach the state in which it appears here but actually took even more work than that, since I had to write several drafts of an entirely different story to find it at all. The earlier story, "Breaking and Entering," was an enormous sprawling mess—40 pages about a smug, resentful man who runs a religious goods store and who, in the course of the story, has a comeuppance. I won't say much more about it except that I could never make it work, although I took it through three drafts.
Embedded in it, however, is a two-page flashback that centers on the relationship between the main character and his estranged younger brother who was a thief who joined the military to avoid a jail sentence. In the original story, that passage serves merely as background, more evidence of how isolated my principle character is, and the brother never appears after the flashback.
At one point, as I grappled with making “Breaking and Entering” work, it occurred to me that maybe a story lay in there, about the two brothers, and so I took those two pages from the 40 and constructed the story you have here. I could go on at length about how I arrived at the decision – I have an 18-page, double-spaced journal I wrote over two weeks as I struggled to fix the story—but I won't, here.
I'll leave it that, one day, I wrote in the journal, “The important thing is Byrne and his relationship with his brother.” It had taken me months and thousands of words to realize that and once I did, I threw out everything except the flashback and the story came together by my asking the sorts of questions writers are always asking about their characters: “Okay, we have two estranged brothers: how can we get them back together?” “Okay, we have two estranged brothers who are eternally bickering but we can't have a story in which they just keep bickering: what sort of catalyst can we introduce to move them off-center?”
I suppose I could think of the original story as wasted effort but I don't: If the only way I can come up with two pages that have the core of a story that works is to write 38 other pages that don't work, I'll write the 38 other pages. It might be painful and discouraging at the time but if it's the only way to find the essential story, so be it. ~Joseph M. Schuster
ABOUT JOSEPH M. SCHUSTER
Joseph M. Schuster is the author of the novel The Might-Have-Been, forthcoming from Ballantine Books in March 2012. His short fiction has appeared in Iowa Review, Kenyon Review, Missouri Review, New Virginia Review and other journals. He is on the faculty at Webster University in St. Louis, is married, and the father of five.