Outside, Mark’s brother lit a second cigarette. Above him, tacked to a stone column, a sign directed smokers to other stretches of sidewalk. Joshua seemed not to notice the sign or, beyond the wide glass doors and across the crowded baggage claim, his brother.
Mark was in no hurry to have his brother’s attention. The flight had been long, the movie unwatchable, his seatmate more than a little on the smelly side. And now he had Joshua to endure, Joshua who, even as a boy, refused to let anyone shorten his name. Call him Josh, and he’d punch you in the arm, hard.
He watched Joshua smoke the cigarette to the filter, watched him drop then grind the butt into the sidewalk with the bright toe of a brown leather boot. When the doors opened and the boots shuffled through, Mark turned away. He tried to arrange his expression into something approaching happy surprise, and, when he turned back, Joshua was on him.
The hug lasted too long, past uncomfortable, then past that, until, gently, he pushed Joshua away, and they stood, studying each other.
Last he’d seen him, Joshua had looked weary, old for his age. Now, he was the kind of thirty that got carded at bars. He was lean, muscled, like someone who played sports, though Mark couldn’t imagine it—Joshua kicking a field goal or working a basketball down the court. His skin was bronzed, hair black, curls tangled thick as sheep’s wool. His hair had the appearance that comes from one’s working very hard to make hair look messy. It glistened under the airport lights as though lacquered. Mark had expected a gut, an invasion of gray hairs, those plagues of age he’d endured himself. Had he hoped them for his brother? But his brother looked better than ever, healthy, fit—young—and Mark told him so.
“You look good too,” Joshua said.
“I got fat,” he said. “You don’t have to pretend I didn’t.”
Joshua shrugged. He ran a hand over his hair, which didn’t move.
An employee of the federal park service, Joshua had pinballed from park to park before landing a permanent position at the San Francisco Maritime Museum. For two years, he’d held Mark to the promise to visit, a promise he’d felt no real obligation to keep. He was always the one emptying his wallet for flights to Jackson Hole or Salt Lake or Tucson, wherever Joshua landed seasonal work. Joshua had never returned the favor, had never come to Vermont, never, in ten years, seen their home or Lorrie’s garden in full bloom. And now it was too late. The house was no longer his. The flowers, which he’d let wilt, then die, had been pulled up. Where there’d been flowerbeds, the new owners had laid sod. It shone in the sun, neon, indisputable as Astroturf.
The baggage carousel snaked past them, silver, a river of ladders, rungs spinning. The other passengers from his flight had left, bags in hand, all but a woman in a yellow dress. Three times, a white duffel circled. A red ribbon fluttered from its handle. On the fourth pass, the woman cried, “Oh!” She got a hand on the bag and fought to pull it from the conveyer. Joshua stepped forward and, with an Allow me, lifted the bag and lowered it onto a cart stacked high with matching luggage.
“Thank you!” she said.
“My pleasure,” Joshua said. He raised a hand, touched the brim of a hat that wasn’t there. He turned to Mark, crossed his arms.
“Marisa’s thrilled you came,” he said.
Marisa was Joshua’s girlfriend. She was smart, smarter than Joshua. Kinder, too, so that Mark often wondered what she saw in his brother.
But the bond was undeniable, and their relationship, whatever else it may have been, wasn’t an unhappy one. It wasn’t that Joshua and Marisa never fought. It was that they fought without raising their voices. It wasn’t that they finished each other’s sentences. It was the way each smiled when the other spoke. Mark had stood in the doorway, once, and watched them wash dishes. They’d moved side-by-side at the sink with a shared tempo, Marisa humming something, hands working fast with a rag. They were good for each other, in dishwashing and in life, and, following a visit, Lorrie had never failed to point this out to Mark, illustratively, letting the fact stand for that which she couldn’t, wouldn’t, say.
“I think you’ll like the place we picked out for Thursday,” Joshua said.
Mark nodded. He wished suddenly and like hell that he hadn’t come.
The carousel circled, bagless. A new group of passengers flooded the lobby.
“This right here is why I carry on,” Joshua said.
He wanted to tell Joshua that he had carried on, that he’d been stopped at boarding by a flight attendant who insisted his bag was oversized. He’d argued, then pleaded. The bag would fit, had fit many times before. But it was no use. The suitcase had been ticketed and whisked away.
A siren squawked and the carousel shuddered to a stop.
“Fuck,” he said.
“Easy,” Joshua said. “It’s just luggage.”
But it wasn’t just luggage. This, this very moment, was the culmination of everything that had conspired, that year, to wreck him. Everything resurfacing, the way it did daily, this day in the guise of lost luggage. He thought he might cry. Thinking it, he was ashamed, and then he was sure he would cry.
“Hey, they’ll find it,” Joshua said. “Till then, mi ropa es su ropa, you know?”
Mark nodded. Back in Burlington, he taught Spanish to dead-eyed adolescents, a fact he’d quit advertising on airplanes or anywhere people asked: What do you do? He hated being the dartboard for people’s bad Spanish, their mismatched participles and mangled pronunciations. He loved language, loved it too much to hear it roll ugly off others’ tongues, which was to say that, as a middle school teacher halfway to retirement, he had long ago committed himself to the wrong profession.
“I have a toothbrush you can use,” Joshua said. “I always keep an extra on hand.”
Who the fuck kept spare toothbrushes? It was too much. Mark wanted to turn and walk back onto the plane.
“Boy Scout motto,” Joshua said, and, when Mark couldn’t fill in the blank, he held up a hand in the trademark, three-finger salute, and said, “Be prepared.”
* * *
But what could have prepared Mark for that year? What prepares one for a life left under a bridge in blue water?
Three cars spinning, was how one witness described what he’d seen. Lorrie’s car was the one to go through the guardrail, to eat the sky and fall. The river was frozen and the car cracked it open.
When Mark reached the river, he pushed past paramedics and reporters and saw what everyone saw: Two circles projected onto the underside of the ice. They glowed like ghosts, like river moons. He’d vomited, staggered forward, was caught before he fell through.
As he watched, a shadow had crossed one beam, then the other. The shadow grew in the light. He prayed that it was Lorrie even as he knew it could not be Lorrie. The shadow was like a great fish rising, then an angel, and then the shadow was a man. The man appeared through a hole in the ice. He elbowed his way onto the ice and moved toward shore. He was pulled onto the bank by police officers in black coats with thick collars. The swimmer’s feet were fins, his face a bubble of glass. A blue skin covered him, head to toe, and a tank hung from his back. A regulator’s bulb fell from his mouth and, shivering, the man pulled the mask from his face. He said nothing, only shook his head.
The next day, on the phone, Joshua had said over and over how sorry he was. He asked how he could help. When Mark suggested he board the first flight to Burlington, Joshua had said that sort of thing could be difficult, that he’d have to discuss it with Marisa, that it was a tough time, which meant that he didn’t want to spend the money.
Two words, and Mark might have changed his brother’s mind. I’ll pay. Or, if his brother were a better man, simply: Please, come. Though, if his brother were a better man, Mark wouldn’t need the words, and so he would not say them. He would not beg.
Silence stood between them like the quiet that follows the click of a grenade pin pulled, and Joshua fought to fill up the silence with more sorrys.
But he had not come. And so they had not spoken, not until the year unraveled into autumn and a surprise showed up in the mail. It was Marisa’s name at the bottom of the card in blue ink, the invitation to Thanksgiving dinner hers. Mark had accepted. He’d been ready to face his brother. Now, he wasn’t sure he was.
* * *
Joshua drove fast, an arm out the window. He pointed and smoked. He had a park ranger’s trademark memory and could, when called upon to do so, expound at length on his surroundings. Each San Francisco block brought another restaurant, storefront, or statue, and, with each, an anecdote, a history, the confirmation or rejection of local lore.
Mark sat low in his seat, half-listening. He felt his pockets for his wallet, his keys, his phone. His suitcase held everything else. The bag would be delivered by morning. He had the airline’s assurances.
Bad music shook the speakers, something about mammals…something, something…the Discovery Channel.
“Here’s the Haight,” Joshua said. “Haight Ashbury. Hippie shit. Late sixties, heart of the free love movement. Now it’s a place you don’t walk nights.”
They stopped at a light. A man in a floppy stovepipe hat, red and white like the Cat in the Hat’s, shuffled down the sidewalk. Ahead of him, a mohawked woman jogged, tracksuit billowing.
“Freak show,” Joshua said. “A lot of that here. Not just here, but here.” He nodded, as if to indict the city, all of it, or maybe the whole west coast. The song changed, and Joshua’s arm returned to the cab and drummed the dash. Every few taps, his other hand left the wheel to stick an invisible cymbal.
The mohawked woman was getting farther and farther away. She was tall and thin and moved with a bouncy, assured gait. Mark would have liked to run a hand over her head, to feel the smooth scalp turn to hair, then back to skin. He thought of highways, of the grassy medians that divide them. He thought—he couldn’t help himself—of Lorrie.
They drove on until he was sure they’d left the city, and then the car approached a bend. Joshua took the turn hard and Mark flinched. When they straightened out, he relaxed his grip on the door handle. It had been like this since the accident. His new apartment he’d picked by its proximity to school. Excepting rainstorms, he walked to work.
They followed the road down a hill and joined a line of cars on the shoulder. The sight had been picked to astonish: The Golden Gate Bridge, many-spindled, majestic and fat in the fog. They left the car, climbed a bluff, and looked down on the bridge, which looked to Mark more red than gold. Trying to take in the bridge, the enormity of it in the fog, was like picturing a puzzle with gaps at the center and the sides. Below, ships navigated the channel. A sailboat cut through the mist and emerged from beneath the bridge.
“I stop here sometimes on my way to work,” Joshua said. “Just to see it. An absolute feat of engineering. Took four thousand workers and four years to complete. Two million rivets, each one solid iron.” He sighed, shook his head. “Men died to make this bridge.”
Far back as Mark could remember, Joshua had been like this. He was the kind of guy who took his truth where he could find it, and because, given his line of work, factoids were the morsels that made up his communion, he was prone to flights of trivial import, his life a kind of Jeopardy. He might note, with urgency, that the blind were known for their acute sense of hearing or that elephants sometimes ran trunks over the tusks of the dead. Invariably, he would follow these nuggets up with, It just goes to show you, or, It really makes you think, though he could never be depended upon to say just what something went to show or was meant to make one think. His metaphors went forever unfinished, as though to turn them toward relevance might diminish their vague power. The right listener might smile, amused or awed, but Mark was not the right listener. The treatises left him, generally, resisting the urge to roll his eyes.
As a child, Joshua had been drawn to nature documentaries. He’d harried the family at mealtimes with the sleeping habits of lions, the diets of zebras, the migration patterns of various African birds. Traits were occasionally attributed to family members.
“You,” he told Mark over a dinner of hotdogs, “are a rhino.” He hadn’t said why. Instead, he took a big bite of hotdog, mustard dropping onto his shirtfront. He set the hotdog down, and—Mark couldn’t say why he remembered this so vividly—he pulled the shirt to his mouth, and, nimbly as a cat, he’d tongued the fabric clean.
Each evening brought new animals to the table, and, what Joshua didn’t know, Mark suspected he made up. He suspected this still.
On the bluff, Mark watched him. They shared the same hawk’s nose, the same narrow forehead and cleft chin. Hard features. Presidential, Lorrie had said.
They shared the same blood. This was unmistakable, right up to the moment Joshua opened his mouth, at which point Mark always wondered how they could be brothers.
“This bridge,” Joshua said. “It really makes you think.”
“It does,” Mark said, thinking how a moment can mean two things to two people.
He thought this and did not speak it. Neither did he remind the man at his side that a bridge in winter was what had killed his wife.
They drove on, following the coastline, until they came to a kind of compound. Identical concrete units rose between trees from green hills, the buildings dark-roofed and many-antennaed. They had reached The Presidio.
“Former military base,” Joshua said. “And now—”
“Housing for hippies?”
“You got it.”
The units were small, three-storied, drab but for plants in window boxes and flags hung from ledges.
“Batteries line the beach,” Joshua said. “The government was all set for the Japanese.”
They took the streets through the compound too fast, up steep hills and down steeper ones. They nose-dived down one slope until Joshua jerked the wheel and ground the car’s tires into the curb.
“While you’re here, it’s important to angle your tires on inclines,” Joshua said. He appeared unconcerned that Mark had no car and, therefore, no tires to angle. It was just another fact, another thing to know. “The city’s notorious for runaway cars. This way, your brakes give out, you stay put. It’s the law.”
Mark reached into the backseat for his bag, then remembered he didn’t have one. He was still in the passenger seat, still facing the back, when Joshua said something, his voice muffled, a near-whisper.
“I’m sorry?” Mark said.
“This funeral business,” Joshua repeated. “That’s behind us, right?” He put a hand on Mark’s shoulder and squeezed.
And what could he say? The funeral wasn’t behind them. The very subject was a river to be crossed, a river rising fast and one that might never be crossed with Joshua so quick to dismiss it. If he’d come for an apology, Mark saw now he’d never get it.
“Marisa feels bad,” Joshua said. “I tell her you’re fine, but she won’t believe me. She misses Lorrie. I made her promise not to bring it up.” He undid his seatbelt and stepped from the car. He knelt, face framed by the open door. Beyond him, the sky sank into the ocean. “Just know, you say anything, she’ll cry.”
The door swung shut, and Joshua was across the parking lot before Mark could bring himself to follow.
* * *
There had been a letter.
This wasn’t long after the funeral, when the weight of what was pressed so hard upon Mark that he woke once, twice a night and sobbed. His dreams were ice, tires smoking, vehicles catapulted through guardrails.
Other dreams, he stood before an enormous arcade game, a pinball machine. Instead of balls, the bumpers ricocheted cars. The cars looped and spun, and Mark jammed like mad on the buttons. But the flippers were locked, always locked, and, one by one, the cars tumbled, fell, slipped past the flippers and into the mouth of the machine, swallowed, gone.
There were dreams of the river, the car bubbling, a hole in the windshield and Lorrie’s hair trailing, current-caught and swaying like kelp.
Another dream, the dream that gave voice to the letter, found him in the river. Water filled the car. Heels dug in the riverbed, he pulled at the handle, but the door wouldn’t give. Lorrie’s words were gurgles. The water would not stop coming. And then there was a hand on his back. And then there was Joshua. The car was lifted, heaved from the river to shore. Lorrie tumbled out in a rush of water and into Joshua’s arms.
That morning, trembling, Mark had picked up a pen. The dreams were horrors, but they were his horrors, and Joshua had no place invading them. He didn’t organize his thoughts. He wrote. Letters leaned angry into words. Words tangled into hateful sentences. There was no proofreading, no revision. His students, even the laziest, would have been appalled.
Furious, dazed and half-asleep, he’d folded the paper, folded it again, addressed an envelope, and mailed the letter before he could change his mind.
He couldn’t say, now, what the letter had said. Certainly there had been some fucks in there, some fucks and some motherfuckers that must have stood out no matter how sloppy the penmanship. There’d been a list of grievances: a model airplane stolen and broken in boyhood, a borrowed shirt torn at the sleeve, a seatbelt slung and the cleft it had left in Mark’s eyebrow. The list had likely culminated with the missed funeral, but he couldn’t be sure.
What blue rage had he been in, what boiling soup, to write such things?
His fury had since cooled. Now, it was an ache—persistent, arthritic—but nothing like the fire from before. No, the real fire was his own.
Joshua, after all, had not cursed her. Joshua had not heard the unspeakable pass between his teeth. Joshua had not sent Lorrie off the bridge.
No, that had been him.
* * *
The clothes did not fit. Mark’s stomach hung over the waistline of jeans he’d barely managed to button. Even the largest of Joshua’s t-shirts clung to his chest, exposing his navel and the stretch marks that radiated from it like the crayoned lines of a child’s hand-drawn sun.
“It’s a good look for you,” Joshua said, and Marisa laughed through the hand at her face.
Like Joshua, Marisa looked healthy, fit, young. She credited the weather, the water, and her decision to move to a diet of all-natural and organic foods.
“We tried vegetarianism,” she said, “but your brother missed meat.”
Joshua lowed like cattle.
Marisa’s hair was long and straight, still blonde, and Mark wondered whether Joshua knew that Marisa was—as she’d once confided in Lorrie—going gray under all that gold.
Marisa had met them at the door, and, like Joshua, she’d held him for too long.
The past nine months, he’d become a connoisseur of hugs. There were the pity hugs, the obligatory hugs, even the few that meant sympathy, genuine and unforced. Marisa’s was one of those, and it was only once she’d let go, his chest warm, that he missed how it felt, having a body in his arms, and he thought of the mohawked woman, and he was afraid. Whatever was surfacing, pushing through, he wasn’t ready.
Joshua and Marisa left the room, and he changed back into his clothes. His socks clung, sweaty, to his feet. His shirt smelled like the plane he’d flown in on.
He’d been given the spare room, which turned out to be a kind of oversized storage closet. Boxes and piles of papers had been pushed into corners. An inflated air mattress filled the floor, and an unzipped sleeping bag covered the mattress. A pair of towels and a washcloth sat stacked on a pillow. The room’s walls were white, the ceiling low and mottled with what he’d once heard a realtor call popcorn, the bubbly sealant that hid the seams of poorly hung drywall. The ceiling dropped from the doorframe’s apex to the floor like the hypotenuse of a triangle. Already, he saw he’d have to sleep with his head at the door to keep from rising and cracking his skull in the night. He ran a hand over the ceiling, and it snowed—the sleeping bag, pillow, towels—all of it—mottled with a pebbly, white dust.
Joshua and Marisa were waiting for him in the main room. The room was sparsely decorated, furniture an assemblage of pieces salvaged from sidewalks and yard sales. Here and there, cups stuffed with cigarette butts dotted the landscape.
The room’s focal point was a widescreen TV perched on a coffee table. The TV was huge, the table too small for it. Beneath the table, three gaming systems sat piled beside jewel cases. Discs scattered the hardwood floor, a perimeter of silver puddles. Mark tallied the expense in his head. He wondered how many games a plane ticket would buy.
“We thought we’d lay low tonight,” Marisa said. “We figured you’d be tired.”
He wasn’t tired. Already, he felt trapped by the small apartment and its quiet ashtray stink. How did Marisa, a nonsmoker, stand it? He couldn’t imagine the three of them sitting there breathing the same stale air as the evening turned over. But he said nothing.
He fell into the lap of a white, wide-armed chair. Across the room, Marisa and Joshua shared a couch. Above them, and through a window, the apartments of The Presidio were overtaken by trees and, beyond these, a blue, Pacific strip.
The silence in the room was approaching insurmountable.
“You have a nice home,” he said.
“We like it,” Marisa said.
“We were just happy to find a clean, safe place,” Joshua said. “You wouldn’t believe what it costs to live—” He stopped short, as though he’d said too much.
And then they were all thinking money, funerals and flights.
Mark turned to Marisa. “How’s the world of physical therapy?” he asked.
She laughed. “You make it sound so noble. It’s nothing like that. I massage the rich and the tense.”
Marisa was famous for her backrubs. During visits, Lorrie would remove her top and lie on the floor. Marisa squatted over her, working her hands between Lorrie’s shoulder blades and down her spine. Afterward, Lorrie always slipped into his arms, limp and lithe. “Nothing sexual about massages,” Lorrie would say. “They’re relaxing, that’s all,” but Mark didn’t believe her. Always, he could count on those nights to get some. Which was why when Marisa offered, hands oiled, legs crossed on the floor and his wife watching, Mark always said thanks, but no.
A bird flew past the window, then another.
“She’s good,” Joshua said. “Really good. Number one requested masseuse at Salon Six. Does all the San Francisco celebs. Robin Williams—”
“Okay, sweetie,” Marisa said. She raised a hand to her cheek. She had large, clean hands with trimmed nails. He could still see them kneading Lorrie’s skin like floured dough.
“Sorry, Mark,” she said. “Our client list is supposed to be confidential. We get stars, sure, but more has-beens than anything else. Reality hacks, old soap divas.”
“Alex Trebek,” Joshua laughed. “Hundred dollar tip.” He put his arm around Marisa.
“That was one time.”
“Asked her to rub his mustache.”
“He did no such thing,” Marisa said.
But she must have gotten them on occasion, given her line of work, Mark thought—the inappropriate proposals and requests. He was curious but not curious enough to ask.
“You should let her give you one,” Joshua said. “I mean it. When she’s done, you won’t have a care in the world.” He turned to Marisa. “You have time tomorrow, right?”
“I have an hour,” Marisa said.
But the suggestion rattled her. Mark could see the surprise, see her register his seeing.
“That’s okay,” Mark said. “But I appreciate the offer.”
“I insist,” Joshua said. “I’ll pay.”
After that, what could anyone say? Marisa coughed. Mark watched the window.
Later, from his bed on the floor and through the thin walls, he heard them fucking. They were trying to be quiet about it, you could tell, but there it was, the rhythm of the bed, his brother’s grunt, and, at the climax, not a moan from Marisa, but a breathy exhalation, like what comes just before the whistle—a teakettle’s exquisite, satisfied sigh.
And who could say for sure that he hadn’t killed his wife?
“Go to hell,” he’d said, and what if she had? He wasn’t a believer. Before that night, he hadn’t given much thought to heaven or to hell, to an afterlife of any kind. He’d never believed—not really—that he or anyone he loved would die. At the river, though, the cold cutting through his socks and into his shoes, he’d watched the man in the wetsuit emerge from the water and he’d known for sure that some place followed this, that Lorrie was there, and that he had been her dispatcher.
Go to hell.
Fifteen years, they’d been fighting this fight. School let out at three, which left him home for hours, bored, while Lorrie, a lawyer, worked late. He wanted her there. She was on her way, wasn’t she? And where had she been all evening?
But, that night, he did something he’d never done: He asked her, outright. He hadn’t believed it, not really, only wanted the slap to sting. The truth was, she was very good at what she did. She got lots of work, and she refused to half-ass a case. This meant long hours, and if he wanted to talk fidelity, they could start with the smut she’d found tucked beneath the bathmat. He’d suggested he wouldn’t need magazines were she fulfilling her wifely duties, and she observed that such duties might be a little more palatable if he stopped calling every ten minutes to make her feel bad. Furthermore, should he question her faithfulness again, ever, they were through—she’d file the paperwork herself.
“Go to hell,” he’d said, then hung up. His cell phone buzzed, then dinged with the message she’d left. He made no move to check it.
When, hours later, the house phone rang, it wasn’t Lorrie. It was no voice he knew. He listened to the voice, heard something blossom, black and taloned, and then his understanding of the world came loose from his place in it.
That her death had saved them a divorce was no comfort, was worse than no comfort. And so what if the thing he wanted back wasn’t her, but them, or, if not them, an idea of them, of what they’d been, once, long ago?
He wanted her back, if only to tell her that he was sorry, that he hadn’t meant it, not a word.
* * *
Sunup, and Mark had to hustle to keep up. He and Joshua crossed the grounds of Victorian Park. They walked fast under the shadows of factories and canneries turned, this century, to shops and motels. The windows of the buildings glowed, awnings striped, stretched to toothy grins.
They passed a beach. Offshore, swimmers moved in a line between buoys, all flutter kicks and swim caps, arms scissoring the bay.
The plan was for Mark to spend the morning at the Maritime Museum. He would see the ships, watch Joshua give his tourist talks, and then it was off to Salon Six for Marisa’s massage.
“You’re not naked, if that’s what you’re worried about,” Joshua said. “There’s a towel.”
Mark pulled on his shirt collar. The suitcase had not arrived. Over the phone, an attendant had reminded him that today was the day before Thanksgiving, a very busy day, and that, in the future, Mark might consider carrying on. He’d wanted to scream. Instead, he returned the phone to his pocket and cut the tape on a cardboard box that Joshua had pulled from storage. The box was labeled FAT CLOTHES and was full of fashions maybe five years old. He settled on jeans and a white shirt with short sleeves, the black outline of a lion faded on the front. The clothes fit, but the odor of cigarettes was all over them, as though they’d gone into the box unwashed, which, for all Mark knew, they had.
Joshua wore his uniform, the trademark brown slacks and green, button-down shirt of the park service. His hat—perched high and unfriendly-looking on his hillock of hair—sported a brim stiff as the blade of a shovel. It was a forest uniform, one that made more sense on Smokey the Bear than it did on the beach.
They passed a trash barrel and Joshua flicked a spent cigarette into it.
They continued up a paved embankment, across a street and through an open gate to a small, weather-beaten building.
“Here we are,” Joshua said.
Mark had expected a museum, something grand with a winding staircase, portraits of dead sea captains on the walls. What he saw looked more like a public restroom. The walls were brown, unsanded, and the roof was tin. The real attraction was just ahead, a dozen docked ships and a pier that caterpillared into the bay.
They walked the pier. The ships varied in size and in age. There were naval vessels, holes cut from their sides for the mouths of canons, and brigs whose sails hung like the masts of pirate ships. The ships stood in various stages of disrepair, some bright, hulls gleaming, others rusted, in need of repair.
The crown jewel, Joshua said, was the Thayer, a tall sailing ship with wide, white masts and a prominent black bow. A red stripe divided its middle. Its anchor chain disappeared into the bay, links big as refrigerators.
“A million bucks,” Joshua said. “New hull, new floors, new masts.”
The ship towered over them, masts flapping.
“These old ships, you can’t just spit and scrub off the barnacles,” he said. “Restoration takes time, craftsmanship. A lot of love.”
A gangplank stuck out like a tongue from the ship and touched the pier. A traffic barrel, orange and white, blocked the plank.
“Closed to the public,” Joshua said. “Below deck’s a mess. But, next year, it’ll be something.”
He talked more about the ships, about plans for the park and the Facebook page they were designing that week. He talked and they strolled until they’d reached the end of the pier. Joshua lit a cigarette and leaned against the railing. He stared out at the bay where an island broke the water’s surface like a turtle shell. At the center of the island stood Alcatraz, the notorious condemned prison turned notorious tourist trap. At the airport, Mark had come across posters, signs, and colorful brochures all advertising the not-to-be-missed San Francisco destination.
“Only three men ever got off that island,” Joshua said. “Their bodies were never found.”
“Sharks?” he asked, and Joshua shook his head. It wasn’t sharks or the distance to dry land, he told him. It was the cold, the heart giving out before the body clawed its way to shore.
“It’s all about conditioning,” Joshua said. “You take an athlete whose muscles can keep up, he’ll produce the heat to make the swim. Drop anyone else in this water, and in half-an-hour you’ve got yourself a popsicle. They pulled a guy from the bay last week, your typical Joe Desk Job. Went hypothermic in ten minutes.”
The wind changed direction and Joshua’s smoke was in his face. He coughed.
“Are you sorry you came?”
He said nothing. If Joshua was looking for comfort, assurances, he wouldn’t get them from Mark.
Joshua put his cigarette out on the railing, exhaled, and, with a nod, as though something had been settled, let the butt drop into the bay.
“I think you’ll like dinner tomorrow,” Joshua said. “The place, it’s no home cooking, but they do a good job. We went last year. Pumpkin pie’s out of this world.”
He ran a finger and thumb along the brim of his hat, then glanced at his fingertips as though checking for dust.
“Anyhow,” he continued, “dinner’s on me.”
If regret was a malleable, shape-shifting thing, then his brother’s was taking multiple forms—the massage, the meal—and why couldn’t Joshua just say the words?
“You don’t have to do that,” Mark said.
“My treat,” Joshua said. “I insist.”
The foyer of Salon Six was spacious and high-ceilinged. The furniture was sleek, modern-looking. Contoured chairs littered the lobby, and Mark lowered himself into something resembling the tortured body of a compressed letter S.
He didn’t want to be here, but neither did he want to insult Marisa. She and Lorrie had been, if not close, at least closer than he and Joshua had ever been. Lorrie wouldn’t have wanted him mad at Marisa, and so he’d tried hard not to be.
Tables rose low from the floor like collapsed TV trays, and Mark reached toward the nearest for a USA Today. The paper informed him that the President, as per tradition, had pardoned a pair of Thanksgiving turkeys. The birds would live out their remaining days at a game ranch in north Georgia. He put the paper down and shut his eyes.
A long morning had given way to an interminable afternoon. All day, he’d watched Joshua do his thing. The talks were a collage of history and statistical tidbits: How many trees had gone into the construction of this ship; how many tons of steel had gone into that one; the precise dates during which a particular vessel had been seaworthy and why it no longer was. Men and women with sunglasses and shopping bags nodded, smiled, and held their squirming children’s hands. Occasionally, someone posed a challenging question. Joshua had the answer, always, and, each time, an awed murmur rose from the park visitors like the call and response of a crowd watching fireworks.
He understood quickly why Joshua had stuck with this job. Here was work that allowed—no, encouraged—his brother’s love of trivia, his brother’s very nature—that relentless, uncompromising know-it-all-ness.
Was he jealous of the attention his brother got, the applause at the end, the admiration over facts probably forgotten before the shopping bags were unpacked, before the sunglasses left these people’s heads? Jealous when, back home, he was lucky to keep the attention of two, three kids a class while he filled the marker board with conjugations or spoke at length about the subjunctive mood? Maybe he was. He didn’t want to be.
A door opened to the waiting room, and Mark heard his name. He stood and followed a woman in white down a white hall to a small, white room. The room smelled like mint and incense. At the center of the room stood a long table. An O, like a spare tire, hung from the table’s end. A few cabinets and a counter hung from one wall. One might have mistaken the room for a doctor’s office if not for the lighting—dim—and the flicker of a candle on the countertop.
“You may disrobe and lie down,” the woman said. She handed him a white towel, then she left the room.
He didn’t move. A minute later, there was a knock at the door and Marisa walked in.
“Oh,” she said. “You’re dressed.”
He hoped, right then, she’d let him off the hook. Together, they could tell Joshua whatever she wanted, whatever it took to keep him from lying down on that table.
But, no, she was giving him instructions, smiling, stepping out of the room.
When she returned, he lay naked on his stomach, face tucked into the table’s spongy O. The towel covered his middle. The position wasn’t a particularly comfortable one. It hurt his shoulders to lie flat with his hands at his sides, but it seemed wrong to let his arms hang from the table in air.
Marisa asked how his morning had been, how he liked the ships and whether he was enjoying the city. There was an opening and closing of cabinet doors, the scrape of a lid coming loose.
He said it was fine, all of it fine. That the day had been good.
“Your brother is so smart,” she said. “I watch his presentations, and I’m amazed.”
Something cold splashed his back, and then Marisa was rubbing vigorously. The oil warmed where she rubbed. He felt the towel fold down from his lower back, felt it tuck in around his waist. Through the O, he could see only the octagonal pattern and white grout of a tile floor.
“You have great skin,” Marisa said. “Some backs, you should see them. They’re so bad, I have to glove-up. And then the clients get mad because it doesn’t feel the same, the latex. And how do you point out politely that they have too many zits or a rash or open sores?”
She rubbed hard, but her hands were soft, uncalloused. Gradually, he relaxed. He felt warm all over.
“I get it now,” he said. “I get why people like this.”
He meant it. He closed his eyes. The room swayed. Light burrowed up his back and burst into his shoulders, then moved, hot and bright, through his whole body.
“You’re very good,” he said.
“I’ve been at it a long time,” she said. Then, lowering her voice, she said, “But not much longer. I’m in school.”
She was studying sign language, she said. As a translator, she’d help people communicate with one another. The idea captivated her, how a gesture becomes words, how words become the movement of hands.
“I want to be that conduit,” she said.
In Burlington, he’d had a pair of deaf neighbors. Summer evenings, he and Lorrie would sit on their porch and talk while, across the street, the deaf couple sat on their porch and spoke with their hands. Always, he’d have to be reminded not to stare. But how could he not stare? The movements, the transmissions—they were gorgeous. And Marisa’s hands…the choice was perfect. The language had been made for hands like hers.
She worked his back, pressing, kneading. The shadow of her body glided through the candlelight and over his small patch of tile. Her fingers navigated his shoulders. She moved to the end of the table and her shirt’s hem grazed his hair.
He lifted his head and there was her arm at his face. Veins pulsed, delicate and blue, the image suddenly lovely, this wrist, pale and soft-seeming, and these veins, tattooed in the shape of a tuning fork to her skin. Her wrist brushed his chin, and he kissed it.
It lasted a second, maybe less, a kiss so close to a breath, he hoped she wouldn’t notice. But already Marisa was backing away. Her hands left his shoulders. He sat up, careful to keep himself covered. She was as far from him as the room allowed, backed into a corner beside the cabinetry and counter. The candle’s flame danced by her wrist.
“Watch yourself,” he said.
She brought her hands to her chest, but her eyes didn’t leave his.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“Why did you do that?”
He didn’t answer. He didn’t know. He couldn’t say why he’d done it, couldn’t fathom the impulse or the compulsion to follow it. Or, he could fathom the impulse. Impulses came and went: the stove that said Touch; the red light that said Run; the ledge that whispered Jump. They came unbidden and, like the wishes of children, went ungranted. Far as Mark knew, it was this way for everyone.
Why this one, though? Why a kiss? Why now?
“Joshua would be so hurt if he knew.”
“I wish you wouldn’t tell him,” he said.
Marisa’s cheeks puffed and her bottom lip lengthened. She exhaled and the breath scattered her bangs. She lifted his brother’s clothes from the counter and set them on the table beside him. She moved to the door, opened it, but stopped short of the hall. She turned and stood in the open doorway.
“He’s sorry,” Marisa said. “I can promise you that. He’s embarrassed. He’s ashamed. We both are. We should have come, and we didn’t. I can’t explain it. There’s no explanation good enough even if I could. All I can say is that we’re sorry. But you know that. You have to know that.”
The towel was bunched at his waist, and he smoothed it to his knees.
“Is that why you came?” she said. “To make us say it? To tell you how sorry we are?”
“Not you,” he said. “I want to hear it from him.”
Marisa looked away. Her hands clenched at her sides and the material of her pants ballooned from her fists.
“You won’t,” she said. “You won’t, and, what’s more, you know you won’t. Joshua doesn’t work that way. Which is why I’m saying he’s sorry, so you’ll know. Because he can’t say it. And because that should be enough. For a brother. It should be enough to know.”
Knowing it, it should have been enough. And wasn’t. He didn’t know what would be.
“He cried, you know?” she said. “That letter? He wouldn’t let me read it, but I found it, and I read it. It was…awful.”
“I was angry.”
“You’re still angry. And none of us knows what to do. We can’t go on until you give the word, and you’re not giving it.”
Her hands relaxed, fell open at her sides. She turned and pulled the door shut.
He dressed quickly. The towel he left on the table folded in a tight, white square.
* * *
At the apartment, he showered. He wanted the smell off of him, the oil and the candle smoke. He stood beneath the showerhead until the door rattled.
“Hey, save some water for the rest of the planet,” Joshua called. “Okay?”
His brother, the park ranger who would save the Earth except for the million cigarette butts he’d add to it.
He cut the water off, dried, and dressed. The room was steam-filled, condensation collecting on the mirror, the faucet, the backs of toothbrushes. Everything glistened in the wet. Beside the toilet, a bin overflowed with the wavy pages of old National Geographics. He left the bathroom damp, his brother’s shirt bunched at the armpits and plastered to his back.
He found Joshua on the couch. He was still in uniform, shirt tucked but unbuttoned to the belt, a white t-shirt underneath. Mercifully, the hat had been removed. It perched wide-brimmed beside him on the couch. Joshua held a controller and, onscreen, a man in silver armor lunged and leapt. Joshua’s body bobbed in time with the little man.
“You want in on this?” he said. “I can make it two-player.”
“I’d rather go for a walk,” Mark said. “Clear my head.”
“Marisa will be back soon,” Joshua said. “If you wait, we can all go.”
But Mark didn’t want to wait. He didn’t want to be there when Marisa got home.
“I’m just going to go now, if that’s okay,” he said.
Joshua didn’t look up. There was a scream as the knight plunged his sword into a short, hobbity-looking thing. The creature collapsed, blood jetting from its chest, flickered, and disappeared, leaving behind a pool of blood.
“Take the road down to Lincoln,” Joshua said. “The first side street will bring you to Baker Beach. It’s less than a mile. And be sure to check out the boulder end of the beach. Great view.”
Mark felt in his pocket. He came up with the extra key Joshua had lent him, but no phone.
“Really, though, Marisa should be home any minute.”
Mark moved to the spare room. He pulled the covers from the air mattress, one layer at a time, shook them, then lifted the mattress. He dropped it.
“Joshua?” he said.
He patted his pockets, then pulled them inside out.
“Joshua,” he called.
He retraced his steps down the hallway to the living room. He shook each of his shoes over the doormat. He opened the front door and glanced outside. He shut the door. His hands shook.
“Goddamn it, Joshua.” He moved to the center of the room. He stood between his brother and the TV. Joshua craned his neck to see around him.
“Move,” he said.
“In a minute. Move.”
A cord, gray and umbilical, uncoiled from a box on the floor and into the controller in Joshua’s hands. Mark grabbed and pulled.
Joshua stood. “Hey.”
Then his hand was on Joshua’s wrist and squeezing. The controller dropped, and he kicked it across the floor. He swung, but it was Joshua’s fist that found his face.
He fell, arms windmilling. There was a crash, and he was on his back, the TV beneath him. The coffee table’s legs were gone, the gaming consoles crushed. Cords snaked out like intestines from the mess.
“What the fuck?” Joshua said. He stood over him.
“I can’t find my phone.” He brought a hand to his eye, rubbed it, then blinked the world back into focus. You hit me.”
“You took a swing,” Joshua said. “I swung back. It’s reflex.”
Joshua offered a hand, pulled him up, and, together, they turned to take in the TV, the screen a spider web.
Joshua cradled his right hand in his left. The human hand had a bunch of bones—Joshua probably knew how many—and Mark wondered whether one or two had snapped.
He left Joshua standing over the TV. In the bathroom, he touched a fingertip to each of his teeth. He felt the bridge of his nose. Nothing bled. No, the fist had caught him in the eye socket. Even now, blood surged to the surface. By morning, there’d be a perfect ring.
Something else in the mirror caught his eye. Past his reflection, on the windowsill, beside the toothbrush his brother had given him: his phone.
Dark water, blue sky, and already the sun was setting, just enough light to whiten the sand. A few beachgoers lingered, umbrellas bent to block the wind. One couple sat side by side and read from the same book. Another dipped hands into a shared bag of potato chips. Another walked the shore. A dog, white and brown, raced seagulls up and down the beach.
Mark stood at the water’s edge. To his left, the land curled into a point. To the right, a rocky outcropping, the boulders he guessed his brother had been talking about. Beyond the rocks rose the giant legs of the Golden Gate Bridge. He counted cars. There were hundreds, so many traveling at high speeds, neat and safe in single-file lines. He wondered how many cars crossed the bridge each minute, then thought how that was exactly the sort of thing that Joshua would know.
He’d made it out before Marisa made it home. But what came next? Maybe Marisa would say nothing. Maybe she’d take one look at the television and tell Joshua everything. Either way, Mark would be asked to leave. This would give him two days to kill. He pictured himself cross-legged on a motel bed, Chinese takeout in his lap. Or else a Thanksgiving dinner of Heinekens and mixed nuts in a hotel bar. Whatever came next, he knew he’d brought it on himself.
He pulled off his shoes and socks and rolled the cuffs of his pants to his knees. The sand underfoot was cold. He stirred the surf with a toe and the water was colder. He couldn’t tell whether the tide was going out or coming in. He walked up the beach. The sand was scooped out in places, hollowed by the wind, and he tucked his shoes into one of these hollows before returning to the shore. He picked the rocks and the bridge and walked toward them.
The beach was a confusion of seaweed and cracked shells, twigs and clear, bulbous sacs, like jellyfish minus the legs. He knelt, lifted one and weighed it in his hand. The thing was cool and rubbery. He squeezed, and a stream of water shot from the sac’s middle. He tossed it into the water and walked on.
By now, the sun had set, but he could see people gathered at the rocks. A tent glowed yellow, and a couple moved in rhythm to music that emerged, choked and tinny, from a radio. A small fire in a rock-lined pit shot orange sparks into the air.
He was cold and growing colder. He sat and felt the sand wet through his pants. He pulled the phone from his pocket. He lived with the fear that if he didn’t listen, saving and resaving it daily, the message might be lost.
He pressed a button, and there it was, her voice on the phone, her last words: Mark, this is silly. When you’ve calmed down, call me. Please. I may be a while. The roads are ice. There was a long pause before she said: For what it’s worth, I’m sorry.
How long had it been? How long between the message and the bridge? Seconds? he wondered. Minutes? Had the first car struck her hanging up?
Quickly, is how it would have happened, over before she had time to be afraid. Everyone said so, and he wanted to believe them. Wanted to, and didn’t. What had she thought, seeing the guardrail, then going through it, ice rising to meet her, then opening to let her in?
Had he been the last thing on her mind? Had she blamed him or forgiven him?
He saved the message and flipped the phone shut. He stood. He could whip the phone into the ocean and be free, but that was just another impulse. He’d long since memorized the message, heard it with or without the phone pressed to his ear. He’d never be free.
And say he did it, say he managed somehow to forget her words, there were still home movies, photo albums—her picture to stare at and how, accusingly, she stared right back at him—still the old house to drive past. He’d wept to see Lorrie’s flowers dug up, her gardens turned to grass.
He moved down the beach. At his approach, the campers stirred. The dancers separated. The woman moved to a sleeping bag on the sand beside the fire, and the man joined another man at the water’s edge.
When he was close enough to see, Mark stopped. The men were naked.
One, the dancer, was maybe twenty. He had a potbelly and the jowls of a bulldog. He kept his gaze steady on the horizon. The second man was older, tall and thin. His hands were on his hips. His elbows stuck out like trowels. His hair, brown shot through with silver, was long and tied back in a ponytail. The tail touched the small of the man’s back. A beard, tied in a matching tail, hung from his chin. The wind pressed the man’s beard to his waist, a waist not indicated by a tan line or by pants.
The older man turned only his head in Mark’s direction. The beard was bunched in places, banded by silver coils.
“It’s not polite to stare,” he said.
Mark hadn’t meant to, but it had surprised him, the sight. He’d heard of nude beaches but thought they were myth, like highways out west said to have no speed limits. If those highways existed, he’d never seen them.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “It’s the beard. It’s impressive.” This was true. The rest of the man was unimpressive, shriveled, pinky-sized in a pocket of dense, gray hair. He’d imagined nudists were nudists because they had something to show off, but he guessed not.
The man nodded. “I have a deal with God,” he said. “I won’t cut my hair until the war ends.”
“Which war?” he asked.
The man smiled. “All of them.”
He brought a hand to his chin, scratched, then ran his fingers down the rope of hair. With its bunched bits, it reminded Mark of bed sheets, knotted, the kind children in movies tied to bedposts and hung out open windows to run away.
“If it’s world peace you’re after,” Mark said, “I’m thinking you’ll have that beard a while.”
The naked man frowned. “You’re one of those.”
“One of what?”
“A man who believes the way things are is exactly the way things always will be.”
The younger man laughed. His belly trembled. But the bearded man turned and shook his head, and, wordlessly, the young man about-faced and made his way up the beach.
The sky was black. The bridge above brown. There was the rush of cars overhead and the whine of night insects turning on. The nudists, maybe ten of them and in various states of undress, watched him from chairs and sleeping bags around the fire. A topless woman dropped a log onto the flames and there was an eruption of sparks. Embers feathered, then settled on the sand.
“That’s quite a shiner,” the man said.
Mark felt his eye. The skin was puffy, hurt to touch, and he realized that he was shivering. He was used to cold but hadn’t expected it here, hadn’t realized California wasn’t always hot. And here stood this other man, still, at peace. He wondered how, without clothes, the man kept warm. He asked.
The man smiled. “Cold is a state of mind,” he said. He bowed his head and closed his eyes. A gust of wind grabbed his beard and twirled it about his stomach. The man lifted one leg, drawing his knee almost to his chest. His penis poked forward, a cocktail shrimp from a Brillo pad. His arms stretched behind him until the hands met and his fingers interlocked. The man resembled a heron or else some great shorebird, long extinct.
Mark watched the water. The tide was definitely going out. The sand was stained where the water had been, and the surf no longer swallowed the stain.
After a time, the bearded man opened his eyes. His leg dropped, and he turned to face Mark.
“My state of mind has changed,” he said.
“I’m freezing my ass off.” The man winked. His beard swung. “There’s a place for you by the fire, if you’d like.”
The man joined the others by the fire, then looked back. He waved. A second hand beckoned, and then it seemed that all of them were waving.
His pants were the first thing to come off, and then his shirt. His boxers dropped, and the men and women around the fire cheered.
He wanted to go to them, to warm himself by the fire. But there was a better place for him. He felt the tug and turned to face the bay.
The water on his legs telegraphed the terrible mistake, but he didn’t stop. He fell forward, and the cold took him. He went under. He pushed against the bottom. His face broke the surface, he breathed, and, soon, the water was warm.
* * *
The four of them had shared a Thanksgiving, once, years before. Joshua and Marisa were a new couple when he and Lorrie had traveled to Tucson to see them. Joshua had given them all a tour of the Sonoran Desert with its fierce, chalky landscape, its cactuses that stood, arms out, like tellers in a bank heist movie.
On Thanksgiving Day, Marisa made a turkey and Joshua carved. He cut into the bird, then proceeded to mutilate one of the breasts. Mark had tried to help, encouraging Joshua to draw the blade over the bird and not to chop. “It’s not a machete,” he’d said.
They argued until Joshua plunged the blade into the turkey and sat down. Mark stood, unsunk the blade, and peeled smooth, even slices from the second breast.
None of which mattered, in the end, as, halfway through, the blade caught and the meat would not give. The turkey, at its center, was ice. Marisa, it turned out, didn’t do much cooking and hadn’t bothered to thaw the Butterball before the baking.
The bird was returned to the oven, but, by the time it was done, the meat was dry and crumbed beneath the blade. They ate, the four of them, not speaking, and though Joshua and Marisa would, over the years, invite them often for visits, there would never be another invitation to Thanksgiving, not until the one that came for Mark alone.
That night, on the foldout couch, Mark and Lorrie had argued.
“You should be nicer to your brother,” she said.
“I’m nice enough,” he said.
“You’re not,” she said, and, the way she’d said it, it stuck with him.
“He’ll kill himself with those cigarettes,” Mark said.
At this, Lorrie pulled the pillow from beneath her head, held it to her face, and fake-smothered herself.
“What do you want from me?” he asked.
“I want you to try,” she said.
“I’m trying,” he said, but he wasn’t, and he knew it, and he knew she was right when she said, “You could try so much harder.”
She’d meant more than with his brother, of course. She’d meant with them, their marriage, which had, just that year, taken an unexpected turn. Mark couldn’t say what was happening, not exactly. It was as though they’d been piloting a bicycle built for two. Approaching a tree, they’d veered, each in a different direction, and both been left on the pavement, bloodied, half a bike apiece. They weren’t the people they’d married. Their lives, their time and how they spent it, what they wanted and what came next—they’d changed, and Mark was afraid.
“You’re so hard on people,” she said. “One day he’ll be gone, and you’re going to regret every word.”
But Joshua wasn’t gone, and it seemed a cruel joke now that Lorrie was.
That night, she’d watched him a long time. She did the thing he liked, tracing his face, a fingertip over his forehead, across his cheeks and chin and down his nose.
She said, “I predict for you a long, unhappy life.”
And then she fell asleep.
And then she’d stayed, stayed with him for years, trying to make it work, trying harder than him, trying right up to the second her car went off the road.
* * *
It wasn’t the old man or the young man who pulled him from the water. It was none of the nudists.
Though it was dark and he was too far out, to be sure, he thought he recognized the figure moving down the beach, was sure he knew the gait, the frame lit up by firelight. The figure paused by the fire, turned seaward, and Mark knew who it must be, for who else would tear off his shirt like that, who else kick off his shoes and charge and dive?
And, then, he was there, waving and hollering, and Mark couldn’t say how long it had taken. Things had slowed—the water’s slosh, his brother biting the waves—everything a syrupy, bubbling churn. Joshua’s teeth flashed. His words were roars. Then his hands were on him and Mark was in a kind of headlock, his body trailing while Joshua reached one-armed toward shore. The water surged, and the arm at his neck loosened and tightened with every wave.
He’d been unprepared for that, for the force of the waves, the current and the cold. Onshore, the water had seemed a gelatin with a rippling skin. But, once you were in it, well, it was everything his brother warned him it would be. How many bodies, he wondered, had this bay claimed, not only those who leapt from the bridge made famous for all the leapings, but those, like him, who let the current carry them out and out?
But he couldn’t take his brother with him. Joshua would go under before he let go, and so Mark would have to swim.
He yelled. He struggled and was not released. He swung and the fist met Joshua’s jaw. Then he was free and he swam. Joshua cut a path through the water, and Mark followed, followed until sand squeaked underfoot. He gave in at the end, gave himself to the cold and let Joshua pull him ashore, over sand and up the beach to the waiting fire.
But the fire wasn’t enough. Stretched on a blanket before the flames, he felt nothing, his body an unmoving blue. The fire was a tangle around which bodies bobbed and spun. His brother’s voice was there, then a heaviness. Arms wrapped his chest, and he knew that the body was Joshua’s.
“Come on, people,” Joshua called, and there were then bodies at all sides, bodies and hair, bodies and fat, bodies on bodies, until the numb turned to itch, the itch to pain—the worst pain of his life. Pins, trillions of them, needled his flesh. He shook, convulsed. The spasms, he couldn’t hold them back. His teeth chattered until he could taste, and, when he could, the taste that bloomed on his tongue was blood.
In time, the chattering stopped. The shaking turned to shivering. The bodies pulled away, and then there was only Joshua at his back, Joshua shivering too. There was presence of mind now, enough to know that he was naked, he and his brother with him, enough to know and not to care. The heat came, and his body took all it could.
* * *
A light glowed in the apartment stairwell, and Mark watched a moth crash into it. On the stoop beneath the light, without letter or explanation, sat his suitcase. A yellow ticket was bungeed to the handle. The black piping that hugged the zipper’s track had been coming loose, and now it hung, a rubbery cord that curled like a pig’s tail along the ground.
“I told you they’d find it,” Joshua said before saying, “I didn’t mean that. I didn’t mean ‘I told you so.’”
Mark felt himself swaying. His feet throbbed and his arms ached. The cold had emptied him of sentiment, of longing of any kind. He wanted nothing more than to lie down, to be warm and to sleep a good long while.
He owed Joshua an explanation. He couldn’t say why he’d jumped in or what he’d been after, only that he’d never meant to get so far out. Except that, in the end, when he’d come that close to it, when he’d held up his hands, seen the shore and calculated the space between—when he’d known for sure he would sink before making it back—he hadn’t been afraid.
“I’m sorry about the eye,” Joshua said.
He nodded. “Sorry about the jaw.” Joshua’s face, where he’d hit him, was purpling, the jawline swollen, puffy fruit. “And the television.”
“Don’t worry about it.”
“I’ll buy you another one.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Joshua said. He lit a cigarette.
Mark held out two fingers. He hadn’t smoked since college, had never been a smoker really. Joshua looked surprised, then looked as though he were trying to look unsurprised, then passed the cigarette. Mark took a drag and coughed. His throat burned, lungs too, but he felt buoyant, untethered in just the right way.
Joshua lit another cigarette, and together they filled the stairwell up with smoke.
Overhead, the moth rattled the bulb. It dove until a last smack sent it to the ground. It fluttered across the concrete on its back, wings fanning and unfanning beneath it, then flipped and lifted off.
Joshua dropped his cigarette and ground it out, and Mark did the same.
He wondered what waited inside. Marisa—he wouldn’t know what to say when he saw her. But already Joshua had his bag in his hands and was moving through the open door.
They found Marisa on the floor, legs crossed, a screwdriver in her hand, a table leg in her lap. She stood at the sight of them, and Mark could only imagine how they looked to her, their busted faces, their salt-slicked hair. She might have demanded an explanation, and Joshua might have given it, but she didn’t ask and Joshua didn’t offer. Another something better left unsaid.
If she’d spoken of the kiss, his brother had dismissed it. But, seeing her, Mark knew she hadn’t, knew too, right then, there’d be no motel room, no Chinese takeout. They’d pass through this, all of them.
From his neighbors, he knew the sign for thank you, a hand brought to the mouth and the arm tipping, unfolding from the body like a wing. His fingers found his lips, and Marisa smiled. He was absolved, forgiven before his hand left his face.