Brandon's father imagined it like this: the sun not rising, a coin turning up tails one billion consecutive tosses, spring weather blowing the curtains aside in December: all things as unlikely and unforeseeable as the death by suicide of his son. And now the juxtaposition of the first anniversary of Brandon's death and Tish's departure from his life. Also seemingly unlikely and unforeseeable.
He punched the elevator button set into the marble wall and waited. Vermont marble quarried when the second eight stories were added in 1938. An unlikely time, given the Depression, for building to take place. But his company had flourished in bad times, as evidenced by the bronze elevator doors and gilded decorations running along the upper walls. He gripped his briefcase tighter and stepped into the cage for the ride down to the lobby.
No one knew. No one guessed. How could they? Brandon was what Tish had called "a sweet boy," and even Brandon's father had to agree. Sweet-natured, friendly, befriended by many. Not a scholar, it was true, and hardly frugal, but look at the other plusses: an open, loving, communicative family - a family that extended to grands, aunts, uncles, all readily available for counsel, compassion, a helping hand. So it made no sense. What could have happened that was so terrible? In the eyes of Brandon's father, nothing. No secret was too dark, no shame too deep, that it couldn't have been absorbed, dealt with, absolved.
He blinked tears from his eyes, walking quickly now to get out of the marbled, gilded lobby, from the very building itself. Somehow, the place seemed to blame, though Brandon's father could not have said how, either precisely or roughly. It just felt true. When he had pushed through the radius of the revolving door, his face was blasted by cold, damp air, and the tails of his dark winter overcoat - the last button open, the coat sitting heavy on his small frame - blew in twin pennants behind him.
Brandon's father had taken the day off without asking permission, without telling his boss . . . without knowing exactly why or what he would do with this unscheduled free time. Now he navigated down the spiralling path of the exit ramp, waited for the gate to lift, and sped out of the parking deck.. A father was supposed to know. He hadn't. He had missed something terrifically important in Brandon's life. But, of course, children want a life of their own, want their own private space, free of parental meddling and helping, alike.
The car, he was surprised to see, was headed out of the city on the Interstate. He sat behind the wheel wondering how he had gotten this far without knowing it. The car seemed to have a mind of its own. He steered obediently, feeling the city melt away to insignificance, even the few visible skyscrapers now heavily shrouded in mist. Ahead, the land was colorless, the trees skinnied down for winter, the sky leaden. The mist, now so thick that he had to turn on the windshield wipers, gave mystery to the trip - to whatever this was - and Brandon's father felt the quiet enfold him. Only the hum of the tires, hypnotic like the clack of train rails, broke the silence. That and the sweep-sweep, sweep-sweep of the windshield wipers, a pendulum that kept to a different time and added to his sense of peace.
Brandon's father felt the heavy roundness of the shift knob under his palm. With the traffic on the Interstate so light, he had the luxury of drifting away, drifting to wherever the shift knob would take him. It took him, in brief epiphanies of body memories, to his first days behind the wheel of a car, his brother Abbie's 1955 Ford, fitted out with a floor shift, Abbie had paid for with money from a part-time job. Brandon's father closed his eyes and tried to relive a moment of that time. He shifted down from overdrive to fourth. There! That little motion had brought it back for, perhaps, nanoseconds. But there it was. He opened his eyes and saw that he had let the car drift into the passing lane. He steered to the right, centering the car in the road. Now traffic could pass him on both sides.
The feel of the shift knob and of the shifting, itself, transported him to that time his brother had let him drive the 1955 Ford, a car his brother had polished to a mirror-like finish. He couldn't think of the model or even the color of the car now, but he remembered the leather seats. His nostrils flared to call up that smell, and Brandon's father was not disappointed: he could smell it, a rich, deep, dark smell that added sensuousness to the driving. A smell that enhanced the enjoyment of a stolen cigarette, a swig of Old Crow, the softness of a girl's breast against his arm.
Suddenly, the sound of a siren woke him from his reverie. In the rearview mirror, red and blue lights flashed angrily. He waited for a slow-moving truck to pass on his right, then flipped on his turn signal and drifted over to the shoulder. He was not so much alarmed as dismayed, unsure what he might have done. Anything, he supposed. He was not himself today.
He pressed a button to open the window. The state trooper was still sitting behind the wheel, his hat off, leaning slightly to his right, gazing at something unseen. Brandon's father unbuckled the seatbelt and swung the harness up and out of the way, reached into his hip pocket for his wallet. Brandon's father remembered that Abbie had not been a careless or a reckless driver. Only Brandon's father knew what the Ford was capable of: at least ninety-five miles per hour on a straightaway - probably more, but he'd run out of straightaway - and zero to sixty in less than eight seconds with those dual Holly carbs spurting gas into the cylinders. He reached into the glove compartment and pulled out the registration and proof-of-insurance forms enclosed in a clear-plastic pocket his insurance man had sent in the mail a couple of Christmases ago.
"License, registration, and proof of insurance." The brim of the trooper's Stetson was tipped down over mirror sunglasses, for the scrappy light that filtered down through clouds and mist was harsh.
Brandon's father handed him the three pieces. He thought of the time he and Trish had had to appear in court with Brandon over a reckless-driving ticket. Brandon had been subdued but answered the judge's questions confidently.
"This car with three guys in it passed me while I was passing," he had explained. "It was crazy, and I got steamed about it."
"So you decided to do something crazy yourself," the judge had said. Words to that effect, anyway.
"Yeah," Brandon admitted, "it was pretty stupid."
The judge delivered a lengthy lecture. Brandon could have been killed. How did he think his mother and father would feel about that? At the very least, he had broken a promise to be a responsible driver, and perhaps Brandon's parents would think twice before trusting him with the car again. And on and on. Point taken, let's move on, Brandon's father had thought, remembering his own reckless days. Of course, the things you fear are going to happen to your children aren't the things that happen at all. It's always something out of left field, something that happens in a moment of optimism or happiness or simple inattention.
"Know why I pulled you over?"
Brandon's dad thought for a long moment - or tried to appear that he was thinking. In fact, he hadn't a clue. Inattention, perhaps.
"No," he admitted at last.
"You were driving forty miles per hour in a sixty-five mile-per-hour zone, Mr. Gates." The trooper swept the mirror sunglasses from his face, which wore a winter sunburn from all the hours behind the wheel. His eyes were steel-gray, and there was a small scar at the left corner of his mouth.
"That's as dangerous as driving too fast. When other drivers try to move around you . . ."
And on and on he went. Brandon's father adjusted his body in the seat, nodded as if he were listening, and thought of that other cop so many years ago. Only that one had been red-faced with anger. Young people seemed to bring that out in adults. They didn't even have to be cocky and smart-mouthed, just young and strong and over-confident. Adults hated that confidence. Maybe they knew better, the adults, and maybe they didn't. Maybe they hated that they had lost it, along with the vitality of their youth.
"Is there some reason - mechanical, maybe - that you were driving so slow?" The trooper was leaning almost into the car window now. It seemed like a genuine question.
"I'm afraid there isn't. I was just wool-gathering."
The trooper squinted. He was young and may not have recognized the expression "wool-gathering," Brandon's father realized.
"Day-dreaming," Brandon's father added.
The trooper shook his head. "Not a good time and place for day-dreaming, is it, Mr. Gates."
"You're right. I should have been attending to my driving," Brandon's father agreed.
The trooper turned to regard the traffic heading toward them. When his eyes met Brandon's father's again, he said: "I don't mean to pry into your personal business, Mr. Gates, but you seem" - and here he paused, palpably reluctant to utter the next word - "distressed." Now he looked down at his patent-leather shoes, spattered with small drops of rain and mud. "Something happen to upset you, Mr. Gates?"
Brandon's father thought about that one. The answer, he realized, was not simple. At the same time, the trooper was not one to engage in philosophical moments.
"My son died a year ago today."
There. It was simple, formulaic really, but it suited the occasion perfectly. Brandon's father, seeing the trooper's reaction, knew it.
"I'm very sorry, Mr. Gates, very sorry." He shifted his weight on his blue-wool legs and gazed out over the top of the car. "Well, I'm not going to ticket you. Just realize that - well, you have people depending on you? So, just pay attention to the road now, okay?"
Brandon's father nodded his head, and the trooper put the tips of his fingers to the brim of his Stetson - a quaint gesture, it struck him - and trudged back to the cruiser, its red-and-blue flashers still swishing aggressively, reflecting in the gray light against the concrete divider set between the east- and west-bound lanes.
He put the car in the slow lane and set the cruise control at fifty-five, his muscles flowing into the mold of the car seat once the trooper's patrol car had darted ahead of his and disappeared into the thickening mist. The tires sizzled on the wet pavement, and the wiper blades snicked to and fro until Brandon's father had slipped back into his trance, folding time like the wallet in his hip pocket.
There came a time when it was no longer reasonable, nor even possible, to dissuade Brandon from obtaining his driver's license. Which meant teaching him to drive. The father could think of many reasons why Brandon should be discouraged from taking this step, this irrevocable step, but at the time both he and Trish had agreed the peer pressure was simply too much. Besides, it was a rite of passage, one he and his brother and numerous generations of sixteen-year-olds had gone through. Denying Brandon his driver's license would be like denying that the ritual existed, that it was important. Still. . .
There was Brandon, in the driver's seat, his knuckly hands gripping the steering wheel for a long moment, as though he were communicating with the car and receiving instructions using some sixth sense. Big veins stood out on an otherwise smooth forehead, so smooth that it had the quality of a panel, a panel behind which something incredibly complex was safely stored. Only dents of a secret smile broke the smoothness of that face, and the eyes looked newly minted.
"First," the father heard himself saying, "always buckle up. No matter how long or how short the drive. Even if. . ." And he broke off, realizing that he was not instructing but lecturing.
Brandon swept the harness around him. The father listened for the click, and there it was, strong and certain. Brandon leaned slightly forward, reaching for the ignition key.
"Second," the father cautioned, "make sure the car is in Park." For, at the time, their car had been an automatic. "Otherwise," he said, smiling to erase the stern tone he had taken, "you'll never get the car started."
And Brandon had gone along with the little joke: "Duh! Good idea."
The engine roared to life, and Brandon pressed the gas pedal two, three times. The father wanted to say something about wasting gas, until he remembered how important it was to a new driver to learn every facet of the beast he was trying to tame. Brandon's father let it roar.
"Now. . ."
"That'd be Three," Brandon said.
"Okay, wise guy, three: you probably noticed that the car isn't facing the street, so you're going to have to back out the drive."
"Would another 'duh' be out of order here?"
"Just listen. Backing up is tricky for a couple of reasons. First, it's much harder to keep track of what's behind you than it is to see what's ahead. Second, you can't ever - and I mean ever - be sure that some child hasn't walked, run, or crawled right behind you. In fact, it's best before even getting into the car to walk all around it just to make sure. Once you get into the car, use your mirrors - rearview and side - to make sure the path is still clear."
"Taking chemistry is going to be cakewalk after this, Pop."
Brandon had taken to calling him "Pop," and the father wasn't sure where this came from. He kind of liked it. No, he did like it. Somehow, it codified their changing relationship. Until recently, he had been Daddy or Dad. Now he was Pop.
"Okay, now. I mean, Four. Shift into Reverse." Which Brandon did, even remembering to look into the mirrors before he took his foot off the brake pedal.
It wasn't that the father had numbered all the steps or even that he, at any given moment, remembered all the steps. He had just fallen into the "first, second" routine. He knew already that he wouldn't be able to keep it up. His memory was no longer that reliable.
The car reached the lip of the driveway, the rear bumper just nudging into the street, though Objects may be closer than they appear, the side mirror warned.
"No traffic left," he heard Brandon say, "and . . . no traffic right." He cranked the wheel and the car moved slowly into their street. Brandon's eyes peered into the rearview, the veins of his forehead more pronounced than before, his eyes focused in concentration. He hit the brake a little too hard, and the car jerked to a halt. But never mind, it's natural until you get the feel of the thing, the father thought.
Brandon shifted into Drive and nudged the gas pedal until the car inched ahead. Brandon's father said nothing. This was a part he'd have to learn by himself, learn by feel. The car accelerated. The father glanced at the speedometer. It read fifteen. The engine's voice rose, wanting to shift into second or third, but Brandon kept the pace slow. At the stop sign on the corner, his braking was a little smoother. The father waited to see if Brandon would glance left and right. He did. The car mounted the raised center of the road where Green crossed Whitmore and gained momentum. The speedometer now read thirty-five.
"Um . . ."
Brandon slowed to twenty-five, well within the father's comfort zone. "The hard part," Brandon volunteered, "is keeping it in the center of the lane."
Brandon's father remembered his first car, his own. It was a big, lumbering convertible that steered as hard, he imagined, as one of those big rigs he saw blazing down the highway. His first day of driving, just minutes after he'd passed his driver's test and had slid his temporary license into the plastic holder in his wallet . . . he'd sweated trying to avoid sideswiping cars parked on his right. He still remembered that, steering that big boat through town, his two sweaty palms in a death-grip on the wheel.
"Can we drive over to the mall?" Brandon wanted to know.
But Brandon wasn't ready for a drive on heavily traveled streets. Not just yet. And neither was the father.
"Let's stick with the side streets for today."
Brandon didn't seem to mind. Perhaps it had been a joke.
"Okay, here you can turn right into the Safeway parking lot. It's pretty empty. We can practice starting and stopping."
And so the morning had gone. Brandon scowling through the windshield at obstacles a hundred yards ahead, the father craning his head left and right in search of more immediate hazards.
The days that followed saw Brandon becoming more confident and taking more risks. The father went back to numbered instructions and resorted now and then to sharp rebukes. "Careful, careful!" he'd say. "Didn't you see that car pulling out!" Or, less sternly, in his instructional mode: "The car on the right has the right of way at the intersection ONLY if you both stopped simultaneously." (Brandon, intent on turning left, said nothing to that but later remarked, "How in heck can you tell if you both stopped sime-yoo-tane-ee-us-ly?" To which the father replied, "Do the best you can. When in doubt, wave the other guy on through.")
At some point - he couldn't tell exactly when - the father realized that he felt more relaxed than not when Brandon was driving. Brandon seemed to have the car's untameable power under rein, using the steering wheel, the gas pedal, and the brake with expertise. Brandon, he realized, had passed his rite of passage, taming the beast and harnessing its unpredictable instincts.. Now he drove with just one hand on the steering wheel most of the time. The other rested lightly on that frail leash, the shift knob, and used his right foot to reach into the guts of the animal.
And now another, an older, fear came back to haunt the father. It was a compound fear centered on Brandon's new-found freedom. The freedom to roam beyond well-tred and long-established boundaries that he and Trish had established. Distance, night and day, time itself now bowed to Brandon's mastery of the car. Related things: the freedom to get into mischief, to drink, to fondle girls in the back seat; the freedom to fall into forgetfulness about school and his future, about taking out the garbage and mowing the lawn . . . and, worst of all, about honoring his mother and his father. He knew. Brandon's father knew all about that.
He remembered the false freedom of rolled-down windows, fresh air slapping his cheek, vistas rising gloriously and endlessly ahead. The false promise of the engine, purring seductively in his ear that all this was his. The scent of the leather upholstery promising to unlock, at last, the mysteries of sex. The ignition key, the key that unlocked the Kingdom. What Kingdom, who knew at that age?
On the last day of driving lessons - really, no more than excursions to exotic places on and off the Interstate for Brandon - his son asked if he might drive over to "this girl's house" to arrange a study session. "Yes, sure," the father had said, for he was enjoying the break from domesticity almost as much as Brandon.
"This girl" had a name. It was Lydia Speakes, a lovely fifteen-year-old with mocha-colored skin, round dark eyes, and a smile that was certain to break Brandon's heart. The father felt awkward when Brandon and Lydia insisted he meet her parents, Dr. and Mrs. Phillip Speakes. In his experience, meeting the parents was a teenager's most dreaded moment - short of getting a boner in front of a pretty girl - but the two young people seemed perfectly comfortable with the ritual. He was relieved when they found the parents - Phillip and Lila - in the back yard, wearing mud-caked paint clothes and grinning profusely. It wasn't only that they were proud of Lydia, the father sensed, but that they were pleased with their daughter's choice of boyfriend - perhaps cemented in this visit by the young man's father.
They exchanged the usual pleasantries, talked about the weather, delved into each others' professions and hobbies, and ended with mild but heartfelt jokes about the infamous "driving lessons." There was a gracefulness in the banter between father and daughter on this subject, Phillip even allowing as how his daughter was probably right when she described his lessons as "a nightmare."
Brandon's father took the wheel on the return trip, and Brandon seemed not to mind.
"Nice people," the father said.
"They're really cool."
An awkward silence followed the exchange. Then . . .
"So did you and Lydia get your homework arranged?"
"Homework? Yeah, sure."
"Nice girl." It was true, and it was all he could think to say.
"'Girl'? Dad, Lydia would rip you to shreds if she heard you call her a girl."
The statement took him aback.
"She's only fifteen, for crying out loud."
"Girls mature very quickly these days."
The father imagined breasts, pubic hair, lipstick, eyeliner, tight tank tops. "I guess I'd have to agree with that. Too quickly."
It occurred to him to ask, though he didn't, if Brandon was "sexually active" - wasn't that the term for it? Mature young women and immature young men. A dangerous combination, he thought. A natural one, too. Juices always came to a boil. He knew. He remembered.
"So what was the real purpose of our visit to Lydia and her parents?"
The father felt a little playful ribbing might break the tension. His tension.
"No purpose. Well, there's the homework. That's about it."
Brandon finally loosened up and told his father how the two of them had met (in Algebra and, again, in English, both advanced placement classes. Lydia did not have to work as hard as Brandon, his son told him, a quickness of mind that appealed to him. "She wants to be a doctor like her dad." The mother, it turned out, taught science and mathematics at a prestigious private school in the area. "They're all brainy in that family," Brandon said, adding that the older brother attended the U. S. Naval Academy, while an older sister was in her third year of law school at Harvard.
The father smiled and said that's nice. Secretly, he wondered how Brandon really thought about being compared with such achievers. He didn't lack brains, but he was hardly motivated these days. His As and Bs were mostly attributable to attentive, even demanding, parents. Maybe it was that way with the Speakes, too. You did what you had to do. He was sure Phillip and Lila would agree with that principle.
Even later, he wondered if Lydia and Brandon had had a falling out. At the funeral, Lila Speakes had reassured him on that point.
"Lydia is devastated," she said, adjusting a wide-brimmed black hat in a sudden blast of icy air that swept the frozen cemetery grounds. The air was so cold that even the usually fragrant conifers had no smell. "She doesn't understand that Brandon's death had nothing to do with her."
He wondered. Was she just erecting a firewall of protection for her daughter?
"You seem awfully sure."
"Of course, she was just crazy about Brandon, we all were," she said without answering his question.
She walked him back to the chauffered limousine. Philip and Lydia had joined Trish and a few of her friends. All but Trish had turned-up collars and gazed forlornly at the stiff brown grass. Trish's coat was half open and she talked animatedly, perhaps a little madly, seeming to just keep pace with the group's small steps, as if they were trying to make a graceful retreat or, perhaps, were corraling her, nudging her toward the now-open limo door.
When he and Lila reached the limousine, she admitted, "We did think they might be getting a little too serious. I had a long talk with her, however. It seems she and Brandon had beat me to the punch."
"She said they had agreed early in their relationship - god, when did kids gets so mature? - they had agreed that college meant a time for exploring everything, including other relationships. They would remain friends, she said.. They'd wait and see."
Brandon? Wait and see? It didn't sound like his son. Maybe he had agreed to the idea simply to hold onto Lydia. Maybe he wanted to seem more mature than he really felt. These people covered all their bases; that was the only firm conclusion he could reach from their conversation.
Brandon's father surprised himself once again, this time by turning into the cemetery where Brandon's remains were buried. Which was true, literally. Remains. And those remains, however inanimate, were all he had. As the car wove through the headstones and pines, he felt a sense of deja vu. It might have been the first time, the place seemed so much as it had the day of Brandon's burial. Trees stiff with cold and odorless. Grave markers dusted with the dirty remnants of a long-ago snowfall. Lawn in prickly brown spears of dead grass. Only the light was now different, diffused by mist, a ghostly mist that wandered among the headstones and wrapped itself around the baleful evergreens.
The car's headlights made visibility worse, so he flicked them off. Sometimes, it was like that: the harder you tried, the worse it made things. Trish had wanted to get her life back to its routine, its rhythm, after Brandon's death, while he . . . he stumbled through the rooms of the house still lost in grief and unbelief. He had been so worried about her that he had forgotten to consider his own state of mind. She had done her grieving so . . . he searched for a word . . . openly, holding nothing back. He thought of a lit match and considered the analogy more or less apt. Yes, she'd let her grief burn itself out, while he had nursed his along, keeping it always smoldering, even, never flaring up.
At some point, she had said - perhaps after one of their particularly somber dinners - that he had to "get a hold of" himself. He couldn't stop feeling what he was feeling, he had told her. That had exasperated her.
"I'm grieving, too. I feel the loss just as much as you do, maybe more. After all, I brought him into the world, he was a part of me."
And not me? He saw a picture of Brandon's long arms, their muscles ropey, reaching out to the car's steering wheel. That was his flesh, too.
The car stopped itself beside a stone bench, a memorial to someone. Everything here seemed to be a memorial to someone, he thought, even the trees. He got out of the car and slipped on his gloves, pushed the car door shut. His shoes crunched beneath him as he made his way to the headstone, almost hidden by the freezing mist. When he reached the stone, he felt the old recoil of shock and disbelief as his eyes scanned the words. This, this was all that remained of his dreams, his hopes, of the wide-open future, the possibilities? It just couldn't be, it couldn't, and yet. . .
Brandon Gates. Feb. 9, 1984 - Dec. 12, 2000 Beloved and Remembered
His mind reeled, his chest seized up. He found himself suddenly unable to breathe, as if all the air had been sucked out of this place, and needles pricked his fingertips and worked their way up his arms until he felt them behind his eyeballs and under his scalp. Leaning on the stone, he struggled for breath, feeling frightened and wondering if he was going to die in this lifeless place. His mind screamed, I don't want to die here!
He lurched to a standing position and began to walk in a wide circle, Brandon's headstone the locus, fighting to relax his diaphragm, for he supposed, he hoped, that this was only a panic attack, like the ones he'd suffered before. He tried not to feel the irregular thudding of his heart, the pulsing of blood, the stab of fear.
Now, through the mist, appeared a woman, walking purposefully toward a headstone of her own. She carried a small bouquet of flowers - white spring flowers of some kind - wrapped in flower-shop green paper. When she reached a particular headstone, she kneeled, pulling at something he couldn't see. Whatever it was wouldn't release, and she pulled a large flathead screwdriver from her plain blue winter coat and began stabbing the ground, again and again, until the thing came free. The thing she now inspected, shaking the dead flowers free, was a metal vase with a long pointed shaft at the bottom. She cleaned it off with a mittened hand and thrust it back into the ground. Removing the wrap from the fresh spring flowers, she placed the new bouquet in the bronze vase. She nodded her head, as if saying, "I'm satisfied with this; it looks good."
That task done, she set about sweeping dead weeds and grass from around the headstone, again using her mittened hand. Then she reached into another pocket of the coat and pulled out a bottle of blue liquid in a spray bottle and began spritzing the headstone, the smell of ammonia coming to him as he walked, keeping his head turned to the lady in the blue coat. From somewhere, a rag materialized in her hand and she began to wipe and rub, wipe and rub, until the headstone had a luster, even in the gloom of mist-smothered light. Finished scrubbing and polishing, she sat back on her heels, evidently communing with the late departed.
Brandon's father felt a measure of normality return, and he slowed his pace, finally stopping in front of Brandon's headstone once again. His eyes, however, remained fixed on the woman in the blue coat, for now her lips were moving, her head bobbing, and her mittened hands gesturing, as if deeply engaged in conversation. Now and again, words drifted his way, torn out of context: ". . . just like you . . . talk to him . . . old enough . . . what I can . . . his problem now." At length, she had finished and pushed herself to a standing position, dusting off the knees of her denim slacks. She patted the top of the stone, and he heard clearly, "Gotta go now, Robert. See you later." And she walked back the way she had come, disappearing into the shroud of mist.
He stood gazing at the flowers - daisies, he thought - so incongruous and yet so fitting here, then carefully stepped between the gravestones to the very spot they had been placed. Robert Denziger was born the same year as he, making him just thirty-five when he had died. A young guy, he thought. More striking still, he had died the same day as Brandon, explaining the widow's pilgrimage out here, the flowers, the housekeeping. But it didn't explain everything, he suddenly realized.
Now he was standing in front of Brandon's stone, and something had changed, though he couldn't put his finger on it. Slowly, he moved to the headstone and began swiping off the dirty snow. Something had changed, and he supposed he would eventually figure out what it was. For now, it was enough to clean the headstone . . . and maybe have a long talk with Brandon.