Trace came home a month after it happened. His parents, Mavis and Wally, picked him up outside the Gaslight Tavern, a bakery box in one hand, an e-cigarette in the other. “Pie’s cherry, I think,” Trace said, passing the box to his father. The pastry box was tied up with green string and topped with a spray of artificial holly.
Wally arched an eyebrow. “You don’t know?”
“I can’t see inside it.”
“You don’t know what you bought?”
Mavis squeezed her husband’s leg. “Let it go, Wally.”
“I’m just trying to wrap my head around this.” He spun around to face Trace. “How do you not know what pie you bought?”
“I can’t see inside the box, Dad.”
They rode mostly in silence after that. The magisterial winter cheer of Bryn Mawr, with its lanterns dressed tidily in gold bows, soon gave way to the inflatable reindeer and cartoonish bulb lights of Belmont Hills. As Trace rested his head against the cold glass, he started counting chimneys. Brick chimneys, stone chimneys, all of them puffing smoke. A special kind of privilege, Trace thought, growing up with a fireplace chimney.
At the mouth of the driveway, Wally hopped out and sprinted to the mailbox, using the pastry box to shield his bald spot from the snow. To Trace the house looked naked, vulnerable to intrusion. They’d left the garage door open.
“Should he be doing that?” Trace said, watching his father in the rear-view.
“Doing what? Checking the mail?”
“Running. On the ice.”
Mavis eased the car into the garage, carefully avoiding the islands of boxes. “It’s not that icy,” she said, killing the engine. “Your brother salts it.”
* * *
Wally came in through the side door, stomping his wet boots on the mat. “Got something from your high school,” he said to Trace, handing him a thin envelope. Trace shoved the envelope into his backpack without opening it and went into the den to watch TV. His favorite room in the house, a cozy blend of maple and wool. The room smelled pleasantly of lavender, and always seemed to be the right temperature.
Mavis, calling out from the kitchen: “Are you hungry? We have shrimp salad from—”
“I’m okay.” The loudness of his own voice surprised him. “Really.”
“I can make you a plate before dinner.”
“I’m not hungry.”
The phone rang. It, too, startled Trace—he hadn’t heard a cordless phone in years.
“I’m sorry,” Mavis said, “I can’t understand you. I cannot understand you.” Long pause, and then: “No, he doesn’t live here anymore. I don’t—can you say that again? I don’t, I’m sorry. I’m very sorry. Goodbye.”
She cradled the phone and returned to the kitchen as if nothing unusual had happened.
Wally came into the house carrying a bundle of wood under his arm. The bundle was tied up with twine, and the sections of wood had been cleaved down the middle. “Who was that?”
Trace muted the TV. The conversation, and the sweet smell of wood, drew him into the kitchen. He wanted to hear how his mother answered this question.
“I heard the phone ring,” Wally said.
“Oh, just someone wanting money.”
“Who the hell wants money?”
Trace reached above the fridge for a box of saltine crackers. “You couldn’t understand him,” he said. “You asked him to repeat himself.”
Taking a bite of a cracker: “Yeah, you did.”
“He had an accent. He sounded faraway.”
“What kind of accent?” Wally asked.
“I don’t know. Irish, I think.”
“Well, what did he want?”
“Money!” She threw up her hands. “Money, money!”
* * *
They’d been packing their life into boxes. Downsizing: the house was getting too big, too unruly for them to manage. Cardboard boxes everywhere, lids untaped, contents carefully condensed. The boxes were full of jigsaw puzzles and board games and primitive video games and ancient issues of Popular Mechanics and rusty drill bits and hammers and T-shirts and toys and even some He-Man action figures that might fetch serious coin from a collector. Wally had been selling the boxes on eBay. “Go through them, see what you want,” Wally told Trace. “Everything goes.”
* * *
While fixing dinner, Mavis annoyed Wally by questioning his choice of plates. She wanted to know if they should use the plates from the reception, instead of the nice china they’d inherited from her grandmother, which Wally was presently removing from the cabinet.
“Those are four to a set,” Mavis said, chopping scallions to freshen up the shrimp salad.
“So? Trace is home. It’s a special occasion.”
“I didn’t mean that. There’s an extra plate.”
“I can see that, honey.”
“We’re only three.”
“Yes, I can count.”
“Soon to be two.”
“And your point is?”
“My point,” Mavis said, her bladework taking on a sudden rapidity, “is I wanted to sell them.”
“So sell them!”
“We can’t sell them if we’re using them. If one of them breaks—”
“No one’s breaking any plates.”
“I didn’t say you would break them on purpose—”
“What difference does it make,” Wally said, his voice climbing, “if there’s three plates, four plates, eight plates?”
“Fine, fine,” Mavis said, “we’ll use the nice plates!”
Trace was trying to relax by the fire with a book he’d found in the den: Strange Adventures of Robinson Crusoe. Its covers were plush leather, with gold paint brushed along the edges of the pages. Flipping through the book, Trace was pleased with the illustrations he remembered from his childhood—lithographs of Crusoe cleaning his musket, repelling feral wolves, slaying bone-nosed natives. He wondered if the book was worth good money—or if it would end up in a box in the garage.
In the dining room, Trace took his usual seat, to Wally’s left, and scooped shrimp salad onto his plate.
“So, how’s it going?” Wally asked, picking up his butter knife.
“Yeah, I’m serious.” He leaned in conspiratorially. “What’s going on in your world? What are your days like?”
“We really doing this now?”
“What are we supposed to do, sit here like dummies? I’m asking you how you pass the time.”
“One day at a time, Dad. Mornings into nights.”
“Well, walk me through one of them.”
Trace groaned and speared a partially frozen shrimp with his fork.
“Does it take you a long time to fall asleep?” Wally said. “Or do you, you know, get right to it?”
“Get right to it?”
“Yeah.” Buttering his bread: “I’m asking if you have trouble sleeping.”
“No, Dad,” Trace said, “I sleep just fine.”
This had been happening lately, this implacable, thin-lipped anger. Everything Trace said had this weird aggression baked into it, as if he’d defaulted to some native state of teenaged petulance. Impossible to stop himself from offending people—and also from taking offense.
Wally took the hint and buttered another piece of bread. Trace heard his mother rummaging around in the fridge, and then the pantry, until she came into the room gripping two bottles of white wine by their necks.
“I have wine,” she giddily declared. Then suddenly, upon seeing Trace, the smile slid from her face. “Oh, I guess you don’t want it.”
“I do want it,” Trace said.
“But you can’t have it,” Wally said cautiously.
“I can have it. Pour me a glass.”
He held out his wineglass, shaking it by the stem. The wine was the color of urine and cloyingly sweet. Trace took two sips and immediately felt like passing out by the fire. He poured the rest of it into Mavis’s glass when she returned to the kitchen to boil the gravy.
After dinner, Wally rebuilt the dying fire. He was keeping the firewood in the backyard, underneath a patchwork tent of garbage bags and strips of canvas. Trace offered to help him carry the rest of the logs into the garage, so they wouldn’t get soggy from the snow, but Wally said no, he could manage on his own.
* * *
The next day, a little after breakfast, Wally called Trace into the basement and showed him the box.
It looked like every other box that had been filling up the garage, a generic blonde, the color of Jersey sand. The box was surprisingly heavy when Trace went to lift it. Street signs from around the neighborhood: YIELD and WRONG WAY and DEAD END and a silhouetted bike bordered by the words: SHARE THE ROAD.
“He collected them, I guess,” Wally said.
“Why would I want these?”
“I just thought you might.”
“What am I supposed to do with this, Dad?”
“I was just asking.”
“Like I’m gonna bring them back to Chicago? I mean—”
“Box full of stolen road signs. Jesus.”
“Fine,” Wally said, and grabbed the box back from Trace. The metal signs rattled as he dropped the box on the cold cement floor. The lid flaps flailed disobediently. “Out with the garbage.”
* * *
Once the fire died down, long after Mavis and Wally went to sleep, Trace sat in the darkened living room, feeling as though he’d wandered into some stranger’s house. He stared at what remained of the fire, listening to the sparse, almost apologetic sounds the fire produced, its embers an unnatural, impossible orange. He separated the glowing embers and flattened them against the marbled lip of the hearth with the dorsal edge of the little brass shovel. Then he went into the darkened den and fired up the flat screen TV. He watched the first thing that hooked him, an episode of the original Twilight Zone. Three astronauts had crash-landed on a desolate planet, presumably Mars, and were running out of water. Predictably, the astronauts ended up betraying each other, murdering each other, over a single canteen of water. Before the last astronaut dies, he makes three lines in the sand: a long, vertical line, bisected at the top by two shorter lines. Of course, they were on Earth all along. Their spacecraft had never left orbit. The cryptic lines the dying astronaut had carved in the sand were the telephone poles he’d spied just beyond the mountains.
* * *
The next day Trace got into his old car from high school and cruised. He felt good—young and lucky and powerful—rumbling through the suburbs in his ruby-red Civic. At a stoplight, he lit a cigarette from a flattened pack he found between the seats. Camel Light, an extinct brand—his old brand. The sound and smell of crackling tobacco satisfied him in a way that his e-cigarette did not, but the smoke burned his lungs, made him retch violently, and he flung it out the window.
The light turned green. He punched the gas.
In the Gaslight Tavern parking lot, he sat in his car for a long time just watching his breath. When he finally went in, he found the place almost deserted. A bachelorette party was huddled by the jukebox, blowing noisemakers, spraying each other with silly string. Plenty of stools were available, but it seemed like there was nowhere for him to sit. Trace leaned against the lip of the bar as the female bartender wrestled with an annoyingly large and complex order of margaritas. Feeling anxious and out of place, Trace left without ordering anything and went to the drug store across the street to buy some Benadryl. The aisles were stocked with deeply discounted maple-leaf wreaths, lacquered gourds and plastic cornucopias. A Botoxed lady in leopard leggings was waving her prescription like a battle flag. “I don’t understand why no one’s helping me,” she yelled at the frazzled clerk. “Am I invisible? How long do I have to wait for someone to help me with this? Hello?” Trace stood there gazing at the shelves behind the pharmacist, with their designer laxatives and hypnotics and opiates and opioid antagonists and thought: All this beautiful medicine.
* * *
Same drill. Dinner at five. Shrimp salad. Warmed bread. Flat yellow wine. Cherry pie. Fire.
When the phone rang this time, Trace didn’t even register the sound. It was just another thing that was happening in the house, like a glass shattering, a branch brushing up against a windowpane.
“For you,” Mavis said, handing Trace the cordless.
Trace palmed the receiver. “Who is it?”
“Someone named Jim.”
Jim sounded drunk.
“It’s Jim Stillman.”
“Okay. Hi, Jim Stillman.”
“From high school.”
“What, you don’t remember me?”
It took him a few seconds, but yeah, he did. The Stillmans lived in nearby Penn Valley—not close enough to Belmont Hills for Trace and his brother to have played street hockey with Jim and his brothers, but close enough that they were all in the same Boy Scouts troop.
“I’m outside your house,” Jim said cheerfully, “with a bottle of Jameson and a joint.”
Trace looked out through the porch window. The driveway was a sheet of pristine snow sloping off into darkness.
“I don’t see you,” Trace said uneasily.
“I’m at the end of your driveway.”
Trace saw him now, a large man in an orange safety vest, standing next to a truck pouring smoke from its exhaust. Its headlights ate through the fog.
* * *
Trace dug his hands into the front pockets of his jeans, stiffening his arms against the cold. “What’s going on, man?” he said, reaching the end of the driveway. “What are you doing?”
“Just living life in the bucket.” Jim smiled widely to reveal a missing back molar. Trace sized up his truck, a flashy silver Ford Ranger with a ladder strapped to the bed with rope. The truck’s doors were pitted with gravel and salt. A white hardhat, covered in peeling sports stickers, rested on the dash.
“I mean, what are you doing at my house?” Trace said. “My parents’ house.”
Jim reached into the wool lining of his jacket—for a split-second, Trace thought he might be reaching for a gun—and produced an amber-colored flask. “I wanted to see how you were doing,” Jim said, uncapping the flask. Then, unsurprisingly: “Painkillers, man. I was sorry to hear about your brother.”
“I was sorry to hear about it too, Jim.”
Trace’s brother had once told him that heroin didn’t really take your pain away. It put the pain at a distance, made it someone else’s pain. The pain was still there; it just didn’t matter that much.
“You going to the reunion tomorrow?” Jim said, passing the flask to Trace.
But Trace knew.
The envelope his father had brought in with the mail.
“The guys sent me over as, I don’t know, an emissary,” Jim said. “Since we played ball together.”
Trace raised the flask to his face and sipped the whiskey through his teeth. He was surprised, and somewhat impressed, that Jim Stillman knew the meaning of the word “emissary.” It burned when he swallowed.
“They want to see you,” Jim was saying. “We all do.”
Jim shrugged. “We grew up together.” Removing the joint from behind his ear, he passed a flame along its crease. The sweet smell sickened Trace.
“Tenth grade baseball,” Jim said, shaking a ribbon of ash off the tip of the joint. “You made varsity that year, didn’t you?”
“That I did.”
“You struck out fourteen batters in a row. Jesus, man, how’d that even happen? Fourteen! Lucky bastard. Surprised you didn’t get recruited.” Jim traded the joint for the flask. “Not that they keep track of that stuff. Not at that level.”
Trace wasn’t sure he wanted this conversation. It seemed farfetched, faraway—intended for someone else.
“Remember Coach Peterson?” Jim said, laughing heartily. “I remember he tried to pull you off the mound, and you tackled him right there on the third base line. Remember?”
Trace shook his head. All he remembered of Coach Peterson was a fat man in tiny shorts standing over him in the gym and screaming: Control the weight!
“Imagine that happening today,” Jim said. “Tackling a coach—you’d be expelled. Hell, you’d be arrested for assault.” Jim tipped back the flask, marveling at the memory. “I guess you left all that behind, though. You seem like you got your shit together—and good for you.”
“I don’t really have my shit together,” Trace said, blowing on the joint. “I mean, I’m out here with you, right?”
Jim let out an unsettled laugh, not sure if he was being teased or insulted. He leaned against the enormous chrome grill of his truck. Trace sat on the front bumper, joining Jim in the glow of the headlamps.
Behind them, the engine purred. It radiated heat. The twin beams of light from Jim’s truck followed the curve of the road and dissolved into a tangle of trees reaching out from a neighbor’s yard.
“Well, I know better than to say, ‘I know what you’re going through,’” Jim said, tilting his head back to gaze up at the falling snow.
“I don’t feel like I’m ‘going through’ anything,” Trace said.
“That’s part of it too,” Jim answered quickly, and passed Trace the flask. “With Jeannie, we knew it was coming. But that didn’t make it any easier. Made it worse, in a lot of ways.”
It made sense now—why they’d sent Jim here. His sister had died, from cystic fibrosis, when they were in high school. Trace didn’t even remember her name. She was a few years younger, and went to a private girls’ academy.
They didn’t say anything for a long time after that. Trace felt the tension leave his body as the whiskey worked its way through his blood. Large snowflakes clung to his sweater, but the roaring engine warded off the chill.
“Hey, I got some tools in the garage,” Trace said impulsively. “My dad’s giving them away. You want them?”
But neither of them moved to get the tools. Jim finished off the joint and flicked it into the road. They stood there passing the bottle back and forth.
Eventually Jim said, “I’d better head out. You go ahead and keep that.”
Tucking the flask into his back pocket, Trace thought about all the road signs his brother had stolen, over the years. He wondered how much it had cost to replace them.
“You okay to drive?”
“I’ve been running these roads my whole life,” Jim said, and climbed into his big silver truck, flashing his high beams as he spun off into darkness.
* * *
The shrimp salad made a final, ignominious appearance at dinner the following night. Its color had faded from its previously vibrant pink. The rings of scallion were slightly brown and wilted. The bowl sat at the edge of the table, covered in shrink wrap. No one touched it.
After dinner they all sat in the living room watching the fire. Wally gently blew on the embers, and then went outside to gather more wood. Trace checked his watch. He wondered if any of his brother’s clothes would fit him, whether he could pull together a suit, or at least a halfway presentable outfit, from the items in the garage.
“Got somewhere to be?” Wally said, piling three bundles of wood on the floor.
“I might,” Trace said.
Mavis stood up and went to clear the rest of the plates from the dining room table. She gathered the dishes into a wooden serving tray, brought the tray into the kitchen, and let the whole tray—fancy china and all—slide into the trash. Then she went into the bathroom and wept.
“Should one of us go in there?” Trace said, disgusted with himself, and with his father, for having to ask.
Kneeling by the fire, Wally said, “She’s grieving. Let her be.”
Later, Mavis offered coffee and dessert with an anxious smile. Her hands trembled slightly as she dragged the knife across the braided, sugared top of the remaining cherry pie, dividing it into four thin slices.
Trace ate his slice and asked for another.