We were on the highway west of Cozad, still three hours from home, when I asked Dedric if he loved Mom and Dad. Maybe he never considered the notion. Or maybe he was flabbergasted that I would ask such a dipshit question. I cringed the minute it slipped out of my mouth. I was hoping we might do something different on this long boring drive, such as have a conversation. I had been thinking about a statistical category that came up in one of my graduate seminars: children who claim they love their parents. According to the studies, the ones who said they did had a higher happiness quotient.
“Course I love them, dumb ass. Doesn’t mean I’ll miss them when they bite the dust.”
Did this mean Dedric had a leg up on a life of happiness? You couldn’t prove it by me or his two exes and six or so previous girlfriends. He was my brother and for that I had a lot of feeling for him. But we weren’t close though we lived only fifty miles apart. We were the only siblings unpartnered. These drives home for the occasional wedding or death were the only occasions for spending time together.
That was as far as our conversation went and that was fine by me. What could I know of Dedric’s concept of love? Everybody thinks they have a pretty clear idea of it but the truth is it’s a muddle. There was no point in chewing on these gristly concepts, love and happiness, unless you were in academia, which I was, calving more academics ruminating gristly concepts.
Did I love the parents? It was simpler to shift toward Dedric’s train of thought. Would I miss them? They were pushing eighty, and eighty was pushing back. Mom had a kind of leukemia that was stealing her away. Dad seemed in good shape, although he was sinking deep into his silences.
When we set out this morning Dedric had made the offhand comment about this being our last round-up, all the siblings, the eight grandkids, everyone in the house. After the parents were gone the house would be sold, if we were lucky to find a buyer in that husk of a town. I was trying to be dispassionate; the lowering of the curtain was long foreseen, but it was hard to ignore the little caustic burn eating at my heart.
We were the last to arrive at the house, which is how I liked it. I hated to be one of those inside waiting for the last sibling to arrive, for the party to start. I expected our arrival to warrant more fanfare, but when we came in the front door the living room was dark. Two of my sisters were in the kitchen washing dishes.
“Where’s everybody? Where’s the folks?” Dedric asked
“Dad’s taking a bath. Mom’s in the basement working on a puzzle,” Irene said.
Mom barely looked up from the jigsaw puzzle she was working with my nephews. “Hi, Mom. I’m home,” I said. For a jagged moment she needed to think who I was. Oh yes, one of the boys. The one who surprised us when we thought we were through with all that.
By dinnertime everyone had a chance to warm up to each other, and assisted by the wine Dedric had brought, the evening expanded in liveliness. I knew it would be a somewhat bogus memory but I wanted the nephews and nieces, the next generation, to get a taste of what this family was at its best. Dad had come from his bath with a pressed shirt, the part in his hair carefully set. There was a quality in his face that looked like happiness, though it was a mite too placid. Maybe he was on a new medication. He sat at the head of the table as usual; it would take a massive upheaval to alter the arrangement at the dinner table. Dad said very little beyond pass this and pass that. He wasn’t wearing his hearing aids so I suspected he was missing most of the conversation. His apparent stoicism about his isolation disturbed me; it causes depression.
Mom kept jumping up and running to the kitchen, trying to make absolutely sure all possible needs were met, except the need for calm. It was like she was determined to wear herself ragged proving something to somebody. But it was always that way, her fussing. And she kept it up during the washing of the dishes and afterward, as if she had to do everything; none of her children were capable of making sure everyone had a mattress or couch to bed down on.
I was the exception to her fussing. I knew what was expected. I got my sheets and a thin blanket. My landing place was the living room carpet. I was forever the runt of the litter; the older siblings got the bedrooms, especially the married ones. I didn’t mind as long as everyone got into their quarters and left me alone to get a good night’s sleep.
The nieces and nephews were the first to turn in, or rather, to turn away from the communion to their mesmerizing devices. Before it was eleven o’clock lights were being turned off. On every floor there was the sound of running water. I spread my bedding over the carpet in the living room. I lay down, not expecting sleep but hoping that the prone position would induce my brain into slowing down and from there be able to cross into the frontier of the blessed unconscious.
When all the lights were out, and all the faucets had stopped their hoarse chatter, the pool of darkness began to distill into shapes; the couch, the TV, the golden disk of the pendulum in the grandfather clock, nodding, saying something to me, saying you’re getting sleepy, getting sleepy. And then it chimed, BONG BONG BONG BONG; BONG BONG BONG BONG. A few seconds later, mimicking grandfather clock in minature, the wall clock in the dining room commenced its lowercase echo.
The night crept by in fifteen minute intervals.
All the next day there wasn’t a quiet corner in the house for a nap, TV’s going, vacuum cleaners (why the hell were they vaccuuming?) yelling toddlers, doors banging. I told everyone about not being able to sleep because of the clocks for which I got bemused laughs and no sympathy. I asked Dad if he could still the mechanism, and he did, though he didn’t seem thrilled about it. The grandfather clock was his most recent shop creation and it was impressive in a Germanic way and he hadn’t cut off any fingers in the process. I guess I was supposed to approve without reservation but he was deaf. I did not point that out.
By evening I was in such a unstable state that one vodka tonic made me tipsy. I told everyone to try to keep it down and to stay out the living room; I was going to crash.
I did. When I awoke, when I was awakened, everyone had gone to bed. The gold disk of the pendulum in the grandfather clock slid to and fro in the crepuscular light. Who had started it up? Anger exploded like a firecracker in time to the chimes doing their idiotic sixteen notes. At the end of that sonic water torture, more sonorously, came twelve knells. Midnight. One minute later diminuendo came the echo from the dining room, and the ensuing corroboration. Midnight there too.
I picked up my sheets and went outside and lay on the lawn. It was cold. It was wet. There were stars, not as many as there used to be.