Here was the game plan: we were going to sneak into Mom’s house, stuff her cats into sacks, and drown them in the lake. A backyard bonfire for everything else—the towers of mildewed newspapers reaching almost to her living room ceiling; the army of painted figurines standing at attention all over the floor; the endless calendars dating back to the years before Dad died. But Wendell thought the main thing to get rid of was the cats. He said that above all else they were weighing Mom down, making her a harried wreck. I didn’t agree. I thought everything should go except the cats. That the cats are the one item you take away and are then looking at some serious psychological fallout. But then again Wendell and I have never agreed on anything. Jonathan Sala
At the wheel of his pickup, Wendell boomed out of the city and onto the rural streets that would rise and fall and wind their way to our mother’s house. He assumed his usual posture in the driver’s seat: hand at the top of the wheel; back hunched; eyes laser-focused on the road. Able to avoid but willing to maim any animal that ran in front of his truck. As always, his face was unshaven and his limbs were jittery with caffeine. I sat shaking my knee and watching autumn trees pass by. From the passenger side, I turned to him to tell him something.
“If Mom comes home early again,” I said, watching his face for change of expression, “I’m out of there.”
I knew Wendell’s response before he opened his mouth: “Pussy,” he said, spitting out the window. “You’re already worried half to death?”
I reflected on my words before I said them. That’s my style. “It’s not that. It’s just if she catches us again, that’s the final straw. We’re then looking at permanent madness, if you ask me.”
“For the fiftieth time, that’s why we have the masks. Even if she comes home and finds us—which she won’t—we’ll be covered.”
“Right,” I said, “she’s going to feel great when she gets home and finds masked men prowling around her house.”
Wendell turned to me and gave me the look. It’s the same one he’s been giving me since we were kids playing in the backyard—the we-can’t-be-related look. I turned away when his sardonic eyes met mine.
“You spend every minute of every day cooking up worst-case scenarios, don’t you?” he said.
“Yes, I do.”
“And that’s why you can never get anything done. You have a sick addiction to disaster, my friend.”
As if to show me how to get things done, Wendell gunned the truck and sped up to eighty miles an hour. Eighty in a forty. The autumn views zipped past, which was a shame, since trees were providing a gorgeous display of flaming oranges, yellows, and reds. Because it was a Sunday, roads were clear and Wendell could go as fast as he wanted.
“Besides,” he continued, “This isn’t like last time when I only thought I knew when Mom was coming home. Yesterday I found her service’s start time posted in front of her church: 10:00. And those services last two hours. If you do the math, Professor Einstein, I think you’ll find that we have enough time, if we move.”
Wendell’s explanation made me feel a little better. Not much, though. I know how his mind works. Let’s just be nice and say that he doesn’t value objective facts. He knows his gut contains all the facts. Which has at least kept him alive this long, but it doesn’t exactly make you feel at ease when you’re riding shotgun in a blue Ford with him at the wheel, about to try to pull off a mission which, if it fails, could finish the person you care about most in this world.
I stayed quiet the rest of the ride to Mom’s house. I tried to trust in Wendell’s planning and driving ability. As we careened past a stretch of farmland, I thought about Mom. The truth is that she’d always been eccentric. She’d always been into memorabilia and knickknacks and the like. She’d always been a cat lover. And she’d always been particular about the placement of her collectibles in the house, as well as everyone’s treatment of her treasured pets. But when Wendell and I were kids, the quirks were under control, charmingly weird aspects of a well-intentioned personality.
Then Dad died—sudden massive heart attack while he was outside shoveling a blizzard. Dad. A monument to cleanliness and organization, tucked and wrinkle-free, grammatically flawless. Whose anxiety and eye for detail I inherited. Without him, Mom’s quirks degenerated into an avalanche. First came dirty laundry piled all over the couch; dishes overflowing the sink. Next, the ordering spree: books and figurines and paintings and furniture and clothes, along with the gradually increasing towers of newspapers. Then, after Wendell announced to us on a Monday that he was moving out and did so that Tuesday, Mom set food out for the strays around the neighborhood.. Finally I’d had enough. I moved without breathing a word to anyone. The next day Mom let in an unfixed male and female and didn’t take them to the vet. The rest is cat history. The explosion of animals brought a landslide of litter and toys and catnip and excrement and urine.
Now, I can admit that for years Wendell and I didn’t do much to help her. But in all fairness, Mom likes help about as much as she likes trash day. She’s as amenable as a cat. And, like Wendell, she’s feisty.
Finally, after miles of farmland, foliage, and interchangeable New England towns, we approached the woodsy hill that composed Mom’s driveway. Wendell parked about an eighth-mile down the road from the hill, around a bend, in case of the “highly unlikely event” that she came home early. He pulled a cigarette out of the pack in the bulging pocket of his shirt and lit it. He puffed silently for a minute, cracking his neck and facing the ceiling of the truck as he stretched.
“Aright,” he said, taking the cigarette in hand, “let’s review. While you’re stuffing Fluffy and the bunch into sacks, I’m pulling the living room junk out the back door and lighting it up. When everything’s burned and the cats are loaded, we split. Then it’s to the lake to finish.”
My hand shot right up, as if I were a traffic cop halting a driver nearing a construction zone. “Why is it my job to handle the cats? I want to be the firestarter.”
Wendell smirked and dropped his cigarette out the window. He’s never taken full advantage of his cigarettes. “You expect me to trust you with fire? No thanks. You stick with Fluffy.”
I tried to stand the ground I felt slipping out from under my feet. “Well, what if I told you I’m not handling the cats? I’m not handling them. There, I just said so.”
“What’s the problem? It’s a straightforward job. You’re putting cats in sacks. I’m not asking you to catch the wind.”
I could feel the effect Wendell’s words were having on me. He was pulling me in the direction of his desires, as usual. “I’m not saying I’m not doing it,” I said, “but I am saying that if one of those cats scratches my eye out I may experience a change of heart.” I looked at Wendell and saw, by the shape of his mouth, that he was irritated. Whenever he’s annoyed, he opens his mouth and stares ahead, as if a gaggle of idiocy circulated between the ears, lowering his IQ. Then he closed his mouth and smirked again.
“It seems to me,” he said, “that it would be wise for you to follow the plan. You know, it’s not impossible for me to tell Mom I know nothing of her cats and burning garbage.”
“Well, it’s not impossible for me to say the same thing.”
“And it’s not impossible that I might slip in a hint that her weirdo son Henry may have had something to do with it.”
“Yeah, and it’s not impossible that I might slip her the same hint about you.”
“Sure,” Wendell said with a chuckle, “but who’s she going to believe?”
Check and mate. Wendell had me and we both knew it. For reasons I will never understand, Mom always believed every story that came out of Wendell’s mouth, even the most outlandish ones, while I couldn’t tell her the sky was blue without being taken for a liar.
“Enough talk,” Wendell said, opening the door and hopping out of his truck.
From out of the truck’s bed Wendell pulled down the gear he thought we’d need: masks, sacks, cardboard boxes, canisters of kerosene, and a wheelbarrow. He let a large mass of stones lie in the bed to be used when we were ready to start the bonfire.As he tossed the smaller items into the wheelbarrow, I made one last plea regarding our assigned duties.
“Now, I was thinking…”
“Just shut up,” Wendell said. “The last thing I need to hear right now is another verse from Henry’s bible of self-doubt.” Pointing at the wheelbarrow, he said, “Come on, kitty man. You push the barrow. I’ll provide guidance and directions.”
Groaning, I got behind the wheelbarrow, lifted its handles, and began wheeling it in the direction of Mom’s house. I nearly upended its contents when a car came honking around the bend, too close to the side of the road, almost clipping me and bringing a swift end to the day’s plans. Nervously, I wobbled the barrow the rest of the eighth-mile and climbed the hill. At the top, I took in a sweeping view of the front yard, in which autumn trees had already deposited their first layer of fiery leaves.
“Why don’t we just rake the leaves today?” I said to Wendell, whose rushed, rigid gait put him several steps ahead of me.
He made a faint sound of derision. “Who has time for that?” he said. “Only Dad made time for leaves.”
Wendell’s reference to our father brought a new subject to mind—Dad’s favorite cat. The last time I’d visited Mom, this cat had been our main topic of conversation. For the sake of distraction, I found myself telling Wendell about her, even though I didn’t think he’d be interested.
“Hey, do you remember that really fat three-colored cat?” I said.
“The one that was always in the corner of the living room. That always hissed at you when you walked by. Dad’s cat.”
“You mean Jumbo,” Wendell said, keeping his lead as we walked. “I remember. What about her?”
“She’s still alive.”
I pushed the wheelbarrow faster to get closer to him. It felt urgent that he hear me out about Jumbo.
“No, I’m serious. She’s still stuck in one spot, except now that spot is in the hallway, by Dad’s old office. Mom said she’s almost blind now and barely eats anything.”
He laughed. “It’s a miracle that thing managed to move more than three feet its whole life. Talk about a charming cat. If I were you, that would be the first one I’d put in a sack. Just to get the bulk out of the way.”
Glancing at the sacks in the wheelbarrow, I almost said “I don’t think I can do it,” but then I thought better of the idea.
At last we approached the house that was so familiar to us. From the outside it still looked like a reasonable place to live. Mom’s house is a modest brown ranch with a sloping roof and two windows out front. The surrounding woods lend it the aura of a cabin, although it isn’t a cabin. It’s a plain old house. Nothing to shout about as long as you’re looking at it from the outside.
At the front door, Wendell asked me to remove the ski masks from the wheelbarrow and hand him one. I did so, and then we took a moment to pull them on. Wendell inserted his key into the lock and turned to me. It was eerie how quickly the mask transformed him into one of those surveillance camera robbers broadcasted on local news.Even more unsettling was the haunted look that it gave his eyes. Some aspect of Mom’s—the almond shape? long lashes? dark circles?—An irremediable sadness. He’d also inherited Dad’s high cheekbones, prominent nose, and thin lips, but with the mask covering Dad—it was Mom looking back at me through Wendell’s eye holes.
“Let’s review this one last time,” he said, his eyes still trained on mine. “As soon as we step in there, you begin loading cats and I begin removing crap. If you can move faster than a snail, you’ll finish before me. After you put the cats in my truck, you come back and help me. Got it?”
“Got it,” I muttered feebly.
Wendell continued to watch me. “I said, have you got it?”
I didn’t say anything for a few seconds. I wasn’t going to let him have all of my dignity. “Sir, yes, sir,” I finally said, sarcastically.
Wendell opened the front door and backed the wheelbarrow in. I followed right behind. Immediately the smell of the interior hit us. “Pungent” doesn’t begin to describe it. Nor are “stinking,” “ripe,” “rank,” “fetid,” “zesty,” or “reeking” at all adequate. The interior was a buffet of bad smells, an olfactory overload. Cat litter plus poo plus urine plus the general must of an old home with an old person living in it.
“Chee-rist!” Wendell said as he stepped into the living room. Just as he put his foot down, we heard the sound of a creature in great pain. Looking at the floor, we saw the agonized face of Darling, a small black cat with a nervous temperament who usually lurked unseen under furniture or in shadowy corners. Wendell had pinned Darling’s tail to the floor with his first step. He let the panicked animal writhe and howl for a moment before removing his foot from its tail. Then Darling sped away.
“Fucking cats,” Wendell said.
“There’s an auspicious beginning,” I said. “A howling black cat.”
“Shut up, Henry.”
I stepped out of the doorway into the living room and took in the view that never failed to amaze me. There it was: the room that had been so cleanly decorated in my childhood; so well-suited to four people who wanted to stretch their legs or kick their feet up after a work or school day. There were the papered walls, barely visible behind decades worth of family photos and paintings and posters and calendars and exotic souvenir clocks. There were the couches and ottomans and love seats and stools and chairs, piled high with washed and unwashed laundry. There was the center coffee table engulfed in Bibles, Bible encyclopedias and commentaries, hymnbooks, fiction, poetry, history and—sitting atop the heap within easy reach of Mom’s favorite seat—our beloved family scrapbooks. There were Mom’s finished and unfinished art projects scattered about the floor—paintings, drawings, sculptures, and figurines. And there, several steps from the bulky TV, in the corner by a window, Mom’s twin skyscrapers of decayed newspapers rose up like the tallest buildings in the city, their aged stacks in danger of being toppled by a light push or an especially strong breeze. But those aspects of the living room were only a preparation for its most bothersome feature. Most disconcertingly, there was Dad’s old, deep-red easy chair lounging beside the newspapers, clear of all items, available to be sat on, perhaps touched not one time since his passing, as though Mom was still waiting for him to come home from work, make a cup of coffee, sit down, cross one leg over the other, remove a paper from one of the piles, open it, and begin reading.
“Some things don’t change,” I said.
Wendell turned to me. “Don’t say that.What are you waiting for? Get your ass in gear and load those cats.”
But as I surveyed the living room, I saw that aside from Darling, there were no animals to load. Which was highly unusual and more than a little curious. Normally, the living room was the main critter hangout. “What cats?” I said.
“I dunno,” Wendell said. “We both know they’re around here somewhere.”
But my persistent doubts wouldn’t let me move from my standing position. I found myself composing an argument to persuade Wendell to delay dealing with the cats.
“Why don’t I help you take the living room stuff out first?” I said. “Then we can tackle the cats together. We’ll finish faster if we team up.”
But Wendell had already moved into the kitchen and sat down to build cardboard boxes. “Dammit, Henry,” he said from his seat, “can’t you just follow the plan?”
“The plan doesn’t…”
“Follow the plan, I said.”
Seeing no way around Wendell’s command, I moved out of the living room, through the kitchen, and into the hallway that led to other rooms. As I walked I found myself besieged by my father’s old curse: an array of unproductive thoughts. It occurred to me that I should have rejected Wendell’s plan outright, when he’d first asked me if I’d have a second go at cleaning Mom’s house. But there had been no mention of cats during that conversation; Wendell had only talked about cleaning rooms in a general way. It was only later, in the moments before we got in the truck, that he’d started acting like I’d signed a contract detailing my duties as cat exterminator. He was almost politically tricky. I realized that my best option, if I had the guts to do it, was to keep walking on through the back door to a bus stop. Then again, I didn’t want to leave Wendell alone to take care of a job that truly needed to be done.
To my surprise, the hallway was clear of all cats except Jumbo, who sat in front of my father’s office with the old enlightened feline look on her face. It appeared that Mom was right about her; Jumbo was clearly much less than half the cat she’d been in her prime, in my father’s years, when her lustrous fur had covered rolls of fat. Now her formerly healthy body was diminished to a scraggly, matted bundle, while her cataract-clouded eyes suggested that she wouldn’t see my hand reaching down to pet her. But I was wrong. As my fingers neared the neighborhood of her fur, she scrunched her face and hissed at me. Startled, I straightened up and faced the doorway. Then I knew what I had to do.
Taking a breath, I opened the door and stepped into Dad’s office for the first time in fifteen years as Jumbo, disturbed by my movements, waddled to the other side of the hallway.Instantly I was transported to my childhood, when I’d walk in to find my father erect in his seat, working with uncanny stillness and concentration on the biology lesson plans that he taught at the local high school. Because—I blinked a few times to be sure I was seeing what I thought I was seeing—the office looked exactly as it had always looked. That is to say, all objects in the office were in their familiar places. There was my father’s ancient boxy computer atop his rich brown wood desk; his filing cabinets full of family and work documents organized by date; his fish tank replete with castle, scuba diver, and plastic plants. Most sentimentally, there was the telescope that Dad had never failed to take out during celestial occurrences. It was still set up by the large picture windows at the end of the office, where he’d call Wendell and me over to let us have a look at a comet or a seldom-seen planet. I found it odd and more than a little unsettling that he hadn’t put the telescope away before his untimely death. Had something happened in the heavens just before his heart attack? One observation led to another and I realized I was wrong—everything in the office wasn’t the same. In fact, the last goldfish to live in the tank had been removed and flushed. Mom had at some point entered the office for the sole purpose of flushing that fish. But she hadn’t touched anything else. With two troubling thoughts in mind, I exited my father’s office and shut the door.
“How’s it going over there?” Wendell called from the kitchen.
“No cats yet.”
“Make sure you check all the rooms,” he said. “By the way, could you just do me a quick favor?”
“Could you hurry the hell up?”
“You’re too polite,” I said.
Next, I stepped across the hall to the door of his old room, where Jumbo once again expressed her dissatisfaction with my presence by shuffling at turtle speed away from me down the hallway. Although I was curious about the state of Wendell’s room, I was sure I had a ballpark notion of its condition. Before Mom’s breakdown, Wendell had easily been the messiest member of our family. His hockey gear, tools, clothes, and CD’s had been jumbled up like their owner didn’t differentiate between objects. It wasn’t hard to picture him showing up at the game with a wrench or working on his car with a hockey stick. So imagine my reaction when I opened the door to his room and found all his old stuff not only still in there but carefully set apart and organized. Hockey gear was in its own corner; tools were in their cases; CD’s were in a rack; clothes were hung up. It was possible to walk around in Wendell’s room without lifting my legs high. The truth was no less strange than it was obvious: Mom had been cleaning and organizing Wendell’s room all these years. Feeling a shudder coming, I opened the door and sped out of there. From her new post at the end of the hallway, Jumbo offered her best cat sneer at the sound of my footsteps.
Then came his unnecessarily loud voice again: “What are you doing? Playing with yourself? Where are the fur sacks?”
“There isn’t any fur to put in sacks,” I replied.
“Get moving, Henry. We have time but not an eternity.”
That left me with only one room to investigate. But I had no desire whatsoever to investigate it. I probably would have preferred throwing ten bags of cats into a lake over so much as peeking my head into this room. For this wasn’t just any room: it was my old room. I hadn’t been in it since ten years earlier when, in a frenzy of decisions and hesitations and revisions, I packed my bags in the middle of the night and left home without telling Mom I was doing so. I’d tried to forget about this room, just as I’d tried to repress the memory of my cowardly method of escape from Mom’s house. But trying to forget the room hadn’t made it disappear. It was still there, all right—a small, almost perfectly square room adjacent to his more generous living space. I remember how, late at night sometimes when he couldn’t sleep, Wendell would go to the wall in his room and drum soft patterns against it, requesting a reply from me. And if I was still awake, I would answer as best I could, tapping out imitations of his rhythms with my knuckles. It was one of the few activities between us that didn’t feel like a competition. It was a nice little game we had.
I approached the door to my room, grasped the knob, and took a deep breath. Counting to three, I opened it slowly, carefully, as if the door could have been linked to explosives. Without yet seeing the condition of the room, I lifted my foot to step in, but in the same moment, as I cracked the door, I found that foot automatically stepping aside. Because—out the door—in a panicked, headlong rush like a herd of gazelle escaping the king lion—came a stream of cats so thick and desperate that I had to move to avoid being overrun. Every sort of cat there is—black and white and orange and gray and long-haired and short-haired and sick and healthy and male and female—bolted out of my room down the hallway, their eyes wide and amazed at freedom.
“My God!” I cried out.
“What is it?” Wendell said, and then, a moment later: “Holy…cats!”
When the entire crew had finally passed through the hallway into the kitchen and living room, I stepped into my old room. But I wish I hadn’t. I wish I’d closed the door, turned away, and gone back to work. Because for the rest of my life I’ll have to know what Mom had done with my room in my absence. I’ll have to compare the state of it with the museum-like preservation of my father’s office and the loving organization of his room. Worst of all, I’ll have to know what Mom did with all my old stuff—my bed, my dresser, my baseball card collection and video games and books and Yankees posters. She’d thrown everything out to make room for cats. She’d replaced my belongings with litter boxes, food bags, toys, and soft cat homes. My room had been turned into a cat motel.
Distressed, I shut the door and hurried back to the living room, where I found Wendell adrift in a sea of what looked to be thirty or more animals milling about, meowing, fighting, hissing. In their frenzy, the cats had found a way to knock over the unstable newspaper towers, spreading the papers over a significant portion of the living room floor.
“You won’t believe what Mom…” I said.
“I don’t care!” Wendell snapped. “Get these cats out of here!” Turning to him, I saw his eyes wide the way they are when his anger is beginning to get a stranglehold on his more rational emotions.
Taking a sack in hand, I approached the fallen towers of newsprint. Immediately the most nervous cats scattered, leaving several calmer creatures in my vicinity. I scanned the stolid crew and chose the one who looked most ready to endure traumatic change—a short-haired black-and-white who had the demeanor of a friendly puppy. I scooped him up and lowered him into the darkness of the sack where, upon realizing his lack of light and space, he underwent a dramatic personality change. His genial stillness and silence gave way to kicking, twisting, and thrusting in the sack, crying out like Darling beneath Wendell’s foot. His contortions caused the sack to jut out in unexpected directions. I had to move with its movements—dance with the sack, so to speak—to prevent the black-and-white from spilling out.
“Tie it off,” Wendell commanded. “Make sure Sylvester stays in there.”
I did so. As Sylvester continued his manic dance, I said, “Now, how do you expect me to get another cat in there? Two are going to be at least twice as spastic as one.”
“I don’t particularly care how,” Wendell said, his tone of voice impatient. I surveyed the select few cats who’d remained near me during Sylvester’s tirade. All of them were unfamiliar, and one choice seemed as bad as the next. Then I noticed a lean, shy-looking tri-color who had the look of a bookworm about her. She sat calmly pawing a page of newspaper, as if to smooth out its wrinkles to read an article. In a burst of motion I got my hands on her, but as I lifted her from the surrounding newspaper, she kicked her back legs, claws out, against my forearm, streaking red gashes in my skin as she lifted off and hit the ground running. I imitated Wendell when I said, “Goddamn it!”
“Let me handle this,” he said, snatching the sack from my hand, “since you’re incapable.”
Wendell whirled about the room to find the next candidate. In no time he zeroed in on an animal, reached down to the floor, and picked up a cat that seemed a most understandable choice: Riley, a daring old gray Maine Coon who’d once sneaked into Wendell’s room and relieved himself on his most prized hockey gear.
“And who do we have here?” Wendell said, his eyes lighting up at the sight of his old nemesis.
To my surprise, Riley didn’t turn or flinch or even seem to notice when Wendell got both his arms under him and lifted him off the ground, as though he accepted his dismal fate as punishment for past sins.
“You see?” Wendell said. A hint of a smile joined the twinkle in his eye. “There’s nothing that a capable hand can’t do.”
With ease and assurance, Wendell untied the sack in which Sylvester had gradually resigned himself and relaxed. He lowered the Maine Coon in and tied it off again.
But the calm didn’t last long. A moment after the sack was tied, an extended hiss came from one of the roommate cats, followed by several high-pitched meows from both parties. Then the sack began punching out at crazy angles again while the antagonists screeched and wailed.
With trembling fingers I got the sack undone. After a few extended moments of brawling, the fighters realized they had paths to freedom and sped off in opposite directions.
“I guess you were right,” I said to him, whose eyes were beginning to lose their luster. “There’s nothing that a capable hand can’t do.”
“Shut up, Henry,” Wendell said, considering the best way to proceed. “The hell with the cats, then. Bring the wheelbarrow back to my truck and haul those stones into the backyard. I’ll clear leaves out of the way for the bonfire. Then we’ll unload this kingdom of crap.”
It took three energy-sapping trips from Wendell’s truck to the backyard to get all of the stones arranged in a large circle in the portion of grass that he had raked. Then we were ready for the most strenuous part of our plan. Two boxes at a time, one piece of furniture at a time, we carried the contents of the living room into the backyard, where we piled everything into a junkyard heap within the limits of the stones.While Wendell went to work on books, artwork, calendars, and more, I tackled the newspapers. We handled the furniture together. Within an hour, Mom’s living room was spare of all items except some necessities: couch, coffee table, TV, a few tasteful wall hangings, and the family scrapbooks. Because we’d had to leave the back door open while emptying the living room, the troop of cats had rushed outside and begun exploring the backyard. Most of them chose to poke around the pile of formerly interior items, while others took off for the woods.
“If only we had a mop and bucket,” I said to Wendell as we stood taking our last survey of the living room. “To take care of this smell.”
“Kerosene and a match, more like,” he replied. “Come on, Henry,” he said. “Let’s finish this.”
Outside, Wendell and I each picked up a canister of kerosene and began pouring clear liquid over the pile. Several cats scattered when drops of fuel rained on them. When our canisters were empty, I said, “That’s enough to start a fire, right?” But Wendell wasn’t through. He emptied one canister and then another, and so on down the line, until the empties littering the ground resembled a drunk’s daily collection of consumed cans.
“Don’t move, kitties,” Wendell said to the select cats who remained in the midst of the heap as he shook the rest of the contents of his final canister out.
I looked at him in disbelief. “Are you going crazy?” I said. Stepping up to the circle of stones, I did my best to shoo those overly brave creatures out of the trash and away from their doom.
Wendell tossed his final canister in with the rest of the refuse. Then he dug a pack of matches out of the same shirt pocket in which he’d stored his cigarettes. He tore a lone match out of the pack and held it for a moment as he observed the pile.
“May this fire bring serenity to the Morgansen family,” he said as he stared into the damp contents of the trash. “Or if not serenity,” he said, “amnesia.”
Then he struck the match and dropped it onto a stack of kerosene-soaked newspaper he’d told me to lay down at an easy-to-reach spot within the stones.Flames rose up and quickly spread, from newspaper to artwork to furniture, until the bonfire we’d envisioned had become a reality. The heat was such that I had to take several steps back. But Wendell didn’t move. He stood mere feet from the inferno, staring into it with his mouth open, mesmerized.
“Why don’t you hand me the key?” I said to him circumspectly. “I can lock up now. When the fire dies down, we’ll be ready to split.”
But he was unresponsive. He silently watched the flames consume the items that had once, years ago, been family treasures.
“Not yet,” he finally said in an uncharacteristically bland, disconnected tone. “There’s one more thing.”
Wendell’s voice wasn’t much more than a mutter: “The scrapbooks.”
“What about them?”
When he turned to me I immediately averted my eyes from him. But it wasn’t the childhood look—the we-can’t-be-related-look—that made me do so. There was nothing sardonic about his expression.In fact, his eyes had taken on the look of a possessed character in a horror movie. It wouldn’t have been a total surprise to see his irises turn red to match the fire.
“Those are going to burn today too,” he said. “Go fetch the scrapbooks from the coffee table.”
I failed to prevent the disgust I felt from showing on my face. Our whole family had watched Mom lovingly compile those books through the years with photos, journal entries, and occasional newspaper clippings and miscellany. These were the books that contained pictures of Wendell smiling in his oversized hockey helmet just before his first game; of report cards from my high-achieving school years; of lesson plans written in Dad’s inhumanly neat handwriting. These were the books that had pages of flower petals from gardens Mom had once kept.
“Are you out of your head?” I said. “Those books are priceless. And we need to keep them to pass on to our chil…”
“What children?” Wendell said. “You live like a monk and I don’t want any brats running around my house. If you’re too scared to burn them, I’ll do it myself!”
“Oh, really?” I said. “I’d like to see you try.”
In a flash Wendell was gone into the house. As I glanced at the cats having a literal field day as they explored the backyard, I assumed the posture of a basketball player guarding the opposing team’s star: feet spread, knees slightly bent, hands at the ready. My eyes as alert as those of a predator cat. In what seemed like little more than an instant, Wendell barged out the back door, his arms laden with the four thick books. He sprinted toward the fire as the mini-tower of family history wobbled in his hands, threatening to spill onto the ground.
“Out of my way, Henry!” he growled as he rushed within twenty feet of me. I had two options: knock the scrapbooks out of his hands while standing or tackle him to the ground and take my chances in a contest of strength. But Wendell was running too fast and hard—his legs lifting high, his arms pumping—for me to take the books out of his hands. In those final moments, just before he reached the point where he could have tossed them over me into the fire, I made my move. Lowering my head, I barreled into him with as much impact as my lean frame could muster. We fell to the ground along with the tumbling scrapbooks. Then came a jab to my chin and a knee to my groin. I groaned and threw an elbow. A brief period of grappling followed.
“Incompetent weakling,” Wendell said among a steady flow of curses.
“Psychopath,” I breathed. “Pyromaniac.”
But Wendell was too fast and strong. Soon he was standing with his foot firmly on my chest as I lay supine, my breathing as labored as that of a pummeled boxer in a late round.
“Listen,” he said, breathing hard himself, “you’re going to lie still while I burn these books. Try to stop me and I’ll finish you. Understand?”
My energy depleted, I could only nod and mumble: “Do what you want, Wendell.”
He removed his foot from my chest and picked up the scrapbooks. I watched him as he approached the fire and held the books aloft like an offering to satiate the god of family affairs.
“Just remember,” I said, “if you burn those books, there goes what’s left of our childhood. There goes Dad’s history. There goes Mom’s hard work.”
“That’s gone, anyway,” Wendell said. “This is for Mom.”
The back door creaked open just as Wendell stepped forward to finish his task. I flinched at the sound; he snapped his neck toward the door. For a moment all went still and quiet as Wendell and I found out who was there. Then I found that I couldn’t move as Wendell turned and split toward the front yard, his eyes manic, his legs and arms pumping hard again, running with the urgency of a hunted rabbit around the house, into his truck and, it was safe to assume, out of town. He was so rattled by the sound of the door that he hadn’t even had the presence of mind to reach out and place the scrapbooks in the fire. He’d dropped them inches from the blaze, in danger of being licked by a flame. I lay stunned by the sudden change of circumstance, trying to summon the nerve to stand up.
Of course I knew who I’d find at the door when I turned back to it. There she was. Mom: tall, full-figured, overflowing in her flowered Sunday church dress that reached down to her ankles; in her frilly church hat that spread out over her head; with her oversized, Bible-burdened pocketbook swinging on her shoulder. Even from my grassy seat in the backyard I could make out her face mangled red with anger under that hat. She adjusted the pocketbook strap and pointed her index finger at me.
“You!” she cried out in a voice like a police siren. “Don’t move!”
Her command was wholly unnecessary. As she descended the back steps, marching through crunching leaves, her gait rushed and rigid, her nose crinkled between two fierce eyes, I sat clutching my shaking knees with hands that shook no less. As I sat afraid, it occurred to me that it wasn’t too late for me to stand up and run out of the yard like him. Sure I could. After all, Wendell and I had already accomplished everything we’d set out to do. We’d already cleared the living room of its refuse. We’d already built our bonfire. To my surprise, we’d even managed a merciful decision about the cats. And this wouldn’t have been our first time hurrying away from our mother’s home while trying to clean it out. Neither of us had been ashamed to escape it when, six months earlier, we’d high-tailed it out the back door at the sound of her back from church a full hour earlier than we’d expected. This time was different, though. This was our second attempt. Running away from Mom again wouldn’t only be cowardly; it would be an evasion of fate. Because—sneaking a glance at my watch as Mom drew ever nearer—I saw that she wasn’t home early. In fact, she was right on time. It was Wendell and I who had stayed late. His plan—our plan—had simply failed.
In no time Mom was within a few feet of me, towering above in her dress that, up close, was like a wearable flower garden. Once more she jabbed that index finger at me, saying “Too scared to move, I see” in her voice that had passed down its tone of pure dissatisfaction to Wendell. “Shaking like a teenager at prom,” she said. “At least your partner had the nerve to save himself.”
Despite my desire to sit still and look up at Mom, I found my hands and knees uncontrollable, my eyes stuck on the grass surrounding my feet—not unlike the few times I was scolded in childhood.
“Or maybe you’re not a coward,” Mom said, her eyes seeming to penetrate my depths. “Maybe you’re more like a teacher who hasn’t read the textbook. Maybe you’re just incompetent.”
I felt a faint stirring of irritability within me, but my eyes still wouldn’t rise from the grass; my limbs wouldn’t stop shaking.
“Either way,” Mom said, her tone of voice positively cutting, “You’re pathetic.
Just then I felt my wobbly legs involuntarily lifting my resistant body from the ground. Maybe it was the harsh sound of that “pa” that got me moving. Maybe it was the accumulation of Mom’s insults. Or maybe it was what she’d done to my room. Whatever the reason, I soon found myself standing mere feet from Mom, unable to look at her even with the mask hiding my identity; even with her insults still echoing in my head.
“Can’t look me in the eye,” Mom said. “Too scared to stay and too nerveless to go. Or too stupid. That’s ok. The police will be here soon.”
Up went my eyes, slowly, steadily, taking in all of Mom above the waist: the garish purple flowers that stood out most in the pattern of her dress; the loose fold of flesh hanging from her neck; the cheap makeup smothering her cheeks. At last came her eyes. Those Morgansen eyes. Wendell’s eyes—the dark circles, almond shape, and curving lashes—irremediably sad.
“At least you’re looking at me like a man now,” Mom said. “At least you’re taking your punishment standing up.” The intensity of her stare made me blink. “Now I want you to explain something to me: what sort of degenerate breaks into an old lady’s home and sets fire to her possessions?”
“Mom,” I said.
A flicker of recognition in Mom’s eyes. No words. Then her mouth opened ever so slightly; her eyes went wide as they examined mine. The hand that controlled that jabbing finger fell to her side. Her tall, proud, erect posture eased as she tried to decipher which of her sons was standing before her.
Then the inevitable move: my hands rose to the top of my head, grasped the ski mask, pulled it off. A flick of my wrist tossed it to the ground. I looked at Mom.
“Henry!?” she said in a shocked tone that evoked the sound of her voice during countless childhood crises.
I wanted to speak, but for some time found that I couldn’t get a single syllable off my tongue. Maybe it was the chaos of the hours spent in Mom’s house that left me silently stunned. Maybe it was the shock of my own brother abandoning me at the moment I needed him most. Or maybe it was something even more overwhelming. Maybe it was my knowledge of the duties that were at hand for me—putting out the bonfire; making explanations to Mom that wouldn’t be believed; covering for Wendell as I accepted responsibility for carrying out the plan that he himself had conceived. The sheer size of the challenges required that I call up courage—a quality I’d never believed I had in me.
The words I’d been searching for to say to Mom—so elusive as I looked her in the eye—came to me at last.
“Yes, it’s me, Mom,” I said, steeling myself in the face of familial earthquakes of the future, present, and past.