EDITOR’S NOTEI haven’t been as won over by a story as completely as I was by Marie-Helene Bertino’s “North of” in years. I loved it of course for its deadpan comedy, much of which centers around its celebrity co-star Bob Dylan’s self-absorbed obliviousness. His mostly unswerving focus on whatever keeps him happy and comfortable in the moment—whether it’s a well-cooked string bean or a search for Tootsie Rolls—is an inspired counterpoint to everyone else’s emotional maelstrom: the narrator’s brother, a roil of resentment and rage and contempt for himself and everyone else; her mother, whose expectations have now shrunk to the hope that they can pull off one Thanksgiving meal without a blowup; and the narrator herself, with her perpetual desire to please, who performed the double fuck-yous of becoming a success and staying away, and knows it.
I love the wryness with which pain and longing and our inability to fully be there for one another is rendered: “We park in front of my mom’s house, my mom who has been waiting for us at the door, probably since dawn.” I love the economy of the off-handed emotional exposition: “My mother is not afraid to make desire plain on her face, a trait shared by neither of her children.” I love how the narrator undermines herself—betrays herself—without ever meaning to: “Can you beat that?” she asks her brother, about her having brought his all-time favorite musician home to meet him. “I didn’t know it was contest,” he answers, his smile disappearing. It doesn’t fully occur to her that bringing Dylan home will also remind her brother of who turned him on to Dylan in the first place, and the resourcefulness with which he’s fucked up those aspects of his life that he cherished.
And as the American flags everywhere don’t let us forget: we’re not alone, when it comes to this kind of ongoing disappointment with ourselves and our loved ones: “There is something reassuring about being among strangers on a national holiday. In the cereal aisle, the mood is decidedly last minute.”
What happens when someone in the family has to be worked around, like an unexploded bomb? What happens to your sense of your own achievements in terms of negotiating life, in the presence of a sibling who’s always seemed more gifted, and more powerful, and who has nevertheless refused to succeed? How do we justify what happiness we have found, in the face of the intractability of someone else’s misery? Well, don’t look at me, when it comes to answers. But if you’d like to see how beautifully those kinds of questions can be articulated—or staged—check out this story.
COMING OCTOBER, 2012
By Marie-Helene Bertino
Recommended by Jim Shepard
We park in front of my mom’s house, my mom who has been waiting for us at the door, probably since dawn. Her hello carries over the lawn. Bob Dylan opens the car door, stretches one leg and then the other. He wears a black leather coat, and has spent the entire ride from New York trying to remember the name of a guitarist he played with in Memphis. I pull our bags from the trunk.
“You always pack too much,” I say.
He shrugs. His arms are small in his coat. His legs are small in his jeans.
“Hello hello,” my mother says as we amble toward her.
“This is Bob,” I say.
My mother was married with a small son in the 60’s and wouldn’t recognize the songwriter of our time if he came to her house for Thanksgiving dinner. She has been cooking all morning and all she wants to know is whether somewhere in his overstuffed Samsonite, my friend Bob has packed an appetite.
He has. “We’re starving,” I say.
The vestibule is charged with the cold we have brought in. She puts her finger to her lips and points to the dark family room. I can make out a flannel lump on the couch.
“Your brother is sleeping. We’ll go into the kitchen.”
The kitchen is bright with food: cheeses, meats, heads of cauliflower, casserole dishes. My mother wipes her hands on an apron she’s had for years. “I wanted him to have his favorite foods before he leaves. For Iraq.” She pronounces it like it’s something you can do. I run, I walk, I raq. “Bob,” she says, “do you know how to behead a string bean?”
She arranges Bob Dylan at the counter with a knife and a cutting board. I excuse myself.
The downstairs bathroom is lit by a candle. Over the toilet seat, an American flag.
When I return, there is a new voice in the kitchen. I am in time to hear my mother say, “He came with your sister,” referring to Bob, who has amassed a sorry pile of gnarled beans.
“Jeeeeesus.” My brother recognizes him immediately. “It’s nice to meet you.” They shake hands. “Wow, man, wow.”
My brother’s face is blurred with nap, but in his eyes grows an ambitious light. It is a spark that could vanish as quickly as it came or succeed in splitting his face open into reckless laughter. I know it can go either way.
I make my voice soft. “Hi there.”
“Hey.” My brother turns, lifts his nose and sniffs. His smile recedes. “Still smoking?”
I nod. I say, hopefully, “You met Bob.”
“Can you beat that?” I say.
“I didn’t know it was a contest.” His smile is gone.
My mother leans over Bob, to re-explain how much of the string bean is “end.”
“I thought you would like to meet him,” I say.
He shrugs. “I thought it would just be family.”
I can tell when Bob Dylan needs a cigarette. We excuse ourselves before dinner to the backyard, where everything is dead. In the corner near the fence is a pile of lawn ornaments my mom will put up in the spring. She’s had everything for years. The newest thing is the dining room table, a mahogany affair, and even that is only allowed in the house two days a year: Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Bob Dylan never has his own cigarettes. I thought this was charming at first.
“We’re going to get you a pack today, buddy.” I hit mine against the inside of my wrist and unwind the plastic. I brought Bob here to remind my brother how he used to be, before American flags and Iraq. I thought at least it would give us something to talk about. I give myself the length of a cigarette to admit it; my plan is not going to work.
Bob and I smoke on the edge of the yard. There are no lights on at the Monahans’ house, our neighbors. They normally go to a cousin’s in New Jersey for Thanksgiving.
The grass is frozen. Every so often I stamp on it to hear the crunching sound. Then, without speaking, Bob Dylan and I have a contest. He expels a line of smoke clear to the middle of the yard. “Damn,” I say, when mine dies not three feet in front of me. He exhales again, this time surpassing mine by yards. “Damn,” I say. He is good at this, but he has years on me.
We go back in.
“Isn’t it wonderful?” my mother says. “The whole family around the table.”
My brother is wearing new clothes. I am spooning mashed potatoes onto my plate when I ask, “When do you leave?”
“Isn’t it wonderful?” my mother says again. “They let him have a good Thanksgiving dinner before he goes.”
The presence of Bob Dylan seems to make my brother anxious. Our dinner conversation is punctuated by his glares toward Bob, as if I have brought him here as another fuck you; look at the friends I have made in New York City. Thankfully Bob is oblivious, admiring each string bean on all sides before plunging it into his mouth.
Later, there is an argument. There is something my brother wants me to admit and I won’t. Bob Dylan ends up with a busted lip.
My mother wants us to sit back down and eat the turkey. She is trying to hold a bowl of corn and pull me back into my chair.
I say, “Bob, let’s get out of here.”
It is cold, but there is sun. Bob Dylan and I drive through dead trees and I point out personal landmarks that make this Not Just Any Neighborhood. This is where I got my first kiss; this is where I worked that summer; this is where I went to school.
There’s the hospital where I was born. Small and curled like a comma, smears of mustard colored hair, there’s the hospital where I was born. My brother was at home on the stoop, passing out candy cigarettes to the other six-year-olds.
My car rattles on an overpass. Under Bob Dylan and I sweep the arms of the turnpike. Over our left shoulders, north of the city, nothing.
“You used to be able to see the Vet from here,” I say, as if I’m narrating. “Great times had at the Vet. Years ago on Opening Day, a big fight broke out on the 700 level. The Daily News got a picture of my brother.”
A curious train runs next to my car. It ducks me, reveals to me its silver flanks through the trees, and ducks me again. It plunges farther into the crunch as I turn off. The sky is blue.
I stop at a red light on the Boulevard. A man on the median is breathing into his cupped hands. He is selling roses.
Someone in the car in front of me calls to him. It is my brother, ten years ago.
He is fighting with my mom and I am in the backseat, caught up in being 11, ignored and ignoring. My mom’s cheeks are wet.
He asks how much the red ones are.
“On second thought, it doesn’t matter,” he interrupts himself and buys twelve. They are wrapped in plastic and smell like exhaust, but it ends the fight.
This happened years ago. He is a good son. My brother is a good son.
The light changes to green. I make the turn.
On one of the lawns facing the Little League field, an older couple is hauling leaves to the curb in a quilt that is too nice to be used in this way. Their progress is slow, but they couldn’t have asked for a better day. It is cold, but there is sun lighting up my windshield, warming me at red lights. The sky is blue. The turkey is steaming on its plate.
Do they hope to clear the lawn of every leaf before the kids arrive? This is one of those unrealistic expectations parents have. That their children will be smarter than them, or will like each other, that no Thanksgiving dinner will ever be interrupted by the hard sound of someone upending a chair.
There are too many leaves. Bob Dylan and I both know: they will never get all of them cleared in time.
There are American flags on buses, on coats, on bandanas tied around the necks of golden retrievers. Hanging from every tree, reflected in every window.
Bob Dylan is upbeat. His lip has stopped bleeding and he wants to know: Do I consider myself to be an American Daughter?
I have been vaulted from the Thanksgiving table. What’s more American than that? How many people have left their steam filled homes to drive around and think about old things? I pass car after car.
Outside the Slaughterhouse Bar, the pay phone hangs from its cord. There I am six years ago, an unimpressive 15. No breasts, arms and legs beyond my control, making a phone call to my brother in the middle of the night.
“Stay right there,” he says. “Don’t do anything stupid.”
I walk in place to stay warm. Every so often a car drives by and hurls its lights at me. Ten minutes later he pulls up, brakes sharply.
“I ran away and I’m never going back.” I am crying.
He waits for me to fix the long strap over my shoulder before he pulls away.
I look at him, then the road, then at him.
“Are you going to yell at me?”
“Do you know what tape this is?” he says.
I listen. There is music playing.
“It’s The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.”
“Oh,” I say. “What’s that?”
We watch the road in silence.
“Are you going to take me home?”
“More people should listen to Bob Dylan,” he says.
He drives to The Red Lion diner. We sit in the big plastic seats and give the waitress our order. He buys me a bowl of french onion soup.
“I’ll take you home tomorrow,” he says. “You can stay at my place tonight.”
Then, it is a new, dangerous night, one that will not end with me at my mother’s house. I give him a sloppy, generous smile. He glares at me.
A man at the counter says to the waitress, “I hear they’re talking about exploding it and putting up two new stadiums.”
The waitress seems impressed. “Yeah?”
“No,” the man says. “Not exploding. What is it when it goes in instead of out?” He makes a motion with his hands, lacing his fingers into one another over and over.
My brother smiles at me. “Imploding,” he says.
“That’s it.” The man swivels to look at us. “Imploding. They’re gonna sell tickets. Get a load of that.”
My brother takes a large bite of his cheeseburger. He puts a finger up, to signal the man, the waitress, and me to wait. “They’ll never fucking do that,” he says, when he has the meat in his mouth under control.
The man isn’t convinced, hacks into his hand. “That’ll be a Philadelphia event. All of us tailgating to watch a stadium implode.”
My brother is certain. “No fucking way they’ll do that. This city is nothing without the Vet.”
The man shrugs. “They’ve already done it. They signed contracts and everything.”
“Who are you, the mayor?”
They both laugh. My brother’s teeth are stained with meat.
The door slams and rattles the ketchup bottles. A tall girl stands in the doorway of the diner unwinding a scarf. Then, she seems to make her way toward our table.
My brother scrambles to make room for her in the booth. “I’m glad you came,” he says.
“No problem.” She sits down and is face to face with me. I don’t know where to look.
He gestures as if I am a mess on the floor. “My sister.”
“Nice to meet you. I’m Genevieve.” She pulls her scarf from her neck and I am able to see how red her hair is. It is the closest I have ever been to someone who looks like they could be famous.
“Genevieve and I work together.” My brother is having a hard time swallowing. “I have to take a leak,” he says.
When he is gone, she looks at me and I look at my soup. Her perfume smells like Vanity Fair magazine.
“I heard you ran away,” she says.
She drags one of my brother’s french fries through a hill of ketchup. “I ran away once. I got all the way to Wanamaker’s. I got scared and called my mom.”
“Was she mad?”
“Oh boy. She was so mad, she sent my dad to come get me. He bought me a slice of pizza.”
She has impressive eyebrows. What could I say that would mean anything to her? I decide on an idea I had been toying with since the ride over, the beginning of a line of thinking.
“You were freewheeling.” I am careful to laugh after I say it like I don’t mean it, in case she rolls her eyes.
“That’s right,” she laughs. “Like Bob Dylan.”
“Oh. Do you like him?” I say it like, nothing much to me either way, toots.
“Are you kidding?” she says. “He’s my favorite.”
“He’s mine, too,” I say. I am not lying.
“You should talk to your brother.” She tilts her pretty eyebrows toward the men’s room. “As of last week, he had barely even heard of Bob Dylan.”
I chew a piece of cheese and she arranges a stack of creamers. “Are you my brother’s girlfriend?”
When she opens her mouth I can see all of her teeth. “You’d have to ask him,” she says.
My brother returns from the bathroom, wiping his hands on his jeans. His hair is wet.
“Let’s go,” he says. “Saturday Night Live is on.”
He lives in a crumble of an apartment next to the diner. Trucks turn into the parking lot and light up his front room, waking up whichever one of his friends is sleeping there. We sit in his basement and he howls through the entire show. I look back at him and he wipes tears from his eyes. After it is over, he throws a pillow at me. He and Genevieve go upstairs. “’Night, Squirt.”
I sleep on the couch in his front room. The headlights from the trucks scan me in my sleep.
The next day, he drops me off at our mother’s house.
“Kiddo,” he calls me back to the car.
“Don’t ever fucking do that again.”
His face is twisted. I assume with concern.
“Don’t worry about me,” I say. “You don’t have to protect me. I can take care of myself.” I throw open my arms to take on the neighborhood, the world.
He spits. “Come here.”
I lean into the car and he lays his hand on my arm, no trace of expression around his eyes or mouth.
“I mean,” he says, “don’t ever fucking do that to Mom again.”
I go inside. My mother pulls at her hair and weeps in a slow collapse against the wall of the kitchen.
This is my high school. This is my first play. Here are the good grades, the medals, and the prom. This is the scholarship to the private college and here is the field where, in my cap and gown, I hugged my teachers goodbye. There were no friends. My father was 15 years dead. My brother was the man in my life.
“So long,” I tell him. “I’m going to New York City.”
This is the gas station where my brother worked until he and the owner had a “difference of opinion.” This is the hardware store where my brother worked until he told the manager to fuck himself. This is the auto parts store that gave him a job because he and the owner went to the same high school. Philadelphia is a network of my brother’s buddies. He doesn’t stay unemployed for long.
The first year I live in New York, I find a job I still have. He calls every so often to ask if I have seen any celebrities.
If the people at the convenience store on Bloomingdale Road are surprised to see the bloated Voice of a Generation using the candy display to scratch the low part of his back, they keep it to themselves. Bob Dylan has been looking for Tootsie Rolls for ten minutes. He’s wild over them, but they appear to be out.
I leave him to it. I am happy to be with the people on Thanksgiving, albeit the ones who do not think ahead. There is something reassuring about being among strangers on a national holiday. In the cereal aisle, the mood is decidedly last minute.
“Can you use Corn Flakes instead of bread crumbs?” a man in slippers asks his bored looking teenager. “I feel like you can, but I don’t want Mommy yelling at us when we get home. Go ask the cashier.” The son shuffles off.
Bob is grouchy and empty-handed when he returns to me.
Seeing him, the man with the carton of Corn Flakes asks himself a question I cannot hear. Then he says to Bob, “Oh, jeez. Aren’t you Vincent Price?”
This has been a problem before. I pray Bob hasn’t heard, but the man says it again, louder, as if remembering Vincent Price is deaf. He taps Bob’s shoulder a couple times and calls for his son. “Get a load of Vincent Price!” he says.
This is all Bob needs. First his lip is busted, then no Tootsie Rolls, now this. He screws his hand into a punch and lurches toward the man who, almost as an afterthought, performs a delicate side step. Bob’s momentum hits the candy display and he falters, swiping at the ground with his feet. Trout-sized chocolate bars slither down his faded coat.
The teenage boy is back. “What happened, Dad?”
The man is dumbstruck, joyous. “Vincent Price just tried to punch me and he missed!”
Someone got us while we were sleeping, so this Thanksgiving is the year of the American flag. There are American flags on overpasses, tricycles. There are American flags printed on condoms at the counter of this convenience store; America will screw you hard.
Bob Dylan mopes in the car. I feel saddled with him now. He was supposed to create some sort of lather, and he barely summoned enough energy to behead a pile of string beans. I buy him a magazine, a Liberty Bell key chain, Band-Aids shaped like pieces of bacon, and a pack of Camel Reds. They are parting gifts. In line, I try to catch his eye through the window, but he is sulking and won’t look up. Bob Dylan can be a real baby.
My brother’s car is gone when I pull into my mother’s driveway.
There is a picture in her garage: a stop motion account. In the first panel the Vet is whole, intact. In the second panel there is smoke around the eastern wall: a stadium with a headache. In the third panel it is half obscured by the smoke, and so on.
My mother is at the table drinking. She has poured one for me before I come in, stamping off mud and leaves.
“Where’s your friend?” she says.
“Dropped him off at the train.”
She nods, and senses my apology before I have time to form one. “I don’t want to hear it,” she says. “You should try to get along with your brother.”
On her collar, a pin as small as a thumbprint, the shape of a flag.
“I’m sorry,” I say, and then I can’t stop saying it.
We tailgated all day, but it wasn’t until the 2nd inning that he told me about Genevieve leaving for school in Vermont.
“Said I was narrow minded because I never went to college,” he said. “Said the experience would have done me good. What fucking experience? What kind of experience is in Vermont?”
His fingers strummed his knees. By then he had cultivated hard knots of muscles up and down his arms and legs, making him look in motion even when he was sitting.
“Maybe she won’t like it,” I said.
“Maybe fuck her.”
He was dating girls from the neighborhood and had gotten one of them pregnant. He told me like it was something he had forgotten at my house. It was one of the only times I had seen him in years, and I felt him slipping through me even as he sat next to me. I held onto his arm. “You could have something real and true.”
“It’s the size of a pea,” he said, like a punch line.
When the fight below us broke out, I grabbed his arm. “Don’t go down there,” I said. “Please,” I said. “Please.”
He shook me easily. “Get off me, punk.”
His friends pushed him into the aisle and down the steps. People were already on the field swinging at each other. I kept an eye on his blue hat until he came to the lip where the bleachers met the field and he had to jump. I caught glimpses of blue here and there until the press of bodies moved him too far away and he became indistinguishable. There were fields of him. Fields and fields.
I found him outside the stadium. Flanked by his friends, he held up Chris Monahan’s t-shirt to a gash in his head. When he caught sight of me he smiled right through all the blood, proud of himself. His face lit up so pretty and so fast that it made me light headed. I swayed.
He needed it, so I gave him the money. After that, he made himself into a secret, answered his phone rarely and then not at all.
Finally, my mother’s voice through the phone in my New York kitchen. “Your brother has enlisted. Your brother is going to war. Your brother is in the army, and they are sending him to war. Come home for Thanksgiving. We are going to have Thanksgiving. Before he leaves, we will have one last…we are going to have Thanksgiving.”
“No, Mom, you’re wrong. No one is going to war,” I say. “No one is going to war.” I keep saying it after she hangs up.
There is an aunt who escaped to California, but she exists mostly in postcards, so it’s four of us for Thanksgiving dinner. My mother, Bob Dylan, my brother, and I sit around our nuclear table, making bland, unseasoned comments and doling out corn and mashed potatoes.
Then my brother says, “When’s the last time you visited?” He is not looking at me as he rolls the sleeves of his flannel shirt, but I know it’s me he’s talking to.
I pretend to think about it. “Good question. I don’t know.”
“Five years, you think?” He passes the string beans to Bob Dylan, who takes a liberal spoonful.
“Maybe.” I shrug.
“Maybe,” he says. “Mom, don’t you think it’s been five years?”
“Don’t know,” she says. “Glad she’s here now, though. Let’s pray before we forget. Bob, would you like to lead us in—”
“Bob’s a Jew,” I say.
Bob laughs, I laugh. After thinking about it, my mom laughs.
My brother stabs at a pile of dark meat, securing three pieces onto his fork. My last remark bothered him. Not because it might have offended Bob, but because I am trying to be funny. I am his sister, and I know this.
He makes his voice sound light, as if suggesting a swim. “Oh, do Jews not pray?”
I say, “Do army people pray?”
My mother folds her hands. “I’ll pray,” she says. “Dear God, we are all of us going strong. Keep my baby safe in I-raq and keep my other baby safe in New York and thank you for sending us a helpful dinner guest on such an important night for our family.” She winks at Bob who, to my confusion, blushes, and I wonder: is my mother hitting on Bob Dylan?
A quick amen and it is over. We eat what we have deposited onto our plates. Ours is an eat it or wear it family, so I check to make sure Bob Dylan has not taken too much.
My brother sees this and rolls his eyes. Then, he says, “Thought you’d come back for Chris’ funeral.”
I say, “I sent a card.”
“Oh, a card. Well, then.”
My mother layers finger-sized pieces of white meat onto Bob Dylan’s plate. She says, “I don’t know if you do this in New York, Bob, but in this family we have a tradition: after dinner we compete to break the wishbone. The person who ends up with the biggest piece has a year of good luck. What do you think about that?” She wants Bob Dylan to be interested; she wants him or anyone to wrestle with her over the dry, cracked wishbone, to fight over a year of good luck, to take it outside if necessary, she wants to lose both of her terry cloth slippers in the struggle, she wants us all to share a big laugh over it. My mother is not afraid to make desire plain on her face, a trait shared by neither of her children. It makes her seem vulnerable to attack, and I can’t look straight at her while she waits for the words of Bob Dylan.
I am proud of Bob. He begins to eat the turkey noisily, signaling to her with a thumbs up, another kind of answer.
“Did they write back?” my brother says.
“Did who write back?” I say.
“The Monahans. Did they write back to your card?”
“They may have. I didn’t keep track.” This is a lie. I checked my mailbox twice a day.
“I wonder why they didn’t write back. Their only son killed in Iraq, and you send a card.”
My mother says, “Ok everyone.”
“Were you too busy hanging out with Bob Dylan in New York?”
“I have a job.”
“And I am the loser with no job,” he says, as if we are introducing ourselves to guests. “I guess that is some kind of New York etiquette, Mom, and we just don’t get it. Big dinner, bring a stranger. Neighbor dies, send a card. Why don’t you just admit it: you don’t like it here.”
A shiver of my mother’s hand holding the gravy boat produces a small jangle on its plate. She places her left hand on her right to say to it, be calm. During this small movement, I realize I am signing up for a life of disappointment if I think my brother will ever appreciate a gift I give him. The desire to please him wobbles, an amorphous yet contained thing, easily trashed, like the cranberry sauce no one eats. It is a boozy feeling, making me capable of inducing great hurt.
“Don’t worry,” I say. “If you get killed in Iraq, I’ll come home for the funeral.”
I am standing then he is standing, his napkin clinging to the waistband of his jeans.
My mother is suddenly fluttering with activity. “I have an idea!” Her voice is high, strangled. “Let’s do the wishbone now!” She throws her napkin on her chair and darts into the kitchen, where we hear a clattering of utensils. Then, she emerges, a small, gray v in her hand. “Who wants to?” She looks at me, her eyes pleading. “Let’s you and me do it.”
I say, “Are you serious?”
“We’re doing this now?” My brother grins.
“Yes, now.” Her face is wild. “Now.”
My brother and I share a look.
“This is crazy,” I say. “In the middle of dinner?”
“Now.” She turns to Bob. “What do you say, Bob? You and me!”
Bob Dylan has no designs on the wishbone. He shakes his head.
“Well, I’m not doing it either,” I say.
My brother wipes his mouth with his napkin. “Jesus Christ, I’ll do it. Me and you, Mom.”
My mother cheers. “Let me warn you,” she says. “I’ve been practicing.”
He grabs one end of the wishbone. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
“Are we going to do this right here?” I say, but they have already started, my mother and brother on either side of the table, pulling.
Bob and I remain seated. He reaches over me for the gravy.
After a moment, my brother says, “This is taking forever, Mom.”
“Maybe it’s not completely dry.” My mother leans forward over the table, her American flag necklace idling over the cranberry sauce. “Give up?” she says.
“Never. Battle to the finish.”
It goes on, neither side showing any progress. My mother says, “This is a good one!”
Then, my brother pulls his arm away in a sharp motion, forcing my mother farther over the table, and the v between them cracks. She is thrown backward with the release. Her limbs go into a frantic star position, and she brings her elbow solidly into the mouth of Bob Dylan. The force of it upends the front two legs of his chair, Bob Dylan teeters, and it seems he will topple over. But, I am on my feet, and I catch him.
“Shit,” I say. “You’re bleeding, Bob.”
My mom disappears into the kitchen. I hear the faucet go on, and a clattering of silverware.
My brother laughs and I turn on him. “You did that on purpose.”
He throws his hands up. “How would I know that would happen?”
“You knew Mom would do that!”
He waves me off. “Shut up, punk.”
Bob Dylan paws at his busted lip, touching it with his calloused fingers, then showing himself the blood. My mother comes out with a wet cloth and kneels next to him. There is no more hope on her face. Someone is bleeding at her Thanksgiving table. “I am so sorry,” she says. “I am so sorry.”
I say, “It wasn’t your fault, Mom. Just a small gash. No harm done.” I am lying. It is a small gash, but I know Bob Dylan will be relentless about it, looking at it from all angles in every car window and mirror we pass for the next week.
“Now you can say you gave Bob Dylan a fat lip,” says my brother.
“You hit Bob Dylan,” I say. “You did.”
“Are you on another planet? Mom hit him.”
“Stop,” she says, quietly, still kneeling. “It was my fault.”
“Are you happy?” I say. “What an asshole.”
“Everyone just sit down and eat, please.”
My brother obeys. He replaces the napkin on his lap, primly spears a string bean and places it in his mouth.
“At least,” he says, “I’m not a fucking phony.”
I look to my mom for some clue she knows I am being wrongly maligned, but she is staring out the window to a ratty tree that has gotten rid of every leaf except one. Her hands are still folded but she has freed her index fingers. She stares past us to the point on the lawn where winter is advancing on her family so fast that she has time to do nothing except tap her index fingers with the nonchalance of someone deciding whether to add eggs to a grocery list.
Bob Dylan holds the washcloth to his lip with one hand and with the other pats down his denim shirt where he will, I am certain, not find cigarettes.
“Bob,” I say. “Let’s get out of here.”
The day after Thanksgiving, my brother and I move the table into the garage. We maneuver it around the corners of our house without speaking. It is thick between my hands, and I worry I will drop it. When we finally put it down, there is a moment when it is the only thing between us.
He says, “Mom needs to clean this garage,” the same time I say, “Don’t do anything stupid over there.” I don’t know if he hears me.
We rub our chapped hands.
I say, “I brought Bob Dylan here for you. To make you happy.”
His eyes move over the tools hanging from nails on the wall. The hammers, the wrenches, the screwdrivers.
“So what,” he says. “You want a fucking medal?”
Author’s BioMarie-Helene Bertino’s collection of short stories Safe as Houses received the 2012 Iowa Short Fiction Award, judged by Jim Shepard, and will be published October 1, 2012. Her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in The Pushcart Prize Anthology XXXIII, North American Review, Mississippi Review, Inkwell, The Indiana Review, American Short Fiction, Five Chapters, West Branch, and the Mississippi Review’s 30 (an anthology of 30 years of publishing). She has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize three times, receiving the award in 2007 and a Special Mention in 2011. She hails from Philadelphia and lives in Brooklyn, where for six years she was the Associate Editor of One Story. She has taught for The Gotham Writer’s Workshop and One Story’s Emerging Writer’s Workshop and was an Emerging Writer Fellow at NYC’s Center for Fiction. If you like her, click here. If you like her like her, buy her a trumpet or give her a drum.
Guest EditorJim Shepard is the author of six novels, including most recently Project X, and four story collections, including most recently Like You’d Understand, Anyway, which was a finalist for the National Book Award and won The Story Prize, and You Think That’s Bad, released in 2011. His stories have been included in the Best American, PEN/O.Henry, and Pushcart Prize anthologies. He teaches at Williams College.
“North Of” copyright c 2007 by Marie-Helene Bertino. Originally published in the Mississippi Review (Volume 35, Numbers 1 & 2). Reprinted in Pushcart Prize XXXIII (2009). To be published in Safe as Houses, October 2012, University of Iowa Press/Iowa Short Fiction Award.