On the way
home Matthew sat in the passenger seat, his older brother Dan to
his left, watching the abundance of trucks, cars, and noise that
filled the highway. Traffic was a bear. He was watching a reflection
of himself in silver, cylindrical semi trailer, sitting low in his
brother's black Camaro, when Dan slammed on the brakes, skidding
slightly on the wet, shiny pavement. The car stopped mere inches
from the Escort in front of them. Dan put the stick into first and
lurched them back into motion.
"Mom wanted to throw a party," Dan said
as they passed the Escort on the left.
"Well, she wondered if we should.
For your birthday and release and all. She didn't know if there
was some etiquette."
"I don't think so."
"That's what I told her."
Matthew's last birthday, his last
two in fact, had been spent in the unfriendly confines of the Illinois
State Correctional Facility in Quincy. A card had arrived on each
of those days containing separate slips of paper with birthday wishes
from his mother, Dan, and their sister Irene. Each note caught him
up on the latest happenings: Mom's job and tomato plants, Dan's
girlfriend and car troubles, Irene's school woes. The same things
that they would go over in the visitation room that week, but it
was good to get mail anyway. His last birthday, his twenty-fourth,
had been only a month before.
They were driving down Prospect, about
a mile from home now, past a house that caught his attention. It
was a nondescript sort of white A-frame with two kids playing in
"That's new, huh?" Matthew said, pointing
"That place? That house's been there
"Really?" Matthew said. "I've never
noticed that place before my life."
"They cut down the elm on our corner,"
Dan said. "Just last week."
"That's too bad."
"Yeah. I guess it got some Chinese
beetle thing. Or a Korean gnat or something."
They turned, finally, after the hour
ride from the prison, onto their street. Matthew saw where the tree
used to be. The stump was cut jaggedly about a foot from the ground.
The top of it, the insides, looked healthy enough, though soaked
to a dark beige by the rains.
Dan pointed to it as they passed.
"See. They're pulling the stump out tomorrow or Sunday. Sometime.
I don't know."
They pulled up outside of their house.
It looked the same. Someone inside passed the front window but did
not notice the car. Dan had put in a new muffler. Matthew thought
the car was strangely quiet, having always known his brother's arrival
by the cement mixer rumble outside. The neighbor's would complain
to their mother every so often, using phrases like 'disturbing the
peace,' but never called the cops. And, of course, they never approached
Dan about the matter, not with his reputation. A bit of a hell-raiser
since childhood, Dan invoked the sympathy of their neighbors when
he was younger ("No discipline," they would say), and then fear
once he hit high school.
"God. Mom's gonna fucking flip, isn't
she?" Matthew said, looking at the front door.
"I'd count on it."
"If there's a party in there, like
a surprise or something, you better tell me now."
"No, don't worry, I talked her out
Matthew got out of the car and retrieved
his small, black leather bag from the back seat. Dan came around
the back of the car and met his brother on the sidewalk.
"They didn't let you keep the uniform,
did they?" Dan asked. "Like a souvenir?"
"No. I don't want that shit anyway."
"Too bad. 'Cause then you'd have something
to change into."
"What d'you mean?"
At this Dan hooked his leg around
Matthew's and pushed him backwards. It was his favorite way to start
up with him when they were younger and Dan was happy to find that
he could still do it. Matthew landed on the wet, muddy grass with
a squish. His bag went flying behind him, landing near the front
bushes. Matthew jumped up and tackled his older brother more easily
than he ever had before. They wrestled with a playful seriousness,
exchanging upper hands and dominant positions each second. Blades
of grass were crushed into the ever-increasing mud, never to be
seen again. Both brothers were covered in mud and rainwater by the
time the screen door flung open. The front door opened and their
mother stood there torn by the familiar sight that filled her with
relief and joy and by her anger at having this reunion ruined by
such childish behavior.
"For God's sake, Danny," she cried,
"get off him right now. You're ruining his clothes."
"Shit," Dan whispered to Matthew,
who was on top at that moment, "she's gonna put me in solitary."
"Fuck you," Matthew said quietly as
he stood up. "Hey Mom." He climbed the three steps to the porch
with his arms out in an anticipatory hug stance. His mother hugged
her son, keeping a distance between them, avoiding the mess that
had been made of his clothes.
"Your clothes," she said.
"Oh, it's okay," he said. "Unless
you sent all my old stuff to Goodwill."
"It's all upstairs," she said. Matthew
saw a tear, susceptible to gravity as anything, stream down her
"I'm not," she said quickly, wiping
away the evidence.
Irene appeared in the doorway holding
a cigarette at her hip. "So, what, did the laundry man finally spring
Of course, Matthew thought, always a remark.
"No, actually the other prisoners started
a petition to get me out. Yeah, all your ex-boyfriends signed itthat
probably put me over the top." He swiped the cigarette out of her
hand and took a drag that he almost choked on when Irene attacked
him with a monster hug.
They all went inside (Dan having, at his
mother's insistence, retrieved Matthew's bag) and congregated in
the kitchen. Matthew could smell the earthy aroma of mashed potatoes
and his mother's oven-baked Salisbury steak. The gravy bubbled on
the stovetop. He saw the new drapes that his mother had told him
about and there was the conspicuous absence of their cat who had
to be put down after developing feline leukemia a year beforebut
other than that, all was pretty much as he remembered: the fifties
style kitchenette table with three of the four chairs matching,
the refrigerator magnets that his mother collected, the Folger's
Coffee can of bacon grease, even the crack in the window that Dan
had created one night with too much to drink.
Dan got two beers from the fridge and
handed one to Matthew. "Only domesticI know you're probably
used to better," he said as a mock apology.
"Yeah, they had a Guinness tap in every
cell," Matthew said deadpan.
"Slaintè," Dan said tapping his
bottle against his brother's.
Dan had, ever since one harmless family
trip up to Milwaukee for Irishfest when he was nine, embraced the
Irish side of their family with an unending enthusiasm. He would
read Irish history exclusively (it was, in fact, the only thing
Matthew had ever seen his brother read) and never missed the local
PBS station's wednesday night broadcast of The Irish Week,
a show that, in part, re-broadcast news programs from the island.
He had inundated his family with traditional music at dinnertime
and covered his bedroom walls with posters of Michael Collins, Sinèad
O'Connor, and cascading pints of Guinness. The rest of the family,
while being proud and respectful of their heritage, never took to
the homeland like Dan. But Matthew, being the dutiful and somewhat
doting younger brother, came to share Dan's interest, if for nothing
more than having something to talk about with his big brother.
The beer, Matthew thought as he took his
first sip, was probably the most perfect thing he had ever tasted.
"Dinner should be done soon. Maybe a half-hour,"
their mother said inspecting the meat in the oven. "Honey, go change
those clothes before the it's ready."
Matthew smiled at the creak of the stairs.
It was funny what got him, what made this all real, finally, after
thesethosetwo plus years. He was home. His shirt was
unbuttoned before he even entered his old room. The door, three-quarters
of the way to fully open, knocked against the closet doorwhich
would never stay shutwith a reverberating donk. He
began to undress among his old things that, he suspected, had just
been dusted. The lemony scent of the dusting spray still hung in
the air. The full-length mirror still hung on the far wall and he
felt the old, familiar feeling about it, that it was watching him.
He had always thought, as a kid, that it was like one of those two-way
mirrors in cop shows on TV, but instead of someone being on the
other side, it was actually the mirror that was watching him, waiting
to catch him in a lie. He had gotten into the habit of undressing
right in front of it, as if to say here I am, nothing to hide.
Standing in front of it on this day, though, he was full of surprises.
The mirror had never before seen him so large, so muscular and grown-up
looking. His arms were nearly twice the size they were last time
he was home. His stomach was cut, a damn near perfect six-pack.
He looked at the contour of his leg, the bulge of muscle above his
knee. It felt strange to see himself like this in this room. It
was as if while he had been growing, the room had shrunk. He looked
like the grown ups, like his uncles, that came to visit during the
holidays. The mirror could hardly contain him, and he had to move
back to see his whole self.
He had undressed completely and was now
turning to his left. His head cranked over his shoulder, he examined
his backside. Burn marks covered the back of his right leg, beginning
on his lower thigh and moving up across his buttock, ending abruptly
at his beltline. There had not been an opportunity since he left
the infirmary to examine the scars that he got in a kitchen grease
fire nine months into his sentence. He had, in bed many nights,
contorted his body in order to view the damage, but he could always
only see parts, the edge, and never the whole thing. He took two
steps closer to the mirror. The scar was a raw pink, puffy and shiny,
with random indentations like divots. The shape was, he decided,
like South America. Great, he thought to himself, it looks like
South America. At the sight of it his eyes began to waternot
that he was crying, more like what eyes do when you get embarrassed
for someone who is singing off-key or telling a bad joke that goes
on forever. He wiped away the discharge and turned again forward.
"Hey," a voice said behind him, closely
followed by the door hitting the closet. It was Irene. "Oh, sorry,"
she said, stepping back into the hallway and closing the door. He
"Hang on," he yelled. He put on a pair
of boxers and jeans that he found in his old dresser and began rummaging
for tee shirt. "What do you want?"
"Dan wants to know if you need anything
from the corner?" she called from the other side of the door.
"Tell him to hang on. I'll go with."
"Matty, can I come in?"
He put on a white tee shirt that was too
tight and opened the door. "I'll go with him," he said casually.
"What's on your leg?" she asked.
"What. Nothing. It's a rash."
"It looked bad. Did someone look at that?"
"Yeah, it's nothing. How about you knock
"Sorry." They stood for a moment. "Looks
like that shirt's a little small, muscle man. I think all your sweaters
and stuff are in the closet." She stood in the doorway eyeing her
brother's right leg while he fished a sweatshirt out of the closet
and pulled it over his head. He found his jean jacketa loose
fit when he bought it, it was perfect now. He turned to Irene and
shrugged as if to say, Anything else?
"Seriously, someone looked at that, though?"
"'Cause we weren't notified of anything."
"Well, it's not like I got sent to the
school nurse," he said squeezing past her. "It's no big deal."
At the bottom of the stairs, by the front
door, Dan was waiting to leave.
"Need anything?" he asked when Matthew
was half way down.
"I'll come with," he said and rounded
the banister towards the kitchen. "Just hang on."
His mother was at the table, in her usual
spot, the seat nearest the counter and stove. Her chin in her right
palm, her left hand rested on the table, a cigarette between two
fingers. She looked to Matthew like a Norman Rockwell painting,
if only old Norman had been a little more honest.
"Hey Mom," he said quietly, "I'm gonna
run down to the corner with Dan. We got time?"
"Okay." With a hand on her shoulder, he
leaned over and kissed her on the head. She put her hand on his
and patted it twice. "Do you need anything while we're out?" She
shook her head no and smiled.
For as crass as they could be, for all
of the jokes and insults, all of the pranks and fights, his family
looked out for each other. They argued as if it were a pastime,
but when it came down to it, they were close. They went through
everything together. Dan's escapades when he was younger were harrowing
for all of them. His mother endured phone calls from other parents
in the neighborhood complaining about damage done to plants and
vehicles and children. She was woken late at night by police bringing
him home past curfew.
But Dan was also cast in the role of protector
since their father died of cancer ten years before. He was the one
to interrogate Irene's prospective suitors, although in a covert
way: investigating them at school, recruiting spies, confronting
them with threats and ultimatums. The first time she did hear about
his asking around about so-and-so, she exploded, beginning a fight
that lasted into the wee hours of the morning, prompting the neighbors
to turn on their lights and peer out disapprovingly from parted
curtains. But even she knew, as she was screaming about who he was
and who he thought he was, she knew that nothing would change.
"God damn, it's getting cold out," Dan
said as he buttoned up his stiff Carhartt workman's coat. They were
walking down Bergen Avenue, kicking sticks off the sidewalk as they
"Feels good," Matthew said. He breathed
in deep through his nose. Someone was burning wet leaves, filling
the neighborhood with that small town smell. "Remember the time
you made Davey Pearlman eat that worm?"
"That little shit," Dan said. "Cried like
a little bitch."
Dan had heard a rumor that Davey Pearlman,
a kid two years older than Matthew, was going around telling people
Matthew was gay and jerked off to a picture of The New Kids on the
Block. Afterwards Matthew was embarrassed, wanting to fight his
own battles, but Dan had only said "I'm not gonna let someone talk
that kind of shit. You're like a brother to me," and left it at
The two brothers laughed about Davey's
misfortune and they turned the corner. The nearest grocery store
was in the next town, so, since anyone could remember, many day-to-day
items were bought at the Market. The Market was actually little
more than a glorified convenience store that had been opened and
run by the Johnston family, who lived in the apartment above, until
about four years before when Davis Johnston, the patriarch of the
family, died. The Johnston children apparently had little interest
in continuing the small family business because, after only a month
or so, the store was sold to three brothers from Chicago. There
weren't many blacks in town, and the Delises became the talk, as
they say, of the town. They moved in and kept the store open with
little fan-fair. Joe Delise was the oldest, then Ron, and then the
youngest, Kenny, who couldn't have been much more than nineteen
when they came. The townspeople, the very old and very young especially,
would whisper paranoid ideas about gang infiltration when the men
walked down the street, and would often refer to them simply as
Perhaps they did start a trend, Matthew
thought, as he walked in and saw Kenny talking to two other young
black men, one leaning against the counter and the other grabbing
a Coke from the freezer.
"What's up, Kenny," Dan said, and Matthew
looked at him with a bemused smirk on his face that was lost on
"What's up, Danny," Kenny said.
"We need some beer," Dan said to Matthew.
"I'm a little out of practice," Matthew
"We'll catch you up."
They moved down the narrow aisles lined
with everything from garbage bags to cereal to car parts. Matthew
watched himself in the round fish-eye mirror positioned above the
beer coolers. Behind him, at the front of the store, Kenny and his
friend carried on their conversation.
"How come we ain't seen you up at the
house?" Kenny asked.
"I been busy," the other man said. "Me
and Kim got the baby coming."
"Yeah, I saw her at the Amoco over on
14 the other day. She getting big."
"Yeah, well, you know, I don't skimp when
I do my thing."
"Shit," Kenny said laughing and slapping
his hand against his friend's.
"You done admiring yourself?" Dan said
"What?" Matthew said turning his gaze
toward the six and twelve packs in the cooler. They picked out a
twelve pack and brought it to the counter. Kenny broke off his conversation
to again say hey to Dan, who asked for two packs of cigarettes and
tossed one to Matthew.
"You know my brother?" Dan asked Kenny.
"Hey, how you doing," Kenny said slowly,
looking at Matthew with an expression of half recognition.
Dan paid with a twenty and Kenny eyed
Matthew again as he handed back the change. Kenny's friends were
still around, looking at magazines, reading the wrappers on candy
bars. The two brothers left and, as the door was closing behind
them, Matthew heard Kenny's voice. "Oh shit, I know that dude,"
he said in an excited manner.
Matthew wondered what story was being
told as they walked back home. He wondered how the facts had changed
in the last two years. He was sure that his story was more exciting
now than it had actually been in reality. Perhaps now there was
a gun involved, perhaps motives and calculations. Not just a stupid
accident, a prank.
And it was stupid, Matthew thought, as
he had a thousand times since it happened. An evening spent drinking
beers in his friend Carl's garage. Dan was there, too, along with
maybe four other guys. A crappy tape player on the tool shelf. Their
conversation getting progressively louder with each drink even though
Carl's mom was up at the house and would surely scold her grown
child the next day. Empty cans were piling up in the corner and
the heat of a Midwestern July was weighing on each man's mood. Matthew
remembered Craig trying to crush an empty can on his forehead and
failing miserably, to everyone else's amusement. Jim put in a rap
tape and cranked the volume as high as it would go. "Dude," Carl
said as he jumped up to turn it down, "my fucking mom
Craig said he didn't want to hear that nigger shit, anyway. The
others told him to shut up. Dan left to go meet the girl he was
seeing at the time and the guys joked about how she was gonna kick
his ass out when he showed up drunk. Matthew crushed a can under
his foot and kicked it at Craig. He wanted to go out, he said, they
should go somewhere. He said the garage stank and he was sick of
hearing Carl bitch about his mom.
They were stumbling down Route 14, tackling
each other and jumping the stream just past the shoulder. It was
normally bright out there, especially with a full moon, but that
night clouds covered the sky as if it was going to rain, which everyone
in town was praying for, something to break the heat. For nearly
two miles they walked, talking about this or that girl, making fun
of each other, debating the Bears' chances in the upcoming seasonthey
all wanted the coach fired. Each man was carrying at least two beers
with him and these, once they were gone, seemed to put them over
the top. At the corner of 14 and Maple, Matthew leaned on the stop
sign and grinned. He wanted it, he said. He curled his hands around
the wooden post and began to push and pull it, back and forth, making
the red octagon look like an upside-down pendulum. With each movement,
the dirt loosened more and the post swayed further. His friends
laughed at him and called him stupid and crazy. After only a few
minutes he was able to push the sign to an almost fort-five degree
angle, and a few seconds later it hit the ground, tearing up the
turf around its base. The others cheered half-sarcastically. Matthew,
stumbling, dragged the sign the entire way back to town as if he
had it in a headlock.
They all went separate ways once they
hit the main strip. Matthew walked the last half-mile to his house
with only the sign for company. He began talking to it, showing
it the sights: this here is where Mrs. McNealy lives; that's where
I cut my knee open on a sprinkler; oh, you've been missing out,
Mr. Stop Sign, stuck out there in the middle of nowhere, no one
to talk to, look at all the excitement you've been missing. Instead
of carrying it through the gate, he heaved the thing over the backyard
fence and climbed over after it.
The next morning the police were at the
front door. Their mother woke Dan up first, assuming this to be
his doing. Matthew heard the commotion and came downstairs in his
boxer shorts and the dirty tee shirt from the night before.
"Did you rip down some sign?" Dan asked
laughing. Matthew claimed ignorance. Dan was nearly doubled over.
"The fucker's propped up against the fence in the back yard," he
said. Matthew told him to shut up.
"Could you please get dressed, Mr. Donovan,"
one police officer said. "We're gonna need you to come with us."
"Wait a second," Dan said. "If you're
gonna give him a ticket or something, then go ahead, but why's he
need to go with you?"
The first cop began to tell Dan to stay
out of it, but the other one, an older cop that they all recognized
from town, stopped him and explained the situation. There was an
accident, he said. A semi truck driving down 14 collided with a
station wagon crossing over on Maple. There was a family from Decatur
inside, a little girl was dead.
"Well that ain't his fault," Dan said
after a moment of silence. "I mean, that's too bad about that family,
but Matty didn't cause that to happen."
"Mr. Donovan, would you please get dressed
and come with us," the older cop said, ignoring Dan's protests.
"This is bullshit," Dan yelled.
As Matthew left with the police, getting
into the back of the squad car uncuffed, Dan told Matthew that he
would call the lawyer and not to worry. Their mother was in tears
watching her boy, her Matty, driven away.
The prosecutor threatened to charge him
with manslaughter, but backed down after finding out that the girl
was not in a children's seat and after forensics found that the
car had been exceeding the speed limit. In the end, Matthew was
charged with and convicted of destruction of public property and
reckless endangerment. The judge, an old liberal who had seen too
many cases involving drunken rednecks in his time, sentenced him
to the maximum on each counta sentence totaling five and a
half years, parole after twenty-eight months.
When Matthew and Dan walked into the house
it was already dark out and a shaded floor lamp was on in the living
room, creating shadows on the floor that reminded Matthew of coming
home after playing football with his friends when he was younger.
Dinner was ready and on the table. His mother was setting the last
of the forks and knives out. Matthew sat down slowly in his old
spot. He had to lean slightly to his left; it was still uncomfortable
to put weight on his burnnot painful, but uncomfortable, like
there was something under his skin that did not belong. Irene saw
him shift in his seat once, twice, and as she sat she got his attention
and mouthed the words You okay? He nodded back.
The food was passed around and Matthew
found that his table manners came back to him, probably better than
they had been before being sent away. No one knew exactly what to
say aside from the requests for salt and more potatoes. Each person's
chewing was amplified inside their heads until their mother finally
"I think I saw a sign for work over at
the Hines Lumber, Matty. Maybe you could go over there tomorrow
and ask about a job."
"Yeah, that's good idea."
"You always did like wood shop," she said.
Dan looked over and smiled. Everyone at their high school liked
wood shop. Mr. Denton would fall asleep during each class period
and never notice while his students went outside to smoke cigarettes
"Hey I was thinking we could go down to
Murphy's later. Maybe," Irene said.
"Yeah, man, everyone wants to see you."
"I don't know. Maybe we should just stay
in," Matthew said, then turned to his mother. "Mom?"
"Oh, I'm pretty tired. I'll probably just
fall asleep I front of the TV, so you go on ahead if you want to."
The thing was that Matthew did not know
if he wanted to or not. He did not know if he wanted to see the
old gang, to be paid attention to, to be asked questions he had
no answers for. He could imagine the scene: the staring as he walked
in the door; Craig or Jimprobably boththere wanting
to buy him a shot; perhaps an ex-girlfriend or two commenting on
how good he looked, how different. But he also knew that if Dan
and Irene wanted to go, he would, no matter how he felt about it.
It was strange to hear Irene talk about
Murphy's. The brothers had been going there for years, since before
they were legal, butas Matthew then realizedIrene never
was there with them, she was too damn young. But she grew up while
he was gone. He saw her regularly enough throughout his time away,
at least every two weeks, to not notice her maturing. He thought
that if he had not seen her at all, he would have hit the floor
this afternoon when she walked out onto the porch. Who knew there
could be such a difference between nineteen and twenty-one. He thought,
I don't know this Irene.
And there was indeed plenty he did not
know. She had not had the easiest time lately. The town, she felt,
was closing in on her from all sides. She was barely making grades
at the community college and her series of short-term boyfriends
was getting her a reputationa reputation that she would admit
only to herself was not completely undeserved. She did not understand
how it happened, how she became what she feared she had. She knew
what people said about her: that she slept with everyone in town,
married or not. This, of course, was not true. It was only a few
times: last call at Murphy's or at Nick's on the other side of town.
But she was resented by other women, and she could feel them eyeing
her pretty face, long hair, and slim figure at the same time as
the men. Girls she had gone to high school with would whisper and
giggle sometimes when they saw her talking to a man. Perhaps it
was rebellion against Dan, she thought sometimes, that made her
do things. He was a hypocrite, lecturing her about this or that
while at the same time chasing around every piece of ass in town.
But what it was, really, was a feeling
of safety. When she was a child, she would run to her bed during
thunderstorms or when she heard a noise outside. Bed was like an
island or a raft, in the middle of the ocean. It was home base.
She would pull her blankets around her, tucking them under her on
all sides, cocooning herself. Here she would feel as if nothing
could touch her, as if no harm could be done. It was the same now,
in a way, although the bed was rarely her own. She liked to feel
a man's body, the weight of it, on top of herhis arms resting
on the mattress on either side of her head, his warmth becoming
As his mother cleared the table, Matthew
felt his leg. He felt his scar at its edge rise strangely from the
normal skin. He wondered how he would ever be able to let it be
seen. He had imagined the situation a hundred times. An intimate
moment interrupted by the question What is that? as a hand
ventured to his backside. That is not the moment most people want
a surprise, and it is certainly not the ideal moment for questions
and explanations. Could he orchestrate a situation so well that
it would go undetected? Could he meet a person so perfect that it
would not matter?
"Jesus. Quit picking your ass," Dan said.
Irene looked up from where she was busy
picking at her cuticles, a bad habit she had developed somewhere
along the way. "Shut up," she said.
"I'm not even talking to you."
"Well, quit butting into everyone's business."
"You're the one butting inI wasn't
talking to you."
"You're always talking to someone."
"What the hell is that supposed to mean?"
Matthew got up from his chair amidst the
bickering and went into the living room. He heard his mother say
behind him, "Both of you stop it, now," in her calm, soothing voice.
The small squabbles she could end easily, with just that sort of
simple utterance. Hers was the voice of family and patience. Matthew
more than once thought that she could end wars with that voice if
they only gave her the chance.
His mother joined him in the living room
just as he was having a seat on the couch. She looked at him and
smiled, not a full smile, but just an upward curl at the edges of
her lips. He knew what she was thinking: Those two
"If you want me to stay in tonight," he
"It's been a long day, Matty," she said
sitting next to him. "I won't be any fun. I think maybe it would
be good. You should get out and see your friends."
"My friends," he said without knowing
how to finish the sentiment.
"Craig and Carl and Jimthose boys
are just as excited as anything to see you. I saw Carl at the store
the other day and it was all he could talk about. I think they still
feel bad. You know, about what happened. I think maybe they think
they should have done something, stopped you or" she cut herself
off. She doubted he wanted to think about that night.
"It wasn't their fault," he said.
"Oh, I know, dear."
"It just was what it was."
"I know. But you should see themthey're
excited as anything." They each sat back into the couch. Matthew
looked down at his hands. They were calloused and dirty and he thought
of all the work he could have been doing the past years.
He heard Dan and Irene laughing and then
they came in from the kitchen.
"He did not," Irene said in between snorts
"Didn't you say you were going to marry
Mrs. Dickenson?" Dan asked Matthew. Their first grade teacher; they
all had her. She had to be sixty now.
"I was like six," Matthew said. They laughed
harder. "She's not still around, is she?"
"Still teaching," his mother said.
"No," Matthew said in disbelief.
"We were down by the school just a couple
of weeks ago," Dan said, "and she came out and yelled at us for
"What were you doing?"
"Nothing, man. Just hanging out, whatever."
"It doesn't matter," Irene said. "No matter
how old you are, she does not tolerate nonsense."
"Man, she was a bitch."
"Daniel," their mother said.
"Daniel nothing, you didn't have to deal
with her." Dan said.
"What are you talking about?" Irene said.
"She was Mom's teacher."
They all laughed at Mrs. Dickenson's expense,
even their mother, who covered her mouth with her hand and squished
her eyes together. It was catching, and soon they were laughing
because they were laughing.
After the laughter subsided they talked
for a while: about changes to the town, who left and who was still
there; about the unusually rainy weather and which of their neighbors'
crops suffered; about movies they had seen. Around nine they quieted
and their mother's eyes began to fall. The three siblings looked
down, around, away from each otherthe comedown after the high.
It was quieter than the world had ever been.
Dan's eyes met Matthew's. Do you want
to go? he mouthed. Matthew nodded. He laid a hand on his mom's
"Hey Ma," he whispered. His mother's eyes
opened with slow surprise.
"Hey, we're gonna take off for a while."
"Okay, dear." She sat up a bit. Matthew
grabbed his jacket of a chair. After her children left, Mrs. Donovan
used the remote control to turn the TV ona made-for-television
movie about a mysteriously murdered child was on. Mrs. Donovan closed
her eyes and again fell asleep, the remote balancing precariously
on her knee.
Murphy's was a large but still run-of-the-mill
bar. Neon beer signs hung on the dark paneled walls. The middle
of the room was filled with round and square tables that they removed
on those rare occasions when a band played. The musiceither
country or southern rockplayed loud from speakers suspended
from the ceiling. When the Donovan kids arrived the place was already
beginning to fill up. The regular bar riders were bellied-up and
the tables were half occupied. Matthew looked around once insidemaybe
he'd get out of this with little hassle. Maybe it would be an off
night without the usual appearance of his friends. Dan went to the
"Oh, god," Irene said.
"Nothing. Just someone I don't want to
"Do you want to go?" Matthew asked hopefully.
"No," she said. "Fuck him."
"Who?" But she was already making her
way up to the bartender, a girl Matthew recognized as having been
one of Irene's classmates in high school. They talked for a moment
and then they both looked back at Matthew. The bartender waved hello
and then waved him over.
"I don't believe it," she said a moment
later. Looking at Matthew up and down, she put her hands on her
hips and tilted her smiling head to emphasize her disbelief.
"Yeah," Matthew said stupidly.
"You remember Jane," Irene said.
"Yeah. How you doing?"
"I'm great. You know. How are you?"
An old man tapped his empty beer mug against
the top of the bar and called out Service. Jane excused herself
and walked towards the man.
"I know you know my name, John. I don't
know why you can't use it and say 'Jane, dear, could I please have
The old man pushed his mug towards her.
"Budweiser," he said.
"She had the biggest crush on you," Irene
whispered to Matthew, motioning to her old friend behind the bar
and then raising her eyebrows.
Dan got back from the bathroom and ordered
pitchers of beer. "Grab a table," he said.
The scene was not as bad as Matthew had
envisioned. In his mind, the record would scratch to a halt and
a spotlight from out of nowhere would shine on him. A few people
did look at him, but he could not tell if it was recognition or
only curiosity in newcomers. They sat down, Matthew taking the far
seat so that he could view the room. Joe and Ron Delise were at
a table by the side door. They both leaned over their beers not
talking. Joe scratched the top of his head and ran his hand down
his cheek to his chin. Irene was looking behind her at something
or someone while Dan poured out their drinks.
"You know," Dan said, "they had Caffrey's
on tap for a while, but they got rid of it."
Irene turned her head suddenly. "So, do
you have a parole officer or something?"
"What's his name?" Dan asked as if he
might know him.
"Parker, I think."
"You gotta call him or meet him or something?"
"I gotta call him and that's it, unless
something gets fucked up, like I don't get a job or somethingthen
I'd have to meet him."
There was a ruckus at the front of the
baryelling and, what, singing? They looked up along with the
rest of the patrons. It was Jim and Craig and Carl. They were already
drunk, it seemed, as they came through with their arms around each
other. And, yes, Matthew realized, they were singing. I fought
the law and the law won. They spotted the Donovans and the singing
"There he is!" Craig yelled, pointing
to their table. The rest of the crown turned their head simultaneously
"Hey!" Jim and Carl bellowed. They broke
apart and bum-rushed the table. Matthew leaned back in his chair
and raised his arms to cover his face as a reflex. As if choreographed,
the three men picked him up out of his chair and dragged him backwards,
his feet slapping and dragging on the floor. Despite his objections,
they deposited Matthew on a pool table and threw mock punches into
his stomach. The two men who had, up until that moment, been playing
a game of eight-ball (a whispered pre-game twenty dollar wager made
the atmosphere around the table already tense) swore and threw their
hands into the air. Matthew jumped up and spun back towards them
in fighting position. He missed this, the lack of danger. They were
able to play-fight because the chances of actual confrontation between
them was so utterly remote. The whole place was watching them, a
few shaking their heads, but most looking up with child-like open
The pool players were still yelling and
pointing at their ruined game. Carl threw a dollar onto the table.
"Sorry guys. Haven't seen our boy in a
"Yer boyfriend, it looks like,"
one of the players said in a marble-mouthed deep country voice.
"You got a fuckin' problem?" Jim asked
taking a step towards them. Matthew grabbed his arm and pulled him
to the table where his brother and sister were. They all sat for
a second before Carl jumped up again.
"You need a drink?" he asked Matthew.
"I got a drink," Matthew said laughing
and motioning to his full glass.
"I'll get 'em," Craig said bounding to
Carl and Jim looked at Matthew saying
wow and shit and wow again.
"You're here," Carl said.
"You're out, man," Jim added. "You're
"How'd you like our song? We wrote it
"Hilarious," Matthew said. "I think you
guys are ready for American Bandstand."
Craig arrived with two more pitchers of
beer and a shot of tequila for each of them. They did them with
synchronized ritual. Conversation was jovial. They relived old times,
reminding each other of grade school hijinx, laughing at the terror
the imposed on the town at large. We make our own fun, one of them
said. Dan chimed in regularly saying that's nothing, and then outdoing
them with stories of his days reeking havoc. His stories always
involved close calls with the police, impromptu trips to Chicago
("showing those city kids what fun was all about"), and town leaders'
daughters in compromising positions. Dan was always better at that
stuff than Matthew. He raised hella lot more than Matthew
ever didand got away with it. Dan had messed with the heart
of the townbreaking windows in City Hall, defacing the wall
of the feed storewith little more than a slap on the wrist.
Matthew, on the other hand, had always gotten caught. For matters
as small as busting light bulbs in the high school gymnasium or
drinking in the gazebo in the park (which everyone did), he was
found out and given detentions and citations. He even did community
service once, when he was seventeen, for trespassing on the McGowen
farm. In the confusion of that nighta sudden spot light from
out of nowhere, voices through a megaphonehe had separated
from his friends. They ran across the far side of the land and through
the wood where they stayed until the coast was clear; but Matthew,
deciding it would be smarter to try to get back to the car, ran
smack into the cops.
That story came up. Craig was laughing
about how scared Jim was sitting there in the brush, saying that
he pissed himselfjust a little. While the boys talked, Irene
wasn't paying much attention, laughing when everyone else did, but
contributing little to the festivities. Her eyes kept wandering
over her shoulder to where Jay Froom sat by himself. Jay was an
asshole, she knew that even two weeks before when she slept with
him, and she had watched the progression of things at his table
since they arrived: his girlfriend pretending nothing was wrong
as he glared at Irene and her companions, then finally exploding
in a fit of repressed knowledge now surfaced. She jumped up, scolding
her boyfriend for his assumption that she was so stupid as to border
on blind, and then left, calling to herself the attention of everyone
in the bar save those at Irene's own table, who were busy patting
each other on the back for actions taken a decade or more ago. And
then Jay was there, alone, leaning back and sipping at his glass,
pursing his lips at Irene, only fifteen feet away. After a few minutes
Irene watched out of the corner of her eye as Jay got up (God,
don't come over here) and joined a table of his buddies.
The conversation lulled, Carl having just
relayed a long and exhausting story of which no one at the table
knew the principle players. The smile that Matthew had sustained
easily throughout the past hour or so dropped slightly.
"I'm goin' take a piss," he said, getting
up from his chair. His mates raised their glasses in a sarcastic
Bon Voyage. Steadying himself on the back of his chair, he spun
around and faced the men's room. The crowd had thickened since he
last noticed. Groups of people stood at the bar trying to make clear
what each of them wanted. Poor Jane ran with tried patience, attempting
to fulfill their confused needs. Jane was attractivebeyond
attractivebeautiful perhaps. Her dyed red hair, pony tailed,
shook with each movement of her overworked body; her large blue
eyes were forgiving to every fool who approached, whether it be
for a drink or for the time she got off.
He grinned and made his way to the bathroom,
excusing himself through the group that had now stood around the
pool table, past the group of rednecks talking about some "chick."
The door of the men's room was almost within his grasp when he felt
a hand on his arm. He flinched. Looking down, he found it was Ron
Delise. Matthew noticed the tips of Ron's fingernails, like white
sliver moons attached to the cinnamon skin of his fingers, gripping
the fabric of his sweatshirt. Joe Delise sat across the table, also
looking to Matthew, as ifMatthew thought at that momentwaiting
for an answer.
"You Danny Donovan's brother?" Ron asked.
"Yeah," Matthew said. The Delise men paused,
letting their eyes wander to the floor before again narrowing in
on Matthew. Ron let go his grip.
"We got a cousin," Joe said, "named Vaughn
Delise. He out in Quincy. We were wondering if maybe you knew him,
maybe ran into him or something."
Matthew searched his mind. There were
so many men, so many names. His mind went back to the yard, the
dining hall. Of all the people there, only a handful had he gotten
to know, and of those he could not think of one he wanted to see
again. That was life there: a series of temporary and, frankly,
unwanted acquaintances. That was life thereand he certainly
did not want it mixing with life here.
But with the question put to him, there
was no danger of that. He never heard the name Delise on the inside;
he would have recognized it, and related it to the men sitting here,
looking awkward and uncomfortable.
"Sorry," he said. "Didn't know him."
The Delise men both relaxed and shrugged.
Ron turned back to the table and took a drink of his beer. No one
said a word. After a moment, Matthew Donovan leaned into the men's
room door and disappeared into the florescent light.
His piss came out in a full and relieving
stream, but his body remained tense. Not knowing why, he began to
resent his friends. Out there they were treating him like a hero.
What was with the shots and the slaps on the back? It was as if
he had done something greatfought a war or received the key
to the city, saved a life maybe. But what had he done except not
died? He was not a soldier and deserved no more congratulations
than the lawyer that delivered the foreclosure notices or the shop
teacher who fell asleep in class. Less even. Far less. At least
they began with a thought, perhaps, that they might fulfill a need.
He had done nothing but lived for another two and a half years.
He did something dumb and got sent to jail. He killed a child.
Opening the door of the men's room, he
planned on leaving the bar: excusing himself no matter how awkwardly
and leaving. He wanted to go home, go to bed. But as soon as the
door was open and he took a step back into the smoky air, he heard
yelling. A woman's voice screamed, "Fuck you!" It took less than
a moment to realize that it was Irene's voice. She was halfway out
of her seat, bent over slightly, red in her face. Matthew did not
know how to react, his mind swimming in confusion. Who is she
yelling at? What the hell is going on?
"Fucking bitch!" Jay Froom was hollering
from across the room. A glass was turned over on his table and beer
was streaming over the edge onto the floor. He was getting up and
grabbing his jacket from the back of his chair. Matthew watched
this blankly, as if it were happening on a screen in a movie theater.
The men's room door knocked shut behind him. His arms dangled uselessly
at his sides. He did not understand any of this.
Jay Froom walked towards the side door
and, along with five friends, exited. Matthew watched as his sister
crumbled back into her chair, her head wilting into her hands. Dan
got up casually. The entire bar was once again watching their table
and Matthew had a passing thought of thanks that he was not over
there. Dan trotted towards the door where Jay had just left.
"Dan, don't," Irene said, but Dan took
Matthew noticed Dan's left hand, the one
he favored, forming an almost imperceptible fist. No one would notice
this except for a brother. Or maybe not
"I'm calling the cops," Jane said to Irene
as Carl and Craig and Jim all walked out after Dan. They had been
yelling, too. There were so many words on both sides that Matthew
was only now registering: motherfucker, cunt, faggot, dyke. The
words blinked in Matthew's head like a bad florescent lightmaking
him take note but illuminating nothing. Matthew's head snapped towards
"No," he said as calmly as he could. He
held up his hand and smiled, his charming smile that he had not
used for as long as he could remember. He wondered if it would still
work. He made an overly casual face as if to say There's no problemI'll
take care of it. Jane relaxed her hand that had been moving
towards the phone. Matthew opened the side door. He felt the cold
and the burnt leaves smelled like pollution.
Dan and Jay were standing ten feet away
from each other like generals, their troops behind them, ready to
follow any order without question. Everyone, Matthew noticed, looked
the sameall denim and flannel and stubblelike fighting
a mirror. He moved up to his friends. They were outnumbered by one.
Everyone was yelling.
"I don't give a fuck who
"Come on, motherfucker
Matthew watched, every muscle in his body
contracted. This is so stupid. He sized up the other side.
Yeah, they had one more, but the two on the right side, they were
weaving pretty bad, shithouse drunk. They shouldn't be too much
trouble; one good lick and they'll be down. But the big guyGod,
what's his name?he looked like he could take three at
once. The yelling continued and the two sides were getting closer
together until they were on top of each other. Jim was bouncing
side to side with anticipation. Matthew knew that all it would take
was one swing, didn't matter from who, and then he'd better be ready.
"You, little fucking faggot," the big
guy said. Matthew looked and found that this was meant for him.
"Fucking baby killer." The words knocked the wind out of him, knocked
him down. He was on the ground.
No. It was a fist. He had gotten punched
in the stomach. What was happening? So stupid
The big guy was on top of him, laying
punches into his sides, his arms. Matthew felt wet with sweat and
drizzle, or maybe it was blood. He heard grunts and cursing from
all around him. The fists kept coming, what seemed like three, four,
five at a time. In the middle of all this Matthew thought Garythis
guy's name is Gary. Then Gary was gone and a streetlight shone
bright from high above into his eyes. Okay. Okay. Get it together.
Jim was now on top of Gary pummeling away, the big guy on the ground
in almost the exact position Matthew had been two seconds before.
Dan and Jay were on the hood of a car, trading off beatings. Craig
had his man well in control, having gotten him into what they used
to call the "Atomic Squeeze," his legs wrapped like a vice around
the guy's abdomen, holding him there while he laid fists into his
face. One of Jay's guys was now on the ground a good twenty feet
away, by himself, writhing in pain and holding his right ankle.
Good, Matthew thought, I hope it hurts. His breaths
were getting deeper, faster, and with each one it was as if he was
taking in not air, but anger. It came in, filled him, circled around
each cell in his body, converting everything in him, his body, his
mind, his soul, into one pure, steel-solid mass of rage. He wanted
to step on that guy's ankle, to stomp on it with both feet, to hear
him scream out in agony.
But, wait. Carl. Carl was on the ground
while the two guysthose drunk fucksstood on either
side kicking him. Matthew left himself. He had no thoughts, no reason
to be doing what he was doing except that he was already doing it.
He ran into one of them, angling it just right so that as that one
fell, he took his buddy down too. He heard the clunk of their
skulls hitting each other. He jumped on one of themwho cares
which oneand began punching. This is what you do with rage.
With each movement he felt as if he was building something and tearing
it down at the same time. After three clean, direct shots into the
guy's face, Matthew wondered what was on his hands, a substance
at once slippery and sticky. Is it blood? There couldn't be this
much blood, could there? It's too dark to see. Fuck. He jumped
up. The man rolled onto his side and began spitting, coughing, snorting
through his nose and spitting more. His body contorted andJesushe
was puking. Matthew turned towards the light shinning down and could
see that his hands were covered in vomit. He wiped them on his jeans
and felt a hand grab his sweatshirt.
"Get out of here," Dan said calmly. His
hair was wet and his clothes muddy.
"What?" Matthew's heart was beating so
hard that it felt like it took up his entire chest.
"Get the fuck out of here!" he screamed.
Matthew didn't understand. Then he realized:
Cops. Christ, he had gotten out of jail that day and now he could
hear the wailing of sirens. He looked around. A mass of people stood
by the entrance of the bar, hands over their mouths. A girl was
crying. Irene was crying. Joe and Ron Delise were watching, too,
He took off. Around the back of the bar,
past the boarded-up hospital and then down Locust towards the feed
store. Adrenaline was avalanching through him. His legs pumped and
struck the asphalt with a smooth violence. The houses on either
side of the street were dark, curtained, completely foreign. Where
was he? He was at home. He was in jail. He was scoring a goal at
recess. He was tunneling out. His body was cut up and bruised from
football. He was making love to Jane the bartender and he was fucking
Jane the bartender. His feet were bare and grabbing onto the bark
of an elm tree and feeling the cold hard tiles of the showers. He
was screaming and laughing and completely silent.
Reaching his house, Matthew held onto
the porch banister, bent over, and tried to calm his breathing.
The blue light of the television shone through the front window.
His mother was inside, but no one elsehe was sure of that.
Dan and Irene were still back at the bar, talking to the cops. Dan
was charming them, twisting the story, joking around, smoking a
cigarette. Irene was standing by herself, arms crossed tight, wiping
her cheeks on her shoulders. She would soon begin to shake from
the cold, prompting the cops to give up, telling Dan to just take
his sister home and to stay out of trouble. Jane was probably outside,
too, assuring the cops that Jay and his crew were the ones who started
it. No one would mention Matthew.
Matthew opened the door quietly. His mother
was on the couch, her eyelids closed and fluttering from dreaming.
On the television people were mumbling incoherently. He crept across
the room and up the stairs. The only light in his room came through
the window, filling the space with blue-gray. His legs were shaking
but he could not sit. He ripped his clothes off, everything, until
he stood naked and goose pimpled. He let the mirror see him. Look
A bruise was already appearing on his left cheek,
though he could not yet feel it, and his right knuckle was scraped
up all to hell. The mirror was witness, would testify if it could
only find the words. He turned halfway, like earlier, and saw his
burn. The crying came in a rush until his face was in his hands
and he fell sideways onto his bed, pulling the blanket over himself
tightly. His fingers touched the scar. Never, he thought.
This will never go away.
Irene came home along with Dan. Their
mother was laying across the sofa, her arm dangling and touching
"I'm gonna take a shower," Dan whispered.
Irene nodded. He tiptoed up the stairs while Irene turned off the
TV. Mrs. Donovan's eyes opened, the new silence having jarred her
"How was your night?" she asked, startling
"I didn't mean to wake you."
"Are you gonna stay down here or do you
want to go upstairs?"
"Oh, I'll go up in a minute." They remained
there for a moment, Mrs. Donovan's mind still groggy with sleep;
Irene wondering what her mother would hear about their night. Would
people be talking? Would she hear about her children's behavior
from someone down at the store or at the Laundromat? And, if so,
what would she say to them, how disappointed would she be?
"I was thinking we could go to the cemetery
tomorrow," Mrs. Donovan mumbled. "Go see Daddy. I think Matty would
like to." Her head leaned heavily to the side and she again fell
into slumber. Irene contemplated waking her, helping her up to her
bed, but then thought, why bother, and put the old ratty throw blanket
The running shower had announced their
return to Matthew. While Dan scrubbed his neck and arms, tried to
clean but not irritate the surface cut on his knee, Matthew stared
at the wooden post of his bed. His tears had ended and now he felt
that he had never been so drained and so awake at the same time.
He heard the wind sing past the window above him. It would snow
soon. It would be the holidays soon.
He wanted to see the family from Decatur,
the family from the accident. He thought that he could maybe just
see them, find out where they lived and check up on them, see if
they were okay. He wanted to know who they were, what kind of house
they had, if they had any pets. He hoped they had petsa dog
is good in bad situations, giving that unconditional love. Their
house was probably very warm and clean, with polished wood and doilies.
They had a savings account set up for their remaining daughter's
college. They were happy, but there was still the lingering pain.
The father would sometimes zone out at work, not thinking of the
accident specifically, but wondering if things could ever be the
same. The mother was often cold and short with her husband. The
child resented her parents' attention, the eggshell way they treated
her, the way they would fight in the next room but act as if nothing
was wrong when she was around.
And thisall of thiswas his
Irene pressed open Matthew's door and
"Are you still awake?" she whispered.
He wanted to say yes, but the word would not form. Instead he gathered
the blanket around his neck, letting her know that he was. She stepped
in slowly and looked down at her brother. His back was to her and
she could only see a tiny sliver of his face, but his eyes were
open. She sat on the side of the bed. "Are you okay?" No response.
"Mom wants to go see Daddy tomorrow."
Matthew shut his eyes in an attempt to
dam up the tears. His father. He could hardly remember the guy.
Dan appeared in the doorway in fresh white
boxers and tee shirt. His hair was wet and combed back in slick
lines. He looks so clean, Irene thought.
Is he awake? Dan mouthed. She nodded
and he came in and sat down next to his sister.
"Hey," he said quietly, placing a hand
on Matthew's shoulder. "I'm sorry, Matty." The words came freely,
nothing forced. This was his family. He leaned back onto
his side, his head propped up against the wall. Matthew knew he
meant it, but that still did not change anything. Did it?
They remained there for a long time, saying
nothing. Irene heard Dan's breathing change first, then Matthew's.
Their bodies slumped as if they had suddenly gained more weight.
She raised her feet to the bed, hugged her legs and let her head
fall to the side, temple against kneecap. She could see herself
and her brothers reflected in the mirror, the light whispering in
through the window, covering them like a bruise. After everything,
she thought, there they wereall of themin this mirror,
on this bed, at last, where no one could hurt them.