“A road trip,” said Alex, sounding hopeful for the first time in a long time. “To see Gramma. We can visit her and then go to the beach. We can rent a cottage in Galveston. We can rent a condo.”
“A condo?” I said, clamping the phone to my ear with my shoulder as I gathered tomatoes in the produce aisle.
“I have some news, Lauren. Can you get away this weekend, so we can talk?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “It’s a hundred and ten degrees. I have three open houses on Sunday. What do you mean, news?”
“Well, at least you have your priorities in order.” My brother sounded like he was pouting. I remembered the way he would hide under the kitchen table when our parents fought, refusing to come out.
I placed tomatoes on the scale, printing out the price and pressing it to a plastic bag. It was August in Austin, and the cost of tomatoes was rising with the temperatures. “Oh, Alex, I don’t know,” I said. “Just tell me the news. Is it good news?”
“I get it,” said Alex. “Mr. Cheapskate won’t let you out of his sight?”
I shut off my phone and stowed it in my handbag. I picked out a bunch of bananas, just a bit green, then gathered organic baby spinach, fresh thyme, and new potatoes. In the meat department, I asked for lamb and a pound of ground chuck. I passed the lobster tank, grabbed a six-pack of Lone Star and a bottle of cheap white. I tossed two boxes of strawberry granola and a pint of Mexican vanilla ice cream into the cart. Cheddar cheese, skim milk, bagels, baguette, warm tortillas, chocolate- chunk cookies. I was shopping for a family of five, it seemed, though it was just Gerry and me in the one-bedroom rental. I smiled when I thought of Gerry: the slight curl in his auburn hair, his broad shoulders. Gerry had been a wrestler in high school and still had a rangy, stocky build. He was my height, and when we swayed in the kitchen to a slow tune on the radio, we fit together like wooden jigsaw pieces. Like Illinois, nestled next to Missouri in my old puzzle of the United States.
By the register, I grabbed a lemon soda and a bouquet of tulips. I paid with my MasterCard, my shock at the total assuaged by the knowledge that I was earning a hell of a lot of airline miles. Besides, what was money for if not sumptuous evenings with your boyfriend? By the time Gerry finished work—or “work,” as he labored for himself, and what he was doing in the shed in his sweatpants was nothing I recognized as taxing or taxable—I would likely be curled in bed, asleep, but hope sprang eternal, and romance (I believed) was about faith and expensive groceries.
Though I had finished squiring around a couple named the Gelthorps by four, dropping them at the Four Seasons for dinner and discussment (Mrs. Gelthorp had assured me she’d call in the morning with an offer on either the Tuscan-style palace in Pemberton Heights or the Provençal villa in Westlake), it was already dark as I wheeled my booty out of Central Market. I angled the cart toward my Dodge Neon. I had hoped for a glamorous convertible, but Gerry had been firm, armed with a stack of old Consumer Reports and Epinions printouts. I unlocked the car, opened the trunk, and screamed when someone tapped me on the shoulder.
“I’m sorry,” said my brother, panting in the cool evening.
“How did you—”
“You had that calm I’m buying foodstuffs tone,” said Alex. “I rode my bike over.”
“From the hospital?”
Alex nodded. He wiped his forehead. “I came to say I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to insult Gerry.”
“It’s okay,” I said. “He is Mr. Cheapskate, after all.”
“I just think a trip would be fun. The two of us. We need to visit Gramma—and I’ll reserve the campsite, or condo, whatever. We haven’t camped since . . . since we were kids, you know? I’m feeling a bit mortal.”
My older brother filled me—always—with bafflement, irritation, and gratitude. He had never recovered, not really, from that morning. I had not made it all the way upstairs, so in some sense, I had been spared. By the time I saw my mother, she had been cleaned and made up, slipped into her favorite dress. He had taken care of me ever since. Instead of parents, I had Alex.
“When are you thinking?” I said.
“How about tomorrow? We can leave first thing in the morning.”
“Tomorrow! Can you help me with these bags?”
“Time’s wasting, sister,” said Alex, grabbing bags roughly and tossing them into the trunk.
“What does that mean?” I said. “Be careful—that’s wine!”
Alex placed the paper bag down gently. He turned around and held me by the shoulders. “Have you heard of Doctors Without Borders?” he asked.
“Oh, God,” I said. “I have a feeling I’m not going to like this news.”
“I applied last year,” said Alex. “And I just got my assignment. I’m going to Iraq, to Baghdad.”
“You . . .” I said, trailing off. I felt as if I had been sucker punched. “You can’t leave.”
“I’ll go in a few weeks,” said Alex gently.
“What about me?” I said.
“Lauren, this has nothing to do with you.”
In the Central Market parking lot, beneath the CITRUS FRENZY banner, I began to cry. “I’ll be all alone,” I said.
“Lauren, you’re thirty-two,” said Alex. “Get ahold of yourself.”
“Go to hell.” I threw the last bag in the car, slammed the trunk, and went around the side to the driver door, wiping my nose with my arm. I felt alarmed, woozy. I opened the door and tried to breathe evenly.
Alex ran to me and grabbed my elbow. “I knew you’d freak out,” he said.
“It’s so sudden,” I said.
Alex hugged me, smelling of sweat and fast food. “Let me just lock up my bike,” he said. “I’ll come over for dinner.”
Gerry and I lived in French Place, a historic neighborhood on the wrong side of the interstate. Fault lines made foundations crack and shift; while many houses looked great up top, there were problems under the surface. As opposed to Hyde Park, where professors and rich hippies lived, French Place was for the young and working-class. I loved it. Our landlord had painted the wood siding purple, which would not have been my choice—I preferred sage green—but the trim was a soothing yellow. Some people in our neighborhood went all out, with giant metal roosters or actual chickens in their yards, but we’d splurged on two lemon-colored chairs and a café table from Zinger Hardware and called it a day. When we had our fabulous pumpkin-carving party every year, nobody minded sitting on the steps or on one of the blankets we spread across the lawn.
Our street, Maplewood Avenue, was situated behind an elementary school. In the mornings, I could sit on our sagging front porch and watch kids arrive for school, their hair still mashed from bed, small fists rubbing their eyes. We had a house of bike messengers on one side of us and an elderly couple on the other side. Gerry and I often shared a cold six-pack with the neighbors.
When I turned onto Maplewood, I could see that the lights in our purple shed, which was now called “The Studio,” were still on. “How’s that all going?” asked Alex. “The, uh, podcast or whatever.”
I shrugged. Gerry had lost his job at Dell six months before, and after a week or so of moping around, he had declared his life’s dream. I thought my boyfriend’s “life’s dream” was finally getting me to marry him (he had been asking for years), but no. In his boxer shorts and a dell bowling ’08 T-shirt, Gerry had stood in the living room and announced that he was going to start a blog and begin calling himself “Mr. Cheapskate.”Wild-eyed, he showed me elaborate plans scrawled in a notebook he’d bought at Walgreens in the middle of the night.
“There’s this guy who loves wine, okay?” Gerry had said the next morning as I edged my way into the kitchen and began spooning coffee into the French press.
“Okay,” I said. I had to admit that he looked absurdly attractive with his unshaven face, his eyes alight.
“So he makes podcasts,YouTube videos, the whole nine yards. He talks about wine. And now he’s rich! And you know how I always wanted to be a stand-up comedian?”
“I thought you wanted to perfect neural networks,” I said.
“Before that, before that,” said Gerry. “When I was in high school, I wanted to be a stand-up comedian. I won talent shows, the whole nine yards.”
“You don’t really tell jokes or anything,” I ventured.
“ANYWAY,” Gerry snapped,“my point is that I have personality.”
“I’ll give you that,” I said. I put the kettle on to boil.
“So, and I’m cheap,” said Gerry. He was cheap, of this there was no doubt. Gerry refused to order coffee when we went to a coffee shop, insisting he could sip from my cup. He fished newspapers out of the trash and exited airplanes scanning the seat backs carefully, hoping for free magazines. He had a plastic accordion folder for coupons, he knew every two-for-one night in Austin, and he was happy to buy three cans of a Campbell’s soup flavor he didn’t especially like (broccoli cheese, for example) because the fourth can came for free. Tea bags in his wallet, a favorite free parking place downtown that required me to walk twenty minutes every time we went to hear a band, a house filled with crap from Freecycle. Yes, my beloved was cheap.
“I am going to be Mr. Cheapskate,” said Gerry. “I’ve already bought the domain name.”
“So you’re going to write about . . . about saving money?”
“Oh, hon,” said Gerry, “that’s just the beginning.” As I drank coffee and nibbled a stale scone, Gerry talked about blog ad revenue, webcasts, social networks, and later, T-shirt sales and personal appearances. He outlined his plans for the dilapidated shed, which was to become the center of the cheapskate empire. He was never going to work for “the man” again. In fact, he was working against the man!
I nodded and smiled, hoping against hope for an upturn in the real estate market, acknowledging with more than a little fear that my boyfriend might be turning into my deadbeat father.
Still, I felt a measure of pride as Alex and I pulled into the driveway and could see Gerry through the grimy shed window, his face illuminated by the halogen bulb he’d installed. “Still at it, eh?” said Alex.
I sighed. “He’s working really hard.”
Leaning against the car with our arms full of groceries, we watched Gerry gesticulate. His voice rose in the balmy night. “And they’ll tell you you have to get two of the same burgers to get the Hut’s two-for-one deal. But I’m here to give you the inside scoop, people. Your wife likes a cheeseburger, and you’re a plain-beef guy? Bring a slice of cheese in your pocket! And that’s the Mr. Cheapskate Secret Scam of the Day. So do good work, people, play hard, and BE CHEAP!”
“Whoa,” said Alex.
“He actually has a medium-sized audience,” I said.
“That’s great,” said Alex, starting to walk toward the house with his bag.
“It’s wonderful,” I said insistently. My dog, Handsome, came bounding out of the house to greet us, and I knelt down to scratch behind his ears.
Alex gave Gerry the big news as he made himself at home, opening the wine, pouring himself a glass. Then he said,“Before I go, I’m dragging Lauren on a road trip.” Gerry, unpacking the groceries, turned around to meet my gaze questioningly.
“It’s my final wish,” said Alex, taking the box of cookies out of Gerry’s hand and helping himself. “She can’t refuse me. Be- sides, we haven’t seen Gramma since after the Astros game last spring.”
“Please don’t be morbid,” I said. I sank into the couch, suddenly both ravenous and exhausted. “Or is it moribund?”
“Alex,” said Gerry,“I want you to know I really admire what you’re doing.”
“Jeez, Gerry,” said Alex,“thanks.”
“I think it’s ridiculous,” I said. “Doctors Without Borders? What’s wrong with borders? That’s what I’d like to know. I like borders. They make sense to me.”
Both Alex and Gerry ignored my commentary. As they ate the dinner I had so carefully prepared, they talked about how Alex would get to Iraq (Austin to JFK, then through Jordan, which had been our mother’s name and so seemed portentous, foreboding), what he was bringing (clothes, medicine, and lots of music), if perhaps the love of his life was also packing her stethoscope to join Médecins Sans Frontières (not likely but not impossible). I ate silently, then said I was headed to bed. No one seemed to mind.
I took two Tylenol PMs and lay on the memory-foam mattress I’d bought after I sold my first house. I listened to my brother and my boyfriend talk: a sweet lullaby.
“You’re still in your clothes,” said Gerry, unbuttoning my blouse.
“Is he going to die?” I said. “Do you think he wants to?”
“He didn’t pick Iraq,” said Gerry. “Doctors Without Borders could have sent him to Mexico or Thailand.” He put his warm hand on my stomach.
“But they didn’t,” I said.
Gerry kissed me. “I think a road trip is a great idea.”
“He’s really jazzed about it.”
“I know,” I said.
“Besides,” said Gerry,“I just checked: they’re having a special at Beachview Cabins in Galveston.You can write about it for Cheapskate on the Road.”
“I don’t even want to know.”
“Cheapskate on Holiday?” I touched my boyfriend’s cheek. “You really love this, don’t
you?” I said.
“Yes,” said Gerry.
“So you’ll attach a tripod and camera to the Dodge?”
While trying to think of a witty protestation, I fell deeply asleep.