Mother is cleaning the spoons again. From where I sit in the kitchen, I can see the reflection of her trippy-looking head: bulbous skull, stretched down mouth, eyes that scoop away at the rest of her face. A droop-faced woman. Jeeeez. Just look at her. She’s rubbing the holy crap out of those spoons. Poor, silvery utensils.

That’s what it felt like to be her kid, too.

They were Fobbits because, at the core, they were nothing but marshmallow.  Crack open their chests and in the space where their hearts should be beating with a warrior’s courage and selfless regard, you’d find a pale, gooey center.  They cowered like rabbits in their cubicles, busied themselves with PowerPoint briefings to avoid the hazard of Baghdad’s bombs, and steadfastly clung white-knuckled to their desks at Forward Operating Base Triumph.  If the FOB was a mother’s skirt, then these soldiers were pressed hard against the pleats, too scared to venture beyond her grasp.

Like the shy, hairy-footed Hobbits of Tolkien’s world, they were reluctant to go beyond their Shire, bristled with rolls of concertina wire at the borders of the FOB.  After all, there were goblins in turbans out there!  Or so they convinced themselves.

Before I came to stay at the Manse I lived in an old townhouse on the north side of Washington Square, where my cousin Max and I rented rooms from a middle-aged German man named Gerhard Gottlieb, the uncle of one of Max’s old flames. I was never entirely sure what business Gerhard was in, but he was usually out of the country, and he gave us the run of the place in his absence, provided we walk his dog, a purebred boxer named Ginger, and feed the tropical fish in his enormous Victorian aquarium. Max and I were the only ones paying rent, but there were often two or three others staying on the vacant floor above us. We were all “in the arts,” as we liked to say with intense but undirected irony, which is what left us free to take Ginger out during the day and to spend our nights entertaining ourselves in that old house, drinking bourbon and smoking those thin, elegant joints that we all rolled so easily.

Chapter 24

“Yes,” I said, “I am a member of Joseph DeLucca’s immediate family.”

“And exactly how are you related?”

“He’s my brother.”

“Why is it, then, that you have a different last name?”

“We’re half- brothers.”

“I’m skeptical,” the hospital Nazi said.

Anna was a good wife, mostly.

It was mid-afternoon, and the train she rode first wrenched then eased around a bend in the track before it pulled into Bahnhof Dietlikon at thirty-four past the hour, as ever.  Cliché though it may be, the fact is absolute: Swiss trains run on time.  The S8 originated in Pfäffikon, a village thirty kilometers south.  From Pfäffikon, its route sliced upward past the Oberland, through Horgen on the Zürichsee’s south bank, through Thalwil, Kilchberg.  Tiny towns in which tiny lives were led.  From Pfäffikon, the train made thirteen stops before it reached Dietlikon, the tiny town in which Anna’s tiny life was led.  Thus the ordinary fact of a train schedule modulated Anna’s daily plans.  Dietlikon’s bus didn’t run into the city. Taxicabs were expensive and impractical.  And while the Benz family owned a car, Anna didn’t have a license.

The Night Before

1.

My brother Henry gets out of prison tomorrow. He called to say that he’s supposed to be released somewhere around nine in the morning, but he couldn’t know the time for sure. Sometimes they let you out an hour or two early, sometimes an hour or two late. That’s what he said, at least. He got angry toward the end of the call, ranting about how they had no respect for anyone’s time, and he said he expected them to treat the cons that way, but what about the people picking them up? As if just knowing a con meant you didn’t deserve respect either?

I told him I didn’t know.

132. Davis, California

Back on the greenbelt, this time with Fenton the dog and Liam, big brother showing little brother the ropes. If you have spent every day of your life, as Liam has, on a ranch in Colorado, the tiniest things can impress you. Streetlights, water sprinklers, fire trucks, bicycles, roller blades. Everywhere he looks, so many people, each one of them the keeper of a potential pet.

teeth

Mama always hid her mouth when she laughed. Even when she spoke too gleefully, mouth stretched too wide by those happy muscles, teeth too visible. I can still recognize someone from my neighborhood by their teeth. Or lack of them. And whenever I do, I call these people family. I know immediately that I can trust them with my dog but not with the car keys and not to remember what time, exactly, they’re coming back for their kids. I know if we get into a fight and Johnny shows up we’ll agree that there has been “No problem, Officer, we’ll keep it down.”