You Have Reached Your Destination
Robert’s older brother had a heart attack. Of course he did, Robert thought. Glenn was obese and smoked a pack of Marlboros a day: the only mystery was when it would happen. So it happened. He survived.
“Amazing,” Robert said.
“What is?” said Glenn’s wife, Betsy, who phoned on Wednesday with the news.
“That he isn’t dead,” Robert said.
“Well, he isn’t,” Betsy said. “Are you coming down to see him?”
“To Baltimore?” Robert said.
“Yes, to Baltimore,” Betsy said. “Because that is where we live, and where you grew up, remember? You haven’t been down here in years. In a decade, I bet.”
Almost exactly a decade, Robert thought, not since his mother died, though Betsy and Glenn visited him in New York now and then. Glenn had children, three of them, to whom Robert dutifully gave Christmas presents Betsy picked out and wrapped, but he didn’t like children and he didn’t like Baltimore, and he wasn’t fascinated by Glenn and Betsy, either. Glenn was good-natured, everyone’s best friend. If he had died, his funeral would have been standing room only, featuring tearful eulogies and a profusion of flowers. At least he’d been spared that, Robert thought, as he packed his carry-on wheelie. He’d given a eulogy once in his life, for a college friend who’d drowned; he’d felt like an actor playing a man giving a eulogy, hollow and pretentious, a phony.
He took the train down to Baltimore on Friday afternoon and was met at the station by a very young woman who wore jeans and a tee shirt that read “Bertha’s Mussels,” the letters stretched wide across her breasts.
“Uncle Robert? It’s Lisa.”
“Lisa!” Robert said. “I didn’t recognize you.”
She laughed. “Then it’s a good thing I recognized you.” She led Robert to a dusty blue Beetle parked on the street outside the station and drove them north past bleak blocks of derelict row houses, corner stores, empty lots strewn with garbage, makeshift community churches.
“It’s always been like this,” Robert said.
Lisa nodded. “Yeah, it’s pretty rough downtown.”
“Why do you live here?” Robert said.
“Where else should I live?”
“I don’t know. New York, Los Angeles, Chicago. You’re an adult now, what are you, twenty-three? You can live anywhere you like.”
She regarded Robert out of the corner of her eye. She was compact and curvaceous, plump but firm. Her skin was too evenly tanned, Robert thought, to have gotten that way from the sun. Her eyes were Glenn’s, blue and slightly bulging, and she had her mother’s riotous blond curls. “My brothers live in D.C.,” she said, as if that made up for the fact that she’d stayed.
Soon the slums gave way to a wide parkway that eventually spilled into to a dense, tree-lined neighborhood of modest brick houses. Glenn’s colonial sat on a grassy rise above a short flight of cement steps from the street.
“Jesus it’s hot,” Robert said to no one. Lisa had gone ahead. He’d forgotten how he’d suffered during the summers here: suffocating humidity and prickly heat rashes, whole afternoons spent submerged in the YMCA pool.
Betsy came out of the house. She’d let her hair go gray since the last time Robert saw her, and she was carrying a tire of flab above the waistband of her slacks. She had been stunning when she was young, miles out of Glenn’s league, but somehow he’d convinced her to let him take her out, and then, even more surprising, to marry him. Robert supposed they had been happy, or happy enough to stay together. He had never been married and hadn’t wanted to be; the drama that invaded long-term relationships annoyed him to the point of disgust. When he wanted sex, he phoned a number that connected him to woman named Ming Lee.
“Glenn’s in the family room watching the Orioles,” Betsy said as she kissed Robert’s cheek. “He insisted on getting out of bed for your arrival, but don’t let him get excited, he really should be resting. He looks like hell. I wanted to prepare you.”
“What do you mean ‘like hell’?” Robert said.
“You’ll see,” Betsy said. “Go on in and say hello, he’s thrilled you came down.”
Inside the house, the window shades were drawn against the afternoon heat. Wiping a mustache of perspiration from his upper lip, Robert followed the familiar sound of a baseball game: the crack of the bat and the cheering crowd, announcer’s relentless commentary.
“What’s the score?” he said as he came into the room. Glenn was sitting in a recliner in front of the TV, next to a growling window unit. He turned and smiled. In contrast to his grayish white face, his teeth looked shockingly yellow. He was wearing a pale blue terry cloth robe and a pair of old loafers. His bare legs were hairless and spotted and looked strangely thin; his vast stomach was almost perfectly round. He struggled to get up, but Robert went to him before he could stand and hugged him awkwardly around his neck. He was glad Betsy had warned him that Glenn looked so ill.
“The Os are down,” he said. “I was hoping they’d make the play-offs, but it looks like they won’t even get close. How are you doing, Rob?”
“I should be asking you that,” Robert said.
“I’m bored out of my mind, and I’d give my last dime for a cigarette. Tell me something new! I’m sick of myself.”
“There’s not much to tell. Work is crazy as usual.” He worked in advertising for a company that had offices all over the world and traveled two weeks out of the month. He would have been in Berlin now if Glenn hadn’t had his heart attack. He sat down in an easy chair facing the recliner. The room was small and crowded with furniture, much of it from their late parents’ house. There was a pine side table whose legs had been viciously chewed by a beagle they’d had as children and a fake cherry veneer grandfather clock that Robert remembered his mother ordering from a catalog.
“That clock doesn’t run anymore,” he said. “Look, it’s frozen at ten fifteen. I can’t believe you kept it. It’s a piece of junk.”
Glenn loosened the sash of his bathrobe and tied it again more tightly. “I have fond memories, that’s why I kept it.”
Robert raised his eyes to the ceiling, where a small iron chandelier dangled from a cord. It had hung over his parents’ dining room table, perennially dusty, casting anemic light on their food. “You took every last little thing of theirs, didn’t you?” he said.
“You didn’t want any of it,” Glenn said.
“That’s not the point,” Robert said.
“There’s a point?”
Robert shrugged. Glenn was right, he hadn’t wanted their parents’ things, but it irritated him that Glenn had. Their parents’ unapologetic mediocrity had driven him away thirty-five years ago, but here was Glenn preserving their crappy stuff as if they were reminders of something magical. Their father had openly carried on with a variety of women—Robert’s fifth grade teacher being one of them—and their mother had meted out her anger on Robert and Glenn while being delightful to everyone else, including their father, which had been another reason to flee as soon as possible. Why didn’t Glenn remember? Or if he did remember, why did he pretend? Robert gazed at a painting of the Leaning Tower of Pisa on the wall that used to hang in their parents’ living room. Why that hideous picture of all the pictures they could have chosen? They had never even been to Italy.
On TV, the crowd roared as a player jogged around the diamond.
“Hot damn, a home run!” Glenn said. He smiled at Robert with his startling yellow teeth, more excited than he should have been.
The bookshelf in the family room was full of popular junk, whodunits and romance novels, as well as an intriguing little chunk of self-help books: The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, The Power of Now, Living Beyond Fear, The Joys of Imperfection, and You Are a Badass: How to Stop Doubting Your Greatness. Betsy managed alumni affairs for a private girls’ school; Glenn sold real estate. How much greatness was there to doubt?
“Those are Dad’s,” Lisa said from the doorway. The house was quiet. Glenn was asleep. The excitement of Robert’s arrival yesterday had exhausted him, Betsy said. Lisa joined Robert by the bookshelf. Today she was wearing a pink and green flowered halter dress that was so tight it looked like it hurt. “That’s what you’re wondering isn’t it? Whose books they are?”
“Not yet, but I would have,” Robert said.
“He buys them, but he doesn’t read them.” She pulled out The Joys of Imperfection and ran her finger along its uncracked spine. “I doubt he’d take any of the advice in these books even if he did read them. Dad’s got low self-esteem, Mom says. He’s a people pleaser. Eating and smoking are literally the only things he does purely for his own pleasure.”
“Those things almost killed him,” Robert said. “I doubt he’s pleased about that.”
Lisa bowed her head and hugged the book against her chest, her face clenching like a fist. Robert realized she was crying. “Oh don’t!” he said in a panicked voice. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen someone cry. “Your dad will be back to his old self very soon, I’m sure.”
“No, he won’t,” Lisa said. “His heart has been damaged. He could have another heart attack tomorrow, or next week, or next year. The doctor said his heart has been weakened so much that no matter how long he lives, he’ll never be well.”
Robert sat down in Glenn’s recliner and ran his hands over its grimy leather arms. A lifetime of Old Spice breathed from the headrest. Robert used to tease Glenn about wearing too much. “I don’t have any family but Glenn,” he said.
Lisa dabbed her eyes with the back of her wrist and blew her nose with a tissue she took from a shapeless leather purse. “What do you mean? You have us.”
“You hardly know me.”
“Doesn’t matter, you’re still my uncle. I can get to know you. Hey, why don’t we go out to lunch together?”
“That sounds nice,” Robert said absently. That Glenn wouldn’t get well hadn’t crossed his mind. He felt his heart skip. He put his hand to his chest. Nothing, a normal beat.
“I mean right now,” Lisa said.
“Now? Where?” Robert said.
“Wherever!” Lisa said. She grabbed Robert’s hands and dragged him out of the recliner. Though tears still glistened on her cheeks, she looked as if she’d never been upset.
“Wherever” turned out to be a low concrete building that had a neon Budweiser sign in its single window. Though it was around the corner from the neighborhood where Robert grew up, he’d never been inside. Lisa pulled into a lot beside the building and sprang out of the car. She dropped her purse on the pavement between her feet and fluffed up her curls with both hands. She’d meant to come here all along, Robert realized, even if she’d had to come alone.
“Lisa, this is a bar,” he said.
“Yeah, but it’s the coolest bar in Baltimore! Everyone comes here. They have great burgers. It’s nicer inside than it looks.”
It wasn’t nice inside. It was so dark he could hardly see where he was going, and there was an overwhelming odor of stale beer. They sat down at a varnished wooden table that felt sticky to the touch. There were several people at other tables; a few of them waved at Lisa. The bartender looked about her age, his sullen face shadowed in the wan light from a glass fixture above the bar.
“Your boyfriend?” Robert said, cocking his head toward the bar. He couldn’t think why else they would be here.
“Who, Jackson? Not on your life,” Lisa said. “Like I’d ever go out with a bartender.”
Robert chuckled. “With whom would you go out?”
“Somebody rich. I don’t want to be like my parents. You know, living in a shitty little house in a just-okay neighborhood. I want to live in the Valley in one of those big old houses, be a member of the country club out there.”
Robert sat back in surprise. He hadn’t thought of Glenn’s house as shitty, he’d always thought it was rather sweet, but he saw it now as Lisa did: a house not unlike the one he had grown up in and chafed to escape.
Jackson came over. Robert ordered a Diet Coke.
“A Heineken and a shot of Cuervo,” Lisa said. “Hey, you know what? Make that two shots.”
“No thanks, I don’t drink,” Robert said.
“Not for you, for me. What,” she said when Robert raised his eyebrows. “It’s Saturday, I’m allowed.”
Robert’s father had been a heavy drinker. Drunk people made him nervous: you never knew what stupid thing they would do. He weighed whether or not to tell Lisa to slow down, but in the order of things he wanted to say, it seemed the least important. “Why do you think you have to depend on a man to get you the things you want? Women are always talking about empowerment, so empower yourself. Get a business degree and make your own money.”
“I suck at school, I wouldn’t get through the first semester of an MBA. Besides, I want children, a family, the traditional stay-at-home mom thing.” She downed a shot of tequila and gazed out the window with the Budweiser sign as if something fascinating was happening beyond it. Outside, two women were talking on the sidewalk in front of the bar. Across the street was an auto mechanic’s garage, and beyond it, the huge twin steeples of the Cathedral of St. Mary Our Queen, where Robert and Glenn had endured the nuns from kindergarten through fifth grade. After a curiously long time, Lisa turned back to him. “I have gay friends.”
“Really.” What an odd thing to say, he thought. Then it dawned on him. “I’m not gay, Lisa. Is that what you think? Why, because I never married? That’s a pretty silly assumption to make.”
Lisa gaped at him. “I’m not assuming anything! Grammy told me you’re gay. She said that was why you moved away from Baltimore, because you were afraid of what people would think.”
“Grammy was lying,” Robert said. “I left town to get away from her, and she knew it. What a dreadful woman she was.”
“Don’t say that! I loved Grammy. Dad loved Grammy, too.”
“Your father is in denial about your grandmother. If he lacks self-esteem, it’s because of her. She treated us terribly when we were growing up.”
Lisa looked at him suspiciously. “Dad never said that.” She drained her second shot, finished her beer, and raised her hand to get Jackson’s attention. Robert understood she came here often, despite her grand ambitions. Had she fucked Jackson? He didn’t doubt it. She was his father reincarnated. One of the women from the sidewalk came in and sat at the bar. Up close, she looked like a prostitute: makeup thick as spackle and teased-up yellow hair. Ming Lee wouldn’t have been caught dead sitting alone at a bar.
“Two burgers, please,” he said when Jackson came over.
“No food,” Jackson said. He looked at Lisa. “The cook quit last week, you knew that.”
“Oops, I forgot,” Lisa said with a sly grin. “Well, they used to have great burgers.” She propped her elbows on the table, framing her deep cleavage with her forearms. “Come on, have a drink, Uncle Robert, don’t be so uptight. I figured you’d be fun, being from New York and all. But that was when I thought you were gay. I bet you are gay, though, gay as a three dollar bill, ’cause Grammy wasn’t a liar, and neither is Dad.”
“Your father never told you I was gay,” he said, though for all he knew, Glenn believed it too.
“No, I guess not,” Lisa admitted. She seemed to deflate a little.
“Just the check please,” Robert said to Jackson.
“When we’d go over to Grammy’s, she’d make us German chocolate cake,” Lisa said, gathering herself again. “And at Christmas she’d pretend Santa came to her house, too, so me and my brothers would get two stockings. She was the best.”
“Your grandmother was a narcissistic bitch,” Robert said, taking his wallet out of his back pocket. He gave Jackson two tens and waved away the change.
“You’re a bitch,” Lisa said. “Grammy was fantastic. She was the most amazing, kind, perfect human being I ever knew.” She fished her ring of keys out of her purse and dangled them on the tip of her finger. He noticed for the first time that her eye teeth were crooked, each overlapping the tooth beside it, reaching for its sister. “I’m the driver, remember? We’re not leaving until I say so, and I want another drink.”
“You’re already too drunk to drive,” Robert said. The hot stench of tequila hovered between them, an invisible nimbus amidst the general funk of the bar. He reached for the keys, but she snatched them away. He honestly didn’t care whether she drove or not. She probably drove drunk all the time.
The trees were tall now on Dunston Lane, casting dappled blue shade on proud lawns; the ornamental shrubs, azalea and rhododendron, were so lush their leaves seemed polished. The modest houses that had been built in the late seventies—thought of as “modern” when Robert was a kid—had settled snugly into the landscape as if they had always been there, but Robert remembered when the trees were so spindly they were anchored by wires, and the houses sat on their identical plots as if dropped, ready-made, from above. As the Uber approached the junction of Dunston and Belleview, he told the driver to slow down. He hunkered forward and watched through the windshield as a low white brick home came into view.
“Stop,” he said. He rolled down his window. The shutters were deep blue instead of black, and the copper beech had grown so high it shaded most of the lawn. Where his mother had planted pink and white impatience on either side of the stone path each spring, someone else had put in a jungle of hosta in shades of silvery green. The box bushes that flanked the front door were huge, clipped into perfect orbs. Forty years ago, they’d been shin-high shrubs threatened by every frost. He got out of the car and stood on the sidewalk.
“This isn’t your destination,” the driver said.
“I changed my mind,” Robert said. He walked up the path to the front door—deep blue to match the shutters—and pushed the doorbell. The button was in exactly the same place on the doorframe and also sounded the same, a common ding-dong-ding that stabbed him with dismay: he had only used the doorbell if he’d mislaid his keys.
A middle-aged woman opened the door, her face youthful and open beneath a neat cap of gray hair. In New York, a woman as pretty as she was would have colored her hair, Robert thought.
“Hello, excuse me,” he said. “I grew up in this house. You don’t know me from Adam, but I thought I might be able to come in and look around.” He laughed at himself. The absurdity of his request surprised even him. He could be a robber, a rapist; a con man.
“You must be Glenn’s brother!” the woman said. “Glenn sold me this house when your mother passed. It’s Rob, right?”
“Robert,” he said. “You know Glenn?”
“Oh everybody knows Glenn,” the woman said. “I’m so sorry about his heart attack. You’re visiting him, of course.” She opened the screen door wide to let Robert pass through. “I guess you’ll find the place has changed a lot, but the bones are still the same. I’m Judy Hallet, by the way.”
Robert stepped into a cone of pale light. Beam me up, Scotty, he thought as he looked up at a round frosted glass skylight.
“The hallway was so dark,” Judy said. “It was a cinch to put that in.”
“It was dark,” Robert agreed. “We used to keep a light on here even in the daytime.” The lamp had sat on a table just inside the door, a knockoff Lladró figurine holding a shaded bulb like a torch. To the right off the hallway was a rectangular room that Robert’s mother had called the “parlor.”
“I put in the French doors,” Judy said as he followed her in. “It’s nice to be able to just walk out into the garden, and I always wanted French doors, they’re so elegant, don’t you think?”
Robert looked around in a daze. He and Glenn hadn’t been allowed to go into this room when they were growing up. Reserved for guests who never arrived, parties never thrown, it had been a formal, chilly place that hadn’t tempted him at all. Judy had painted the walls yellow and filled the room with comfortable furniture, a pillowy couch and two stuffed armchairs, all facing a brick fireplace that Robert’s parents had ignored. A newspaper lay open on the low coffee table next to an empty mug. Colorful abstract paintings hung on the walls.
“I’m an artist,” Judy explained. “The paintings are mine, I’m afraid.”
“They’re beautiful,” Robert said. “This room is brilliant. I don’t even recognize it.”
“No, it was rather gloomy. But that was the way our parents decorated, wasn’t it? It was their idea of classy.”
“Was it?” Robert said. He hadn’t thought of his parents aspiring to anything, though mother had been hyper-conscious of what “people” thought. She had been unfailingly proper, despite, or perhaps because of, her husband’s affairs. Robert remembered being made to write thank-you notes for even a night spent at a friend’s house, and both he and Glenn had been kept to a strict code of public manners. Any transgression was a reflection on her: an untucked shirt or an elbow on a table was enough to earn them her fury later on. Robert had been a straight A student, a member of the student council, a champion debater. Glenn had been gifted at drawing and painting, which branded him as odd at school. He had given it up in college. What was the point if he wasn’t going to be a success? their mother had said, taking Glenn’s failure, as always, for granted. Then what was the point of doing anything? Robert had thought. But he hadn’t stuck up for Glenn, hadn’t urged Glenn to stand up for himself. They’d protected themselves, not each other.
“You know, Glenn used to be an artist,” he told Judy.
“Is that right?” Judy said. “He never told me. I wouldn’t have guessed.”
“I had forgotten until just now,” Robert said. “In high school. He was good, really good. He shouldn’t have given it up.”
“You must be curious to see the bedrooms,” she said. “Which one was yours?”
“Glenn and I shared the one at the end of the hall.”
“But there are three bedrooms,” she said.
“One was for guests,” he said. The “spare” room it had been called, another off-limits place. The only people who stayed in it were his mother’s aunt and, twice, an army friend of his father.
“Well, I use yours as my studio, and the other as my office. I sleep in the master bedroom.” She opened the door to the bedroom. “Ignore the mess. I didn’t do anything but give it a fresh coat of paint, though I thought about having a skylight in here as well.”
His parents had slept in separate beds, and the window shades had always been drawn. The only decorations he could recall were a wooden crucifix on the wall between the beds and a china bowl on the chest of drawers that held safety pins and extra buttons. His mother’s strap had hung on a nail in the closet.
“I was afraid to go into this room when I was a kid,” he said. “Our mother used to beat us in here. She had a horrible temper; you never knew what would set her off. I could usually talk my way out of trouble, but Glenn got the worst of it, she never spared him. I would hear him screaming with every slap of the strap.” Unconsciously, he put his hands to his ears. “I would run out of the house to the end of the road and hide in that little wooded patch between Dunston and Grant Avenue.”
Judy stared at him. “Your mother? Ada? But she and Glenn were so close. I remember he was terribly broken up when she died. I only met her a few times around town, but she seemed like a lovely woman.”
“You don’t believe me,” Robert said.
“No, of course I do if you say so. But . . . there aren’t any woods between Dunston and Grant that I know of, there’s a gated community and a Giant that’s been there since I was a child.”
“It was torture growing up in this house,” Robert said.
Judy shifted from one foot to the other and crossed her arms over her chest. “Then why did you want to see it in that case?”
She thought he was crazy, Robert realized. His eyes grew hot as he looked around the room. She had painted the walls lavender and put rose curtains at the two windows that faced the quiet street. It was a feminine room, serene and cozy. He moved his gaze to the closet door. His mother stood there as if bolted to the floor, holding the long brown strap in one hand. Her lips were razor thin, her eyes narrow and filled with ire. She wore a pair of navy blue slacks and a white cardigan with crystal buttons that Robert recognized. “I came because I wanted to remember,” he said. “Because it seems I’m the only one who does.” He blinked, and his mother disappeared. Oh, if only it had been as easy as that, he thought. He turned and left the room.
In the car on the way back to Glenn’s house, he made up his mind to return to New York that afternoon. He looked up train times on his phone, checked his voicemail for messages. He would take Ming Lee out to dinner; they would talk about politics and drink too much wine.
“Trouble ahead,” the driver said as they turned onto Glenn’s street and pulled up behind an ambulance that was idling in front of the house, its roof light rotating sluggishly.
You have reached your destination, the GPS announced.
“Hang on,” Robert said to the driver. He watched the house, his temples booming like kettledrums. All was quiet; no one came or went. After a few minutes, Lisa’s Beetle drove down the street and parked on the opposite side of the ambulance. She got out and stumbled up the steps, righted herself, and ran into the house. Robert looked at the palms of his hands; they were glistening with sweat.
“Is this where you want to be or what?” the driver said.
“No it’s not,” Robert said. “But here I am anyway.”