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The Fiction Issue 2008

Stille Nacht

Blake is one of the most observant, meticulous authors we know, and he specializes in writing biographies of other writers—a very tricky thing to do well.
Κείμενο Blake Bailey

Blake is one of the most observant, meticulous authors we know, and he specializes in writing biographies of other writers—a very tricky thing to do well. His first piece for us was on the downfall of cult author Alfred Chester. An excerpt from his forthcoming John Cheever bio,

Cheever: A Life

, graced our History Issue a few months ago. In this issue, we feature a rare piece of fiction by Blake. We hope it’s the first of many.


Story read by: The indefatigable Mr. Bailey.

When I came home for the holidays, my crazy older brother Todd—fresh out of prison—picked me up at the airport in Oklahoma City. Our mother couldn’t come because she’d invited some friends for lunch and had to stay home and cook. In the crowded baggage area I saw him before he saw me. Amid that crowd of prosaic Okies he burned with a kind of lunatic charisma: eyes wide, head bobbing, bounding around on his toes—a jaybird determined to catch a worm.

He spotted me and bounded over. I dropped my bag and went limp to absorb the pummeling.

“Zwieb!” he said, after he’d set me back on my feet. He’d called me Zwieb from the time I was ten or so—this was short for the German


, onion, and had begun as a malicious gloss on my breath:


, or onion mouth. Now, twenty-five years later, he was still about two inches taller but not as bulky as I’d become in my sedentary thirties; one object of his rough greetings, I always thought, was to establish that he was still the stronger of the two. Also, of course, he loved me and was low on impulse control.

While we waited for the rest of my luggage, Todd talked and talked. He told me about his hepatitis C as if for the first time, having evidently forgotten the times he’d mentioned it in letters. He seemed perfectly at ease with it. With a kind of rueful amusement he remembered the days when he and his friends would share the same dirty needle, hell, for



at a time. Just a bunch of kids. Then he started talking about something else. “Really?” I’d say, or “Wow” or “Hm,” and when I’d hear Todd barking with sudden laughter, I’d laugh a bit too.

The roads were icy but he drove his old BMW fast as ever. The car had been handed down from our father, who, many years before, had bought it as a kind of reward for divorcing our mother; she, in turn, had kept it in storage for Todd while he was in prison. He was delighted to be driving again. Undaunted by any number of wrecks, he’d always prided himself on his ability to maneuver under adverse conditions, and now he was taking turns at top speed with only a touch of tailspin, or coming to a slippery stop in the nick of time—talking, talking.



’s going into my lawsuit!” he proclaimed at a stoplight.

His new tagline. He planned to sue the Oklahoma City Police and Department of Corrections; indeed he thought of little else.

“Let’s not talk about that, okay?”

It was the first thing I’d said in a long while, and we were both a bit startled by the anger in my voice.

“About what?”

“Your ‘lawsuit.’”

His eyes narrowed on the road and he said, “Fine.” The talking stopped.

Todd was staying with our mother until he got back on his feet. It wasn’t working out. At first he’d agreed to hold himself to two beers a day—and no liquor or drugs—but that soon became three, and so on from there. Two nights before, in a drunken rage, he’d rammed a knee in her groin and left her writhing on the floor. She told me about it on the phone.


“Call the police!” I said.

“I can’t do that.”

“Fine. I’ll call them. Better yet, I’ll kill the bastard myself.”

“Don’t say that. Don’t talk like that. Listen, he doesn’t know what he’s doing. Today he didn’t even remember.”

“Right, and he won’t remember the next time either, or the time after that, and before you know it he’ll kill you. You have to get him


of there.



But she insisted we wait until Christmas was over. “And don’t worry,” she said. “He’ll move out on his own. He doesn’t want to live with me either. I’m just a ‘lonely old cunt’ who nags him all day and won’t let him drink. Let’s just try to get through Christmas, okay?”

From the airport to her place in the country took maybe forty-five minutes at top speed. Hearing the dogs bark, she came out to greet me. From a distance I thought she looked great—thinner than I’d seen her in fifteen years. Then I saw how haggard she looked. She hugged me and wouldn’t let go. I tried a bit of levity: “Hey,


for sending Todd to get me!” I said, but she only clutched me harder and shook her head against my chest. “I had to


,” she said with a tragic German intonation. We walked arm in arm back to the house, Todd bounding ahead with my luggage.

Our guests had already arrived, a very old couple named Mathers and their lesbian daughter. My mother had met the Matherses some thirty years ago at a “discussion group” in the suburbs; they were nice folks who made a hobby of various left-wing causes. Mrs. Mathers was the crankier of the two: When I was a kid, she dragged me along to an antinuke rally at the state capital, and now her deal was the pollution associated with chicken farms. Shrunken with age and cancer and God knows what else, she held forth on the subject while her husband smiled benignly. Every few minutes she’d lapse into a pettish silence and chew her food, exhausted, whereupon the daughter would start chatting about her travels.


They knew about Todd, of course, and Todd knew they knew. Every little gesture of his was calculated with this in mind. He was elaborately well mannered and spoke with a kind of fussy Latinate pretension—“indubitably,” etc.—alert to the effect he was having on the rest of us.

Later we sat around the living room drinking coffee and talking about the past. Todd was still at the table having some kind of soul chat with the daughter. Old Mrs. Mathers had talked herself out about chicken farms and wasn’t much interested in reminiscing. She sat slumped in her chair, dazed and gloomy.

“We need to go!” she’d croak from time to time, and my mother would tell her it was early and Mr. Mathers would pat her arm in a mollifying way.

I wondered why my mother was dragging this out, when Todd’s laugh split the air and it occurred to me that the Matherses made her feel safe. Nothing very bad could happen around such dull, decent people. If nothing else Todd would put off getting drunk.

Finally, as night fell, they left. Mr. Mathers and I stood on either side of his wife and helped her totter across the gravel, while the daughter gave my brother a hug and urged him to call her anytime (“I


that, Todd: anytime”). I waved goodbye to our guests, confident I’d never see them again, and wandered back inside to some bookshelves along a hall. I was through being sociable. I meant to grab a few volumes of my mother’s photo albums (some forty in all) and retire to a back room to ponder our family saga.


“Hey, Zwieb.”

My brother stood beside me with a large, half-empty glass of beer in his hand. Already there was a subtle change in his manner: He breathed in careful, hissing doses and stood a bit more formally than before.

“How d’you like being a teacher?” he asked.

Whenever he’d asked me about my job in the past, I’d always said “Fine” and added some sort of disclaimer about the pain-in-the-ass principal or pain-in-the-ass parents—this to make him feel better about lacking any professional status himself. Now I said something about the pain-in-the-ass kids, how thirteen was a difficult age and so on.

“Thirteen,” Todd said huskily. He gave me a little push. “Hey, Zwieb, you ever fuck one of your students?”

“No,” I said. “Not yet.”

“Man.” He shook his head and sipped his beer. “Thirteen.”

I excused myself and proceeded to the back room. Shut the door. Sat in the gathering dusk. After a while I turned on a lamp and realized I’d forgotten to grab those photo albums; since their retrieval would mean leaving the room and possibly bumping into Todd again, I picked up a book from the lamp table and tried to read. By now Todd and my mother were having a loud discussion in the living room; I could hear bits and pieces if I listened. Most of what Todd said, as ever when he was drunk or getting that way, was liberally sprinkled with the word


in various forms.

“Fuck that,” I heard him say. “If you fucking think I’m getting a job, then you don’t fucking know the first thing about me!”


He didn’t sound particularly aggressive. Rather he seemed amused by the fact that, after all these years, our mother still didn’t understand him.

“But what will you do?”

“I’ve always gotten by, you don’t have to fucking


about it.”

“But I’m curious, Todd. You can’t stay here forever.”

“I don’t need your…”

What I mostly noticed was the pains our mother took not to provoke him: She kept him going with ingenuous little questions and sometimes laughed at his answers, careful to make it clear she was laughing with rather than at him.

After a while it petered out—his chair gave a loud creak as he lurched to his feet and my mother sighed, “Not another beer, Todd,


”—and he paid me a visit. He stood in the corner of the room wearing briefs and an olive-drab t-shirt left over from his army days, the only lasting employment he’d ever known.

“… and I just want to grab the fucker by the scruff of his neck”—he was talking about a celebrated wide receiver for the Dallas Cowboys who’d had a number of setbacks related to an incorrigible drug habit—“and say, ‘Listen, you stupid nigger: Stop acting like a fucking six-year-old and get off your pathetic lazy ass and get your shit together…’”

This from a person who’d just spent three years in prison for crack-cocaine possession (etc.) and only minutes before had laughed at the very idea of ever getting a job. In the past, such was our odd rapport, I would have assayed some witticism or pointed remark—“I can think of any



of people who’d benefit from such advice”—but this time I hesitated, too bemused or perhaps intimidated to speak. He broadened his attack to include black people in general.

“Face it, Zwieb, niggers are despicable. In prison it’s all about who’s the biggest


and who’s fucked the most


and, you know,


the most people.”

I was sorry to hear Todd say this. One of his most endearing traits had always been a steadfast sympathy for black folks and others who weren’t treated fairly by the world. His hero (along with John Lennon) had been Muhammad Ali at a time when I myself thought the man was a cocky bastard who needed to get his head knocked off.

“But Todd, these are


people. These are people in


. I mean, you don’t meet a lot of quality people in prison—yourself excepted, no doubt.” He laughed at that, albeit in a way that made me proceed more earnestly. I said that it was more a question of class than race. I pointed out that my own black students were mostly middle-class and pretty much indistinguishable from their white counterparts, which wasn’t strictly true but I thought it best not to get bogged down in nuance.

“I mean racism is pretty cretinous, Todd. I hope it’s just a passing phase.”

He stood swaying a bit in his underwear, thinking it over, and I glanced wistfully at my book. Finally he gulped the dregs of his beer and daintily smacked his lips, as though he were drinking it just for the taste, then squeezed my shoulder a bit too hard and left the room.


The next morning he was full of beans. I’d slept on the couch in the living room—the spare bedroom was taken by Todd and his things—and I awoke to the huff and thump of calisthenics. It was very cold outside and Todd wore a stocking cap but no shirt. He was in good shape, remarkably so for a drunk, but then he’d always had better muscle tone than I.

“Sorry, Zwieb,” he said, huffing briskly through some jumping jacks, “but I couldn’t wait any longer. Gotta get some PT in.”

“By all means.”

He counted fifty, flourished a hand, and trotted out the door. I smelled coffee and found my mother in the kitchen feeding her cats—or rather opening cans and mixing wet food with dry, though no cats appeared. In the past they’d always swarmed purring around one’s legs, all seven or eight of them (with more outside), rushing into the kitchen at the first click of the can opener.

“Where are they?” I asked. “Where’s Sam and Sophie and—”

I realized I hadn’t seen a single cat since I’d arrived. But here was my mother feeding them.

She shook her head. “They’re hiding. They won’t come out until Todd’s been gone awhile. I think he


something to them.” She gave a gusty sigh.

“Poor sweetie.”

“At first I had to make excuses to get him out of the house so they’d eat. ‘Todd, have you weeded the garden yet?’ Something like that. But then he got so goddamn


I couldn’t ask him to do anything, so I just said, ‘Todd, get outta here! The cats need to eat!’” My mother’s cats were the love of her life. Her frown trembled with a tough look; she was trying not to cry. “And he said, ‘Let ’em eat, then.’ And I said, ‘Don’t gimme that, buster. You know they won’t eat around you.’ And he gives me this innocent look. ‘Why not?’ ‘Because,’ I said”—she leveled a spatula at my face as if I were Todd—“‘they



you!’” She nodded with satisfaction. “Son of a bitch.”

“Well, but he exercises,” I said. “That’s a good sign.”

“That’s for your benefit.”

“But he’s got such a flat stomach.”

“I think he throws up a lot.”

Later that afternoon he suggested a trip to the liquor store.

“Zwieb,” he said in a stagy whisper. “There’s no liquor in the house.”

“Well,” I said, “but that’s part of the deal, Todd. You’re not supposed to have liquor, right?”

My poor mother, I thought. In order to reform a lunatic she’d sacrificed one of the great comforts of her life (and mine), the nightly martini. Her cats were another comfort. That left gardening, grocery shopping, and cooking.

“It’s her house,” I added.

He socked me playfully in the arm. “C’mon, Zwieb! It’s almost Christmas! Don’t you want a cocktail?”

And so on. He was driving to the liquor store one way or the other, but it would look better if he did so at least partly on my behalf. Two against one. I told him he was captain of his soul, a middle-aged man with a car, and if he wanted to go to the liquor store I wouldn’t stop him. As for our mother, what could she do?

“Fuck right!”

He wasn’t whispering anymore, provoked by my “middle-aged man with a car” remark. A minute later he whacked out the door, tripping a bit on the ice when my mother called, “Todd, where are you going?” He didn’t answer.

“He’s off to the liquor store,” I said, and she sagged against the wall.


The fact was, we both wanted a drink in the worst possible way, and as soon as Todd’s car had sizzled into the distance my mother asked me to retrieve some brandy she’d stashed under her bed. She stayed put in the kitchen. Once the drinks were poured she staggered to the breakfast bar and we stood slumped on either side, talking and drinking. I told her the situation was bad, worse than I’d expected, and she agreed with a heavy nod. She wanted to be rid of him but didn’t quite know how to go about it. She told me other things he’d said and done in the two months he’d been there, none so bad as kneeing her in the groin (she showed me the nether part of a hideous bruise on her inner thigh) but ominous in terms of their escalating audacity.

After a while we noticed the time and agreed Todd had been delayed. It didn’t take more than an hour to drive to the liquor store and back.

“Maybe he’s dead or injured,” I said hopefully.

My mother sighed, “

Unkraut vergeht nicht

,” a favorite German proverb of hers:

Weeds don’t die

. The phone rang. We knew it was Todd. I think we even knew why. This had been going on for a quarter of a century, after all.

Sure enough he’d wrecked the old BMW.

“How bad is it?” my mother asked. The word


squawked out of the receiver at intervals. My mother went on questioning him with a sort of meek Socratic irony.

“Whose fault is it?… Are the police there?… Are you drunk?”


Alas, he was sober, more or less, and the liquor he’d bought at the store was still unopened, which meant he wouldn’t be arrested on the spot. In fact he’d only gotten a ticket for reckless driving, and what’s more, the obliging policemen were going to bring him back to us safe and sound.

A little later Todd banged through the door lugging a large plastic storage bin he’d kept in the trunk—an essential item from the days, pre-prison, when he’d lived out of his car. But his car was no more. What was left was the bin, which clanked and tinkled as he laid it heavily on the kitchen floor. It was full of clothes and the bottles he’d bought at the liquor store. Brazenly he uncapped a liter of Jack Daniel’s and took a lavish swig. “Ahhh!” he said, and belched.

“Todd, you can’t drink that in here!”

My mother.

“Yeah, Todd,” I said, “drink it



Nobody laughed. With one bloodshot eye on both of us, he took another swig and belched again.

They wrangled a while over whether Todd had any right to drink liquor in my mother’s house. Todd’s position was that life was one fucking thing after another, and now he’d lost his car, a car that had served him faithfully for six years (three if you considered his prison term), and by God in light of all that he was going to get drunk and nobody was going to stop him.

It made sense to me. I said, “Look. I’m going to the other room to watch TV. Todd, I don’t care if you drink yourself to



, but could you do it in your own room and quietly, please? And Ma. Give it a rest already. I mean really, who the fuck cares?”

Neither replied. They were waiting for me to leave. They still had a lot to say to each other and I had no part in that discussion. I was an outsider; I didn’t grasp the principles at stake, and they weren’t going to explain them to me.

A few hours later I lay awake in the dark, an iron poker within reach under the couch. A faint light from my brother’s room was visible in the hall. Every half hour or so the following would occur: My mother would pad lightly through the living room, so not to wake me, and turn down the thermostat in the hall; my brother, drunk, kept turning it up to eighty or so. Then she’d open my brother’s door—quietly—and hiss at him to leave the thermostat alone and go to


already. Todd would remonstrate after a fashion. This would go on for maybe fifteen minutes, then my mother would return to her room. Moments later Todd would turn up the thermostat again, the vents would roar, and soon my mother would pad lightly through the living room, etc.

At one point I distinctly heard my brother say, “You touch that thermostat again I’m gonna fucking



The tension must have overwhelmed me, because I fell asleep after that. My mother woke me in the morning. She was kneeling beside the couch.

“Now that his car’s gone he’ll never leave!” she said in a gaspy hysterical whisper. “You have to tell him to go! You have to get him out of here!”


“So what finally happened with the thermostat?” I asked.

She shot an anxious glance over her shoulder. Beckoned me into the hall. Todd’s door was slightly ajar. She pushed it aside—a chilly whiff of bourbon and body odor ensued—and there was Todd, naked, in a shivering fetal lump beside a floor vent. My mother had outlasted him


the thermostat, a Pyrrhic victory to be sure; he’d passed out before he could kill her. She closed the door and tugged me into the kitchen.

“What am I going to do?” she asked.

I’d given this a lot of thought. I reminded my mother that she was supposed to take me into town that day so I could rent a car and see a few friends; instead we’d go to the police and arrange for Todd’s removal from the premises.

My mother looked doubtful. “You mean have him arrested?”

“Well, if that’s what it takes, sure.”

“No, sweetie.” She shook her head. “I can’t


that. He’s on parole. They’ll send him back to prison.”

“You say that as if it were a bad thing.”

“But it’s almost



“He threatened to kill you last night! He


kill you.” Her head was still wagging faintly, so I threw my trump card. “Think of your cats.”

About an hour later I heard Todd stirring and caught a glimpse of him as he slipped out the door and hurried into the bathroom. His face was set with a kind of dignified petulance. He took a long, an endless shower, rushed back to his room with eyes averted (petulantly), and finally emerged wearing a respectable sweater and slacks. He took his place behind my mother in the kitchen and waited to be noticed; she went on chopping onions. At last he spoke with a fussy little clearing of his throat:


“I apologize for whatever


my behavior might have caused you last night. I suppose I was feeling, you know,


, given that I’d lost the only possession that really matters to me in the whole world, but I guess that’s no reason to, ah, to


my bad fortune on others. So I hope we can put this behind us and enjoy our Christmas.”

The speech—three parts self-pity and one part contrition—was not apt to move even the softest heart to forgiveness, and my mother was not moved. I did notice, however, a slight flicker of guilt around her mouth.

“What d’you want in your omelet?” she asked in a neutral voice.

Somehow we got through breakfast amid a thin, gruesome dribble of chat, and finally, with the exhilaration of tunneling convicts, my mother and I made it out to the car. Todd was framed wistfully in the doorway, watching us. He’d wanted to see me off at the car-rental agency.

We sat in a cubicle opposite a police officer, who asked my mother a series of deadpan questions and jotted some notes.

“And you say he’s violent?”



violent. He drinks!”

The man made note of this. “So he hasn’t actually done anything to you?”

“Can’t we just take him to the hospital?” my mother pleaded. “I want to


him. He needs



“He’s violent,” I told the policeman. “He assaulted her and he’s capable of worse. A lot worse. Last night he threatened to kill her.”

“He did not!”


“He did too.”

“He was drunk!”

“Right. He drunkenly threatened to kill her, and he’s drunk most of the time. It’s like saying he was breathing at the time.” The cop mirthlessly jotted this down, and I mentioned Todd’s recent prison term and a few other milestones. “He needs to be institutionalized,” I said. “A mental hospital would be nice, I guess, but we’ll settle for prison.”

“We will


!” said my mother.

The man put down his pencil. Arching his eyebrows as he scanned his notes, he advised us that the best they could do was remove Todd as a trespasser. They’d be happy to do this.

“Can’t you take him to a hospital?” my mother asked.

“With his consent, sure.”

I laughed.

“So,” he said, frowning in a noncommittal way. “Would you like him removed from the premises?”

“Yes,” I said. “Please.”

We rendezvoused with a police car about a mile from my mother’s house. One of the cops was a burly guy in his fifties with a walrus mustache that seemed to underline or objectify the gravity of the situation; he explained what was about to go down. He assured my anxious mother that Todd wouldn’t be arrested or molested in any way as long as he didn’t resist. He advised us to stay in the background and let them handle it. His partner, a tense younger fellow, gave a sharp affirmative nod:

Just so


Todd didn’t answer the door right away. I worried that he’d spotted the police car and bolted out a back window—waiting in the woods until the coast was clear so he could kill us—but then the door swung open and there was Todd. For a moment he registered faint surprise: His eyes narrowed and he seemed to incline his head; then, darting his eyes at me, my mother, and back at the cops, he said:


“Won’t you come in, officers?”

When sober, Todd understood that it didn’t pay to mince words with cops; it was one nugget of wisdom he’d culled from his dark sojourn. His voice was soft, concerned—

What could the trouble be

?—and when the tense cop asked him to step away from the door, Todd obliged with hasty composure. Then, with an almost comic diffidence—a mildly flustered butler—he invited the cops to follow him into the living room and have a seat. They remained standing. Todd asked if they minded whether


sat; they did not. Todd arranged himself in a chair, crossing his legs, and waited for the matter to be explained to him.

“Sir,” said the walrus mustache, “your mother would like you to leave her house.”

Todd gave our mother a wondering look:

Surely not


“Todd, you need help,” she said. “You’re an alcoholic and you need help.”

“An ‘alcoholic’?” He slowly shook his head, as though he didn’t quite get the joke. “Because I got a little drunk last night, I’m suddenly an ‘alcoholic’?”

I thought about interjecting a scornful laugh at that point, but decided to stand on my dignity. I sighed and gave the officers a vaguely pained look.

“Todd,” said my mother, “please let these men take you to the VA.”

“I’m not going to a hospital. There’s nothing wrong with me.” He considered the matter further and added, “It’s the day before Christmas!”

“Christmas is canceled this year,” said my mother.


“Well,” said Todd, “Christmas is


as far as I’m concerned.”

I sighed again, a definitive sigh, a sigh that called for an end to the whole charade. With reticent dignity I approached the older cop and asked where Todd would be taken if not to a hospital. The man replied at length. He said that Todd would be taken to the end of a long gravel driveway that led to the main road, where he’d have to wait for a cab. At one point I turned slightly and Todd managed to lock eyes with me (the cop was still talking) in a way that was, I think, meant to intimidate and yet also appeal to my finer feelings. His eyes were brimming with hatred, with attachment, with sadness that it had come to this.

“I bet you’re enjoying yourself,” he said.

“It’s one of the worst experiences of my life,” I replied.

The way I said it sounded maudlin and a little craven, but it was mostly sincere. It was a bad time all right. But then, too, such a remark was precisely the sort of thing you say if you’re posing as the Good Brother, the mature one who only wants what’s best for his long-suffering mother and so on. Which is to say, I was enjoying myself, rather.

“Well, it’s almost over,” said Todd. “For now.”

“You hear that?” I asked the cop, who closed his eyes and nodded. He was a decent man who found such matters regrettable.

The cops took over from there. The younger one followed Todd to his room and stood in the doorway while he packed his things. Now and then the man chuckled a little nervously, and I knew Todd was trying to charm him, to win him over with jokey bravado. (“Well,



is a hell of a note! Frankly, I hope those two get


in their stockings…”) Drawers opened and shut with judicious restraint, wire hangers tinkled lightly. Finally Todd emerged with his duffel bag flung over his back. He dropped the bag in the living room and turned to the cops.

“I want you guys to know,” he said, “that I find your professionalism commendable. You couldn’t have been more courteous and kind, and I want you to know I’ll never forget it.”

On the simplest level, Todd was in earnest—the policemen


nice blokes. On another level he meant to contrast their niceness with his family’s vicious duplicity (at Christmas no less), suggesting that someday, perhaps, he’d be in a position to repay both kindness and cruelty. On a final, murkier level, he was casting ahead to some future court hearing: “No, the defendant was perfectly polite. He seemed genuinely perplexed and saddened by the whole situation…”

“Todd—your presents—” said my mother, gathering them out from under the tree. When Todd seemed hesitant to accept them, she dropped to her knees and began packing them expertly in his duffel bag. Two things occurred to me: one, that only my mother would take such a liberty, and two, that Todd was traveling light under the circumstances (he hadn’t even packed the rest of his liquor—this for the sake of appearances, no doubt, though I found it ominous).

Finally he stood at the kitchen bar consulting the yellow pages for a motel. “That place is good,” the younger cop suggested, tapping his finger on a particular listing; “clean and cheap and kinda in between here and the city.” Todd nodded and phoned for a reservation; then he called a cab and gave the dispatcher patient directions to our remote locale. Hanging up he stood there shaking his head, as if the whole business was simply too bizarre for words.


“Ma, you’re not really serious about this,” he said. “C’mon. I’m your son for crying out loud. It’s Christmas.”

“You brought this on yourself!” said my mother, with her stolid Germanic fondness for platitudes.

“Oh yeah, and life’s been so


to me,” he said.

I could restrain myself no longer. Sneeringly I pointed out—not for the first time—that it was always


fault as opposed to Todd’s own.

He took a step in my direction. The older cop saw me brace myself and grabbed Todd by the arm. The younger cop, a little hesitantly, took the other arm and Todd went comically limp in their grasp. As they led him toward the door, he leaned back and bugged his eyes at me: “See you soo-oon!” he called with loony menace, and that was the last we saw of him.

We figured he’d be back in an hour or so, and the first order of business was buying a gun. My mother had nothing but an old varmint rifle that looked as if it hadn’t been fired since the Alamo, and besides there were no bullets. After checking the yellow pages—still open on the bar—we drove to a sporting-goods store on the interstate, where I explained our needs to a bearded fellow in the gun department; he wore a camouflage jacket and squinted intently with one eye.

“What you need it for?” he asked, when I mentioned that I hadn’t fired a gun since childhood and didn’t want anything fancy.

“Shoot, you know—people.”


!” my mother protested.


The man nodded and ducked under the counter, coming up with a snub-nosed pistol in a chamois cloth. “This here’s what you want,” he said. “Smith and Wesson thirty-eight, just point and fire.”

I paid with my American Express and presented the neat plastic gun case to my mother. Merry Christmas. Then we went to a Chinese restaurant and discussed strategy over martinis and spare ribs.

“Okay, so you’re holding the gun,” I said. “What do you say?”

“‘Sit down.’”

“And if he doesn’t? What if he comes toward you?”



him,” she said, and took a giggly sip of gin.

We were both feeling the strain, but I enjoined my mother to be serious. I’d warned her and warned her and


her about Todd, and


look what had happened! With tipsy solemnity I added that if she


let Todd into her life again, ever, I’d wash my hands of them both.

She nodded a trifle absently. “Fine.”

“Fine what?”

She shrugged. “Todd’s not as bad as you think. It’s not all black-and-white, you know. There’s a little gray!”

There’s a little gray

. Gosh, I hadn’t thought of that! Got a pen? I want to write that one down…” Thus my father had once mocked her platitudes. She smiled reminiscently. “Look,” I said. “From now on—and I think your cats would agree with me—it’s all black. No gray. If you want to indulge grayness, you do it on your own. Understood?”

She nodded: chastened.

“Okay. So you’ve got the gun. What do you say?”


“‘Sit down.’”

“And if he doesn’t?”

She thumped the table with a meaty fist. “I


the bastard.”

It was getting dark by the time we stopped at Wal-Mart to buy bullets. A spindly blue-vested adolescent yanked out a tray of cartridges and said that these here (pointing) were the hollow-tipped kind and that’s what we wanted. “Goes in like


,” he said, making a little half-inch hole with thumb and forefinger, “and comes out like


,” whereupon he described a bloated grapefruit with both hands. We bought a box of twenty-four. “So much for just winging him,” I remarked.

I should add that earlier, as we were leaving the restaurant, I’d called Todd’s motel to see whether he’d checked in. He hadn’t, or else he’d done so under an assumed name. Probably, though, he was lurking around the house somewhere, waiting for us to return, and if our luck had


gone south he’d managed to find a gun of his own. One remembered his days as an army rifleman. My mother pulled off the gravel driveway and we took turns firing into a pond embankment. Fat gobs of mud spattered on impact; a dark curtain of birds flushed into the air. Somewhere, perhaps, Todd was listening.

The house was a vague silhouette in the powdery twilight. When my mother stopped the car I rolled out the passenger side, literally rolled, in the manner of some intrepid TV cop. Cocking the gun at my ear, I scampered like a troll from bush to bush, casing the house—peeking in windows, pausing in a crouch to fan the gun at the darkling woods, and so on. Finally I made the entire circuit and gave my mother a thumbs-up sign. She hopped out of her car and waddled with awkward haste up the icy path, fumbling in her purse for the house keys. An oddly poignant sight.

It took a while for the adrenaline to wear off. We turned on every light in the house and closed the curtains, then my mother poured herself some brandy and made phone calls: to a twenty-four-hour locksmith; to a real-estate-agent friend who could get her a deal on a fancy home-security system—indeed could arrange for installation first thing in the morning if not that very night—and to various others who knew Todd and promised to let us know if they gained some inkling of his whereabouts. After the last phone call, my mother drank off her brandy and joined me on the couch, where I sat watching TV with the gun in my lap. A few minutes later the phone rang. We stayed put.

“I think it’s pretty poor,” Todd’s voice slurred over the machine, “pretty fucking



that I have to spend Christmas in some fleabag motel. I’m thirty-eight years old,” he added, and lapsed into a long drunken silence. My mother started to get up, and I pulled her back down on the couch. “

Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht

,” Todd began to sing. “

Alles schläft, einsam wacht…

” He sang the whole carol through, sighed, took a drink (ice tinkling), and hung up.

So he was, it seemed, at some motel—doubtless a real fleabag rather than the clean place suggested by the nice cop, since Todd didn’t mind a certain kind of squalor and of course he’d want to husband his money for liquor and drugs. That was reassuring.

The rest of the night was pleasant enough. The locksmith came promptly, did his work, and went away. We sat around drinking Todd’s liquor and opening a few early Christmas presents. My mother had some kind of Hopi prayer stick or incense wand, and at one point she lighted this and walked all around the house—a wobbly but dignified saunter—waving smoke at whatever remained of Todd’s spirit. One by one her cats came out of hiding and joined us there in the living room as though nothing had ever been amiss.