No. 29, and 2/30 in the April business.
Her friend smelled like fruit and artificial flowers. “Okay, I really have to go. I have to get home for Matt’s thing,” Emma said, releasing Hanna from the long hug.
“Who’s Matt?” her roommate asked.
“My oldest brother,” Emma said shortly.
“I thought it was just you and Steve,” Hanna said in surprise.
“Steve’s my only full brother, yeah. My mom was married before.”
Hanna moseyed across their tiny kitchen to peek out the window onto Central Square. “Looks cold out there. So you’ve got a half-brother? Any other siblings I don’t know about?”
“Matt’s the oldest of five in that bunch.”
“Holy shit,” Hanna said, turning to fix her with pale stunned eyes behind her dark glasses. “How did you never mention that?”
Emma shrugged. “My family history is . . .weird. I’d better get going.”
“What time is your flight?” Hanna said. She held her elbows tightly, like they might escape. “Do you have time to get breakfast?”
Emma tapped her phone. “What time is it, seven-thirty? No, seven-forty. I wish I did,” she said. “I’ll be back in just a couple days — on Tuesday, okay?”
Hanna grinned sadly. “Cool. Okay. Have a good trip home.”
Emma leaned back into the seat on the plane — well, as much as you could lean back in economy class — and watched Boston pull away from underneath her. Four hours to Dallas, then an hour to Midland, then an hour’s drive home to Towhee. Mama and Daddy had gotten in two days before from Atlanta and were staying with Aunt Laura Jane. Mama and Emma would drive over to Big Spring on Saturday to see Matt.
Who’s Matt? she mouthed to herself, and smiled into her reflection in the dinner-plate window.
When the flight attendant leaned over to ask her what kind of Coke she wanted, the woman — a comfortably heavyset woman in her fifties with shellacked curls — started. “Oh, honey, do you need some tissues?”
Emma touched her cheek. She hadn’t realized she was crying. “That would be very kind of you, ma’am.”
She sponged off her face with a mess of rustling napkins and rasping facial wipes from a discount packet the attendant produced from her pocket.
“Everything all right, sweetheart?” the woman asked. Her name tag said DEB.
Emma pulled her hair to one side in a frustrated, futile gesture. “I’m just fine, ma’am. Just going home to deal with some family things. You know how it is.”
Deb heaved a sigh that threw her mountainous bosom skyward. “Oh, Lord, do I ever. Well, you get on the call button there if you need a cup of tea or coffee or anything, okay?”
“All right, ma’am.”
The woman paused, a half-smile on her lips. “Where are you from, sweetheart? It’s been years since I’ve heard someone under the age of thirty say ma’am.”
“Ward County, ma’am. But my daddy’s from Georgia. Just north of Tallahassee.”
A few minutes later Deb reappeared, holding a steaming plastic cup with a sachet of Lipton Lemon circling limply on the surface of the water.
The flight attendant on the plane from Dallas to Midland was a quiet black woman with her hair in braids, and she didn’t ask about Emma’s steady eye leakage.
Who is Matt, she thought. Though it would be just as accurate to ask Who was Matt.
Matt Gold, Sr., had died in 1975, when Old Jim McGowan’s combine had caught fire. Matt, who had been his hired hand for near to twelve years by then, had been so determined to put out the flames in the new piece of machinery that he had not noticed the fire spreading to the grove of trees behind the north forty, then to the grass in the ditch, then to the field itself. Then there had been no route of escape left, and Matt Gold, Sr. had died.
It was a hell of a way to go, Old Jim had said at the funeral, for someone who had survived three tours of Vietnam. Everyone in town knew that right up to the moment he died of a heart attack — keeling over face-down on the Calvin property south of town — that Old Jim blamed himself for Matt’s death. And everyone in Emma’s family knew that Matt Gold, Jr. blamed Jo for it. Jo — Matt’s wife, Emma’s mother, Matt’s mother.
Emma took another drink of her diet Coke and scrubbed the heel of her hand across her eyes once again. She hadn’t worn makeup for the flights — she had known she’d just smudge it up. She’d put her mascara and eyeliner on top of her purse; she hoped she hadn’t put her concealer in the bottom of the carry-on. Mama and Daddy were meeting her at the airport.
How many years, Emma wondered, had Mama believed that version of the story — the version where she was responsible for the event that had ripped her family up into pieces that were slightly less than person-sized? Matt’s death had not been the only Great Bad Thing, but it had been the rock falling that started a whole avalanche of Great Bad Things. And Mama had had to keep her head above the surface for ten years in a town where her unquenchable grief at the Great Bad Things had made her outrageous — unbelievable — dangerous — sinful.
I don’t think God ever said Thou shalt not despair, Emma thought. And if he did, it surely wasn’t a commandment.
The plane touched down in Midland, with the requisite rattling of trays and hard-sided suitcases and bits of plastic trash. Her concealer was nowhere to be found, so she stood for twenty minutes in the women’s bathroom, pressing a bundle of cold, wet paper towels first to one eye, then to the other.
Mama and Daddy were waiting just outside the terminal. Mama had forgotten, or refused, to wear stockings under her skirt, and had only half tucked in her worn plaid button-down. She looked like she had gotten dressed in the dark; well, Mama always looked like she had gotten dressed in the dark and then gone out to do chores without remembering to get changed. Daddy had dressed down, with no tie under his blazer and the top button of his dress shirt unbuttoned.
Mama spent most of the car ride back to Laura Jane’s twisted around in the front seat to pepper Emma with questions about the doctorate. Did she like the other people in her program? What was Boston like? Was it cold? Was it colder than New York? How was her apartment? Was it nicer than that rat-hole she had lived in with David?
Daddy cleared his throat here, and Mama looked at him out of the side of her eye, and everyone in the rented Impala was quiet for a moment.
“I have a really sweet roommate,” Emma said. “Her name’s Hanna. She’s an architecture student at the GSD, from Pennsylvania.”
They talked about Hanna for a while, what she looked like, what she wore, what she ate. That carried them over twenty miles, before Mama asked if she was dating anyone.
“No, I’m just getting my feet under me,” Emma said, as lightly as a hunter sliding over March ice.
“Good,” said Mama fiercely, and Daddy cleared his throat again.
Laura Jane dressed, Mama always said, like she believed the world had hit its pea the year she graduated from high school, in 1965. It was from Laura Jane that Emma had learned what Chanel and underwire bras were, how to put on eyeliner and get bloodstains out of fabric. After Old Jim had died ten years ago, the older of her two sons, Charles, had moved into the big farmhouse with her. People liked that — Charles had been a lawyer in El Paso for twenty years. He didn’t need his mama’s money, but he moved his whole life to Towhee to take care of her. The public opinion wouldn’t have been nearly so kind if Little Jimmy had moved back to the farm from the trailer park, but Little Jimmy would have never thought of it anyway.
They had a roast chicken that night for dinner, and Laura Jane repeated most of the questions Mama had asked in the car, then went on to ask about whether Boston was a s fashionable as New York. Mama rolled her eyes and shoved her chair back from the table. “LJ, you still got chickens?” she asked.
“Charlie keeps a few in the coop out back, yes,” Laura Jane said.
“Gonna go tend to them.” The kitchen screen door banged, and she was gone.
Daddy listened to them talk about matchstick versus skinny jeans for a few minutes before he eased into the living room to work on the Cornel West book Emma had bought him in the Harvard bookstore. When Charles came home late from his office in town, he sat across from Daddy in one of the wingbacks Laura Jane had gotten from her mother and they talked politics.
They were all three of them quiet on the drive to Big Spring. Laura Jane had offered to go with them, as moral support, but Jo had declined, after hugging her friend in a long, tight embrace.
“I imagine Matt’s still telling himself that not everyone knows where he is,” she said thickly. “At least, that’s what I did.”
Big Spring State Hospital was a two-story brick building with white pillars out front. When they got out of the car Daddy took Mama’s hand and held it so tightly the skin went white around his fingers. They walked in a phalanx, Mama and Daddy in front, Emma behind.
“We’re here to visit Matt Gold, please,” Daddy said quietly to the receptionist, handing down their driver’s licenses. “We’re his family. This is his mother, Jo, and his sister, Emma.”
“You’ll want to go on down that hall there,” the receptionist said. “I’ll buzz you through.”
Mama didn’t speak until they were on the other side of the glass door. “It’s changed some,” she said. She sounded like she was talking up from the bottom of a swamp. “Not as much as I expected.”
Emma took Mama’s other hand.
Matt was sitting alone in his room. His hands had been bandaged. Emma wondered what for. As far as she knew, he had not actually hurt himself on the day he had taken a gun into the courthouse and threatened to shoot himself in front of the judge who had granted Theresa her divorce, God, and everyone.
“Hi, Matt,” Mama said. She gave both Daddy’s and Emma’s hands an extra squeeze, then dropped both. She sat down on the bed across from her son.
“Hi, Mama.” He wouldn’t meet her eyes.
“How have things been going?” she said.
“Not so good.” He shrugged.
“They got you on anything? Lithium? That stuff ain’t good. You tell them to take you off it and put you on something else if they’re using that. It made me feel like a block of wood.”
Matt shrugged again, a slow, helpless movement. “I don’t really know what they’ve got me on.” Then, in a sudden rush of bitterness and fear, “I don’t feel any better yet.”
Mama jerked, and Emma knew she was restraining herself from hugging her son. She clenched her fists and said briskly, “Well, you won’t for a while, or at least I didn’t. Took ’em a year to stabilize me.”
Matt put his face in his hands. Mama looked at Daddy helplessly. Tears were beginning to gloss over her eyes. Emma sat down as close to her as she could and wrapped an arm around her mother’s waist. The bedsprings creaked and sproinged.
“Matt,” she said. “Hi, Matt.”
“Hey, Emma,” he said through his hands.
“You asked to see me,” she said, trying not to make it too much of a question. She had never been close to her oldest brother.
“Is there . . . anything . . . ?”
“Yeah, I . . . ” He took a deep breath and rubbed his hand over his face. “You’ve always been so close to Isaac, and I thought maybe . . . you could tell me . . . how he is?”
Isaac was his oldest son, two years older than Emma. “Do they not let you have phone calls?” she asked, worried.
“No, they let me . . . I just . . . Isaac hasn’t spoken to me since the divorce,” he said dully.
“Well. Oh. He’s — well, he’s been up to Chicago to see Carla,” she said, and she was off, trying to fill up the big empty space with as many words as she could find. Isaac had recorded a demo CD with a friend in Austin. It was really, really good — they’d had a guy working at an independent label listen to it. He’d helped Little Jimmy with some car stuff, doing some odd jobs. He’d been staying with Angela, the next-oldest sister after Matt, on and off. He was thinking of taking some classes at the community college. He’d gone up to Chicago. Had she already said that? He said Carla was doing really well with her nursing school. Harriet and Otis too. He liked Chicago but said it was too cold.
Matt’s face slowly unwound as she talked. It wasn’t hope; it wasn’t anything like hope, yet. Just a brief pause in despair.
“So you’re living at home now?” he asked.
“I was at home for about six months,” she said. “But I moved up to Boston to a PhD this last September.”
“So you were home to visit when I called?”
“No,” she said, trying to be gentle. “I flew home for this.”
Laura Jane was waiting on the porch when they rattled up the drive, rocking on the swing and knitting something.
“It’s baby booties,” she said, showing Emma. “See, it’s like a little T, and then you just wrap the two flaps over the top and — bop! — sew it together. Kevin Unger’s wife’s having a baby any minute now, and I thought I’d tuck these in under the layette set I bought at Penney’s.”
“That’s real nice,” Mama said, in a voice that didn’t see the booties.
“How was it, Jo?” Laura Jane said, putting her hands on her hips.
The question unbuckled Mama: she wept, and Laura Jane, Emma, and Daddy took turns holding her and rocking.