Our Mother, shotgun as always, sulking, firing up a Lucky Strike, unfolding a map of impossibly large and crinkly dimensions. Mallory already wedged up against the passenger window, hunching in upon herself, folding away like a piece of human origami in a fruitless effort to create a micrometer of air space between herself and the inscrutable, insectoid Great Aunt Ginny who might be smiling at her or in the grip of Bell’s Palsy. Poor Frodo, invisible again, did any of us ever walk that poor creature, whimpering somewhere under something. Pop and I still outside on the tarmac.
“There is,” the Old Man said, stroking the place upon his chin where a beard would be if he’d had one, “A certain amount of empty space in there that should not be. A quantity of our crap is unaccounted for and in addition also my eldest son.”
“Present, Father,” said Alex as if at roll call, and indeed there he was, standing on the sidewalk, apart from us, his arm around the Front Desk Girl, Veronique.
“Veronique and I have experienced a melding of the minds. Last night after the Mini Bar was emptied I asked if I might walk her to her car, and walking, we talked. We lay upon the hood of her Ford Escort, and she told me of her life as a Front Desk Girl, and I told her of my shattered dreams of personal perfection through mindful bureaucracy. As the moon waxed or waned if either of those words mean that thing it does of moving through the sky, it became clear that her life of key cards and phone answering and giving people extra towels and having no clear goals or desires for the future beyond a sore hole where those things ought to be was exactly the same as my now pointless quest that in all likelihood never would have worked out so well anyway. So we agreed if everything is wrapping up we’d better do the most important things we can today in case we can’t tomorrow. What that means is we’ll be married and we’d like your blessing.”
“Is that what you want, honey?” Our Mother asked Veronique, feigning solicitude, mantis-like, her bescarfed head, sunglassed eyes and smoldering coffin nail protruding out her partially rolled down window. Veronique allowed it was.
“Well now, well now,” The Old Man sputtered, “I have to say the two of you have put me at a loss. You’ve come out of left field and thrown me a curve ball that has caught me with my pants down. This is like the scene in that movie about the singing Hebrews where the Old Man’s daughter is running off with a fella who is not the guy her Pop had chosen for her, except that you’re my son, no marriage was arranged and we are not Jews. On the one hand, I am loosing my first-born son to a complete stranger, an impulse coupling, possibly brought on by dyspepsia, panic, or sudden loss of sanity. On the other hand it sure as hell will be less crowded in Matilda. What are your intentions?”
“As luck would have it, her father, a Professor of Mechanical Engineering long believed mad and ostracized by his peers, soothed himself in middle age by, with no particular plan in mind, retreating to his garage and hand crafting a Drillermobile of immense proportions. Over Screwdrivers hasilty prepared by pouring Tang into a vodka bottle, he and I compared the finer engineering points of vast tunneling engines to the intricate minutia of sub budgetary advisory notation. Both require vast reserves of water, (mine metaphorical, his actual,) for sluicing, hydraulics, cooling and above all lubrication. Our conversation having somehow catalyzed solutions to the final most elusive questions regarding the transportation of stone, first pulverized then sludgeified, from in front of and impeding to in back of and irrelevant, the Professor was inclined to reward me with his daughters’ hand. Aboard the Drillermobile, the three of us and her pet Monkey Eugene, intend to burrow into and through the Earths crust, escaping the unavoidable unpleasantness of surface life after the collapse of civilization. In fact, we count on the resulting shockwaves of the aforementioned collapse eventually reaching and propelling us ever further downward, until we reach the hidden subterranean realm so often hinted at in the deepest dreams of the collective unconscious. We expect there will be ample light supplied by bioluminescent lichens, dinosaurs long thought extinct, and placid, malleable Mole People likely to revere us as gods.”
“Seriously?” Our Mother inquired, her left arm and three quarters of her torso now out Matilda’s window. “Have you sustained some kind of head trauma since last night?”
“Now, Alice, Now, now” The Old Man stalled, putting a hand solidly on her forehead, “We have to let the Kids make their own mistakes.”
“Mistakes? Mistakes? It’s not a ‘mistake’ to take off with an unknown strumpet and burrow into the Earth; it is the instinctive defensive strategy of a bug, if one discounts the part about the girl! It’s an abuse of the language to call what your son is planning a ‘mistake’, That’s not what the word ‘mistake’ means!”
“Well, yes and no” cried Dad, really shoving now, actively trying to stuff Mom’s upper body back into the car, “Hey! Hey! No biting, woman! That’s against the rules!” And here the fight went out of her, maybe from exhaustion or the acceptance of the Old Man’s careful reasoning, or perhaps felled by one of Pop’s covert nerve pinches allegedly acquired during the cold war from an Asian spy as winnings in a bar bet.
I tried to catch my Brother’s eye so we could have a moment wherein a facial expression on his part might convey more than a slew of well chosen words about partings, and growing up, and shared memories and stuff of his I might now have, but I can’t lie, I didn’t catch it. Not because he meant to shut me out or spare me some painful knowledge or because the most interesting facets of this moment for him did not include parting with me in particular. I didn’t catch his eye because it didn’t cross his mind to throw it.
It all felt like the year I was in first grade, he in fifth so going into middle school, when I realized I’d never be in school with him again, not in high school, or college or life, and how could it be I saw so clearly what an end he and I were coming to when all he saw was the beginning of some new thing for him? So instead I stood there thinking about this one time when we were kids and to cure me of my fear darkness he made me go alone out of our bedroom after our parents were sleeping, down to the kitchen, down into the basement where I had to go and touch the boiler and then come back, all without turning on a single light, and how it wasn’t until I until I stood once more in the doorway of our room watching him snooze it occurred to me I could have just said ‘no’ to the whole damn proposition. I was never afraid of the dark again and moved into my own room not long after.
I got into the car.
“Like I didn’t see that coming six miles off,” Mallory said.
Maybe she was lying and maybe she wasn’t, but I’d been blindsided for sure, which is maybe why I didn’t see my brother dwindling out the back window as we drove away, but more likely because even with all his crap removed, our remaining crap was still sufficient to block any rearward view. I tried to catch a last glimpse in Matilda’s passenger side mirror, but found only a sheared off metal stump. When such damage had occurred I didn’t know, but it made my stomach turn a little to see the glinting metal like exposed bone where the paint was gone. I made a mental note to tell the Old Man at our next pit stop.