The veteran’s head rests in his hands. Maybe he’s reading. A newspaper lies on the table a glance away. His glasses remain folded, stem on stem, beside him. It’s early for a headache, or very late.
Let’s go to the lost graveyard today, says his brother, wearing pajamas of the demanding sort, two plaids. He’s just broken the glass part of a coffeemaker, dismissing the breakage with Coffee schmoffee, who needs it, his Texas enthusiasm undampened by broken glass or coffee-lack or even big/little brother estrangement. Let’s see if that graveyard’s still lost from last year.
They are two of five siblings and ten cousins vacationing by turns in Nantucket with their 94-year-old patriarch. My husband, a beloved enough cousin, has secured us a place in line. Fortunately I’m no coffee drinker. I open the fridge and take out a carton of orange juice. I say Yes, let’s.
The vet went to war and took up ski rescue on his return, shot cannons to clear avalanches until his bad back suggested: Why not invent an app to find these avalanches faster? He is in app-land now, and perhaps that makes his head ache. The vet looks hung over, but he doesn’t drink—a response to the 94-year-old’s martinis. When he raises his head, he has that where-am-I-now look that ex-drinkers or users have, that vets can’t get rid of. Didn’t the graveyard sink into the pond?
The Texan considers the question, stirring milk into hot water that has been exposed to coffee grounds. Second in age to the vet, he has more faithfully followed his father by becoming a lawyer, hence he’s all about the consideration of questions. The story is, he says to me, they filled in the pond for the grave sites. It was only later did they find out how hard it is to keep people buried in a swamp.
We called it resurrection in Nam, says the vet, giving us a grizzled look, one I associate more with bears than unshaven men. But he’s friendly despite the head-in-hands stance, he smiles. You got a cigarette?
Who me? I gesture. He wouldn’t know I’ve never, this is the first year we were invited. His brother gives him the silent out-of-here flick and a cigarette at the same time.
The vet walks over a glass shard or two and lights up at the gas range, a gesture from another class. Or maybe region. He’s long been out of Texas, a state not celebrated for skiing opportunities.
I drink OJ while the Texan sweeps up. My nipples, now that I think about it, press visibly against my nightie. I want to hunch and eviscerate my Who me?, gas it with at least brains, I want to impress the Texan, not to mention this vet. Being the oldest makes the vet an age regression of his patrician father, none too shabby in the looks department. Women have thrown themselves into snowbanks at the very thought of his rescue.
The patriarch likes to sing. He can hardly read, he wears a magnifying glass that’s practically a telescope on his chest, readied for the Times in the morning when his now 95-year-old eyes work best—so forget a movie after dinner, let’s sing. All the verses of every song from the forties, which his five children know well from long car trips, which every one of them, even the vet, gussy up with trills and octave changes and chords a fifth lower—this is the kind of singing that changes their faces from those of bored middle-aged worriers into smiling carefree siblings no matter how much is or is not drunk or remembered.
I mumble along. The family’s gifts to my husband don’t include the ability to carry a tune, and his becomes heavier and heavier in the forced march from his brain to his larynx to his lips. He joins in the smiling. All the girl cousins smile back, sad they didn’t land him, all consanguinity aside. This afternoon he saved his brother’s stepson’s Indonesian girlfriend from drowning by stripping to his shorts and righting her tub-sized sailboat where the surf caught it. She wouldn’t have drowned but she’d surely have gotten wet and, in this early fall cold, caught a terrible chill, which is what my husband has now, unable to strip off those shorts in front of the girlfriend. Did his brother or the girl thank him? Yes and no. She sailed off with a wave and was then driven away to the airport, but here his brother comes now, back from dropping her off, ready to sing for the rest of the evening, no tune or missing-words problem with him. He comes over with his hand out, and cheer. They shake, my husband still shaking.
We have to wait two summers to visit the graveyard but then the Texan’s sister drives us right up to its picnic table. She has a penchant for bows in her hair, and restrains the slightest unruly strand with the swipe of a single-bowed comb. She’s the one who delivers the important information on the ride over re: the health of her father, whose child worries whom, and where to go for beer. The graveyard scene, she says, by way of introduction.
Why may not that be the skull of a lawyer? says the Texan who has biked up behind us, there not being room in the car for everyone and the big picnic basket.
His sister is so gracious, she assumes we are all on the same page vis-a-vis Shakespeare. She says, The lawyer you destroyed two weeks ago?
The Texan belly-laughs and grabs his wife’s bike so it doesn’t tip in the soft grass of the graveyard swamp. That was for money, not love, he says.
With love he’s more perverse, says his wife, whose long beautiful legs seem to start just under her chin. She’s already ladling chowder into soup-sized coffee mugs.
We laugh while staring at the green meadow whose slight depression is all that suggests its other use—no bones stick up.
My husband and the vet arrive and roll in the meadow to show us there’s no poison ivy.
Ticks, ticks, scream his girl cousins.
The men are so brave, and they chase the women with whatever they find.
Personal omelets, the Coloradan says, his drawling of the “om” originating from his state rather than the Texan’s, he’s an in-law like me, not cousined, but a son-in-law. He’s holding ten plastic bags, each with a beaten egg inside, and he insists that we add onion or pepper or cheese or mushrooms to our bags, to taste, including the patriarch. We line up and select our handfuls. The Coloradan sacrificed the entire morning’s golf game to chop and beat the contents that we must now dunk into boiling water for a prescribed four minutes while thinking up jokes about Texans. He starts: A Texan and myself sat in a blind all day and never saw a thing. Then at about sundown, a lone duck flew overhead, so high you could hardly see it. When it was right overhead, the Texan raised his shotgun and fired—the Coloradan takes aim at the ceiling—but the duck kept right on flying. The Texan said, the Coloradan continues, winking at his Texan in-laws, Son, yore witnessing a miracle. Thar flies a dead duck.
The eldest daughter ministrates, stays up all night. It’s hard to sleep in the same room as her father. He breathes, then stops. She eats all night to keep herself up, to console herself, for pleasure. In the morning light, haggard, she tells her father how nice he looks, his white sneakers with the soles glued back on, his red pants, his Brooks Brothers shirt. She puckers up and gives him a kiss on his half-shaved cheek.
The now 96-year-old patriarch travels to the end-of-summer ritual at the dump, and the whole family accompanies him. At eleven sharp, the gates open and townspeople empty huge plastic bags of clothing onto a table surrounded by other townspeople ready to claim every sweater. WASPs are loathe to pass up anything some fool nouveau riche jettisons. Broken-looking appliances are muscled away before they’re unwrapped, shoes with ruined heels snatched up. No fighting! says the sign. No staying longer than thirty minutes. Another wave of townspeople arrives. No tag-teaming. No leaving pets.
I love my new tie-dye skirt but when I walk across the room, it slides to my knees, the elastic shot. After I untangle myself, the second daughter scoops it up and wears it on her head. Waste not, want not, she says, all sprightly camaraderie.
In the spring, after the snowmelt, the vet tells us, I sometimes take environmentalists up the mountain to scout endangered species. Three of them in their late seventies and eighties this year, but in great shape. I’m rushing to keep up, I’m huffing and puffing, when they all fall to their knees at the same time. I think they’re having simultaneous heart attacks but no, they’re intent on examining something rare, its yellow bud about an inch off the soil. I don’t have my right specs on so I have to lean down to look and I don’t lean as well as I used to, so I do what I always do to inspect something out of my eyesight but within reach, I pluck it.
Oh, groan the three scientists.
Then I do the only thing I can: I eat the little yellow bud.
Banging between rooms. So dark it’s almost light, black at its best. Doorknobs tried and walls banged again. Muffled Whats?
The Coloradan drank so much the night before he thought the wall was the door and why wouldn’t it open? He and the Texan agree: it was almost Texan, his determination. They are tending the flames of the barbecue, Texas TV, the flaming sunset of charcoal and grease, swordfish on a platter with tongs beside it, laughing about all that banging in the middle of the night.
There is more liquor.
Sitting straight as the chair he occupies, the 97-year-old patriarch is just inside the screen door and is talking about the World Federation, not the sci-fi version but the post-WWI assembly of all the prelates united against war of any kind. The pope coming to Texas last week reminded me, he says, his jamming the traffic for a whole day brought up one of the few times in my life when peace was thought to be possible. It’s a subject he savors, he swirls the red wine in his glass as if peace could be swallowed.
The women in the kitchen a few steps away prepare salad or bread or crackers heaped with protein, intent on their gendered labors. They tip their drinks so the cubes don’t click, and close the oven softly with mitts so as to hear the patriarch’s eloquence on solving the world’s problems or just to listen to his brain work. Their brains, that inheritance, work just as surreptitiously. During the lost-graveyard expedition now two years ago, the Texan’s sister revealed that she ran the office of the governor for years, then an entire college. All I’d thought she could do was write shopping lists. Can he quote Woodrow Wilson, is what she’s wondering now. Not from shaking hands with him, no, Wilson didn’t say anything to him then, she says, but from a documentary he saw last week.
He quotes Pope Benedict, whom the president snubbed.
Okay, she says, awed like the rest of us. She hands me a drink and maneuvers me into his line of fire, saying, He likes younger women to drink with.
That’s most of us, I say, when you’re his age.
The vet wants to tell us about a scary out-of-the-body experience.
His 98-year-old father says age is a scary in-body experience.
We toast to that.
I was trapped under the snow, says the vet. From below I thought I could hear search dogs sniffing around the crevasse, and I howled at them. It turned out to be a snowcat.
No more wine for him, shouts the Coloradan.
I always believed my body was a prison, says the Texan. I was right. In biology I learned it was made of cells.
The next year the Texan trips and discovers a brain tumor as a result of his visit to emergency. He Skypes in that year, with instructions on how to grill the swordfish. In a hoodie and cap that both read Nantucket!, and with one hand around a grill fork, he proclaims that the mayo has to be 100% American and applied on both sides. Only the empty mug he’s waving in his other hand lets on that he can’t drink, that failures of the body keep him away—his, and his wife’s, who jumped fifty feet into the family quarry at a pre-nuptial bash for his son who’s marrying Brazilian oil money, and hit a rock instead of water. Air-lifted out, she witnessed the ceremony with what was left of her leg in traction, while across the hospital her daughter, traumatized by a sudden divorce, her mother’s screams, and her father’s impending death, fell into a seizure.
We slather on American mayo.
The Colorado son-in-law follows Matt Damon and his girl from the grocery store down to the dock to the very end, where quite a big boat is tied up. Matt Damon says a lot of people think he’s Matt Damon, but Yes, he says, you can take your picture with me. Scrutinizing the result, we decide he is Matt Damon, he damn well looks like Matt Damon, he’s not the South African second mate he pretends to be, he is in character.
I’m in character too, says the Coloradan son-in-law, providing a lopsided smile.
We all agree but we’re missing the Texan. The vet refuses to come he’s so sad, he sends his love in an actual letter.
Speaking of traffic jams, says the 99-year-old patriarch, my granddaughter was selling plastic flamingos for charity years ago, flocks of them piercing our office lawn downtown. The president stopped his what-do-you-call-it?—motorcade—and bought three of them. That president. I’ve distrusted him ever since. One flamingo would have been okay, maybe. But I will vote for his wife.
His walker has a name and he calls it as if it will trot across the room to him, wagging some mechanical tail. Fetched by me, it gives him lean-room, it lets him quote FDR: “It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.” The patriarch had polio in his youth—longer than FDR—and has walked with a cane all his life, naming his canes too, spreading around every semblance of life to both animate and inanimate, gearing up for his hundredth.
I don’t mention his age when I tell him he walks pretty well for a guy with polio.
Why, thank you, he says, holding the door for me.
Your daughter says you still go to the office. How many lawyers do you have working under you?
Half, he says, his buried eyes alive.
Terese Svoboda is the author of Great American Desert (Mad Creek Books, 2019), her second story collection, which received starred reviews from Kirkus and Booklist. She has previously published eight books of poetry, five novels, a memoir, a work of translation, and a critical biography, Anything That Burns You: A Portrait of Lola Ridge, Radical Poet. Her fiction has recently appeared in Granta, Guernica, Epiphany, and StoryQuarterly. Her poems have appeared in AGNI, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, The Atlantic, The American Poetry Review, and elsewhere. Her website is www.teresesvoboda.com. (updated 3/2019)