“Susan Brown dropped dead,” my mother whispered and gripped my shoulders with both hands. Her mouth was so close I could smell her lipstick. “Bill and Rachel are going to stay with us for awhile. Don’t say anything. The poor woman came back from Florida and dropped dead.”
I had just come back to the house from throwing a Frisbee with a kid I didn’t really like. My six-year-old sister, Liz, stood in the doorway to the kitchen wearing the slack-eyed look of someone determined not to believe anything she was told.
“But you’re Susan Brown,” I said more to my sister than my mother.
“Not me, Susan Brown,” my mother whispered. Why was she whispering? My sister blinked a few times. Somehow, this didn’t seem to concern her. My mother shook me, as if to free me from the binds of common sense. I pictured her keeling over at Dawson’s Variety; ambulances, hysteria, life changed forever, but she was here in front of me.
My mother threw up her hands and rushed into the kitchen.
“There’s another woman named Susan Brown. She went to Florida,” my sister said. She was six and I was twelve, but she always acted older than me. “She’s a nurse in Augusta. And she came back with a headache. Now she’s dead.” She walked past me on her way out to the backyard.
We lived several hundred yards from the brown waters of the Kennebec River, in the middle of the state of Maine, and in the middle of what my mother later called the beginning of the end of us all. How could there be another Susan Brown who I didn’t know about? I asked myself then and ask myself now. A friend of my mother’s? I was pretty sure my mother only had one friend, Judy, the woman who administered the IQ test for the school system.
I poked my head into the kitchen. There was a man sitting at the table staring down at the floor as if he had never seen linoleum before.
I followed my sister over to the rope swing—she seemed to know everything—and asked her about the man at the kitchen table.
“That’s Bill Brown,” she said. “The dead lady’s husband.”
My grandfather’s name was Bill Brown—I couldn’t understand why my sister didn’t seem confused. She was doing a pretty good impersonation of someone trying hard to tell a joke deadpan. Either that, or this made sense to her. The sleeves of her shirt were three inches too short and her hands were dirty. She let out a long breath and closed her eyes.
“Go in and ask him what his name is,” she said. “He’ll tell you. It’s Bill Brown.”
I went into the kitchen and stood near the man sitting in a chair with his hands in his lap and his forehead on the kitchen table. Up close I recognized him as one of the volunteer firemen, a man my father called Billy. He lived on the edge of town in an old farmhouse. Also, there was a dog eating out of the dog bowl in the corner. Not our dog, not a dog I had seen before. My mother grabbed the dog by the collar and dragged it over to me. “I want you to take Rufus for a walk,” she said. Rufus was my father’s name. The dog looked up at me with the same expression as my sister, an expression I realized she had gotten from my father.
“Rufus?” I said.
“The dog,” she said and sighed as if I was an idiot. She pushed me and Rufus back out the door and squeezed my arm while she explained the situation more fully.
The man inside, Bill Brown (“I know, I know, I know,” she said— “Bill Brown!”) had lost his wife (“yes, Susan Brown!”) and was now refusing to go back to his job or his house or, for that matter, to walk his dog Rufus. “Do you think this is all a coincidence?” she said. “I didn’t know he had a dog named Rufus! How could I know that? I don’t really know them that well.”
She had seen the woman at school board meetings and knew she had the same name. They had joked about it once several years ago. But these other Browns lived on the edge of town and kept to themselves.
“Then why are they here?” I asked. “Brown is a common name,” I said. “It doesn’t mean anything.”
My mother shook her head with her lips pursed and eyes closed. “No, no, what are you saying? She is dead. What are they supposed to do now?”
I didn’t know what people did when other people died.
“Judy and I are going out to the house to gather some of Bill and Rachel’s things and bring them back here.”
“You know Rachel. She goes to your school. You stay here, by the house, in case I need you when I get back.”
I couldn’t figure out why she would need me, and I didn’t believe this Rachel really existed. Nevertheless, I would stay by the house.
I set the dog, Rufus, free to go wherever he wanted to go. I wanted to watch TV, but the front doorway of our house was closed off by Plexiglas to conserve heat in the winter, so the only way in or out was through the kitchen, right by Bill Brown. Bill Brown had a beard, his body and his limbs were round, hairy; he took his glasses off and put them back on by bowing his head, and in the same way sipped from his drink. I moved around him like a fish in a bowl and went into the living room where there was a girl about my age staring at the fireplace. There she was, confirmation that this whole thing was actually happening—Rachel. I hadn’t realized her last name was my last name. She was small and quiet and not one of the girls at school I thought about. She had straight brown hair and tanned arms. When she turned to me, I left the room.
In the kitchen, Bill Brown looked up from his whiskey. I can’t see Bill Brown’s eyes; they were and are obscured by my unwillingness to see him except when he was looking away. It was a humid day for Maine, and the air was like reboiled soup. I went outside. Old soup there, too. Two dogs stood in the backyard. Theirs, ours. My sister practiced her dance moves on the grass, jumping up and down next to the tent I had set up in the backyard. She planned to move to New York City in a few years and become famous with those moves.
I stood next to my tent for a long time, and then my mother came home. Rachel came outside and stood next to the tent, too.
“I set this tent up last weekend,” I said. She looked at me, she looked at the tent. The arrival of these other Browns happened to coincide with my interest in tents. I had this idea that I wanted to travel the world living in a tent. A simple, portable home. I wanted to explain the idea to her but didn’t know how to get started.
“We were in Florida,” she said.
“I’ve never been to Florida,” I said. Florida was where rich people went on vacation, and we were not rich. “Are you rich?” I asked.
She knew what I meant. “No,” she said. “My grandparents live there in a trailer.”
“Do you want a peach?” I asked. I had forgotten—we had a peach tree! Other people in town had tried to plant them, but ours was the only one to survive the winter year after year. I pointed west toward the peach tree.
“Something happened to my mother’s brain,” Rachel said, looking at the peach tree. “Right when we got back from the airport. They still don’t know what.”
Time moved at different speeds. It seems like I probably just stood around with Rachel for hours. I must have eaten at some point.
My father came home from work, and even though he knew Bill from the volunteer fire department, he spoke only to my mother. He left again in his car.
I lay back in my tent, the sun shining pink through the red nylon. The sky seemed to be sweating Kool-Aid. There had been a drought. Rachel followed my sister into the tent where we all lay on our backs. My sister left the tent while Rachel stayed. She pressed up next to me. Certain girls at school had produced a kind of dumb lethargy in my chest and limbs, stopping me on the playground and drawing my eyes toward them so that I could not look away even when they turned around, but Rachel’s arm resting against my chest, her thigh against my thigh, her fingernails next to my waist, made time stop. Her face was frozen, her eyes round as marbles and her mouth open like a fish.
I headed to the kitchen—for what, I don’t remember. I know Rachel stayed in the tent because the only thing that mattered to me now was getting back in the tent. In the kitchen, Bill’s thick fingers, the color of ash, waved me over. He wrapped his fingers around my arm and bent his head toward mine. I was drunk on his drunkenness, as if we were underwater together, unable to communicate except through bubbles. When he spoke, I breathed in the smell of whiskey. His cracked lips moved. His eyeballs seemed bruised. He said, “Listen” first to sharpen my attention, and then he looked at me to be sure I knew he was giving me everything he knew in one sentence, not tainted or warped by days of drunkenness but summoned up through the storm of it.
“You have no idea,” he said. “This is real, now. I want to warn you, son,” he said, though he admitted it wouldn’t do any good. What he said was more in the sound of his voice than in the words. His voice was hydraulic. I didn’t understand how someone could be so self-congratulatory in his despair. He seemed to be on a kind of march, and I was meant to follow. “There is no point, no point,” he said and then shook his head as he continued to look for the right words. He wanted to warn me that I couldn’t know that everything was lost before it was begun, that I was him, that we were already dead, that he was not even here and I was not with him, that we were already both completely forgotten, that the ghost of his wife and her returning to him in the middle of the night as he cried was no less real now than she had been, that he was just going to do this for a little while longer before accepting everything, that when he left our house and our town, the air would clear, my friends would return, I would eat, sleep, and remember, and dream—but that I shouldn’t believe any of that normal shit. In my memory I stood there for hundreds of hours, though it must have been thirty seconds. My mother pulled me back, and I recognized when I saw into her eyes that she was like him. Wherever he was speaking from, she had moved to. Bill Brown’s mouth closed like elevator doors. He replaced his glasses with a nod. He drank with a nod. He removed his glasses with a nod. My mother returned to the table and nodded, too, the pair of them like question marks leaned over a question, mumbling to each other long after I left the room to go back to the tent.
Rachel and I lay together in the tent. We didn’t touch each other and didn’t need to. It was like we were inside each other’s skin.
This day that Bill Brown arrived with his daughter, Rachel, is low ground in the landscape of my memory. It seems as if everything before and after they arrived flows toward the few days they stayed with us. It’s easy, for instance, for me to remember my parents being always happy before the guests arrived and always unhappy after they left.
After coming home from work, my father walked through the kitchen without saying a word and went upstairs to the bedroom. In my memory, my father begins to fade as soon as Bill Brown arrived. My sister, too, appears only during a couple moments, running, with a blurred face, and in my tent with one of her dolls. I would not be surprised to hear her say she has no memory of our guests at all.
The next morning I woke in my bed and for some reason thought I would find Rachel swinging on the rope swing, but she was just sitting on the swing not swinging. The dog Rufus looked up the hill that stretched away from the back of our house. I couldn’t figure out what he was looking for or waiting for, the stupid dog. A few cars passed up the hill. I went outside. Rachel’s eyes sparked in the watery light, and her fists clenched into snail shells. She twisted side to side on the rope swing, and I imagined the whole town stopping in place to listen to the sound of a girl on a rope swing, not swinging, too old to swing, but turning inches to the right, inches to the left, the rope groaning against the bark. My mother came out of the kitchen in her nightgown and looked up at the sky. She had circles under her eyes.
Rachel stopped turning, jumped down, and stared at this other Susan Brown, as if at a ghost. Then Susan Brown went back inside the kitchen, the screen door hanging in the air for a moment like an out-turned hand before slamming shut. I looked through the screen to where Bill still sat at the kitchen table. His contracted face bobbed from interior quakes. He was overcome, clenching his teeth, pausing only long enough to breath. Rachel stood next to me, looking in as my mother leaned over Bill, stroking his head and wiping the tears off his face with her fingers. His lips spoke something we could not hear, and she pressed her lips against his, swallowing his lament.
My father, Rufus, came out of the barn and stopped to look at me.
“I want you to finish stacking the firewood,” he said. I nodded, though I had no intention of doing any such thing. The rules were different now that the guests were here. It seemed to me we could all do whatever we wanted. When I refused to answer, he walked right by me, swinging his briefcase on the way to the car. He didn’t look at Rachel.
I sat next to the well house; Rachel sat next to me. My sister stood in the middle of the lawn staring across the road, mesmerized like the dog. Rachel’s arm rested against mine. The blood rushed so abruptly to my waist that I had to close my eyes. Her bare feet formed a V, her toes brown on top and pale in between. I didn’t dare move; the throbbing in my temples matched the throbbing between my legs. The power to breathe seemed to come through the connection of my arm to her arm, and of her arm to her long brown hair and her blushed cheeks.
“I’m thirsty,” she said and looked right at me. “Do you just have water? Is there something in the refrigerator?”
It was as if she had asked me why her mother had to die so suddenly and for no apparent reason. I worked my jaw up and down but no sound came out. She stood and walked away, her narrow hips swaying in her blue jean shorts. I watched her go, and wouldn’t have known what to say, and wouldn’t have known what to do if I had followed.
The world at the edge of the property seemed like a one-dimensional backdrop. The world inside did not feel like the center, even of our own lives, though it was the only place we were allowed.
In the afternoon, I went back to the tent. Rachel came into the tent after me. We stayed there until after dark.
“Why are you so interested in tents?” she asked after we had been there for hours.
Had I said that? I couldn’t remember. “You can go anywhere in a tent,” I said. Her arm rested next to my arm and her hand rested next to my hand. “I don’t think I ever want to own a house,” I said. “I just want to live in tents.”
“That might be hard,” she said matter-of-factly, “in the winter.” Had I not thought of the winter, more than half the year in Maine?
I didn’t even know what I was saying. I wasn’t thinking at all, yet there was something I really, really needed to tell her about tents.
“I don’t know where we are going to live now,” she said. Her eyes were glazed like melting ice cubes.
Without warning she left, back into one of the rooms of our house, and I stepped out of the tent, aware not for the first time of an absence both in the dark around us and inside me—a mirror facing a mirror. Every object—the well house, the attached barn, the old Chevy, the apple tree—was not Rachel. The sound of the middle of the state of Maine sleeping was not her, even if she was just upstairs, probably in my sister’s room, asleep in the spare bed.
Inside the kitchen my mother stood above Bill Brown, whose eyes were closed and his mouth open. When I looked closely, I could see his lips quivering and his shoulders tense as if he was holding up the foundation of the two-hundred-and-fifty-year-old house. The yellow linoleum curled at the edges of the room. The entire house seemed to strain under the number of guests; even the current owners, my parents, were only guests in the long history of this house, and so far the weight of our lives was the least remarkable so far. When it was built at the end of the seventeen hundreds by a ship captain, his wife would stand on the roof waiting for his ship to sail back up the Kennebec. There were the bricked-over remains of a tunnel that had gone from the cellar to the river, and supposedly slaves had been hidden in secret wall compartments. The foundation was sinking, the linoleum peeling, and beneath that more peeling linoleum, and beneath that whatever they used before linoleum; the roof leaked, pipes had frozen and burst last winter, the square head nails of the old pine floors were pushing up. In the winter, if someone didn’t feed the wood-burning furnace at four in the morning, we had to chisel our toothbrushes off the wall. In the unused dining room, the red wallpaper was peeling to reveal brown wallpaper and in places, beneath that, the plaster flaked off like skin down to the horse hair, and in other places the horse hair flaked off down to the wooden slatted laths, like ribs, and behind that bunches of insulation like gray, brittle hair. The house seemed to be in the process of lazily disassembling itself around our indifference to it.
Upstairs, I opened the door to my sister’s bedroom and breathed the air Rachel was breathing. I could see in the moonlight that her eyes were open. She clung to the blanket with balled fists. Even if she had been twenty-five and I had been twenty-five, and she had been feeling what I was feeling, I sensed that there would have been no hope of satisfying the kind of desire that the sudden and inexplicable death of Susan Brown had awakened in me.
Back in my room, her name, Rachel, echoed through my thoughts as I lay back on my bed listening to the train approach from miles away. The dinging of crossings on the other side of town went off one after another, joining in concert until the one outside my window went off and the curtains blew in with the air pushed south by the Boston and Maine. When the caboose passed, and the curtains puffed out the window, my stomach sank as if the air had been sucked out of me.
I don’t remember their going, Bill and Rachel, just that they were gone, to his brother’s house in another state.
In the morning, my mother sat in Bill’s chair at the kitchen table. “Love,” she hissed at me under her breath. My mother was drinking from a bottle Bill had left behind. I don’t remember where my father was—elsewhere. I knew my mother was talking about what she had felt for Bill Brown after he had been with us a few days, a guest in our house; but I knew immediately she was also talking about Rachel and me. “Love.”
It seems now as if I had overheard her revealing a secret, and that because of what I had heard I would never be able to separate love, lust, and grief. Standing there in the kitchen looking down at her, I sensed I was guilty of something even though I hadn’t even kissed Rachel—or anyone—yet. We had just finished reading Macbeth in school, and I thought of Macbeth saying that if he were to dip his bloody hands into the ocean, he would turn the “seas incarnadine.” Macbeth was guilty of murder the minute the idea of murder was suggested to him. The guilt drove him to the act.
I pictured Rachel traveling by bus across the state, pictured her brown arms. I was in love with her and I had no choice in the matter. In the next room, my sister sat in front of the television on the bare mattress we used as a couch, her eyes wide and numb with the purgatory of the daytime drama she was too young to follow. I went into the front room and stood looking down toward the river. My mother came in and dug her fingernails into my arm and pulled me closer to her. “She’s still here,” she said into my ear. She didn’t need to say who, I knew whom she was talking about. The other Susan Brown. When my father came home my mother was still weepy, and if he knew why, he did not let on but ate his dinner and went to bed. I wandered from room to room half expecting to find them, Bill and Rachel. Even though they had only been with us a few days, it felt like years. At night, unable to sleep, I walked through the dark house and saw a white sash flit through the hall and down toward the cellar. The cellar door opened and closed. I went into the cellar and stood next to the remains of the tunnel that had been used to transport slaves up from the river.
After my father went to work in the morning, I took a hammer and flashlight and bashed peepholes in every wall in the house looking for some sign of the white sash I had seen the night before. Before long, my mother came up behind me and asked what I was doing. I told her about the sash and mentioned the compartments in the walls—someone was trapped in the walls! She took the flashlight from me and shined it through the hole I had made next to the fireplace. Her eyes widened, she snapped her face away from the wall, and burst out crying. I must have felt dread not only for the bones I was sure I would see in a pile behind the wall, but also for all that I would learn about my mother and myself in the coming years. But I don’t remember dread; I just remember a sickening conviction that I would never see Rachel again. I made the hole wider with the hammer and shined the light through so I could see. There was nothing there—just shreds of old insulation, bricks and dirt—and when I turned back to my mother she was crying even harder.
“It’s all right,” I said, trying to calm her down. “There’s nothing there.”
“I know,” she replied and shook her head as if I had just confirmed the worst news of her life.
Note: “Guests” originally appeared in Open City and received Special Mention for the Puschcart Prize.