Death brought casseroles and Tom took them, every one, his hands numb upon the square glass containers, many warm from the oven, others cold so that their foiled tops wept with moisture. There was nothing to be done but stand and nod and thank people for coming and answer questions about Sarah, yes, she was doing OK, considering, just tired, you know, and nodding again and nodding again and nodding again. He did not even know some of their names, people from church he had seen for years but had never really spoken to. They would tell him how sorry they were, how the Lord works in mysterious ways, how we should all have faith in times of trouble, and if there’s anything I can do to help don’t hesitate to call, their faces screwed into masks of concern and grief that he knew was real and yet knew also was not their grief to bear but only a mirror of his own. And Sarah’s. At least you got to know him for a time before God took him away. At least there was that much. But in the deep well of his heart he wished the baby had died during the pregnancy and that they had not seen him at all, that the six months of his short life were simply erased from his memory and from his wife’s memory and from the memories of his two living children. That he had to make such a distinction, to call two of his children living, made him feel a stranger to himself but then he knew that this was who he was now, that this too had been added to the scales.
His mother-in-law bustling by with the latest casserole. Pastor Mitchell in his black clerical garb, head cocked like an intently listening dog before the nearly identical shapes of Tom’s neighbors, the Finns. Guests lingering, unsure of how long to stay, but surely wanting to leave, to flee. Did he not want the same? Across the small living room, Sam’s head tilted toward the two other members of the bowling team, Betty and Cheryl, the three of them likely engaged in pointless strategizing. Tom desired nothing more than to tell them to grab their gear and meet him at the Bowl-O-Rama; he wanted to watch the machine rack the pins, then that moment of serenity, imperturbable and noiseless, his body simultaneously taught and loose. All there: the release, the skid, that hanging moment just before the frozen ball began to rotate upon its axis, its reflection in the waxed lane, the way it held the gutter’s edge before spinning homeward. My God it was perfect. But he was not at the bowling alley. He was in his own living room on a November day in the hours after his infant son’s funeral and what kind of man thought of bowling in such a moment? Sam nodded and Betty and Cheryl both opened their mouths in apparent astonishment. And sweet baby James was still in his tiny coffin under the turned soil of the cemetery. This was what was.
Sam’s wife, Amy, was before him now, her hair recently recolored so that the slanting light from the window lit its outline in shades of maroon. “You tell her to call me,” she said. “Whatever you need. And I know people say that all the time but really, Tom, whatever you need, you just pick up the phone.”
“I appreciate that.” He nodded for emphasis.
Amy patting his shoulder as if he were a pet of some kind. “Oh, honey, I can’t imagine what you’re all going through,” and when he said nothing in response, for what could he say, she said: “Well, you just call us if you need anything. Really, Tom. Friends and family. We’re both, aren’t we?”
“Sure, Amy,” he said.
“And make sure Sarah knows that too. I went back there to the bedroom, you know, just to see her, but she’s sleeping now and thank God for that. I mean, God knows she needs her rest. So you make sure she knows I’m here for her.”
“I’m sure she already knows that, Amy.”
“I know she does but tell her anyway.”
He told her he would. He knew she meant well, that she was—despite what Sam sometimes said about her—a good person, or was trying to be a good person, was trying, that is, in the way we all try and fail to be what we are not, to be better than who we actually are.
From somewhere toward the kitchen: his mother-in-law’s voice. She had driven down from Wisconsin a week before, had set up the funeral arrangements, and had insisted on this reception, or whatever it was. He did not know what he wanted except that it was not this but Sarah had said nothing, nothing at all, and so, in the end, he had acquiesced, meeting her silence with his own, his mother-in-law’s bustling energy both welcome and unwelcome, achieving things that he simply did not have the heart to do himself. Yes there was to be a funeral. For a baby. For his baby. James. How strange to think of such a thing. The coffin had been so small. Like a toy. Sarah like crushed paper. Her mother stood beside her and Tom stood flanked by Charlie and Janey, his daughter, his eldest, nearly as tall as himself, his son, at fourteen, only a few inches below that. Janey wept quietly during the service but Charlie only looked on, his face blank and pale in the shifting November light, staring out through the flap of hair ever-covering his eyes. Dry oak leaves rustled yellow and orange above them. It occurred to him now, in the aftermath of that horror, in his own cramped living room, that he did not know where either of his living children were. Only the dead child.
The door again and his mother-in-law’s voice: “And who are you now? What’s that? And who’s this?” and finally a kind of halting assurance, “Oh, oh, of course, please yes, please come in,” and when she stepped back the figure that entered the room was Mr. Marwat, the man’s wife and teenaged children filing in behind and the door swinging closed again. “Tom? Tom?” his mother-in-law said, spinning around to find him. She looked, to Tom, somehow deranged: a woman shaped like a loaf of bread, her face a porcelain rictus of smiling agitation and concern. “Here he is, mister . . . what did you say your name was again?”
Around them, a brief lull, a change in register which was the sound of people noticing and commenting but putting effort into seeming like they were not noticing or commenting. A cluster of dark skin and white eyes. Marwat’s suit the color of polished armor, his wife and children dressed—all of them dressed—as if they had just come from church. But from what church could they have come?
And he knew he would have to speak now, knew it and dreaded it even as the words escaped his lips. “Mr. Marwat,” he said. “Thanks for coming by.” He glanced to Mrs. Marwat. “All of you,” he said.
“Tom,” Marwat said, “I’m so sorry for your loss.”
His hand was smooth and soft and the feel of it brought a flush of unwarranted anger racing through Tom’s chest. But he said nothing, only nodded yet again at words he had heard a hundred times, three or four times each from everyone in the house. He had been nodding all day. He would nod, it seemed, forever now.
Marwat reintroduced his children, Saroya and Rashid, in age a mirror of his own, both appearing utterly terrified at having been brought to this house of death and sadness.
Marwat leaned close. He smelled of cologne. “Can I have a moment?” he said in his familiar, lilting accent. His face fleshy. His black hair shone as if oiled. Perhaps it was.
“Sure,” Tom said.
Tom looked to Mrs. Marwat, who only nodded, a motion so subtle that it might not have occurred at all. Beside her the two children looked utterly lost, glancing at each other and then at their mother and then around the room as if to locate something by which to anchor themselves. Gawky, awkward teens.
“Charlie and Janey are around here somewhere,” Tom said to them. “Maybe check the back.”
“That’s OK,” the girl, Saroya, said.
“Well,” Tom said, “I’d appreciate it if you’d check in on them. It’d be a help.”
“They’ll do that,” their mother said, nodding seriously. “Absolutely.”
The girl rolled her eyes, the boy only continuing to stare about the house, perhaps searching for an exit.
Marwat went to the door and Tom opened it and together they stepped outside. The change in the air was welcome, a kind of brightness that flooded into his chest as he followed the sharkskin into the bite of autumn, the lowering sun casting shadows out across a road that seemed, in the coming darkness, to match the suit color perfectly. The grass crunching underfoot. From the west: an occasional gust of shivering wind. Early yet for snow, but there was no doubt that it was coming.
“Listen, Tom,” Marwat said, turning to face him. He looked over Tom’s shoulder to the house then reached out and took his arm and directed him farther away. Marwat was not wearing a coat, only the shiny gray jacket. He was Tom’s own age although in truth Tom thought of him as much older, as if the relative darkness of the man’s complexion added some undefinable span of years to his life, this despite the fact that their children were the same age, went to the same school, as his own. How strange the world had become. And all of us caught spinning upon its still, unmoving surface.
Marwat stopped and turned, glancing toward the silence of the house. The light around them stretched low and carried with it the faintest tinge of orange. “I wanted you to have this,” Marwat said. In his hand was a thin envelope marked with the logo of the factory. “It’s just to help a bit. Just for . . . expenses and such.”
“Oh,” Tom said. His eyes were on the envelope and then he realized that he was supposed to take it, that it was for him, and his hand reached for it and he said thank you and held it in his hands, looking at its shape. It was a check, he was sure, although how much he did not know. He wondered if he was supposed to have tried to refuse it once or twice before giving in and accepting but the truth was he needed the money and was glad to have it, however much it was or was not.
“It’s not an advance, you understand,” Marwat said. “It’s a gift. To help you in this difficult time.”
“I appreciate it,” Tom said.
“It’s from both of us. Rafia and myself.”
“You’ll thank her for me, won’t you?”
Tom looked at the envelope in his hand. “I’d better—we’d—I mean, I should probably go back inside. Thank you again.” He folded the envelope and slipped it into his coat pocket. “I appreciate it. Really.”
“I’m glad to be of some help,” Marwat said.
They both turned back toward the house but Tom did not step forward. Marwat opened his mouth to speak, but then closed it again. He reached out one thin-fingered hand and set it upon Tom’s shoulder in the same place so many others already had. The language of grief apparently identical for all. A faint squeeze. Then Marwat moved back toward the house, up the thin cold stairs, and disappeared inside.
Sam emerged soon after, huffing down into the yard, his breath blowing steam. “Shit, it’s freezing out here,” he said, tugging his coat around the great swell of his belly, his cheeks pink with cold.
“What’d Marwat want?”
“Just condolences, same as everyone.”
“Couldn’t have done that in the living room like everyone else?”
Tom shrugged. “What’s happening in there?”
“Same. I think we’re getting ready to head out, if that’s OK.”
“Why wouldn’t it be?”
“Just that, you know, I can hang. If you need me to, I mean. Not that you’d need me to. Shit. Just sayin’, you know . . .”
Tom could not help but smile, faint though it was. “I’m all right, Sam,” he said.
“Well, Amy’s in there talking to your mother-in-law so really we might never leave.”
“My mother-in-law can talk,” Tom said.
“Both of them,” Sam said. “You wanna smoke?”
Tom took one and Sam lit them both. For a long while, only the silence of the coming night. On the street, the white oaks had gone black in the last blazing light of the setting sun. The whole of that part of the world entering its slow plunge toward night.
When the door opened again it was Marwat once more, this time his family in a line behind him. A few words then. Yes he’d be taking some time off. Good good. Thanking Mrs. Marwat for coming. Finally the gray SUV started up in a low hum and pulled off the gravel and into the road. A small flock of grackles flooded up from some distant tree and settled once more. The sky so bright and the world so dark, an endless silhouette of trees and houses running in angles slightly off square, the sidewalks darkly shattered by root and frost, the streetlights above them winking now into muted brilliance. From where he stood, Tom could feel the whole of the drift plain—its kettles and kames, its hills and valleys and tillage—spreading out in a similar hush, a sound to match the buffeted silence of his heart.
“I guess I won’t see you Tuesday night.”
“Probably not. Maybe not for a while.”
“Just me and Hardiman in a duel to the death,” Sam said. Then he shook his head, “Aw shit, I shouldn’t have said that.”
“Don’t get all weird on me,” Tom said.
“I can’t help it,” Sam said.
Again the quiet of the coming night. Last birds in the sky, unknown, unknowable in their black silhouettes. The maples and oaks along the road shook in some high hidden breeze and then the same breeze rushed down across the grass, stinging their faces and bringing water to their eyes.
Sam took a final drag and dropped the cigarette to the grass and crushed it with his heel. “Gonna try to extract the wife,” he said.
Tom nodded. And then he was alone again. The sky still bright. The landscape all around plunging into irresolute shadow and then darkness and then night. He dreaded what that would mean. For himself. For his wife. For all the days to come.
Copyright © 2023 by Christian Kiefer. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.