“DID we pass it?”
Dennis consulted his phone.
“Another 1.2 miles.”
He looked out the window.
“This area is a lot nicer than I expected.”
“It’s gentrifying,” said Matt.
“Here? Out here?”
“Since they built the new train station. The Trullerbridge stop on the Eastrow line.”
“Right. Right.” Dennis nodded. Then he said, “Trullerbridge? Isn’t that where that kid went missing? The Gaugler kid?”
“Yeah. That can happen anywhere.”
“Here. Go left here,” Dennis said.
They started up a narrow lane whose entrance was half-hidden by bushy vegetation.
“They should trim this stuff,” said Dennis. “Otherwise they’re gonna have accidents.”
“I’m sure they’ll get to it.”
“A properly gentrified place would have done it already.”
“It’s a process.”
Matt and Dennis were cousins, both young men, and they were driving to the house of a third cousin, an older, somewhat mysterious figure, a barely remembered creature of a lost generation.
Matt pulled up by the side of the road. They gazed up a shallow slope, across a shaggy field.
“Jeez. I don’t think Cousin John has been keeping up with the Joneses,” said Dennis. “He’s falling down on the job.”
“I don’t imagine he has the money for upkeep.”
“It looks like the Bates Motel.”
“It’s worth a lot of money, believe me. Sitting on premium property. I checked the listing.”
“Oho. So that’s what you’re doing on this little venture. You have designs on Cousin John’s house.”
“Nobody lives forever. This would be a good place for Ellie and Ed,” (his two children.) “I’d like to get them out of the city. I’d like to get out of the city. Don’t worry, there’ll be enough land for everyone, believe me.”
They gazed a while more, then Matt said, “Well, we might as well get this over with.”
They drove across the road and start rolling slowly up the driveway.
“I sure hope he’s home,” said Dennis.
They had tried several times to call ahead, but Cousin John never answered his phone and had no answering machine. At last Matt had decided to write a letter naming a date and time for their arrival and to hope for the best.
They parked alongside the house’s open wooden porch. Dennis got out, looking for dogs, while Matt popped the trunk.
“I don’t know what to say to this guy,” said Dennis as he leaned into the trunk and pulled one of two large wooden crates toward him. “He sort of faded out of the picture while I was still a kid. Do you remember him?”
“He never said much.” Matt had joined him at the trunk. “Just sat there and smiled. When he talked it was only to the older relatives. I wouldn’t worry about it. We’re just here to bring the boxes.”
Each tilted his box to the lip of the trunk and then lifted it clear. They teetered up the stairs with their burdens. Dennis started losing his balance at one point and leaned heavily against the wooden railing. It held.
They laid the boxes beside the front door.
The porch was open, surrounded by the same spindle-style railing that ran up the stairs. The grey paint on the handrail was flaking; the boards of the porch floor were almost bare.
Matt ran back down the stairs to close the trunk. Dennis waited for his return before knocking.
“Well, here goes,” he said as he swung aside the screen door and lifted the knocker. Then, as an aside, “Do you think we should check the basement for the Gaugler kid?”
The knocker boomed through the silence. They waited. Dennis turned around to survey his surroundings. There was nothing outside the property visible, and the outside world seemed very far away.
Matt knocked the second time.
The door opened.
The first thing they noticed was how big Cousin John was. Big, and still formidable despite his age, and looking at them with what seemed a habitual attitude of suspicion.
“We’re …” Matt had just begun when Cousin John cut in.
“Matthew and Dennis! Am I right? Come in, come in,” and he stood aside.
They hoisted their boxes up from the ground, Dennis resting his on his bent leg before straightening, and passed into the front hall. The room was dark, lit only by the grey light of a cloudy afternoon.
“You can put the boxes on the dining room table.”
The old wood creaked when they set the boxes down. It was a “leaf” table, the sort of expandable wooden table you could pull apart and add sections to the middle, when you needed more room for guests. It was expanded now and covered by a dusty table cloth. Dennis thought that it had not been expanded for their arrival but probably had stood like that for year upon year, while Cousin John sat every night alone at the head.
“Let me clear the table,” Cousin John said, and he picked up a couple of empty plates, along with paper towels and cutlery, and walked toward the kitchen sink.
Something about the way he moved attracted Dennis’s attention.
“Is this guy faced?” he mouthed to Matt.
(That was the second thing they noticed.)
Cousin John came back to the table and carefully brushed all the crumbs onto the floor.
“The mice have to eat too,” he said.
He sat down for a moment, then immediately stood up again.
“I’m forgetting my manners. Can I get you anything? To eat or drink?”
“I’m fine,” said Matt, and Dennis said the same.
“Not even water?”
“We had water bottles in the car.”
Cousin John shrugged and turned his attention to the boxes.
“Now, what do you have for me there?”
The boxes contained the worldly effects of Cousin John’s late sister. She had lived out her last eight years in a room in her oldest son’s house and so had little in the way of movable goods.
Matt rose and moved the first of the boxes towards his cousin.
“I remember these boxes,” the old man said. “We got them on vacation, when we visited a used bookstore in a converted barn. Funny seeing them back here after all these years. I am grateful to you for bringing them.”
He stood at his chair and began removing effects and placing them on the table. Although the two young men did not really know him at all and were scarcely better acquainted with his sister, they found themselves drawn in by his enthusiasm.
“This is like Christmas morning,” he said.
“This!” he pulled out a desiccated Steiff rabbit, which seemed somehow shrunken with age, but still gallant and ready to serve. “This was her favorite stuffed animal. Primrose. She kept it all these years. And now it’s back where it started.”
Partly from genuine curiosity and partly to head off any descent into lachrymose sentimentality, which would seem grotesque in such a formidable-looking creature, Dennis asked: “Uncle John, have you always lived in this house?”
He had settled on calling him Uncle, for some reason; it seemed correct.
“Yes, yes, I was born here. There were a few side trips, of course. I went off to Springfield for a few years. And from there spent a few years in Mallow. Look at these books! They came with the box, we bought them at the old barn.”
“Mallow? Mallow State Prison?”
“Uncle John, you did time?”
“Two-and-a-half years, medium security. I took the fall for some swindlers at an investment firm I was working at. I was good at math, but very naïve. Then I came back here.”
Dennis looked at Matt with an expression of delight on his face. He was young enough and naïve enough himself to find romance in the notion of Uncle John as an ex-con.
Uncle John, as he was now, continued pulling out mementos and clucking over them.
“Her old watch. She got it as a graduation present from high school.”
“I don’t think it works,” said Matt. “I tried to wind it.”
“It had stopped working before she left home. Perhaps she had it fixed from time to time. Perhaps not.”
The stream of memory was now in spate.
“I left home one other time,” he said suddenly, “to go to sea.”
“Were you in the navy?”
“No. Merchant shipping.”
“What was that like?”
“My ship sank. Some hands were lost. Then I came home again.”
When he had the first box cleared, he straightened.
“We must celebrate,” he said. “Come join me,” and he moved to the liquor cabinet.
He reached into the bottom and pulled out a tall green bottle and set it on the table. His guests found the bottle looking at them across the rippled table cloth, looking through two yellow cat eyes painted on. Then he lifted a tall glass vessel from the top of the cabinet and walked over to the sink with it.
Matt leaned over the table and pulled the bottle towards him.
“Absinthe,” he said to Dennis.
It was evident that Uncle John spent his money, whatever there was of it, on his liquor cabinet.
Soon Uncle John returned and set the glass vessel, now filled with ice cubes and water, on the table. There were two little spigots sprouting from the side, and a sculptural lid on top.
“Have you ever had absinthe, either of you?” he asked, as he fetched three heavy glasses from the cabinet.
“Nope,” said Dennis. “Isn’t it supposed to give you visions and such?”
“No, that’s nonsense. Just a pleasant herbal concoction, somewhat like Chartreuse. I enjoy it. Of course, if you’d rather, I can bring you something else. Scotch? Brandy? Wine or beer?”
“I’ll take a beer, thanks,” said Matt.
“I’d like to try the absinthe,” said Dennis.
The drink was a process. There was the measuring out of the liquor itself, the spoons balanced across the glass, the slow drip of water over sugar cubes. Matt drank his beer while the others watched their glasses gradually go cloudy. Uncle John had brought the second box over to the head of the table, but he seemed to forget about it in anticipation of his drink. At length he turned off the spigots, and the glasses were ready.
“To many returnings,” said Uncle John and raised his glass.
Dennis sniffed cautiously at his drink.
“Smells kind of camphorated,” he said. He took a taste. “Not bad.”
“Do you want another beer, Matt?” Uncle John asked.
Matt waved him away. “I’m fine,” he said.
Dennis held his glass to the afternoon rays that were now streaming through the dining room windows.
“Green,” he said, showing it to Matt. “That’s why they call it the green fairy.”
“What’s that?” asked Uncle John.
“They call this drink the green fairy,” said Dennis, speaking loudly and distinctly, though Uncle John had shown no previous evidence of deafness.
“Do they? I did not know that.”
There was a long pause.
Then Uncle John said, “I could have gone with the fairies once, you know.”
“What’s that?” This time Matt asked the question.
“I could have gone with the fairies once. I heard their music playing.”
Matt and Dennis let this remark fall on dead air.
But Uncle John continued.
“It was on the back lawn, just out those windows.” He pointed. “I must have been seven or eight. Maybe older. Maybe younger. I remember pacing back and forth on the grass behind the house. It was a sunny day. I heard the music playing from that stand of trees. You can see them still. I thought of them as woods at the time, but they’re just a few trees, with ivy at the foot. And primroses before them in the spring. You can see them from the window still.”
Neither Matt nor Dennis could think of anything to say. Uncle John kept drinking and he kept talking.
“It was the same tune over and over. Just the snatch of a tune, but it was not monotonous. It was not boring. I remember walking back and forth, and listening. I knew they were calling me.”
He looked at the boys across the table.
Dennis looked back. “What do I know of this man?” he thought. “What do I know of the long decades alone in this old house, mixing absinthe and memories together?”
Uncle John wore an old flannel shirt of some speckled indeterminate brown color, frayed at collar and wrist. It might have been woven thirty years ago. The corduroy at his knees was rubbed smooth. The flesh around his eyes had started to pucker and sag, as it does with the aged, but he was strong still, hard not feeble, and his dark, alert, now terrible eyes held the room in thrall.
“I knew I had a decision to make. A choice. They kept playing and I kept walking, back and forth. In the end, I went back inside. I did not go with them, though I wanted to. Everyone wants to answer when they call. It was my family, you see. My mother and my father. And my sister.” He gently moved with his hand the second box of memories. “I knew it would desolate my mother to lose me, and the others as well. So I went back inside and lived out the rest of my life, such as it was.”
Dennis found his voice.
“Have you ever regretted it?”
“No. It was the only decision I could make. But it came with a cost. It always comes with a cost.”
Already he was measuring out the clear green liquor for his second glass.
“From that day on, nothing worked out for me. My actions, however well begun, had no …” he groped for the word “… issue. I have already told you of the ship that sank and the time spent in prison. Many other things, many other such things. I began well, my own actions were completed properly and well, but there was no profit that accrued to them. They died in the air, so to speak. Freshen your drink?”
“No, thanks, I think one is enough for me,” said Dennis.
“I wrote a book about my life once, you know. Framed as a novel. It was accepted and signed. My editor, a well-known man in the trade, was enthusiastic about it. But he was an old man and he passed away. The others at the publishing house were not enthusiastic. They dropped the book and paid what they call a kill fee. It doesn’t matter. If it had been published, it would not have been read. It’s around here somewhere,” he waved his hand, “in a drawer.”
He had turned up the volume on the spigot, and they all watched the dripping water augment the mixture and transform it into a proper drink.
“There was always a barrier, you see. A veil. Even when I was a child. Between me and the world. Between me and people. Even my friends, when I was young. Always a barrier. That’s why I never married, I suppose. Never came close.”
“What happened to the fairies?” Dennis asked, anxious again to avoid a descent into the maudlin.
“Oh, they’re still here. Still around. They never left. I hear them sometimes; it’s a sort of rustling or whispering. I’ve never heard the music since that day, but I am … aware of them when they come. At dawn or at dusk, but I am seldom awake at dawn.”
Daring greatly, Dennis asked, “Did you ever think about joining them? Can you go with them now? I mean now that your family is … now that you no longer have family obligations.”
“Och, no, they have no use for an old fellow like me,” Uncle John laughed. “They only take the young. Always the young. Even the two of you would be far too old for their liking. No use for an old fellow like me. I would like to hear the music one more time, though. I still remember the tune.”
Uncle John sipped his new drink. Matt tried to get Dennis’s attention.
Uncle John said, “I do hope there is an afterlife and some reward for the faithful, for those who proved true. But if there is or if there isn’t, still: I loved my family.”
He took a good long swig, put his hands on his thighs and stood up.
“I have not yet looked at the second box, but I will not ask you to sit through that. I think you should go now. Night falls early this time of year, and the shadows are already long. They are coming tonight, I can feel it. They will be here soon. You will want to use the bathroom before you go.”
The light bulb did not work in the high narrow room, and Matt and Dennis each in turn watched the late afternoon light play crazy shadows with the ancient fixtures.
Uncle John saw them to the door and thanked them profusely in the doorway. But his attention was already wandering elsewhere, into accustomed paths. He was clearly listening for something.
Matt and Dennis walked to the car. Before he reached the passenger-side door, Dennis straightened and looked across towards the house, moving his head as if following the path of a thrown ball.
“What?” said Matt.
“I thought I saw something. Like a light passing, like the reflection from a car window, from a car door opening in the sun.”
Matt grunted and opened his door, but before he stepped into the car, he too stopped and straightened.
“You heard that?” Dennis asked. “You did! Sort of a chattering noise. There, again!”
“Let’s go,” said Matt in a tone that brooked no argument.
They pulled out fast. Neither looked behind or in the mirrors. They drove in silence, even after they turned out of the driveway and back into the wide wide rest-of-the-world. It was many miles before Dennis ventured to speak.
“What do you make of all that? All that about the fairies. You think he’s crazy, right?”
“I don’t know,” said Matt. “I don’t know what to think. But I can promise you one thing. I am never coming back to live in that house.”