The doorknob turned and then the door opened clumsily. Aunt Marissa came in, carrying two bags in each hand, which she set down in the foyer. She looked around, still wearing her sunglasses, and found Andre still on the couch, his laptop open.
“I thought so,” she said.
Andre looked up. “That was quick.” He glanced at the clock on his desktop, though, and saw that she’d been gone over two hours. Almost three, actually.
Aunt Marissa was already headed back out to the car, though. Andre closed his laptop and set it on the coffee table. He moved forward to the edge of the couch, but didn’t get up. He wasn’t sure what he should do. When his aunt came back through the open door, carrying four more bags, he asked her if she needed a hand.
“God forbid,” Aunt Marissa answered, already turning back to the car.
As Andre walked past the bags in the foyer, he looked down at where she’d gone. There were bags from Rouse’s, the local grocery store, and a few other places. What the hell was Tracks?
Soon they were in kitchen, and Andre was trying to remember back to when the family bought groceries and what went were on the shelves. This was the most food there’d been in the house in years.
Aunt Marissa was making the two of them turkey sandwiches, with mustard and some sort of gross-looking fake mayonnaise. “Do you still hate onions?” she asked softly, with an almost sad tone in her voice. After she got home, she had fought with her brother because she hadn’t bought the kind of whiskey he liked, or enough of it.
“No, I like onions. When did I hate onions?”
“When you were little. You used to pick them off them off your pizza.”
Andre closed the pantry. “Well, yeah. Onions on pizza are gross.”
Aunt Marissa laughed, though Andre didn’t see what was so funny, and she looked over her shoulder at him. “One or two?”
He looked down at the small wheat bread sandwich on the paper plate, surrounded by a handful of carrot sticks. “Will I get in trouble if I ask for two?”
“I’ll make you two.” She got out two more pieces of bread. “You’ll need the energy.”
They sat down to eat their sandwiches at the small table in the kitchen. They had barely begun eating when they heard a stumbling in his father’s room, followed by the door opening quickly. Slowly, a rolling step at a time, Andre’s dad swayed down the hallway and stood at the entrance to the kitchen. He was slightly out of breath from the effort, and his right hand tugged shyly on his left’s fingers. He was wearing a pair of dress pants—probably the same ones he’d worn to Temple a few nights before—and a t-shirt. His glasses were slightly askew. Here was Reuben Meyer, the final product of a dynasty that stretched across generations and continents.
Reuben’s grandparents had felt the wind shifting in Europe between the World Wars and had moved to America while their relatives and friends laughed at their paranoia. His grandfather had been a doctor but found work as an orderly, eventually learning enough English to own a dry cleaner and a deli and put his son Avram through Tulane.
Avram turned his father’s businesses into a successful and beloved chain of convenience stores throughout the New Orleans area. The Gang’s parents would reminisce to Andre about the funny homemade commercials that Avram Meyer ran. In one he appeared as both Santa Claus and a rabbi, uniting the children of New Orleans with their mutual love of holiday candy. In another, he introduced the city to the bagel, a “chewy doughnut that isn’t sweet.”
Avram and his wife Miriam had five children, a large family of happy, healthy, all-American Jews. They went on elaborate picnics, they played Ping-Pong and bumper pool in the rec room, they drove the Airstream to the Grand Canyon. The kids played football, and went to dances, and worked afterschool jobs at their father’s stores.
There was Andrew, the eldest, with his dashing good looks and easy athleticism. There was stylish and independent Miriam, his well-loved younger sister, whom everyone called Junior. There was Stevie, who was just as handsome as Andrew but with a wicked sense of humor. There was Marissa, their bohemian baby sister, who had studied ballet and painting and played the cello.
And in the middle, the third of Avram’s five children, was Reuben. He had always stood out, had been a cranky baby who grew into a sullen child. He was heavyset, with thick glasses and unmanageable hair. He could always be found reading a book, but not the classics that Junior loved to discuss or the counter-culture novels that Miriam pressed on him. He read science fiction and fantasy, books about other worlds and distant times. He never joined the family’s spirited dinner-time discussions, instead mumbling dark sarcastic jokes under his breath.
But all of this would have been written off as a quirk, possibly passed down from their bookish grandfather, were it not for the fact that Reuben, from a young age, preferred to be alone. The close-knit Meyers—always in the process of beginning or ending another rollicking family adventure—couldn’t understand or forgive this. Eventually, they stopped trying to engage him, and left him alone to the things he loved the most, the paperbacks and the gory B-movies and the weird British comedies PBS showed in the middle of the night.
When Reuben was 28, he had been in college for ten years, first at Tulane, then at Loyola, and finally at the University Of New Orleans. He had unfinished degrees in History and Religion and Literature and was working on a non-credit dissertation titled Between Law And Chaos: Michael Moorcock’s “Eternal Champion” Construct As A Campbellian Monomyth.
Finally, Avram was cut off his tuition. Enough was enough…Stevie had only been in school eight years, and he was a surgeon now, for Christ’s sake. Reuben was asked what he was interested in, and he of course said books. “There’s no money in bookstores,” Avram had told him. “What else?”
Reuben had thought for a few long seconds, and finally offered that he liked movies, too. Avram Meyer liked this idea a bit better, and built Reuben a multiplex stadium in the suburbs. He also hired a CEO whose job was to run the business and keep Reuben away from it as much as possible while still making him feel in charge. The CEO always consulted Reuben’s expert opinion on trivial matters and even begrudgingly allowed him to curate a series of midnight movies. Both of them lived up to their roles admirably: Reuben was left alone in his office to read and mess around on the computer and occasionally sign something, while the CEO was free to fearlessly expand the business and embezzle only the bare minimum of what he thought he was due.
At 35, Reuben’s business was successful to the point of monopoly…he owned every multiplex in the city and even had to subsidize smaller rivals to avoid anti-trust suits. He had somehow even stumbled across evidence of his CEO’s criminal bookkeeping—Reuben had been wasting a boring afternoon exploring the company’s computer network when he discovered a secret Excel spreadsheet—and replaced him with a team of checked and balanced underlings, watched over by a third-party accounting firm.
To the family’s utter surprise, Reuben had even found a woman to marry him. She was a bit odd, to be sure, and pursued the same obscure pastimes that occupied Reuben, but she was in love with him and so good with baby Andre. Though still distant and given to dark and solitary moods, Reuben had delivered the only two things truly expected of a son, success and a grandchild, and he was finally embraced by the Meyers with respect and esteem if not actually love. When Avram passed away and Miriam moved to Phoenix to be closer to Marissa, the family house was empty until the other four children, spread out across the country, agreed that Reuben, his wife, and toddler should move in.
Andre, regarding the man swaying slightly in the doorway with a sheepish look on his unshaven face, found the whole thing ridiculous. If he had been born in any other family, Reuben Meyer would have been selling used videocassettes at a flea market stall and sleeping in a minivan, yet somehow in this perfect world his father’s profound lack of ambition had rendered him a captain of industry living in a Garden District mansion, with a wife and a kid and the grudging respect of his siblings. And then, of course, he’d found a way to fuck up even that.
Andre’s father slowly made his way to the small table and sat down heavily. He looked at both of them with a sad and apologetic look. A paperback book was stuffed inside of his t-shirt’s small pocket, which was stretched and sagging from the effort.
“Hey, dad,” Andre said. He’d seen that look in his father’s eye before, and he didn’t know which way it was gonna go.
“Are you hungry, Reuben?” Marissa asked without looking up from the grocery receipt she’d been studying.
Andre’s father rubbed his swollen belly thoughtfully, as though thinking very carefully about the question. “What are we having?”
Marissa sighed. She was clearly still a little angry at him. “Well, I had one of the chefs from Delmonico’s over here, and he was gonna make Kobe strip steak with whipped truffle potatoes, but you slept all day instead, so I guess it’s turkey sandwiches.”
Reuben Meyer actually laughed at this, one coughing bark. “Delightful.” Andre realized that in his own pitiful way, he was trying to make amends with her for earlier.
Marissa got up to make his sandwiches and Andre, who was only about halfway through his first one, slid his plate over to his father. “Here. I’ll have one of yours.”
Reuben Meyer wasn’t paying attention, though, as he was trying to pull the book out of his shirt. He finally got it out, exposing a wide swath of his high, round, surprisingly hard gut. “Did you read this one?”
Once every couple of weeks, Andre went to a used bookstore and filled up a milk crate with old science fiction novels. He tried not to repeat books, but as far as he could tell his dad never noticed, reading whatever was brought to him indiscriminately as long as it had a spaceship on the cover. Andre couldn’t imagine he was able to read anything with the state he was in, but during his father’s more lucid moments they had conversations about the books he’d read and which ones he’d liked.
Andre picked the book up, setting his sandwich down on his napkin, and tried to curve it back the other way. The Cradle Of Stars, by Karl Essex. The front of the book featured a man’s face staring out from a page of glass that has just shattered into large splinters against a backdrop of stars. “One man will travel to the edge of time and space – and beyond the edge of sanity!” the cover promised.
“No, I didn’t read this one,” Andre said slowly. He usually read the first chapter or so of most of the books he brought his father, but he almost never finished any of them. He hadn’t read this one, though, because he’d been busy for two weeks getting the house ready for Aunt Marissa’s visit.
“It’s quite intriguing.” His father nodded his head solemnly, then opened Andre’s extra sandwich and began pulling the mustard-covered onions off. “It has a beginning I’ll think you’ll like.”
“I’ll check it out.” Andre could handle his dad when he was out of it, but whenever he was up and trying to have conversations it always worried him. It usually ended badly.
“Read the beginning,” his father said, looking nervous with a mouth full of sandwich. He repeated himself: “It’s quite intriguing. It has a beginning I’ll think you’ll like.”
“I’ll read it later.” But Andre saw the wild panic building up behind his father’s greasy eyeglasses, so he opened up the book and glanced at the first page. Scrawled on top of the prose in magic marker were three shaky words:
Andre was actually sort of impressed…the conception, execution, and deployment of a plan like this seemed beyond his father’s current abilities. He was also vaguely worried that his father was apparently in possession of a magic marker.
“Interesting,” Andre said, closing the book. “I’ll check this out tonight, after Aunt Marissa goes to bed.”
His father stopped chewing, and looked up at him without swallowing. “Did you start at the beginning? The first page?”
“Yes, and like I said: I’ll read the rest tonight, after Aunt Marissa goes to bed.”
“Oh.” Reuben Meyer swallowed. “I was hoping you’d get to it earlier.”
“No time, Dad. Sorry.”
Aunt Marissa, spreading mustard on a piece of bread, glanced over at Andre with a suspicious look. She didn’t say anything, but Andre couldn’t tell if this was because she wasn’t sure what was going on or out of fear of disrupting the tenuous Understanding they had about things like this.
His father didn’t speak again throughout the meal. He sat hunched over his plate, as though saying grace, and ate his sandwiches. Aunt Marissa didn’t try to make him talk, in fact all but ignored him, and instead asked Andre if he’d gotten the physical she’d told him to get in March. When he was done with the meal, Reuben Meyer stood up slowly, bracing himself on another chair, and went back to the room without saying a word.
Andre and Aunt Marissa lingered over the carrot sticks. “What was that all about?” Aunt Marissa asked.
“Beats me.” From down the hall, a loud crash could be heard from his father’s room. They listened for a second, but there was no other sound. “Dad?” he called out.
Silence for a while, but then the door opened a crack. “Yeah?” As though nothing had just happened.
Andre ignored him and Aunt Marissa chuckled softly to herself. “Let’s go in the living room…I have a present for you.”
“Don’t worry, you’re gonna hate it.”
A few minutes later Andre had a glass of some disgusting sugar-free fruit punch his aunt had made and he was sitting on the couch. Aunt Marissa was cleaning up from dinner—throwing away paper plates, basically—and Andre was tempted to open his laptop just long enough to check his email, but he had a pretty good idea this wasn’t the best plan, all things considered.
His aunt came in carrying a couple of shopping bags, one of which held a large box. “Here,” she said, putting them on the couch beside him. She didn’t sit down.
“What is this stuff?” He opened the bag without the box, and inside were a couple of gray t-shirts—no, wait, muscle shirts—and two pairs of navy shorts, along with a pack of new cotton socks. “Um.”
“I didn’t know if you were a large or an XL, so I got both. I figured if you’re a large, we can return the others.”
“Wait…what?” In the box was a pair of ugly athletic shoes, size eleven. His heart began beating wildly. “I’m not…I don’t…”
Aunt Marissa clapped her hands. “Come on, go get changed, then meet me on the porch. I’ll show you how to stretch.”
“What? I’m not wearing…no. No!”
“We’re just going for a walk, Andre…twenty minutes, I swear.”
Andre was breathing heavily through his mouth now. He had to get out of the house. “It’s like a hundred degrees outside.”
“Please. It’s barely ninety. Besides, I run in Phoenix all the time, and I’m older than you. Come on, go get your clothes on.”
“You don’t…listen, you don’t understand. I can’t wear these clothes. People might see me.”
Aunt Marissa smirked. “You’d rather people see you like this?”
He screwed his eyes shut. “You can’t do this.” There was a tremendous weight on his chest. He went to grab his laptop so he could go to his room, but in his hurry he forgot it was plugged in. It pulled from his hands and dropped to the coffee table and then to the floor. “God damn it!”
“Listen to yourself.” Aunt Marissa, still standing over him, folded her arms. “Throwing a fit because you don’t want to take a twenty minute walk.”
He closed his eyes again and made a fist against his leg. “It’s not just that. You can’t just…you can’t come in here and start making me do things I don’t want to do. This is my house.”
Aunt Marissa didn’t answer, just frowned down at him. She didn’t have to answer: unless he wanted to move to Phoenix, she could make him do things, and this was more her house than it was his. Andre glared at the carpet and didn’t speak either. This wasn’t fair.
“It’s not enough,” she said coldly, “that I have to treat your father like a baby, now I have to coddle you, too? Tell you what, I’ll fly back tomorrow, leave you two alone. You deserve each other.”
“You don’t have to leave,” Andre felt obligated to mumbled.
“You think I come here just to mess up your precious life? You think I’m not concerned about you and your father? Who else comes to check on you…Andrew? Uncle Stevie?”
Andre grabbed the bags and his laptop, pulling the plug out of the back. “Fine, fine, I’ll get changed. We’ll go on a stupid walk.”
“You know what, just forget it. Go get on your computer. Stay on it all summer for all I care. Turn into your father…you’re already halfway there.”
By this point, Andre was already in his room, and that last line made him slam his door as hard as he could. It bounced open, and he slammed it again. He picked up his car keys and his cell phone, then put them back down. There was nowhere to go, definitely no one to call. Instead, he opened his laptop and moved the cursor around on the desktop. It seemed okay.
It took him twenty minutes to get all the stickers and tags off the workout clothes, then get the shoes laced up. By the time he was done, he felt utterly ridiculous, but he had cooled down quite a bit. He shouldn’t have yelled at her, shouldn’t have slammed the door. There was a lot at stake here.
Andre hadn’t heard any noise upstairs the whole time, and he opened his bedroom door cautiously and listened. Still nothing. He crept out and went up the steps.
Aunt Marissa was in the family room, looking out the window at the bright evening light, still wearing the same clothes. She didn’t look at him even though he stood only a few feet away from her. She’d unplugged his laptop cord and coiled it up on the coffee table.
“I’m sorry,” he said, but she didn’t answer him.
“Is your computer okay?” She asked him at last, softly, still facing the window.
“I think so. They’re pretty tough these days.” He shifted his weight. “Um…how do I look?”
His aunt glanced over and looked his workout gear over from head to toe She quickly looked back out the window, but only to try vainly at hiding a sly smile.
“What?” Andre asked, laughing a little. “Seriously, how do I look?”
Finally, his aunt laughed out loud and turned back to him, and Andre joined her. “It’s a new look for you, I’ll give you that. What size are you?”
“That’s okay, hang on to the others…you’ll be a large soon enough.”
“If you say so. The shoes fit great, by the way.”
“Good. Where did all that hair on your legs come from?”
“I’m seventeen, Aunt Marissa. It’s called puberty.”
Something had fallen out of the bags in his panic, a plastic and rubber sports watch. Aunt Marissa handed it over to him. “Here, you can be the time keeper.”
He took the hideous watch. “Okay.”
“Let me get changed, but the idea is we’ll be gone for twenty minutes. We’ll walk one block, then jog—slowly jog—the next one. Walk one, jog one. At ten minutes we’ll turn around. Okay?”
Andre shrugged. “I guess.”
There was a large mirror over the couch, and he looked at himself as his aunt went off to her room. The Gang had only been disbanded for a month, and look at what he’d been reduced to: his pale arms, his muscle shirt, his hairy legs.
“Jogging,” he whispered to himself in disgust. He prayed that no one saw him.