By George Choundas
My cousin married a woman who was an only child. Her mother had two sisters. These aunts had no children of their own.
The three sisters all treated this woman, my cousin’s wife, as their daughter. In her youth she was dandled and spoiled and trophied. The three sisters were her regents, she their queen. This is all from my cousin. I didn’t know her when she was growing up. Neither did he. They went to the same middle school, my cousin and his wife, but they ran with different sets of kids. They got genuinely acquainted only a couple of years ago, his mother bumping into her mother at Lord & Taylor. He knew the family dynamic from bits and pieces: things she told him, things friends and relatives told him, not being blind.
She grew up to be an engaging person, and thoughtful. This I can report. But also moody, and prone to self-involvement, and fond of spending money and nursing wounds and spending money to nurse wounds. She saw catastrophe in the merest challenges. In all the time I knew her she never asked me a question.
She laughed rarely, never at things I said. Once I suggested she come up with a new origin story for the grandchildren. They would be like, What’s Lorden Tailor?, and she’d be like, A store at the mall, and they’d be like, What’s a mall?, and of course no matter what she said they wouldn’t get it, Retail? What’s a re- tail?, et cetera, and unless her grandchildren were French absurdists this infinite regression would not satisfy. That’s what I said, French absurdists and infinite regression, and she gave me a look you give orphans with rabies.
Her upbringing, so different from how the hard world handles a person, likely shaped these habits of character. And maybe explained why she and my cousin broke up. It didn’t much explain what came after.
The youngest sister worked at a museum. She was so shy I dreaded seeing her at holiday parties and family dinners. Our greet hug seemed unmutual, like I was subjecting her to something. She spoke softly and chirpily: a girl wonder- ing about candy. Her face was very white and her hair and eyes very dark. I expected her to blush when speaking with me and my husband and kids—the encounter always seemed to find her jarred and exquisitely uncertain, and the months that invariably had passed since last we’d met may have stripped from her a coherent feeling of familiarity to match the expectation of familiarity, and that snowy skin seemed so color-susceptible—but she never blushed. Instead she held her head at a canting angle that, like a carnival ride, lent itself to a long and fast swing away.
The middle sister had a Chesterfield sofa in her living room, the whole bit: traditional quilted leather, pair of seat cushions. Twice I saw her sit right in the middle, over the cleft between the cushions, though nobody else was on the sofa. Maybe she did this out of hospitality, to leave open the choicest seats. In ancient times the hosts parceled out to guests the thighs and cheeks of spitted animals and this one plopped her cheeks and thighs down at couch’s center. Maybe not hospitality, maybe aberration: what would compel a person to arrange herself in such a way that effectively she was sitting on precisely nothing? She was a doctor—an anesthesiologist—and had a mouth that opened wide for the vowels and a voice that blared. Without a doubt she was the loudest of the sisters. The maxim among anesthesiologists is that putting patients to sleep is easy; only the waking is tricky. With that voice like a bugle corps, it stood to reason she was a mandarin in the field. She needed neither art nor chemistry to rouse her patients, or the dead, or the night-slumbering villages of Papua New Guinea from the cozy remove of her Duchess County home. Just talking.
The oldest sister—my cousin’s mother-in-law—was a protocol engineer, or a data builder, or something else where the noun is concrete but the modifier abstract. People with occupations like that, you look and look to glimpse some- thing correspondingly wizardy about them, but good luck. She was certainly kind, always making an effort, always asking in the run-up to some get-together what the kids might like for dessert, and she didn’t have to do that. Her voice was like sun through a scratched window, warm and frayed. She was in her sixties and likely had sounded like she was in her sixties since her twenties. It was a voice of diverse capacities, a gentle lilt in easy discourse and a stridency that crawled up the back of your skull in loud cross-kitchen exchanges. When she wanted to compete with the middle sister for conversational position, she’d ratchet up the volume to an indignant scrape, and the first time I heard her raise her voice—not out of anger, she was joking, but she was making sure she was heard—was when I realized I’d heard it many, many times before. Her voice was a violin. The tone, the range, the warmth and fickleness: all like a violin. The resemblance made satisfying sense. It wasn’t just the texture and heteroge- neity of the sounds she made. It was the neat complement to the truth that her younger sisters were a flute and a trumpet. This trio of sisters was the classic ensemble: woodwind, brass, and string.
Now, when they got loud, these voices turned philharmonic. And three orchestral sections imply the missing fourth. Maybe this occurred to you, just now? Not me. It took a couple of months before I thought of it. Once the idea entered my head, though, it never left. Every holiday party I’d walk in and hear the sisters and I’d think, Where is the percussion? Every family dinner I’d sit down and reflexively remove the knives from the kids’ place settings and, mon- itoring the chatter and waiting for the rolls to come around, I’d wonder, Where is the percussion?
Once married, cousin and wife moved into a house fairly sweet. The three sis- ters made sure of that. The oldest sister bought for their dining room a pairing of concrete and abstract: chandelier plus installation. The youngest sister found a small pew salvaged from a church that slotted alongside the front door with the kind of custom-fit serendipity that suburbanites count as a miracle. And the middle sister had a deep-buttoned Chesterfield delivered, one just like hers, except the cushions with their jutting edges needed years of leg-curing to slope pleasingly instead. But these weren’t enough. My cousin’s wife bought more and more, filled the house with more. Accent pieces and wall hangings, matching sets and ancillaries. Half-moon tables whose stark abruption suggested con- tinuation past the abutted walls into another, better dimension. The basement was an orchid show of turned-out boxes and packaging pollen, all of it kept assiduously in case of returns. There were never returns.
My cousin sickened of the heaps of shapes on the front steps, of the figures that leered from the bottoms of their credit card statements, of the way she spiked their weekends with obligations that included only her: salon appoint- ments and personal training sessions and lunches with friends. They tried mar- riage counseling, but she did not change. When the world consists of infinite nurture, and seats you at its center, there’s just no reason not to proceed high and untrammeled. He told her he was leaving her. When she refused to believe it, he moved out of the house. When he sent her the names and numbers of di- vorce attorneys, she responded with the names and numbers of other marriage counselors.
It got so that whenever my cousin visited what was now, functionally, his wife’s house—to see their three dogs, to take away belongings some boxes at a time—he was sure to ask me or my husband to come along. He did not want entanglement in the strange counterfactual world she conjured aloud each time she saw him, musings and wandering elegies about their times together and sometimes bright smiles and sometimes tears. She was hefting a net of regrets around this man. It didn’t work.
One Saturday we came to the house for his bike and his living room books, my husband home with the kids, and she’d drunk drain cleaner. The door was ajar. For all we know she might have swallowed it just moments before, maybe even as she’d heard us pull into the driveway. We found her curled up in the right rear corner of the Chesterfield, coughing. The dogs were crazed and bark- ing, running outside and inside and outside again, keeping away from the couch and unable to keep away. They knew. She sensed us and stirred and stared, no alarm or desperation, her eyes a question, shifting from her husband to me and back. She couldn’t say anything, though. Couldn’t talk. She was coughing and coughing. Staring at us and coughing up red and thin. We didn’t know for a dense minute what was happening. My cousin called 911. I went to her and I should have held her but I was asking her things instead—what’s wrong, what’s happening. Really just barking like one of the dogs. Coughing, she held up a wavering hand in the direction of nothing. Eventually I saw it: on the carpet by her end of the couch, on its side and spilled, a jug thing of drain cleaner with a festive label.
Eventually my cousin remarried. By then he’d aged well past his age: scalp pinking and patching between the hairs; movements slowed, droopy even, his words, too. Widowers and widows know that, hurry or not, anything at all can happen by the time they get to the end of a sentence, or a house’s front walk, or a remembering. No dogs. He had two rascally, furless kids, both boys. He and I grabbed coffee every three months. I made sure to schedule it like a quarterly release of earnings, rigid and official as possible, so he couldn’t put off getting together out of sheepishness just because we both knew that after the light jokes and the family updates he’d only say the same thing to me, over and over, knowing it imparted nothing and would gain him nothing. Why? he’d repeat, not looking especially at me.
You’ve thought of it already. Or you’re thinking of it now. But this wasn’t the percussion. Her coughing wasn’t the percussion, if that’s what you were thinking. No. Nor his asking why, why.
It wasn’t the rat-tat-tat laughter in which one autumn evening I saw the youngest of the sisters indulge with what looked like a friend while the two stood outside a movie theater, or the few moments thereafter when I pulsed with sudden hatred a few feet from this docent sister because her niece was dead and how could she, or the next moments when, catching myself, I pulsed with astonished shame for feeling something so ballistic and unfair and hurried away.
It wasn’t years later when the phone rang and rang and it was one of those cute furless kids, the unsmiling older one who people said had grown into a jerk, who informed me his dad, my cousin, had been in a car wreck. The acci- dent hadn’t killed him. But he died nonetheless, because later as we waited atthe hospital the surgeon came out and told us an artery had been nicked during surgery and they hadn’t caught it in time. It wasn’t the way the surgeon held his hands stiffly in front of him, fingers folded and heels and knuckles touch- ing, like two gray blocks he was preparing to knock together, or the way he said these implausible things—nicked? a nick?—with such bizarre slowness it reminded me of how my cousin himself had spoken. This doctor, well cologned and shoulders like a parade float, was in agony.
It’s not now, years later, as I sit here at the funeral of my cousin’s second wife, who became my best friend in the world. A teenager I don’t recognize talks too close to the mic. The leaflet says it’s a reading, a Kazantzakis selec- tion. What I hear is a pubescent half-yodel and the PBOFF PBOFF PBOFF of his super-amplified lips. Oppressive. If we were dice and this church a cup, it’s what God’s blowing would sound like. I know she’s being cremated and yet at the front of the room reigns a casket of scroll-carved mahogany, dome-roofed and massive, rented for display by my cousin’s other son, the younger one, the one known for kindness and charm, who arranged for this show coffin—it’s a thing people do, apparently, to focus the room and thicken the ritual—in lieu of flying home from Indonesia. It’s the older one who prepared the reflection, which we’re due to hear after Kazantzakis, and who before the service looked up as I entered alone and promptly abandoned the minister and a little talking clutch of people at the front to guide me to a front pew and watch as I settled myself and ask if I wanted water.
It was these together. These surprises, disconnections, the rhythm of the world flinging itself successively into us who pretended we had it mastered. Oh, we didn’t, we don’t. Like mastering a blind and leggy mule. Whether we understand it, whether we learn from it or decide resolutely to improve from it, it doesn’t care. The second-to-last funeral I attended was my husband’s. I stood at the dessert table nodding and nodding again, well-wishers drifting toward, crooning bromides, drifting out, drifting toward. My kids, one fewer than we raised because septicemia, like the world, doesn’t mind how hard you hope, stood on either side of me, attentive, crooning back. Around our diminished lit- tle rank of three the special squalor of other, actual children scampering indoors in dress clothes, jagging and squealing and tripping. I looked down. Resting on the top of my right foot was a little paper plate, abandoned by one of these children. On top of that: an untouched caterer-style half-slice of cheesecake. My first thought was not how irrelevant I must have seemed to the young perpetra- tor, my brittle progress and wholesale lack of intent making me seem more like a discard tray than a living thing. My first thought, seeing no graham cracker crust, was that the child had nothing to answer for.
How do you blame those sisters for giving their girl every love, for knowing that the world is unrelenting and the young need a commensurately maximum devotion? I’d do the same. Looking back, knowing what I know, I’d do exactly the same. God bless them for doing as if they’d been certain when they could not have been. Nothing about her dying was good and her dying gave me the best friend I ever had. The three sisters, they are long gone, and their staunch love is our subject still. We know so little.
Here is the percussion, these beats the world gives to show these lives are not our own, that they are contingent and slight. A rain of rocks, more or less, and bewilderment. Go ahead and look up, or look down, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if we dodge smartly, cheer a little when the drops fall wide, give up, give thanks.
The only comfort is the idea, strictly notional, of shelter somewhere. That’s why three embracing mothers better than one, and solace where banks of proud leather come to a corner. The dark and the hush.
George Choundas has work in over fifty publications. His story collection, The Making Sense of Things, won the Ronald Sukenick Innovative Fiction Prize and was shortlisted for the Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction, the Robert C. Jones Prize for Short Prose, and the St. Lawrence Book Award for Fiction. He is a former FBI agent and a Cuban- and Greek-American.
Originally appeared in NOR 29