J. Lincoln Todd, a 58-year-old Chicago academic, is attending the Florida funeral of his scapegrace cousin, Wayne Shit-for-Brains, while trying to avoid his memory of an escapade with Wayne during a family visit 44 years ago.
"Hard to see him like this, ain't it?" a voice said in his ear.
Startled, Linc put out a hand to steady himself, and the coffin rocked ever so slightly on its bier.
"Strappin' kid that he was. But like they say, he's at peace now."
"Uh," said Linc, "right." Turning, he saw tobacco-stained teeth, and above them a leathery face with its breadth emphasized by horizontal grooves. White hair stuck up behind the man's ears.
Linc stepped away from the coffin and the old man followed him, clasping his elbow. "I'm Mel Mancuso. Used to do plumbin' for Bonnywood Homes, workin' with Hank, known the family f'rever." When Linc merely nodded, the man pursued, "You a pal of Wayne's from the airline mechanics?"
"No, um, I'm from Chicago ... I used to visit when -- "
"Daddy, I know who this is," said another voice. "He's J. Lincoln Todd, Wayne's first cousin."
Linc cranked his head to see who would use the name from journal articles and course catalogs. She didn't look like an academic -- fluffy hair of an artificial burgundy, cat-eye glasses, face stretched horizontally like the man's, loose skin at the neck, sprawling bosom and hips stuffed into a chocolate pantsuit.
"My daughter Marie," the man said, which didn't clarify matters, but as she held Linc's gaze a twitch of her wide mauve lips suggested a challenge of some sort, and he sensed that he didn't want to accept it. He was reprieved when, over her shoulder, June's pixie-like face appeared.
"Linc!" said his cousin, and in an instant they were hugging and softly exclaiming and exchanging whispered explanations. "Mum's in the back, we're trying to settle her down before the leave-taking, she'll be so glad to see you." Exiting the room on June's arm, he blinked his eyes in relief.
* * *
"The brakes don't work!" he shrieked.
Linc had managed to stop just in time by squeezing with all his might on the minimally effective front brake of the motorbike, dragging his new sneakers and bumping hard into the curb.
"What?!" Wayne laughed over the throppa-throppa-throppa of the motors.
Linc repeated himself, gesturing, but Wayne yelled back, "Yeah, it's great!" In a few seconds the light changed and Wayne was off again.
Maybe I'm not working them right, Linc thought. These looked like ordinary bike brakes but they might be different. Perhaps it was his stupidity around mechanical things. He decided to try to catch up with Wayne to ask.
Wayne made a right turn into a new housing development, then a left, then took a U turn and another curve. "Giddyap!" he screamed back at Linc.
"Wait up!" Linc called.
Wayne waved to kids on trikes, let out random whoops, bounced in the saddle and pretended to whip his bike like a galloping horse. Not much traffic here, and Wayne ignored the stop signs, which was good because Linc couldn't stop anyway, but what if a kid ran into the street? Flashing light and shadow, smudges of trees and houses and lawns, smears of incomprehensible sound -- the ride was seconds of exhilaration followed by long minutes of terror, plus confusion, anger and a pain in his butt from the bouncing.
Much of Linc's anger focused on his and Wayne's parents. When he brought home perfect grades from school his father merely looked at him sidelong and nodded, "Very good," as if he didn't know what to make of this bookish kid. But here was Wayne, who'd been forced to repeat fifth grade, winning easy approval and a pocketful of money for an insane joy ride!
The winks of sailing cloud had slowed and darkened. A gust of air tickled Linc's shoulder as a drop splattered on his glasses. Wayne halted ahead, and Linc used all his tricks, including a weave across the street, to pull up beside him. "This thing won't stop!" he shouted.
"It's gonna pour," Wayne said, looking at the sky.
"I can't possibly ride on wet pavement," Linc asserted primly. "This bike has something wrong with -- "
"Hah, I got it! I know somebody that lives a couple blocks down. Somebody you gotta meet! Let's go!"
"Hold it!" Linc bellowed to the clattering dust. Livid and scared, he decided to turn back on his own, then realized he had no idea of the route.
* * *
In the Family Room the décor seemed even more artificial than in the public rooms. The dove-gray flowerpot for the peace lily matched the simulated birch bough on the coffee table. The upholstered throw-cushions echoed the floral design of the drapes.
Aunt Harriet jumped up at the sight of Linc, but she wobbled so much on her thin legs that he coaxed her to sit on the sofa again. Uncle Hank unfolded himself slowly, arthritically, took Linc's hand and said it was good of him to come so far. Their broad, heavyset son Tommy was there too, hand out to shake. Linc recognized the young people standing around as the next generation -- yes, there was the girl whose wedding he'd attended. "Actually it wasn't far," Linc admitted to Hank, "because I was already at -- "
"It was such a shock," Harriet blurted, "when that nurse called, I couldn't believe it, Linc, I couldn't fix it right in my head. I still can't."
June pulled up a folding chair for him. "Talk to her," she whispered, an encouraging hand on his back.
Harriet's hair was sparser and frizzier than he remembered, and the coloring had seeped out; her animated square face had pockets under the eyes and along the jaw. It distressed Linc to see her in this condition. "I thought," he murmured, "I mean, June told me on the phone, he'd been sick for some time."
"Wasting away," Hank put in, "in and out of the hospital. Last eight months."
"But they told us," Harriet insisted, "the operation would work. His brother and sister," she said proudly, "they both volunteered to give up part of their liver for him, that's how much they cared. They didn't hesitate a minute, either one, they'd go under the knife for him."
Linc glanced up at June, who nodded. "A pretty good success rate," she said, "so we thought he could beat it. We had our hopes up."
"They had all kindsa tests to go through, my June and Tommy, and both were a good match, the doctor said. They were fighting over who'd do it, Tommy saying it'd be him because he's older and June saying -- but then his heart, Linc, his big heart that'd been through so much ... "
Crushing a tissue in her fist, Harriet continued with more medical details than Linc wanted to know. Though he tried to listen, his academic mind flitted around the puzzles here. He was surprised that the family seemed confident a new liver would have lasted in a man who'd willfully destroyed the original. And he marveled that Wayne had been so well restored to his parents' graces.
At Linc's mother's funeral, two years ago, Harriet's long updates on her children's and grandchildren's and great-grandchildren's accomplishments hadn't once mentioned Wayne. Such a striking omission signified exceptional disapproval or embarrassment. When June confirmed, tight-jawed, that communication had ceased, all signs pointed to a huge infraction on Wayne's part.
Before that, Harriet and Hank had stuck with their wayward son through a drug bust and jail term in his late teens (he claimed he was innocent), through a drunken car crash in his early twenties that left his first wife permanently disfigured (he claimed he'd had only one beer), through a brief second marriage from which the wife departed with a broken arm (he claimed she'd tripped), through financial disasters, lawsuits, ploys in which he "borrowed" money from relatives for a great opportunity in real estate, a custom car-painting business that couldn't miss, an investment in a sightseeing boat ... He'd even hit up Linc's father at least once: In settling Dad's estate Linc had found a 17-year-old, handwritten promissory note from Wayne for $2,000. After a flash of pique, Linc had laughed and thrown it away. And when he'd learned in recent years that Wayne was working as a mechanic for an airline, Linc had seriously considered never flying again.
After Harriet and Hank put up with so much misbehavior, Wayne must have done something truly despicable to alienate them. Yet here they were at his funeral speaking of his "big heart."
"The main thing, you know, he lived his life the way he wanted to," Tommy intoned over Linc's shoulder, and everyone nodded at the sagacity of that. So, Linc wondered, was it that easy for Wayne? He got terminally ill because of his own stupidity and his sins were transformed into idiosyncrasies? How did this guy keep slithering his way to forgiveness? And would he care that he'd mashed his mother's hopes the way she was pulverizing her kleenex?
An older version of the young man from the lobby materialized in the doorway and gently cleared his throat. "It's getting to be," he said, "around the time, if you ... "
"Yes," said June, "we'll be coming, give us a few -- "
"Of course, of course," the man murmured in a tone that matched the carpet.
And Harriet all at once was in spasms, her head pounding into Tommy's chest while June clasped her from behind and Hank patted her arm and Linc shuffled awkwardly out of the way.
* * *
"Who's your pal?" she said, hand on the door, looking past Wayne's shoulder.
"My cousin from up north, J. Lincoln Todd. Ain't that a great name? He's a straight-A student, voted most likely to be president of the You-nited States."
"No," Linc objected. "That's not true."
It was a neighborhood of tiny stucco homes that looked like they'd been colored with chalk: light blues, soft pinks, pale yellows. Pickup trucks and old station wagons occupied the driveways. Small, neat flowerbeds lined the walks. The yard of this house had a short tree full of bright red blooms, the silky petals flapping in the sudden breeze.
Wayne went on, "We rented bikes and rode all the way over here to see you. I've been tellin' Linc about you."
Chewing gum, she tilted her head. "Tellin' him what?"
"It's startin' to shower, can we come in till it stops? I don't mind gettin' wet, but northerners, they melt in the rain, y'know," Wayne smirked.
The girl backed away and let them in the door, Wayne playfully patting her shoulder as he passed. She cast her eyes down as Linc went by, and though he was too shy to gaze directly, he got an impression of reddish-brown curly hair, a wide freckled face, tight pink blouse, bare feet and stocky legs under a short lavender cotton skirt. She was about Wayne's age and very well developed.
She took them to a screened porch at the back of the house, where she wedged herself into the corner of an old yellow-cushioned glider. When Wayne plopped down beside her the springs shrieked. Linc stood by the screen and looked out at the little yard as big drops started to pelt the sparse grass. Palm fronds hissed overhead. In a moment a torrent pummeled the ground and sent up a fine drifting mist that felt wondrously cool on his face. His belly and legs still quivered from the motorbike.
"Just in time!" Wayne yelled to him. "All snug and dry. Be sure to tell your mom how I took care of you."
In front of the girl, this teasing humiliated Linc. But when he turned to reply, Wayne had taken the snug idea literally, cozying himself against the girl and putting an arm across the cushion behind her. She tossed her chin in mild annoyance, rubbed her toes together, blew a bubble with her gum and licked it off her lips when it popped. For an instant she caught Linc's eye with an expression he couldn't read, somehow defiant and sulky and plaintive all at once.
Self-conscious, he watched the downpour, and though he could tell they were talking behind him, the thrumming on the porch roof and gurgly rush in the gutters drowned out all but a few syllables. Occasional sibilants cut through the clamor, along with giggles, a loud laugh by Wayne, all of these sounds merging with the sharp blue odor of the rain.
"Linc thinks you're pretty," Wayne said loudly. "Don't you, Linc?"
Linc didn't think that was the word he would use, but he couldn't identify the right one and in any event wouldn't insult her, so he nodded in agreement. Wayne chuckled and tickled her arm. "Stop it," she said, "you're being stupid."
"That's why they call me Wayne Shit-for-Brains," Wayne admitted with a humble smile. "But I'm sorry, sweetie, I don't wanta embarrass you, we're bein' complimentary. That's a real nice perfume you're wearing."
"I'm not wearing any."
"You mean you smell so beautiful all by yourself? Mmmmm." He pawed at her shoulder.
She rolled her eyes in Linc's general direction, and he decided to watch the rain again. Furious with Wayne for subjecting him to this, he contemplated leaving alone to ride his defective bike through the deluge, which would mean getting lost as well as soaked and having to call his parents to come find him. He wanted this vacation to be over so he could start the new school year, immerse himself in math and science and try not to think about situations like the one he was in right now.
"Not here!" he heard her protest. "My mom might come home!"
Part Two of Four
Article © Sam Gridley. All rights reserved.
Published on 2012-01-30