It was 2 am. He had been driving for eight hours and was exhausted. During fractions of seconds, he closed his eyes and the car, an old brown Mercedes he had stolen in a parking lot, slid into the parallel lane; he felt the movement and, sweating, he gripped the steering wheel to straighten up the vehicle into the right direction. He opened the window, hoping the fresh air of the fall night would keep him awake. At times, he played an old rock station but didn’t keep it on for long because the sound was squeaking; through the speaker Buddy Holly’s voice was hoarse and the lyrics of “Crying, Waiting, Hoping” were constantly interrupted. Twice, the man stopped the car because he had to pee: probably the cans of beer he had been drinking while driving.
He saw the sign he had been waiting for: “Greenwich, Connecticut, next exit.” He left the highway, mumbled, “Getting there,” and slowed down. He leaned against the windshield, trying to read the road names. He was following the Long Island Sound; the immobile water shimmered in the distance. He turned right, drove uphill, and when he arrived at a crossroads hesitated for a moment. He stopped the car, leaving the lights on. Coming toward him, a blue sportscar reduced its speed as it approached. The driver, a young man in his 20s, pulled down the window and asked, “Need any help?” Tom shook his head and made a negative sign with his right hand. He looked again and when he read “Roosevelt Avenue,” he knew it was right. On every side of the street, the houses, magnificent and stately, were nesteld under domes of trees. In the October night, he saw weeping willows and maples turning red and yellow. After half a mile, he recognized the wooden gate, which opened into the estate. He had arrived at his destination. He drove past the house and parked the Mercedes on the side of the road, which widenend near a barn.
He opened the trunk and took out a coat he had dumped near his sleeping bag. He went behind the barn where a few garden tools were lined up against the wall. An old bench would do for a bed; he used the bag as a blanket and folded the coat to have a pillow. After the long drive, he needed a nap.
He instantly fell asleep and dreamt one of his usual dreams. Mr. Stevens, the high school swim teacher, has a stop watch on his wrist and keeps looking at it, yelling, “Come on, faster! Faster!” Tom, his head partly under the water, does not hear the words distinctly but the tone of voice leaves no doubt about the teacher’s impatience. After ten minutes, the boy, panting, comes out of the pool. He is skinny and pale, looking much younger than the other boys in his class, who smile and raise their right arm when Mr. Stevens gives them the time results accompanied by a word of congratulation. As the students leave the pool to go to the shower, Tom is held back by the teacher, “Randall, what’s the matter with you? You are slower every time! You are not trying hard enough, are you? Remember, next week, you have the tests. Better make sure you pass them.” Tom does not answer; his wet hair is dripping on his shoulders. “Tell you what,” Mr. Stevens adds. “ Get some practise between the lessons and you’ll improve your speed. You can have all the help you need right at home: didn’t your brother Simon win the interstate championships last year? He’s one the best students I ever had. Ask him to go with you on Saturday to the local pool; he’ll show you how to make the right movements and increase your speed.”
“I can’t ask him,” Tom says in a low voice.
“What do you mean you can’t ask him? Why’s that?”
“He won’t do it.”
“How do you know? I’m sure you’ve never tried. Well, maybe you’re afraid…”
“Afraid your brother will make fun of you.”
“Simon is too busy. He has so many things to do, especially on Saturdays. He meets his girlfriend.”
Mr. Stevens does not insist, probably realizing from the dark look Tom gives him the suggestion was a bad idea. He tells the boy to go and take a shower. Tom leaves the pool area, retaining the chlorine scent on his skin. (The dream, or rather the nightmare, brought back to life an old event and cut it short. After the boys had left the pool, Mr. Stevens called Tom’s father, a well-known surgeon, and told him about the low performance of his son. In the evening, while they were having dinner, Mr. Randall kept quiet and looked at Tom with contempt; his cold silence was worse than the harshest remarks. When the meal was over, Martha Randall tried to ask her husband what the matter was, saying something like, “Did you have a bad day, honey?” She received no answer. She got up and, a gray mouse sliding on the floor, went to the kitchen to do the dishes. Simon, who was two years younger but taller than Tom, mumbled an excuse and left the table. Remaining seated, Tom tried to talk to his father, but to no avail: Mr. Randall had unfolded the daily paper in front of him as if he were alone in the room. After a rather long moment, he put the paper down and said ambiguously, “You cannot win them all.” For a long time, the sentence resonated in Tom’s memory; he was never able to figure out what his father meant. As always, no question was asked, no answer and no explanation were given. The threat remained in the air, but the bomb never exploded.
The following Saturday, at their father’s request, Tom and Simon went to the city pool. After they had changed their clothes in the locker room, they were approaching the water when a pretty girl lying on the grass waved at them and said, “Hi guys!” It was Heidi.
“What are you doing there?” Tom asked.
“Cooking hamburgers!” Heidi laughed, rubbing sun lotion on her legs. “What do you do in a swimming pool?”
Years later, Tom remembered Heidi’s red bikini and how the water splashed when he left the pool without doing any of the exercises the teacher had advised.)
Ten years before, he had left the US without warning anyone. Since his unexpected departure to a remote part of the Amazon forest in Brazil, he had barely had any contact with members of his family. He didn’t tell them where he lived and what he did. After some time, everybody thought he was gone for good and, except for a small picture in his parents’ bookcase, he had indeed disappeared. He became a ghost, he was not dead, yet he was not alive anymore.
In the heat and the humidity of the rain forest, under nobody’s eye and comparison, he enjoyed being anonymous. He joined a group of smugglers who were carrying heavy dope over the border between Colombia and Brazil. When he was recruited, the head of the group asked him minimal questions; it was a business where the past didn’t matter and the future didn’t exist. The motto was simple, “Do the thing, shut up, or else…” He was assigned to carry the stuff hidden under the wooden planks of a motorboat speeding in high jumps on the Amazon river. The journey proved dangerous: several of the conveyors had already been killed by the military police who did not hesitate to replace the smugglers, doing their job and pocketing the money. When he was on the boat, Tom tried to fight his fear by putting his feelings on hold. A numb cloud isolated him from the danger of the situation. One evening, there was a close call. After a four hour ride, he anchored in a small harbor on the Brazilian side of the river; he put the drug he had to deliver in an old bag and stepped out of the boat. Suddenly two men were in front of him, asking him with more signs than words to give them the bag. He refused to yield, hoping they were not armed. They started yelling in Portuguese; he kept silent and didn’t move. A loud noise he could not identify was heard coming from the invisible heart of the forest; the men looked around in terror and disappeared as fast as they could. Tom’s shirt was wet with sweat.
Two weeks later, for a reason he didn’t understand or admit, he decided to return to what he still called home for want of another word. When the plane landed in Kennedy airport, he felt so disconnected with an environment from which he had been estranged for so long that he almost flew back to Brazil, to the lawless life he had on the Amazon River. With all its dangers the rain forest had drawn a curtain protecting him from the conventional world of his childhood. But it was too late. He didn’t have the money to pay for another trip. Even buying a cheap car was too expensive. When he saw the brown Mercedes that seemed abandoned in the corner of a parking lot, he forced the lock and stole it. As he started driving, he realized that trespassing the red line was easier in a foreign land than in his own country.
He drove upstate, wanting to pay his parents a surprise visit. As he was getting closer to the community where they lived, a feeling of fear engulfed him. Despite his forty years, he was a boy returning home, afraid to be questioned about a situation that had too many dark wings to reveal. On the way, he stopped near a field covered with sunflowers; he took out of his bag the large knife he used in the Amazon forest and noticed a blood stain on the blade. Recently, having nothing to eat, he imitated the Indian tribe he had befriended and killed a brown monkey after he had caught the animal with a poisonous arrow. He cleaned the blade with his sleeve, cut five flowers at the bottom of their thick stems and put them in the backseat of the car. With their dark hearts and their golden petals the flowers were magnificent.
At the end of the afternoon, he arrived at his parents’ house. When he saw the letterbox with their names painted in black on the side, he was tempted to turn around and flee, as anxious here as he had been at the airport when the plane landed. He nevertheless got out of the car and saw Christian Elmgaard, the next door neighbor, a Danish physicist, whose twin sons had been his childhood friends. In reality, they were his brother’s friends, although they were in his class. One year, both Tom and Simon were invited to spend Christmas in Copenhagen, but the day before departure Mr. Randall didn’t allow his older son to take the trip, saying dryly, “Your grades are not good enough. You stay home and do the work you didn’t do at school.” When Tom received a postcard from Denmark featuring the royal palace, he tore it apart, went to his room and broke a blue wooden raft he had received on his birthday. He had a splinter in his hand, that his father took out with difficulty. Now, after so long a parenthesis, he didn’t want to meet Mr. Elmgaard, mainly because he knew what inevitable questions he would be asked (“Where have you been all these years? Are you married? What is your job?”). It would feel like a trial, the more so, paradoxically, because Mr. Elmgaard, as he remembered him, was a kind man who would not break an embarrassing silence if the conversation were interrupted. Looking at the physicist hunched in his garden, Tom didn’t move, hoping he had not been seen. After a short moment, the neighbor put the dried leaves he had raked into a barrel, which he wheeled behind a hedge.
Tom walked slowly to the door, carrying the sunflowers in his left hand. After a moment he knocked; his heart was beating. When a gray-haired woman opened the door, it took him a second to recognize his mother. She was thinner than in his memory. She looked at him and said, “Tom, is that you?” They didn’t hug. He gave her the flowers and waited on the treshhold until, with a gesture, she told him to get into the house. When he was inside, he gave the living room a quick glance and noticed things had not changed: the dark dining table, the cane chairs, the couch with the satin cover. Tom followed his mother into the kitchen where she looked for a vase in the cupboard. When he saw the pink vase, he recognized it and found it ugly with its faded color and a chip on the brim. Martha Randall made a pot of coffee and they sat at the kitchen table. After a moment of silence, she said, “How come …” and left the question in the air.
“What? How come I’m here? Is that the question?”
“Yes, it is. I’m so surprised to see you. You disappear for many years and, one day out of the blue, you ring the bell.”
“Aren’t you glad I’m back?” he asked.
“Tom, I’m not prepared for your return. You almost never wrote and we didn’t hear from you. For a long time, I grieved and I cried, not even knowing where you were.”
“I was starting a new life and…”
“Not worrying a bit about your family. You couldn’t care less.You abandoned us for no reason at all.”
“How do you know there was no reason? If you and Dad had opened your eyes instead of hiding yourselves behind a set of principles, you would have been aware something was wrong in this family.” When he pronounced the last words, he made a circle with his right hand, and added, lowering his voice, “You didn’t get it.”
“Sorry, but I’m not ready to visit the past.”
“Well, you should…”
“What good would it do? You left us with a total blank.” While saying this, Martha Randall pulled her chair back, as if she wanted to move away from her son.
“And Dad? How is he doing?”
“He’s in London, attending a medical conference. He’s doing fine, thanks.”
“Does he sometimes speak about me?”
“Tom, you don’t understand. We had given up on you the same way you had given up on us. After years of silence, I don’t think you can play the prodigal son with much success. It’s late now, very late.”
“I’m not playing the prodigal son,” Tom said, raising his voice. “I never was the son anyway…”
“What do you mean? Of course you were the son.”
“No, I wasn’t. You had only one child. Simon.”
Martha got up and went to the window, looking outside. She kept silent for a short moment and, without turning around, said, “Do you remember Mr. Elmgaard? He’s raking the leaves. His sons left the US and went back to Denmark. They’re both married and have children.” She came back to the table and took the coffee pot. “Do you want some more coffee? It’s still warm.”
Tom nodded and said, “Tell me it’s not true.”
“What is not true?”
“Only Simon counted. Only Simon met your expectations. Only Simon did it right. The straight A student, the excellent athlete, fun, friendly, good-looking. Tell me it’s not true…”
“Let me tell you what the truth is. Your jealousy. A big spider eating your heart. You never accepted Simon from the day he was born. One time, when he was still a baby, you shook the cradle so hard, you almost knocked it over. When I told you to stop, you wouldn’t let go, shouting,‘Baby away, baby away.’ ’’
He didn’t recall the incident, but he remembered how little prepared he was for his brother’s birth. Up to then, he had had the world (mainly his mother) to himself and, one day, it was over.
“There was not enough room for the two of us, not enough tenderness,” he said.
“How can you say that? It was all in your head…” Martha looked intently at Tom and noticed his legs, bare and skinny. She said, “But you’re wearing shorts. It’s too cold to wear shorts.”
All of a sudden, he was a boy, and Martha was the mother. He didn’t want to show her what he felt. He got up and, without saying a word, he left the house. In front of him, he saw a white screen: the film was interrupted. Once again, he was fleeing.
A green beetle patiently climbing from his chin to his mouth woke him up. He looked at his watch and got up from the bench behind the barn. He went back to the car, put the sleeping bag in the trunk and started walking to the estate. When he arrived at the gate, he observed Simon’s house as if he were discovering it, not remembering how long ago he had been there for the last time. He could not but admire the perfect balance of the building despite its asymmetrical parts shining in the moonlight. The right wing had two bow windows that opened into the garden, while, on the left, there was a narrow turret. Three rounded steps led to the main door. Near the entrance the last roses of the season were withering in a stone fountain. Following a graveled pathway, Tom went silently behind the dark house; it was larger than he remembered. There was a slight sound in the distance: a shadow moved between the trees and came closer to the house. A fox with shining eyes was approaching, curious about the intruder exploring the night territory; the animal then stopped carefully on dead branches that strewed the ground and turned back.
Tom stood in front of a glass door and tried to look inside but couldn’t distinguish much except for some pieces of furniture. On the right side of the door, there was a window. Tom noticed it was ajar; he pushed the panels, hoisted himself and jumped into the house. It was an unexpected occasion for an anonymous visit at night, a possibility to get close to a brother who had always been the unspoken object of his envy and of his admiration. After the conversation with his mother, Tom was not ready for another confrontation; yet the house was a powerful magnet and he couldn’t help being drawn to it. Now, he was in an elegantly decorated living room, which he crossed in quick steps. He arrived at a staircase, gave a few glances around, and waited for a short moment before silently climbing the stairs. When he arrived on the next floor, he slid on a thin yellow carpet, tried to find his balance. He didn’t fall down but knocked over a small table he hadn’t seen. The sound echoed in the house, amplifying the noise. He froze. After a few seconds, a door was opened with a vigorous thrust and he heard Simon’s voice, “What’s happening? Anyone here?” Tom didn’t answer. Hoping he wouldn’t be found, he stuck to the wall as if he could become invisible. A light was switched on, partly illuminating the floor, but leaving Tom in the dark. He held his breath, wondering if there were a way out. Crawling against the wall, he tried to reach the stairs without being noticed, hoping to be able to flee from the house. He was gripping the railing when a second light was switched on, sending yellow rays on his thin silhouette. He was caught.
“Who are you?” Simon yelled before he recognized his brother. “Tom, what the hell are you doing here?”
Making a desperate attempt to escape, Tom lost the knife with the stained blade, stumbled and fell. Simon went quickly over to him and held him by the arm. Tom couldn’t move; he was the fox unable to hide in the forest, a trapped animal within range of the hunter’s shot. He first lowered his head against the ground before giving Simon a shy look.
“You must be out of your mind,” Simon said. “I thought someone was breaking into the house.”
“I’m sorry I didn’t warn you I was coming back. I know I should have… Didn’t Mother tell you I saw her?”
“No, she didn’t. Listen, I never had such a visit. Couldn’t you let us know you were arriving? How did you get into the house?” Simon said, loosening his grip.
“There was an open window downstairs.”
“Always a different way to do things, I guess.” Simon shrugged his shoulders and smiled. “Good you didn’t wake up Heidi and the kids.”
Simon picked up the knife and gave Tom a hand to help him get up.
“I can’t believe you’re here. After so many years, we all thought we would never see you again… We were mad at you.”
Simon was wearing black shorts and an old wrinkled T shirt. After a moment of awkward silence, he came close to his brother and hugged him. “Hey, man, you’re back!” Tom felt his brother’s vigorous arms.
“I don’t want to bother you. I must go now,” Tom said.
“Are you kidding? You come all the way from God knows where in the middle of the night, carrying a knife. You hide yourself in the dark and run off. No way. You’re staying. First we’re going to have breakfast.”
They went down to the kitchen. Simon opened the fridge and took out four eggs and some bacon.
“ I saw Mr. Elmgaard.” Tom said. “He was raking the leaves in his yard. Remember that time when you went to Copenhagen, and I had to stay home. You sent me a picture of the royal palace and I tore it apart when I got it. I was so angry I could have set the house on fire.”
“You never told me that…”
“We kept to ourselves. I guess talking was too difficult.”
“…or maybe too dangerous. I imagine that’s the reason you left.”
“Maybe. I don’t really know. I was confused and I probably still am,” Tom said. “You sure have a beautiful house here.” He paused before adding, “Do you remember the trip to Denmark?”
“Of course, I do. I felt bad you didn’t come, but I didn’t want to show it.”
“You’re kidding, aren’t you?”
“I’m not. I guess we have many stories to catch up, but we’ll have time for that. We haven’t talked in such a long time. Sit down; let’s eat, breakfast is ready.”
Dawn was shyly pushing the night away; the moon was a white sliver in the sky.