Friday, March 4, 2005, 2:28 p.m.
John was the sole patron of the Dayton International Airport bar closest to his arrival gate. He checked his watch for the fourteenth time in the last half hour and shook his head, knocking back the last of his second vodka. Running a hand through his thinning hair, he held out the rocks glass and shook it, the clinking ice catching the attention of the bartender, who had been reading horse racing odds. A third drink was poured without any words exchanged, the room silent save for Warren Zevon singing about werewolves and the distant drone of a final boarding call.
He hadn’t trusted his sister’s ability to make a noon flight, calling her over a dozen times to make sure she was up and ready. Each attempt was met with a robotic woman announcing that the voicemail box belonging to ‘[static-crackling silence] ‘Leave it!’ [fumbling sounds]’ was full. When June’s flight spilled out into the concourse and she was nowhere to be found, he began pacing and crafting a poison-tipped ‘I told you so’ speech, which by now was a sprawling manifesto that became nastier and more self-righteous with each sip. It wasn’t until halfway through the third drink that he began to relax, his thoughts dissolving back to childhood.
When John was seven, he used to sit alone in the front room of the house and build what he called ‘The President Cabin’ out of Lincoln Logs. If the team wasn’t on the road, his father would sit at the kitchen table and scrutinize scouting reports while his mother, after putting Jerry Jr. down in his crib for the night, worked on the crossword and listened to the news, which always seemed to bother her and leave her solemn.
Each creation was slightly altered from the last, and when it was finished, he would usher his parents into the front room to inspect it. Jerry would ask a series of questions about the president, like where he was from or what kind of dog he had. Wilma would tell him that it seemed like a wonderful place to live, kiss him on the forehead and tell him to get ready for bed. As John headed to the bathroom to brush his teeth, Jerry would put an arm around his wife and smile, sometimes wondering out loud if their first born would be an architect.
‘Maybe the president’, she whispered once, laying her head on his shoulder.
It was a muggy evening in July, a little after eight, and John had just finished roofing that evening’s cabin. He had saved up a few blocks to build a porch, and was laying its foundation, when the Lagerstadt’s front window shattered. John let out a shriek, scrambling backwards as a brick demolished The President Cabin amidst a hail of glass shards.
Wilma held a hysterical John, whispering calming words while Jerry stared vacantly at the jagged remains of his window, clutching the brick, which had the words ‘NIGGER LOVER’ scrawled in bad handwriting on a piece of paper affixed with a rubber band. John was taken into his room, where he sat motionless at the edge of his bed, watching the blue and red lights from the police cars outside flicker through the darkness. His mother came in after a bit, bringing him cookies and milk that he normally wouldn’t have gotten, explaining the brick as ‘an accident’. Once she had gone, he cracked the door open with caution and listened as his father talked to the police about the brick and about Alvin, the man with the poofy hair that came over for dinner sometimes.
Later that evening, unable to sleep, John crept down the hallway and into the front room, where his father stood in the same spot he had clutched the brick earlier, still staring out the window, which now let in a slight breeze. Jerry ran a hand through his thinning jet black hair and turned to see John, who was shocked to see his father’s face glistening with the residue of wiped away tears.
‘The hell with them,’ his father said after they had stared at each other in silence for several seconds. His voice cracked in a way that John had never heard before. Jerry sighed through his nose and waved his hand towards the window before walking past John on his way to bed. ‘You just worry about yourself.’
‘Johnny?’ He had been staring vacantly at the faded formica bar, his hand resting on his eyebrows like a visor, the familiar voice pulling him from his daydream.
June, who had destroyed her phone in a rage over the notion that she was too infantile to be on time for a flight, had missed her flight, and booked one that took off an hour later on her husband’s credit card. Assuming that her brother had already given up and left, she decided to have a drink or two at the bar before renting a car.
‘Jesus, June, where the fuck have you been?’ The two had not seen each other in a little over four years. She noticed John’s hairline had crept back considerably, while he studied the crow’s feet that had begun to crack beneath her eyes. Her brown-rooted blonde hair — once fashioned into a ridiculous perm immortalized in her high school yearbooks — now curled off her head with the utmost elegance, glossy and layered like the women in shampoo commercials. It looked out of place with the sweatpants and hooded Princeton sweatshirt she’d tossed on while hurrying to catch the flight she missed. He looked sadder than she’d ever seen him, and she suddenly saw his resemblance to their father with alarming clarity.
‘Sorry,’ she pleads in a pout. ‘The cab I took broke down and I missed my flight.’ She slides into the stool next to him, flicking her hair and smiling at the bartender, asking for a ‘screwdriver, Grey Goose, orange garnish on the rim, please’ (only after confirming that the orange juice wasn’t ‘the watered down stuff from the soda gun’).
‘The cab broke down?’
‘Yeah’, she says, flashing the bartender a hollow smile and mouthing the words ‘thank you’ as he lays down her drink. ‘On Milwaukee. It was a nightmare.’ She shakes her head and exhales, a few strands of her hair fluttering.
‘What was wrong with it?’
‘I don’t know,’ she says, plucking the orange slice from the rim of her glass and laying it on a napkin before taking down half of her drink in one pull. ‘They had to send another cab to get me.’
‘What other reason could a thirty-four year old have for missing a flight?’ He glances up at ESPN highlights, trying to suppress a smile. When they had talked earlier in the week, John had said ‘just make sure you don’t miss your flight’, to which she replied, through gritted teeth, that she was thirty-four years old, and could manage to make it to the airport in time, thank you very much.
‘Go fuck yourself,’ she says with a weary warmth, taking another pull from her drink and kissing him on the cheek. John could trace the paths of the jagged black lines that snaked out from the pupils of her marble blue eyes, which were predictably dilated.
‘Good’, she says nodding and pursing her lips. ‘He’s meeting with some investment group about a property in Tribeca.’ June knew that no such property existed, that it was invented to avoid making the trip, and that David was probably out somewhere with with whoever he was fucking that drew him to Manhattan like a magnet. ‘How’s Jude?’
‘He’s doing well,’ John says, smiling for the first time. ‘He came out to visit for two weeks over Christmas. Getting good grades, playing JV basketball. Has a girlfriend.’
‘No, it’s Becca now.’ He knocks back the last of his drink, holding up two fingers towards the bartender and wagging them between June and himself . ‘How did you know about Sarah?’
‘We talk.’ She finishes off her screwdriver and shrugs her shoulders, grinning and sticking her tongue through her teeth. ‘I’m the cool aunt.’ He laughs and shakes his head.
‘His flight lands in an hour. I tried to get him for a few days, but Rachel’s just flying him in and out. I guess he’s in a school play and can’t miss rehearsals.’
‘How about you?’ she asks, lowering her eyes to meet his, which are fixed on the wet ring in the middle of his bar napkin.
‘How’s the store?’
‘What? Since when?’
‘About a year ago,’ he says, taking the first sip of his fourth drink.
‘What happened?’ He doesn’t answer, taking a second gulp and turning his attention back to ESPN, pretending to be fixated on Alex Trebek pitching life insurance.
Free from his now ex-wife’s excessive spending, John, needing a diversion, took a large portion of his savings and invested in the cigar boom of the mid-90’s, opening a small store in a suburban strip mall. Business was ample for a number of years, leading him to quit his accounting job, but eventually the trend settled back down to merely connoisseurs. After treading water for a few years, he finally threw up his hands and failed to renew the lease.
‘Johnny,’ she growls through gritted teeth, punching his shoulder. ‘Talk to me.’
‘Went broke,’ he mutters, his drink rippling as he sighs into it.
‘Why didn’t you tell me?’
‘I didn’t tell anyone. Dad just found out last fall.’
‘David and I could’ve helped you.’
‘Like I would take money from that prick.’
‘Here we go,’ she says, rolling her eyes and slamming her palm onto the bar, which draws the attention of the bartender, who glances at them with the look of a substitute teacher too weary to instill order.
‘You asked for it,’ he says with the laugh of someone who doesn’t find it funny. ‘You know I don’t like the guy.’
The bartender goes back to his racing sheet. June focuses on chips in her nail polish, and her brother stares at the same Brett Favre highlight he’s already seen half a dozen times. They both berate themselves for jumping so quickly into the bitter anger each swore they wouldn’t engage in. All of the internal pep talks and mantras and promises to be the better person meant nothing. They both tell themselves to apologize. Neither one does.
‘You hear the new Springsteen?’
‘I miss the Telecaster,’ June says, resting her head on his shoulder. John kisses his sister’s forehead, which tastes like chalk, before calling for another round.