Rachel had not heard from her brother in
by Hart Williams © 1994
Notes: This house used to belong to my grandparents.
It has been
remodeled to the point of unrecognizability, so this is the only
exists, I suppose. Another in the "family" cycle.
Rachel had not heard from her brother in years, nor had
there been much attempt to talk. Mom and Dad didn't really approve of him, and, back from college, she wouldn't
have changed her mind much, agreeing, as she did, with her mother's prejudices was more
than just good, dutiful behavior, it was smart policy if she wanted to keep her summering
privileges, her tuition, her books, the used car they'd bought her, and the insurance that
went with it. Nothing unusual in that, except that she found her brother's boxes in the
garage while she was looking for her old tennis racket, packed away and buried, as things
tended to be.
moved for most of Rachel's life, and it wasn't unusual. Her brother, Sam, was out of
sight, out of mind, as far as her parents were concerned. He was eleven years older, so
the loss was not great. But a box fell, and photographs fell out, and Rachel was just
It was an old house in Nebraska, near the old
trail on the Platte. Victorian gingerbread, but not ornate, they had lived there ever
since her grandparents were killed in a Ford Bronco on Interstate 80, which ran near the
house. Elm and cottonwood ringed a yard on a block that still didn't have gutters, on a
road that was still gravel and dirt. The old iron horse-head hitching posts bookended a
blackened chunk of concrete that started the cracked walk.
Rachel still shuddered in the nights, even
though the old wallpaper had been replaced by panelling, then new wallpaper; the house
rebuilt, renovated, reborn. It still had the old smells: the dank of the basement, of
leather and grease from the basement door that Grandpa and Uncle Pete had hung their
overalls; Pete's trademark bombardier jacket; his leather cap and oily rags.
The front door still had the old brass
doorbell, no rewired electric one. The colored and frosted glass she used to watch the
mailman through as he came up the walk: first
blue, then gold, then red, then a green
cloud. The old monsters still seemed there in the new closets. But it was a good house.
Rachel heard the trains late, ghostly going by. Slept to the lullaby of the cicadas and
the crickets. Avoided the reassuring whine of the air-conditioner and opened the windows
to the heat of the nights.
The garage was the same: the old oil stain
from the old ford; the cold smell of mildew. The black widow webs and hornet's nests. And
boxes. But it was home, finally, all memories were good ones: Pepper, Uncle Pete's mutt
running to meet her when they visited; Grandpa's unvarying oatmeal every morning; the old
tin-lined bread drawer filled with cookies Pete brought home from the bakery.
These were the earliest memories she had, and
it was always good to be home. University was new; it was wonderful; it was frightening.
But this, this was home for summer.
Marcy wanted to play tennis near the rock
gardens, and Rachel's racquet was being restrung, or she'd have never been poking in the
garage for her old wooden racquet. She preferred the new graphite one, and she never
thought about the old one, its paint chipping, the handle taped usefully if sloppy. But
she needed to lost those pounds of good German cooking Mom had ladled onto her plate, and
Marcy didn't have another racket.
Shuddering at the thought of centipedes and
spiders, she dug into the boxes in the garage, and the box fell over. Sam's the pictures
said, and curiosity got the better of Rachel.
Her mother knew something was different when
they ate that night. There were many new questions, but she had to be careful. You never
knew what would set Mom off. If she was in a good mood, she'd babble on and on about
people and events; but it was just as probable that she'd get angry over some private
thing, and you'd suffer for evoking a memory you'd never be privy to. You just knew you
were being punished for it.
"Wasn't Sam in the merchant marine
once?" she asked, after steering the conversation to oil, and then tankers, then
World War II and her uncles in the navy. And after hearing about the conga line down Main
Street on VE Day, and Frank Sinatra, and her uncle the navy Captain who
never sailed on a boat, but spent the entire
war in college at Uncle Sam's expense, learning engineering.
"Well, for a while. I think he said he
loved it at first, but he didn't like the loneliness of the sea, and he gave it up."
How to nudge it along without hitting a
mine? Rachel wondered, working studiously on the mountain of mashed potatoes in front
"We used to get post cards from the most
amazing places," Mom said, nudging Dad, who was feeding the cat, Tipper, under the
table in defiance of his own rule. "Guam, Portugal ... where else, Dear?"
"Haiti," her father said, looking
not very interested.
"Oh yes," Mom said, warming to it.
"I remember when we got that gift package from Hawaii. That was just before he
married that little tramp." Her face fell. Clouds and thunder in the gray eyes.
Dad had known her too long. "The new
storm windows are ready to pick up, Ton says."
"I'll be glad to get them in," Mom
I used to believe you, Rachel thought. What else haven't you told me?
She knew that she shouldn't have done it, but
who would know? Rachel pulled the brown paper bag from under her bed when she was sure
that her parents were finally in theirs.
It was wrong to spy, to rummage through other
people's lives, but, hell, how many times had she come home to find the question, the
angry silence that eventually became an accusation because Mom had been reading Rachel's
letters, her diary, or looked in her desk and found the innocent condom that had been a
schoolgirl glggle but was, to Mom, sinister proof?
Who will know?
And there was still a question. What did the
message stenciled on the boxed mean? Well, it wasn't important. She looked through the
photographs, pulling the first pile from the 1-hour envelope, and restoring the negatives
to order in their flap.
Sam. In a bar of some kind. Faces. Sam and
his pals, in
funny caps and poses. It could be anywhere,
she thought. The pictures were dated five years ago. Maybe six or seven, depending on how
long the film had stayed undeveloped. She remembered Sam's legendary forgetfulness. A dog.
A back yard. Snow. Sam on skis. Two women on skis, mugging for the photographer.
She pulled out the second set of photos.
They were wedding pictures.
"Lagan _ n." said the dictionary.
"maritime law: goods cast overboard, as in a storm, with a buoy which
identifies the owner.:
Rachel put down the dictionary. A sailor's
gallows humor, she thought. It fit. The boxes were stenciled "LAGAN." She
wondered if her patents knew what it meant. She wondered what the storm had been. She knew
who the woman was. Did it have to do with her?
She rummaged in the boxes the next day,
looking for clues. Maybe it would have been better if I'd never found this stuff,
thought, carefully examining each piece.
Finally, she found an old cigar box,
carefully tied with twine. Inside, letters. Someone called from the house.
It'll have to wait, she thought.
"Yeah Mom?" she yelled.
"Lunch is ready! What are you doing in
"Looking for my racquet," Rachel
said, wiping her hands on her shorts as she emerged to see her mother standing on the
"I though you found it yesterday,"
her mother said as Rachel passed into the cool of the kitchen.
"I found the rotten one," she said,
realizing that she'd roused the watchdog. "I was hoping I could find the good
"The yellow one?"
"Oh, honey, we sold that at the garage
sale, don't you remember?"
"Oh," Rachel lied.
"We're having baked beans," her
mother said. "I thought you'd enjoy something special."
Rachel hesitated. I hate baked beans,
she thought. Sam loved baked beans. "I hate baked beans, Mom. You know
"Oh," her mother said.
There was a long, uncomfortable pause. Rachel
jumped in. "I mean, I like your baked beans, Mom. Mmmmm. They smell great."
The silence was deafening.
The first important letter was marked
"Return To Sender." It was addressed to her parents. It began:
"Dear Mom and Dad:
I know there's been some hard feelings
about Cheryl, and I know that you don't approve of the marriage, but I'd like to bury the
hatchet. She really looks forward to meeting you. I think when you get to know her, you'll
really like her. She's an orphan, and having a set of in-laws is very important to her.
It's important to us both."
He was trying to make peace. He was begging
to be let back in the family. What had happened?
She read the letter carefully. It was several
pages long, written in a laborious hand. News about the wedding. Plans to move to
Portland. A dog they'd got at the pound and named "Spike."
The next important letter was dated several
months later. It was a letter of termination from a convenience store. "Inventory has
indicated that a substantial amount of stocked goods are missing," it began.
"Though we do not have enough evidence to press formal charges, we find it necessary
to terminated your employment at this time, in accordance with the terms of ...."
She read through several love letters of
varying degrees of pornographic intent. Rachel was embarrassed, but it was cheerful
Do they really think that way? she
wondered. She could not imagine her brother really wanting to do—or doing—those
things. Maybe it was poetic license. It wasn't very poetic.
Then, the letter from Cheryl.
Rachel could not sleep. It was hot and her
dreams were troubled. When the 2:38 roared past, she came awake with a start, wrapped in
the sweat-soaked sheet. Since she didn't like the air-conditioner (and because turning it
on would chill her to the bone), she got up and sponged herself with water from the basin
she kept upstairs in her bedroom. There was no bathroom upstairs, and going downstairs was
a long trouble for not much.
She couldn't get the two letters out of her
Sam had been accused of theft, and Cheryl was
leaving him _ hinting at something darker between them. And Sam had written a letter to
her pleading his innocence and begging her to come back. It had been his fault, he said,
that things weren't working. But she had to bear some of the blame. He was not guilty, and
he would try to fight it if it were important to her.
But he wondered why she could not believe
And why she was leaving.
There was no address on the envelope. It had
never been sent. Rachel wondered if he had sent another like it, or whether he had know
where to send a letter. Hers had stated: "I am going somewhere where you will not
find me." His had said: "I am going to drop my things at my folks' and I will
make things right by us."
Rachel understood why the boxes were marked
But she could not sleep.
She searched every box, the next day. There
was no clue. She put the letters back, looked at all the pictures again: the wedding party
at a bar, with wedding cake on a pool table (Mom and Dad disapproved of pool, of bars:
hell, of Sam!); the honeymoon pictures, the apartment pictures. Old pictures of Sam in
ports of call. Of high school, and one, an eleven-year-old boy holding a baby, proud and
Holding me, Rachel thought, holding
Sam in her way.
But the story ended there. That letter had
been the last thing before Sam dropped off his belongings: a few boxes of clothes; some
junk and souvenirs; photos and a battered old cigar box, tied with twine. Rachel had
thought she could retie it so no one would know. But Sam's sailor's knots confounded her.
He would know, she thought. And so, she wrote a note of her own:
"Dear Older Brother:
"I love you. I am sorry I didn't get
to know you, but I want to now. I need you in my family, even if they don't want you in
theirs. Please call me:"
she gave her address and clear instructions
where she could be found ...
"your sister Rachel."
And she filled the bottom of the page with
Green to brown; then fields to fallow, and
straw; and snow. Summer seemed far away as she returned to her life, and as she left, she
left Sam, though she would wonder, now and then, if he had returned; if he had found
Cheryl or justice.
But this was the beginning of a new life, and
the end of a semester, and Sam was far away from her thoughts when she heard a familiar
voice behind her in the cafeteria.
She wheeled around, books clutched to her
"They told me I might find you here, and
so you are."
"She's home. I thought I'd drive up and
see my little girl," her father said, but there was something else, and she knew that
it was important.
It was that look he had when Cobbles died and
she had come home and he hadn't wanted to tell her. That look that he got when Mom had
decided to move and left him to tell Rachel she was going to have to say goodbye to all
her friends—or the times there hadn't been time and he'd had to tell her that, too.
This was something like that, she knew.
"Is it Mom? Is she sick?" she
asked, guiding him to a table.
Her father smiled a sad, forlorn smile.
"I found this," he said, holding
out an envelope to her. It was her letter to Sam.
"I—oh, I'm sorry, Daddy," she
said. Mother had found it, she thought, and there would be trouble: no tuition, or no car,
or no something. She was sorry—not that she'd written it, but that it would never get
to Sam, and that she would pay for it anyway.
"Your mother doesn't know," her
"Oh," she said; and then, realizing
it, "OH!" He was there to bail her out. To keep them both out of trouble.
"I want you to promise to never tell her
that you know about Sam's affairs," he said. "I want you to promise."
Rachel nodded seriously. "I promise.
You've heard from Sam, haven't you?"
"He got her back, didn't he? I just knew
Her father looked pained. "No honey. He
didn't see Cheryl again."
"But he's all right now. He found
someone else and picked up his things. Please, tell me, Daddy. He's my brother and
I have a right to know if he's all right. Did you know what 'lagan' means? I looked it up
_ " she was flooded with words. It was enough that he'd driven up to see her, to tell
her something that he would never tell Mom. That was new. That was unique in her whole
life. It meant that they were finally going to be a family again. It meant that Sam was
finally going to come back to them. Mom needed him. She wouldn't admit it. But Rachel
that she did. That was why she'd made baked beans. That explained a hundred slips she'd
made during the summer. That ....
"I know what it means," her father
said. "But Sam didn't stencil those packages."
"Well, who then?" Rachel asked,
stopped in mid-think.
"Cheryl sent them. Now, I want you to
swear to me that you'll never tell your Mother what I'm going to tell you."
"All right," Rachel said. Something
"Sam is dead."
"He died in a car accident; he may have
been drinking. We don't know. But Cheryl sent us his things. She was the one who stenciled
that ... word. Your Mother refuses to believe it. I play along with it, because I'm afraid
for her. And I need you to play along. Will you, Princess? Will you go along with me? I'm
afraid that ... you see, your Mother won't accept that he's dead. She says that the
coroner's report and the death certificate are lies. That the obituary is fake. She thinks
Cheryl did it to spite her. Will you promise?" She had never seen him helpless. Now,
Rachel stared into nothing. Sam was dead. Sam
had been dead before she ever opened the boxes.
"Will you promise?"
She looked at her father and understood. Sam
was not the only one who had died. Nor was her mother. She saw the look in her father's
eyes and she knew that she would cry long nights because of that look.
But not now. Now, she looked at him, and she
smiled a sad smile, and she could almost feel that Sam was standing beside her, his hand
on her shoulder, and she knew what to say.
"I promise, Daddy. I promise."
But she was thinking of a sailor.
And a storm, and something else often implied
by that word: