At first it was nothing. Then it fell harder, and they had to slow down. Cory had never liked snow, even from inside a warm place. As a child she thought it sucked color from the world, a comment that made her family laugh. For a few years now they’d circled her left ankle — balloon heads and dots for eyes — and when she pointed her toe their faces became thin and scant. Too bad she couldn’t do that to them in real life, she always thought.
In the back seat Vic was sleeping off his airplane drinks. At six-four Vic had to curl up tight to fit in Lander’s car. Lander was Cory’s brother, and she hadn’t told him Vic was coming. When he met them at the terminal, Lander observed Vic’s leather coat and shaved head and asked, without offering his hand, “How do you do?”
“Super, Man, and you?”
Lander hadn’t said another word to Vic since.
From Newark Airport to Dunston was usually three hours, and now the weather would make it over four. Just then they were in the wilds of Eastern Pennsylvania.
“You didn’t have to come all the way down for me,” Cory told Lander.
“Just wanted to make sure you’d make the final leg okay.”
“Afraid I’d change my mind? Bail out at the last minute?”
“It had occurred to me.”
Their father was dying. He’d been dying a long time, a slow progression of some blood disorder Cory didn’t remember the name of. There had been several false alarms, and then a slight recovery after each transfusion. Now there was no recovery, only the certainty that options had been exhausted and the time had come to gather.
Vic snored. Lander lowered the window above Vic’s head, and the snow blew in on him. Cory pressed the button on her arm-rest and raised the window.
“You’re an asshole,” she said.
“Where did you get this guy, anyway?”
“Met him on the plane.”
Vic had come into the tattoo parlor one day and stayed. That was eight months ago. Since then he’d learned how to ink almost as well as Cory did. He’d done her latest, an arrow embedded in the tight skin above her heart, the place closed up and both of them naked, downing shots of tequila, sucking on limes, sucking on each other, the buzzing pen steady no matter how much booze or sex she gave him. In spite of that, Vic was really pretty tame. Once, tame would have been a quick ticket out the door, but now, at twenty-eight, tame had taken on some charm. Can’t go on all my life getting bounced off the walls, Cory had told him. That was as strong a statement of love as she’d ever made.
The snow fell harder. Every few minutes Lander sucked his teeth, a habit from childhood that meant despite the absolute stillness of his face, he was terrified. After living all his life in snow country it still rattled him. Served him right for not getting out, the way she had.
Sometimes, when he thought to call — which he hadn’t done for almost two years before last week’s summons — he asked when she planned to move back there. As if her going wasn’t permanent. As if, given the small group of people related to her, she’d ever consent to live in the Finger Lakes again, or anywhere in New York State, or the entire east coast, for that matter.
She lit a cigarette. Lander rolled his eyes. He disapproved of smoking, along with laziness, tardiness, or slackness of any kind. He held his language arts students to the highest standards of performance, so much so that he’d been told twice by the principal to “lighten up a little.” His own wife had left him two years before for having, as she put it, “a rod up his ass.”
“I need it. Don’t lecture me about second-hand smoke, either,” Cory said, and blew smoke his way on purpose. Lander sighed and sounded just like their father who sighed a lot, brief huffs when he was angry, and a longer, more leisurely release of air when he wanted to express disappointment. To Cory he had expressed a great deal of disappointment over the years for not being a good student like Lander, for having the wrong sort of boyfriend — motorcycle riders, drop-outs, even an ex-con — a general lack of sympathy with the human race and its finer points, but most of all because she was completely uninterested in the achievements that had earned him grants, promotion to full professor at Dunston University at a relatively young age, and later the position of Chairman of the English Department. He had never said so flat out, but she knew this was his major grief with her — that she refused to be impressed.
Paula had been impressed enough for everyone. How can you act like that Cory? Think of your father’s reputation! He’s a very well respected man, you know.
Paula was her father’s second wife. The first wife, Cory and Lander’s mother, died when Cory was five and Lander seven. Cory remembered a gray and green funeral parlor. Summer light fought its way through stained glass windows. It’s like a kaleidoscope, Cory whispered and was pinched hard. Then an urn was put in her father’s hands. It sat in his closet in the old house, and came into the house he bought with Paula. Paula wanted it gone. Cory’s father threw the ashes in Lake Dunston one winter day, his children shivering and whining from the cold.
Vic coughed again, stretched, and sat up. “Oh, Man, look at that snow!” he said.
“That’s what it is,” said Cory.
Lander looked at Cory.
“Grew up in Pasadena. Not used to it,” she said.
“Pasadena. Really,” said Lander.
“Yup. Nothing but sunshine and blue sky. Some say it’s paradise. I say it sucks,” said Vic.
Lander left the highway for a smaller state road that would twist and turn them into Dunston in another hour. The snow went on falling. Lander took some peanut butter crackers from the box he’d stuffed by his seat — cheaper than stopping for dinner. Cory fed herself and Vic on two stale bagels and four little bottles of scotch she’d bought on the plane.
Her father used to be quite the scotch drinker, himself. Every afternoon, home from campus, in his black easy chair, a glass in hand while the household revolved around him. Paula asking what he’d like for dinner, her daughter Debbie needing a kiss on her chubby cheek, Lander quiet and watchful, and Cory pushing past them all. I came in third in the spelling bee, Daddy. Missed “philanthropy.” You know my friend, Melissa, her dad teaches, too, some science or other, anyway, she said I did really great. To that her father gave a quick nod. At thirteen she had the word “kindness” tattooed on the inside of her wrist.
Can’t you understand it’s permanent? her father said. A thing you can never take back? Like certain words, she thought later, remembering how he’d called her a “fool,” and then when she was older, a “slut.”
“This was a bad idea,” Cory said.
“My coming here.”
“He asked for you. How many times must I say it?”
The snow drove straight into the headlights. Cory stared at the bright rushing mix and tried over and over to follow the path of a single flake. It was impossible.
“So, when do I see him?” she asked.
“Tomorrow, first thing.”
A car ahead skidded, its red taillights making a zigzag in the dark.
“Do you have something decent to wear?” Lander asked.
A vine of ivy was inked across the skin of Cory’s throat.
“You don’t think he’ll appreciate the joke?” she asked. Lander’s eyebrows came together.
“As in Ivy League,” she said.
“Aren’t you clever.”
“And perhaps childish.” On the phone she’d said it would serve her father right if she didn’t come at all, that he was probably lying when he said he wanted to see her. When Lander tried to interrupt, she said, Fuck him. “And resentful. To the point of being unpleasant. Even a bitch, at times.”
“Hey, Lander. It’s Lander, right?” Vic asked.
“Now, I’m not a gambling sort of guy, never was, to be honest, but I still bet you the lousy fifty bucks I got in my pocket that there’s no need, whatsoever, for that kind of talk.”
Lander stared at Vic for a moment in the review mirror. Vic smiled at him and shrugged.
Cory could tell Vic things about Lander that would drop his opinion even lower. The question was whether those things were past or present tense. She pulled down her visor, leaned into the mirror as if to check her teeth, and looked back at Vic to make sure he was still staring out the window. She put the visor back, then she slipped her hand inside the neck of her sweater ‘” a man’s cashmere she’d bought at a thrift shop — and exposed the soft skin just above her left breast.
Lander peered down her front and pretended not to. He did it quickly, with a fast, practiced drop of the eyes. He’d done a lot of looking at her that he’d tried to hide. She’d used it growing up, a power she had over him. Tell me this and I’ll show you that. What she’d wanted to know was always about their father, what he’d said about her, what he’d do next where she was concerned. What she got for her trouble were things like he loves me better and he says I’m a lot smarter than you, pain she left on the bodies she marked for life, and in the ears of young men who shared her bed before Vic came along. One of them, whose name might have been Brian or Brad, had said of Lander’s foibles, Hey, it takes two to tango, you know.
Dunston came into view. The family house the same, the bushes crushed by snow. Paula’s daughter, Debbie, at the door, little changed, still childlike with her small, sullen mouth. Paula in the kitchen, her bony fingers like claws around her glass, her eyes sunken in her once beautiful face. She and Lander embraced. Then Paula turned to Cory and Vic and looked at them as if they were mist or smoke, something temporary and inclined to form a lazy, useless swirl.
“How is he today?” Lander asked Paula.
“Same. Quiet. Wants to see you. Both of you. Especially Cory.”
“I bet,” said Cory.
Paula stared up into Vic’s face. “I can make up the couch for you. It’s not very comfortable, but I’ll do my best.”
“He stays with me,” said Cory.
“Oh. Well. Of course. Only, I don’t know what your poor father would think.”
“He’d think I’m an adult.”
Paula nodded. Her face was pinched. She was crying, Cory realized. She’d never, in her entire life, seen Paula cry before.
The bed they slept in that night was her old one, in a different place now, a spare room off her father’s first floor study. The same bed she and Lander had woken up in together years before, naked, hung over, neither knowing then or later if they’d committed an act of incest. Debbie discovered them. Paula and their father were out of town, at a conference in New York City, and Lander and Cory were given this one chance to prove their responsibility as teenagers and keep an eye on their ten-year-old charge, the house, and the crabby, arthritic dog who needed to be helped down the front stairs several times a day to piss and shit in the yard. What they did was raid the liquor cabinet, send Debbie to bed, and forget about the dog, who made a mess all over Paula’s Persian rugs. They played a game of strip poker, which Cory lost, leaving her to sit shivering and naked before Lander who wouldn’t let her dress. She challenged him to shots of whiskey to see who could drink the most and still function. After that she remembered nothing except Debbie shoving her awake to say the dog needed to go out. Lander and Cory both bribed her to keep quiet, not about their night together, which they denied even to themselves, but about the rest of it. She didn’t. She went straight to Paula and blabbed the whole story, mad that she’d been exiled to her room when they’d promised they’d all stay up and watch late night movies with popcorn. Their father assumed it was Cory’s doing, that she’d lured her brother into bed and God alone knew what else, and it was then she who was exiled. The school in Vermont she attended for her last two years of high school was expensive, almost beyond his means, but he made the sacrifice for the sake — and salvation — of his son, Lander. Cory never went home after that, but fled to L.A. and built a world out of booze, sex, and her beloved tattoos.
Paula was talking to Cory slowly, as if from a dream, one hand to her hair, her throat, and back again, a sleepwalker recalling a gracious gesture, perhaps on entering a room where the faces were turned her way and the smiles all meant for her.
Lander was pushing for hospice care, she said, thinking it was better to bring him home. The trouble was, he didn’t want to come home, didn’t want to be a burden to anyone, wanted everyone to carry on without him and get used to his being gone. Debbie, beside her mother on the waiting room’s vinyl couch, told Cory that she too had urged Cory’s father in this direction, with no luck. Paula asked Cory what could be taking so long, and Debbie told Cory it was probably nothing important, another sponge bath, or changing the sheets. Talking through her was new, Cory thought. Once they spoke around her, ignoring her altogether, sometimes referring to her in the third person. She thinks you don’t know who got into your wallet, and Go on, Honey, tell me what she did this time, Cory sometimes occupying the physical space between them and once grabbing both mother and daughter by the arm and screaming, I’m not fucking invisible, you assholes! She was no more visible now, really, only necessary to keep in place the distance they seemed to need, for reasons she didn’t want to know.
Lander appeared in the hallway leading from their father’s room. He walked rigidly, as if his back gave him an agony.
“He wants to see Cory. Alone,” he said.
“Why?” Cory asked.
“How should I know? I’m just the messenger.”
“You want I should hang out, or what?” Vic asked Cory. Debbie look startled at the sound of his voice, as if she’d already forgotten his existence. She went on working with whatever was in her hands, knitting, from the look of it.
“If you want. I don’t know how long I’ll be,” said Cory.
“Fine with me.”
Suddenly, Cory was terrified. She collected her scarf and coat, and went alone down the hall. He lay by the window. He was the same, only pared down. Skin like paper, skull clearly outlined, the fingernails translucent half-moons.
At the sound of her steps he opened his eyes slowly. They were unfocussed for a moment, then settled sharply on her.
“Corrine. Well.” His voice was faint, yet not weak, as if he could still get the attention of the whole room if he wished to. His eyes traveled to her cropped green hair, her face, and her bare arms revealed by a sleeveless blouse she’d worn to show off the garden that trailed from bicep to wrist. “You’re quite the sight.”
He didn’t seem to expect any sort of embrace, or gesture of affection, and she made none. She sat down, her crumpled wool coat — another thrift store find — on her lap. He gestured to her to press the button which raised the top half of the bed, allowing him to sit up taller.
“What are they?” he asked. He meant her tattoos.
“Lilies here, and this is a rose, and on this side a daisy chain.”
“Very life-like. Your designs?”
His eyes closed, he exhaled slowly. He’s in pain, she thought. A shitload of pain. No one had prepared her for that. They were probably all used to it by now, since they converged on him daily according to Lander, but still someone should have told her. That wasn’t how they did things, though. They’d always expected her to fend for herself.
She waited for him to continue, and he didn’t. Her gaze wandered. The window gave a wide view of the hills sloping down to Lake Dunston — a view so lovely Cory wondered how Paula had managed to arrange it, unless Debbie had. Debbie was absurdly devoted to Cory’s father, principally because he’d funded a lot of her nonsense, like taking a spiritual tour of India, living in an ashram for several months, then coming back to Dunston and doing absolutely nothing except toy with the notion of one day getting a career, perhaps as a social worker. The snow resumed, and slowly the view was obscured. Cory shivered, although the room was too warm.
She needed a cigarette.
“I’ll be right back,” she said.
His hand found her wrist and held on with surprising strength.
“No,” he said.
“Just a quick cigarette break. It’s all right.”
“No. You must stay here. I need to speak to you.”
So, she sat. Lunch was brought. Her father waved it away, and famished, Cory helped herself. Rubbery slices of pale turkey, a flawless mound of mashed potatoes in which a small depression was filled with gummy and delicious gravy. The green beans were cold and chewy, but she ate those, too, and the small square of apple turnover that served as dessert. She looked inside her purse, hoping the extra serving of whiskey she’d gotten on the plane was still there, and it was. She opened the tiny bottle, and drank it quickly.
“Your mother — ” her father said. He sighed, cleared his throat, swallowed with difficulty, and continued. He wasn’t able to properly express his affection towards her; he’d lived in fear that he would always disappoint her, not live up to her as an equal — she was a brilliant woman in her own right, did Cory know that? Not academically, but in the way she saw inside people, understood them quickly and completely. It scared him. Sensing his withdrawal, she, too withdrew and grew cold, long before she died.
Paula was entirely different, he said. She was dense, oblivious, in her own world, yet she always held him in the highest esteem. It meant total freedom. When you can do no wrong, he explained, then you are at liberty to do anything you please. And he did. Money he shouldn’t have spent; insulting comments about Paula’s cooking while she presided over their table with grace; affairs with students he kept quiet except for one that went too far, the student calling the house, banging on the door, tracking them down in restaurants. He denied it to Paula, said the girl was disturbed, obsessed, completely deranged, which a subsequent suicide attempt confirmed. Paula believed him.
“Maybe she just pretended to,” said Cory.
“Same result. I was off the hook.”
He spoke next of Debbie, her inability to get traction in life, a fundamental laziness that prevented her from evolving. Her mother had left her emotionally isolated, and she’d turned to Cory’s father for support, for love she had to have. He couldn’t give it to her. She was sweet in her way, and he was fond of her, yet found he couldn’t love her. That was his defect as a person, he supposed, and something he was powerless to change.
A nurse appeared to record some numbers from one of the monitors connected to Cory’s father by plastic tubing. Cory felt the liquor now, and wished she had more. The nurse was tall and stocky with thick arms, a no nonsense gal with a heart of gold.
“You doing okay?” she asked Cory. Cory knew she smelled of whiskey. The old sense of exposure, of being found out.
“Fine, thank you.” Up straighter in her seat. One hand gliding through her emerald hair to keep it smooth. “But I think he might need something,” she said.
Nurse Huge turned his way. “Mr. Giles? Can I bring you anything?”
A head feebly shaken. A sympathetic glance exchanged between the women in the room.
The nurse then bent down to Cory and whispered, “You’re all he needs, all he’s asked for these last weeks, God bless you for being here, for coming such a long way.”
“Further than you know.” But she was gone, that good nurse, on to some other sufferer, and Cory was sure she hadn’t heard.
“Nothing, Dad. Just talking to myself.”
“You used to.”
“No. You’re thinking of Lander.”
Alone in his room, his voice stopping, then starting over, as if rehearsing a part in a play, only the play was his own life, she is pretty, yes, oh, she is pretty, is she as pretty as the one who got sick and died, do you mean your mother, I mean nothing, oh, then nothing makes you mean, his word play brilliant, scary, tragic.
“He’s — unbalanced,” her father said, then added that Lander had tried all his life to regiment things to cover his own foibles. He was rigid, uncompromising, lived in a little box because it was safe. His mind was reliable enough, but his spirit was wild, destructive, untrustworthy. He was as hard as stone, yet without the slightest degree of self-control.
What about me? Cory wondered. She’d been a mad woman herself. Bouncing from passion to passion, full of nothing but bitter dust. She came back to Dunston only for revenge, she realized, to sit by her dying father and remind him of all the hurt she’d suffered. He was the one suffering, though. Who had suffered, perhaps as much as she.
“He always admired you in a way I found — disturbing,” her father said.
Cory crushed her scarf in both hands. “Well, he — ”
“It became dangerous as you grew older. I’d hoped nothing would come of it, but I was wrong.”
Cory released her scarf. The liquor was stale in her mouth.
“So I sent you away.” He swallowed. “I saw the harm that might come to you otherwise.”
It is necessary for me to separate you from your brother, and that’s the only explanation I will make. She’d begged to stay, not wanting to leave her few friends and oddly enough, even Lander. Lander might have known her father’s mind. His letters to her were overly kind. Everyone misses you, even Debbie, though she’s too snotty to say so. The kindness faded in time, replaced with neutral updates on the family, and later, as she responded by detailing the seediness of her life, contempt.
Her father’s eyes closed once more, and his chin sank to his chest. Soon his breathing was deep and slow. Cory rose, and made her way through the hall with her coat already on, down the elevator, through the sliding doors, and into the cold. The flakes were fat now, meaning the storm was nearly done. A nurse sat on a bench, wrapped in a parka, smoking. She nodded at Cory, and Cory nodded back. Cory found her own cigarettes, lit one, and went on standing in the spinning snow. She stuck out her tongue, let a flake land there and melt.
Lander came through the door, walking his crooked gait.
“What are you doing out here?” he asked.
She lifted her cigarette. He dug his hands into his lower back, then twisted side to side.
“What did you do to yourself?” Cory asked.
“Shoveled too much snow.”
They reminisced about the time their father had a similar injury, how he roared and bellowed and ordered everyone out of his way, then demanded ice packs and a stiff drink.
Vic came through the door next, his magazine rolled up under his arm.
“Why didn’t you come and get me?” he asked Cory.
“I just had to get outside.”
“I know. But I can’t give moral support if I’m sitting in there on my ass.”
He flapped his arms. He was probably freezing and didn’t say so. Cory liked that about him.
Then Lander turned to Vic and said, “I’d like to talk to Cory.”
“So, talk.” Vic stayed put. That morning after breakfast Cory heard Lander and Vic in the kitchen. Vic said he thought the house was great, he’d had no idea that Cory had grown up in such a place, that he himself had lived in a trailer park after his father went to jail, and Lander said he hoped Vic wasn’t getting any ideas about a big inheritance Cory might be in for, at which point Vic asked if Lander would like to get his ass kicked, free of charge.
“It’s okay. It’ll just be a minute. Go back and get warm,” said Cory.
“Nah.” Vic moved off, picked up some snow, packed into a hard ball and pitched it out over the lawn of the hospital. He turned back and grinned.
Lander watched Vic throw more snowballs. Then he looked at Cory with their father’s same eyes, only deeper, and more intense.
“So, how did it go? Did he say anything important?” he asked.
“Of course I’m sure.”
Even when they were kids, Lander had had keen radar. Why do you look like that, Cory? Isn’t there something you want to tell me? And there usually was. I spit on Debbie while she was sleeping. I stole Paula’s pin and threw it in the woods.
“No hidden fortunes? No confessions about how one of us was really adopted? No last minute revisions to his will?” Lander never did well, trying to be funny.
Even from about twenty feet away Cory heard Vic’s cell phone sing out a cheerful up and down tune from the depths of his coat pocket. He took it out and looked at the screen.
“Bernie,” he called to her. “Think I should take it?”
“Sure. See what that fat fuck wants now.”
Bernie was their sometime roommate. When his wife got sick of him, which she did every few months, they gave him their spare room in exchange for a couple of hundred dollars. At the moment he was house sitting for them. House sitting amounted to watering the two ferns, putting the mail where they could find it again, and making the place look occupied so no one broke in.
Lander was still looking at Cory, willing her to speak.
The harm that might come to you, otherwise.
“What is it?” Lander asked.
“Nothing. I just feel — ”
“He always makes you feel that way.”
Her gaze settled on a tree in the near distance, its branches all white and fluffy. A gust of wind sent flakes and ice crystals around their heads. All of a sudden she remembered sledding out on the old golf course.
Vic returned. “He wanted to know if he could rent a movie on our account at the video place.” Cory looked at him. “No, not porn. Documentary on Africa, if you can believe that.” He blew on his hands, which were pink from the snow balls. He looked at Cory, then at Lander, then at Cory again.
“You know how to make snow angels?” he asked.
“Isn’t that what kids do around here? Make snow angels?”
The back yard full of them, Cory and Lander back inside just long enough to get warm, then out again to make more.
“I guess,” said Cory.
“Go on, I should get back,” said Lander.
Cory watched Lander go, his head down, hands shoved deep in his pockets.
“Come on. Show me!” Vic said again. He threw a snow-ball at her. She ducked. She led him onto the lawn, lay down on her back, and swung her legs and arms up and down. The snow was refreshing. It had stopped falling, she realized.
“Cool!” said Vic. He plopped down, made one of his own, then lay laughing at himself. He got to his feet and brushed himself off. Then he pulled her up and brushed her.
“You know, it’s fucking freezing out here. What say we go in and get a cup of rot gut coffee?” he asked.
Arm in arm they walked. Vic shivered. “Fuck. Got some in my boots.”
“That’s the problem with snow.”
“Still, it makes everything pretty, don’t you think?”
All around them the new snowfall took on a silver light under the weak sun, but then as the clouds moved southward into the valley and opened the sky above the hills, it became pure white, absolutely clear, and almost too beautiful to bear.