Wes’s voice was muffled, through his hand. “My point exactly. Were you going for overpowering?”
Bert ignored this, turning back to me. “Macy. Please. Stripes or dots?”
As always, I found myself feeling a kind of affection for Bert, in his weird bedroom, wearing his nerdy undershirt, one piece of tissue still stuck to his face. “The stripes,” I told him. “They’re more grown-up looking.”
“Thank you.” He dropped the polka-dotted shirt on the bed, slipping on the other one and buttoning it quickly. Turning to face himself in the mirror, he said, “That’s what I thought, too.”
“Are you wearing a tie?” Wes asked him, walking back into the bathroom and tossing the towel over the shower rod.
I said, “What kind of impression are you going for?”
Bert thought for a second. “Mature. Intelligent. Handsome.”
“Overpowering,” Wes added.
“Then yes,” I told Bert, who was now scowling. “Wear a tie.” As Bert pulled open his closet door and began rummaging around, I turned to look at Wes, who’d walked into his own room and was now pulling on a gray T-shirt. Unlike Bert’s, Wes’s walls were bare, the only furnishings a futon against one wall, a milk crate stacked with books, and a bureau with a mirror hanging over it. There was a black-and-white picture of a girl taped to the mirror, but I couldn’t make out her face.
“The thing about the Armageddon social,” Bert said to me now, as I turned around to see him struggling to knot a blue tie, “is that it’s the one time of the year EOWs from all over the state get together.”
"EOWs?” I asked, watching him loop the tie, start a knot, and then yank it too tight before dismantling it and starting over.
“End-of-worlders,” he explained, trying another knot. This time, the front came out way too long, almost hanging to his belt buckle. “It’s a great opportunity to learn about new theories and trade research tips with like-minded enthusiasts.” He looked down at the tie. “God! Why is this so hard? Do you know how to do this?”
“Not really,” I said. My father had never been the formal type, and Jason, who wore ties often, could do one with his eyes closed, so I’d had no reason to learn.
“Kristy promised she would help me,” he muttered, yanking on the tie, which only made the front go longer. His face was getting red. “She promised.”
“Calm down,” Wes said, stepping around me into the room and walking up to Bert. He untangled the tie, smoothing the ends. “Stand still.” Then Bert and I both stood and watched as, with one cross, a twist, and a yank, he tied the knot perfectly.
“Wow,” Bert said, looking down at it as Wes stepped back, examining his handiwork. “When did you learn that?”
“When I had to go to court,” Wes told him. He reached up, plucking the piece of tissue off his brother’s face, then straightened the tie again. “Do you have enough money?”
Bert snorted. “I prebought my ticket way back in March. There’s a chicken dinner and dessert. It’s all paid for.”
Wes pulled out his wallet and slid out a twenty, tucking it into Bert’s pocket. “No more cologne, okay?”
“Okay,” Bert said, looking down at the tie again. The phone rang and he picked up a cordless from the bed. “Hello? Hey, Richard. Yeah, me too. . . . Um, striped shirt. Blue tie. Poly-blend slacks. My good shoes. What about you?”
Wes stepped back into the hallway, shaking his head, and went into his room. I leaned against the doorjamb, taking another look at its sparse furnishings. “So,” I said, “I see you’re a minimalist. ”
“I’m not into clutter,” he replied, opening the closet and pulling out something, “if that’s what you mean. If you don’t see it here, I don’t need it.”
I stepped inside, then walked over to his bureau, leaning in to look at the girl in the picture. I knew I was probably being nosy, but I couldn’t help myself. “So, is this Becky?”
He turned around, glancing over at me. “No. Becky’s skinny, angular. That’s my mom.”
Wish was beautiful. That’s what I thought first. And in this picture, young, maybe her late teens or early twenties. I immediately recognized Bert’s round face in her features, and Delia’s dark curly hair and wide smile. But more than anything, she reminded me of Wes. Maybe it was the way she was not looking at the camera but instead just beyond it, half-smiling, nothing posed or forced about her. She was sitting on the edge of a fountain, her hands resting easily in her lap. You could see water glittering behind her.
“She looks like you,” I said.
He came up behind me, a box in his hand, and then we were both framed in the mirror, peering in. “You think?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I do.”
Bert came out of his room, walking quickly, a lint roller in one hand. “I’d better go,” he said. “I want to be there right when the doors open.”
“You’re taking the roller?” Wes asked him.
“There’s always the possibility of car lint,” Bert told him, sticking it in his front pocket. “So I look okay?”
“You look great,” I told him, and he smiled at me, genuinely pleased.
“I’m staying at Richard’s tonight, so we can recap,” Bert said, pulling the door open. “I’ll see you tomorrow, okay?”
Wes nodded. “Have fun.”
Bert disappeared down the hallway, and seconds later I heard the front door slam. Wes grabbed his keys and wallet off the bureau, shifting the box he was carrying to his other arm, and we started toward the living room, me taking one last look at Wish before he shut the door behind us.
“I should go, too, I guess,” I said, as we came into the living room. Again, I was struck by how cozy it was, unlike my house, which, with its high ceilings and huge rooms, always seemed to feel empty.
“Don’t tell me,” he said. “You’re going to the Armageddon social, too?”
“How’d you guess?”
“Just a hunch.”
I made a face. “No, I’ll actually be studying. Doing laundry. I don’t know, I might get really out of hand and iron some clothes. With starch.”
“Uh-oh,” he said. “Now you’re talking crazy.”
He pulled the door open and I stepped outside, stopping on the stairs as he locked it. “Okay, fine, Mr. Excitement. What’s your plan?”