I continued picking up discarded papers as I walked, balling them into my hand. They didn’t vary much. In one, the setting was in L.A., not New York, and in another Brock Dobbin became Dock Brobbin, only to be switched back again. Small details, but it always took a little while for my mother to hit her stride. Once she did, though, watch out. She’d finished her last book in three and a half weeks, and it was big enough to function effectively as a doorstop.
The music, and the clanging of the typewriter, both got louder as I walked into the kitchen, where my brother, Chris, was ironing a shirt on the kitchen table, the salt and pepper shakers and napkin holder all pushed to one side.
“Hey,” he said, brushing his hair out of his face. The iron hissed as he picked it up, then smoothed it over the edge of the collar of the shirt, pressing down hard.
“How long’s she been at it?” I asked, pulling the trash can out from under the sink and dumping the papers into it.
He shrugged, letting some steam hiss out and stretching his fingers. “A couple of hours now, I guess.”
I glanced past him, through the dining room to the sunporch, where I could see my mother hunched over the typewriter, a candle beside her, pounding away. It was always weird to watch her. She really slammed the keys, throwing her whole body into it, as if she couldn’t get the words out fast enough. She’d keep it up for hours at a time, finally emerging with her fingers cramped, back aching, and a good fifty pages, which would probably be enough to keep her editor in New York satisfied for the time being.
I sat down at the table and flipped through a stack of mail by the fruit bowl as Chris turned the shirt over, nudging the iron slowly around one cuff. He was a really slow ironer, to the point that more than once I’d just jerked it away, unable to stand how long it took him to do just the collar. The only thing I can’t stand more than seeing something done wrong is seeing it done slowly.
“Big night tonight?” I asked him. He was leaning close to the shirt now, really focusing on the front pocket.
“Jennifer Anne’s having a dinner party,” he said. “It’s smart casual.”
“It means,” he said slowly, still concentrating, “no jeans, but not quite a sport jacket event either. Ties optional. That kind of thing.”
I rolled my eyes. Six months ago, my brother wouldn’t have been able to define smart much less casual. Ten months earlier, on his twenty-first birthday, Chris had gotten busted at a party selling pot. It wasn’t his first brush with the law, by any means: during high school he’d racked up a few breaking and enterings (plea-bargained), one DWI (dismissed), and one possession of a controlled substance (community service and a big fine, but just by the skin of his teeth). But the party bust did him in, and he did jail time. Only three months, but it scared him enough to shape up and get a job at the local Jiffy Lube, where he’d met Jennifer Anne when she’d brought her Saturn in for a thirty-thousand-mile checkup.
Jennifer Anne was what my mother called “a piece of work,” which meant she wasn’t scared of either of us and didn’t care if we knew it. She was a small girl with big blond hair, whip smart-though we hated to admit it-and had done more with my brother in six months than we’d ever managed in twenty-one years. She had him dressing better, working harder, and using proper grammar, including wacky new terms like “networking” and “multitasking” and “smart casual.” She worked as a receptionist for a conglomerate of doctors, but referred to herself as an “office specialist.” Jennifer Anne could make anything sound better than it was. I’d recently overheard her describing Chris’s job as a “multilevel automotive lubrication expert,” which made working at Jiffy Lube sound on a par with heading up NASA.
Now Chris lifted the shirt off the table and held it up, shaking it slightly as the typewriter bell clanged again from the other room. “What do you think?”
“Looks okay,” I said. “You missed a big crease on the right sleeve, though.”
He glanced down at it, then sighed. “This is so freaking hard,” he said, putting it back on the table. “I don’t see why people bother.”
“I don’t see why you bother,” I said. “Since when do you need to be wrinkle free, anyway? You used to consider wearing pants dressing up.”
“Cute,” he said, making a face at me. “You wouldn’t understand, anyway.”
“Yeah, right. Excuse me, Eggbert, I keep forgetting you’re the smart one.”
He straightened the shirt, not looking at me. “What I mean,” he said slowly, “is that you’d just have to know what it’s like to want to do something nice for somebody else. Out of consideration. Out of love. ”
“Oh, Jesus,” I said.
“Exactly.” He picked up the shirt again. The wrinkle was still there, not that I was going to point it out now. “That’s exactly what I’m talking about. Compassion. Relationships. Two things you are sadly, and sorely, lacking.”
“I am the queen of relationships,” I said indignantly. “And hello, I just spent the entire morning planning our mother’s wedding. That is so freaking compassionate of me.”
“You,” he said, folding the shirt neatly over one arm, waiter-style, “have yet to experience any kind of serious commitment-”
“-and you have bitched and moaned so much about the wedding I’d hardly call that compassionate.”
I just stood there, staring at him. There was no reasoning with him lately. It was like he’d been brainwashed by some religious cult. “Who are you?” I asked him.
“All I’m saying,” he replied, quietly, “is that I’m really happy. And I wish you could be happy too. Like this.”
“I am happy,” I snapped, and I meant it, although it sounded bitter just because I was so pissed off. “I am,” I repeated, in a more level voice.
He reached over and patted my shoulder, as if he knew better. “I’ll see you later,” he said, turning and heading up the kitchen stairs to his room. I watched him go, carrying his still-wrinkled shirt, and realized I was clenching my teeth, something I found myself doing too often lately.
Bing! went the typewriter bell from the other room, and my mother started another line. Melanie and Brock Dobbin were probably halfway to heartbreak already, by the sound of it. My mother’s novels were the gasping romantic type, spreading across several exotic locales and peopled with characters that had everything and yet nothing. Riches yet poverty of the heart. And so on.