“Out of the question,” Rowena says. She says it quietly, more in disbelief than in anger. “Lowell, are you completely blind? Every time they’re with you, Amy runs a fever afterwards, and Jason wets the bed.”
Lowell, stricken with remorse, leans in the back window to kiss his children goodbye, but they flinch away from him slightly before submitting. He feels the pain of this like a razor blade in his heart. He is never sure which might inflict greater damage: not spending enough time with his children, or spending time with them. He is highly infectious with doom. “I’m sorry, Rowena.” It is his own desolate experience that there is nothing anyone can do. Nothing will shelter children from life. The young, the fragile, the vulnerable, all are at catastrophic risk. “I guess I thought, you know, if I told them about the hijacking, it might explain why their grandfather—”
“Call them when you get there,” Rowena says crossly. “And call them when you get back. Otherwise they will worry themselves sick.”
“Yes,” he promises.
“Oh, Lowell,” she says, not without tenderness. “You’re such a mess.”
He thinks of telling her that things might begin to improve. It could be different now.
“And you won’t do anything about it,” she says. “You’re stuck, and you don’t even try to get unstuck.”
You don’t even try. The injustice of this is so monumental that Lowell can think of nothing to say.
Rowena turns the key in the ignition. “And for heaven’s sake,” she says in parting, “when you get back, get a new muffler on your pickup. The noise scares them.”
At Logan Airport, he leaves the pickup in the long-term lot. He checks in for the Boston–Washington shuttle, leisurely, because there is time to kill, time to kill, and then he looks at his boarding pass and sees the word terminal and a panic-bird big as a bald eagle picks him up in its talons and carries him off, jerking him along corridors and up and down elevators and into restrooms and out again and into the shuttle that weaves between parking lots and then back again until it drops him abruptly and unceremoniously and he finds himself sequestered in the middle nook of a bank of Bell telephones, a cozy and semi-private and semi-safe spot. He needs to talk to his children again, he must speak with them, but when he gets Rowena’s answering machine, he hangs up without saying a word. Instead, he talks to a waitress in Starbucks. “Flying down for my father’s funeral,” he explains. “He died violently, just like my mother. I think I’ve always been waiting for it. Other shoe to fall, you know?”
Later, circling high above Boston, he tells the passenger seated next to him in the plane. He tells a cabdriver in D.C. and he tells the manager of the funeral home. He edits and fine-tunes as he goes.
“The explosion devastated him,” he says. “It was the second time my father had been widowed.”
“Sixteen years old?” The passenger next to him, a woman, touches his wrist. “It’s a terrible age to lose your mother.”
“He lived under a curse,” Lowell says.
“Shock takes people funny ways,” the D.C. taxi driver says. “Takes a long time to wear off too. You just go ahead and get it off your chest.” He eases into the Beltway traffic. “I get a lot of funeral business.” He looks at Lowell in the rearview mirror. “Arlington,” he explains. “That where yours is?”
“Yes,” Lowell says.
He has several evening hours to kill, hours to kill, and he moves like the Ancient Mariner from this bar to that. He drinks beer, only beer, and only Sam Adams. “It’s a kind of a statement,” he tells the bartender. “A reaction against the cocktail parties I had to endure. My father tried to keep me in those social circles, and I won’t touch spirits or wine.” After two schooners of Sam Adams, he leans toward the guy on the next barstool.
“My father gave the impression,” Lowell says, “of a man soldered to doom.”
His listener grunts and glances momentarily sideways, then returns to the TV screen. “Yankees gonna win,” he tells Lowell gloomily. “You a Yankee fan?”
“No,” Lowell says.
“My father knew in his bones he was doomed,” Lowell explains. “He accepted it, he didn’t think he had any choice, but he took it like a man. He made a vow he’d give no sign. At any rate, that was my theory when I was sixteen years old, and I still hold to it.” He orders another drink for himself and for the ball-game watcher. “Of course, it cost him,” he says.
He shakes his head sadly.
“Manager oughta change pitchers,” his neighbor complains.
Lowell says, “He should have changed games, but he was stubborn.”
“At times,” he tells someone else in a different tavern at the dangerous end of M Street, “you would have thought he was a robot. You would have thought some kingpin was pushing buttons on his remote. I mean, even the way he moved. He had this strange jerky—I don’t know, as though his clockwork was jammed.”
Lowell’s clockwork moves smoothly on amber juice.
“Hey, listen, pal.” A black bartender, big as a house, bends toward him. “Don’t want to be nosy, it’s your funeral. But don’t you think you’ve had a few too many?”
“I asked him once,” Lowell says, as though earnestly refuting the bartender’s claim, “is it the Mafia or something? Because it wasn’t just the Soviets, you know. They kept tabs on all sorts, the Mafia, the Klan, the neo-Nazis, the crazy Unabomber types, you name it. And you and me, we’d be a lot more worried about a Mafia contract than the Soviets, right?”
“Listen, pal,” the bartender says, “I don’t think you fully understand where you are. What part of town, I mean. I think you got the wrong joint.”
“I got the feeling something dangerous was yanking his strings,” Lowell explains earnestly. He leans back, straining against fierce bonds. “It was like there was this hidden force dragging him one way, but he dug in his heels and kept on going in the other. Or tried to.” Lowell’s body jerks itself around, fish on a line. “It was probably only me who noticed,” he says. “Maybe I imagined it. He got kind of distant after the plane exploded. Even more so, I mean. Couldn’t reach him. Work gobbled him up.”
The bartender rolls his eyes.
“Depressed?” Lowell asks, on the bartender’s behalf. “You think so? Good question, when you think of the way my mother … But he never had any patience with stuff like that. No excuses, no whining. He couldn’t stand wimps who let personal matters … the therapy junkies spilling their guts, you know the type. Common as dirt in this neck of the woods, I bet. I bet you hear a few sob stories. Confessions a dime a dozen around here, I’ll bet. And now it’s all over,” he says. He looks around the bar and pronounces solemnly and drunkenly, “My father, Mather Lowell Hawthorne, died on September ninth in the year 2000, just four days short of the thirteenth anniversary of the death of my mother.”
“R.I.P.,” the bartender says. “Go home and sleep it off, pal. You’ve had enough.”
“For which death, he seemed to hold himself responsible,” Lowell announces. “Against all logic.”
He lifts his glass.
“You celebrating?” the bartender asks.
Lowell watches the light move through his beer.
Mather Hawthorne was already dead, the coroner has explained to him, at the point of impact with a shagbark hickory. Lowell closes his eyes and imagines the scattershot of nuts, kettledrummers of death. Although the wreckage of the car is absolute, and although Lowell’s stepmother (his father’s young third wife) was barely able to identify the body, the mortuary certificate indicates, Death due to natural causes: heart attack.
“Fortunately,” Lowell explains in an all-night hamburger joint, “the accident happened in the small hours of the morning and there were no other cars on the road. My father was only sixty-seven.”
Lowell can imagine himself repeating all this, casually, from time to time, and after several drinks, to strangers at parties and in bars.
At the cemetery, Lowell feels strangely lightened. He wonders if the sense of freedom, the sense of a lifelong congestion clearing, might be what other people call happiness. He wonders if he might be able to begin to be as other people are. Now officially orphaned, he feels for the first time in his life not-lonely. Rain is falling lightly, which seems appropriate. An old self is being washed away. Lowell feels clean and new. He is barely able to restrain himself from a gregarious impulse to tug at the sleeve of one of the other pallbearers, a total stranger in an officer’s uniform, some former colleague of his father’s no doubt, and say: I was an only child. For many years, I tried with all my heart and soul to please my father, but I was a disappointment to him.
He manages not to splash confession on the pallbearer’s sleeve, but he does nod at his stepmother and smile. She is small and pale and looks, Lowell thinks, rather striking dressed in grief. Is she beautiful? He supposes so; his father always had an eye for women; but since this thought evokes the memory of Lowell’s own mother, he shies away from it. Even so, his stepmother or the occasion or something else makes him smile again. His smile goes on too long. Elizabeth, his stepmother, raises an eyebrow in surprise and stares at him.
Words, intoned, drift between and obscure Lowell’s view.
… exceptional service to his country … Mather Lowell Hawthorne, guardian of our most precious … unsung work, and invisible, but essential to the preservation of liberty and justice for all.
Mather Lowell Hawthorne’s widow is not much older than her stepson, who now, on impulse, pulls a gardenia from the wreath that she has placed on his father’s coffin and hands it to her. Some of the mourners exchange glances. Elizabeth begins to cry then, soundlessly. Her hair, rain-wet, clings to her cheeks, and Lowell wonders if perhaps they may begin to become not-lonely together.
Forasmuch as it hath pleased Almighty God of His great mercy to take unto Himself the soul of Mather Lowell Hawthorne, we therefore commit his body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust; in sure and certain hope …
“I hardly knew my father, really,” Lowell tells Elizabeth later, hours later, over drinks in a quiet lounge. “I worshiped him when I was little. He wasn’t often home, but when he was, he used to sit on my bed and tell me stories. Strange stories to tell a child, I suppose, but I was greedy for them. I hung on his every word: Greek gods and goddesses, the Iliad and the Odyssey. My favorite was Odysseus tied to the mast, trying to hurl himself into the sea while the sirens sang.”
“How old were you?”