“Grady sent me,” I said as Annie opened the door to her house.
She touched the corner of her mouth with two fingers. Her lips parted into a non-smile, a tension of soft, unusually nervous little muscles. Like Grady, Annie was older than me by a decade, a fact that didn’t decrease my blushing anxiety. Ever since I could remember Annie formed in my mind the very fixture of beauty: gilded in the warm autumns of so many homecoming dances she and Grady graced, silvered in the snow in her mittens and scarves when we built forts and snow-castles, honeyed in summer with a tan from the beach when we built bonfires and our father — Grady is my brother, you see — invented odd, rambling ghost stories greatly augmented by the looming canopy of forest so near to our cabin and the lake.
I had come with — well, not-exactly — news. Or, rather, something Grady needed said, a thing he couldn’t say himself; and, Lord, how would I do it?
Very quietly, with her gaze boring into me, she answered me: “He’s alright . . .”
I couldn’t tell if she asked it as a question, or if she knew, or thought she knew, Grady’s condition. Statement or question, it didn’t matter. My job remained the same. Little brother, you must, for me, this once just go in my place . . .
I looked beyond Annie, suddenly uncomfortable. Her home, a bungalow, gleamed with dark, immaculate wood. No lights lit the interior, not the blue flickering of a television, not the warm glow of a reading lamp, not the fluorescence of a bright bank above the kitchen sink. On the porch, Annie’s swing shook in the sockets of dry chains fastened to the ceiling. A cicada buzzed and bumped against the inside of a colored-glass fixture above the door. Annie held a pen in the hand that did not touch her lip.
“He’s back,” I said. “But you knew that already, right?”
“I had heard,” she said.
“He sold the house.”
“And his car.”
She looked past me toward the street. Did she see the ghost of Grady’s old black Monza revving at her curb?
“May I come in?”
Not taking her eyes away from the street, she half-turned in the doorway and stepped away to let me pass. As I brushed along her, crowded in that frame, I smelled the freshness of peeled orange about her; on the beveled top of her coffee table, a rind. She dropped her hand from her lip at last to shut the door behind me.
I sat in the reading chair. She sat next to me on the divan and leaned toward me. Her legs, not crossed, she tucked together paralleling the contour of the plush cushions.
“He boxed up all his stuff, the pictures and trophies and fishing rods and tool chest and books and old shirts and pants and took them all to Goodwill.”
“He stopped by my mother’s house,” she said, “and they talked a little while. Nana didn’t think there was anything wrong.”
“It was ‘beef jerky,’ he said.”
“Boxes of beef jerky. That’s what got to him the most.”
“In the desert?”
“Care packages, one after the other. I sent them. You sent them. Dad sent them. Beef jerky. Pringles. Jolly Ranchers. Magazines.”
“And, now he won’t talk to me?”
That was the pivotal moment. She had sprung it on me even as I was building toward it. I could do nothing now but blurt truth.
“He is simplifying.”
“Which, I suppose, I should take in a very bad way,” said she, though she didn’t tremble, or cry, or lose the deep tone of her voice. She still possessed an elegance, even in defeat. “I am 28 years old now, Dalton.”
“Grady and I have been together since the ninth grade.”
“I know that too. I remember when you first came over to our house.”
“You were only knee-high that first time I saw you!” she said, actually managing to laugh.
“Still, I remember it. They say, sometimes, when major changes happen in a child’s life, they’ll start to remember earlier than normal. Like if someone died or something.”
This was, perhaps, the closest I’d come to admitting aloud Annie’s profound effect on me. And, I said it to her directly. I was saved: she smiled. Dreadful elegance, be damned! Was that all there would be, a smile? But she touched her fingers to her lips once again, to that same corner of her mouth, the worried corner, and said very softly, “Thank you.”
Somehow, the ‘thank you’ broke the awkwardness perfectly. We were again little brother and Annie, just like always.
“Simplifying?” she asked. “Is that what he couldn’t tell me himself?”
Down the street a truck rumbled beneath the canopy elms, spearing through a tunnel of its own sound and then disappearing.
“Actually, more than that,” I said. “He hasn’t really spoken with any of us, not too much, or — when he does — it is pleasant, formal, hellos, goodbyes, pass-the-milk-please. Until last night. I got home late. You know Amanda Wills?”
“Derrick Wills’ neice?”
“I’ve been dating her since Christmas, or a little before that.”
“That’s wonderful,” Annie said, and she meant it.
“I brought her back a little late to her house, got back to my house even later. As I came up the porch I thought I was in deep shit when I saw the rocking-chair in motion through the window and a light still on in the living room.”
Annie said: “Grady and I were always late.”
“It was my first violation of curfew. I thought mom had waited up to scold me. But it was just Grady. I came up from behind him, trying to tip-toe past him, still uncertain if I had been caught.”
He didn’t turn to face me but said, kind of over his shoulder, “One time, kid, she told me why she did the things she does. She actually explained herself. It was amazing. She said that good people are boring.”
“What you talking about?” I asked.
“Doesn’t matter. Boring. Like concrete-block-boring. That’s what she said.”
“Grady, what the hell are you talking about?”
“Running naked around the elementary school on a dare. Sex in the dark of the gym, breaking in, a school night, play props built up like a castle around us and left there for the janitors to wonder about in the morning. Bonfires and tequila on the beach. Kissing her girlfriends to amuse me, to tease me. All meant, downright meant, to be bad.”
Annie didn’t even blink.
I kept on telling her what he had said.
“Then worse than that in college . . . I’m sure you can imagine, or better than that, depends who you’d ask. A wild time until I was gone and could breathe without her for the first time and then I wasn’t so sure. The world seemed changed and dim.”
“I think you are over-reacting,” I said. “That’s what we all think . . . she’s not that way anymore. She even goes to church most Sundays. Why haven’t you stopped in to say hello to her?”
“It’s not that simple,” he said. “Beef jerky.”
“I lived out of a box for four months as we moved up, building-to-building, into Baghdad. Everything I needed was in that box. I’d kept a journal of it all, immaculate, with drawings, and poems, and thoughts about her, and I meant to give it to her. That’s what I was going to do when I got back.”
“If it had been dramatic, I think it would be more worth telling about. The box, it was just an MRE container. Old shitty box. Looked like scrap. Our squad moved out of a burnt-out grocery and up the street four blocks to a clinic. New HQ. And my sergeant threw that box out in the trash.”
“Shit,” I said, not knowing what to say.
“It was the best thing that happened to me over there. I realized I didn’t need the beef jerky. I didn’t need the comics dad clipped and sent. I didn’t need the journal. I didn’t need the pictures I’d kept in my Kevlar since Kuwait.Simple.”
I paused. That was the end. That was all Grady had said, the whole of the story I’d been sent to tell her. Actually more than he’d wanted me to tell her. But, after a moment, when Annie didn’t say anything or move or ask me any questions, I said: “Just give him time. It’s a phase.”
“No it’s not,” Annie said.
“No. Not for me.”
She didn’t seem sad, not really. Just steely. Quiet and steely.
She took a second, gathering her thoughts, then leaned forward toward me in a way that was almost frightening. After a good long moment looking at me, she said, “Because I never ran naked anywhere in my life.”
Read our interview with Ben Buchholz here.