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The Depth of Skin

Ian Stansel


On the way home Matthew sat in the passenger seat, his older brother Dan to his left, watching the abundance of trucks, cars, and noise that filled the highway. Traffic was a bear. He was watching a reflection of himself in silver, cylindrical semi trailer, sitting low in his brother's black Camaro, when Dan slammed on the brakes, skidding slightly on the wet, shiny pavement. The car stopped mere inches from the Escort in front of them. Dan put the stick into first and lurched them back into motion.

"Mom wanted to throw a party," Dan said as they passed the Escort on the left.

"A party?"

"Well, she wondered if we should. For your birthday and release and all. She didn't know if there was some etiquette."

"I don't think so."

"That's what I told her."

Matthew's last birthday, his last two in fact, had been spent in the unfriendly confines of the Illinois State Correctional Facility in Quincy. A card had arrived on each of those days containing separate slips of paper with birthday wishes from his mother, Dan, and their sister Irene. Each note caught him up on the latest happenings: Mom's job and tomato plants, Dan's girlfriend and car troubles, Irene's school woes. The same things that they would go over in the visitation room that week, but it was good to get mail anyway. His last birthday, his twenty-fourth, had been only a month before.

They were driving down Prospect, about a mile from home now, past a house that caught his attention. It was a nondescript sort of white A-frame with two kids playing in the yard.

"That's new, huh?" Matthew said, pointing lazily.

"That place? That house's been there for forever."

"Really?" Matthew said. "I've never noticed that place before my life."

"They cut down the elm on our corner," Dan said. "Just last week."

"That's too bad."

"Yeah. I guess it got some Chinese beetle thing. Or a Korean gnat or something."

They turned, finally, after the hour ride from the prison, onto their street. Matthew saw where the tree used to be. The stump was cut jaggedly about a foot from the ground. The top of it, the insides, looked healthy enough, though soaked to a dark beige by the rains.

Dan pointed to it as they passed. "See. They're pulling the stump out tomorrow or Sunday. Sometime. I don't know."

They pulled up outside of their house. It looked the same. Someone inside passed the front window but did not notice the car. Dan had put in a new muffler. Matthew thought the car was strangely quiet, having always known his brother's arrival by the cement mixer rumble outside. The neighbor's would complain to their mother every so often, using phrases like 'disturbing the peace,' but never called the cops. And, of course, they never approached Dan about the matter, not with his reputation. A bit of a hell-raiser since childhood, Dan invoked the sympathy of their neighbors when he was younger ("No discipline," they would say), and then fear once he hit high school.

"God. Mom's gonna fucking flip, isn't she?" Matthew said, looking at the front door.

"I'd count on it."

"If there's a party in there, like a surprise or something, you better tell me now."

"No, don't worry, I talked her out of it."

Matthew got out of the car and retrieved his small, black leather bag from the back seat. Dan came around the back of the car and met his brother on the sidewalk.

"They didn't let you keep the uniform, did they?" Dan asked. "Like a souvenir?"

"No. I don't want that shit anyway."

"Too bad. 'Cause then you'd have something to change into."

"What d'you mean?"

At this Dan hooked his leg around Matthew's and pushed him backwards. It was his favorite way to start up with him when they were younger and Dan was happy to find that he could still do it. Matthew landed on the wet, muddy grass with a squish. His bag went flying behind him, landing near the front bushes. Matthew jumped up and tackled his older brother more easily than he ever had before. They wrestled with a playful seriousness, exchanging upper hands and dominant positions each second. Blades of grass were crushed into the ever-increasing mud, never to be seen again. Both brothers were covered in mud and rainwater by the time the screen door flung open. The front door opened and their mother stood there torn by the familiar sight that filled her with relief and joy and by her anger at having this reunion ruined by such childish behavior.

"For God's sake, Danny," she cried, "get off him right now. You're ruining his clothes."

"Shit," Dan whispered to Matthew, who was on top at that moment, "she's gonna put me in solitary."

"Fuck you," Matthew said quietly as he stood up. "Hey Mom." He climbed the three steps to the porch with his arms out in an anticipatory hug stance. His mother hugged her son, keeping a distance between them, avoiding the mess that had been made of his clothes.

"Your clothes," she said.

"Oh, it's okay," he said. "Unless you sent all my old stuff to Goodwill."

"It's all upstairs," she said. Matthew saw a tear, susceptible to gravity as anything, stream down her cheek.

"Mom, don't."

"I'm not," she said quickly, wiping away the evidence.

Irene appeared in the doorway holding a cigarette at her hip. "So, what, did the laundry man finally spring you?"

Of course, Matthew thought, always a remark.

"No, actually the other prisoners started a petition to get me out. Yeah, all your ex-boyfriends signed it–that probably put me over the top." He swiped the cigarette out of her hand and took a drag that he almost choked on when Irene attacked him with a monster hug.

They all went inside (Dan having, at his mother's insistence, retrieved Matthew's bag) and congregated in the kitchen. Matthew could smell the earthy aroma of mashed potatoes and his mother's oven-baked Salisbury steak. The gravy bubbled on the stovetop. He saw the new drapes that his mother had told him about and there was the conspicuous absence of their cat who had to be put down after developing feline leukemia a year before–but other than that, all was pretty much as he remembered: the fifties style kitchenette table with three of the four chairs matching, the refrigerator magnets that his mother collected, the Folger's Coffee can of bacon grease, even the crack in the window that Dan had created one night with too much to drink.

Dan got two beers from the fridge and handed one to Matthew. "Only domestic–I know you're probably used to better," he said as a mock apology.

"Yeah, they had a Guinness tap in every cell," Matthew said deadpan.

"Slaintè," Dan said tapping his bottle against his brother's.

Dan had, ever since one harmless family trip up to Milwaukee for Irishfest when he was nine, embraced the Irish side of their family with an unending enthusiasm. He would read Irish history exclusively (it was, in fact, the only thing Matthew had ever seen his brother read) and never missed the local PBS station's wednesday night broadcast of The Irish Week, a show that, in part, re-broadcast news programs from the island. He had inundated his family with traditional music at dinnertime and covered his bedroom walls with posters of Michael Collins, Sinèad O'Connor, and cascading pints of Guinness. The rest of the family, while being proud and respectful of their heritage, never took to the homeland like Dan. But Matthew, being the dutiful and somewhat doting younger brother, came to share Dan's interest, if for nothing more than having something to talk about with his big brother.

The beer, Matthew thought as he took his first sip, was probably the most perfect thing he had ever tasted.

"Dinner should be done soon. Maybe a half-hour," their mother said inspecting the meat in the oven. "Honey, go change those clothes before the it's ready."

"Okay, Mom."

Matthew smiled at the creak of the stairs. It was funny what got him, what made this all real, finally, after these–those–two plus years. He was home. His shirt was unbuttoned before he even entered his old room. The door, three-quarters of the way to fully open, knocked against the closet door–which would never stay shut–with a reverberating donk. He began to undress among his old things that, he suspected, had just been dusted. The lemony scent of the dusting spray still hung in the air. The full-length mirror still hung on the far wall and he felt the old, familiar feeling about it, that it was watching him. He had always thought, as a kid, that it was like one of those two-way mirrors in cop shows on TV, but instead of someone being on the other side, it was actually the mirror that was watching him, waiting to catch him in a lie. He had gotten into the habit of undressing right in front of it, as if to say here I am, nothing to hide. Standing in front of it on this day, though, he was full of surprises. The mirror had never before seen him so large, so muscular and grown-up looking. His arms were nearly twice the size they were last time he was home. His stomach was cut, a damn near perfect six-pack. He looked at the contour of his leg, the bulge of muscle above his knee. It felt strange to see himself like this in this room. It was as if while he had been growing, the room had shrunk. He looked like the grown ups, like his uncles, that came to visit during the holidays. The mirror could hardly contain him, and he had to move back to see his whole self.

He had undressed completely and was now turning to his left. His head cranked over his shoulder, he examined his backside. Burn marks covered the back of his right leg, beginning on his lower thigh and moving up across his buttock, ending abruptly at his beltline. There had not been an opportunity since he left the infirmary to examine the scars that he got in a kitchen grease fire nine months into his sentence. He had, in bed many nights, contorted his body in order to view the damage, but he could always only see parts, the edge, and never the whole thing. He took two steps closer to the mirror. The scar was a raw pink, puffy and shiny, with random indentations like divots. The shape was, he decided, like South America. Great, he thought to himself, it looks like South America. At the sight of it his eyes began to water–not that he was crying, more like what eyes do when you get embarrassed for someone who is singing off-key or telling a bad joke that goes on forever. He wiped away the discharge and turned again forward.

"Hey," a voice said behind him, closely followed by the door hitting the closet. It was Irene. "Oh, sorry," she said, stepping back into the hallway and closing the door. He cursed silently.

"Hang on," he yelled. He put on a pair of boxers and jeans that he found in his old dresser and began rummaging for tee shirt. "What do you want?"

"Dan wants to know if you need anything from the corner?" she called from the other side of the door.

"Tell him to hang on. I'll go with."

"Matty, can I come in?"

He put on a white tee shirt that was too tight and opened the door. "I'll go with him," he said casually.

"What's on your leg?" she asked.

"What. Nothing. It's a rash."

"It looked bad. Did someone look at that?"

"Yeah, it's nothing. How about you knock next time."

"Sorry." They stood for a moment. "Looks like that shirt's a little small, muscle man. I think all your sweaters and stuff are in the closet." She stood in the doorway eyeing her brother's right leg while he fished a sweatshirt out of the closet and pulled it over his head. He found his jean jacket–a loose fit when he bought it, it was perfect now. He turned to Irene and shrugged as if to say, Anything else?

"Seriously, someone looked at that, though?" she asked.


"'Cause we weren't notified of anything."

"Well, it's not like I got sent to the school nurse," he said squeezing past her. "It's no big deal."

At the bottom of the stairs, by the front door, Dan was waiting to leave.

"Need anything?" he asked when Matthew was half way down.

"I'll come with," he said and rounded the banister towards the kitchen. "Just hang on."

His mother was at the table, in her usual spot, the seat nearest the counter and stove. Her chin in her right palm, her left hand rested on the table, a cigarette between two fingers. She looked to Matthew like a Norman Rockwell painting, if only old Norman had been a little more honest.

"Hey Mom," he said quietly, "I'm gonna run down to the corner with Dan. We got time?"

"Yes, Honey."

"Okay." With a hand on her shoulder, he leaned over and kissed her on the head. She put her hand on his and patted it twice. "Do you need anything while we're out?" She shook her head no and smiled.

For as crass as they could be, for all of the jokes and insults, all of the pranks and fights, his family looked out for each other. They argued as if it were a pastime, but when it came down to it, they were close. They went through everything together. Dan's escapades when he was younger were harrowing for all of them. His mother endured phone calls from other parents in the neighborhood complaining about damage done to plants and vehicles and children. She was woken late at night by police bringing him home past curfew.

But Dan was also cast in the role of protector since their father died of cancer ten years before. He was the one to interrogate Irene's prospective suitors, although in a covert way: investigating them at school, recruiting spies, confronting them with threats and ultimatums. The first time she did hear about his asking around about so-and-so, she exploded, beginning a fight that lasted into the wee hours of the morning, prompting the neighbors to turn on their lights and peer out disapprovingly from parted curtains. But even she knew, as she was screaming about who he was and who he thought he was, she knew that nothing would change.

"God damn, it's getting cold out," Dan said as he buttoned up his stiff Carhartt workman's coat. They were walking down Bergen Avenue, kicking sticks off the sidewalk as they went.

"Feels good," Matthew said. He breathed in deep through his nose. Someone was burning wet leaves, filling the neighborhood with that small town smell. "Remember the time you made Davey Pearlman eat that worm?"

"That little shit," Dan said. "Cried like a little bitch."

Dan had heard a rumor that Davey Pearlman, a kid two years older than Matthew, was going around telling people Matthew was gay and jerked off to a picture of The New Kids on the Block. Afterwards Matthew was embarrassed, wanting to fight his own battles, but Dan had only said "I'm not gonna let someone talk that kind of shit. You're like a brother to me," and left it at that.

The two brothers laughed about Davey's misfortune and they turned the corner. The nearest grocery store was in the next town, so, since anyone could remember, many day-to-day items were bought at the Market. The Market was actually little more than a glorified convenience store that had been opened and run by the Johnston family, who lived in the apartment above, until about four years before when Davis Johnston, the patriarch of the family, died. The Johnston children apparently had little interest in continuing the small family business because, after only a month or so, the store was sold to three brothers from Chicago. There weren't many blacks in town, and the Delises became the talk, as they say, of the town. They moved in and kept the store open with little fan-fair. Joe Delise was the oldest, then Ron, and then the youngest, Kenny, who couldn't have been much more than nineteen when they came. The townspeople, the very old and very young especially, would whisper paranoid ideas about gang infiltration when the men walked down the street, and would often refer to them simply as "the blacks."

Perhaps they did start a trend, Matthew thought, as he walked in and saw Kenny talking to two other young black men, one leaning against the counter and the other grabbing a Coke from the freezer.

"What's up, Kenny," Dan said, and Matthew looked at him with a bemused smirk on his face that was lost on his brother.

"What's up, Danny," Kenny said.

"We need some beer," Dan said to Matthew.

"I'm a little out of practice," Matthew said.

"We'll catch you up."

They moved down the narrow aisles lined with everything from garbage bags to cereal to car parts. Matthew watched himself in the round fish-eye mirror positioned above the beer coolers. Behind him, at the front of the store, Kenny and his friend carried on their conversation.

"How come we ain't seen you up at the house?" Kenny asked.

"I been busy," the other man said. "Me and Kim got the baby coming."

"Yeah, I saw her at the Amoco over on 14 the other day. She getting big."

"Yeah, well, you know, I don't skimp when I do my thing."

"Shit," Kenny said laughing and slapping his hand against his friend's.

"You done admiring yourself?" Dan said to Matthew.

"What?" Matthew said turning his gaze toward the six and twelve packs in the cooler. They picked out a twelve pack and brought it to the counter. Kenny broke off his conversation to again say hey to Dan, who asked for two packs of cigarettes and tossed one to Matthew.

"You know my brother?" Dan asked Kenny.

"Hey, how you doing," Kenny said slowly, looking at Matthew with an expression of half recognition.


Dan paid with a twenty and Kenny eyed Matthew again as he handed back the change. Kenny's friends were still around, looking at magazines, reading the wrappers on candy bars. The two brothers left and, as the door was closing behind them, Matthew heard Kenny's voice. "Oh shit, I know that dude," he said in an excited manner.

Matthew wondered what story was being told as they walked back home. He wondered how the facts had changed in the last two years. He was sure that his story was more exciting now than it had actually been in reality. Perhaps now there was a gun involved, perhaps motives and calculations. Not just a stupid accident, a prank.

And it was stupid, Matthew thought, as he had a thousand times since it happened. An evening spent drinking beers in his friend Carl's garage. Dan was there, too, along with maybe four other guys. A crappy tape player on the tool shelf. Their conversation getting progressively louder with each drink even though Carl's mom was up at the house and would surely scold her grown child the next day. Empty cans were piling up in the corner and the heat of a Midwestern July was weighing on each man's mood. Matthew remembered Craig trying to crush an empty can on his forehead and failing miserably, to everyone else's amusement. Jim put in a rap tape and cranked the volume as high as it would go. "Dude," Carl said as he jumped up to turn it down, "my fucking mom…" Craig said he didn't want to hear that nigger shit, anyway. The others told him to shut up. Dan left to go meet the girl he was seeing at the time and the guys joked about how she was gonna kick his ass out when he showed up drunk. Matthew crushed a can under his foot and kicked it at Craig. He wanted to go out, he said, they should go somewhere. He said the garage stank and he was sick of hearing Carl bitch about his mom.

They were stumbling down Route 14, tackling each other and jumping the stream just past the shoulder. It was normally bright out there, especially with a full moon, but that night clouds covered the sky as if it was going to rain, which everyone in town was praying for, something to break the heat. For nearly two miles they walked, talking about this or that girl, making fun of each other, debating the Bears' chances in the upcoming season–they all wanted the coach fired. Each man was carrying at least two beers with him and these, once they were gone, seemed to put them over the top. At the corner of 14 and Maple, Matthew leaned on the stop sign and grinned. He wanted it, he said. He curled his hands around the wooden post and began to push and pull it, back and forth, making the red octagon look like an upside-down pendulum. With each movement, the dirt loosened more and the post swayed further. His friends laughed at him and called him stupid and crazy. After only a few minutes he was able to push the sign to an almost fort-five degree angle, and a few seconds later it hit the ground, tearing up the turf around its base. The others cheered half-sarcastically. Matthew, stumbling, dragged the sign the entire way back to town as if he had it in a headlock.

They all went separate ways once they hit the main strip. Matthew walked the last half-mile to his house with only the sign for company. He began talking to it, showing it the sights: this here is where Mrs. McNealy lives; that's where I cut my knee open on a sprinkler; oh, you've been missing out, Mr. Stop Sign, stuck out there in the middle of nowhere, no one to talk to, look at all the excitement you've been missing. Instead of carrying it through the gate, he heaved the thing over the backyard fence and climbed over after it.

The next morning the police were at the front door. Their mother woke Dan up first, assuming this to be his doing. Matthew heard the commotion and came downstairs in his boxer shorts and the dirty tee shirt from the night before.

"Did you rip down some sign?" Dan asked laughing. Matthew claimed ignorance. Dan was nearly doubled over. "The fucker's propped up against the fence in the back yard," he said. Matthew told him to shut up.

"Could you please get dressed, Mr. Donovan," one police officer said. "We're gonna need you to come with us."

"Wait a second," Dan said. "If you're gonna give him a ticket or something, then go ahead, but why's he need to go with you?"

The first cop began to tell Dan to stay out of it, but the other one, an older cop that they all recognized from town, stopped him and explained the situation. There was an accident, he said. A semi truck driving down 14 collided with a station wagon crossing over on Maple. There was a family from Decatur inside, a little girl was dead.

"Well that ain't his fault," Dan said after a moment of silence. "I mean, that's too bad about that family, but Matty didn't cause that to happen."

"Mr. Donovan, would you please get dressed and come with us," the older cop said, ignoring Dan's protests.

"This is bullshit," Dan yelled.

As Matthew left with the police, getting into the back of the squad car uncuffed, Dan told Matthew that he would call the lawyer and not to worry. Their mother was in tears watching her boy, her Matty, driven away.

The prosecutor threatened to charge him with manslaughter, but backed down after finding out that the girl was not in a children's seat and after forensics found that the car had been exceeding the speed limit. In the end, Matthew was charged with and convicted of destruction of public property and reckless endangerment. The judge, an old liberal who had seen too many cases involving drunken rednecks in his time, sentenced him to the maximum on each count–a sentence totaling five and a half years, parole after twenty-eight months.

When Matthew and Dan walked into the house it was already dark out and a shaded floor lamp was on in the living room, creating shadows on the floor that reminded Matthew of coming home after playing football with his friends when he was younger. Dinner was ready and on the table. His mother was setting the last of the forks and knives out. Matthew sat down slowly in his old spot. He had to lean slightly to his left; it was still uncomfortable to put weight on his burn–not painful, but uncomfortable, like there was something under his skin that did not belong. Irene saw him shift in his seat once, twice, and as she sat she got his attention and mouthed the words You okay? He nodded back.

The food was passed around and Matthew found that his table manners came back to him, probably better than they had been before being sent away. No one knew exactly what to say aside from the requests for salt and more potatoes. Each person's chewing was amplified inside their heads until their mother finally spoke up.

"I think I saw a sign for work over at the Hines Lumber, Matty. Maybe you could go over there tomorrow and ask about a job."

"Yeah, that's good idea."

"You always did like wood shop," she said. Dan looked over and smiled. Everyone at their high school liked wood shop. Mr. Denton would fall asleep during each class period and never notice while his students went outside to smoke cigarettes in shifts.

"Hey I was thinking we could go down to Murphy's later. Maybe," Irene said.

"Yeah, man, everyone wants to see you."

"I don't know. Maybe we should just stay in," Matthew said, then turned to his mother. "Mom?"

"Oh, I'm pretty tired. I'll probably just fall asleep I front of the TV, so you go on ahead if you want to."

The thing was that Matthew did not know if he wanted to or not. He did not know if he wanted to see the old gang, to be paid attention to, to be asked questions he had no answers for. He could imagine the scene: the staring as he walked in the door; Craig or Jim–probably both–there wanting to buy him a shot; perhaps an ex-girlfriend or two commenting on how good he looked, how different. But he also knew that if Dan and Irene wanted to go, he would, no matter how he felt about it.

It was strange to hear Irene talk about Murphy's. The brothers had been going there for years, since before they were legal, but–as Matthew then realized–Irene never was there with them, she was too damn young. But she grew up while he was gone. He saw her regularly enough throughout his time away, at least every two weeks, to not notice her maturing. He thought that if he had not seen her at all, he would have hit the floor this afternoon when she walked out onto the porch. Who knew there could be such a difference between nineteen and twenty-one. He thought, I don't know this Irene.

And there was indeed plenty he did not know. She had not had the easiest time lately. The town, she felt, was closing in on her from all sides. She was barely making grades at the community college and her series of short-term boyfriends was getting her a reputation–a reputation that she would admit only to herself was not completely undeserved. She did not understand how it happened, how she became what she feared she had. She knew what people said about her: that she slept with everyone in town, married or not. This, of course, was not true. It was only a few times: last call at Murphy's or at Nick's on the other side of town. But she was resented by other women, and she could feel them eyeing her pretty face, long hair, and slim figure at the same time as the men. Girls she had gone to high school with would whisper and giggle sometimes when they saw her talking to a man. Perhaps it was rebellion against Dan, she thought sometimes, that made her do things. He was a hypocrite, lecturing her about this or that while at the same time chasing around every piece of ass in town.

But what it was, really, was a feeling of safety. When she was a child, she would run to her bed during thunderstorms or when she heard a noise outside. Bed was like an island or a raft, in the middle of the ocean. It was home base. She would pull her blankets around her, tucking them under her on all sides, cocooning herself. Here she would feel as if nothing could touch her, as if no harm could be done. It was the same now, in a way, although the bed was rarely her own. She liked to feel a man's body, the weight of it, on top of her–his arms resting on the mattress on either side of her head, his warmth becoming her own.

As his mother cleared the table, Matthew felt his leg. He felt his scar at its edge rise strangely from the normal skin. He wondered how he would ever be able to let it be seen. He had imagined the situation a hundred times. An intimate moment interrupted by the question What is that? as a hand ventured to his backside. That is not the moment most people want a surprise, and it is certainly not the ideal moment for questions and explanations. Could he orchestrate a situation so well that it would go undetected? Could he meet a person so perfect that it would not matter?

"Jesus. Quit picking your ass," Dan said.

Irene looked up from where she was busy picking at her cuticles, a bad habit she had developed somewhere along the way. "Shut up," she said.

"I'm not even talking to you."

"Well, quit butting into everyone's business."

"You're the one butting in–I wasn't talking to you."

"You're always talking to someone."

"What the hell is that supposed to mean?"

Matthew got up from his chair amidst the bickering and went into the living room. He heard his mother say behind him, "Both of you stop it, now," in her calm, soothing voice. The small squabbles she could end easily, with just that sort of simple utterance. Hers was the voice of family and patience. Matthew more than once thought that she could end wars with that voice if they only gave her the chance.

His mother joined him in the living room just as he was having a seat on the couch. She looked at him and smiled, not a full smile, but just an upward curl at the edges of her lips. He knew what she was thinking: Those two

"If you want me to stay in tonight," he said.

"It's been a long day, Matty," she said sitting next to him. "I won't be any fun. I think maybe it would be good. You should get out and see your friends."

"My friends," he said without knowing how to finish the sentiment.

"Craig and Carl and Jim–those boys are just as excited as anything to see you. I saw Carl at the store the other day and it was all he could talk about. I think they still feel bad. You know, about what happened. I think maybe they think they should have done something, stopped you or–" she cut herself off. She doubted he wanted to think about that night.

"It wasn't their fault," he said.

"Oh, I know, dear."

"It just was what it was."

"I know. But you should see them–they're excited as anything." They each sat back into the couch. Matthew looked down at his hands. They were calloused and dirty and he thought of all the work he could have been doing the past years.

He heard Dan and Irene laughing and then they came in from the kitchen.

"He did not," Irene said in between snorts of laughter.

"Didn't you say you were going to marry Mrs. Dickenson?" Dan asked Matthew. Their first grade teacher; they all had her. She had to be sixty now.

"I was like six," Matthew said. They laughed harder. "She's not still around, is she?"

"Still teaching," his mother said.

"No," Matthew said in disbelief.

"We were down by the school just a couple of weeks ago," Dan said, "and she came out and yelled at us for making trouble."

"What were you doing?"

"Nothing, man. Just hanging out, whatever."

"It doesn't matter," Irene said. "No matter how old you are, she does not tolerate nonsense."

"Man, she was a bitch."

"Daniel," their mother said.

"Daniel nothing, you didn't have to deal with her." Dan said.

"What are you talking about?" Irene said. "She was Mom's teacher."

They all laughed at Mrs. Dickenson's expense, even their mother, who covered her mouth with her hand and squished her eyes together. It was catching, and soon they were laughing because they were laughing.

After the laughter subsided they talked for a while: about changes to the town, who left and who was still there; about the unusually rainy weather and which of their neighbors' crops suffered; about movies they had seen. Around nine they quieted and their mother's eyes began to fall. The three siblings looked down, around, away from each other–the comedown after the high. It was quieter than the world had ever been.

Dan's eyes met Matthew's. Do you want to go? he mouthed. Matthew nodded. He laid a hand on his mom's shoulder.

"Hey Ma," he whispered. His mother's eyes opened with slow surprise.


"Hey, we're gonna take off for a while."

"Okay, dear." She sat up a bit. Matthew grabbed his jacket of a chair. After her children left, Mrs. Donovan used the remote control to turn the TV on–a made-for-television movie about a mysteriously murdered child was on. Mrs. Donovan closed her eyes and again fell asleep, the remote balancing precariously on her knee.

Murphy's was a large but still run-of-the-mill bar. Neon beer signs hung on the dark paneled walls. The middle of the room was filled with round and square tables that they removed on those rare occasions when a band played. The music–either country or southern rock–played loud from speakers suspended from the ceiling. When the Donovan kids arrived the place was already beginning to fill up. The regular bar riders were bellied-up and the tables were half occupied. Matthew looked around once inside–maybe he'd get out of this with little hassle. Maybe it would be an off night without the usual appearance of his friends. Dan went to the bathroom.

"Oh, god," Irene said.


"Nothing. Just someone I don't want to see."

"Do you want to go?" Matthew asked hopefully.

"No," she said. "Fuck him."

"Who?" But she was already making her way up to the bartender, a girl Matthew recognized as having been one of Irene's classmates in high school. They talked for a moment and then they both looked back at Matthew. The bartender waved hello and then waved him over.

"I don't believe it," she said a moment later. Looking at Matthew up and down, she put her hands on her hips and tilted her smiling head to emphasize her disbelief.

"Yeah," Matthew said stupidly.

"You remember Jane," Irene said.

"Yeah. How you doing?"

"I'm great. You know. How are you?"


An old man tapped his empty beer mug against the top of the bar and called out Service. Jane excused herself and walked towards the man.

"I know you know my name, John. I don't know why you can't use it and say 'Jane, dear, could I please have another beer.'"

The old man pushed his mug towards her. "Budweiser," he said.

"She had the biggest crush on you," Irene whispered to Matthew, motioning to her old friend behind the bar and then raising her eyebrows.

Dan got back from the bathroom and ordered pitchers of beer. "Grab a table," he said.

The scene was not as bad as Matthew had envisioned. In his mind, the record would scratch to a halt and a spotlight from out of nowhere would shine on him. A few people did look at him, but he could not tell if it was recognition or only curiosity in newcomers. They sat down, Matthew taking the far seat so that he could view the room. Joe and Ron Delise were at a table by the side door. They both leaned over their beers not talking. Joe scratched the top of his head and ran his hand down his cheek to his chin. Irene was looking behind her at something or someone while Dan poured out their drinks.

"You know," Dan said, "they had Caffrey's on tap for a while, but they got rid of it."

Irene turned her head suddenly. "So, do you have a parole officer or something?"


"What's his name?" Dan asked as if he might know him.

"Parker, I think."

"You gotta call him or meet him or something?"


"Which one?"

"I gotta call him and that's it, unless something gets fucked up, like I don't get a job or something–then I'd have to meet him."

There was a ruckus at the front of the bar–yelling and, what, singing? They looked up along with the rest of the patrons. It was Jim and Craig and Carl. They were already drunk, it seemed, as they came through with their arms around each other. And, yes, Matthew realized, they were singing. I fought the law and the law won. They spotted the Donovans and the singing ceased.

"There he is!" Craig yelled, pointing to their table. The rest of the crown turned their head simultaneously and gawked.

"Hey!" Jim and Carl bellowed. They broke apart and bum-rushed the table. Matthew leaned back in his chair and raised his arms to cover his face as a reflex. As if choreographed, the three men picked him up out of his chair and dragged him backwards, his feet slapping and dragging on the floor. Despite his objections, they deposited Matthew on a pool table and threw mock punches into his stomach. The two men who had, up until that moment, been playing a game of eight-ball (a whispered pre-game twenty dollar wager made the atmosphere around the table already tense) swore and threw their hands into the air. Matthew jumped up and spun back towards them in fighting position. He missed this, the lack of danger. They were able to play-fight because the chances of actual confrontation between them was so utterly remote. The whole place was watching them, a few shaking their heads, but most looking up with child-like open smiles.

The pool players were still yelling and pointing at their ruined game. Carl threw a dollar onto the table.

"Sorry guys. Haven't seen our boy in a while."

"Yer boyfriend, it looks like," one of the players said in a marble-mouthed deep country voice.

"You got a fuckin' problem?" Jim asked taking a step towards them. Matthew grabbed his arm and pulled him to the table where his brother and sister were. They all sat for a second before Carl jumped up again.

"You need a drink?" he asked Matthew.

"I got a drink," Matthew said laughing and motioning to his full glass.

"I'll get 'em," Craig said bounding to the bar.

Carl and Jim looked at Matthew saying wow and shit and wow again.

"You're here," Carl said.


"You're out, man," Jim added. "You're fuckin' out."

"How'd you like our song? We wrote it for you."

"Hilarious," Matthew said. "I think you guys are ready for American Bandstand."

Craig arrived with two more pitchers of beer and a shot of tequila for each of them. They did them with synchronized ritual. Conversation was jovial. They relived old times, reminding each other of grade school hijinx, laughing at the terror the imposed on the town at large. We make our own fun, one of them said. Dan chimed in regularly saying that's nothing, and then outdoing them with stories of his days reeking havoc. His stories always involved close calls with the police, impromptu trips to Chicago ("showing those city kids what fun was all about"), and town leaders' daughters in compromising positions. Dan was always better at that stuff than Matthew. He raised hell–a lot more than Matthew ever did–and got away with it. Dan had messed with the heart of the town–breaking windows in City Hall, defacing the wall of the feed store–with little more than a slap on the wrist. Matthew, on the other hand, had always gotten caught. For matters as small as busting light bulbs in the high school gymnasium or drinking in the gazebo in the park (which everyone did), he was found out and given detentions and citations. He even did community service once, when he was seventeen, for trespassing on the McGowen farm. In the confusion of that night–a sudden spot light from out of nowhere, voices through a megaphone–he had separated from his friends. They ran across the far side of the land and through the wood where they stayed until the coast was clear; but Matthew, deciding it would be smarter to try to get back to the car, ran smack into the cops.

That story came up. Craig was laughing about how scared Jim was sitting there in the brush, saying that he pissed himself–just a little. While the boys talked, Irene wasn't paying much attention, laughing when everyone else did, but contributing little to the festivities. Her eyes kept wandering over her shoulder to where Jay Froom sat by himself. Jay was an asshole, she knew that even two weeks before when she slept with him, and she had watched the progression of things at his table since they arrived: his girlfriend pretending nothing was wrong as he glared at Irene and her companions, then finally exploding in a fit of repressed knowledge now surfaced. She jumped up, scolding her boyfriend for his assumption that she was so stupid as to border on blind, and then left, calling to herself the attention of everyone in the bar save those at Irene's own table, who were busy patting each other on the back for actions taken a decade or more ago. And then Jay was there, alone, leaning back and sipping at his glass, pursing his lips at Irene, only fifteen feet away. After a few minutes Irene watched out of the corner of her eye as Jay got up (God, don't come over here) and joined a table of his buddies.

The conversation lulled, Carl having just relayed a long and exhausting story of which no one at the table knew the principle players. The smile that Matthew had sustained easily throughout the past hour or so dropped slightly.

"I'm goin' take a piss," he said, getting up from his chair. His mates raised their glasses in a sarcastic Bon Voyage. Steadying himself on the back of his chair, he spun around and faced the men's room. The crowd had thickened since he last noticed. Groups of people stood at the bar trying to make clear what each of them wanted. Poor Jane ran with tried patience, attempting to fulfill their confused needs. Jane was attractive–beyond attractive–beautiful perhaps. Her dyed red hair, pony tailed, shook with each movement of her overworked body; her large blue eyes were forgiving to every fool who approached, whether it be for a drink or for the time she got off.

He grinned and made his way to the bathroom, excusing himself through the group that had now stood around the pool table, past the group of rednecks talking about some "chick." The door of the men's room was almost within his grasp when he felt a hand on his arm. He flinched. Looking down, he found it was Ron Delise. Matthew noticed the tips of Ron's fingernails, like white sliver moons attached to the cinnamon skin of his fingers, gripping the fabric of his sweatshirt. Joe Delise sat across the table, also looking to Matthew, as if–Matthew thought at that moment–waiting for an answer.

"You Danny Donovan's brother?" Ron asked.

"Yeah," Matthew said. The Delise men paused, letting their eyes wander to the floor before again narrowing in on Matthew. Ron let go his grip.

"We got a cousin," Joe said, "named Vaughn Delise. He out in Quincy. We were wondering if maybe you knew him, maybe ran into him or something."

Matthew searched his mind. There were so many men, so many names. His mind went back to the yard, the dining hall. Of all the people there, only a handful had he gotten to know, and of those he could not think of one he wanted to see again. That was life there: a series of temporary and, frankly, unwanted acquaintances. That was life there–and he certainly did not want it mixing with life here.

But with the question put to him, there was no danger of that. He never heard the name Delise on the inside; he would have recognized it, and related it to the men sitting here, looking awkward and uncomfortable.

"Sorry," he said. "Didn't know him."

The Delise men both relaxed and shrugged. Ron turned back to the table and took a drink of his beer. No one said a word. After a moment, Matthew Donovan leaned into the men's room door and disappeared into the florescent light.

His piss came out in a full and relieving stream, but his body remained tense. Not knowing why, he began to resent his friends. Out there they were treating him like a hero. What was with the shots and the slaps on the back? It was as if he had done something great–fought a war or received the key to the city, saved a life maybe. But what had he done except not died? He was not a soldier and deserved no more congratulations than the lawyer that delivered the foreclosure notices or the shop teacher who fell asleep in class. Less even. Far less. At least they began with a thought, perhaps, that they might fulfill a need. He had done nothing but lived for another two and a half years. He did something dumb and got sent to jail. He killed a child.

Opening the door of the men's room, he planned on leaving the bar: excusing himself no matter how awkwardly and leaving. He wanted to go home, go to bed. But as soon as the door was open and he took a step back into the smoky air, he heard yelling. A woman's voice screamed, "Fuck you!" It took less than a moment to realize that it was Irene's voice. She was halfway out of her seat, bent over slightly, red in her face. Matthew did not know how to react, his mind swimming in confusion. Who is she yelling at? What the hell is going on?

"Fucking bitch!" Jay Froom was hollering from across the room. A glass was turned over on his table and beer was streaming over the edge onto the floor. He was getting up and grabbing his jacket from the back of his chair. Matthew watched this blankly, as if it were happening on a screen in a movie theater. The men's room door knocked shut behind him. His arms dangled uselessly at his sides. He did not understand any of this.

Jay Froom walked towards the side door and, along with five friends, exited. Matthew watched as his sister crumbled back into her chair, her head wilting into her hands. Dan got up casually. The entire bar was once again watching their table and Matthew had a passing thought of thanks that he was not over there. Dan trotted towards the door where Jay had just left.

"Dan, don't," Irene said, but Dan took no notice.

Matthew noticed Dan's left hand, the one he favored, forming an almost imperceptible fist. No one would notice this except for a brother. Or maybe not…

"I'm calling the cops," Jane said to Irene as Carl and Craig and Jim all walked out after Dan. They had been yelling, too. There were so many words on both sides that Matthew was only now registering: motherfucker, cunt, faggot, dyke. The words blinked in Matthew's head like a bad florescent light–making him take note but illuminating nothing. Matthew's head snapped towards Jane.

"No," he said as calmly as he could. He held up his hand and smiled, his charming smile that he had not used for as long as he could remember. He wondered if it would still work. He made an overly casual face as if to say There's no problem–I'll take care of it. Jane relaxed her hand that had been moving towards the phone. Matthew opened the side door. He felt the cold and the burnt leaves smelled like pollution.

Dan and Jay were standing ten feet away from each other like generals, their troops behind them, ready to follow any order without question. Everyone, Matthew noticed, looked the same–all denim and flannel and stubble–like fighting a mirror. He moved up to his friends. They were outnumbered by one. Everyone was yelling.

"You stupid…"

"I don't give a fuck who…"

"Come on, motherfucker…"

"You dumbfuck…"

Matthew watched, every muscle in his body contracted. This is so stupid. He sized up the other side. Yeah, they had one more, but the two on the right side, they were weaving pretty bad, shithouse drunk. They shouldn't be too much trouble; one good lick and they'll be down. But the big guy–God, what's his name?–he looked like he could take three at once. The yelling continued and the two sides were getting closer together until they were on top of each other. Jim was bouncing side to side with anticipation. Matthew knew that all it would take was one swing, didn't matter from who, and then he'd better be ready.

"You, little fucking faggot," the big guy said. Matthew looked and found that this was meant for him. "Fucking baby killer." The words knocked the wind out of him, knocked him down. He was on the ground.

No. It was a fist. He had gotten punched in the stomach. What was happening? So stupid

The big guy was on top of him, laying punches into his sides, his arms. Matthew felt wet with sweat and drizzle, or maybe it was blood. He heard grunts and cursing from all around him. The fists kept coming, what seemed like three, four, five at a time. In the middle of all this Matthew thought Gary–this guy's name is Gary. Then Gary was gone and a streetlight shone bright from high above into his eyes. Okay. Okay. Get it together. Jim was now on top of Gary pummeling away, the big guy on the ground in almost the exact position Matthew had been two seconds before. Dan and Jay were on the hood of a car, trading off beatings. Craig had his man well in control, having gotten him into what they used to call the "Atomic Squeeze," his legs wrapped like a vice around the guy's abdomen, holding him there while he laid fists into his face. One of Jay's guys was now on the ground a good twenty feet away, by himself, writhing in pain and holding his right ankle. Good, Matthew thought, I hope it hurts. His breaths were getting deeper, faster, and with each one it was as if he was taking in not air, but anger. It came in, filled him, circled around each cell in his body, converting everything in him, his body, his mind, his soul, into one pure, steel-solid mass of rage. He wanted to step on that guy's ankle, to stomp on it with both feet, to hear him scream out in agony.

But, wait. Carl. Carl was on the ground while the two guys–those drunk fucks–stood on either side kicking him. Matthew left himself. He had no thoughts, no reason to be doing what he was doing except that he was already doing it. He ran into one of them, angling it just right so that as that one fell, he took his buddy down too. He heard the clunk of their skulls hitting each other. He jumped on one of them–who cares which one–and began punching. This is what you do with rage. With each movement he felt as if he was building something and tearing it down at the same time. After three clean, direct shots into the guy's face, Matthew wondered what was on his hands, a substance at once slippery and sticky. Is it blood? There couldn't be this much blood, could there? It's too dark to see. Fuck. He jumped up. The man rolled onto his side and began spitting, coughing, snorting through his nose and spitting more. His body contorted and–Jesus–he was puking. Matthew turned towards the light shinning down and could see that his hands were covered in vomit. He wiped them on his jeans and felt a hand grab his sweatshirt.

"Get out of here," Dan said calmly. His hair was wet and his clothes muddy.

"What?" Matthew's heart was beating so hard that it felt like it took up his entire chest.

"Get the fuck out of here!" he screamed.

Matthew didn't understand. Then he realized: Cops. Christ, he had gotten out of jail that day and now he could hear the wailing of sirens. He looked around. A mass of people stood by the entrance of the bar, hands over their mouths. A girl was crying. Irene was crying. Joe and Ron Delise were watching, too, staring emotionless.

He took off. Around the back of the bar, past the boarded-up hospital and then down Locust towards the feed store. Adrenaline was avalanching through him. His legs pumped and struck the asphalt with a smooth violence. The houses on either side of the street were dark, curtained, completely foreign. Where was he? He was at home. He was in jail. He was scoring a goal at recess. He was tunneling out. His body was cut up and bruised from football. He was making love to Jane the bartender and he was fucking Jane the bartender. His feet were bare and grabbing onto the bark of an elm tree and feeling the cold hard tiles of the showers. He was screaming and laughing and completely silent.

Reaching his house, Matthew held onto the porch banister, bent over, and tried to calm his breathing. The blue light of the television shone through the front window. His mother was inside, but no one else–he was sure of that. Dan and Irene were still back at the bar, talking to the cops. Dan was charming them, twisting the story, joking around, smoking a cigarette. Irene was standing by herself, arms crossed tight, wiping her cheeks on her shoulders. She would soon begin to shake from the cold, prompting the cops to give up, telling Dan to just take his sister home and to stay out of trouble. Jane was probably outside, too, assuring the cops that Jay and his crew were the ones who started it. No one would mention Matthew.

Matthew opened the door quietly. His mother was on the couch, her eyelids closed and fluttering from dreaming. On the television people were mumbling incoherently. He crept across the room and up the stairs. The only light in his room came through the window, filling the space with blue-gray. His legs were shaking but he could not sit. He ripped his clothes off, everything, until he stood naked and goose pimpled. He let the mirror see him. Look at me… A bruise was already appearing on his left cheek, though he could not yet feel it, and his right knuckle was scraped up all to hell. The mirror was witness, would testify if it could only find the words. He turned halfway, like earlier, and saw his burn. The crying came in a rush until his face was in his hands and he fell sideways onto his bed, pulling the blanket over himself tightly. His fingers touched the scar. Never, he thought. This will never go away.

Irene came home along with Dan. Their mother was laying across the sofa, her arm dangling and touching the rug.

"I'm gonna take a shower," Dan whispered. Irene nodded. He tiptoed up the stairs while Irene turned off the TV. Mrs. Donovan's eyes opened, the new silence having jarred her awake.

"How was your night?" she asked, startling Irene.

"I didn't mean to wake you."

"It's okay."

"Are you gonna stay down here or do you want to go upstairs?"

"Oh, I'll go up in a minute." They remained there for a moment, Mrs. Donovan's mind still groggy with sleep; Irene wondering what her mother would hear about their night. Would people be talking? Would she hear about her children's behavior from someone down at the store or at the Laundromat? And, if so, what would she say to them, how disappointed would she be?

"I was thinking we could go to the cemetery tomorrow," Mrs. Donovan mumbled. "Go see Daddy. I think Matty would like to." Her head leaned heavily to the side and she again fell into slumber. Irene contemplated waking her, helping her up to her bed, but then thought, why bother, and put the old ratty throw blanket over her.

The running shower had announced their return to Matthew. While Dan scrubbed his neck and arms, tried to clean but not irritate the surface cut on his knee, Matthew stared at the wooden post of his bed. His tears had ended and now he felt that he had never been so drained and so awake at the same time. He heard the wind sing past the window above him. It would snow soon. It would be the holidays soon.

He wanted to see the family from Decatur, the family from the accident. He thought that he could maybe just see them, find out where they lived and check up on them, see if they were okay. He wanted to know who they were, what kind of house they had, if they had any pets. He hoped they had pets–a dog is good in bad situations, giving that unconditional love. Their house was probably very warm and clean, with polished wood and doilies. They had a savings account set up for their remaining daughter's college. They were happy, but there was still the lingering pain. The father would sometimes zone out at work, not thinking of the accident specifically, but wondering if things could ever be the same. The mother was often cold and short with her husband. The child resented her parents' attention, the eggshell way they treated her, the way they would fight in the next room but act as if nothing was wrong when she was around.

And this–all of this–was his fault.

Irene pressed open Matthew's door and peered in.

"Are you still awake?" she whispered. He wanted to say yes, but the word would not form. Instead he gathered the blanket around his neck, letting her know that he was. She stepped in slowly and looked down at her brother. His back was to her and she could only see a tiny sliver of his face, but his eyes were open. She sat on the side of the bed. "Are you okay?" No response. "Mom wants to go see Daddy tomorrow."

Matthew shut his eyes in an attempt to dam up the tears. His father. He could hardly remember the guy.

Dan appeared in the doorway in fresh white boxers and tee shirt. His hair was wet and combed back in slick lines. He looks so clean, Irene thought.

Is he awake? Dan mouthed. She nodded and he came in and sat down next to his sister.

"Hey," he said quietly, placing a hand on Matthew's shoulder. "I'm sorry, Matty." The words came freely, nothing forced. This was his family. He leaned back onto his side, his head propped up against the wall. Matthew knew he meant it, but that still did not change anything. Did it?

They remained there for a long time, saying nothing. Irene heard Dan's breathing change first, then Matthew's. Their bodies slumped as if they had suddenly gained more weight. She raised her feet to the bed, hugged her legs and let her head fall to the side, temple against kneecap. She could see herself and her brothers reflected in the mirror, the light whispering in through the window, covering them like a bruise. After everything, she thought, there they were–all of them–in this mirror, on this bed, at last, where no one could hurt them.

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