It could be Anna at the door, Baker supposes, although she would have to be a homing pigeon to find this place in the dark. There are no neighbors on this road.

He asks Floyd to run upstairs, brush his teeth, and put on his pajamas.

“No,” Floyd says.

Normally, Baker has a deep well of paternal patience, but he senses that this knock means bad news of some kind. “Please, buddy,” Baker says.

“I’m scared,” Floyd says, and Baker realizes that Floyd has every reason to be scared. This is a huge, unfamiliar house. Even Baker can’t recall which room he put Floyd’s suitcase in. Baker wants to tell Floyd that he, too, is scared—of things far more terrifying than shadows and strange noises.

It’s probably a taxi driver who picked up Cash and now is demanding to be paid.

Baker opens the door to find a tall, hulking West Indian man, and initially he thinks his guess is correct.

“Hello?” Baker says. He searches the darkness beyond the man for signs of his brother.

The man thrusts forward a square cardboard box. “For you,” he says. “Mr. Steele’s remains.”

Mr. Steele’s remains? Baker reaches out to accept the box and the man turns to go.

“Wait,” Baker says. “Who are you? Where did you come from?”

“I’m Douglas Vickers, Paulette’s husband,” the man says. “Those came to her office today and she asked me to deliver them here.”

“Oh,” Baker says. In the moment, this makes sense. “Thank you.” Douglas gives Baker and Floyd half a wave and disappears down the stone staircase, leaving Baker to hold what remains of his father. The ashes have been delivered to the door like a pizza.

“Daddy?” Floyd says. There is likely a barrage of questions coming as soon as Floyd can figure out what to ask, but for now, he just seems to need reassurance.

“Everything is okay, bud,” Baker says. “I’ll be back in one second. You stay right here.” Baker turns to check that Floyd is standing in the doorway, then he goes flying down the curved stone staircase after Douglas. He catches the man just as he’s climbing into a white panel van. “Excuse me? Mr. Vickers, sir?”

Douglas Vickers stops, one leg up in the van, one on the ground, his face framed by the open driver’s-side window. “Yes?”

“You were the one who identified my father’s body, is that right?” Baker asks.

Douglas Vickers nods once. “I did.”

“You… saw him?” Baker asks. “And he was dead?”

Douglas Vickers gives Baker a blank stare, then he hops into the truck and backs out through the gate.

Once Baker gets Floyd to sleep—thankfully, Anna remembered to pack a few picture books, including The Dirty Cowboy, which reliably knocks Floyd out by the end of page six—he heads down the hallway to the room Irene has been using and knocks on the door.

“Come in,” Irene says.

His mother is sitting on the side of the bed, fully dressed, as if she has been waiting for Baker to knock.

“Is Floyd asleep?” she asks.

Baker nods.

“Good,” Irene says. “Because I have to talk to you and your brother.”

“Um, okay?” Baker says. “Cash isn’t home. I left him off in town when I got the barbecue.”

“Whatever for?” Irene asks.

“He jumped out of the car, actually,” Baker says. “We had an argument. I wasn’t very nice. I was upset… he knew Anna and Floyd were coming and he didn’t tell me.”

“He didn’t tell me, either,” Irene says. “I had no idea who Anna was when I saw her. I introduced myself to her. She was so out of context and I haven’t laid eyes on her for so long…”

“Three years,” Baker says. Anna hasn’t been back to Iowa City since just after Floyd’s first birthday. “Listen, Mom, Anna and I are getting a divorce.”

“She told me,” Irene says. “She’s fallen in love with a person named Louisa.”

Baker’s eyebrows shoot up. “She told you that?”

“She did.”

Well, yes, Baker thinks, she should have. It was Anna’s news. The dismantling of their family was Anna’s doing. “I’m sorry. I’m sure you’re disappointed.”

“Hard to register any kind of feeling about Anna, I’m afraid,” Irene says. “She’s always been a mystery.”

“You should probably also know… if he hasn’t told you already… that Cash lost the stores. They went belly-up.”

Irene gives Baker a sharp glance. “He hasn’t told me, no. I figured as much, but it’s Cash’s responsibility to tell me, not yours.”

“Right,” Baker says. He knows his mother favors Cash, or feels more protective of him than she does of Baker. “None of my business, sorry. So listen, Mom, a gentleman just stopped by…”

“Gentleman?” Irene says. “Was he older, with a reddish beard?”

“Huh?” Baker says. His mother is on her feet now, at the front window, searching. “No, it was a West Indian gentleman. Paulette’s husband, Douglas. He brought Dad’s ashes.”

“Dad’s ashes?” Irene says. “Where are they?”

“Downstairs,” Baker says.

They get to the kitchen just as Cash stumbles through the door. Baker can smell him from across the room—tequila.

He opens the refrigerator door. “Any barbecue left?”

“Plenty,” Baker says. He’s relieved that Cash seems to be either numbed or neutralized by alcohol and that there will be no rehashing of their earlier argument.

As Cash pulls the various to-go containers out of the fridge, Irene cuts open the cardboard box.

“Actually, Cash, you may want to wait on eating,” Baker says.

“Fuck you,” Cash says. “I’m starving.”

“How’d you get home?” Baker asks.

“That tall chick that works at La Tapa picked me up outside Mongoose Junction,” Cash says. “Tilda, her name is.”

“Yeah, I know who you mean,” Baker says.

“I guess she has the hots for Skip, the bartender,” Cash says. “Funny, we’ve been here less than a week and we know everyone else’s personal drama…”

There’s a sound.

It’s Irene, wailing in hoarse, ragged sobs. She’s holding a heavy-duty Ziploc bag that contains white and pale-gray chunks. Without warning, she collapses on the kitchen floor.

For an instant, both Baker and Cash stare. They are grown men and they have never seen their mother act like this. Baker, although not surprised—he’s been wondering if his mother would break, if she would finally act like a woman who has tragically lost her husband instead of a woman moving around in an extended state of shock—doesn’t know what to do. Cash is holding the take-out containers of food and a bottle of water, seemingly paralyzed.

Cash is better at dealing with their mother. Do something! Baker thinks.

Cash sets the food down and approaches Irene cautiously, as if she’s a ticking bomb or a rabid dog.

“Mom, hey, let’s get you up. Can you sit at the table?”

Irene cries more loudly, then she starts to scream—words, phrases, Baker can’t make sense of much. He keeps checking the stairs; the last thing he wants is for Floyd to wake up and see his grandmother like this.

“… I trusted him! Bad back… clients in Pensacola! I never checked! Never questioned! Never suspected a thing… greed… the money… the house! I was married to the house! Secrets are lies! They’re lies! I never suspected… why would I suspect? Your father was so… effusive… so loving… it was too much, sometimes, I used to tell him it was too much… I told him to tone it down, it was embarrassing…” She stops. “Can you imagine? I was embarrassed because your father loved me too much. Because I wasn’t raised like that. My parents told me they loved me… once a year, maybe, and I never heard them say it to each other. Never once! But they did love each other… they just showed the love in their actions, the way they treated each other… honor, respect. They didn’t keep secrets like this one!”

“Mom,” Baker says, but he doesn’t know what to add. She’s right. Their father was demonstrative, verging on sappy. He exuded so much I love you, please love me back that Baker at least, and probably Irene and Cash as well, saw it as a weakness.

Had it all been an act, then? Baker wonders. Or had the three of them done such a pitiful job of returning Russ’s love that he’d sought affection elsewhere?

Irene holds up the plastic bag. “This is all that’s left. All! That’s! Left!” She flings the ashes across the kitchen. The bag hits the cabinets and slaps the floor. Thank goodness the seal held, Baker thinks. Otherwise they would be sweeping Russ up with a broom and dustpan.

Cash gets Irene to a chair at the kitchen table while Baker picks up the ashes. Across the label of the bag it says: STEELE, RUSSELL DOD: 1/1/19.

Baker sits down beside his mother. Cash has brought a pile of paper napkins to the table. He’s trying to put his arm around Irene, but she’s resisting—possibly because he smells like a Mexican whorehouse.

***

***P/S: Copyright -->Novel12__Com

***