The First Good Thing

by Lauri Anderson

The fall my mother died, my father went into his bedroom and didn’t come out until spring. He shut the curtains and burrowed beneath the covers and didn’t stir when I knocked on his door to tell him I was leaving for school. He ate little—canned salmon and winter berries, the empty containers mysteriously rinsed and stacked in the recycling bins I hauled to the curb every week. He stopped shaving, and when I caught rare glimpses of him lumbering about the house in the dark hours of the morning, I saw his beard was thick and dark, starting at his temples and disappearing under his pajama top.

My brother had graduated from high school the year before, and though he’d begun to dress like a man in the blue uniform the phone company provided, he still slept in his boyhood bed, and often I heard him dreaming—chasing rabbits, my father called it—in his room next to mine.

After my father spent his third week hibernating, I waited at the front door for my brother to come home from work. Overhead, geese were flying south, honking at one another, the sound like rusty hinges. My brother walked up the sidewalk. “How can we make him come down?” I asked.

My brother had grown wise since he’d graduated. He sighed and patted the top of my head, ruffling my feathers. “He’ll come down when he’s ready,” he said. “People need time to grieve.”

“But we’re all sad,” I said. I thought of the many times I’d begun to call to her, to ask where my umbrella was, or the extra batteries. How the word stayed on my tongue for hours, the aftertaste of something bitter.

“It’s different for grown-ups,” he said, and for a while, that was answer enough.

During this time, my brother began to come home later and later in the evening for dinner, and when he finally stumbled through the door, he wreaked of cigarette smoke and the yeasty smell of spilled beer. By Thanksgiving, I decided that my father needed me more than Mrs. Knox, my sixth grade teacher. I stopped doing homework and set about educating myself in more important areas. I studied recipe books and experimented with the laundry. Every morning, I woke early and searched the neighborhood for fallen limbs—spindly branches split from ice—and I gathered them in a sled I pulled behind my bike. I practiced different arrangements in the fireplace until I built a fire that burned slow and lasted all day. In this way, I hoped to draw my father from his bedroom.

Then one afternoon, I returned home from gathering limbs to find my brother at the kitchen table. “What can you make for dinner?” he asked.

* * *

When she stepped from behind my brother, I thought at first she was a girl in my class, one of those who sits in the back, drawing black circles into her notebook. Christine. A petite girl with holes in her Converse sneakers and an Army jacket that hung down to her knees, hiding her figure. I pecked at my food that night, too intrigued by her to eat. She was shivering, and her teeth chattered throughout our meal, and before I knew anything else about her, before I knew about my brother’s baby growing inside her, or the night the phone would ring late with news of my brother’s accident—the wheezing of the ventilator machine, the red peaks of his pulse on the monitor—before I knew how the story would end, I thought she looked like an animal sitting in our living room, something trapped, something clinging to the first good thing she found.

* * *

It was Christine who cut the brake line. I didn’t need a police report to tell me that. Christine who’d grown up with too many brothers, who’d spent too many afternoons in her father’s garage. Christine, without a mother to scold her for the bad bleach job, the cracked press-on nails, the black liner that ringed her eyes. The Raccoon, I called her, always with her fingers in her mouth or rummaging under the hood, her cut-offs so short I could see the half moons of her cheeks.

It wasn’t long before my brother picked up her scent, her stale cigarettes and hairspray, and for a reason I can’t explain, he latched on to her, followed her around like a stray. He wasn’t her kind—not sly like her previous boyfriend, constantly thumbing his lighter, his eyes shifting behind the flame, or tough like her brothers, with their long muscular arms and hairy chests. Nevertheless, she seemed drawn to him as well, always chittering in his ear or running her fingers through his hair.

The first time she’d sat at our dinner table, she was already three months pregnant with his pup, the cheap gold band just beginning to turn her finger green. “There’s no escaping it now,” she said wryly. “He’s marked me.”

From my upstairs bedroom window, I watched my brother load his things into the back of his truck. The Raccoon waited in the cab, her window rolled down, a cigarette dangling from her lips. I could see the dark circles around her eyes, the way she fidgeted with the radio dial and the manual locks. When my brother emerged from the house with the last of his boxes, she flicked her cigarette into the yard and rolled up her window. My brother climbed inside, and even from my perch, I could see the way she tensed as he settled in beside her.

I watched them drive away and then sat for a while watching the birds in the tree outside my window. Soon, they would follow the geese south, but now, brown and fat, they coasted in, wings spread wide. They seemed to hover before settling, their claws curling around the thin branches like baby’s fingers. They craned their necks to pick at invisible mites in their feathers. They called to one another and then cocked their heads as they listened. After a while, there were at least a dozen roosting in the tree, and before I knew why, I knocked hard on the glass with my knuckles, sending them shrieking, scattering from the tree like leaves in a sharp wind.

* * *

I’m not sure what went on in my brother’s tiny apartment across town over the next few months, but there were mornings I’d walk out the front door of our house to find my brother’s truck idling at the curb, his head resting on the steering wheel, his breath fogging up the glass. I’d approach the truck slowly, my boots crunching on the frozen grass, and peer into the cab. Inside, his hair, long past the need for a haircut, stuck up in shaggy waves all over his head, his chin and cheeks covered in a mongrel beard. In his sleep, he scratched his ear and yawned.

Other times he’d show up unannounced for dinner, whimpering, his tail between his legs, covered from head to toe in scratches—thin red lines crisscrossing his forearms and chest, his legs and back, like red lace on his skin. I’d lead him into the bathroom and stand on a stool and rub Neosporin into the places on his back he couldn’t reach.

In the bathroom mirror, his eyes caught mine. “Beck,” he said, “you don’t know what it’s like.”

Later that night, after he’d gone home, I went upstairs to my brother’s empty room. I could hear my father snoring down the hall, and I tried to remember the last time I’d seen him. Moonlight shone through the uncovered window, casting the shadows of barren trees on the hardwood floor. The birds were gone, roosting somewhere warm, I hoped. I sat cross-legged among the dark shapes and listened to the branches scratching against the window pane. I thought of my mother. She would have pulled my brother aside, confronted him, but quietly, before she swallowed him in the fabric of her apron.

I took my coat off its hook by the door and my father’s Mag-Lite from the garage. I unlocked my bike from the front porch railing and set off for the train tracks. As I pedaled, I propped the flashlight on my handlebars, and its beam rocked back and forth across the deserted street, illuminating frozen cars and street signs.

Even before I reached their apartment, I could hear her screeching. I jogged my bike the rest of the block and leaned it against a tree. Standing in the yard, camouflaged in shadow, I could see their dingy kitchen, the sink overflowing with dishes. Inside, The Raccoon stood in the corner of the room, clutching a drinking glass in her hand, her T-shirt clinging to her swollen belly. Standing there, she seemed more scared than anything, her eyes dark and wild, darting about the room. And for a moment, I felt sorry for her, pent up in that tiny apartment, startled, frozen at every unfamiliar sound.

My brother sat at their make-shift dining table, an upturned cable spool topped with a sheet of plywood, a TV dinner before him. He bent low over the plastic tray, shoveling the food into his mouth. He ignored The Raccoon on the other side of the room as she shrieked and pulled at the ends of her hair, spittle flying from her mouth.

When he pushed his chair back, his movement startled her, and she flung her glass. He ducked, and the glass exploded on the wall behind him. Outside, I gasped and drew closer to the window, ready to stand beside him if he needed me. Shards of glass covered the floor, and when my brother stood, glass fell from the folds of his work shirt. He crossed the kitchen in three strides and stood in front of her, his back to me. I expected him to grab her, to scream into her face, to punish her, but instead, he reached into the pantry behind her and took from it a broom and dustpan. He crossed the room again and began sweeping the broken glass into a pile.

This seemed to anger The Raccoon even more, and she hurled herself at him, sending him reeling back against the window with a thud. For a second, her face was so close, I could see the black dots of her pupils. I could have sworn she saw me, because she smiled as she sunk her teeth into the exposed flesh of my brother’s neck. He howled and pushed her away with a force I didn’t expect from him, and when she fled from the room, he followed her.

In the dark, I circled the house looking for another window. The drizzle had begun to turn to sleet, and I pulled my coat closer around me. On the other side of the house, a dark window was suddenly illuminated, and from inside, I heard a thud and then a low moan.

The curtains of their bedroom window had been drawn back partially, and I crouched down and pressed my face to the glass. The Raccoon cowered on the bed, tucked into a ball. My brother stood over her, his voice so low I couldn’t make out his words. Suddenly, he was on top of her, pinning her arms back over her head. She screeched and struggled and gnashed her teeth, and I raised my fist to the window to knock, to stop him. Don’t hurt her, I wanted to say.

But finally, exhausted, she sunk down into the covers as a slow smile spread across her face. It was then that I should have turned from the window, picked up my bike, and ridden back across town in the sleet. But I couldn’t look away. The way he shifted to free his hand and unbuckle his belt. The way she arched her back to reveal the taut pink of her exposed stomach. Her jeans pulled down around her knees. My brother’s work shirt hiked up around his shoulders. And the sounds. The moaning and huffing, like something injured.

But her smile. The way she wrapped her legs around him. Ran her tongue along his ear. And then, the last thing I saw before I stumbled away from the window to find my bike, its seat already dusted with snow: her fingernails, sharp as claws, running up and down my brother’s back, drawing fresh blood.

After that night, I avoided my brother when he showed up unannounced for dinner and, later, when the severity of his injuries intensified, I pretended not to notice the clumps of his hair gone, his chipped tooth, a ring of purple bruises around his neck.

I worried about The Raccoon, about her baby. If my brother’s face was swollen, his lip sliced open, what did she look like? I imagined the worst and thought about taking my bike across town again, but didn’t. Whatever I’d seen that night, whatever they did to each other, I never wanted to see again. No matter how I turned it around in my head, I couldn’t make sense of it.

* * *

The night we received the phone call was the warmest night in weeks. The weather had begun to turn, the ground spongy with melted snow, mud in the gutters. I’d begun to catch glimpses of my father in the mornings before I went to school—his dark figure through a crack in his bedroom door—and other signs, too. Towels on the bathroom floor. His boots by the back door wet with slush.

Although the phone rang only once before my father picked it up, it felt like it had been ringing inside me, an alarm going off in my chest. I was already stepping into my boots when my father opened my door. “Let’s go,” was all he said, and without having to be told, I knew that it wasn’t the baby coming early, as I had feared. I knew it was something else, something bad.

On the way to the hospital, I couldn’t help staring at my father. His hair had grown long, down to his shoulders, and his beard, thick and dark, stuck out at least three inches from his chin. He yawned and rubbed his face, making the hairs stand up.

He caught me staring.

I tugged the coarse hair. “Good morning,” I said.

In his hospital bed, tubes ran from my brother’s nose and wrist. A bandage around his head was darkened with blood, his left arm cast in plaster. The nurse told us he’d been in and out of consciousness, a concussion from the impact of his head against the steering wheel. My father and I pulled up chairs on either side of him, and my father gripped his arm. His eyelids fluttered, but he didn’t wake.

The next morning, a policeman told us about the brake line, how it appeared to have been chewed straight through.

“Did you arrest her?” my father asked.

“Tried,” the man said. “She ran. Slipped out through the bathroom window.”

While my brother slept in his hospital bed, and my father slept in a chair beside him, I went downstairs and bought a soda from the vending machine and watched infomercials on the television in the lounge. What kind of fight had it been, I wondered. I knew it was worse than the one I saw—my brother on top of The Raccoon, pinning her down. I shook the image from my head. What had he done to her to make her try to kill him? I wondered if she was hurt somewhere, her face bruised and bloodied, in worse shape than my brother. I worried about the baby inside her. I pictured terrible things: The Raccoon bent over, blood between her legs.

I ran upstairs to his hospital room and knelt beside his bed. “Where is she?” I whispered. “What did you do to her?”

His eyes flew open. “What did you say?”

I jumped back, startled, and then took a tentative step forward. “Tell me where she is,” I said. “I need to help her.”

“Help her?” He struggled to sit up, but then sighed and closed his eyes and settled back down into the mattress. “She’s fine, Beck. Living it up, I’m sure.”

“What do you mean? What about the baby?”

He laughed to himself and stared up at the ceiling. “Is that what you think? That I hurt her, hurt the baby?” He looked into my eyes.

I shrugged and looked away.

He massaged his brow. “Turns out the baby isn’t mine,” he said. “Did you hear me? It wasn’t ever mine.”

* * *

My brother spent three weeks in the hospital, and after he was released, he moved back into his bedroom next to mine. We helped him pack his things and haul them from the apartment he shared with The Raccoon. I’d only seen it from the outside looking in and hadn’t realized how tiny it was—really just two rooms. Imagining my brother and The Raccoon there made me claustrophobic, and I waited outside until we were ready to leave.

I thought having my brother back home would make everything better—like the times before The Raccoon, before my mother died—my family seated around the dinner table. But as soon as my brother could go back to work, he did, picking up as many shifts as they’d let him, sometimes sleeping in the break room instead of driving home at night. I saw less of my father as well. He’d started a new job and often worked late hours. When he was home, he sat in his recliner, staring at the television. It didn’t matter what channel. We didn’t talk about my mother. We didn’t talk about anything. My father wasn’t locked in his room anymore, but the house was just as empty.

The birds returned scrawny and jet-lagged from their journey south and the trees began to bloom, shyly at first, and then in great unfurlings of color. One afternoon after school, I was alone in the house when the doorbell rang. I flew down the stairs but stopped short when I saw The Raccoon’s image through the frosted panes in the door. I considered not answering, ignoring her there on our doorstep, but then I heard the quiet whine of an infant. I opened the door.

She was smaller, hunched even, and the rings around her eyes had smudged and run in streams of black down her face. Her blonde dye-job had begun to grow out, leaving a stripe of dirty brown hair around her crown. She raised her hand in a shy greeting, and I saw that she’d painted her long nails black. She carried the baby wrapped in a blanket in her arms. I could just see a patch of its dark hair, and, instinctively, I reached out my hand to it, but thought better, and drew it back. I put my hands in my pockets. “He’s not here,” I said.

“I know,” she said. “I saw him leave.”

I had spoken to her so rarely that I was surprised by the sound of her voice—sweet and thin, wavering, but not gravelly like I expected. We stared at each other across the threshold, each waiting, I suppose, for the other to say something. Finally, it was the baby who spoke up, gurgling from his swaddle. The Raccoon sighed and shifted her weight and patted the baby on the back. She looked tired, and the baby, though it was still a newborn, looked too heavy for her.

“I need a favor,” she said. “Can you watch him? For just an hour or so? I need to run some errands.” She held him out to me, and his blanket fell open. I could see the little blue feet of his pajamas.

“I don’t know,” I said. “My brother. He won’t like it that you’re here.”

“You know as well as I do that he won’t be back until tomorrow, Beck.”

She’d never said my name before, and it stunned me. The sound of it, the hard click of the “k” in the back of her mouth. She took a step forward and held the baby gently against my chest. “Please,” she said.

As soon as I’d taken him from her, she spun on her heels and scampered down the sidewalk. I watched her figure until it disappeared, and then I stepped back inside and closed the door behind me. I wish I could say she came back for her baby, that the doorbell rang again a few hours later, that she paid me in cash, but hours passed and I could not stop its crying. My father says that when he came home, I was crouched in a corner, my chin tucked into the collar of my shirt, peering at the baby as if it were some kind of animal. I don’t remember that, but I do remember that when I’d held him he felt in my arms not at all like I thought he would, struggling against me, gnashing his gums. I wish I could say we kept him and that it brought us together, that it made us some other kind of family, a happy one, but when morning came jagged through my bedroom window, and the baby was still burning with hunger, having refused the formula we bought, and The Raccoon still had not returned, we took the baby downtown, filed a report, and left him with a social worker. I wish I could say I knew what happened to him.

That was a year ago, maybe more, and I had almost forgotten that night. I started the seventh grade in the fall and joined the school band, an act that required little more than a parent signature, which by then I had grown accustomed to forging. I made a friend, a quiet girl like me named Regina, and we spent our afternoons in her bedroom or mine, practicing our instruments, hers the clarinet, mine, the flute. I didn’t think about the baby much, but I thought about my mother all the time, though the tenor of those thoughts had shifted from their urgency, had faded into soft remembrances, the time she let me try on her pearl earrings, the times she washed my hair with her lavender shampoo.

I only saw The Raccoon once more, on a stay-over band trip. We had ridden all night on a bus, and though I was tired and uncomfortable, I sensed that I was finally becoming part of the group, sharing playlists and junk food, finally shedding some of my awkwardness around kids my own age. When we stopped at an all-night truck stop for a bathroom break, I saw her. She was sitting alone in a booth, a Styrofoam cup of coffee warming her hands. Her dark hood was pulled low over her brow, but it was her, the same spare frame, the same blonde frizz peeking out over her ears. When she looked up, I saw the dark circles under her eyes and something new: a tiny silver stud in her eyebrow and a matching one above her lip, near the corner of her mouth.

Our eyes met and I froze, a candy bar clutched in my fist. I saw her again at our kitchen table, swallowed by her Army jacket. I saw her huddled in a corner, chewing her nails raw. I saw her on our doorstep, a bundle in her arms, the whites of her eyes laced in red. I couldn’t speak. I felt the urge to slip between the aisles, to slink back to the bus and hide beneath my blanket, but something held me there. Across the room, The Raccoon mouthed my name, just that, and I remembered the first and only time I ever heard her say it, how then it had sounded hard, like a rock caught in her throat. Now it was a whisper, less than that, and the softness of her face surprised me. If my mother were there, she would have slid into the booth beside her. She would have known the exact right thing to say. But I couldn’t think of a single thing that didn’t sound stale, that didn’t end with The Raccoon slowly shaking her head, her eyes lowered to the table. So instead, I raised my hand—not a wave, just a hand in the air—a recognition, I’d like to think, of her and of me—both of us so far from home, both of us people I once thought I knew.

I don’t know how long we stared at each other across the truck-stop cafeteria before my new friends pulled me away and back to the bus. Maybe seconds, maybe minutes. Long enough for my candy bar to melt from the heat of my palm. Long enough for the steam from her coffee to stop swirling up in little eddies. She was sitting there when we pulled away from the parking lot, and for all I know she could be sitting there still, the coffee in her cup gone cold, waiting for someone to take her home.

Lauri Anderson's prose and poetry have appeared or are forthcoming in Willow Springs, Meridian, The Greensboro Review, Bellingham Review, NANO Fiction, and on air at NPR's All Things Considered Weekend.She is the 2011 winner of the Tobias Wolff Award in Fiction, as well as the Robert Watson Literary Prize in Fiction. She lives in Lubbock, TX, where she is pursuing a PhD at Texas Tech University.