Bernard Carey's father had always said that shutting up and then staying shut up was the smartest way to go through life. Silence, he said, was without risk. Silence, he said, was often taken as wisdom. Correctly, he said. People would always be waiting for you to say something, which was good.
He held nightly demonstrations in his parlor, in long nights of infinite wisdom, unfiltered Camels in his soundless mouth, his eyes going into a semi-roll as he watched the smoke flare from his nostrils and waft toward the ceiling. But Carey the son, himself a mostly silent man, suspected that his father's philosophy was less calculated than a justification for a natural muteness over which he had no control. That his mother was only moderately verbose heightened the effect. She took her cue from her husband. At some point in her life she had just gotten tired of talking and not being answered. They had both gone to the grave without much change in their general dispositions.
The older Carey gets, the more he feels that wordlessness is the way to go on with things. His lack of children, and his wife's declining state, only reinforce this conviction. After many days over the past few years he has slid under the bedcovers at night and, in a recounting of the day that smoothes his passage to sleep, has realized he has uttered not a single word. How amazing that seems. At the end of these lean days he feels no sense of loss.
How his brother got to be such a motormouth is a genetic mystery. Or perhaps Tommy has come to fill a necessary role, leavening the family pall. His presence oozes into the voids. He became a raconteur early on, despite their father's proclamations that talkers were fools. The family tenement seemed to be Tommy's rehearsal stage. Often, as a boy, Carey had passed Tommy and his pals, at the park or in front of the old Pleasant Street Drug Store, and heard from Tommy's mouth the same monologue he had heard at supper the night before—but polished and tightened now, the timing and delivery down.
Yes, Tommy has done well in this respect; he is always bent toward the ear of one of the local pols, always gripping and grinning at their fundraisers and their public appearances. But is this the way for a grown man to conduct himself? Carey, despite his lowly station as a laborer in the mills of Fall River, can't help seeing that political crowd as nothing more than boys in arrested adolescence. What does Tommy want, and how will he get it? Carey remembers the nasty business of kickbacks on construction of the city high school, and Tommy's sudden public persona, denying charges with an arrogant and winning smile. The school was built, and Tommy moved out to his big new house, unbloodied. What a piece of work. What a talker. Is he really from the same family?
Carey wonders this now, on this morning of the Fourth of July, 1978, as he sits with his coffee at the kitchen table, waiting. He has on a pair of wool pants (half of the only suit he has ever owned) and his white shirt, which has hung unmolested in the closet since Christmas, when they went out to Pittsfield to visit Joyce's cousin. Now he feels its starchy constitution moistening in the heat of early day. The coffee is tepid, from sitting; he goes to the refrigerator, fishes two ice cubes out of the aluminum ice tray, and dumps them into the cup, and adds sugar. He has already gone down to the corner variety store for his newspaper, which lies before him. He has been through the sports pages twice, and now he's getting edgy.
"Joyce," he calls. "How are you coming along?"
"Yeah, I'm fine."
Fine. He flashes his mind forward to the end of this day, which he understands will consist of too many dredged words, too many forced remarks. He thinks of tonight, when he and Joyce can pull chairs up to the kitchen window, turn out the lights, and watch the fireworks soar over the adjacent roof line. Small traditions. The closeness of the park makes the kitchen a perfect vantage—so close that the booming finale always makes the windows vibrate in their frames. But that will be later, across the chasm that will be this day.
Tommy called at seven this morning, proposing an outing, a drive in his new Chrysler to points undetermined. When Carey tried to put him off, Tommy said—low, as if he didn't want someone there to hear—"Hey, we have to. How would it seem if we didn't do anything with Joyce before, you know."
"I know," Carey said. "I know."
So they're coming, any time now. He sits, waiting for Joyce to finish with her makeup, which has become, in the past few months, a mask to maintain the veneer of health. But when he told her, she seemed to think this drive was a good idea. To get out, to do something.
He hears the beep of a car horn outside, and then Tommy's unmistakable voice, in comic falsetto: "Oh, Bernard!" It's the same call Carey grew up with, the half-demeaning summons that had seemed a reaction, so far back, to his stalled fighting career. In those teenage years Tommy had seemed troubled as attention shifted from himself briefly to his brother; he had quickly gotten into the habit of needling Carey in the many tender places. "Hey, Bernard," he'd sing, "those guys punch some smarts into you yet?" "Hey, Bernard, aren't you getting tired of the taste of leather?" He continued to needle, probably just out of habit, even after Carey quit fighting. Now, as always, he is calling "Bernard" in that singsong way. But Carey doesn't care anymore.
He goes to the window and waves. The car, black and gleaming, is double-parked. "That'll be hell to keep clean," Carey shouts down. Tommy, in sunglasses, calls back up: "Yeah, take your time. We got the AC going here."
Carey moves to the bedroom door. Joyce is sitting on the end of the bed, looking at herself in the mirror over the dresser.
"Joyce, they're here."
"Oh." She looks at him. "Okay."
She's wearing a tan dress that he remembers as having once been tight on her. She stands up, adjusts her hair with a quick motion, and smiles blandly. "Okay," she says again.
The drive turns out to be to a house that Tommy and Ellen are thinking of buying as a rental property. Tommy already owns three triple-deckers, although he has put two of them back on the market. This is a duplex, Tommy says, just a minor stop on a carefree day. The kids are along, Tommy in the front seat between his parents, Margaret in back between Carey and Joyce.
Tommy controls the conversation, telling stories of past Independence Days. Carey feels himself relaxing, now realizing that all that will be required of him is a few well-placed words of assent, of acknowledgment, to keep the ball rolling. Tommy goes into a long-winded recitation of the time the two of them, as boys, had spent two days after the Fourth collecting unexploded firecrackers, slitting them, and accumulating the gunpowder in a baby-food jar.