Previously in Unbound Fiction:

Points of Interest (March 21, 2001)
"I had no idea. How could I? It was just a homework assignment. Perfectly pedestrian. I've been giving the same one for years." By Robert Cohen

I Was Just Looking (February 21, 2001)
"Her scarlet djelleba was torn slightly at the hem. He gazed at the smooth, graceful curve of her calf, deliberately revealed, he was certain, for his eyes only." By Joe Kuhl

Daniel Wentworth (January 24, 2001)
"No one knows just when he left, only when they noticed that he was gone, and some of us don't even remember that." By Rachel Carpenter

"The Faithful" (December 20, 2000)
"It's thirty-two degrees, officially freezing, and we're getting ready for a Christmas Eve swim. Harvey's idea. 'It'll put the fear of God in you better than church.'" By N. M. Kelby

"Presidential Election" (November 22, 2000)
"My dad wanted his last few years to be in the spotlight. He wanted to be center stage. He drew up his plan to crack the presidency." By Mary McCluskey

"Fat From Shame" (October 26, 2000)
"Enter pissed-modern history.... The struggle, strangle, poof, thuppernong, last gasp of religion, art, language, memory, and the electricity of the heart." By Clyde Edgerton

More Unbound Fiction

More fiction from The Atlantic Monthly

Atlantic Unbound | April 25, 2001
 
Unbound Fiction
 
Sign of the Times
.....

Dad named the others. By the time they got to me it was Mom's turn. Martine. That's what she named me. It probably never occurred to her to try it out with Maloney. The rest ended up with nicknames. Michael is Mick. The twins, Mary and Michelle, are Mimi and Mish. Maura is Mo. She hated that when we were kids. In our leafy corner of suburban Philadelphia the Pep Boys' cartoon smiles hawked auto parts wherever we went. Manny, Moe and Jack—Moe was the one with the black butterfly hair and mustache. Mom cropped our dark hair short and our Mo's always wanted to part straight down the middle, inviting nasty comparisons to you know who.

Me? I hated being called Marty. Mom had a suggestion.

"Say you have a French mother."

I was only eleven, maybe twelve, at the time and still believed lightning might strike me dead, so I protested.

"But that's a lie."

"What isn't?" Mom snapped before scooping Mick's dirty clothes off the floor next to his bed and disappearing down the hall.

That just about sums up Mom's state of mind at the time, stuck at home, Dad a VP off overseeing the breakup of AT&T and their marriage.

The basement door opened. Mick's clothes tumbled down the stairs. Then, Bam! The door slammed. That was how she cleaned house in those days.

"I warned him," Mom said, sweeping past me.

I hoofed it to my room. Our room, I should say, Mo's and mine. She was sprawled out on her bed. Her head bobbed like the dog figurine my brother glued next to the plastic Virgin Mary on the dashboard of his Ford Fiesta. He'd just turned seventeen. That was the year Mick started gluing statues of the Virgin everywhere. An early clue. We should have started to see it then, but we were just kids, and Mom and Dad were too busy slugging it out with each other to notice.

I yanked the headphones off Mo.

"Cut it out," she said, taking a swipe at me.

"She's on the warpath again."

"Oh shit," Mo said.

I whisked the clothes off the floor. Mo held the closet door open. I shoved them in. We'd just managed to force it closed when Mom popped in.

"Not bad, not too bad," Mom said and did a pirouette, a full twirl with a little leap at the end of it. Then as now, Mom's a little nuts.

.....

Birthdays have always been a sore spot. Four of us born on national holidays. Me? Even worse, Mom's birthday. Who except Mick would want to share a birthday with Jesus Christ, St. Patrick, Washington, Lincoln, or Mom? So we stopped celebrating on the actual days. We have one big party on Valentine's Day instead. Mom's idea.

"Why not?" Mom said the first year she baked the heart-shaped cake, five tiers, each inscribed with one of our names. She found the nested pans at Gimbel's Going Out of Business Sale. Since Dad was gone, I guess she felt up to making a decision by herself.

We used to see Dad every weekend, but as we got older, not as much. The child support ended when I graduated from college, but the alimony checks still come, and they're big, so Mom never complains. At least she never complains about that.

She does complain about having all five of us underfoot again. Most of us would rather be somewhere else. For the moment, though, we're stuck here. I'm definitely short-term. So is Mo. Some of us have come and gone and come again. Mimi and Mish are back because Mimi's marriage went bust, and Mish had a fight with her roommate. Maura bunked with a boyfriend for a while, and I had my own place until last week. The dipshit in the apartment under mine left his kettle on and went to work. Smoked me out. The landlord says it'll be another couple of weeks before I can move back in. Meanwhile, I'm starting to get the idea that things around here are taking a weird turn.

For one thing, Mimi and Mish are twin dressing. Actually, Mish is mimicking Mimi. It's driving Mimi crazy.

Mom never dressed them alike. Whenever an aunt or a grandmother showed up with matching outfits, back they went. Now Mish is convinced she missed something. As soon as Mimi is up and dressed, Mish dresses exactly like her—hair, makeup, nails, everything. Mom says the twin thing is bullshit. It's a plot to drive Mimi out so Mish can have the room to herself.

"I wouldn't put anything past that one," Mom says, and Mimi has started circling rentals in the classifieds, but she has to fight Mick to get to them. He's circling, too.

Mick isn't going anywhere. He's a permanent resident, if not here then in some quiet bin. Mick thinks God is sending him messages through the Philadelphia Inquirer personals, in the section titled Men Looking For Men. We've tried to set him straight (pardon the pun), but no go. The last couple of months he's been clipping them and pinning them to corkboards mounted all around his room. He says he'll know what he's supposed to know when he knows it. Whatever that's supposed to mean.

Mom says, "It's gotten him off those game-show hosts. That one nearly drove me crazy."

.....

I've called Dad.

"Hello."

"Hi, Dad. It's me, Martine."

"Martine."

The way he says it, I'm not sure if he's saying, Martine, like, oh yeah, of course, my daughter Martine, or, Martine, as in, Martine who?

I go with an icebreaker.

"How ya doing?"

"Fine, just fine."

"And Colette?"

"Fine. Just fine."

"Well, that's good. That's really good. You're both just fine."

"You still at home?"

"Yeah. Another couple of weeks. They have to fumigate and repaint. It's kind of weird being back. In my old room. All of us back at the same time. Mo and me. And the twins. Them, too. But they've got plans. Yeah, I'm pretty sure they've both got plans. And Mo and me. We've got plans, too."

"Well, that's good. Good you've got plans."

"Yeah, it is. It really is."

There's a pause. If I wait long enough he's going to have to ask. He doesn't want to. Asking is like inviting cancer to eat out his insides, but eventually he'll have to.

"And Mick?" he finally says.

"When was the last time you talked to Mom?"

Dead air again. He's thinking. Last week? Last month? Last year? No, not that long. A couple of months. He'll lie. How do I know? I just do.

"A couple of weeks," he says.

"And ..."

"He was having a little trouble. The new meds. Nothing serious. A period of adjustment before they kicked in."

"When was the last time you saw him?"

He can't answer that one.

"His hair, it's really long. And his nails. And there's the thing with the personals. Did Mom tell you?"

"I seem to remember her mentioning something. Sounded pretty harmless."

Another pause.

"Colette and I are leaving for Italy. She's got a conference, and I've arranged to spend the time with her in Rome over Valentine's. As soon as we get back ..."

"When you get back, then, you'll call Mom?"

"Of course. Well, yes, of course I will."

.....

Mick is in the kitchen trying to twist the top off a jar of olives. His Fu Manchus make it impossible to get a grip. How long does it take to grow nails that long? I can't get mine to sprout past my fingertips. He has the Haldol look—a particularly nasty drug. But he's too lively for it to be Haldol. On the Haldol he slept a lot. He doesn't seem to sleep at all anymore. All night long I can hear him moving around in his room. I'm beginning to wonder if he's on anything at all. He's wearing one of Mom's old bathrobes, a cotton kimono, one she and Dad bought on a trip to Japan. He's barefoot. He's been barefoot and wearing the same kimono since I moved back in eight days ago. You can believe me. I'm keeping count. It's mid-February, and he hasn't changed or left the house. At least not since before I got here. Mom and the others move around him like he's the furniture.

Mimi walks through on her way out. Mick spills the olive juice when the top gives way. Mimi narrowly misses stepping in it. She yells. Mick bolts.

"C-R-A-Z-Y," she shouts. She spells it out like he's a little kid. Like he won't know what she said. She's all dressed up. Short red skirt. Tight pink fuzzy top. Black tights and boots. Faux leopard jacket. Her lips are dark red, matte not glossy. A little rhinestone-encrusted heart winks at me from the hollow at the base of her neck.

Her hair's thick and dark and glossy, still the short cut we had as kids but with a stylish swing to it. The twins look a lot like Mom, and they're lean like she is. I'm the chunky one.

"Jeremy made reservations," Mimi says.

"Be back early," I say. "Command performance tonight. You know how Mom is, nonnegotiable."

Jeremy is Mimi's new boyfriend, her best hope for getting out of here since the breakup. The twins and Mo can't make a move without a guy tattooed to it. They all work, have pretty decent jobs, but can't seem to get along on their own. Me, I'm just fine behind closed doors, my own doors.

Mish walks in. She's an exact match to Mimi.

Mimi says, "I'm going to kill you. Yes, I am. That's what I'm going to do. Blood on the floor, the whole thing. Then we'll see."

There's a tap at the storm door. Jeremy. Mimi spins around and makes a finger motion, a "just a minute" finger motion. Then she turns back to Mish and makes another finger motion, a "fuck you" finger motion. Then she turns to me and says, "Don't you say a thing."

She's out the door. Mish straightens her matching pink sweater, puts on her faux leopard jacket, and she's out the door, too.

"Be back," I say to the kitchen door. "Be back in time."

The buzzer goes off. The cakes. I pull them out of the oven and set them on racks to cool. Then I pick up the phone and call Mom.

"They're done," I say.

Mom is across the street at Hal's. She's been spending a lot of time over there, Mick being in his current condition, and all of us back home. Hal's wife left him for some fat woman's husband three streets over. Hal appears to be what Mom refers to as very well-heeled. Mom likes her men well-heeled. His brick-and-stone Dutch colonial is even bigger than ours.

Until I went away to college in New England I thought all houses were built of brick or stone. I'd never seen a clapboard or a shingle, never thought about it much either. There's something insubstantial about those houses up there, not built to last, not like our big stone pile.

It's five P.M., dark out. I've turned the lights on. Mom put everyone on notice this morning: eight o'clock, everyone back at the house, around the table, lighting the candles, cutting the cake, singing the song, our collective birthday like some sort of Irish Catholic kibbutz.

Mimi and Mish are gone. I futz around for a while. Mo goes out for a run. It's quiet. I'm alone. Well, almost. Mick is hiding out in his room. I should go check on him, but I can't, don't, won't, don't want to.

Mom spent all morning setting the table, stringing the crepe paper, hanging the puffy accordion paper hearts, the same ones she's hung since we were kids. The crepe paper alternates; pink, red, pink, red, radiating out from the chandelier like an octopus's tentacles, canopying the room. From the center of the chandelier hangs another, much larger, accordion heart. Cherubs aim their arrows at the dining-room walls. It's ridiculous. It's sublime. I filch a candy heart from a red glass bowl. Be mine, it says.

Mom's set the table with the dessert service. She's laid out the good silver, too, and the cloth napkins sprinkled with embroidered hearts. The cake stand sits ready, centered on the round table that seats ten.

Noise in the kitchen. Mom's back, assembling, icing, always the same, five layers of chocolate cake. Red, pink, white, pink, red, bottom to top, or top to bottom, come to think of it. And the names, in order by date of birth, Mick, Mimi, Mish, Mo, me. Each layer dotted with Valentine's candy; conversation hearts, red-hots, those little silver balls that are so hard I always worry when I bite into one I might break a tooth. Mom is humming. That's a good sign.

I'm about to go help her when I realize Mick is standing in the doorway. A frigging stealth bomber Mick is. For a minute I swear he looks just like the colored pictures of Christ in my old Sunday school books. He scares the hell out of me, Mick does. He's got something in his hands, a tall glass cylinder, one of those Mexican votive candles printed with a picture of the Virgin Mary. The wick stands up fat and tall above the glass lip.

He waits for a minute before he walks in and sets the candle in the middle of the cake pedestal. He's still wearing the kimono. It falls open to his waist. I can count his ribs, he's that thin.

"Sometimes," he says. "It takes a sign."

The way he says it, I fool myself into thinking he's the old Mick. He's my big brother Mick again. Mick who threatened to pound a boy who tried to feel me up. Mick who led the Cheltenham High Tigers to victory against Abington with a toss so long and accurate the locals still talk about it.

Out of one arm of the kimono he pulls one of Dad's old Ronson lighters, and I'm thinking, So that's what happened to them.

He flips the lid open and flicks it. The flame is orange outside, clear blue within. I'm thinking, Look at that. Isn't that something. One of Dad's old Ronsons, when Mick leans over and lights the candle. That's what I'm thinking, about the lighter, about whether he has the rest of them, when the candle wick flares up with an almost explosive burst and the flame touches the low-hanging paper heart. It goes up just like that. The fire spreads into each of the crepe-paper tentacles. I'm mesmerized by how even, how symmetrical, how surprisingly beautiful the progression is before I start to scream, "Fire! Fire!"

Mick is standing—the Ronson's still lit—holding it in front of him like it's the everlasting light.

"Put—it—down," I say, and he does.

I drag him out of the room, through the kitchen, where Mom is chanting, "Oh, my God. Oh, my God. Oh, my God." I have to push her out the door.

.....

There are things you'd never know about a fire unless you've had one. It's fast. Really fast and really hot. So hot that the fact that a house is built of brick or stone is no more defense against it than if the house was made of paper. The damned thing just burns up, just like that, like some kind of alien devouring itself from the inside out. Fire pours out the windows and doors, onto the porches, curls up around the roof. The house is engulfed, all but gone by the time I hear the first sirens, by the time I remember about Mick sitting cross-legged in the middle of the lawn like he's watching fireworks on the Fourth of July, like he's Jesus fucking Christ on the fucking Fourth of July.

And Mom? She's over at Hal's. I can see them staring out his big front window. He's got his arm around her, and she's smiling because we all got out of the house, and maybe because there is no house, and Hal has a house even bigger than ours.

A car pulls up to the curb and the door flies open, but Mimi just sits there. It's Jeremy who sprints across the lawn yelling, "Where is everybody? Did everybody get out okay?"

And then Mish pulls up and jumps out of her Toyota and starts hollering, "What the fuck. What the ... my clothes, all my clothes."

And then Mo comes jogging down the street, and when she realizes it's our house, she breaks into a run, and when she reaches us she throws her arms around Jeremy and Mish and me standing in the middle of lawn huddled around Mick, who is sitting on the ground in nothing but Mom's kimono.

And it's cold, because it's February 14, Valentine's Day, and Mom's at Hal's, and Mimi is shouting at Jeremy, "Get me out of here," and Jeremy is yelling back, "But Meem ..." and Mimi is yelling, "Don't call me that. My name is Mary," and Mish wants the firemen to rescue her clothes, and Dad's somewhere in Italy eating osso bucco and sipping the correct wine with his French wife, Colette, and Mick is sitting at my feet in some sort of twisted yoga position singing like Petula Clark, "It's a sign of the times ..."

And I'm thinking.

I'm thinking he's right. He absolutely is.

This is a sign.


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Joan Wilking is a graphic designer living north of Boston. She has recently completed her first collection of short stories, titled Color Theory.

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