Bradan Cary pulls over on Bartlett Street and looks up at the house. Broken glass and a board in a window on the second floor. It is early September, the children all back at school, and the street is deserted. He passed two men talking further down the street, but now they are gone from sight. Bradan gets out of the car. The sun is bright and high above him, but the breeze picks up and blows a newspaper page across the yard; tall grass, dried and dead from the late summer sun. The yard is littered with papers and trash, as are all the yards up and down the street, and the front porch is sagging, the steps rotten and missing two boards.
It is a workday for Bradan. He is on the road usually two to three days a week, but is rarely in this city, so, while he is here, he has decided to stop and see the house. The city, derelict and crumbling, is really little more than an impoverished overgrown town. Plenty of crime, drugs, and stabbings, but it is a city only by its numbers; no tall buildings, cathedrals or impressive theatres. Bradan’s wife Kotryna grew up in this city and she lived in this house once; the first floor, with her first fiancée, back in another time, over twenty years before. Bradan has seen pictures in photo albums. But it never looked anything like this. Not back then.
On the porch, broken swing moves in the breeze. Bradan looks up at the window. Pictures them up there now, a young family, or almost a family; Kotryna, her boyfriend--a man she hopes will soon be her fiancé--and her small daughter Dalia.
The woman, actually little more than a girl, stands in front of the mirror, curling her hair high. It is 1989. She is slim with curved hips, gray-blue eyes with heavy, Slavic lids, high cheekbones, sculpted features and dirty blonde hair. She looks at a greeting card, open on the dresser, a card for her boyfriend, a one-year anniversary. The dresser is covered, jewelry and perfume, hairbrushes and photographs; knick-knacks and mementos; a Hummel. Yet to get dressed, the woman is topless, just in her panties, white, and as she moves to pick an outfit out of her wardrobe, she turns to see him, standing in the room, aiming a camera at her. She raises one hand in protest and uses the other to cover her breasts but she is smiling.
Robert. She had been living with him eight months at the time of their first year dating anniversary, escaping her mother and the craziness that had always been her family.
His friends all called him Bob, she told Bradan. But she called him Robert. He liked her to call him Robert. He liked to sound dignified. Respected. He worked for a shipping company but was taking a night course in astronomy at Harvard Extension School when she moved into the apartment with him and he liked to tell everyone that he went to Harvard. Always quick to mention that he had a 3.5 G.P.A., never mentioning that he only took the one class. This was fine with her at the time, she said. Because she knew that, he never finished high school. She also knew that embarrassed him secretly.
The man puts the camera down, tackles her onto the bed. His hair, short and perfectly combed, is dark as are his eyes. Chiseled features, bordering on feminine, in indent on the tip of his nose. He kisses her lips once and then kisses her neck. It tickles. She begins to giggle, stroking his back, and her legs up tight around him. Long legs. Beautiful. They are both so young. On the other side of the wall, her daughter, long blonde hair and wide brown eyes, not yet four, watches television in the living room. Barney. Purple and dancing. Moving around in a slow circle. The man looks into the women’s eyes. She is still sprawled beneath him, and she raises her head a bit and kisses him. Their eyes meeting, just inches apart. Her lips move. “Shut the door,” she whispers.
Kotryna doesn’t like to talk about it much anymore. Robert was not the natural father of the little girl, but he quickly accepted her as his own, doting on her, giving her presents, eleven new outfits the first Christmas and trips to the zoo, the movies, and the aquarium. He never had anything growing up, he told Kotryna, so he wanted things to be different with Dalia. He wanted her to have everything.
So did Kotryna. She never had a thing when she was young either. Hand-me-down clothes from the neighbors, canned vegetables from the local food pantry, and holes in the roof where bats flew into the attic. She and her friend Lori would sometimes sit on the roof, sunning in bikinis and smoking a joint, and even during the day sometimes they could hear the bats flying around inside. Hear her mother screaming downstairs at her younger brothers and sisters. Her mother was always screaming, and it was mainly her mother whom she wanted, needed to get away from. She had been sent into exile after getting pregnant a month after graduating high school—a boyfriend of two years, four years older—and that had for the most part been the end of any chance of closeness she might have had with her mother. Kotryna was the shame of the neighborhood, her mother told her. A fornicator, her mother said. A slut. Her mother dragged her to see their parish priest, belting her in the car with one hand and driving with the other. And then, once in front of Father, she was quie