by Sam Gridley
Whatever happened to Will over there, he came back different, as if some vital part in that high-powered engine of his had been gunked up. His charmed life disintegrated. So when a former colleague of his materialized, I was eager to meet the man and see if he had any insight. By then Will was spending twelve weeks in jail for smashing a guy over the head with a beer bottle at a bar.
The oldest of us three McDonnells, Will had always been our star, the math whiz, the science fair champion, and (unlike my sister and me) an athlete to boot, good enough to play second base on the team that won the league title for our suburban Philly high school. With his outgoing personality and handsome face—prominent cheekbones, sharp chin, goofy smile, light brown hair with natural blond streaks—he had lots of friends, especially females, which made me jealous. “Don’t worry, Kyle,” he used to tease, “some girl will pay attention to you. Eventually. If you live long enough and iron your hair now and then.” My inheritance of our father’s lunatic mop, without his broad face to put it in proportion, was a family joke and, for me, a deeply existential burden.
For our younger sister, Nathalie, Will ranked almost as high in the pantheon as her favorite indie band, Modest Mouse. But Will was no mouse. He wanted to do stuff in life, and in college he chose an engineering major so he could accomplish something tangible. If our generation specializes in an ironic, disaffected take on the world, Will was just the opposite. By age twenty-five he had a master’s in systems engineering and a high-paying job designing power stations and other infrastructure for developing countries. He even dressed like a go-getter, crisp slacks and button-down collars. At twenty-seven he signed on to a large project in the Pakistani backcountry, a locale that caused our mother some angst, though she herself had once worked for the Peace Corps in Ghana. “The world’s not the way it used to be,” she fretted; “everybody hates us now.” But nobody, we assured her, could hate Will; besides, he wasn’t heading into an active conflict zone, and he was smart enough to watch out for himself.
Our father, the molecular biologist with hair like a disintegrated stainless steel scrubbing pad, was long gone by then, dead of brain cancer when we were in tenth, seventh and third grade, respectively. The disease that killed him, an aggressive glioblastoma, was the very one he’d devoted his career to researching—another existential joke for our family. Maybe some of Will’s ambition to make a difference arose from that trauma. Though I don’t recall anyone’s telling him he was now “the man of the house,” he began to act that way, keeping Nathalie and me on our best behavior while Mom tried to cope with the loss.
Mom herself is a professor of ecology, but her understanding of living networks didn’t help her deal with the way her husband’s system had turned against itself. She struggled for months, even took a term’s leave from the university. “I just didn’t expect this,” I remember her saying, as if she’d had a vision of how their life would go—how it should go—and somebody, something had betrayed her.
Will became a mainstay for us, attending my orchestra concerts in place of Mom, arranging rides for Nathalie to her dance lessons. Will was so good at substitute fathering that Mom came to depend on him, and when he left for Pakistan more than a decade later, she was still consulting him by email about her investments and her move to a condo—matters on which Nathalie and I proved inept as advisers.
By that time, Nathalie was in nursing school, another person preparing to help the world. Myself, I’ve provided the balance, struggling toward a doctorate in philosophy that will be useless even if I do achieve it. The tentative title of my dissertation, “Will’s Power,” isn’t just another family joke, however: I’m investigating whether the archaic concept of free will still has meaning or power in a world where we explain our behavior with neuroscience and brain chemistry.
During his two years in Pakistan, I didn’t hear much from Will directly—mostly iPhone photos of desertscapes, picturesque landmarks, comic camels, traffic jams in Karachi. He talked to Mom every couple of weeks, and from her reports I gathered he was absorbed in the job, happy with his colleagues. I admired him for setting out to do good and actually doing it. I saw him twice when he swept through the USA on brief vacations, sporting a deep tan and mirrored sunglasses. On the second occasion I had dinner with him and a colleague of his, Miles. They gabbed about the “devastating beauty” (I think that was Will’s phrase) of Pakistan’s land and inhabitants. Their slogan for their generating station was “Power to the People.”
A few months after that second visit, Mom relayed some vague story of “tribal strife” in the countryside, and suddenly Will was back in the USA, assigned to an office in the DC suburbs. And then he left the company. And then he was showing up in June at Mom’s fifty-fifth birthday party, still tan but glassy-eyed, fuzzy about his future plans, moving stiffly and muttering about an accountant who’d messed up his taxes. The gathering was in a friend’s backyard, and Will spent much of the time wandering alone with a drink under the oak trees.
The most telling comments at that party were my girlfriend’s. Yes, Will’s prediction had proved correct: at long last one woman looked at me and then—surprise, because her beauty is way out of my league—looked again, below the unruly hair. Her name is Gabi, and as a Ph.D. student in social psychology from Germany, she takes a professional as well as personal interest in the peculiarities of American families. What she said on this occasion was, “You always talk about your brother like he’s so special. I don’t see it. He’s self-centered and emotionally remote, and he’s high on something.”
Though pleased that one woman in the world might find me more attractive than Will, I objected. “No, he can’t be high. He doesn’t do that. Always a straight arrow. He doesn’t even joke about drugs.”
“Hmmph,” she said, with a hike of her aquiline nose. “Look at his pupils. And he ate all the piggy things.”
“Pigs-in-blankets. Didn’t you get any?”
When I ran into Mom by the buffet table, I asked whether Will had told her much about his plans. She seemed miffed that he was paying no attention to her. “Is he still here?” she quipped.
Four months later came Will’s incident in the bar, which none of us could fathom because it was so unlike him. Mom helped him hire a top defense lawyer, and though the victim had suffered a broken forehead and a serious concussion, Will got off with a mild sentence and two years of probation. We had to believe he didn’t intend to hurt the guy so much.
During his three months in the slammer I received an email from Miles, his former colleague. Before heading “back over there,” Miles wanted to check in with Will but had gotten no response to his messages. He remembered me and found my email address on the university’s website. I replied, “Will’s out of touch right now. If you’re coming through Philly, let’s get together. I’ll fill you in.”
We set a date to meet for dinner at a well-known Center City bar. Gabi insisted she was coming with me “for research purposes” and because she didn’t trust me not to drive home intoxicated. “I never have more than one beer,” I pointed out.
“Right,” she said; “neither does your Will, but he got drunk and clubbered someone.”
“Clobbered,” I corrected.
“Whatever,” she said, “he did it.”
That January featured a messy mix of freeze-and-melt: at each street corner you’d climb over a pile of dirty snow, then sink into a cold pool of muck, and when you got across to the next sidewalk you’d skid on the salted slush that coated the icepack below. By the time Gabi and I ducked into the tavern’s dim interior, our boots were soaked and our backs wrenched from trying to keep our balance. A man at the bar turned and lifted a palm. “Kyle?” he called over the classic rock that was playing. “Hey, let’s get a table in back.”
I introduced Gabi, and Miles gleamed. A big guy in his early thirties with thinning blond hair, originally from the Midwest, he carried his glass to the back room in both hands like an altar boy with a wobbly candle.
As we tried to decipher the menus under the yellow sconce lights, he said, “So Will couldn’t make it tonight?”
Though I’d been discreet in my emails, I had no objection to telling Miles in person what I knew of the bar fight, so remote from Will’s norm that it hardly reflected on his character. As quietly as I could in a loud room, I gave Miles the gist of it.
“Shit, that’s rotten luck,” he said, staring at the menu.
“You call it luck?” Gabi asked.
“Stuff like that,” Miles grunted, “you don’t know who starts it. What was said. Provocation. Somebody gets hurt and they have to pin the blame.”
Gabi sniffed, obviously skeptical about excuses for men’s stupid behavior.
I agreed with Miles. “Right,” I said. “Something had to really set him off because he’s one of the most patient people I know. At sixteen years old he could sit through an entire orchestra program when I was playing the oboe off key and afterward tell me how good it was.”
“Maybe he’s tone deaf,” Gabi surmised.
“You don’t know him,” I snapped.
“Okay. Sorry,” she frowned.
Miles said, “Well, you know, he got kind of … off kilter, last few weeks over there. Place gets to people sometimes. Before that, he was our star, our problem solver, the go-to guy. A brilliant engineer.” He sighed as if that was the sum of it. “Now, are the mussels good here?”
“The place gets to them how?” I asked at the same time that Gabi answered, “The kind with spinach and garlic. The best.”
“Ah. I was looking at the ones with caramelized leeks, apples, Swiss cheese and Belgian ale.”
“Those are good too.”
We ordered beer with nacho fritters to start. Impatient—my heavy wool socks itching as my boots dried out—I wanted to steer the conversation back to Will, but Miles was talking to Gabi about life in the Pakistani desert, the challenges and beauties of working there—phrases I’d heard from him and Will before. Miles began to rest his eyes on Gabi in a way that peeved me. The place was decorated with a mixture of classic ale posters and photos of canines, and I kept trading glances with a smug bulldog above our table to whom I took a particular dislike.
At last, when the mussels had been reduced to piles of sticky shells, with Miles on his third Belgian dubbel and me on my second pint of IPA—Gabi shot me a wry, told-you-so look when I ordered it—I asked about the “tribal strife” that Will had mentioned to Mom before coming home. It struck me as curious that, in all his encomiums about the country, Miles hadn’t referred to it.
He had pushed back from the table to let his belly expand, but now he sighed and leaned forward, speaking in a voice we could just make out. “I guess it wouldn’t hurt to—it’s the kind of thing, you know, that gets blown out of proportion. Except in this case one of our supervisors got whacked. Tragic. And there’s rumors about who informed on who, and reprisals—a mess.”
“It does sound messy,” said Gabi, and I realized she was helping me coax information from him.
Pleased by her show of interest, Miles said, “The political situation’s always tricky. You’re careful not to step on anyone’s toes.”
“But one of your own people was involved?” I asked.
“Yeah, and that was”—he glanced from me to Gabi and back again, and to the side as if worried about eavesdroppers—“what I wanted to see Will about, because he took it hard and I wanted to make sure he wasn’t, you know, feeling personally responsible, because he’s that sort of guy, he takes it personal. I guess you know that about him.”
This puzzled me. Yeah, Will had always taken a lot on himself, but feeling personally accountable for an ethnic conflict on the other side of the globe? That didn’t match the Will I knew, who was always more rational than anyone else. But I realized I was here precisely because I didn’t understand Will anymore.
It took a while after that—a fourth beer for Miles and a third for me, followed by double espressos—to draw the story out. In summary, the tale went like this: Their immediate supervisor, an engineer from England named Dan Stevens, took a company jeep out to inspect a site five miles away on a dirt road. Normally the men didn’t travel away from the base alone, it was too unpredictable out there, but the trip was so short Stevens didn’t figure on trouble. Yet the jeep broke down and he had to contact the base for help. While he was waiting, some young men happened by in a truck. Later it was surmised that he recognized one or two of them, got to talking and then left the area with them. Whether he understood it was a kidnapping was unknown, nor was the motive ever discovered—a random flare-up of anti-Western sentiment? an opportunity too good to resist? Finding the jeep empty, the company sent a security detail around to nearby towns and villages. They received information, or misinformation, from certain sources. Young men from one group were pulled in for “questioning” by the local authorities. Their relatives took offense, and a bomb at a security checkpoint killed two officers, while a translator from another group was found with a knife in his back. Eventually Stevens’s body appeared, draped over a chain-link fence, his wallet and phone missing, his throat neatly sliced. When the official “questioning” was finished, one of the young men was never seen again, and others bore signs of torture.
It was good we’d finished the mussels—the slimy flesh might have caught in our throats when Miles described the body on the fence. Objectively the account was no worse than the evening news, but its horror was magnified by the soft voice in a crowded bar and the self-satisfied bulldog staring down at us. And Will had sworn to Mom his job wasn’t near a war zone!
But the murders didn’t explain why Will was so personally concerned, and I kept pushing Miles to elaborate. At the time, he said, Will seemed especially upset, angry at the authorities for being thugs and at the locals for acting like maniacs. Everybody was mad and maybe scared, but Will took it to a different level. He wanted to enlist American agents to search local towns for the missing wallet and phone as a way to identify Stevens’s killers. Then he got abruptly transferred back to the States—at his own request or not, Miles didn’t know.
At this point in the story Miles clearly wanted to stop. He signaled our waiter for the bill and thanked us for recommending this place. He’d never had better mussels outside France, he claimed, and he and Gabi discussed the Gallic treatment of shellfish, making me feel untraveled and inexperienced. I found Will’s prison address in my phone and gave it to Miles in case he wanted to write.
Then Gabi insinuated a question: Had Miles heard anything more since Will left Pakistan? It turned out he had, though before answering he made a show of grabbing the check from the waiter and insisting he would treat us. “They pay us good to put up with that desert,” he said.
After the waiter took his credit card, he leaned across the table again, his voice husky now and slurring. “Look, you people love him, you care about him, so maybe you oughta know. Last time I was home, August, I swung through DC, got a chance to catch up with Will. We hung out at a bar not half as good as this one, I don’t know why everybody raves about the DC scene. Will was drinking heavy, not like us here.” He waved at the table. “I mean, shots, one after the other. And when I said, are you getting that place outa your system, he laughs and says, ‘Milesey, it’s never coming outa my system. It’s stuck like a huge plug of crap.’ ‘Yeah,’ I said, ‘some of those jerks, they could use a strong laxative. But why’s it bothering you?’ And he says, ‘Cause I screwed Dan Stevens royal. See, I knew that jeep was bad. I drove it just before, the fuel pump was failing. I coulda told him and I didn’t. I hoped he’d break down on that fucking road.’”
I was speechless, and I could feel my face getting hot. Will would never act like that. Why had I invited this drunk here to ogle my girlfriend and tell lies about my brother?
Miles was either too soused to notice my reaction or too entranced by Gabi’s deep brown irises. When she asked, “Why didn’t Will warn him?” he went on:
“Damned if I know. There was some resentment there, ’cause Stevens had this way of taking our best ideas to the honchos like they were his own. He pulled that with Will a lot because Will was the brightest of our bunch. And Stevens had this other thing, too, he was older, kind of a big-daddy pat-you-on-the-back type, which got on Will’s nerves. After stealing your glory he’d wrap his arm around you and say how great a job you were doing. ‘He’s so fucking paternalistic,’ Will said to me once. And I kidded him: ‘Yeah, but as long as you don’t hug him back, hah-hah.’”
The waiter returned with the credit card slip, and Miles struggled in computing the tip. Those Belgian dubbels can pack a punch, and I wanted to add my own belt in the face. So Will didn’t like Stevens, so what?
When he tried to stand up, Miles faltered at first, and then it occurred to him that he hadn’t finished his story. In an odd moment of relative silence in the bar he whispered across the table, “One thing he said: ‘I wanted to tell him about the jeep, I tried to, but the words didn’t come out. So he got killed, and four others besides.’ That’s what he said. So, y’see, I’ve been worried he’s messed up about it. I told him it’s not your fault, you weren’t the kidnapper, you weren’t the fucking police with their cattle prods, you didn’t plant any bombs. You didn’t know for sure the jeep’d stall out—I mean, it got you where you were going, right? But he just shook his head and did the shots, y’know”—and Miles mimed tossing back whiskeys. “So you tell me he’s in jail now and it’s like, how does a good guy get so fucked up? … Sorry. Sorry to end a fine dinner on such a note.”
The last word sounded like “node.” Then he did manage to stand, rattling his chair. I was glaring, negotiating with my right fist about when and where to pummel him, and at the same time confused about what I believed. Gabi leaped up to take his arm and thank him profusely for the meal and for talking about a difficult subject. As she guided him toward the door, it looked almost like she was hugging him, which made me want to kick him in the ass so he’d do a face-plant on the wooden floor.
In the cold outside, pulling on our coats, Miles and I slid on the ice and knocked into each other. I wasn’t sorry that he fell down. Gabi, who had limited herself to a single Pilsner, helped him up, hailed a cab for him and aimed me toward our car. We all promised to stay in touch, and of course we didn’t.
“What a warped asshole,” I muttered on the way home.
“Who?” said Gabi.
* * *
A week passed. By then, though I still wanted to rearrange Miles’s face, I halfway accepted what he’d said. I decided he wasn’t lying but he must be ignorant of essential facts. I supposed I should share some of his tale with my mother but wasn’t sure how to do so without alarming her. Besides, it felt shitty, all of it, and I didn’t want to smear that on Will or our family.
With Gabi I couldn’t talk much, this was too sensitive. But she did say Will must need “treatment,” and she urged me to act on what we’d heard from Miles. I responded that Will might be getting therapy in prison. “Oh, for sure,” she cracked. “Sedatives from the doctors and heroin from the inmates.” She has a dour view of the American justice system.
I called my mother, but I was careful, discreet. I said we’d met a friend of Will’s who suggested that Will felt responsible for some people who got hurt on the job. “Got hurt how?” she asked, and I ducked the question.
“Gabi thinks the bar fight was a type of acting out, that he might need treatment of some sort.”
“You think I don’t know that?” Mom retorted. “I could tell something was wrong. I told him to see somebody, he wouldn’t hear of it. You know that pride and stubbornness he got from his father.”
“Yeah. But after this, this—”
“Jail term,” I conceded, “he might realize he needs help to sort things out.”
“Maybe,” she said, but I could tell she didn’t believe me. She didn’t trust my judgment, not like she’d always trusted Will’s.
* * *
More weeks passed. Every other weekend, Mom drove to the Maryland prison to see Will. Nathalie sent him letters from her nursing school in North Carolina. I neither wrote nor visited, though I always intended to. There was a feeling of shame about what my brother might’ve done, and also a perverse sense that our super-dependable Will had been due for a fall. Perhaps I exulted—a tiny bit—in his failure.
By the time he was out of prison, back in a DC-area apartment with the state monitoring his whereabouts, Mom was even more upset. “I asked when he’s coming home, and he gave some fake excuse about his probation. They’ll let him visit us, I’m sure of it. Kyle, you said something’s troubling him, and I know that’s right. With me he pretends nothing’s wrong—when I saw him in prison, he said, ‘I’m fine, Mom, don’t worry, they treat us well here’—so I need you to go see him, you two were always close, you can find out what’s what. Nathalie agrees with me. We’re counting on you, Kyle.”
Saying we were “close” was an exaggeration: Will had taken care of me, teased me, but never confided in me. Three years younger, I wasn’t on his level. But the fraternal mantle had now been laid upon me, and I saw it as reciprocation for his attending my orchestra concerts—a not-so-pleasant obligation that you ought to fulfill for your family. The charge was doubled when Gabi said that “a brother who cared would do something.” She gave me a significant look like it was some kind of test.
Naturally I meant to do something, I wanted to do something, but I didn’t like being pressured and it took a while to get myself psyched. Finally I asked Will by email if I could drop in some weekend. Though his reply sounded surprised, almost curt, he didn’t try to stop me, and one Saturday I steered my aged VW onto I-95 south. My hidden resentment at being assigned this task had swelled to the point of souring my mood even on a bright March day with darting clouds overhead and sparks of greenish-yellow in the woods along the highway. Yet I was also proud of myself for helping the family and for assuming the role, temporarily, of big brother.
Will’s address turned out to be a brick apartment building in a suburb of malls, gas stations, office complexes and SUV traffic. Though I’d viewed it online, I was surprised at the building’s dull facade, soulless lobby, dim halls. He buzzed me in from downstairs, met me at the apartment door. “Hey, Lil’ Bro!” he exclaimed with a brief, hard hug. He was wearing a T-shirt and sweatpants, clean but less suave than his usual.
In addition to making a good personal appearance, Will had always been the neatest in our family—not compulsive, but inclined to hang up his chinos rather than toss them over the dresser. So I was startled to find a small living room reminiscent of a college dorm, strewn with clothes, pizza boxes, junk mail, plastic bags, magazines, credit card receipts, an empty shampoo bottle. Will threw himself down on a green armchair and pointed me to an old sofa covered with a faded red madras spread. “Excuse the furnishings,” he said. “Came with the sublet. Gotta get myself organized to find a better place.”
“It’s … comfortable,” I said. “That’s the main thing.”
We chatted about this and that: Mom, Nathalie, the Phillies’ prospects, the quality of pizza in the Maryland suburbs. Despite pouches under the eyes, he remained strikingly handsome. His semi-shaggy, swept-back hair had a natural grace, and the traces of stubble on his cheeks looked like they’d been applied by a makeup artist.
It was mid-afternoon by then, and we discussed grabbing some dinner before I headed home. I worked around to mentioning that I’d seen Miles. “He was sorry to miss you. I did tell him where you were, and why. He was flabbergasted.”
“He’s a good guy. I got a note from him.”
“Right. Yeah, I forgot, I gave him the prison address.”
A moment of silence, an acknowledgment perhaps that I myself had never managed to write.
He chuckled, shifting in his slouch to scratch his knee. “His note said, ‘Hang in there, buddy,’ which was funny. Like you have any choice when you’re in state custody. Unless you’re gonna hang yourself, which is difficult.”
“Uh, yeah, I hope they make it difficult. But Miles was, I think, concerned about you. Not because of the beer bottle thing, but the—he said there was some incident in Pakistan.”
“He did? … Oh Christ. Whatever. That’s long past. Water over the bridge. Or under the bridge. Over the dam. Like they had any water in that godforsaken desert.” He raked the itchy knee with four fingernails.
“I thought you loved the place and the work you were doing. ‘Power to the People’ and so forth.”
“Hah, yeah. The lovely citizens. Some of ’em thought we were CIA.… But I don’t mean to be cynical. It’s a good project, it’ll help them.”
I don’t know why I was afraid to say outright what I knew. Protecting Miles from an accusation that he’d told us too much? Protecting myself?
“Mom’s worried too,” I went on, “ever since you came back. You know, if there’s anything you’d like to talk about, I’ve got these two brotherly ears, fine-tuned by listening to the moans of undergraduates in the philosophy sections I teach.”
It was embarrassing to make this offer to the brother who’d always been my elder in more than years. My mission was a terrible idea, I decided. I was scared of what I might hear, and relieved when he laughed.
“No problem,” he said. “I’m fine.” He draped one leg over the armrest, making a point of appearing relaxed.
“I guess you’ve been looking for a job?”
“You know the drill. Put your name out there, answer ads. Kinda got this millstone around my neck, being a criminal and all. Not sure where to list that on the resume.”
“C’mon,” I said, “a fight in a bar doesn’t make you a criminal.”
I waited to see if he’d say anything about the bar incident. Then I excused myself to use the bathroom. The sink bore accumulated beard scrapings and toothpaste, and the medicine cabinet included three bottles of prescription antidepressant and antianxiety pills; apparently he had a doctor who took a brain-chemistry approach. A pair of nylon pantyhose dangled in the shower. I also peeked in the single bedroom, which offered a faint smell of unwashed laundry.
“So, Big Bro, are you seeing someone?” I asked on my return.
“You’ve taken to wearing women’s stockings then?” I motioned toward the bathroom. “They don’t look long enough for you.”
“Oh … her. Not seeing seeing. Not ready for that,” he grimaced.
“Don’t worry, I won’t tell Mom. The first time I mentioned Gabi, she had a thousand questions.”
Will snickered. “She can ask if she wants, there’s no answers. But tell me, how’s Gabi doing?”
“You’re living together?”
“Yeah, the last eight months. Both of us working on degrees, it didn’t make sense to pay two rents.”
“Uh-huh. And how’s my book coming along? Will’s Power. You figured out how free will works?”
“The point is, it’s a misnomer.” Once started, I tend to carry on awhile. “Our will is contingent on so many things, we confuse the question by calling it ‘free’ or ‘not free,’ as if those are absolutes. Intentionality is important, sure, but the attempts to deal with it over the past century—like Sartre’s ideas about authenticity or Bergson’s linking of will and duration, or Brann’s notion of a de-volitioned life—just muddle the issue. Especially when we’re talking about the capacity for decision making, and beyond that the moral questions of guilt and innocence, we need clearer, more specific language, it seems to me.”
Will’s eyes had glazed over. “Whatever that means,” he breathed, “I’m sure it’s really smart. Lil’ Bro, I admire you, I think you’ve got things … ‘sorted.’ … Heh, that’s what this Brit on our team always said: we’ll get it ‘sorted.’”
“Yeah?” A buzzer went off in my head: hadn’t Miles said that Dan Stevens, the guy who got killed, was English?
“Funny expression,” Will continued. “Or even our version of it, ‘sorted out.’ Like, if you just untangle things and put them in their right places, the right categories, your problems are solved.”
“That’s the basis of all philosophy. Don’t make fun of my livelihood.”
“I wouldn’t call it a livelihood ’til they start paying you more than graduate-assistant wages.”
“Touché. … But seriously, Will, if like Miles said, something … happened over there, I don’t want to pester you about this, but it might help to, you know …”
“Fuck Miles! He’s not my daddy!”
“All right, uh …”
“I said I’m fine! Look, some things you can’t change by talking, however the paternalistic types try to warp it.” He ran his fingers through his hair in exasperation. “This Brit said if you have a big loss in your life, like your mother or father or wife or somebody, it all depends on the story you tell yourself about it, how you talk to yourself. What shit! Stories don’t change what happened except in politics. You can’t control it by telling a tale. As if Mom could talk herself out of feeling abandoned when Dad died. Dead is dead.”
“Want a beer? Got some Belgian dubbel in the fridge.”
“No thanks, too early for me.” I recalled that Miles was really into the Belgians, but I refrained from mentioning his name again.
Will disappeared into the little kitchen. When he came back, swigging from an amber bottle, he muttered, “I remember Dad saying once, ‘Son, the facts are facts whether you like them or not.’ It was about a school project where he wouldn’t let me get away with being sloppy. He was a big-time scientist, you know. A great one.”
“I never understood his research.”
“I used to think he’d win the Nobel Prize. Coulda, if he’d survived. One time in his lab this grad student, she was really hot, she was explaining to me what they were up to, I was goggling over everything, and she said their work could save more than 10,000 lives a year in the U.S. alone. I could tell she worshiped him.”
“You got to see the lab? All I ever saw was the outside of the building.”
“That was his real home, his temple too, I mean where he was God. When they brought him coffee they measured the cream with a pipette to make it exactly how he liked. The women baked fresh cookies for him, sprinkled with sugar so they glistened.”
I laughed. “Were you jealous?”
Will laughed too. He had slouched on the armchair again, leg over the side, the bottle on his knee so he could admire its contents. “I wanted to be like that! Have hot grad students waiting on me! Yummy cookies! Where did I go wrong?”
As a seeming afterthought, he said, “Could be it’s an advantage, checking out before you have a chance to win the Nobel, just in case you woulda botched it, y’know. People can’t blame you.” He sucked at his beer.
I was musing on different lines. “The downside, being a great man … he wasn’t home much, was he? When he died I felt we were mourning a stranger. Bigger than life but not really in our lives.”
“That’s one way to put it. You know, the couple times he let me visit the lab, once we were inside it was like he couldn’t see me, he was too busy with his super-important work. Which was okay, though, because of those female grad students.”
I was still following my own track: “And when you stepped in to take care of us—I don’t know if we ever said, but Nathalie and I’ve always been grateful—more than that. You were our rock.”
“Sure, I had to be. The reliable one, look after you kids, live up to the great man’s image, which was fucking impossible. He left me the job without any training how to do it. I was like, where’s the instruction manual?” He snorted into the bottle.
“Will, you were reliable, you did the job, and you’ve accomplished stuff that has nothing to do with anybody’s image. I mean, two RBIs in the championship game!”
“Water over the bridge. Under. … Anyhoo, I got out of it awhile. In the desert they don’t give a flying fuck who your daddy is.”
That stopped me a second. Did Will really have some kind of daddy complex, more than Nathalie and me? We missed having a father, sure, but we didn’t feel his reputation put a weight on us.
Then I ventured, “Speaking of the desert, Miles told a story”—and I paused, expecting an eruption because I’d mentioned Miles again—“about a guy getting kidnapped out there … killed.”
Will took a long slurp, and I thought he wasn’t going to answer. At last he said, “He kinda asked for it. The guy that bought it. Breaking protocol—out on a road by himself—and he was our boss, supposed to set an example. I don’t know what Miles told you, but see, the desert’s unforgiving. You can’t slip up. Act superior and something’s gonna cut you down to size.”
“He was arrogant?”
“Stevens? Big bluff guy, hail-fellow-well-met kinda bullshit. In his fifties, treated us like we were his protégés. Always giving advice, paternalistic. Wanted to hear your story, then pretended he had all this wisdom of the world he could pass on to you. But it was just a sham.”
Will clicked his lips irritably but went on. “One instance: This kid on the construction crew—twenty-one, too young to be out there in the first place—riled the locals by staring at some women in a market town we went to. You can’t look at their women—there’s nothing to look at anyway, they’re all covered up—but the horny kid made a dumb mistake. Those of us that saw it pulled him out of town and apologized to the elders, but then Stevens cozied up to him, wormed out the whole story and reported it to the head of construction. He got the kid fired for one mistake, that’s the kind of douchebag he was, it disgusted me. Sometimes you wanted to kick him in the ass.”
I remembered wanting to apply the same tactic to Miles. “So he deserved what he got?”
“No! No way. It was … ghastly. Throat—” He made a graphic gesture. “We wanted to go out and investigate, knock some heads, bring in the CIA for real, but the bosses calculated the politics involved, who’s pissed at who and all that, and they let it drop. Too much money at stake. That’s the dirty part, y’know.”
“Capitalism at work,” I grumbled.
“Big contract, you can’t jeopardize it.… Actually, though, it’s not just the corporation. Individuals too—I mean, the desert, it brings out stuff that … You feel it’s outside civilization, like there’s nothing to stop people following their impulses. Which isn’t true, but it’s a constant test, and some people kind of … flunk out.”
I eyed him. He eyed the bottle, and it was perhaps the first time I’d ever thought Will looked ashamed. Did he believe he’d flunked out? Failed his colleagues or the people they were supposed to be helping?
I was hoping he’d break down now and confess, and I was ready to pounce—aha! gotcha! And then, of course, I’d tell him to forgive himself, because we all sometimes fail to live up to our better selves. I’d be the sage counselor, the guru, the savior, the genuine big brother. But he veered.
“Asshole in the bar said we should flood the whole region with guns, let ’em shoot each other—puhh! puhh! puhh!—till they’re sick of it or they’re all dead, whichever comes first.”
“That’s a stupid remark.”
“Not as stupid as my reaction.”
“You were provoked.”
“Like none of it matters, was his attitude. What we try to do over there. What we get right, what we get wrong. Who gets shafted, who comes home. Fuck it all.”
“A drunk in a bar, you can’t pay attention.”
“I was the drunk. But he may be right, y’know.”
“I don’t believe that.”
“I don’t believe that or anything else, except in some goddamn way we call the shots even when we’re doing what we don’t wanna do. If you say the wrong thing, don’t say the right thing, whatever you meant … Sheeee-it, that’s deep,” he chuckled. “You’re gonna explain it in your book.”
As he retreated into generalities, I wondered if he trusted me less than he trusted Miles. Or had he forgotten how much he’d told Miles when they both were trashed? Or did he feel the explicit truth was a burden he couldn’t place on a brother?
A sense of shame welled up in me—trying to wheedle the secret out of a proud, conscience-stricken man, it felt prurient, or to use his word, dirty.
“C’mon, Kylie”—he abruptly polished off the bottle—“it’s a beautiful day outside, isn’t it? I haven’t seen it yet. We should go somewhere, celebrate my freedom from the joint, the upcoming publication of Will’s Power, your engagement to Gabi—”
“Hey, I didn’t say we were engaged.”
He grinned. “I know this great place on the Potomac, fried oysters with jalapeño aioli, a deck where you can sit and look at sailboats on the water …”
I was glad to escape being an inquisitor. We went out and watched sailboats, had plenty to eat and drink, and by the time I headed home around 7:30, I thought Will seemed pretty much his old self. Though he never fully opened up to me, I felt the brotherly conversation had helped, and I commended myself for the effort.
Gabi, who hugged me on my return and took no notice of the beer on my breath, agreed that my visit must have done some good.
* * *
Two months later came the news of Will’s suicide. Neat and clean. Pistol shot to the heart, minimal splatter, staged so he’d be found by a probation officer rather than girlfriend or neighbor. No note.
It was just short of a year since he’d returned home. Maybe exactly a year since the incident in Pakistan.
* * *
I wonder if Will understood any more about his deepest motivations than the rest of us. Maybe he tried and tried to figure things out and foundered just the same.
However that may be, I blame myself for doing too little. Was I always jealous of him? I go over and over what we said in his apartment, trying to convince myself that, with a man so resistant, pestering him further might have hurt more than helped—in fact, my one attempt at reaching him may have backfired like a gunked-up jeep. But if it backfired, wasn’t that my fault?
Often I think I should have brought Miles’s version of events out in the open. Then I could’ve reinforced what Miles himself had told Will: Look, if this tale is true, if for whatever complicated reasons you didn’t warn Stevens, it’s a classic sin of omission—but a momentary one, not one you plotted for a long time. In most cases nothing would have come of it. The jeep would have gone five miles out, five miles back, without breaking down. Or Stevens would have seen something was wrong and turned back to base. Or he’d have been rescued long before bad guys arrived. It was just terrible luck that everything got so fucked up, and you can’t accuse yourself for actions you couldn’t predict or control.
But I let my own hang-ups get in the way, so I didn’t speak out, any more than Will did with Stevens. Classic sin of omission. He was my brother, and I failed him.
During the funeral Mom held up well until, at the reception, a friend of Nathalie’s remarked that he’d heard Will’d had some bad experience overseas. It was too casual, though I’m sure he didn’t intend it that way. Mom stared at him like she might slap him. After several seconds she murmured, “He lost his will to go on. We’ll never know why.”
She looked suddenly very small, wilting, and the skin beneath her eyes had a ghoulish cast. I put an arm around her shoulders, but with centuries of metaphysics at my disposal I had no better words of comfort for this second big loss than I’d had for the first. Inwardly I raged at Nathalie for gossiping, though she probably hadn’t meant to. Later I yelled at her in person. She yelled back that she’d been crying her heart out over Will.
Gabi says it’s nobody’s fault and we should try to control our survivor guilt. Though I suspect her of borrowing phrases from psychology textbooks, I appreciate the attempts to comfort me. She’s been good with my mother, too.
For myself, since I can take refuge in philosophical analysis, I’m in no danger of resorting to either whiskey shots or pistol shot. Make it academic and the hurt fades.
So, for instance, I can pose this question: In what sense, to what degree, with what duration did Will mean to harm Stevens, and how does that relate to our concepts of volition and personal responsibility?
More than ever, I believe my profession has muddled the issue. But the muddle, I see now, has to be front and center in our model: how at every moment we wish and don’t wish, intend and don’t intend, act and reject our actions, till we don’t know if we’re running away or toward.
One thing’s for certain: the dissertation, whenever I manage to finish, is dedicated to Will.
Sam Gridley is the author of the novels The Shame of What We Are and The Big Happiness. His fiction and satire have appeared in more than sixty magazines and anthologies. He has received two fellowships from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts and a Wallace Stegner Fellowship from Stanford University. He lives in Philadelphia with his wife and neurotic dog and hangs out at the website Gridleyville.blog.