The Brothers Kaplan

by J.A. Bernstein

 Public domain photo by Benjamin Nelan via  Pixabay .

Public domain photo by Benjamin Nelan via Pixabay.

A selection by guest editor Jamie O'Connell To receive a PDF version of this story to read offline or export to Kindle, please email longstoryshortjournal(AT)gmail(DOT)com

    

1

 

To the casual observer, the interior of the Pittsfield Building, in the Jewelers Row District of downtown Chicago, resembles the setting for some seedy film noir. The Gothic-style, marble-faced atrium, replete with burnished brass mail chutes and antiquated shops – mostly other obsolete jewelers – struck Sid Kaplan as a cell, one in which he had been confined for the last thirty-six years of his life, ever since he agreed, however hastily, to continue the family trade.

          He had studied psychology at Vanderbilt, back when the quotas were just removed and the school was looking to augment its name. He'd even won a scholarship to Germany, from which his parents had escaped thirty years previous and to which they would never go back. While he had intended to study psychoses, he felt compelled – it was mainly the voice of his mother on the phone, who riddled him with guilt, as only she could – to make the switch to jewelry design. Seven months later, he returned to Nashville with a penchant for platinum and silver. He lacked his father's gift, he knew, one that was honed at the Zeichenakademie, where they still used hammers and lathes, but Sid appreciated the tradition, and the craft that was involved, and the opportunity to work with his hands. Besides, his older brother Walt had eloped with some shiksa and saddled up for the West Coast. He hadn't been in touch with the family for years and was probably disinherited, though his mother never spoke of the will, much as she never discussed the fate of her folks in Berlin. When her husband died and bequeathed the shop to Sid, Sid felt as though a burden had been lifted; his brother flew back for the funeral, and the only words they exchanged were soft-spoken reminders of when and where they should be.

          No one in the family was warm; that much would be apparent to any casual viewer of the shop, which sat along the seventeenth floor behind two oblong oak windows and a foamy, white, glass-paneled door, the façade of which was stenciled in peeling gold paint, Alfred F. Kaplan and Son, Fine Jewelry, Est. 1944.

          Sid could count on one hand the number of patrons they'd had the past week—not even buyers, but viewers. Tonight, as he stood polishing the display case and waiting patiently for DeShaundra to return from the safe, where she was ostensibly stowing the pieces but more likely pocketing something, he heard his desk telephone ring. It was probably his mother complaining again about her Filipino caregiver, who, on Sid's orders, refused to let her gamble online. Sid let it ring a little bit, feeling especially devious. Then he shuffled back to the rear office, where DeShaundra glanced up with alarm.

          “I already put Mrs. Mendelson's brooch in,” she said. “We s'pposed to FedEx it tonight.”

          The hag can wait, Sid thought. “I'll mail it myself. You can get going.” Then he answered the pestering ring.

          “Sid, it's me.”

          For a moment, he didn't recognize the voice. Then a strange silence ensued—the weight of over eight years. In that duration, their mother had grown worse, and two wars had been waged overseas. “Hi, Walt.”

          “I'm coming to Chicago next week.”

          Again, that malevolent pause. Sid briefly panicked, wondering whether he was supposed to put the man up—or, even worse, the hooker he'd married, the trolls they'd raised, the elvish white things they called dogs.

          “I'm coming alone. I wanted to say goodbye.”

          DeShaundra bolted the safe and departed, clutching her shawl, casting a menacing smirk. She was apprised of his mother’s illness and probably knew what to expect. Sid even began to suspect she harbored oracular powers.

          “I'll see you Monday,” Sid whispered.

          “Uh-huh.” She detested him, not as a white, nor as a boss, but as someone she intimately knew. Holing up for twelve hours at a time in a thirty-foot enclosure will do such things to two people, even those of equable temperament.

          Sid continued: “Walt, what can I—”

          “I'm staying at the Drake. It's fine. I just wanted to make my peace. And I thought maybe we could get together Wednesday, grab a bite at Coq D'Or.”

          “Does Mom know about this?”

          “Not yet.”

          “What makes you think she'll be receptive?”

          “I didn't know she was talking that much.”

          “Enough to complain about Rosita,” Sid said.

          “Rosita? Never mind. Listen, do me a favor and don't mention a thing to her yet.”

          “Yeah, that's just what an eighty-eight year old woman in the final throes of bone cancer wants. An unexpected visit.”

          “You don't think she'd want to see me?”

          “I don't know.” Their mother was a remarkably frigid person – enough that it had taken her husband over seven months to propose – an eternity in Weimar Berlin.

          “Well, I'm coming there, regardless. And if she shuts the door in my face—”

          “Walt, it could happen.”

          “I'll barge my way through.”

          “She'd probably call the cops. And good luck with Rosita. She's also a force of her own.”

 

          That evening at the Standard Club, an ossified gentleman's club along Plymouth Court, adjacent to the Chicago Board of Trade, Sid performed his toilet with typical aplomb. He parted his hair, or what was left of it, anyways, with two careful swipes to the left, threw on a dash of L'Homme, and admired his peachy complexion. He hadn't seen sunlight in years, yet his face took on a particular rosiness here. Perhaps it was the brushed nickel sinks, or the granite block countertops, all polished jade and sanded finer than his father's best work. Sid would be sad to depart this, but his membership was lapsing next month, and he assumed his mother wouldn't pass away in time. Grinning, he smeared a dab of alum on his chin.

          Downstairs, and outside the main dining room, where Sid could not afford to eat, he complimented Al Kauffman, who was outgoing club president and dining with his wife, on his splendid new cufflinks, which Sid had personally engraved. (In truth, he had them mail-ordered, since he couldn't do the work himself, but added a few finishing touches and marked them up forty percent; this was standard practice, post-Weimar). Then he greeted the bartender, Russ, a longstanding acquaintance, despite the fact that Sid, who was functionally dependent on Zoloft, didn't drink. He ordered his usual ice tea, double-lime, and perused the latest Gentleman's Quarterly, a rag he detested but found himself compelled now to read, if only because fashions were evolving. Then he unclasped his gold pocket watch, a vintage A1 Lange & Söhne, which his father had reluctantly bequeathed, and realized that he was seven minutes late for his bus.

          One can meet a lot of strange characters on the 146 after dark—the bulk of them transients, and quite a few insane. Where they all lived, he didn't know. Nearly every civilized person opted for the El, but Sid was afraid of heights. In fifty-nine years, he had not admitted this to a soul, opting instead for some solemn explanation of how he preferred the lakefront view from the bus. And that matched his apartment, which, despite not having been remodeled in thirty-some years, did overlook Belmont Harbor. Again, most discerning visitors, including the two or three dates he had had, found the place antiquated, dusty. One woman called it “quaint,” a term he despised but had come to expect from those who bought jewelry online.

          The light fixtures were chrome and arrayed in atom-like balls, obviously a product of the Seventies, even though he'd bought the place in '86. The white carpets smelled damp, despite his best efforts; the suede furniture rotted. He cared.

          He fixed his usual salad of cold lima beans, tuna, and canned corn, wolfed down two slices of white bread, along with a tall cup of milk, and settled in for Jeopardy, when, once again, his phone rang—his landline that is; he refused to own, or even consider, a cellphone. It was Mom, checking in.

          He listened casually to her host of complaints, most of which, surprisingly enough, revolved around her neighbors, not the “Oriental” she'd hired. They were stealing her mail, she supposed, and someone had made off with her mat—Sid didn't mention that he'd had it sterilized and was planning to return it next week. Then she ended by saying that her brother-in-law had called and wanted to meet up with Walt when he came to town but thought he should get her permission. Sid didn't know what to say.

          It was unusual enough of his mother to call. Generally, she made him walk the twelve blocks to her place, which, in spite of her penchant for online canasta, was in a similarly antiquated highrise overlooking Sheridan Road. Yet she obviously did not want him to see her in this state, what with her thin, bluish head. A stickler for beauty, she would rather go to her grave all alone. Being married to a jeweler will do that to a person. Or maybe it was the ghost of the camps.

          “Is he coming to see me?”

          “I don't know,” Sid said.

          “Did he call you?”

          “I guess.”

          “What the fuck?” She didn't say what the fuck. That was Sid's imagining. In actuality, she mumbled oy vey, another expression that she barely used—since Yiddish, she thought, was low-class.

          “You know, Mom, I think maybe it would be a good idea for you two to reconnect—”

          She hung up. When he called her back, Rosita answered and explained that they were raising her bed. Sid didn't believe it, and at this point, he didn't much care. He scraped his dishes, stowed his watch in the safe, changed into blue jeans, and left.

          Wearing blue jeans was something of a big deal for Sid Kaplan. This transition came about in the early part of the new millennium and at roughly the same time that he purchased a personal computer, a device he had found, ever since, to be a curse. He had surfed the chatrooms of Prodigy, America Online, even E-Bay, where he occasionally tracked bids. Again, this was mainly a matter of keeping up with times, rather than filling any personal needs. He'd met a few women, gone out on dates. None of them appealed to him much. His father's brother's family sometimes tried to set him up, mostly with divorcees, all Jews. He had to admit he found some entertaining but never really felt any urge. Then in July of 2004, seven weeks after his father had died, Sid endured what many might describe as a groundbreaking sexual experience. It only lasted twenty minutes. He didn't get the name. It was in an alley near Belmont and Clark.

          Since then, he had become what men in his circles call whores, though Sid never warmed to this term. His taste wasn't cheap. He didn't do whites. And he always came home before twelve. Always. Even if his younger suitor paid.

          Tonight, he stopped outside the Manhole, an overpriced leather joint that passed itself off as a dive. The dark interior was clammy and smelled of body oils—coconut, jojoba, pine. He shook hands with Desmond, the bouncer, and two other men whom he knew, one of whom was married, the other Puerto Rican and built. Sid slept with them occasionally, but never more than once in a week, and never at the same time. Even he had his limits. Plus, he was remarkably discrete.

          Upon entering the Manhole, he took off his hat, a Grosgrain-striped Panama that effectively covered his face—he could take few chances in Lakeview, what, with his mother on the prowl, though he doubted she could get very far. Over Michelobs, which Sid didn't touch, he confessed his woes to a burly black patron named Reginald, who was visiting this month from Detroit. He said he had family in Fuller Park, though Sid wasn't sure where that was. Reginald also recommended that Sid tell his mother to try and reconnect with her sons—both of them. Life, he explained, was too short.

          Afterwards, with his chin pressed against the tank lid of a rusting beige toilet and two meaty hands clenching his thighs, Sid suspected the young man was right. Sid also wished that he had been so wise at the tender age of twenty-six. Had he been, he suspected his life wouldn't suck. Hell, he'd probably have a real job, instead of this dying trade, maybe even a man he'd commit to. Or someone to reflect with, and dine.

          They bade adieu at the sinks, and Sid thought about sipping his beer. Then he actually did it. It left a fresh taste on his tongue.

 

2

 

Three weeks after his wife left him, Walter F. Kaplan flew to Las Vegas for the American Society of Actuary Professionals’ 47th Annual Meeting, which was held at the MGM Grand. He had avoided the conference for years, though his colleague, Nick Epson, had encouraged him and said he'd come along. Presently, Nick was out on the Strip, having rallied a group at Workshop Seven: Takeover Issues, Standards of Practice for a late-night jaunt to Crazyhorse III. Since none of them gambled – the conference consisted of 1,300 specialists in risk – a strip-club was about the best he could offer, and Walt had fitfully declined.

          Leaning back on a faux-leather chair in his suite, Walt surveyed his pay-per-view options, which were simply too much for him to grasp. He hadn't seen a movie since Kay left, and he dimly recalled the last one they’d watched: Antonioni's Eclipse, which, like most Italian movies, featured beautiful women in dresses looking bored. Walt had fallen asleep in the middle, though Kay, of course, had been enthralled.

          He checked his voicemail. His eldest son had called twice, and his wife's lawyer had left a message requesting his presence at an upcoming deposition, which Walt would undoubtedly skip. Plus, his younger brother Sid had called to report that their mother wasn’t doing so well. Walt hadn’t spoken to the woman in years and wasn’t about to tonight.

          He sipped his gin-and-tonic, which he'd snagged from a waitress downstairs, having forced himself to throw coins at a slot for ten minutes. He'd actually won twenty dollars, which he figured he'd spend on brunch. Then his cellphone chirped.

          “Where in the world’s Walter?” Nick. “You haven't cut your wrists yet, I hope.”

          “I was waiting to take out a policy.”

          “Get the hell down here. It's sick.”

          That was one of those new words he'd picked up: sick. Nick was thirty years younger, a transfer from Towers Watson, and only twelve months out of Wharton. Walt liked the guy. “I'm afraid I'll have to pass.”

          “I'm sending a little gift to your room. Do me a favor and clean yourself up.”

          Forty minutes later, Walt heard a faint knock. Stumbling through the suite in his bathrobe, he opened the massive oak door and let the girl in. She wore a navy twill pantsuit and introduced herself as Precious.

          “Pleased to meet you, Precious.” He noticed that her right eye hung a little lower than her left, and her dental work was complex. Yet her figure was perfect, and her eyes shone convincingly blue.

          As they sat on the bed, a couple inches apart still, she dug through her purse and produced a coin envelope. “Your friend said you might want these.”

          “Excuse me?”

          She slid out two tiny, pink, heart-stamped pills. “Guess you never done Ecstasy.” She laughed, somewhat contortedly.

          The only drug he’d ever done before was pot, which Kay had made him try once or twice. “Why not?” He hesitantly took one, offered her the other, and even more hesitantly offered her a swig from his glass.

          As she excused herself for the restroom, he waited for the effects to set in. He also began to worry that his wallet wasn’t stowed in the safe.

          Returning, this time in maroon-colored, silk lingerie, she asked about his wife, noting that he was wearing his band.

          “Yeah, well, what happens in Vegas—”

          “You got any kids?”

          “Just a few.”

          As she leaned over to kiss him, Walt leaned away. His head was spinning. “You are a beautiful girl.” He didn't bother to cloak his erection. “But I'm not ready for this yet.”

          “You wanna take it slow, that's fine with me. How would you like a massage?”

          He wiped his face. “A massage would be nice.”

          He studied the stucco ceiling as she rubbed his fleshy white chest. A few hairy warts sprang from it. She smelled of jasmine and bleach, and she unhitched the strap on her negligee—a frilly purple lace. “How long you in town?”

          “Couple nights.”

          When she was done, Walt tipped her generously, though he retained his prized twenty-dollar bill, figuring he'd tape it up at work. He also couldn't bring himself to do anything sexual with her, so he invited her to brunch the next morning, which she graciously declined.

          Stopping at the door, she studied him obliquely. “Why is it you white folks are always so depressed?”

          “No idea,” Walter said.

          “Y’all better take care.” The door slapped behind her as she left.

          Slouched along his bed, Walt flipped through the channels and settled on professional wrestling—the event was being held downstairs. Then he studied the remaining coin envelope. He thought he should mail it to Kay.

 

          The next morning, at Workshop Nine: Maximum Deductions, Nick emerged in last night's suit and plastic pink shutter shades, which he slowly took off. Shaking Walt's hand, he cast a warm, stubbly grin. “How the hell are you, my friend?”

          They sat in the back of Conference Room J, sipping black coffee and passing scrawled notes like two giddy schoolgirls while Thomas M. Flanagan, MSPA, CPC, QPA, FCA, MAA, Flanagan Associates, Richmond, VA, held forth from the lectern on the onus of PBGC coverage.

          was she good? Nick wrote.

          better than your mom

          During the beverage break, Nick slipped out to take a nap, and Walt was left to mingle. Bill Carbon, MSPA, CPC, QPA, SBIZ Benefits & Insurance Services, Inc., Mesa, AZ, asked about his wife – they had met at a wedding in Tucson – and Walt said she was fine, omitting any news of his divorce, which, in any case, had yet to be finalized. And by the time the courts got around to it, he figured he would be dead. Then Walt stepped outside for a cigarette.

          He hadn't smoked in thirty years, and even back then, he had been aware of the statistics. Yet he felt an insatiable urge. Outside the sportsbook, he flagged down a server, who steered him towards a kiosk hawking Tylenol and gum. What would Frank Sinatra have thought? Even worse, after lighting up beneath an awning outside, Walt was accosted by a pimply valet, who redirected him to a glass-enclosed smoking area, where throngs of depressed-looking people cowered beneath the shimmering lamps. Walt realized that he was at least partially to blame for this sorry state of affairs, though his area had always been annuities, not human health. He flicked his Bic and breathed out.

          “What's FSPA?” said a plump, gray-haired woman standing next to him, noticing his badge.

          “Fellow, Society of Pension Actuaries,” Walt said.

          “Oh, I thought you were one of the floormen.” She was wearing a Dallas Mavericks sweatshirt and smoking as if each cigarette were her last.

          “Not quite.”

          “You spend a lot of time in the prisons?”

          “Pensions.” He smiled.

          The old woman slowly exhaled.

 

          Walt still had thirty-six hours to kill in this hellhole. After excusing himself from an afternoon networking session, he decided to go for a walk. He felt another craving, though for what he couldn't say. Definitely not sex—Kay, with all of her lingering associations, had killed any prospect of that. Nor Ecstasy, the effects of which were still thrumming in his head. Nor even human connection—his two sons had talked his head off the past week; they had been trying to console him, and little did they know, a man whose wife has left him after thirty-four years of more or less untroubled marriage does not generally care to reflect. No, what Walt thought he wanted was food. And since he couldn't countenance paying $39.99 for an all-you-can-eat lobster buffet at what was basically a dank cafeteria, he headed out to find the nearest greasy spoon.

          He walked for over an hour, passing a tic-tac-toe-playing chicken, throngs of Japanese, and empty casinos pumping air conditioning onto South Las Vegas Boulevard. The late May sun lit his face. Finally, he came to an old-fashioned joint beside a liquor store. The sign said Tiffany's, though he had a hard time picturing Audrey Hepburn sitting on the torn vinyl stools at the counter, where a Hawaiian-shirted man with a goatee and mullet was buttering a week's worth of toast. A few plaid-shirted truckers loitered near the back, and the only other man in the diner was sporting a hooded sweatshirt and shades. Walt joined him at the counter, sitting a couple stools down, and ordered eggs and jalapenos.

          “Nice day, ain't it?” Walt said, trying to make conversation.

          The hooded man didn't seem to have heard him.

          Walt perused the coffee mug advertisements: penile enlargers, housekeeping services.

          Then the hooded man turned. “First time here?” He was wearing black aviators and resembled the Unabomber, except his face was dark and clean-shaven.

          “Not really. Came out once for my son-in-law’s graduation. He studied hotels at UNLV. For all I know, he's probably an overpriced pimp, but he's taking care of my daughter. They live in Chelsea. Another time—”

          “Excuse me.” The hooded man rose, leaving his fork on his plate.

          Mildly offended, Walt returned to his poppers and eggs, which had since been brought out. He was squeezing out a dollop of ketchup when the hooded man returned.

          “Sorry,” he said. “Indigestion.” He pushed away his plate. Then he set a pack of Marlboro Reds on the counter.

          “I'm glad to see you smoke,” Walt said.

          “This is about the only damn place you still can.”

          Behind the counter, the Hawaiian-shirted mullet man smiled.

          “How 'bout you? What's your line of work?” Walt asked.

          The hooded man stared straight ahead. “Entertainment.”

          “Entertainment? What are you, like, a magician?”

          The hooded man grinned. Then he adjusted his shades and thumbed through his billfold. Walt noticed he was stunningly thin.

          “I got it,” Walt said, interrupting him and pulling out his twenty-dollar bill.

          “That's nice of you. But no.” The man set a fifty on the counter. Then he removed a couple white tickets and slid them down Walt's way. “If you got nothing better to do tonight, stop by my gig.” The tickets said David Copperfield, MGM Grand.

          The glass doors slapped behind him as he left.

          Walt finished his omelet. Then he called Nick.

          “You won't believe who I just ran into,” he said, walking back to the Strip.

          “Hey, Waldo, sorry to interrupt, man, but I gotta jet. Going skydiving tonight at the Canyon. Class is at four.”

          “Okay,” Walt told him. “Sounds sick.”

 

          Back at his hotel, Walt played craps. He lost forty dollars in under ten seconds. It was good for him, he thought. Then he downed a few tumblers of Jameson, doing everything he could to avoid the drifters from the conference upstairs. He secluded himself in the sportsbook, placed a twenty-dollar wager — his prized slot machine earnings — and figured, after handing off the bill, that forty-to-one odds on the Cubs to win the pennant, which they had yet to do in his lifetime, wasn't much of a return, but he felt good about doing it. He was turning over a new leaf. He thought he should reflect on Kay a bit, but for some reason, nothing entered his mind, apart from a sting in his gut and the sight of Jeff Samardzija's thick pitching arm. Must have been the jalapenos.

          Up in his suite, with his actuary tables spread along his desk, a Tom Clancy novel kicked to the floor, and an uncorked bottle of wine by his toes, Walt opened his laptop and began e-stalking his wife. Google turned up nothing, apart from his first son's wedding announcement and a couple pamphlets from her grade school, where his wife taught Special Ed. It couldn't have been a student, Walt figured, and all the neighbors were close to death (they lived in a gated community twenty clicks north of L.A.). Maybe it was her yoga instructor, though he was pretty sure Ernesto was gay. What other men did she know? She had said there was no one else; she just “needed to be alone” and wanted to make a “clean start.” What was she hiding? Had she ever done Ecstasy? Solicited an African-American prostitute? Had lunch with a B-list celebrity in Vegas? She barely even painted her nails.

          Still, Kay had been gorgeous in her youth, and he knew he had never deserved her. He had courted her early, when she was still a freshman at Madison. He had met her at a sorority formal, and he remembered the look of bemusement in her eyes the first time he had pinned the ZBT emblem on her blouse; it was a look of disdain, but one he could easily brook. And she could as well. Things had been like that in the Sixties. It was the Johnson Era. Women hadn't worked.

          She had earned enough of a pension to live on her own, though that wasn't what worried him now. Neither did the thought of his living out his remaining years alone. He had always thought he'd be comfortable in a place like Sun City. Hell, even here. No, what irked him was the knowledge that she had always preferred someone else: her high school boyfriend, Ron, or was it Tom, who had gone off and died in Vietnam. Now she was left with Walt, a certified pension actuary, or prison, as that hag pointed out. Kay had been entitled to go.

          Rising in his suite, he studied the silent windows, the spread of unpeopled hotels: Harrah's, Caesar’s Palace, the Wynn. An ashen-red sky. A dead Ferris Wheel scraping the north. He remembered the night of his wedding in Chicago: the way the curtains had flapped in their suite, as if bellying the rain that had sent dozens of relatives hurtling towards the shelter of the Belden’s east deck. It had been her idea to hold the reception outdoors – her idea, entirely – with no real backup in mind. What did she care if it rained? And even when it started, she had just smiled, and she had just said to relax. Relax. As if he were just a guest at some party she’d casually planned. He had been glad to be invited to it, anyways. Even if it were all charade.

          Downstairs at the magic show, Walt sipped his gin at a small sticky table in back while the entertainer hoisted a saw. David was tired of this, too, Walt knew; he didn't even glance at his raven-haired assistant. Walt downed the last of his drink and excused himself amid the spectrum of glittering lights, stepping over children and families who had undoubtedly imprisoned themselves in overheated GMC vans, trekking all the way from Sheboygan, Des Plaines, Cottage Grove, all trying to catch a glimpse of the Impossible Itself before their eighty-year spans fizzled out. He knew the average American lifespan was 77.97 years, one that had been steadily rising but still trailed far behind Japan's. Yet our suicide rate was about half of theirs. Which meant Americans were far more inclined to undergo suffering for incredible lengths of time. Walt blamed this on magicians and the entertainment industry generally. Or maybe they were just doing their jobs.

          Either way, he passed through the lobby, down the percolating slots, past the ominous eyes in the ceiling, and out into a stretch of Las Vegas Boulevard, where he threw himself in front of an oncoming bus.

          He heard the grille shrieking—a cacophony of horns. Abruptly, he threw himself back. The RTC coach grumbled by him, trailed by a sheet of exhaust. He caught the driver swearing, or someone inside it.

          Walt wiped his face and he sighed. He wasn’t suicidal. At least not yet. And he still hadn’t talked to his mom, much less his younger brother, that sorry queer. He thought he should phone them up.

 

3

 

The Drake Hotel, like most fading genteel establishments, featured single-ply toilet paper in the restrooms. This, in spite of its genuine marble-shaved counters and fixtures of oxidized brass. Sid stood polishing his spectacles – a crude LensCrafters pair (he had already damaged his rimless, German Cazals; some feckless thug along Lawrence) – with the single-ply sheets, which didn't work. He had fogged the lenses up with his crying. Why, he couldn't say, and he came in here to make amends. With himself. With the mirror. With his life.

          Outside, his mother and Walt were racing down Walton, she having refused to mention Walt's name, let alone dine with him. Walt had thought the surprise would be nice, and Sid had stupidly acceded. Sniffling, Sid wiped his glasses on his shirt, a cream Ralph Lauren Regent with hems and French cuffs, which he'd purchased off-price at Filene's (but would never reveal to his mother). He thought he should chase them. He thought he should go outside. But he preferred the cold comfort of the bathroom, with its dull, brassy glow. It reminded of the Pittsfield building downtown. He knew he would go into work tomorrow morning, and he would never leave his mother. Even in the afterlife, she would be there with a chain—and probably one he’d engraved.

          The door slammed, and his brother tromped in. He was sporting a white seersucker suit, which Kay must have bought – his wife had impeccable taste, even for a gentile – and his hair was awkwardly mussed. “That old lady can run,” Walt panted.

          “She does that sometimes.” Sid washed his face in the sink. The cold water fell from his hands, and he wiped his cheeks briskly.

          “She's a terror with that walker.”

          “I know.”

          “Jesus, what happened to you?” Walt asked, noticing that Sid had been crying.

          “Don't know.”

          “Are you upset about us?”

          “Something.”

          Walt gave his younger brother a hug—a timid one, frankly, one that was hardened by years. But he didn't pat his back or try to back away. He just held Sid's weight in his hands. “By the way,” Walt whispered. “I guess I should tell you. Kay left. I think it’s for good.”

          “I’m sorry.”

          “Don’t be,” said Walt. “I’m actually glad, in some way.”

          When Sid looked up again, he noticed the burnished sinks, their regal luster, and the beauty of this place, and this life. “Well, it was nice of you to come here. You've always been a reticent fuck.”

          “Just like our mother.”

          “Yeah, but she's got a helping hand.”

          Later, when their mother passed away, Sid would confess who he was; what he did for enjoyment; what he thought of the store; and his jealousy – and fierce hatred – of his brother, in spite of his divorce, for having had the gall to move. But right now they said nothing: just two brothers hugging, vaguely illumined by lamps. The lamps were antique Tiffany fixtures with dark, leaded glass. They must have cost a fortune, Sid thought.

 J. A. Bernstein's story collection, STICK-LIGHT, was a finalist for the Robert C. Jones Prize and the Beverly Prize and is forthcoming from Eyewear Editions. His novel, RACHEL'S TOMB, won the Hackney Award and Knut House Novel Prize. His work has appeared in Tampa Review, Kenyon Review Online, Boston Review, and other journals, and won the Gunyon Prize from Crab Orchard Review. He is an assistant professor of English at the University of Minnesota Duluth.