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Cross-Country
by Carl Boon

Mort and I lost touch right around the time his wife got diagnosed with breast cancer, but it’s not like we talked a helluva lot before that. I would call him on his birthday, which was also my birthday, and on Thanksgiving, but it was always the same—not much new here, not much new there. Maybe he’d leased an Olds, maybe I had some dental work done. How’s the kids? That kind of thing. He was already living out in Arizona by that time, and he and his wife Simone were operating one of those fake-authentic Indian gift shops that cater to tourists. She was into that stuff we call New Agey nowadays: candles and books on meditation, crystals and sleepy music, which fit right into the spirit of the place. She was also a poet, which I found weird because I thought poetry went out around the time long-distance telephone service came in. Mort said some of her poems were published in magazines, but I never came across any at the library or the Bridgewood Mall. By the time we lost touch, he was helping out with the shop while doing a little landscaping on the side, which in Mesa meant rearranging rocks for retirees. He was always complaining about the lack of water. I could sympathize.

 

Mort’s my twin. He’s three minutes and twenty seconds older than I am, and we grew up together here in New Rochelle. He and Simone moved out to Arizona two weeks after our folks died. It was January, the roads were icy, but they’d insisted on their usual Wednesday evening bowling and dinner with the Fergusons. My father was never much of a driver, and the wine he’d had with dinner didn’t help. He lost control of the Buick on 125 and couldn’t slow down sufficiently before a pine tree intervened between that moment and their future.

 

He died instantly. My mother died three days later. Their funerals were held together, the coffins side-by-side in Keller’s on Main Street. It was a frigid afternoon in 1980, and to me grief and cold weather will always be synonymous. When Mort and Simone left for Arizona, I made arrangements to sell our place on Holmes Avenue and move into my parents larger place downtown. I settled with Mort on $25,000, which was enough for them to stake a nice down-payment on the Indian shop. My wife Shirley was happy to see them go. She never liked Simone, who resembled the wife in that Jack Nicholson movie, The Shining, in an unpleasant kind of way. Then began the period of infrequent conversation—the phone calls, the birthday cards for the kids, the occasional disputes regarding the changes I was making to the old house. They were necessary changes changes—kitchen remodeling and the like—but Mort’s a nostalgic man who wanted to remember how things used to be.

 

It never surprised me that Mort had married Simone. To me and Shirley, they both seemed like relics of the past. Hell, they sold relics of the past, even though most of them were probably manufactured in Taiwan. Poets by nature are involved with the past, and Simone’s clothes, even when she and Mort lived in New Rochelle, reminded me of the past. Long skirts and strappy shoes, turquoise and silver. She cooked in clay pots. Even back then, they had Indian stuff all over the family room: masks and statues and little reminders that pointed to the everlasting connection between “man and the natural world.” Plus, she didn’t eat meat. I don’t know how a person can feel right without the occasional salami sandwich with mustard, but apparently she could. She didn’t even eat fish, not even the stripers I hauled from the ocean from time to time. “Carl,” she said, “that fish had a mother, too.” I guess plants don’t have mothers. I guess I was like Shirley: I was happy to see them go. We never planned to go out to Arizona and they never planned to come back to New Rochelle, and I suppose that unspoken-of arrangement was all right.

 

Then Simone got sick. Mort called to tell me the day Clinton was inaugurated. I guess that was 1992. The crux of the matter was she was gonna face a long period of chemo and likely lose one of her breasts. I offered my condolences, mine and Shirley’s, and then I didn’t hear from Mort again. When I called on his birthday, the machine picked up. Thanksgiving came and went without a call from him. Bad blood simmers, and I suppose it was Simone’s illness that made it boil over; I couldn’t think of any other explanation. Shirley said we might go out to spend a week or so at Christmas—or maybe in the spring—but I knew she didn’t want to see Mort and Simone. She wanted to rent a car and drive up to Los Angeles to see a taping of The Price Is Right in person. She even took a note of the ticket address that December. I told her I thought it would be rude to fly all the way out there, spend a day or two with them, then go to California, and she gave in. I tried calling on Christmas Eve, and then again on New Year’s Eve, but the operator said both times the line had been disconnected. Concerned, I placed a call to the Mesa Post Office to inquire about an address for Maurice and Simone Newlander, but the woman said their mail delivery had stopped in October without a forwarding address. I was flummoxed.

 

My kids were home for the holidays. Maureen was a sophomore at CCNY-Buffalo and Sean was a freshman at Syracuse. I was gonna ask them what I should do, but they were lost in worlds of their own—Sean was planning to go Greek (Sigma Chi was his choice) and Maureen had just started dating a boy from the City. That’s the case with kids: when you don’t need them, they’re right on top of your toes; when eventually you do, they’ve already left. A twenty-year-old can be sitting in the kitchen, but that doesn’t mean she’s actually there. You folks who are parents can understand. Shirley told me to leave Mort alone—“a man’s allowed to live the life he wishes”—but I wasn’t sure. Back then she was drinking more than a few gin-and-tonics a night and there was always a six-pack of beer close to me. We were decent parents, we paid the bills and tuition, but Mort remained on the edges of my mind. He was my brother; my blood was his, but he was gone.

 

The following Sunday the kids went back to school, and Shirley and I were alone again. It was a cold, cloudy day, and I suggested on a whim that we clean up the grill and do steaks. Steaks, baked potatoes, the good stuff. While I scrubbed the grill, Shirley drove out to the IGA for porterhouses (we meant to go big), potatoes, a bag of charcoal, and a peach pie. The grill had been my father’s, and it flamed up as well as the day it was bought. As the steaks cooked, we drank bourbon in the cold and told stories. She had never known her father. He’d died in the war along with a slightly older uncle. I told her that my father probably should’ve died, too—he fought at Guadalcanal—but she interrupted me. She was a little drunk. “A man is never should die. A man is or he isn’t. Should is a shroud of war, of families, too.” I was thinking about Mort. I was thinking about the bedroom we shared until he turned twelve. Then he moved to the attic and took all of our Mickey Mantle posters up there, the baseball cards we bought together, the pennant we got at Yankee Stadium in 1957. We’d been happy. Then he went to the attic and never came down. I couldn’t understand it, but I guess he had to live his own life, away from mine. Shirley smiled. The steaks were almost done. She kissed me on the cheek and said goodness was a thing to be gained. She said let’s be happy for a while, and for a while we were.

Carl Boon is the author of the full-length collection Places & Names: Poems (The Nasiona Press, 2019). His writing has appeared in many journals and magazines, including Prairie Schooner, Posit, and The Maine Review. He received his Ph.D. in Twentieth-Century American Literature from Ohio University in 2007 and currently lives in Izmir, Turkey, where he teaches courses in American literature at Dokuz Eylül University.

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