Three weeks passed aFter william had called Julia, and then four. It was the end of October. Was it possible that she wouldn’t
come? Julia was the most stubborn and willful person that William had ever known, and his ex-wife certainly wasn’t going to appear in Chicago simply because he’d asked her to. Still, William woke up each morning thinking, Today might be the day. He hadn’t told anyone—not even Kent—about the phone call he’d made. When Sylvie got home from the library each evening, William studied his wife’s face to see if something had occurred. Sylvie had made Cecelia and Emeline swear that they wouldn’t tell Julia or Rose about her illness, so as far as she was aware, all roads to her older sister were blocked. Each evening, Sylvie looked the same, though: a little tired, and happy to see him. Part of William was relieved, despite his belief that Sylvie needed Julia. The idea of his ex-wife, which could also mean his daughter, in his city and life was impossible for him to wrap his mind around. He didn’t try, but the possibility—which he had unleashed—remained in his peripheral vision, as if Julia and Alice stood at the far edge of the horizon.
He’d made it this far because he almost never thought of Alice. He’d successfully closed off that part of his history. He had not allowed himself a daughter, so in his mind, he didn’t have one. This conviction had not been effortless. There were paintings of Alice that he’d had to avoid in Cecelia’s house, and Izzy had gone through a
period when she was about ten where she tried to make him talk about his daughter. He’d always liked Izzy; she had no patience for small talk, and he was no good at it. But there had been a time in her childhood when she was painfully direct, and all the adults around her had been stung in one way or another. “You always eat more food than you need,” she’d said to Josie once, and the woman had flushed to her hairline, a forkful of chocolate mousse pie in her hand. “Why don’t you drive to New York to see Alice?” Izzy had said. “Aren’t you curious what she’s like? What if she’s not okay because
you’re not in her life?”
William had forced himself to stay still, to answer. If Izzy had been an adult, he would have left the room. He’d said, “You’re fine without your father.”
Izzy seemed to consider this. “Yes. But I have you and my whole family. Who does Alice have?”
“She has her mother.” This, for William, had always been the bottom line.
Everyone else—Kent, Sylvie, the twins—understood that if they had something to say about Julia or Alice, they said it out of his hearing. This new situation, waiting for a bomb William had lit to explode, or not, was exhausting. William showed up for his days— watched players play, ate lunch with Kent, ate dinner with Sylvie— and waited. He was no longer trying to be comfortable. He was engaged in the long-term project of eradicating the bullshit and secrets from his life and taking care of Sylvie in any way he could think of.
One morning after Sylvie had left for the library, William opened their bedroom closet and took down a medium-sized cardboard box with only one item inside. He pulled the framed photo of Caroline out of the box and looked at it for the first time since it had arrived in the mail after his parents’ deaths, two years earlier. The night Sylvie had told her sisters about her diagnosis, William’s sister arrived like a surprise guest in his mind. Life seemed littered with small surprises
since Sylvie had gotten sick. Emeline yelling about a character from a childhood novel. William calling his first wife. His sister occupying a new place in his heart. And once Caroline had appeared, she’d stayed. The small redheaded girl, from so far in his past, was accompanying him through his days. He’d wanted to see her face.
William’s mother had apparently died first, of liver disease. His father had a massive heart attack at his office desk a few months later. They’d left their assets to their Catholic parish. Their lawyer had called to tell William the news and to ask him to come back to Boston to pack up the house and decide what to do with personal items. “Like what?” William had asked, truly unable to imagine what they might be. “Photo albums,” the lawyer said. “China? Jewelry?” William had hired a service to pack up and sell or give away everything in the house, with the exception of the framed photograph of the redheaded little girl that had sat on the end table in his parents’ living room. This was shipped to him, and although Sylvie— who was as delighted to see the photo as she might have been to meet William’s sister—wanted to hang it on the wall, William had stored it in their bedroom closet.
He ran his thumb lightly across his sister’s face now. He remembered telling Sylvie about Caroline when he was in the hospital, but then he’d sealed her back up inside him. He’d always known that his parents would have preferred that he had died instead of his sister. It had been clear, in the house he’d grown up in, that the loss of a little girl was the worst pain imaginable. Losing Caroline had ruined William’s parents, and living with those two wrecked people had made William a little frightened of his sister too. He realized now, with the photo in his hands, that he’d turned away from his sister and his daughter to protect himself from that specific devastation. He’d made sure that he couldn’t lose a little girl. Of course, the irony was that, to ensure that, he’d cut them out of his life.
William’s hands grew sweaty, while he felt truths fall into place inside him. His mother and father had shut down under the weight of their immense pain; they’d chosen to go through the motions of living a life, which was very different from living. William thought that he might have made the same choice after being released from the hospital if it hadn’t been for Sylvie. He would have ticked through days like minutes on a clock, everything locked up inside him, if Sylvie hadn’t insisted that he let himself love her. But his parents had no one to save them, and they couldn’t look at their son without remembering the loss of their daughter. They’d turned away from William, and he understood now that he’d done the same to Caroline and Alice. He was no better than his mom and dad, really. All three of them had lost time and love with people who deserved both. When William thought of himself as a lonely little boy dribbling a basketball in the park, he believed, perhaps for the first time, that he had deserved his parents’ attention. And in that moment, he forgave them.
His sister beamed at him from inside the frame, oblivious to her own power. She looked excited and ready for fun. What would William’s life have been like if she had lived? If he’d grown up with a big sister, in a family that wasn’t silenced by loss?
With his parents dead, this photo was the only proof of Caroline’s existence, and he was the only one who knew she’d lived. William left the apartment with the framed photo. He walked through the zigzag of blocks that took him to the super-duplex. He shook his head, amused, every time he referred to the two houses by the name Izzy had given them years earlier. He’d thought it was ridiculous at the time, but the nickname had stuck. He knocked on the front door of Cecelia’s house, knowing she might be next door or up a ladder somewhere in the city, painting. He hadn’t seen her or Emeline since Sylvie had told them her news.
He was relieved when Cecelia opened the door. She was wearing jeans, and her hair was pulled back with the yellow bandanna she
wore while she was working. She looked pale, but she still looked like Cecelia. William realized that he’d been worried, after watching the usually placid Emeline rage and the usually tough Cecelia weep, that the prospect of losing Sylvie might have rendered them unrecognizable. He had never heard Emeline raise her voice, until that day. Of course, Cecelia might be changed completely under her skin—William was—but her familiar face was still a relief. William loved his wife’s younger sisters; this knowledge had crept up on him, with the years. The twins had taken him back after his actions had pulled their family apart. This act of generosity—Cecelia and Emeline had nothing to gain from him, personally—still struck him as extraordinary.
“William,” Cecelia said, with surprise in her voice. “What’s up? Is Sylvie…?”
“She’s fine,” he said. “I’m not here about her.” He held the framed photo out. “I’d like you to paint her. Caroline.” He cleared his throat. His breath was short again; his lungs felt full. “Please,” he said.
Cecelia looked down at the photo. “This is your sister,” she said in a wondering tone, and studied the image. “William, she was beautiful.”
William was afraid that if he stayed still in front of Cecelia, he would cry. He wanted to leave his beautiful sister with her, to be replicated and perhaps painted onto an enormous canvas. That way, she would continue to exist, apart from him. William had done Caroline a disservice for all these years by sequestering her inside himself. He’d somehow feared that if he opened his eyes and heart to her, she would hurt him like she’d hurt their parents. But that had been absurd. The little girl in the picture deserved much better. “Will you do it?” he said.
“Of course.” Cecelia held the frame with both hands, as if afraid she might drop it.
William nodded—he couldn’t speak—and started to walk away. “Thank you for asking me,” she called after him.
that aFter oo was arash’s weekly clinic. William had skipped a few weeks after hearing Sylvie’s news, but it was time for him to return. From a block away, he could see Kent, Arash, and several kids on the court. Izzy was there too, chatting with a young female player. She tutored several of the kids through their high schools. Arash was spending his retirement assisting young players, both in this clinic and directly with various public high school teams. “If we help one kid…” he’d said when he started the clinic, to convince William and the others to join him. They’d all nodded, understanding that helping a kid could mean many things.
“William!” Arash called out in greeting. Kent waved from mid-court, clearly pleased to see him. Basketballs were being dribbled against the concrete, and William tried to focus on the sound. There were no nets on the park hoops, but William could imagine the swish of the ball with each made basket. Only when he was closer did William realize that more people were there than usual. There were the expected adults, and the kids, of course, already shooting and warming up at the far end of the court. But Washington was there too, and Gus. They both had real-world jobs—that’s what he and Kent called any job outside basketball. Washington was a statistician who worked for the city government, and Gus was a high school English teacher. They had never been to the clinic before.
“Hi, everyone,” William said, in a wary tone.
“We’re so glad you’re here,” Arash said, and the men around him
—Kent, Washington, Gus—nodded at the same time as if to show that they really meant it. Izzy ignored William and continued her conversation with the young player. William felt a note of gratitude toward his niece. She had heard about her aunt, of course, but she wouldn’t approach him about it in public.
He went to the bleachers to sit down. He’d known he wouldn’t teach a lesson to the teenagers today. He was here simply as one of
the columns that supported the effort. He was the least jovial of the involved adults, so his presence kept the kids well behaved.
Washington and Gus sat down on either side of him. “Good to see you, buddy,” Washington said. “How are the Bulls looking this year?”
“I’m excited to watch Pooh,” Gus said. Pooh was the nickname of the number-one draft pick, Derrick Rose. “He might really be our next Jordan.” This was what Chicagoans had been craving ever since MJ left the Bulls nine years earlier. Every new rookie who entered the franchise had an impossible weight on his shoulders.
William glanced at each of the men. “I assume you’re here because Kent told you about Sylvie.”
Their faces went somber. They didn’t look at him now; they watched the kids wash back and forth across the court. Washington said, “Kent’s smart. He knows that you’ll be nice to us and let us be with you.”
If William had had the energy, he would have smiled at his friend’s craftiness. The reasoning was correct. Kent was so deeply part of William’s life that William didn’t need to be considerate of his feelings. But after William’s other friends had spent twenty-four hours of their lives searching the city for him and saving him, he had always felt he was in their debt. Once he was out of the hospital, he’d insisted on doing them favors. He’d helped Washington move apartments twice, and he spoke to the basketball team at Gus’s high school every season. Two other Northwestern teammates had somehow needed middle-of-the-night appendectomies during a one-year period, and they’d both called William for a ride to the hospital. William was programmed to have nothing but gratitude for the two tall men flanking him.
“You don’t have to say anything, William,” Gus said. “We’re just gonna sit here and watch the kids play. We’ll be here next week too. If you want to say something, you can of course go ahead.”
“God damn it,” William said, and looked around the edges of the park, as if searching for a way out, knowing there wasn’t one.
“That’s right,” Washington said, and patted him on the knee.