This Is Where I Leave You
By Jonathan Tropper
Hardcover: 352 pages
List Price: $25.95
"Dad's dead," Wendy says off handedly, like it's happened before, like it happens every day. It can be grating, this act of hers, to be utterly unfazed at all times, even in the face of tragedy. "He died two hours ago."
"How's Mom doing?"
"She's Mom, you know? She wanted to know how much to tip the coroner."
I have to smile, even as I chafe, as always, at our family's patented inability to express emotion during watershed events. "There is no occasion calling for sincerity that the Foxman family won't quickly diminish or pervert through our own genetically engineered brand of irony and evasion. We banter, quip, and insult our way through birthdays, holidays, weddings, illnesses. Now Dad is dead and Wendy is cracking wise. It serves him right, since he was something of a pioneer at the forefront of emotional repression.
"It gets better," Wendy says.
"Better? Jesus, Wendy, do you hear yourself?"
"Okay, that came out wrong."
"He asked us to sit shiva."
"Who are we talking about? Dad! Dad wanted us to sit shiva."
Wendy sighs, like it's positively exhausting having to navigate the dense forest of my obtuseness. "Yes, apparently, that's the optimal time to do it."
"But Dad's an atheist."
"Dad was an atheist."
"You're telling me he found God before he died?"
"No, I'm telling you he's dead and you should conjugate your tenses accordingly."
If we sound like a couple of callous assholes, it's because that's how we were raised. But in fairness, we'd been mourning for a while already, on and off since he was first diagnosed a year and a half earlier. He'd been having stomachaches, swatting away my mother's pleas that he see a doctor, choosing instead to increase the regimen of the same antacids he'd been taking for years. He popped them like Life Savers, dropping small squibs of foil wrapping wherever he went, so that the carpets glittered like wet pavement. Then his stool turned red.
"Your father's not feeling well," my mother understated over the phone.
"My shit's bleeding," he groused from somewhere behind her. In the fifteen years since I'd moved out of the house, Dad never came to the phone. It was always Mom, with Dad in the background, contributing the odd comment when it suited him. That's how it was in person too. Mom always took center stage. Marrying her was like joining the chorus.
On the CAT scan, tumors bloomed like flowers against the charcoal desert of his duodenal lining. Into the lore of Dad's legendary stoicism would be added the fact that he spent a year treating metastatic stomach cancer with Tums. There were the predictable surgeries, the radiation, and then the Hail Mary rounds of chemo meant to shrink the tumors but that instead shrank him, his once broad shoulders reduced to skeletal knobs that disappeared beneath the surface of his slack skin. Then came the withering of muscle and sinew and the sad, crumbling descent into extreme pain management, culminating with him slipping into a coma, the one we knew he'd never come out of. And why should he? Why wake up to the painful, execrable mess of end-stage stomach cancer? It took four months for him to die, three more than the oncologists had predicted. "Your dad's a fighter," they would say when we visited, which was a crock, because he'd already been soundly beaten. If he was at all aware, he had to be pissed at how long it was taking him to do something as simple as die. Dad didn't believe in God, but he was a life-long member of the Church of Shit or Get Off the Can.
So his actual death itself was less an event than a final sad detail.
"The funeral is tomorrow morning," Wendy says. "I'm flying in with the kids tonight. Barry's at a meeting in San Francisco. He'll catch the red-eye."
Wendy's husband, Barry, is a portfolio manager for a large hedge fund. As far as I can tell, he gets paid to fly around the world on private jets and lose golf games to other richer men who might need his fund's money. A few years ago, they transferred him to the L.A. office, which makes no sense, since he travels constantly, and Wendy would no doubt prefer to live back on the East Coast, where her cankles and post-pregnancy jiggle are less of a liability. On the other hand, she's being very well compensated for the inconvenience.
"You're bringing the kids?"
"Believe me, I'd rather not. But seven days is just too long to leave them alone with the nanny."
The kids are Ryan and Cole, six and three, towheaded, cherub-cheeked boys who never met a room they couldn't trash in two minutes flat, and Serena, Wendy's seven-month-old baby girl.
"That's how long it takes to sit shiva."
"We're not really going to do this, are we?"
"It was his dying wish," Wendy says, and in that single instant I think maybe I can hear the raw grief in the back of her throat.
"Paul's going along with this?"
"Paul's the one who told me about it."
"What did he say?"
"He said Dad wants us to sit shiva."
Paul is my older brother by sixteen months. Mom insisted I hadn't been a mistake, that she'd fully intended to get pregnant again just seven months after giving birth to Paul. But I never really bought it, especially after my father, buzzed on peach schnapps at Friday-night dinner, had acknowledged somberly that back then they believed you couldn't get pregnant when you were breast-feeding. As for Paul and me, we get along fine as long as we don't spend any time together.
"Has anyone spoken to Phillip?" I say.
"I've left messages at all his last known numbers. On the off chance he plays them, and he's not in jail, or stoned, or dead in a ditch, there's every reason to believe that there's a small possibility he'll show up."
Phillip is our youngest brother, born nine years after me. It's hard to understand my parents' procreational logic. Wendy, Paul, and me, all within four years, and then Phillip, almost a decade later, slapped on like an awkward coda. He is the Paul McCartney of our family: better-looking than the rest of us, always facing a different direction in pictures, and occasionally rumored to be dead. As the baby, he was alternately coddled and ignored, which may have been a significant factor in his becoming such a terminally screwed-up adult. He is currently living in Manhattan, where you'd have to wake up pretty early in the morning to find a drug he hasn't done or a model he hasn't fucked. He will drop off the radar for months at a time and then show up unannounced at your house for dinner, where he might or might not casually mention that he's been in jail, or Tibet, or has just broken up with a quasi-famous actress. I haven't seen him in over a year.
"I hope he makes it," I say. "He'll be devastated if he doesn't."
"And speaking of screwed-up little brothers, how's your own Greek tragedy coming along?"
Wendy can be funny, almost charming in her pointed tactlessness, but if there is a line between crass and cruel, she's never noticed it. Usually I can stomach her, but the last few months have left me ragged and raw, and my defenses have been depleted.
"I have to go now," I say, trying my best to sound like a guy not in the midst of an ongoing meltdown.
"Jesus, Judd. I was just expressing concern."
"I'm sure you thought so."
"Oh, don't get all passive-aggressive. I get enough of that from Barry."
"I'll see you at the house."
"Fine, be that way," she says, disgusted. "Good-bye."
I wait her out.
"Are you still there?" she finally says.
"No." I hang up and imagine her slamming her phone down while the expletives fly in a machine-gun spray from her lips.
From This Is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper. Copyright (C) 2009 by Jonathan Tropper. Published by Dutton Adult. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.