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          As the train neared its final stop, Gabriel began the process of trying to get himself out of his seat. All the way from the New York, where he'd boarded the train headed for Washington, D.C., he'd barely moved, dreading the moment when he was going to have to stand up and try to walk down the aisle of the train car and then climb down the narrow metal steps to the station platform. He'd brought a special seat cushion with him that was supposed to reduce the pain of sitting in one place for the duration of the trip but it hadn't helped much and now his back was radiating pain that was pulsing down his left leg; it felt as if there was a burning string stretched taught behind his knee that was about to burst into flames.


He finally managed to lift himself to his feet and hobble down the aisle to retrieve the small rolling suitcase he'd stashed at the front of the car, near the door. As he struggled to pull up the folded handle of the suitcase—and wondering if it was stuck or if he just didn't have the strength to carry out the simple tasks of traveling alone anymore—one of the conductors, walking towards the front of the train, stopped and frowned at him. He said, "You did hear the announcement about staying seated until the train came to a full stop, didn't you?"


Gabriel could have defended himself, launched into an explanation about the old back injury that had grabbed hold of his life again and was seemingly intent on gnawing it to pieces ("Fifteen years ago, I was lifting a bass drum and somehow fractured my L3 vertebrae; the treatment was an injection of medical cement that stabilized my spine but hey, you get old, your bones weaken, old repairs don't work anymore so forgive me, you moron, but I need a head start with the tiny stairs I'm supposed to climb down to reach the platform or else you can just shove me off the train when it comes to a fucking full stop and we'll see what happens…"), but he was already too tired to even try. "No," he said, "I didn't hear a thing," and turned away from the conductor, who slapped his ticket book against his leg and then moved on.


     When the train finally came to a stop, Gabriel managed to navigate the stairs without blocking the way for anyone and headed for the doors that led from the platform into Union Station, a vast, multi-level monument to high-end restaurants and retail shops. As he slowly made his way towards the exit that led to the taxi stands, Gabriel tossed the useless seat cushion into a trash bin. Once outside, he took his place in the line of people waiting for a taxi and closed his eyes for a moment. There were still traces of late-winter snow on the ground but the afternoon sun was bright, beaming down warming rays on the assortment of travelers waiting to be carried away from the train station. Gabriel hadn't brought a coat, but he was comfortable enough in his old biker jacket. Standing in the sunshine, waiting for a taxi in Washington, D.C., on his way to his brother's house—something he'd done often, in the past—allowed him to feel normal for a few minutes; normal, as if his old self had returned, the Gabe he knew, the person who had reliable routines, activities, a daily life. But that feeling didn't a last long. As the line of taxis snaked towards him and a driver finally waved him forward, the feeling that everything had changed for him came back with a vengeance. He wasn't who he had been, and whoever he was now was someone who he didn't feel he could depend on anymore.


      He got in the taxi, sat back, and let himself be carried along Massachusetts Avenue towards Rock Creek Park, skirting that long, unexpected stretch of shadows and greenery in the heart of the city, then finally heading into the neighborhood of Wesley Heights, where his brother lived. The route took Gabriel past gated embassies and famous hotels built of white marble and smoke-colored glass; past the enormous Watergate complex with its spiky balustrades that looked like rows of concrete teeth; past the White House in the distance; and the looming Capital. The old leftie with his hippie conscience that still lived somewhere in Gabriel's head complained that these views of Washington were all the composite imagery of a lie, a construct created by the wealthy and powerful to represent an American utopia that didn't exist—had never existed, not from the start. Then the old hippie fell quiet, deciding that Gabriel had enough problems so that for a while, at least, he could be left alone to deal with the rest of this visit as best he could.


       When he finally arrived at his brother's house and waited for the driver to lift his suitcase out of the trunk, he let himself absorb the feeling of tranquility that wrapped itself around him as he stood at the edge of the long, sloping lawn that led up to the front door. Even at the end of winter he could imagine how the immensely tall old trees that stood like silent soldiers all along the roadway here were making ready to burst into leaf and flower. It was impossible to ignore how lovely the area was, with some of the houses on this street fronted by faded red bricks dating back the century that included the Civil War and others painted white and gray, quiet colors meant to represent the quiet heft of wealth and accomplishment accrued by the residents of this neighborhood.


     After being handed his suitcase, Gabriel made his way up the path of slate pavers that led to his brother's door and rang the bell. A few moments later it was opened by his sister-in-law, Grace, who smiled at him and then reached out to draw him into an embrace.


     "Gabriel!" she exclaimed, with genuine affection. "You should have called from the train. We would have come to get you."


      "I didn't want you to have to bother," Gabriel told her.


 "And you know it wouldn't have been a bother at all," Grace told him. "But never mind. Come in, come in."

She's what? Seventy-one now? Gabriel thought. Seventy-two? Even for her age, she still looked beautiful to him with her finely angled face, blue, blue eyes, and immaculately styled hair that hinted of silver in its soft layers of gray. She was wearing beige slacks and a white sweater that complimented her coloring. Then he turned to look down the hallway as he heard his brother approach. Jesus, he thought, that means Michael is almost eighty. He, Gabriel, was barely a decade younger, which he was not too happy to find himself remembering.


 "Gabee!" his brother called out, advancing towards him with arms already extended. They were huggers, this husband and wife, and though Gabriel was not, he moved from Grace's embrace into his brother's with easy familiarity. Michael was dressed in what for him was his casual at-home wear: crisp, creased trousers and a blue button-down shirt.

The two brothers couldn't have looked more different, as Gabriel was always aware. He supposed he could have worn something other than jeans and his old black biker jacket, but that was his basic wardrobe and the only other clothing he'd brought with him was a newly purchased suit to wear at the award presentation that was the occasion for this visit, along with an extra shirt.         

 Michael had invited him to join him and his wife at the event, where he was to be given some sort of recognition for his work as an economist. Why it was important  to Michael—because it seemed to be so—that his brother come to D.C. this weekend to be present at this particular affair was not clear to Gabriel, but he had nonetheless agreed to make the trip. Besides, it had been over a year since they'd seen each other—maybe even more, if Gabriel really tried to count through the weeks and months—so it seemed time for a visit. Although it's always me coming down to D.C. instead of the other way around, Gabriel complained to himself as he pulled his suitcase down the hallway to the guest bedroom. Then he reminded himself that it was hardly possible for him to offer his brother and sister-in-law any kind of accommodation in his small studio apartment in Brooklyn, so he should stop his mental griping about the one-way travel that had been the norm since Michael had moved to Washington. That was after he had received a doctorate from Columbia and accepted a well-paid position at an economic think tank, perhaps among the highlights but hardly even the first of many differences that marked the divided path that the brothers had followed since they were children. After a long and distinguished career, one was now recognized by just about every elite American political and educational institution as a leading thinker and advisor in his field, had served as a confidant of two Democratic presidents, written several ground-breaking books on economic theory, and the other—Well, how would I describe myself these days? Gabriel thought as walked into the bedroom. A retiree? The former manager of a rehearsal space for the old rock and rollers, most gone to their graves by now? He decided to leave that topic alone for the time being as he hung up his suit and placed the shoes he'd bought to go with it on the closet floor.


Once he had unpacked, he wandered out to the kitchen, where he found Grace deep in conversation with a young woman wearing a pink apron and with a lot of similarly tinted hair piled on top of her head. Behind her, two more women, both around the same age, were unwrapping trays of canapes while a pair of young men hustled in through the back door, lugging a set of huge pots and pans. Each of these people was wearing a white tee-shirt printed with what looked like a sketch of a small, white bird.


"Oh, Gabriel," Grace said, turning to him with a smile. "Let me introduce you to Annie Dove. She's catering our dinner tonight."



Gabriel knew about the dinner, one of the reasons he'd originally planned on arriving here tomorrow, when the awards ceremony was scheduled to take place. But he had been persuaded by his brother to come a day early so that, as he'd suggested, they would be able to spend a little time together. However, Gabriel had expected there'd only be two or three other guests for dinner, hopefully some easy-going friends of Michael and Grace's that he'd at least met before, not enough people—or, more likely, serious-enough people—to require a caterer who'd given herself a love-bird's name, along with a small team of baby-bird assistants.


Gabriel shook hands with the caterer and then let himself be led out to hallway by his sister-in law. "I hope you don't mind this," she said to him. "I had planned on something casual for tonight but somehow, it just turned into this major hullaballoo. Tomorrow night is such a big deal that it seemed like everyone Michael has ever met wanted to be able to congratulate him beforehand, so it felt like if I just invited a few people, the entire progressive wing of the Democratic party would be offended. I hope you understand. I know this isn't really your thing and honestly, these days, it isn't mine, either. Or your brother's, I think. It would be so much nicer to just turn on the tv and relax."


Grace had a look of concern on her face that seemed to be trying to convey some message that Gabriel didn't quite get—something more than an apology for presenting him with the prospect of a house full of people he'd likely have little to engage with in even light dinner-table conversation. But she seemed so genuinely concerned about his well-being that Gabriel's reaction—something, apparently, so instinctive that he surprised himself—was to lean over and kiss her cheek.


"Don't worry, Grace," he said. "I'll be fine."


"I'm sure you will," she replied. "You can be quite the charmer when you want to be." Then smiling, she shooed him away. "Maybe you can go find Michael, but he might be locked in his study. I think he's still working on the speech he's supposed to make tomorrow night."


Gabriel wandered through the rooms of this elegantly furnished house, pausing in the sunroom to look out into the wintry yard with its frost-covered lawn furniture and bushes wrapped in burlap as protection against the cold. When he didn't find his brother anywhere, he assumed that he was, as his sister-in-law suggested, back at work in his study, which was tucked up under the eaves on the top floor of the house. With no real reason to pull Michael away from his speech and Grace busy preparing for her guests, Gabriel decided to just stay out of the way. Retreating to the bedroom, he lay down on top of the quilt and, without even realizing how tired the long train ride had left him, promptly fell asleep.

Some of the guests had already arrived by the time Gabriel woke up and got himself showered and changed, then out of the bedroom and down the hall. As he finally walked into the living room, his brother appeared at his side and, with a guiding hand on his back, escorted him around the room and introduced him to his guests. Gabriel recognized one of the men as a pundit he sometimes saw on a cable news program, and a woman who had just walked in with her husband—a tall, balding man who was fussing over the disposition of their coats—as the host of a similar program on a rival channel.


When the rest of the guests arrived, making a total of ten couples in all, Grace invited everyone into the dining room, where little crisp, cream-colored place cards stood sentinel beside each plate. Gabriel found that Grace had seated him beside her, which he appreciated, since—besides providing him some cover as the odd man out; the only dinner guest without a companion—it meant he probably could just follow whatever conversational lead she embarked on without having to come up with some appropriate topic by himself. He hardly felt capable of doing that on his own because he couldn't think of anything to talk about with these people. Anything at all.


True to his plan, all through dinner, as the caterer's assistants brought in food and wine, Gabriel murmured his way through a discussion Grace was shepherding about how the unusually temperate winter they'd experienced across the country this year was a harbinger of climate change and which Senators were trying to introduce legislation that would do something about that (though from everything that was being said, Gabriel couldn't quite untangle what that something was). Soon, Gabriel's corner of the dinner table moved on to the subject of rising crime rates in Washington, which he didn't feel obligated to try to follow, so he just put a concerned look on his face while his thoughts took an inward and highly personal turn, meaning that he had to figure out when it would be time to take other another of the 30 mg. oxycontin pills he had in his pocket. Soon was the answer, because the wrestling match that pitted the oxy against the pain in his spine was clearly about to begin once more.


But then something he heard someone say made him tune back into the conversation. The speaker was the husband of the news channel anchorwoman, the balding man who had earlier made a lot of noise about where he and his wife should leave their coats. He was now worked up about what he kept repeatedly referring to as "the opioid crisis," making it sound like such an overwhelming threat to every soul seated around the table that they should immediately seek shelter in some barricaded hideaway before it was too late for them to keep from being attacked by drug-crazed criminals.


"It's bad enough," he was saying, "that illegal drugs like oxycontin and fentanyl are being carried over the border by the truckload every single day, but the fact that doctors are still allowed to prescribe them for patients with even mild pain complaints is unconscionable because that's how people get addicted. And even more than that, the connection to everything that's tearing at the very fabric of America is undeniable: urban crime, illegal immigrants, drug addiction among our youth—they're all part of one big problem that's getting worse every day."

Around the table, heads nodded, men and women turned to each other with expressions of agreement while Gabriel let his hand slip into his pocket and touch his own legally prescribed example of the medication that the man sitting directly across from him was so emphatically condemning.


Don't say anything, he cautioned himself. It's not that important that you have to embarrass Michael and Grace.


But the man—who Gabriel had ascertained was named Arthur Grieser—wouldn't let the subject go. He had moved on to quoting statistics about opioid-induced deaths among both teenagers and adults, then segued into a lecture about the many academic studies that showed how there were other drugs that, while perhaps not as effective for pain management as opioids, could nevertheless be used as substitutes with good results for pain and less potential to produce a world full of unproductive addicts—or worse, dead ones. Gabriel had heard all these arguments many times before and it had even come to the point where he felt like he couldn't turn on the radio or tune into a cable news program for even a short while without having to hear some supposed panel of experts making proclamations about how people suffering from severe, chronic pain had a candy-store-full of options to reduce the agonizing hammering of the pain that pounded on bones that already felt broken, pulverized; or to end the way that pain seemed to drag a knife, a cutlass, a sword along the edges of nerves that it had already set on fire; but these desperate, suffering people chose, instead, to swallow addictive and almost impossible to get prescription drugs—why? For the fun of trying to convince pain management doctors, overburdened and over-scrutinized by the agencies that monitored them, to prescribe enough medication to ease their patients' agony and then persuade suspicious pharmacists to fill those prescriptions? For the pleasure of contemplating a lifetime of living in this situation and never having the hope of finding long-term real relief?


Let it go, Gabriel warned himself again. He's an idiot. Why do you have to be the one to try to set him straight about what he doesn't know?


But even as he was cautioning himself to keep his mouth shut, Gabriel heard himself clear his throat, heard his voice speaking, as if it was coming from someplace outside himself. "There is another side to that argument," he said, as the heads of all the dinner guests turned to look at him. "Take me, for example," he said. "I have what I've been told is called degenerative disc disease. To put it simply, my spine is slowly collapsing. I am in severe, constant pain. Luckily, I have a pain management doctor who is willing to prescribe fentanyl for me. I wear one hundred mcg. fentanyl patches that I change every three days—and that's a very high dose. Plus, I have oxycodone pills for breakthrough pain, and I think I'm going to take one right now because, as I'm sitting here, I am in so much pain that I'm either going to scream or start crying. I'm not at all sure which but I guess," he concluded, looking straight at Arthur Grieser, "that's not something you would care about because, as you see things, I am apparently helping to bring about the downfall of civilization. Or something like that."


He reached into his pants pocket, found the pill he'd been touching all evening, like a talisman, and put it on his tongue. Then he lifted the glass of water near his plate and drank from it. The coolness of the water as it helped the pill slide down his throat felt like a soothing balm helping to put out the fiery pain that by now seemed to have set his whole body aflame.

Swallowing the pill felt to him like a revolutionary act. It had been a long time—years, decades, actually—since he had done anything that even smacked of protesting against the status quo. To remember that era, he had to reach back into his memory, to the time when he was maybe eighteen and had left home to join up with the marching throng of the generation—his generation—that thought it was going to change the world, help end the war in Viet Nam and bring about racial and social justice. That was about the same time he found a small apartment in the Village and got a job managing a rehearsal hall for the rock bands that in those days were streaming into the city all the way from the American heartland to the west coast as they chased the dream of breaking through to a record deal. Gabriel remembered the rehearsal hall with both love and regret—love, because while it was really just a seedy, grungy series of loft spaces above a block of dollar-and-dime stories on 14th Street in Manhattan, it was his seedy, grungy place, where he spent most of his nights doing all the scheduling, maintenance, and other chores that needed doing to keep the place going, including filling in on guitar or even drums when someone didn't show up for a rehearsal, all the while listening to music, some good, some bad, but always loud and wonderful, banging down the long hallways well on towards dawn—and regret, because as the years went by and gentrification chased low-rent places like the rehearsal rooms out of the city, the only other work he could find was running an even seedier, grungier place across the river in New Jersey. That was where he had fractured the vertebra in his back by lifting a bass drum; he kept on working there until he simply couldn't anymore because his back pain became too crippling for him to make the long train and bus trip all the way from New York to New Jersey, or to haul equipment up long flights of stairs, or even to stand on his feet for more than a few minutes and play the guitar without gut-wrenching pain. He knew that he would have ended up close to broke and maybe even homeless because he was already just scraping by if not for the fact that, back in the 1980s, when Manhattan living was being upended by co-op conversions that drove the vast majority of lower-rung renters out of the city, Michael had stepped in and handed his brother a lifeline.


Both brothers had endured the same rough childhood. Their father, who worked as an electrician, had died when the boys were young and their mother had never regained her footing in the middle-class life her husband had provided for the family. The boys and their mother were soon living in near-desperation poverty, depending on their mother's undependable and often violent boyfriends for support. Michael was the first to leave—actually, to be dragged out of the house at the age of sixteen and sent to a youthful offender's program run by the city because he had been arrested too many times for working as a courier for one of the local drug dealers in the Bronx, where they lived. That, however, turned out to be an act of fate that changed his life—and by extension, Gabriel's as well.


Michael had to earn a high school diploma in order to complete the youth program and escape a prison sentence. In pursuit of that diploma, one of the classes he had to take was an introduction to economics—and to his surprise, it turned out to be something that sparked his interest. Later, through the intervention of a teacher who was both astonished and gratified to have a pupil who was actually making an effort to succeed in finishing the program, Michael was able to enroll in the City University of New York as a scholarship student. He not only graduated from the City University but went on to gain several graduate degrees.


While Gabriel spent his nights at the rehearsal halls, Michael made his way through the ranks of Washington D.C.'s economic think tanks, and though the two brothers were less than close, they did have enough contact for Gabriel, near the end of an infrequent phone call, to almost off-handedly tell his brother that he was going to have to give up his Village apartment because his building was being turned into a co-op. While the laws relating to co-op conversations required that he be allowed to buy the place for a discounted "insider" price, he couldn't even come up with the down-payment to qualify for a mortgage. A few days later, when Gabriel opened his mail, he found a check from Michael that would cover the cost of buying the apartment outright. With the check was a note that said, Please let's not argue about this. Let me do this one thing for you.


Ten years later, when real estate prices in New York were soaring, Gabriel sold the place and paid his brother back. With what was left of this windfall, he bought a less expensive apartment in Brooklyn and still had enough money to ensure that he would be able to support himself if continued to live as frugally as he always had. So, though the brothers had lived their lives on very different tracks, one place where they had converged gave Gabriel the security he needed to go on without the fear of becoming destitute—the ending he'd seen coming for many of his fellow travelers from the old days of rock music on the road and revolution in the streets.


All these thoughts, along with the feelings and images attached to them, seemed to be insisting on making an appearance in Gabriel's mind as he swallowed his potent pill and took another long, sober drink of water. Everyone at the table was staring at him in complete silence. He was well aware that he had broken the rules of dinner party etiquette by being rude to another guest in such an outrageous fashion—after saying what he had, popping the pill was as insulting a gesture as raising his middle finger right in Arthur Grieser's face—but he didn't care. Still, he glanced over at his brother to see how he was dealing with all this, but he was inscrutable, unreadable. He seemed to be looking off into the middle distance, as if his body was sitting at the table but the rest of him—His spirit? His soul?—was somewhere else.


But Michael's wife was another matter. "Well," Grace said, sounding almost cheerful as she rose from her chair, "That was an interesting experience for all of us, but now I think it's time for another bottle of wine. I'll go out into the kitchen for a moment and choose something."


She pushed back her chair and the sound of it scraping against the hardwood floor seemed as loud as a gong being rung in the still-silent room. But instead of hurrying right off to the kitchen, Grace paused for a moment, stood behind Gabriel's chair, and then leaned down to kiss him on the top of his head.


Perhaps she had just chosen a comforting moment to return the fraternal kiss that Gabriel had brushed against her cheek earlier in the day—or maybe it was something else. As Gabriel had noted to himself when he walked into the house that afternoon, Grace was almost a decade younger than her husband and perhaps that meant she was another fellow traveler from the hippie years. Was it so? Had this lovely, elegant woman once decked herself in beads and fringe and feathers and danced around a bonfire at a commune? Gabriel looked up at Grace and she smiled. She didn't have to say anything out loud for Gabriel to guess what she would have told him: Yes, you're right, that was me, I'm another old hippie rebel and I'm with you tonight. The recognition passed between sister-in-law and brother-in-law, and then the sister-in-law slipped away to get the bottle of wine that was supposed to make everything alright again, and erase Gabriel's defiance of the social code that the upper echelon of Washington, D.C.'s policymakers, deep thinkers, diplomats, and legislators lived by. Thus, it was silently and unanimously agreed that what Gabriel had said and what he had done had actually never happened.


And so the dinner party went on. The conversation left all things illegal behind (drugs, migrants, etc.) and then side-stepped from politics to gossip about politicians, which was much more entertaining and a lot less likely to cause offense to anyone at the table. After dessert was served, the guests and their hosts moved into the living room where they enjoyed after-dinner drinks for about an hour and then, couple by couple, went to retrieve their cars from where they were parked along the driveway at the edge of the night-dark lawn, and headed home.

Inside the house, the caterers whisked away all the dinner-related debris, loaded the dishwasher, then packed up all the special cooking equipment and utensils they had brought with them and glided out the door. Afterwards, alone in the house, Grace, Michael, and Gabriel all agreed they were tired and headed off to bed.


But Gabriel couldn't sleep. This wasn't unusual; pain, bad thoughts, sad thoughts, angry inklings of what was happening to his body even as his mind tried to pretend that nothing was—all this kept him up at night. At home, he often got out of bed and went into the living room to watch tv through the long, dead hours between midnight and dawn, but that option wasn't available to him here, in his brother's house. Still, he couldn't just lay in bed looking at the ceiling—it was beginning to make him feel claustrophobic. So he got up, pulled on the sweater and jeans he'd worn on the train, then slid his arms the sleeves of his old biker jacket and went downstairs. He clicked open the lock on the sliding glass door that opened onto the patio, a swath of rustic-red bricks that swirled out along the edge of the back yard, and seated himself on a wicker chair that had a water-proof cover tied over it. It wasn't the most comfortable place to sit, but it would do.

The night was surprisingly temperate, as if spring were secretly creeping up to the mid-Atlantic region from some milder, far-away climate. Overhead, the constellations were so bright and clear that the dogs and scorpions made out of stars seemed ready to spring out of the black sky. As Gabriel sat alone, just being quiet, trying to shift this way and that to maybe ease the pain in his back, he heard the glass door slide open again and saw Michael step outside. He was wearing a bathrobe over a sweatshirt and a pair of pajama bottoms, with slippers on his feet.


"Hey," Michael said to his brother. "Are you having trouble sleeping?"


"A little. I hope I didn't wake you," Gabriel replied.


"No. I've been up for a while." Michael seated himself on another of the lounge chairs and took a deep breath of the night air. "Listen," he said to his brother, "about earlier…"

"I know. I was out of line—and a little overdramatic."


Michael shrugged. "That wasn't what I was going to say. What I was going to tell you is that I feel terrible about not knowing how difficult things have gotten for you. I mean, I knew about your back problems but degenerative disc disease? When did you find out about that?"

"Not too long ago. I wasn't exactly going to call you up and have a chat about it, though."


"No, I guess not. But you could have."




"Yes, alright," Michael said. "Maybe."

Then silence fell between them. One looked up at the stars, the other gazed off in the direction of the quiet, empty street.

"I know we haven't been as close as we could have been these last few years," Michael said, finally. "I'm sorry for that."


"Yes," Gabriel said. "Me, too."


"Things just got in the way."


"I guess."


"So what's going to happen with you?" Michael asked.


"I don't know, really," Gabriel said. "I suppose I just have to keep going until…well, until I can't anymore."


"That sounds pretty frightening."


"It is. Which is maybe why I'm acting out. And I really am sorry about earlier—I didn't have to insult one of your friends."


"You mean Arthur? He's not really a friend—maybe more like an asshole I have to tolerate every now and then. But that doesn't mean that everything you said wasn't true."

Gabriel laughed. "Well, you could have told me that right off the bat and not let me sit here feeling like the dinner guest from hell."


"You're right. I apologize." Michael reached into the pocket of his robe, pulled out a pack of Marlboros and lit one of the cigarettes with a green plastic lighter—the kind that could be bought at any gas station or convenience store anywhere in the U.S. Maybe anywhere in the world. "In any case," Michael continued, "I'm glad I found you out here because I wanted to talk to you. I mean, that's why I invited you down here this weekend. You don't really have to come to this awards dinner tomorrow night…it's not that important."


"What?" Gabriel said, with mock indignation. "I bought a new suit."


Michael smiled. "Okay then, I guess you'll have to come, but it's going to be a long, boring evening. Don't say I didn't warn you."

"I thought this was a big-deal award. Something that meant a lot to you."


"Did I say that? I guess I did."


Now, Michael sighed. It was a sad, lonely sound, maybe just breath in, breath out, but it had the effect of making Gabriel feel that something had happened. Something had shifted; changed.

"Mike," Gabriel said, leaning forward without even realizing that was what he was doing, "what's wrong? I'm getting the feeling that something is."


"Yes, something is. I have cancer. Pancreatic cancer."


"No," Gabriel said. The protest was automatic; a blind, instinctive leap over whatever chasm had separated these two for however long they had been drifting apart. Michael was Gabriel's older brother; out of the pair of them, he was supposed to be the leader, the smarter, stronger one. He was supposed to be immortal. Maybe it was understandable that Gabriel's body would be damaged, afflicted—but not Michael's.


But Michael didn't argue with his brother; he just pushed on. "I'm supposed to have surgery next week to see how much of the tumor they can get, and then there will be chemo or radiation, or maybe both, depending on what they find. At least, I guess that's what it depends on. You'd have to ask Grace. It seems that I can't really listen when the doctor talks to me—it's like some sort of fog settles over me and I can't see anything outside or hear very well, but Grace can. She remembers everything and then tells me, later. It's the damnedest thing. I would have expected more from myself. In any event, I can be realistic about what's going to happen, and that means I have to prepare myself for the fact that I'm not going to survive this—I can piece out that much from all the tangled-up medical lingo. Maybe I'm not going to die tomorrow and maybe not soon, but that's where this is leading. That much I do comprehend."


Shocked, immobilized, frozen to the spot where he was sitting, Gabriel managed to lift his hand and, pointing to the cigarette held between his brother's finger heard his voice,


"Is that what we're doing?"


"Close enough." Michael nodded and then Gabriel spoke again: maybe it was the Gabe from years ago, the younger brother with strength still, and time. "You know, maybe I could help out somehow if I came down to Washington and stayed here for a while. I know I painted a kind of bleak picture of where I am with my back, but the bottom line is that I am managing on the pain meds for now and it would be easier for me to be here rather than traveling back and forth. Maybe I could rent an Air BnB or something…"


"No. I mean yes, I would like it if you were here while…while everything's going on with me, but we have a big house, Gabe. If you're comfortable in the guest bedroom, it's all yours. In any event, it would be good for Grace to have you around. You can see that she's very fond of you."


"That's kind of you to say."


"It's true. One of those things that is relevant. The rest…"


"Fuck the rest."


"Yes. Exactly."


Finally, the two men were able to simply smile at each other, to stand up, stretch, and agree that the hour was getting late and they were getting cold. Gabriel followed his brother into the house where they said good-night. Michael started to climb the stairs up to the second-floor bedroom that he shared with his wife, but then he stopped to look down at his brother for a moment and said good-night again, as if Gabriel might not have heard him the first time, as if the night wind might have somehow blown through the house and carried these few words away forever.

The next morning, when Gabriel opened his eyes, he glanced at his watch and saw that it was barely seven-thirty. He had thought it was later and was relieved to find he hadn't lain in bed while his brother and sister-in-law might already be up and about—they were both early risers, something Gabriel definitely was not.


So, pulling on the same jeans and tee shirt he'd worn last night, Gabriel padded off to the kitchen where he found coffee had already been brewed and was waiting in a carafe on the counter. Beside it was a note from Grace that said Michael was still in bed but she had gone out to get some fresh rolls from a nearby bakery. Back soon! the note said, and there was something bright and breezy about Grace's handwriting with its wide dips and whorls, that offset the ominous feeling Gabriel was trying to push deep down into a box somewhere in the back of his mind—Michael sleeping late was not a good sign of things to come.


A large clock hanging above the stove, with its white face and black numbers—a basic design, clear and uncomplicated about the passage of time—ticked on and on in the quiet, empty kitchen as Michael found a mug and poured himself some coffee. There was a sweater draped over the back of a chair; Michael's, Gabriel decided, telling himself that his brother wouldn't mind if he appropriated it for a little while. So, he put his arms through the sleeves, buttoned it against the morning chill, and took his coffee outside, to the patio.

Gabriel eased himself down on the steps at the edge of the patio near the lounge chairs where he and Michael had sat and talked last night. Now, the chairs stood empty under the pale gray sky. It was, he thought, like looking at a stage where the players had left and yet the audience remained, trying to parse out the meaning of the story they just watched being acted out before their eyes.


It was really too chilly this morning to be sitting outside wearing just a sweater, so Gabriel soon rose to his feet and turned to go back in. But just as he did, a large flock of birds flew up into the sky from the treetops, where they must have been roosting overnight. Starlings? Gabriel wondered, as the black wings of the dark, black birds—a hundred of them, two hundred, maybe more—beat against the sky, making a loud, rushing, sound. Like water rising upwards, Gabriel thought. And then, as he watched, the flock of birds came together and began sliding through the sky, back and forth, up, down, and sideways, all following each other as if they were one body, one giant bird made up of many smaller winged creatures as they formed swooping patterns, intricate, interlaced designs that made it look like they were dancing through the strips of pale gray clouds hanging low on the horizon.

He knew that what the birds were doing was called a murmuration, but he had never actually seen this phenomenon before. It was riveting, spellbinding; he couldn't take his eyes off the ever-changing configurations that the enormous flock of birds were making as they flew through the sky, always holding together in a tight formation no matter which way they turned and dipped and danced. It was an amazing sight. How are they doing that? Gabriel wondered. How do they decide which is the leader, which the followers? And how do they instantly come together to create all these different shapes in the sky?


Well, who could answer those questions? Probably, Gabriel thought, over the course of time, human beings had studied the flight of birds when they melded together like this, spun together from their separate bird lives, from the separate course that their fate mapped out for them and joined together in these few brief moments to act as one—but had anyone ever come up with a full and final explanation? No, Gabriel thought, most likely not, but did there really have to be one? Who leads, who follows, who chooses when they come together and when they drift apart—what difference does it make to such a show of trust in one another? To such a show of faith?

These were questions too difficult to even think about at this early hour of the morning and anyway, the answer didn't matter to him, one way or the other. He was just glad to have witnessed this magical display of how such disparate elements of life, of being, briefly but completely alive, could come together no matter how different their paths had been before and then act with one mind, one purpose, even if they didn't know—and he, Gabriel, didn't know—exactly how it came to be.













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