Martin Groff is a graduate student and instructor of writing at UNC-Chapel Hill. He is most passionate about enabling students to find their own voice and innovate on genre expectations, and makes this the goal of his own writing as well. His work appears in The Broken City and Green Blotter, among others.
Letters, a Word
It was always when he called his sister that he remembered an uncomfortable episode in middle school, inconsequential though it had been. Middle school had been on the whole inconsequential—a simple bridge between the carefree innocence of childhood and the meaningful growth of young adulthood—and he hardly ever thought about it. Sarah hadn’t even been there when it happened, yet something about her name on the screen of his phone evoked this vivid memory that seemed otherwise to sprout out of nothingness.
He could see the scene now as he dialed; a narrow school hallway, packed with students going to lunch. A kid in dark blue jeans and a black sweatshirt, a casual friend. He heard himself call out a greeting, a kind word, and watched the friend turn and look, roll his eyes, and walk away. A snub. That was the last time he ever spoke to this individual; he went the rest of his life without encountering him again, aside from an unremembered chance glance across the cafeteria. It’s not that this was a close friend. Now, looking back, he would have categorized him more as an acquaintance. And even in middle school, the snub had done nothing more than confuse him. There was no real pain, no anger. Just a certain awkwardness, and a sense of disconnect.
Perhaps the reason Sarah evoked this memory was because she was the only relative he was still close to, the only one he wasn’t disconnected from. His parents were dead, cousins had moved far away, and his brother—well, that reminded him of what he was doing.
“Sarah? It’s Luke,” he said after she picked up.
“Hey, I got something on the stove, but I can call you back.”
“This will only take a minute. I just want you to call Pat for me.”
“Oh?” This was followed by a long pause. “And what do you want me to tell him?”
“Just tell him to call me. Or unblock my number.”
“Maybe you should meet somewhere. Talk things out face to face.”
Luke couldn’t help but let out an aggravated sigh. “You know how that would go.”
“We’re not kids anymore, Luke. And he’s matured a lot since everything happened.”
“I hope so.” He wondered whether the same could be said for him.
The line was silent a few moments. Perhaps Sarah was turning down the stove. More likely, she was waiting for a deeper response. Eventually she seemed to recognize it was unrealistic to expect one. “Look, I’ll let him know what you said. I need to go now. Cole and the kids are waiting on dinner. We still on for Friday?”
“Okay, see you then.” She hung up before he could reply. But he would see her soon enough. Maybe by then he’d hear from Patrick as well. Had it been nine years or was it more?
A thousand drops whispered to him through the open window as they struck the leaves on the ground by his house. Every shingle, every square inch of pavement had something to say, blending into one chorus that Luke called the sound of rain.
He was at the computer, checking the hourly weather forecast, when an odd headline caught his eye: “Accident tears apart family during vacation,” and next to it, the picture of some smiling children on a sunny beach. He didn’t want to read about it; he was certain it would only make him more melancholy than he already was, and part of him was angry that a weather forecasting website would even link to such a tragic story in the first place. Even a headline about a flood wiping out an entire town would seem less terrible—at least the picture underneath would be of high water, and not a group of happy people he knew were no longer smiling.
His head turned toward the window in answer to a crack of thunder, and he peered out. A young man in a raincoat was helping an old woman across the street. Without an umbrella or coat, she was soaked, and the man could do nothing to keep her dry even as he tried to aide her. Luke didn’t know who she was; he hadn’t seen her before, and realized that she might still have a long way to go to get home. Even before she was fully on the curb, the rush of cars began to clatter over the blacktop again, the tires tearing through the shallow skin of water on the street.
He turned back to his computer and noticed a new e-mail.
Patrick. P-a-t-r-i-c-k. Seeing the name in his inbox, situated neatly above of a long line of other senders, simultaneously evoked a sense of anger, sadness, and worry. The concoction of emotions made him feel sick, yet he opened the e-mail immediately.
Sarah asked me to write to you. She said you want to talk to me, but I don’t think I’m ready for that yet. I still don’t think you know how much dad’s business meant to me. Whatever you need to say we can take care of over e-mail.
No signature. The name in the address bar was enough. He looked at it again. Sarah asked me to write to you. Their only connection. S-a-r-a-h. Luke had always enjoyed looking at her name, with the two a’s symmetrical from the middle. If her name were folded in half, those two letters would match up. Maybe that was how she acted as a connection between him and his brother. It made sense in his head for half a second, but then fell apart and he couldn’t summon it back again. He hit the reply button and began to type.
It’s not my fault that the business couldn’t be saved. Doesn’t it mean anything to you that we are fmily? We have the same blood, th esame history. We grew up together, and we have a chance now to continue to grow together.
He hit send without proofreading or bothering to sign his name. No small talk. He didn’t bother to ask about his sister-in-law. She seemed further away than Patrick, who would be eternally tied to him by blood whether he liked it or not.
The clock said quarter to noon. Grabbing his car keys, he went to meet Sarah.
The restaurant, something between fast-food and cafe, seemed crowded but was very quiet. Sarah sat by a rain-glazed window that stretched from ceiling to floor with a sandwich—something green between two brown slices of bread. Luke stopped by the counter and ordered soup, and then went to join her, taking the seat across the table.
“Quite a day,” he said, looking out into the gloom.
“Did you hear from Pat?” she asked immediately.
“He sent me an e-mail, but I don’t think we’ll get very far that way.”
Sarah sat thinking for a moment, or perhaps she was just chewing her food. “Have you ever apologized to him?”
“I know you were in a rough spot. I mean, both of you were. But in the end it seems you won out. At least you could give him an apology.”
He thought for a moment. Apology. In Greek, its etymological parent, it meant something like defense or justification, and was not necessarily remorseful. Justification, an interesting word. But that wasn’t what Sarah meant. Luke had heard it all before, and at some level he knew she was right. “It’s not like I wanted to sell my share of dad’s business, but I had nothing except debt. I couldn’t simply give my inheritance to Pat just because he wanted it. He could have taken a loan and bought me out if it was so important to him.” He stopped a moment and wondered if he should say the next sentence, but before he decided, he spoke. “I’ve always wanted an apology from him. He put me in a tough situation. Basically he blackmailed me with our relationship. That wasn’t fair.”
Having spent most of their conversation slouched in her chair, Sarah suddenly sat up as she began to talk, settling back down mid-sentence. “No, I agree. I’ve talked to him about that too. It’s been a long time. You’re both hurting yourselves as much as each other now.” There was silence for awhile as someone brought over Luke’s soup, and he began to stir crackers into it. “You two are just so different.”
“Not really. We used to do everything together,” Luke replied.
“Even then, you were always at odds. Maybe you were too close in age.”
“You and I are only a year apart too.”
“But it wasn’t the same with us. I don’t know if it’s because I’m the oldest or just because I’m the only girl. I think with you two, you struggled so hard to define yourselves against each other, that you—I don’t know. You just couldn’t create yourselves without delegitimizing the other. You were inherently rivals.”
Luke would have laughed if she hadn’t sounded so serious. “What have you been reading?” he asked, but didn’t give her time to answer. “You might be right. But what can I do about it now? I’ve always tried to be open. I’m reaching out to him. It seems like you’re the only one who can reach either of us.”
Sarah smiled, but it was a sad smile. “I’ll keep trying. But what you two really need is something to push you together. Something you both care about that you can rally over.” She looked at her watch. “I’d better go. I have to pick up some things at the store for Cole.”
As she was getting up, he reached out and touched her arm. “I really appreciate what you’re doing, Sarah. I don’t want it to be this way. I just want us all to be together again.”
“So do I,” she replied, “and believe it or not, so does Pat.”
There was another e-mail waiting for him at home, one that seemed hastily written and redundant, simply repeating the same old discussion.
Luke, you took the business from me. You could have waited a year until I could afford to buy out your half. There was no reason you had to sell your shares then. It’s gone now and it will always be gone. If family is so important to you, you should have supported the family business.
Luke tried to think of a response, but nothing came to mind, at least nothing he hadn’t already said. The phone ringing interrupted his thoughts. He picked up without looking at the caller ID.
It sounded like Cole’s voice. But something about it was unusual.
“Sarah’s been in an accident.”
Luke wasn’t sure what he should do. A gasp came out naturally, and it was well that it did, because in his indecision to choose between saying either “Oh my God” or “I can’t believe it,” the moment passed. It was disturbingly abstract. In a movie there would have been a bigger reaction, something more dramatic. This somehow didn’t feel real enough for that, but he did know he needed to see her. Maybe that’s what he was waiting for. To see her body covered in tubes and bandages would be more dramatic than hearing her name over a phone. “What hospital is she at? When can I see her?”
The line went cold for a moment.
“Luke, she’s dead.”
The day of the funeral was also rainy. A heavy fog hung over the town, so thick that Luke imagined he could feel his body pushing through it, like walking in a swimming pool. The little gray church seemed solitary on the street corner; no one was waiting outside. The red doors simply hung open, a dark passage in between. When he first entered, it felt as if he was in some sort of mausoleum, but a faint light peered through the edges of the next door to the sanctuary, and he followed the white beams into the room.
It was quiet and empty. Apparently he was the first one to arrive for the viewing, and only the coffin, with half its top open, was there to greet him. The makeup artist had done a good job, Luke thought, at making it seem like his sister was only sleeping. It didn’t seem appropriate that she should look so alive when she was allegedly so dead. That’s what bothered him—the whole thing didn’t seem real yet, even after seeing the body there. He half expected her to sit up and greet him. Standing there by the corpse, he wondered if he should be acting sadder, and if something was wrong with him because he could not.
Turning around, Luke was startled to find her three children, his niece and nephews, there in the front pew. He had walked right past them; they were so short that their heads didn’t reach up beyond the seatback. As he walked down the steps from the altar, he felt like he was sinking lower, and like something was gripping his heart. Their faces, for the first time, made the tears well up inside of him. It was not for his loss, not even for his sister’s loss, but for theirs that his heart began to weep.
They hugged for awhile, crying silently. Words didn’t seem necessary, and what use would they have been? Their father, Cole, somehow mingled himself into the mass, and without them even noticing, he became a part of them, part of one group, feeling without thinking, together and without words.
Luke looked up at the sound of a door and saw Patrick entering quietly and modestly, tears also in his eyes. As he walked down the center aisle, the room dim around him and quiet aside from his footsteps, Luke realized he wanted his brother to join their group, and called out his name before he reached the coffin. Patrick slowed, and came to a stop. He turned and looked at Luke, but in the same way a stranger would, disturbed that someone he didn’t know had made awkward eye contact as they passed in the street. Luke thought Patrick might as well have been a phantom standing there before him; he would have believed that as much as he believed this was his brother, the boy with whom he had climbed the sycamore tree, whose first car he had helped wash, whose wedding party he had stood in, who now looked colder than their dead sister.
Nevertheless, there was a remorse building up in him more sincere than anything he had ever experienced. He knew he needed to reconnect with this person—and not let him just walk away, oblivious to how he felt. “Pat!” he called again. “Patrick, I’m sorry!”
He watched the word float from his mouth towards his brother, the elegant curve of the s led by the oddly shaped y, the hugging r’s and the rolling o. He watched the word brush past his brother’s ear, slowly, losing momentum with every second, a deep blue color, as if painted, glittering slightly. He saw it hit into the wall, each letter jostling into the next, and then watched the entire amalgamation slide down the burgundy wallpaper and onto the floor behind the coffin.
He didn’t bother to shout it again; he knew it would have the same effect. He realized his brother had not understood it, perhaps not heard it, but he found it strange that he evidently had not seen it. It had been quite an odd spectacle.
Solemnly he walked behind the casket—there was plenty of room between it and the wall. He looked down and picked up the word and examined it. Sorry. s-o-r-r-y. SORRY. sorry. What did it mean? He looked at the curving s again and considered what it represented. Maybe if he could figure it out, figure out how this word connected to what he felt, he could bring it to Patrick and explain it, prove it to him, show him. But there was no meaning in it, no sense in the y or the o or either r. And the glue that held the words together was losing hold. Like sand caked together, the letters were brittle, and began to fall apart. The grains were lost in the carpet, worthless. He looked up at Patrick, who looked back at him as if waiting for something. But nothing came