In the approximate center of our bed my wife folds her brother’s shirts and his washcloths, and she asks me what I think one sees inside men’s heads. I haven’t seen much, I tell her. But the truth is I once saw in my own head a cottage I used to inhabit in Faro for a brief period in my twenties, mid-winter, probably the dimmest, darkest period of my life.

She stops bending a pair of her brother’s work slacks and looks up to judge me. So many attractive people from her land, with so many pink, bath-washed cheeks, and the eyes somehow clear and alight, somehow untouched—how do faces like this go so many years into life without someone having touched them? Who has protected these people’s faces and bright eyes?

You have become really false, she tells me, and she tells me that she remembers when I used to just tell her things directly. I used to ask you, she says, Do I have something in my teeth? And you used to say, she says, Yes, it’s right there, and you’d tell me where. And now you say things like, All of a sudden emptiness turns into abundance and desperation turns into life, or something pointlessly bleak like this, and I have no idea who you are or what we’re becoming.
You are folding your brother’s pants on our bed, I say.

She pauses. Yes, and obviously that is why I asked what you thought went on in the heads of men. Obviously I wasn’t looking for you to wax. Obviously I was looking for you to comment directly on my brother. What is going on inside his head is what I was asking and something like, He’s an ass, he has nothing at all in his head, is sort of the region I was expecting.

Without taking her eyes from mine, she summons her mother, and into the room very quietly her mother enters. And coming up beside me by the bed upon which my wife sits, not having been asked anything, not a single question, my wife’s mother invokes the image of an incredibly muscular woman no larger than a pumpkin seed, and the little woman is an artist and political consultant from whom hundreds of thousands have flown and driven from miles around in order that they might divine clarity and economic wisdom from this tiny woman. That’s who is in there. That’s what you see in the head of my son, she says.

Then we are all folding the clothes on the bed in silence. My mother-in-law is beside me, taking on the rigorous project of the boy’s baggy cargo shorts. The comforter is brushing the skin just above my knees, and it is soft.

He is a good boy, is my point, her mother says after several minutes.

I am holding one of his brown socks in search of its match. When I do not find the match, I sit down on the edge of our bed and slip the sock over my own. I tug it on.

He should have his own house was my point, my wife says.

He should have many things he does not have.

My wife puts down the large towel she’s been folding, leaving it angular and incongruent across her knees. She rests the back of her hands on this towel and just gazes at her open palms. In another room, somewhere downstairs, our children are playing and shouting.

I think you are jealous of him, her mother adds. Then she sighs. I think we are all jealous of him.

My wife’s brother is taller than me, and he’s really thick, physically. It’s difficult to discern his intellectual thickness because while he tends to speak very little he’s apparently very successful financially—and he has the three of us doing his laundry in a house for which he pays nothing. I unbutton my shorts and let them drop to the floor. His waist is larger than mine, and stepping into his pant legs, which have unfurled to the carpet like the tongues of injured cartoon cats, seems easy and natural. There’s a great deal of vacancy in my brother-in-law’s pants. I apply my belt to the cinching.

I’m just realizing, I say, I’m just sort of getting that what you most often see in men’s heads is a sort of palsied beige and green, water-thinned foliage that you think to yourself, This cannot possibly be mature yet, but then you sort of realize it must be fully mature because the weather is cold and summer is probably nearly over, and what it is is what it is and it isn’t going to get fuller or more fully leaved than this.

I can see from my angle the basic contortion of my wife’s face wincing. That’s great, she says. That’s just really fabulous.

I thank her.

Her mother says nothing. She cannot stand me. She pulls a white sleeveless shirt from under a short pile of her son’s t-shirts, and she pushes it into my chest. I take it. It’s an undershirt. It’s a really nice material.

You can have that, my brother-in-law says. I don’t wear that shit anymore.

My wife snaps upright to his entrance. Then why is it in your fucking wash we’re all sitting her folding for you?

He throws his body on our bed before anyone else speaks, and he lies back and shoves his hands under my pillow and stares at our ceiling. I pick up a second pair of his pants that have been bent beneath two or three of his large towels, and I extend the pants to him. He prefers, it seems, to rest on our bed in his underpants. He doesn’t take his eyes off the ceiling. Then I take them back and hand them to his mother, who is smiling at him and shaking her head softly.

I look at my wife. Her cheeks are flush, and her eyes, I can see from my angle, are watery. She is determined to roll socks into tightly bound balls. Her brother’s feet, which are very close to my wife’s leg, are also bare. The children are surely still downstairs, but I can no longer hear them. I can’t help but ponder again the endurance of my wife’s beauty and generosity before I decide at last to let them all know that I find them sick people and that this entire scene disgusts me.

I say directly to my wife, I will tell you what’s in my head. What’s in my head is that you’re the worst person in this room, because you know better, and then more things like this come out of my mouth, because they feel like someone has shoved them in there and I can no longer hold any of them in there anymore, and just as it is when marshmallows go in with the Pepsi, at a certain point the powerful sweetness becomes overwhelming sickness and all of what is inside must come bursting outside.
And I myself then burst from that room of ours, our bedroom and our house, and I go down the stairs and out our front door. I have no keys in my pocket, so I cannot get into my car, and I stand by my brother-in-law’s gorgeous car, which he’s parked directly behind ours, and I touch it with my fingertips and say things to it in my head that I cannot say aloud. I say, How can you not see smoke trembling under the roof of our home, as we once did in Faro, in what we’d agreed was the darkest period of our lives? And my wife says, I see it but a house is the warmest place, and as long as one doesn’t stay long one probably shouldn’t mind going in and staying for a time.

The neighbors are grooming their lawn on this late summer afternoon. I make the mistake of looking over at them. One of them waves. The other comes over and comments on my pants and undershirt. Sort of a carnival thing, he says. We laugh, but I see him take a second look before he walks away.

I am standing then alone in the driveway. I look back at our house and the doorway through which I have burst. It is the warmest place. It is crippled by smoke huddling and trembling over soot, but it’s the cleanest place. I suddenly realize through the glare that our kids are staring at me though the screen door, which still holds its winter storm glass, and standing behind them is my wife’s brother in his underpants. He points at me. Good look, he says. This is sincerity. Or maybe he says, Good luck.

Christopher Merkner

CHRISTOPHER MERKNER is the author of a collection of stories, THE RISE & FALL OF THE SCANDAMERICAN DOMESTIC (Coffee House). He teaches for and co-directs the creative writing program at West Chester University.

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