After Dana let go, I hugged my father, but it just wouldn't take. He was too far gone into his own pain and misery. We were both mumbling words that couldn't express what we were feeling.
Thank God for Mack, I thought as my grandfather put his arms around me. When I was little, my grandfather had been a large, thickly muscled man. In his mid-forties, he tipped the scales at a Mullen family record of 237 pounds and needed little provocation to throw it around. In the past twenty years, he'd shed more than a third of that weight, but he still possessed enormous hands and big, thick bones, and he embraced me with such shocking ferocity that it almost knocked out my wind.
He clutched me for dear life, and whispered in my ear: "Jack, they say Peter went swimming and drowned. It's the single biggest piece of crap I've ever heard."
THE MULLENS CLIMBED INTO THE BACK of the police cruiser, and Dana sat up front with Belnap.
As I looked at her through the scuffed-up Plexiglas, she seemed a million miles away. She turned and whispered, "Oh, Jack," then stalled, unable to finish her thought.
Light flashing but no siren, we pulled out of the deserted lot and sped westward through the quiet center of town. "Last night was the big Memorial Day weekend party," said my grandfather, breaking the awful silence, "and Peter was parking cars as usual. About nine he grabs some supper. But when the party breaks up and it's time to retrieve the cars, Peter's nowhere to be found.
"His absence is noted, but since it's not exactly unheard of, no one gives it much mind. Two hours ago, Dr. Elizabeth Possidente is walking her rottweiler. The dog starts acting crazy. She runs after him and almost trips over Peter's body where it washed up at the edge of the Neubauer property. He's still there, Jack. I wouldn't let them move the body till you got here."
I listened to my grandfather's low, gravelly voice. To me, it's the most comforting, intelligible voice in the world, but I could barely take in a word.
I felt equally disconnected from the passing scenes outside the window. Plaza Sporting Goods, the Memory Motel, John's Drive-Inn, and Puff 'n' Putt looked nothing like I remembered. The colors were wrong, too bright and hot. The whole town looked radioactive.
For the rest of the trip, I sat on the hump of the transmission between my father, John Samuel Sanders Mullen, and my grandfather, Macklin Reid Mullen, feeling the heartbroken sadness of one and the heartbroken rage of the other. We didn't move, didn't speak. Images of Peter were flashing in my head as though there were a projector there.
Belnap's cruiser finally swerved off Bluff Road and sped through the open gates of the Neubauer compound, where it turned away from the house and made its way slowly down an unpaved road. It stopped a hundred yards from where the surf, whitecapped and furious, pounded the shore. The place where my brother had died.
THE PLATFORM at the train station had been too crowded. The beach was just the opposite. I stepped unsteadily onto a lovely stretch of moonlit sand. There were no police photographers documenting the scene, no investigators sifting for clues. Only the crashing waves showed any urgency.
My chest was tight. My vision was warped, as if I were taking in this scene through a long, thin tunnel. "Let me see Peter," I said.
My grandfather led me across the sand to the ambulance. Hank Lauricella, a close friend who volunteered for EMS two nights a week, opened the rear door and I stepped in. There was Peter....
The back of the van was as bright as an operating room, but all the light in the world isn't enough to see your kid brother stretched out naked and dead on a steel gurney. Aside from husband and wife, there's more bad blood between brothers than any other familial pairing. But there wasn't any between us, and that's not rosy, revisionist history. The seven-year age difference, and the even bigger difference in our natures, made us less competitive; and because our mother died so young and a lot of our father died with her, there wasn't much to compete for anyway.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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