When he died no one could believe it. It was Jude, dead at twenty-eight. It felt like the wrong ending. The news arrived as a knock at the door. Though it wasn’t yet dark, everyone remembered it as night. Jude’s father descended the stairs past a gilded crucifix, past the print of a soft-faced Jesus swaddled in aura, looking at the ground. When Jude’s father opened the door that same man they prayed to all those years was standing out there except he was dressed as a police officer. He asked Jude’s father to step out into the driveway—just a gap between the houses, really—where the police officer struck him in the sternum. He went down onto one knee, from the shock of it. Jude’s father caught only certain words, phrases of what was said. Jude’s name. Also: Black ice. T-bone’d. Power pole. At ‘t-bone’d’ he thought of a cleaver coming down upon a wooden countertop and tiny splinters flying off. When Jude’s father went back inside several floorboards in the kitchen were missing. For the rest of their lives, everyone who lived in the house learned to navigate the gap. It was only strange to visitors, to the eventual grandchildren who peered into the basement through the subfloor and cast pennies down the hole or maraschino cherries from the sticky jar that made their Shirley Temples. If an uncle were sitting at the basement bar, conferring with a glass of scotch, he would look up and watch their tiny munitions gain shape from nothing, trying not to flinch as each struck the counter top— some heads up, others tails. Never a cherry in his drink. Jude’s mother refused to believe it. The news upended a full glass of chianti onto the living room carpet. For the remainder of the evening she knelt with a bottle of club soda and blotted at the red. Jude’s father collected his other son. There had been an accident, he said. At a certain point it became clear to Jude’s brother they were driving to the morgue. The temperature warmed well into the night and the ice that killed Jude was now water or part of the air and all around them. In a blank space like a classroom, a sheet was peeled back. Here was the face Jude’s brother had seen every day, had pulled towards his own body with an arm around the neck or slapped in jest, lightly, how a little girl would slap. It was the face he once cupped in his hands to examine a shiner—who would hit his little brother?—asking all the while who was responsible, demanding it. “That’s my brother,” he said finally. Because none of it was real and that was what one would have said in the movies. Only, somehow, it came out sounding like a question.
Years earlier, there was an incident in the attic. Jude was up there playing and cut his wrist on a broken mirror. His brother found him, tore off a curtain and applied pressure. Not knowing what else to do they sat together in the attic. What were you even doing?, Jude’s brother asked. Jude said he was boxing against himself. He had just won. As evidence he held up his torn arm. When their mother came home and discovered them she unstuck her two sons and rushed the youngest to the hospital where he would one day be pronounced dead. On this occasion all the sutures took in time, twenty-seven of them, and no gap between any two was big enough for his outsized soul to escape. After hearing what happened, Jude’s father took the mirror into his workshop where he scored a line along the surface and broke it in half between two gloved hands. His father was not a superstitious man. This was so it would fit in the trash.
Jude’s fiancée was in the car when it happened. She lived. The family tried to see her in the hospital. All she could do was cry and apologize, as though she did it, grabbed at the wheel in a fit of curiosity and steered them into that power pole. One could not linger long in her hospital room. It always felt overcrowded with the ghosts of all their children in there, jumping on the end of the bed and pulling at tubes, tugging at wires. No one expected they would have so many. At a certain point, Jude’s mother was bereft of tears, but in moments like these continued to pull a handkerchief from her purse and up to her eyes, as one did in a play, to signify grief.
The funeral home never saw such a line. They added an extra hour to the viewing and the line snaked around into the parking lot. A man in a black bowler opened the door every few minutes for a new group to enter. Outside everyone was talking about Jude, his magnetism, his unprompted kindness, and the sky became so thick with remembering that it filled up with snow. So many came that Jude’s family and his fiancée thought maybe they had not known him at all. They were always in the center of the web. They did not know its width or its breadth, the magnitude of what it caught. And afterwards, in the church which on that day seemed a stadium, all were waiting for the hinged roof of god’s house to open, for some larger actor to appear if only to reassure all within that it had not been, in some small way, their fault.
-- Greg Tebbano’s fiction has appeared in Nimrod, Folio, Third Point Pressand is forthcoming in FRiGG. He has been a resident at Vermont Studio Center and a finalist for the Robert C. Jones Prize for Short Prose, the Katherine Anne Porter Prize and the Lorian Hemingway Short Story Competition. If you are a literary agent interested in reading his unpublished first novel, If She Doesn’t Exist, Why Do I Miss Her?(a lovers’ tragedy which reads like a broken bottle), please contact him at gregtebbano.com.