If he had come home earlier, Jon wonders, would he be dead or would his parents still be alive? The alternative scenarios interrupt each other on continuous replay in his head.
He stays home. He watches a movie with his mom (they found Pride and Prejudice in the DVD player a few days later, when the answering machine, amid professions of concern and proffers of food, bleated the automated late-movie reminder from the video store). His dad works in his study (the next day, the computer screen, always on, displayed the article on legal challenges to the Ohio election that Jerry had been working on, and Jon had to laugh when he closed the document and uncovered the Wikipedia page for Ohio Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell). Jerry comes in and says, as he does the night before every ski trip, “Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man first on the mountain and fast.” They all go to bed early. They all die. Anna finds them when she arrives in the morning with donuts for the drive to Vermont.
He stays home. Humoring his mom, he watches Pride and Prejudice. Then, ignoring his dad, as he has the night before every ski trip for years, he turns on Adult Swim after Jerry and Rachel go up to bed. He falls asleep on the couch and wakes up with a headache, feeling as if he might throw up. He goes to wake his mom, because what’s the point of feeling sick when you’re home from college if you can’t wake your mom? Rachel doesn’t wake up, which means something is wrong, because she always wakes up as soon as he enters her room. He feels worse. He calls 911. The paramedics arrive in a squeal of lights and sirens and carry them off to Mount Auburn. The next day Jerry complains about the ruined ski trip and Anna, standing by his hospital bed, reminds him that he is lucky to be complaining.
He goes out. The band isn’t very good, and he hears Jerry’s voice saying, “Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man first on the mountain and fast.” He goes home. He tries to be quiet on the stairs, but Rachel, who hears everything, calls to him and asks if he had fun. He goes into the bedroom, and both his parents are strange. His mom says she has a headache, but she doesn’t answer when he asks if she has taken anything for it. His dad seems about to fall asleep, but he’s leaning up against the pillows with a book on his lap, not curled on his side in the strangely child-like position in which he always sleeps. Jon asks if anything’s wrong, and they both look at him blankly.
From some deep reserve of dormant knowledge emerges an elementary-school lesson on home safety and himself as a serious third-grader, lecturing his parents about smoke detectors and carbon-monoxide alarms. Gathering his strength, he picks up his mother, quilt and all, and carries her outside, then runs back up the stairs, puts his father’s arm over his shoulder, and half-carries, half-drags him into the hall, down the stairs, and out the door. His parents start to feel better when they get outside, and soon they are arguing about whether to call Sebastian or Anna—which one will be less annoyed by a call in the middle of the night—or whether they should just go to a hotel and call in the morning. Still breathing heavily, Jon sits under the oak tree and wonders what it would have been like never to hear them bicker again.
He goes out. The band isn’t very good, so they decide to go to Matt’s house. They chat with Matt’s parents, who no longer seem to spend every moment in their presence scrutinizing them for signs that they are high or drunk (this must be what it’s like to be a grown-up: casual conversations with other people’s parents in which no one has to worry). Matt’s parents go to bed, and they get high on the patio and watch Animal Planet, the way they used to when they were kids, except not. Matt urges him to stay, but he remembers the ski trip and goes home. He lets Maxie out and shivers on the porch while she does her business by the oak tree. Jerry and Rachel’s light is out, so he heads up the stairs as quietly as he can and goes to bed. They all die.
He goes out. The band isn’t very good. They go to Matt’s house. Emily decides to come with them. They get high and squeeze onto the couch to watch Animal Planet. Emily sits next to him, and he wonders if her leg seems to press against his because there are four of them on the couch, or because, stoned, he is acutely aware of his extremities, or because Emily is actively pressing. When her fingers find their way to his knee, he lifts his arm and lays it nonchalantly across the back of the couch, just above her shoulders. When she nestles into his side, he knows that he will walk her home and that they will have sex on the couch in the family room in her basement and then sleep a little, covered by the Christmas-striped blanket knit by her grandmother. She wakes up before he does, shakes him awake, and tells him he has to go home, she has to get into bed. He tries to kiss her, to circle her breast with his hand, but she is already pulling on her shirt.
He walks home, not sure what the past few hours mean. He’s tired, but figures he can sleep in the car on the way to Vermont. He wonders if it’s even worth going to bed, or whether he should load the skis onto the roof rack and surprise his parents, maybe clean the garage. Letting himself quietly into the house, he stumbles over Maxie, who is lying on the rug, right in front of the door. Maxie, usually as quick to wake as Rachel, does not stir. Jon bends over and touches her. She is cold and stiff. He knows instantly that she is dead. For a moment he considers whether to wake his parents—or does he even think about it?
It all happens so fast, and some parts he remembers later with the brightness of a restored Technicolor classic, while others seem like a bad home video where you can’t tell if that shape on the carpet is the baby or the dog, and some of it is just blank, the buzzing blur of a channel you don’t get. He must still be a little wasted, his judgment not quite right, because he runs upstairs to wake his mom and tell her his dog is dead. He is already starting to cry. Rachel doesn’t wake up when he opens the door, but he doesn’t remember that till the next day, when Anna is making him tell her everything, every single thing, even that he slept with Emily again. He walks over to the bed and whispers, “Mom,” then again, this time in a cross between a whisper and a shout, “Mom.” She doesn’t respond, even when he grabs her arm and shakes it, hard.
Only that’s not a scenario. That’s what happened.
He called 911 first, then Anna, then Sebastian. He didn’t even think of calling Maeve, though she was the only one who might possibly be awake. Anna and Sebastian don’t think of her either, until late the next morning when they are sitting at the kitchen table in Anna’s apartment, making more calls.
One of Anna’s roommates is already gone for the holidays, and the other walked into the kitchen in his t-shirt and boxers, took a look at the three of them, and walked out. A few minutes later, they heard him bumping his bike off the rack on the wall, fumbling with the lock, and closing the door behind him, so lightly that the only sound was the click of the bolt. The roommate doesn’t even know—Anna’s phone was by her bed and she answered it on the first ring, so he didn’t wake up, despite the thin walls—but the sight of them is enough.
It should be raining, Jon thinks, or snowing, or dark. Even a brilliant blue sky would make a better background; their loss would be that much more incongruous, their grief obscene. But the sky through the window is a shifting mix of whitish blue and lumpy grayish clouds, signaling neither beauty nor meaning. The cold seeps between the peeling window sill and sash. The square pine table pushed up against the window holds their phones, keys, and half-drained Starbucks cups, as well as Rachel’s address book and Jerry’s Palm Pilot, which Sebastian somehow had the presence of mind to search for, even as the medics were making their requisite, pointless attempts to revive his parents in the master bedroom, already chilled through the hastily thrown-open windows.
Jon is the only one fully dressed, still wearing the faded jeans and fisherman’s sweater he wore last night. He has barely slept, and now he slides down the chair that is almost too small for him, his butt nearly edging off the front of the woven rush seat, his shoulder blades held up by the top of the wooden back.
Sebastian is in gray sweats and sneakers, his one-day stubble like another man’s new beard of half a week, brown with spots of gray on the sides of his chin. Sebastian used to shave for evening dates when he was in college. Jon remembers sitting in the bathtub, playing with boats, watching him smear the lather on his face and strip it off again. Sebastian is also too big for his chair, but he dominates it, legs planted wide apart, elbows grinding into the table, forehead resting on his fingertips, thumbs digging into the gray spots on his chin.
Anna wears the navy yoga pants she was sleeping in and a crimson Harvard Law sweatshirt, her long brown hair pulled off her pale face into a messy bunch at the top of her head. She sits as small as she can in her chair, feet on the seat and knees pulled up to her chest. The tears in her eyes keep overflowing, but she ignores them until she can’t any longer, and then she wipes them away with the sleeve of her sweatshirt. One arm hugs her knees, and the other hand leafs through Rachel’s address book.
“Aunt Susan,” Anna says.
“Maeve should call her,” says Sebastian. “I think they see each other sometimes when Susan goes to Hawaii.”
“Oh God. Maeve.” Anna lets the pages of the address book fall and says, slumping back in her chair, “Did you call her, Sebastian?”
“Fuck. I didn’t even think of it.” He picks up his BlackBerry. Jon and Anna watch as he finds the number and makes the call.
“You’ve got her in your contacts?” Jon marvels.
“She’s my sister,” says Sebastian. “Your sister.”
“Our sister in Hawaii who never comes home,” says Jon.
His head hurts. Maybe it’s the carbon monoxide, but he was only in the house for a few minutes. He called the ambulance from the bedroom and opened the windows as fast as he could before running outside. He refuses to wonder if he should have tried CPR or held his mother’s hand. They were dead, he knew it; there was no point. He stood on the walk, under the bare branches of the oak tree, darker than the dark sky, and called Anna and Sebastian, waking them both.
When he told Anna that Mom and Dad were dead, she gasped, then started to cry, mumbling, “Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god,” through her tears. He told her he’d call her back, he had to get Sebastian. He wondered why he wasn’t crying. The tears for his dog had stopped as soon as he found his parents’ bodies.
Sebastian didn’t cry when Jon told him Dad and Rachel were dead. He just said, “Fuck.” And again, “Fuck.” They were both silent until Sebastian said, “I’m on my way. Call my cell when you know what’s going on.” Jon could hear the rustling of clothes before Sebastian even got off the phone.
Now Jon wonders why he was so certain they were dead, why he didn’t tell Anna and Sebastian that they wouldn’t wake up, the ambulance was on its way, he’d let them know as soon as there was any news. What if they’d only been dead for a minute, maybe two, and the medics had revived them, and he’d had to call back and say he’d been wrong? Another scenario. But when his mother didn’t wake up, he knew she was dead.
“What about Caroline?” asks Anna.
“Fuck,” says Sebastian, holding the BlackBerry to his ear. “Fuck, fuck. Hi, Maeve?”
Anna and Jon listen to the one-sided conversation. Jon looks up at the ceiling. Anna, her knees against her chest, twists the stack of silver bracelets around her wrist, ordering them into a pattern nobody else can see.
“Maeve, it’s Sebastian… Not so good. There’s some bad news… No, Dad. And Rachel. There was a carbon monoxide thing in the house… Maeve, they’re dead… Sometime early this morning. Jon found them… At Anna’s apartment… Me and Jon and Anna… Home with the kids… We’re going to tell them when I get home. They think I went in to work… Well, I guess tomorrow. Or as soon as you can get here. The Jewish thing.” He rolls his eyes, then flicks a guilty glance across the table at Anna and Jon.
Tears slide along Anna’s cheeks. Jon takes a sip of his coffee. It’s barely lukewarm.
“So when will you get here?… Maeve, for God’s sake, I’ll pay for the plane ticket… Call me when you make the reservation. We’ll pick you up… Okay, I’ll talk to you later… Bye.”
Anna wipes her cheeks with her sleeve again, sniffs, and then sighs, her whole body heaving. She looks as if it is taking every atom of her being not to collapse, not to melt into pure tears. Jon remembers the slack feel of his mother’s unresponsive arm and how, when the medic asked him to turn on the bedroom light, her skin was already going gray.
“Caroline,” says Anna.
Sebastian leans back in the too-small chair, his hand, holding the BlackBerry, resting on his leg. He tips his head up and looks at the ceiling, but his eyes are closed. He breathes out, heavily, and makes the call.
“Mom,” he says, “did I wake you up?” For the first time in Jon’s life, his older brother sounds like a little boy. As Sebastian tells his mother that Jerry is dead, he cries for the first time that morning, though Jon wonders if he also cried alone in his car, as he drove down Route 2 from Concord to Cambridge.
When I started 76 Washington Ave, which was then called Skylights, I wanted to write a novel about real estate, which meant I needed a house, which meant somebody needed to die. I wrote this opening chapter first, and it changed very little over the eight (!) years it took me to write the book. The siblings were already themselves—observant Jon, responsible Sebastian, lost Anna, distant Maeve—and the complicated relationships among them already existed, based not only on their personalities but on their different mothers and ages. Filmmaking was a presence from the first lines I wrote.
I knew very early that the story would unfold in three chunks—the week after Jerry and Rachel die in December, Jon’s spring break in March, and the Cape Cod family weekend in July—and that the chapters would alternate in perspective among the four siblings. But the vague plot I had in mind involved the real-estate market, a homeless shelter, and the South Asian tsunami (don’t even ask).
Then I shared the first chapter with a friend, whose response was “I’m so excited that you’re writing a book about divorce, and I can’t wait to see what happens to these people.” I realized immediately that she was right, but I had no idea how much her comment would shift the book. As I wrote about Sebastian, Maeve, Anna, and Jon, narrating their grief and back stories, their charismatic, narcissistic father, Jerry, slowly became the novel’s absent focal point, and I eventually realized that the central conflict I had envisioned (over what to do with the house) was not enough to sustain the book. Fortunately, Jerry’s two big secrets came to me in the proverbial flash—even though, when I revised the manuscript and saw how much I had already foreshadowed them, it seemed that they had long been brewing.
The book still begins with film metaphors and ends with a movie. Maeve is still obsessed with the tsunami. Someone still falls through the skylight, and the siblings still have to decide what to do about the house. But 76 Washington Ave is now a novel about death, divorce, secrets, and uncertainty that asks us to consider how we really know what we think we know.
Rebecca Steinitz lives in Boston, Massachusetts. Although 76 Washington Ave is her first novel, she writes regularly for The Boston Globe and Cognoscenti, and her reviews, essays, and articles have appeared in many print and online publications. She is also the author of an academic book, Time, Space, and Gender in the Nineteenth-Century British Diary, a relic of her previous life as an English professor. These days she works as a literacy consultant in urban schools, but she tries to squeeze as much writing as she can into the margins.