On the morning of her sister’s return, Bess got up before dawn and walked her old German Shepherd to the trail beside the river. It was the beginning of a hot morning early in the summer and the air around the river smelled like gasoline. She walked Carter until the 31st Street Bridge, when the dog got too tired and lay down. They rested at the edge of the river, listening to cars roll above, and Bess quietly threw up.
Natalie was back from her third rehabilitation program, this time in Maryland, and was planning on living with their father in his apartment in the West End of Pittsburgh. At noon, Bess waited with her gold station wagon outside of the bus station downtown. She hadn’t seen Natalie since December, when they visited their mother in Denver. Natalie had been sober for a few months and seemed to be doing well. Their mother was remarried with two teenage sons, and the older boy had recently had his wisdom teeth removed. Natalie and Bess left separately the day after Christmas. When Bess got home, her mother left her a frantic message. The boy’s pain pills were missing.
Natalie came out of the station, two large bags over her shoulders, and looked healthy. Her hair was long and she was wearing it curly now, she was taller than Bess by a few inches and had always been the prettier sister by a long shot. Her chest and shoulders were covered in freckles and she’d put on some weight. Bess thought her sister always looked so good after rehab.
“I thought Dad was picking me up,” Natalie said.
“Sorry,” Bess said, “I thought it would be nice if I got you.”
“It is nice!” she said. “God, it’s so hot today.”
“It’s been like this all week.”
“I always forget what Pittsburgh is like until I’m back.”
When they arrived in the West End, they found their father still nervously preparing for their arrival. Hank lived in the second floor apartment above a storefront, across the street from his job as a Bookmobile mechanic for the library. Hank was sixty-seven and still working part-time, something that Bess hated. Natalie put her bags in the hallway outside of the living room, which had been hastily converted into a bedroom for her. He’d set up an air mattress with a set of crisp sheets still folded on top of it. There were towels, an alarm clock. He had a large swath of fabric—something from the garage, probably—hanging up in the doorway for her privacy. Bess looked at this set-up and felt terrible for telling Natalie that she couldn’t stay with her at her house in Lawrenceville. Bess couldn’t watch over Natalie, though, she couldn’t be any kind of guardian. Their father touched the back of his head and looked at the girls.
“I’m making lunch,” he said.
“Don’t worry about it,” Natalie said. She still had not taken her sunglasses off.
“Aren’t you hungry?”
“I am,” said Bess.
The apartment was old and in bad shape. Hank bought the building a few years earlier and had done very little to improve it. He rented out the first floor apartment to a young father and you could, on the weekends, hear cartoons from the television downstairs. Hank had an old formica-top table in the kitchen with red plastic chairs situated halfway between the fridge and the washer and dryer.
They sat at the table in the kitchen, overlooking the street below. Their father’s truck was parked half on the sidewalk and half in the street. Hank made turkey and egg sandwiches and washed the dishes as they ate. Bess noticed a tattoo on the inside crook of Natalie’s elbow: a small, cursive capital letter A. Natalie caught her looking at it.
“Is that new?”
“It’s for a friend,” Natalie said.
Bess looked at it thinking, what a strange place for an ex-junkie to get a tattoo. Natalie must have known what she was thinking.
“I never shot up there, it’s harder for girls to find veins in the arm,” she said. “I just went in the muscle. Right in the neck.”
Bess never knew how to respond to shit like this. Natalie lit a cigarette and pulled the ashtray closer to her. The smoke was bothering Bess, more than usual, and she asked Natalie to open the window. Natalie gave her a look and lifted the screen, leaning her hand gingerly out the window. Hank came and sat at the table with them, drying his hands on a towel.
“I’m going to make dinner for my girls tonight,” Hank said.
Natalie blew her smoke outside, then smiled at Bess.
“Isn’t that cute? His girls,” she said.
“I’ll have to come back tonight,” Bess said, still feeling sick from the smoke. “I have to walk the dog.”
“Don’t even try to take the bridge until at least 6:30,” Hank said, lighting his own cigarette. Bess moved her chair away from the table.
Bess went home after lunch to walk the dog. Carter was thirteen with terrible arthritis, so she had to apply a warm compress to his joints after every walk. He had a big pale cataract eye and was losing hair around his tail. They sat on the back porch together as the afternoon cooled down. Bess did proofreading for a textbook company in the summers, teaching a class one night a week. She sat with a chapter on Indus Valley art history and Carter got up and went out to piss in the tall, browning grass that Bess was neglecting.
Bess was ten weeks pregnant to a man she had been living with. Joe had left because Bess asked him to, when she said that she no longer felt she could be good to him. Although she did not know she was pregnant when she said this, she had meant it then and could not convince herself that she thought otherwise now. Joe was a good, straightforward man and his absence showed all over the house. The bathroom was still half-renovated with stripped walls and a missing cabinet beside the mirror. Bess was not sure where Joe was staying and had not spoken to him since he left.
Bess drove back to her father’s apartment at six and sat in traffic, as her father had warned her, for at least twenty minutes on the bridge. When she arrived, her father was cooking in the kitchen and Natalie was watching television on the couch. Bess sat down next to her. Natalie looked over Bess and into the kitchen, and then kept her voice quiet.
“I think Dad is losing it,” she said.
“He said that his father visited him in a dream and told him that he will die before he turns seventy.”
“Oh, Christ,” Bess said.
“It’s like he hit a wall, Bess, a fucking wall.”
At dinner, Bess watched Hank carefully. As he coordinated with Natalie on how to drop her off and pick her up at her meetings, she saw the strains he took just in small movements. Hank was a big guy who, with age, was less able to manage his build and besides, was soft and damaged from years of abuse. He pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket to blow his nose and Bess watched his leg shaking.
“Dad,” she said, “are you shaking?”
He put the handkerchief back in his pocket.
“My dad had the shakes before he died,” he said. “But he was a heavy drinker until the end.”
“Is it just your leg?” Natalie said.
“My hands sometimes, too. I can stop it if I want, though.”
“Jesus, Dad,” Bess said.
They sat at the table, Bess feeling upset in a way she couldn’t get a handle on. She folded and unfolded her napkin in her lap. All she could think was that this was how her father begins to die—shaking at the table, pretending everything is okay.
“Girls,” he said, “I’ve been thinking a lot about making arrangements. For when I pass.”
“Stop it,” Natalie said, raising her voice.
“Natalie,” he said.
“Stop it,” she said, lighting a cigarette. She put the cigarette in her mouth and lit it, looking up at Hank and Bess. “Don’t say another word,” she said.
They sat in silence and Bess held her head in her hands.
“You remember when we used to live by Homewood Cemetery?” he said.
“Are you serious?” Natalie said. Hank ignored her.
“When you got that dog, Bess, and we walked him in the mornings to the duck pond?”
“Yeah, dad,” Bess said.
“If you can get me a plot close to Pie Traynor’s,” he said, “that would be very nice.”
At this, Natalie got up and went out on to the fire escape and slammed the door behind her. Hank sat quietly, his shaking subsiding, and then continued with his dinner. The smoke from Natalie’s cigarettes came in through the window above the sink.
“Best third-baseman in ball history,” he said, nodding to himself.
Bess looked up at him, not even sure where to start.
“Okay,” she said.
Bess lived in an old rowhouse on the slopes of Lawrenceville, across the street from an old arsenal that had been converted into a school. It was in bad shape when she bought, so it went for nothing, and Joe helped her to renovate most of it. It was her house, though, and she could not imagine herself anywhere else.
She decided to drive the dog to the cemetery for his walk, take him around to the duck pond. It had rained the night before and everything was cool and wet. Carter walked ahead of her in the dirt. She let him go off of the leash, headed down the trails towards the duck pond, and she walked by herself for a few minutes. She passed the section that Pie Traynor was buried in and paused, thinking of his small headstone fit in among dozens of other small headstones. Where was her father going to go? She walked on, catching up to Carter, and he chased after a duck. She called after him but he ran, barking after the bird. The duck took off and Carter collapsed, having run too much for his old legs. Bess took him into her arms and struggled to carry him back to the car, the dog whimpering in pain and exhaustion. When they got back to her house, Bess fell asleep with Carter in her bed. She held on to her stomach, feeling the weight of it.
Later in the week, she went over to her father’s to visit. Natalie had cut bangs into her hair and dyed it darker, which Bess thought made her look a little severe. They watched a television program on the assassination of Abraham Lincoln together. Hank got up and down several times to use the phone or the restroom. He seemed unsettled, but since Natalie’s arrival, he never seemed quite comfortable in his house.
“I’m going crazy,” Natalie said. “Can we go out tonight?”
Bess looked at her for a moment, her mouth open.
“Not to a bar, come on,” Natalie said. “Just out.”
Hank came back into the room.
“Immaculate Conception is having a carnival,” he said.
“Oh, yes,” said Natalie. “Definitely.” She was grinning widely.
“Do you need some money?” Hank said.
“Probably,” Natalie said.
Bess was struck by how strange the sight of Hank reaching into his wallet and handing Natalie a twenty was. How young Natalie was then.
The carnival was in the parking lot of Immaculate Conception Church in Bloomfield, about ten blocks from Bess’s house. They bought a set of ride tickets for the Ferris wheel and got in line for funnel cake. Natalie was wearing a leopard-print t-shirt and tight black pants and didn’t look like anyone else there.
“Dad thinks you’re pregnant,” she said.
“He had a dream about it,” she said and laughed. “He said you were holding a baby girl in your arms and you had named her Charlotte.”
“These dreams he keeps having,” Bess said, her voice small.
“I know! I told you, he’s losing it,” she said. “Meanwhile, I’m the one who looks pregnant. I’ve put on at least ten pounds since rehab.”
Bess collected herself. “You look fine.”
They sat on a curb at the edge of the carnival and ate their shared funnel cake. Bess gingerly separated strands, but Natalie made no effort to be neat about it. Bess drank her lemonade and it made her teeth hurt.
“Dad told me today that he wished I didn’t hate myself so much and I started bawling,” Natalie said. “Just said it out of nowhere and it made me fall apart.”
“That’s a hard thing to hear,” she said.
Bess started to speak when she saw Natalie’s face drop. Bess turned to see what Natalie was looking at it, but Natalie was already scrambling to get up.
“We have to go,” she said.
“We have to go.”
A man with light blonde hair and a large gray t-shirt, he looked young and mean, was walking towards them. Bess found herself instinctively placing a hand on Natalie’s shoulder. Natalie looked at the man and then tore away, walking quickly towards the open end of the parking lot. They cut through a strip of trees and around another building before Natalie slowed down.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “can we just go back to Dad’s?”
“Yes, yes,” Bess said.
“Listen,” Natalie said, her eyes starting to tear up, “I’m still in trouble with some people here, and I just saw someone who I am in special trouble with.”
“What kind of trouble?
“Jesus, Bess, just trouble. It’s Aaron’s brother and I don’t need to ever see him again,” she said.
“Can we please go back now, please?”
In the car, driving back across the bridge, Bess looked over at Natalie’s tattoo, A for Aaron. Who knows who Aaron was. The sun was setting over the river and they sat, warm in the car, waiting for the traffic to move.
At their father’s house, Natalie went immediately to the kitchen and poured a glass of water for herself. Bess could hear the storm door open and close, Natalie out on the fire escape. Hank was folding laundry in front of the television.
“How was the carnival?” he said.
“It was fine,” Bess said.
She passed through the living room and went after Natalie, who was sitting and drinking with both of her hands around the glass. Natalie was trembling.
“Please don’t cry,” Bess said.
“I feel like I’m never going to get away from the bad parts of myself,” she said, keeping her voice lower than the sounds of the television. “I’m surrounded by bad news, and I’m one bad day away from using again. It’s like there are triggers everywhere.”
“Oh, Natalie,” Bess said.
Natalie started crying into her knees. Bess put her arm around her sister and thought how little she knew about her Natalie. Her stomach felt tight and warm, as though there were ropes around her. It was still so early, there was nothing to feel in there. She touched her hand to her stomach, pressing it. They sat like that for a while, what felt like hours, until Natalie calmed down and went back inside.
Bess got back to her house and Carter had thrown up several times in the kitchen. It looked like he had eaten an old sponge out of the garbage. She looked at Carter, his limbs sprawled out, sleeping loudly on the kitchen floor and she started to cry. She left the room and went to her phone in the hallway. She called Joe and he didn’t answer and she sank to the floor, crying so hard that her chest was heaving. What a mess I am, she thought, what a mess.
The phone rang several minutes later and she answered.
“Hi Bess,” Joe said.
“Are you okay?”
His voice sounded like he was being very careful with her. She looked over to her dog and she took a sharp breath.
“The dog got into something and he’s sick all over the place,” she said. “I don’t know, I’m sorry for calling.”
“Are you okay?”
“Bess, tell me if you’re not okay,” he said.
“I’m okay,” she said.
“I’m going to go,” he said.
She hung up and went into the kitchen and cleaned up. She checked her dog for a temperature and then went to take a shower and go to bed. She could feel the blood pumping in her abdomen like it was heavier somehow. It was still so early in the pregnancy, too early to feel so much inside.