by Michael Tilley
Mary had another coughing fit, this one so bad she needed to excuse herself.
She fled into the hall, the waitress wincing in sympathy as she passed, and a moment later the heavy front door of Heinrich’s whined open and thudded shut. Looking out the window, Finneran saw his sister hacking into her fist on the gusty sidewalk. He frowned and turned away.
It was early, not yet four-thirty, but a day so gray that all the lights were on, washing the half-timbered dining room with a dull yellow glow. Just a few other tables were occupied, in each case by ancients next to whom Mary and Finneran counted as young. One of them, a tiny man in a wheelchair sitting opposite his even more diminutive wife, had spent the last three minutes dissecting a slab of sauerbraten, the smell of which suffused the air around Finneran. Across the room, beneath a staring boar’s head, the waitress was mechanically folding tired cloth napkins that she stacked in a wicker picnic basket. The only noise was the sparse clink of silverware.
Just like their parents, Mary and Finneran ate an early dinner at Heinrich’s every Sunday.
Once again, the door whined and thudded, and a second after, Mary reappeared. Sitting back down, she immediately took a long drink of water. Her eyes were red and teary from all the coughing and from the cold.
“You all right?” Finneran muttered.
His sister waved brusquely and pretended to study the menu.
The waitress, bringing a fresh glass of water for Mary, ambled over to take their order. Her name was Kate, she was studying to be a nurse, and at work she wore a Bavarian milkmaid braid.
Finneran’s eye went to the small, shattered heart tattooed on her breast, which, being situated on her dirndl’s neckline, was peeking in and out of sight according to her movements.
They ordered the usual: jagershnitzel for Mary and the sandwich platter for Finneran.
“Extra liverwurst, right?”
“And two bowls of goulash,” Mary added.
Kate left, and Mary slipped on glasses to look at her phone while Finneran drank his beer and thought about nothing.
The idea of skipping a Sunday at Heinrich’s quite literally never occurred to Finneran; indeed, at fifty-five, he had lost the ability even to conceive of deviating from his routine. It’d been this way for some time now. Nothing remotely new or different—which might’ve kept alive his capacity to adjust by forcing adjustment upon him—had happened to him in ages.
Finneran conducted his life by rote. Opening his eyes each morning, he knew, by the day of the week alone, exactly what lay ahead. There never was a question of what to do with himself, of how to fill the hours. Numbly acquiescent, he simply stuck to the unchanging schedule—a seven-day program running on a continuous loop—that constituted his existence.
On Sundays, this meant dinner at Heinrich’s. In the beginning, sixteen years earlier, right after moving back home following his divorce, he’d gone along grudgingly, strictly out of consideration for his mother, who was still alive then. Now Finneran didn’t even think about it: Sunday came and he walked out the door with Mary and went. It was just the way it was.
But Sundays were an anomaly. For one thing, they were—and always had been—the only time Finneran spent with his sister. Living together for reasons of practicality and inertia, they otherwise functioned almost as strangers, usually interacting only in passing. To Finneran, this too was “the way it was.” And the same mindless submission to habit that made their outings to Heinrich’s inviolable also kept the notion of doing more with Mary from ever entering his head.
For another, Sunday represented the sole bit of variety in a weekly cycle comprised of days that, with this exception, were all but indistinguishable.
Finneran sold folding chairs, a grim occupation the main virtue of which was that he made his own hours; as a result, Mary, a receptionist in a dentist’s office, typically was off to work before he’d gotten out of bed. After emerging from his room, he’d pass the morning puttering about the apartment, leaving to catch the subway into Manhattan only once The Price Is Right was over. Dressed in one of his three ill-fitting suits (except on Saturdays, when, going in, he wore ill-fitting jeans and, depending on the season, either a threadbare polo shirt or a sweater with an elbow hole), he’d roll into his office around lunchtime with a few slices or a sandwich. He’d head directly to his cubicle, situated beneath a perpetually flickering light fixture and beside that of a guy who sold windshield wipers. Save an outdated pricing list and a faded Mets pennant, the cubicle’s walls were bare.
Leak stains covered the office’s ceiling; its windows were cloudy and the upholstery of the chairs in the waiting area was torn; half the time the toilet didn’t work, sending everyone downstairs to the Chinese takeout, where you took a piss staring at a lopsided photo of the Great Wall. Finneran’s boss, a gaunt misanthrope named Erlichmann, didn’t care. It was a bum business, staking peddlers of low-margin products to a desk and a phone in exchange for a cut of sales, and his return was putrid. He wasn’t about to spend a nickel unless there was a gun to his head. If his people had a problem with it, tough shit.
Sometimes Finneran left the office for an appointment, pulling a necktie from the desk drawer before hitting the pavement. Generally, though, he just sat in the cubicle all day, occasionally making a work call but mostly reading the paper, or doing the crossword, or looking at his phone or his fingernails. He rarely spoke to anybody. In fact, he couldn’t even put a name to a lot of the faces in the office. People were coming and going all the time; one day a guy would be there, the next he’d be gone. And before you knew it, someone new was sitting at his desk.
Like clockwork, Finneran split at five—but he never went home.
The first thing he did was get a drink. He had a roster of bars in unofficial rotation, clean, low-key places where the crowd was friendly but not intrusively so, and spread around his patronage so that he was neither too long away from, nor too regular a customer of, any one; he periodically trekked half an hour, in bad weather, just to reach whichever establishment he’d determined was up.
When he’d finished his drink—it was invariably only one at this stage of the program—Finneran went to eat something, almost always some variety of Asian cuisine (unless he was drinking at Bailey’s, in which case it was the Hungarian spot down the street). Then back to the bar, where he remained until he felt himself edging toward dangerous territory. At that point, he closed out his tab and made for the door.
By now it’d be eight or so—still too soon to go home to nothing.
So Finneran found a bench or a coffee shop and just sat. Maybe browsed in a bookstore or saw a movie. And sometimes, stepping from the bar into the Manhattan night, he’d simply start walking, drifting aimlessly for block after block until finally he was ready to go back to Queens.
Mary was never up when he got home. Every night was the same.
Her bedroom door would be shut, a thin band of black stretched along the threshold, and aside from the old lamp in a corner of the living room, faintly buzzing atop an even older end table, all the lights would be out. Catching his breath after climbing the stairs, Finneran would stand a moment. He’d hear the apartment ticking and creaking, hear footsteps overhead and a tree branch scrabbling a windowpane. But from behind his sister’s door, he wouldn’t hear a peep.
Finneran gave as much thought to Mary’s nocturnal invisibility as he did any of the hundred other constants of which his day was made; that is to say, none. However, perhaps because it tickled some residual human interest in the mysterious—and mystery being totally absent from his own existence—he did now and again wonder about Mary in those hours before she took to her room. What were her evenings like? What did she do with herself?
She occasionally worked late, he knew, though not often. For years, sitting at Heinrich’s, he’d listened to excited talk of getting drinks with this or that dental hygienist, yet the notion usually struck him as more wishful than likely and, he surmised, was rarely translated into reality. There’d once been a gym membership, but after injuring her back dismounting a Stairmaster, she’d allowed it to expire. A couple of hours after work every other week, for almost four years, were devoted to visiting an aunt in a nursing home; the winter before last, however, Aunt Peggy had finally died.
And that was it: all that’d ever kept his sister from heading straight home at the end of the day. Never being around, he couldn’t personally confirm this, of course. But Finneran had no doubt, given Mary’s yakking over herring salad and strudel, that if there was anything else to know, he’d know it.
There were hints of how she passed the time. The celebrity magazines on the coffee table; the unfailingly spotless floors and the meticulously folded wash; the TV’s watch history, reflecting a steady diet of network dramas and a taste for nature programming; the cooking smells lingering in the air when he came in.
It was nowhere near enough, Finneran knew, to account for all the hours, in all the evenings, across all the years they’d lived together; surely his sister had other diversions. Sometimes he tried imagining them. But this was just guesswork; for real answers, he’d need to put the question to her. That wasn’t an option, though: they had an unspoken understanding that she’d never pry into his business, and even if Mary was a different, far more open person, Finneran’s preoccupation with privacy wouldn’t permit him not to treat her in kind.
So with Mary’s evenings in the apartment remaining largely obscure, Finneran was left with that deep stillness which greeted him each night. About it, there was nothing uncertain; that it’d be waiting when he walked in the door was guaranteed.
Finneran was taken aback, then, a few nights after the meal at Heinrich’s throughout which his sister had coughed, when, raising his eyes from the rain-soaked sidewalk outside their building, he saw Mary sitting by one of the living room windows, peering down toward her lap. Stopping abruptly in the light of a street lamp, he stared up. A car splashed past behind him, salsa blaring, but he didn’t hear it. He checked the time, confirming it was about when he usually got in. Murmuring to himself, he watched Mary another moment. Then he went inside.
Arriving on their landing a minute later, Finneran paused to listen, holding his breath to keep his huffing out of his ears; all he heard was the TV in the apartment across the hall. He continued to the door. Feeling as though he were interrupting something, he opened it tentatively.
Looking up from across the room, though, Mary smiled warmly. She seemed tired but pleased to see him. If he was hungry, she said, a few chicken cutlets were in the refrigerator.
Most nights his sister left him something, but since eating before bed made it hard for him to sleep, Finneran never touched it. “Don’t bother,” he’d told her many times. “It doesn’t go to waste,” she’d respond. “I just end up taking it for lunch.” And she kept on doing it.
“Thanks,” Finneran said now, perfunctorily, and set his shoes on the rack beside the door.
The thought of going straight to bed passed quickly out of his head: though not in any mood to talk, he knew he had no choice. So Finneran did what he always did when he came in—got a glass of water and brought it to the living room, then dropped into the armchair in which his father had died. Tonight, however, rather than watch TV until the water was finished, which was his cue to go to bed, he just sat there.
“Okay day?” said Mary, who had several sheets of paper spread across her lap.
Finneran shrugged. Then he remembered to return the question.
Flicking her eyes away, Mary gave a shrug of her own. After a second, she suddenly gathered the papers and flipped them over.
They started complaining about the heat in the apartment, which had come on for the season a few days before and turned the place into a furnace. With only minor improvement, it’d be like this until spring, when the heat shut off again. They were an annual occurrence, these sweltering conditions, a part of life in their building forever. Fifty years ago, their parents had groused about them the way they did now.
“Nothing ever fuckin’ changes,” grumbled Finneran, beads of sweat dotting his forehead.
“I don’t get it,” said Mary. “Why can’t they ever figure it out?”
“Because they’re goddamn idiots.”
Mary started to speak but was struck by one of her coughing attacks. Watching her, body heaving, heat-flushed face contorted, Finneran actually considered saying something; not that he was one to talk—God only knew the last time he’d felt good—but that hack had been dogging her a while now. His sister’s expression when the retching finally subsided, though, a look of bitter anger, made him keep his mouth shut.
They griped about the heat a little longer, ending as they always did: by vowing to lodge objections both understood would be futile. Then they fell silent. Finneran steadily sipped his water while Mary, absently pinching her lower lip, stared off at a wall. In the corner, the radiator hissed.
After a minute or two, Finneran, deciding he’d met his social obligations, began getting up. Suddenly Mary let out a groan—a plaintive, almost animal sound that froze him. He looked at her. She appeared flustered, and the pile of papers balanced on her lap slid to the floor. She bent to collect them. When she raised her head, her lips were trembling and tears were in her eyes.
The next day, as usual, Finneran walked into the office at lunchtime. Sitting down at his desk, he unwrapped a bologna-and-cheese sandwich from the deli and popped the tab on a can of root beer. He ate slowly, ruminatively, peering ahead at his cubicle’s partition and hearing himself chew. When he was finished, he balled up the sandwich wrapper and tossed it in the trash, then polished off his soda and tossed the can in too.
He ran his eyes around the cubicle. He saw dust. Crumbs in the grooves of the telephone keypad. A dog-eared sales report with overlapping coffee rings on it. On the other side of the partition, the windshield wiper salesman was arranging a first date with a woman he’d met online. “It’s your night, baby,” he cooed.
Finneran leaned back and started fiddling with a pencil. When a sharp gust of wind rattled the window behind him, breaking his absorption, he saw he’d spent twenty minutes like this. Without hesitation, he dropped the pencil, grabbed the phone, and cancelled his appointments. On his way to the door, he passed Erlichmann, reeking of cologne, bawling out a guy for using too much printer paper.
Finneran hit the nearest bar and began drinking. At first it helped, loosened his jaw and steadied his leg, but when it didn’t fix Mary’s diagnosis, and he got low and dark again, feeling like he’d explode if he kept sitting there, he settled his tab and left to drink elsewhere.
All afternoon and into the evening, this scenario repeated itself. The light changed, then disappeared; it turned colder, so that one’s breath showed; Finneran became as drunk as he had in the old days.
Nine o’clock found him in The Silver Penny with Jerry Gullo. A former co-worker he hadn’t seen in years, Gullo had made a beeline for Finneran the second he spotted him and, ignoring the grimace intended as a deterrent, ensconced himself in the seat across the high-top. His opening monologue, a ten-minute dissertation on the nuances of his current commission structure, seasoned by a rant about his old boss Erlichmann, had finally ended. As if parched from his exertions, Gullo took a lengthy sip of his gin and tonic.
“So,” he said after smacking his lips, “how’re you doin’?”
Finneran hadn’t talked to a soul during his bar crawl except to order a drink, and stuck there not listening, he’d planned to shake Gullo as fast as possible in order to resume his brooding. But in that moment, something inside him shifted.
He told Gullo about Mary. When he finished, he gazed sourly into his pint glass.
Gullo offered his condolences and ordered them another round. After watching the waitress sashay away, he said: “So what’s it mean for you?”
Finneran looked up through bleary eyes. “What’s it mean for me? That’s what the fuck I’ve been trying to figure out. Listen, Gullo: I don’t have shit going on; my life is nothing. But at this point, nothing’s all I’m interested in. It’s all I have the energy for.”
Gullo jabbed a finger at Finneran. “I say you gotta live how you want! Period. End of story. Otherwise, why bother? And look, no offense, I don’t wanna be an asshole”—his hands shot up in innocence—“but people gotta lie in the bed they make. Your sister never got hooked up? More power to her. But now you need to drop everything ‘cause of it? Hell no.”
It was something Finneran had pondered all day. If the shoe were on the other foot, would he expect Mary to change her life around for him? He didn’t think he would.
“It’s true,” he said, lifting his fresh beer to his lips. “We all make our choices.”
She got home from the office and went directly to the freezer, pulling out a block of ground beef that she set in cold water to thaw. Later, she’d fix a meatloaf.
While the meat defrosted, Mary worked on medical forms. Steam curled from her teacup; a pink shaft of twilight crossed the floor. The only sound in the apartment was the scratching of her pen.
After a bit, she got up to use the bathroom.
When she came out, Mary was shocked to see her brother taking off his coat.
“Is everything okay?” she said.
“Just decided to come home early,” mumbled Finneran.
“The germ of 'Two Siblings' was a specific situation involving close family friends—a wife and husband—whose life together had been radically altered by severe illness. Yet while these terrible circumstances suggested certain ideas I was interested in exploring, it soon became apparent that they lacked the necessary narrative potential. And so I adjusted, turning my thoughts to a range of unconventional individuals and relationships I’d encountered over the years, and grabbing that material which could best be fitted to my original concept. Add a series of touches drawn from a lifetime spent in New York City, and this story was on its way.”