Follow Me

Issue 44 by Brian Schulz

Follow Me

1.

At first Lindsay thought the beat-up F150 and overloaded U-Haul trailer parked in front of her brother’s building belonged to Northeastern students moving out, but then she recognized the old oak drop-leaf table wedged precariously on the back. It was the kitchen table she had helped her brother Barry and his girlfriend Nan refinish, a find from a foraging expedition the three had taken up to Vermont.

She’d been unable to understand Barry clearly when he’d called earlier. Something about Nan, that she wouldn’t listen. Come now, he’d said, and she had. Now she felt a grip wrenching tight around her heart in the realization of what was happening. Lindsay rushed up the stairs of the grimy brownstone, brushing past a hulk of a guy burdened beneath a garbage bag full of clothes, and straight to the apartment Barry and Nan shared. At the top of the stairs she paused, stooped, and picked up a purple and gold paisley scarf that had fallen from the bag. A gift she’d helped Barry pick out for Nan.

Nan was standing just inside the doorway of the apartment, hair twisted-up haphazardly, hands on her narrow hips, surveying what remained to be boxed.

“What are you doing?” Lindsay heard herself ask. “What’s going on?”

Nan drew a measured breath, letting it out slowly. She let her arms drop and gazed straight ahead. She said nothing.

“Nan.” Lindsay reached for Nan’s hand. She trusted Nan, knew that Nan understood her brother, the peculiar alchemy of his seemingly infinite faith and cynical mistrust of the world, and loved him for it. “You can’t do this.”

“I can, Lindsay.” Nan’s voice was firm, her face showed neither resolve nor regret.

The guy from the stairs squeezed awkwardly between the two women and down the empty hallway.

“Why now? He needs you, Nan.”

Lindsay felt Nan’s hand wrap around hers, gently squeezing. She watched Nan’s eyes fill, felt her own fill as she fought the anguish she could now see shadowing Nan. “He needs more than you or me, Lindsay.”

“He is kind, he’s good. You know he is.” Lindsay could hear the echo of the stair-guy shuffling around the living room. “Where is he?”

Nan pursed her lips. “In the back room.”

Lindsay’s body tensed against a sudden shiver. The stair-guy lumbered out of the living room with a half-filled box and a framed sketch of Nan. Barry’s work. Stair-guy threw a sideways glance at Lindsay. “This is it.”

“Thanks, Jim,” Nan said without looking away from Lindsay. “I love him, Lindsay. I just can’t do this anymore.”

Lindsay shook her head. She had to accept the inevitability of this moment, though she wanted desperately not to. She let go of Nan’s hand and followed her out of the apartment and down the stairs, then watched her cross the street, and get into the truck.

Barry didn’t move when Lindsay entered the tiny back room he called his library. A yellow sliver of twilight fell over his body, naked except for a pair of ill-fitting boxers, slumped in his denim chair, one of a pair they’d kept from the lake house. Always thin, but wiry and muscled from his work as a stonemason and his long, daily runs, his body had gone soft, its vibrance dissolved into a roll of fat at his belly. He hadn’t shaved, and the stubble, prematurely gray-flecked, made him look old and dirty.

“Barry.” Lindsay shook his shoulder harder than she’d meant. “Hey, get up.”

Barry’s eyes flickered open, swollen and dull, then closed.

“No. Get up.” Lindsay tugged Barry’s arm and he roused, unsteady, to his feet, and she helped him to the bedroom and into the unmade bed.

Lindsay paced through the rooms of the apartment, anguished, desperate to sob and even to scream, but she remained silent. She flushed with anger, then felt cold helplessness. Before she left, Nan had arranged Barry’s few belongings neatly, clearing clutter from his desk and leaving open the monogramed leather journal she had given him, as if inviting him to try one more time. Lindsay folded Nan’s scarf and set it on the desk beside the journal, then curled up in the denim chair to wait.

#

Barry was up and dressed when Lindsay went into his room the next morning.

“We have to talk, Barry.” She eyed him warily. “Are you OK? To talk now.”

“You’re asking me if I’m sober enough,” he said with no edge. “Yes.”

Lindsay followed Barry through the empty living room toward the kitchen. He hesitated on the threshold of the library, his eyes tracing the pattern of missing books, Nan’s books, before settling on the journal and scarf.

“Where is she?” he asked, his eyes vacant but somehow pleading. “Where did she go?”

“I don’t know, Barry. But she’s gone.” They stood in a silence too big for the empty apartment. “Do you understand now that you have a problem?”

Barry’s face tightened with resistance, and then confusion. “No,” he said, “Nan will come home. It’ll be OK.”

“I don’t think she will, Barry. Do you know why she left?”

“Look, I know I messed up. I drank too much. But she wouldn’t talk to me.”

“Barry, listen to yourself. It’s not about yesterday. You wore her out.” You’re wearing me out too, she thought.

Barry drew a breath and nodded.

“You need help.”

“No. I am OK, Lindsay,” he said after a moment, “I can fix it. I can take care of this.”

“You can’t! Barry, you haven’t.” Lindsay’s throat tightened. Barry stood in front of her, a pathetic shell of her beloved big brother, clinging to his independence, his self-reliance now turned ugly and self-destructive. “Please, let’s get you some help.”

“Stop. Let it be, Lindsay. Or leave.”

“Barry.” She reached for his arm, but Barry jerked it away. His eyes were alive now, darting like a cornered lion’s. She’d cracked the hero facade, left him more exposed than he’d been last night, and he was looking for cover.

Lindsay felt her chin tremble. There was nothing more she could say. She closed the door behind her and left him alone.

2.

It had been a good meeting. In the beginning Barry hadn’t come very often; it was uncomfortable, and he had not seen himself as being in the same straits as the others who attended. Over time, though, he recognized parts of himself in each of them and found comfort in the fellowship, the friends he thought he didn’t need, or deserve. Now he came as often as he could, usually twice a week. That was good, the counselor told him, and it felt that way. He was sober. Work was steady. He’d rediscovered poems, most recently those of Li Po and Ryōkan. It’d even passed through his mind to enroll in an evening degree program, maybe at BU.

It was warmer than he expected when he stepped into the early evening, so he decided to take the long way, around the Common, through Beacon Hill, and get the train at the Charles/ MGH station. He’d avoided Charles Street, its temptations, the last few months, but felt sanguine about his life’s prospects, and had the time.

“Barry. Yo, Barry, is that you?” Barry wouldn’t have recognized Dan if it hadn’t been for his neon Imperial Landscape Designs ball cap. They’d met a couple of years ago on a job and got on well, hanging out together some, usually for drinks. “Where’ve you been keeping yourself?”

“Around,” Barry said. He’d hoped for a quiet walk.

“You’re looking trim, sport,” Dan said, “hitting the gym?”

“Doing some running.”

“Cool. Working much? We’ve been out flat. Hey, how about a beer? Catch up a little?”

Barry flexed his fingers in his coat pocket, felt for his six-month sobriety chip. He’d isolated himself and changed up his routines to avoid these invitations, and it had worked, more or less. Barry glanced up the street, then back at Dan. “No, Dan. Thanks, but I’ve got to get home.”

OK. Another time then,” Dan gave a nod, and then, “Hey, how’s Nan?”

Barry bristled; he hadn’t remembered that Dan and Nan had met, but then he was finding there was a lot he’d missed.

“She’s fine,” Barry said. “See you around.”

Is Nan fine? Barry wondered, back home as he put the kettle on for tea. He was, now. The encounter with Dan had been unwelcome, but he’d handled it well and was in control. He might even have had that beer and been OK. And Nan was fine too, he guessed, but he wanted to know. While he had formed a fragile acceptance that she was gone, he hadn't fully shaken the pangs of regret over what they might have been together. It was Lindsay whose absence he could not accept, though, and whose presence he needed. He knew from his meetings that it was on him to make things right with both Lindsay and Nan, to acknowledge the hurt he had caused by his choices and hope they could forgive him. But with Lindsay it was more; with Lindsay he needed, in some way, to erase — for her not to remember — that ugly year and get back to being the big brother he had been. That, he understood, he would have to earn.

Barry made himself some matcha and sat down at the kitchen table, then opened the little leather journal embossed with his initials, and dated the page. The one hundred and eighty-second entry, over six months of filling his evenings quietly at home.

He roughed out a short prayer.

Follow Me

I will follow you, dear Lord

for I have no idea where I am going

and cannot see the road ahead of me.

I will follow you, dear Lord

because I believe you will lead me

on a path to my better self, in you.

I will follow you, dear Lord

though I know the road may be rocky

and could turn rutted and steep.

But when the road seems endless,

and my mind grows weary and my body weak,

should I stumble, stop, or turn around

I pray:

Turn too and follow me, my Lord.

Turn too and follow me.

He put his pen down. It’ll do for now, he thought, looking at the scribble. He was grateful. It was behind him now, the sorrow. Maybe he would never be a poet. But he could still write poems. He had good work. And the drinking too, behind him. He was healthy again. At thirty-four everything was in front of him, even if he didn’t know what that everything might become.

He thought, I am ready for this. The next step. I will call Lindsay, tomorrow, Monday, and pray that she will see me.

#

Lindsay pushed back from the table and folded down the screen of her laptop. She’d tried all week to finish off an essay — “Patience and the Coming of Spring to Boston” — for her monthly blog post, but she was agitated and no words would come. She would see Barry tomorrow, Saturday.

It was Monday, after work, and she’d just settled into her overstuffed denim chair in the bay window to read when her mobile rang. She’d unfolded her legs and reluctantly reached for the phone. She looked forward to this quiet time and was not up for talk, but work had been busy recently and so she’d been neglectful of her friends. She answered without looking.

“Hey there. Lindsay?”

He spoke before Lindsay could say hello, and her heart sped in surprise. “Barry?”

“Yeah. It’s me, sis. You were expecting someone else.”

She had not expected him , not now. She’d begun to think not ever. They hadn’t spoken in nearly a year, though she had tried repeatedly to reach him.

“Barry.” It took all of her strength to say his name again out loud. What do you want, she thought, not knowing whether she was directing it toward him or herself. She had tried to help him, tried to crack open the dark crust that seemed to have hardened around his heart. But his silence had forced her to reckon with the reality that who he had become had been up to him. Disappointment in life is part of the bargain, he’d told her years ago, but he chose to dwell there, in despair, to turn away from hope. He chose to hang at The Sevens and drink rather than work his poems or draw or run. It was his choice to reject her help, to reject her. That had stung. Yet his absence had freed a part of her, and she’d found space for herself, had reconnected with a life she hadn’t realized she’d lost. She’d taken a new job at the website, managing a content group and writing a blog under her own byline. And she’d started to date, for real, her attention not distracted by Barry’s presence in her life, beautiful as it was before the drinking. She was, she hated to think it, happy. His return, she feared, would change that. Still, hearing his voice, she knew she had missed him.

“I know it’s been a while. I’m sorry.”

A while? Lindsay thought. Where have you been, you shit? “Yes, it has.”

“How are you? How is work?” His voice was steady and clear, wavering only, she thought, as he tested to find a crack she might let him in through. “You writing anything of your own? Are you running?”

Lindsay wanted to tell him she was OK, even better, and yes, she’d published a short essay collection about Newfound Lake but, no, she wasn’t running much. That was something she did with him. But these weren’t really the things they needed to talk about.

“Look, Lindsay. I was hoping we could meet.”

“For a drink?” She regretted saying it even as it slipped out of her mouth.

“No. Lindsay, I’m sober now.” Lindsay could hear pride in his voice. “Six months. I was thinking about dinner, maybe. On Saturday. My wallet is warm.”

Lindsay could see him smiling the cockeyed smile he wore when he’d show up at her apartment door in Durham, at the end of each month with his “warm wallet” to take her out for Chinese. “How about we just meet for coffee?”

“Lunch?” he countered, the lilt in his voice, she knew, accompanied by that smile, a little head cock and one raised eyebrow. Lindsay hesitated.

“All right,” Barry said, “deal. I can come your way if that’s easy. Are you still in JP?”

Lindsay turned away from the phone, as if Barry might sense the flush of guilt rising on her face through it. She didn’t want him at her place. Not until she was sure of what she hoped she was hearing. “Let’s meet at Copley. At the bagel place, remember?”

“Across from the church. Sure. Noon work?”

Lindsay felt herself settle into the quiet energy of his voice, like when they were kids. Her heart beat hard again, felt large in her chest, and she breathed deep to control it. She had to be measured. “Sounds fine. Barry, I gotta go.”

She hung up the phone. “I love you Barry.” She’d said it into the silence of her dark room.

#

Lindsay was up early on Saturday, putting away the dishes and straightening up her apartment, preparing for a guest she hadn’t yet invited. She was anxious. She could never have imagined her life without Barry woven through it, part of its core. He had been so full: of wonder and ideas and things to say. So full of expectation. She had reveled in him and felt cherished by him. But the drinking, it had become too much. Now, she had trouble imagining life with him back in it. In the soft yellow sunlight filtering through her bay window, Lindsay wrestled with her hopes for the meeting, her stomach knotted, now with giddy expectation, now with trepidation. It was impossible. Better to not have any hope.

Outside the songbirds clamored joyfully from the thicket surrounding Leverett Pond, eager to feel the sun’s warmth. She would see her brother in a little over an hour.

She took the long walk to Copley through the Fens. Around her the season was changing; fiddleheads were unfurling, and the leaves were too. Color was coming back to Boston’s ashen, winter face. She prayed that was what had happened for Barry, that his season had changed, the color of his life returned, that he’d found his hope again.

It had been his hope that sustained them through the trauma of their parents’ marriage. He’d shielded the worst of it from her, shepherding her away from its ugliness and into the quiet of the slopes of Mount Cardigan and the shores of Newfound Lake. He’d always found another place for them to be when their parents drank and fought, even if it was just inside a story he’d made up and told her in the safety of the “magic” attic room. After their parents finally split, he’d tried to make up for what they’d taken. He’d quit school at UNH to be sure there would be money for her to continue, she knew, confident that he could make it on his wits and words. Like Jack London, he would say. Words. She hadn’t found the right ones for him before he went silent; perhaps he’d found them for himself.

#

It was a mistake. That was the only thing clear to Barry despite the glare of the morning sun through the shadeless window. He raised himself slowly off the sweat-dampened mattress, resting on his elbow. He forced down a dry swallow and coughed. Saturday. He was meeting Lindsay at noon.

“You want some coffee?” Trish, a fling he’d had just after Nan, was sitting in her underwear at the small table in the corner of the studio apartment smoking and fingering her phone. She’d pushed the empties into a cluster on the far edge of the table, leaving only her coffee mug in reach. And the ashtray. Barry coughed again, choking down the queasiness in his gut and the tightness welling up in his chest. He squinted at the harsh white sunlight flooding the window, cursed it for awakening him, for pressing on the ache behind his eyes. He watched Trish lift a cigarette to her mouth and take a long drag, then set down her phone.

“Barry, do you want coffee?” she asked. He had not realized how coarse her voice was, or how pale and weary were her eyes, or the grayness of her lips. He tried to recall if she’d always been that way.

“Barry! What are you looking at?” He rolled over. He’d thought he’d put this behind him, the drinking. Seeing Trish. But he’d ached for Nan after Sunday, needed someone. And he’d felt so stable, thought he could manage just a beer. He reached for his watch, fumbling for it on the bedside table, praying it was earlier in the day than the traffic din told him it was.

“Hey,” Trish said, “I asked if you wanted some coffee. What’s your problem?” Her irritation stretched like a mask across her face. That and disgust, which mirrored his own. His watch said ten forty-five.

Trish was up now, standing at the foot of the bed. “I’m talking to you.”

Barry swung his legs around to the side of the bed and reached for his jeans. My problem is that I am here, he thought. That my mouth is dry. My head hurts. And those goddam birds started up when I was just drifting off. Fucking birds.

“No thanks,” he finally said, pulling on his jeans, “I gotta go.”

Barry thought of Lindsay, her disappointment if she saw him here, like this, now. She had the right to expect more of him. He had expected more of himself.

Trish lit a cigarette. “You know, you’re an asshole, Barry.”

Barry nodded. “So long Trish.”

Outside Trish’s apartment Barry paced small oblong loops on the sidewalk, unable to fix on a plan or even a direction to take. The bang and rattle of a road crew echoed through his head, and fine gray cement dust settled around his nose and lips, mixing on his tongue with the stale taste of bourbon. He headed up Medford Street. He wished that it was earlier, that he’d have time to shower and brush his teeth, put time between last night and this morning. He wished that it was earlier still, nine months earlier. He hadn’t known what else to do but to call Lindsay when Nan showed up with the truck and told him she was moving out. Lindsay had come, and he’d sent her away. It had been wrong to call her that day, to put her in the middle. Maybe it had been wrong on Monday too.

Barry sat down on the low bench of the bleachers at Trum Field. The softball diamonds were empty, the fields barren save for the occasional wind-tumbled bits of litter and a few winter-starved, skittering squirrels. He leaned his elbows on his knees. He’d been proud that he’d straightened himself out on his own, that he’d have something to show for his silence, something to make Lindsay proud too. Now, though, his failure and aloneness loomed, and he shivered. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, then his palm, covered it with his fist, and blew out a sigh. Shit.

Barry rubbed his eyes, his chin. The stubble. Lindsay would see him as unchanged, dirty and vaguely contemptible. I can simply not show, he thought. I can text her. Things come up. He ran his fingers through his hair, sandy, gray streaked, and near shoulder length. Shit. Barry felt the loathing in his heart gather as a lump in his throat. I have to show, I want to. He got up and splashed his face with cold water from the bubbler in the corner of the bedraggled dugout, rinsed his mouth and took a long, refreshing drink. He fumbled in his jacket for a hair tie and found his six-month chip, clutched it, and choked back a sob. He gathered himself and carefully pulled his hair back into a tight ponytail. He loosened his belt, tucked in his shirt.

He had forty minutes. No way he could make it from Somerville to Copley by subway. On the corner, though, he saw a solution. Aligned like proper steeds in gates awaiting riders, a line of Bluebike rental bikes. Barry smiled. As kids, he and Lindsay had twin gold Royce Union bikes, a boy’s and a girl’s, each with long, raked-back handlebars, slender banana-shaped seats and bawdy, wide back tires that gripped sand and spit out gravel. They’d ridden miles on those bikes, toward unknowns they were keen to discover and away from the known sadness that shadowed their home. Barry unhitched a bike from its stand, swung his leg over the saddle, then headed back down Broadway toward Boston.

#

Lindsay paused on the bridge over the water at Short Street. The breeze had stiffened a little, sending ripples across the current, lifting sparkles onto the surface. A heron stood, stoic, near the bank.

“You taught me to really see this,” Lindsay said to no one. A bee buzzed by her ear. She had been afraid of bees as a kid until one day she’d found Barry in a patch of Monarda and Phlox watching them work the blooms. He’d pulled her down close beside him and pointed out the differences in their black and gold stripes, the fuzz on their legs, how they hovered. That night, in the attic, he’d written a poem for her about the bees. She’d drawn a picture to go with it.

He had never failed to be there for her, as kids. But Barry made his own choices and had sent her away. Lindsay wondered, though, if it had been she who had failed him. She’d watched, half-conscious and preoccupied with starting her own life, as his amazement with the world diminished, and the frequency with which he brought her drafts of his poems slowed, then stopped. And as he started to miss their Sunday runs, always with an excuse that he had something important to do, remaining silent as to what it was. The signs were there and she simply drifted past them as if they were just part of the landscape. She’d made it through to adulthood, but maybe he hadn’t the strength. Perhaps, she told herself, she had not failed him yet.

#

Barry was nearly fifteen minutes early to Copley. The ride through traffic had occupied his mind, temporarily pushing out his angst about meeting Lindsay. But now, in the warm square, he shivered, a surge of remorse overwhelming him. His headache returned.

He crossed Boylston to the bagel shop. He hesitated at the door; it was too early to take a table, and with his jitters he couldn’t bear to sit. For a while he stood in the sun, leaning against a light post. He tried to conjure an image of Lindsay, of her morning face as a little girl when he’d rouse her for an adventure out of the house but couldn’t get past the specter of her hovering over him, drawn with disappointment and fatigue, on the day Nan left. Shame rose up in Barry’s gut, sour and burning. He strode west to the end of the block, then back. He noticed the Globe Bar was open. Just one, he thought, to steady me.

The bar was dark and empty.

“Johnny Red,” Barry said, waving off a menu, “neat. Double.” The barman brought the drink and Barry sipped it, pulled it from his lips, took another sip and set it down. He looked across the bar at the frosted mirror. Looking back was an old face, a young man turned old, a failure at everything he’d tried. The clock behind the bar read twelve. He looked down, away from his reflection and there was the shot glass. “Fuck it,” he heard himself say. He downed the last of his drink and went outside.

The sidewalk buzzed. Barry hustled to the bagel shop, scanning the outside tables and what he could see of the counter line for Lindsay. He surveyed the sidewalk, across the street, the square. Where was she, he wondered, will I recognize her? He shivered again, despite the warmth. He squinted in the sun. He did not see her. He reached into his pocket for his phone and checked for a message. Nothing.

Then he saw her. At the end of the block, turning the corner. She was walking steadily, with purpose. A small terror welled in his chest as Lindsay stopped in front of him. She smiled.

“Hey.” Lindsay looked up at him, then settled her hand on his arm. Barry looked past her, not wanting her to see his red, ringed eyes, or behind them.

“You OK? You look flushed.” She reached up and tucked a loose strand of his hair behind his ear.

He knew what was coming, didn’t want to hear it, didn’t need to. He knew.

“I’m fine,” he said. “You’re not, though. You’re angry with me. Ashamed. Right?”

“What? No, Barry.” He watched her eyes scan his face, felt himself recoil at what she must be thinking. “No. But what you did wasn’t right. Almost a year. Gone.”

Barry shook, seized with anger whose target he didn’t know. Lindsay was there now, in front of him. He just needed to tell her: I’m sorry. “Why are you here?”

“Why am I here? You called me and I came. I miss you, Barry.” He felt her hand on his arm, light but firm, trying to pull him close. He pressed his teeth into his lip, his chin trembling. “Barry? Have you—“

Barry pulled back and glared at Lindsay. “No. Don’t go there.” Then, “Grow up.”

“Grow up? Me? Barry, can’t you see?”

Barry shook his head slowly. Grow up. He’d meant it for himself. He’d fucked up, again. He couldn’t do this. He didn’t know what he could do, but not this.

He turned quickly from Lindsay and crossed the street and did not look back.

3.

Lindsay watched, her eyes misting over, as Barry weaved through the noontime torrent of people. The tears, she didn’t know who they were for, Barry or herself. The feeling of loss, the loneliness, she hoped they shared.

She had followed Barry, blind with the faith of a little girl down paths and some alleys. In the woods as kids. To college in Durham. Here, to Boston. He’d worked hard to let her keep that faith. She was not blind now, but neither would she give up the faith she’d always had in her brother. She wouldn’t leave him alone this time, just as he hadn’t left her alone in their troubled home as kids, or in Durham when there was no one else. Lindsay rushed across the street, dodging traffic, and into the crowd. She’d follow him one last time, to bring him home.

About the Author

Brian Schulz

Website

Brian lives in north-central Massachusetts where, when not biking or walking its country roads and woodland trails, he consults with young entrepreneurs and writes fiction and poetry.