Art by Juliette Losq
The window in the upstairs room where Cotton lies dying looks out on a scrabbly field. It looks as though someone was building a house there but stopped after laying a foundation of bricks. A bucket with no handle sits on one wall of the foundation. It’s full of sticks. A small animal died in the field—it might be a rabbit—and a frumpy vulture is tearing it apart with beak and claws. A chromed red pickup pulls up next to the field, and a man gets out carrying a black rifle. He is wearing jeans, a yellow T-shirt, and flip-flops. The vulture lifts its head and looks at the man, then goes back to its meal. A mistake. The man pulls the trigger, and a burst of fire kills the bird. Its death is ungainly, and I feel a strange shame. The man with the rifle gets back into the truck and drives away. We are in Honduras. Cotton is my brother. The headboard of the bed in which he lies is damask, a dim pattern of roses and curling leaves. I don’t understand any of this.
Cotton is wearing his death mask. Because he is Cotton, it looks good on him.
He’s sleeping. He sleeps a lot, because of the pain. I keep wishing I wasn’t here. I have no interest in watching my suffering brother sleep.
I only came here because our mother, Althea May, leaned on me. Leaned hard. Cotton is in trouble. I want you to go down there and extricate him. She was vague about his predicament because Cotton was vague with her. Money was involved, he hinted. With Cotton, money always came into it. Also, something about a painting. All Mother could decipher from her elder son’s mysterious utterance was that a painting of considerable value was missing. It was being sought with deadly earnest.
Mother is seventy-eight and lives alone on Farrell Island off the coast of Maine. The island is as far as is practicably possible from South Carolina where she grew up hating the smell of jasmine, the sight of magnolias in bloom, the heavy wet air of the post-Confederacy in the state that in 1860 became the first to secede. Cotton was always her favorite, and the favorite of fortune. I always came in second. As in war, with brothers, second equals last.
Still, when we were younger we used to be close. When you’re close—inside swinging distance—when the knife comes out, you get cut.
Esme comes into the room. “How is he?”
She gives me a wide-eyed steady look. Then she slowly blinks. Esme is what Digger, our father, would have called a looker. Tawny complexion, mobile face, a lithe build without any disconcerting angles. She is French but also a fluent Spanish speaker, and her English isn’t bad. She is here to authenticate the painting Mother mentioned in her SOS call. Cotton swears he does not have it. Esme has a past, a biography, which I am unable to visualize. I haven’t lived the rakish, well-traveled life my brother has lived. I never knew any Esmes.
“You are the only one who can convince your brother to do the right thing.”
“The right thing.”
Cotton has dengue fever, a bad case. He was in the Baptist hospital under competent care when a squad of armed men showed up and took him away. The nurses were not in a position to stop them, although perhaps they called the police, who were not in a position to do anything about the abduction.
The armed men are in the employ of an Anglo Argentine by the name of Malcolm Scatterfield, whom I have not met. Cotton is often delirious. When he is lucid, he is exhausted. But I’ve gathered from things he says that the man he calls my old friend Malcolm is a speculator in Latin American art. He wants the painting that Cotton denies having. It’s the missing third in a trinity by the dead-but-now-famous Honduran, Santiago Sosa. The first two canvases, El Deseo and El Miedo, hang in the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid, whose collection is eclectic, not to say funky. Desire and Fear. La Satisfacción was believed to be lost. According to my brother, it still is.
Esme tells me that my attitude is not helpful.
It was obvious from the time I arrived that the French woman has fallen for my brother. They all do, women and men alike, young and old. At fifty-five, ravaged by a deadly disease, Aaron Kavanaugh still has the soft touch that earned him his nickname. People can’t help loving him. It might not bother me so much if I had just a little of what effortlessly spills out of my brother, has always spilled.
If you were wondering whether the resentment still festers, this close to Cotton’s death, now you know.
Esme leaves the room, and in a few minutes Cotton shudders and wakes. He gives me one of his sizing-up looks so I know he is lucid.
“Jesus, Peter. You look like somebody just pissed on your popsicle.”
“I’ve never been held against my will in a foreign country before.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll work it out. Just be patient. Can you do that? I don’t have the energy to hold your hand through this.”
“You mean you’ll work it out the way you always work things out.”
“Fuck you, little brother. If you don’t want to be here—which by the way is blindingly obvious—why did you come in the first place?”
“Althea May didn’t give me much of a choice.”
He grinned. “She can be persuasive when she wants to be.”
Our mother has a dominant personality. Her strength did not mesh positively with our father’s temperamental pliancy. Digger was a successful musician. His trumpet made him a pretty good living in the difficult world of jazz, where his flexibility allowed him to thrive in bands with disparate styles and set lists. It didn’t take him and Althea May long to discover they were incompatible. After a record Digger played on made a commercial splash, he bought her the place on Farrell Island. Now and again, he visited. At his funeral, we mourned an engaging stranger.
In his brief, erratic visits, Digger displayed the same preference for Cotton over me that Althea always has.
When my Delta flight landed at Toncontín Airport in Tegucigalpa, I was met by the same four men who abducted Cotton from the hospital, although they were not carrying guns. They appeared, then and still, to speak no English. One of them has a gold tooth that causes his smile to look like a snarl. When I came through the gate he held out a sign with my name on it. As I approached he opened his hand, palm up. I was meant to recognize the ruby ring there, and I did. It used to be Digger’s. Althea May told me he was buried with it. Was she saving my feelings? There was only one ring. Of course Cotton got it.
“While you were asleep,” I tell Cotton, “a guy pulled up in a truck and shot a vulture in that field down below. I don’t understand.”
“What don’t you understand?”
Cotton smiles. He has Digger’s casual good looks. His nightclub style, our mother calls it. Blue-gray eyes, a forthright chin, a forehead that is the abode of fascinating thoughts that occur only to him, although he is happy to share. He will always look good.
“That’s your problem, little brother.”
“What’s my problem?”
“You think everything can be understood. That there’s an explanation for all of it. The world’s not like that.”
“How do you feel?”
“All right, I feel terrible.”
He waited too long to go to the hospital. He thought he could ride it out. His doctor, an American Baptist from Houston, advised him that he was close to death when he finally checked in. Along with doing their medical best, the staff prayed for him. Since being brought to this house in a neighborhood that must have a name although no one will tell me what it is, he has been seen regularly by a doctor at the behest of Malcolm Scatterfield. Dr. Cabrera has a phlegmatic manner and fat hands. He appears to be competent but refuses to tell me anything. Sometimes I think he wants Cotton to die.
“If I ask you a question,” I say to my brother, “will you give me an honest answer?”
“What about it?”
“You don’t have it.”
“Christ, Peter. How many times do I have to tell you, I don’t have the fucking thing.”
“I’m supposed to believe that?”
“How long do you plan on holding this grudge you’ve got going?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You blame every last bit of bad luck and disappointment in your life on me. I am who I am, I can’t help being me.”
I want to say something cutting and incisive, but a quick wit is one more thing Cotton got that I didn’t, and he falls back to sleep before I can come up with anything. It’s the middle of the afternoon. The house is old, and doesn’t have air-conditioning. We get by with big-bladed fans in the high ceiling of every room. Something in me likes the secretive soft swoosh of stirred air. It takes me back to a place I have never been. Cotton went there, I’m sure, at least once in his extremely interesting life.
The men who work for Malcolm confiscated my phone, and I doze in my chair. Part of me is glad not to be getting calls and texts from work. I am headmaster at a prep school in the Adirondacks in New York State. It’s August. The new term starts soon. Not a good time to be away. I will pay for my absence.
Patrice, my wife, is not likely to call. She has always disliked Aaron. When she heard about the painting, she said, It’s about time. What she meant was this: through the years, I have lent my brother money. Lots of money. Once, to get him out of a jam in Bangkok, I sent him forty thousand dollars; there were tax implications. Now, if Aaron has his hands on a painting people will pay real money for, it’s time to make good on his debt.
I don’t want it to be this crass, this raw. I want to believe the bad shit between us doesn’t matter, what matters is the brotherly tie, never mind how strained. Sometimes, for a little while, I get there. The hard part is staying there.
The house is like something I imagine you would see in a Mexican movie. There are balconies off the bedrooms, extravagant flowering shrubbery everywhere, an enclosed patio with a red tile floor on which rest palm trees in enormous clay pots. The furniture is dark and heavy. A high wall encircles the property. Shards of glass are embedded in the top of the wall. It’s easy to picture a creole princess lying in the damasked bed where Cotton now rests, attended by underpaid servants.
I wish I had stood up to my mother, told her no, let Cotton solve his own problem for once.
A Spanish conversation wakes me. Dr. Cabrera and Esme are arguing with some heat. Cotton, lying on his back, watches them languidly. He has the Spanish I lack.
When the doctor and the authenticator leave the room I ask my brother what they were talking about, but his mind is on something else.
“When I was in the Bautista I was hallucinating. I saw rats. It was the house on Farrell Island. They were everywhere. In the eaves, the gutters, in the corners. In Mother’s garden. I was terrified.”
“You must have known they were a hallucination. There’s no way Mother would allow rats in the house.”
Cotton’s grin makes me feel good. Despite everything that has gone down through the years of our lives, I get pleasure from pleasing him, just like everybody else.
Farrell Island is small and quite wonderful. Just a dozen houses on the whole island, and each has enough land attached to maintain blissful privacy. The smell of the Atlantic is well worth leaving South Carolina for, our mother still assures me. I worry about her, living alone in such a remote place. She’s not the type to exercise, though she has cut her cigarette intake to half a pack a day. In a few months she turns seventy-nine. Of course worry is in my nature.
“What did the doctor say?”
“He was professionally enigmatic. He gave me a shot. For the pain.”
“Do you trust him?”
The question brings Cotton up off the pillow. For the first time since I came to see him he is truly animated.
“I don’t trust any of them, Peter.”
“Her least of all. Malcolm Scatterfield cracks the whip, and these people jump, every last one of them. You’re the only one I can trust.”
“That’s a first."
“Cut me some slack, for chrissake. It’s not my fault you’re here.”
That’s a circle around which I have no desire to run more than once. Instead I tell him, “Let’s figure out how to get a message to the American embassy. They’ll have to help.”
“The embassy won’t help. There are limits to what they get involved in. This is my problem. They won’t let it become theirs.”
“That’s wrong, Aaron. It’s just wrong.”
His beautiful eyebrows arch dramatically. “The Brits call it breakbone fever, did you know that? I like that better than dengue. It’s more precise.”
His mind is stronger, and I am encouraged, but then he lapses again into babble.
Don’t the moon look lonesome shining through your teeth? Don’t you wish there was another hour in the day, my friend? We are so goddamn busy, getting and spending, fucking and failing. Those lips those lips those red red lips, tip me over and pour me out. I’m your man, baby, I am your everlovin’ man, and don’t forget it when your ship comes in.
In frustration I sit listening to his drivel, which is clever and vapid and aggravates me no end. After a while Josefa comes in to get me for dinner. Josefa is short, with long dark hair in a braid. She is thickset and waddles, taking up space in a room. Nothing appears to surprise her. She is nobody’s enemy.
I sit at a long mahogany table in a well-appointed dining room. The thick old walls have niches for candles. Josefa serves me a superb spaghetti Bolognese with a fresh green salad. She places a carafe of red wine on the table close to my glass. The wine is as good as the meal. She says reassuring things I do not understand, and they do not reassure me.
After a leisurely meal, which I enjoy more than I ought to, I wander outdoors. The night air is pleasantly cool, and we are far enough away from the city center that half a creamy moon is visible, a token of better things in luckier places. Out to the back patio, around the side of the house. I’m looking for a ladder that will get me over the wall. Nothing. I make my way to the front gate, a massive iron construction embossed with what looks like a heraldic shield on which a floodlight sheds intense, matter-of-fact light. To my jaundiced eye, the bird with raised wings on the upper right quarter of the crest looks like a vulture. As I raise my hand to open the gate one of my captors materializes, a thick-gripped pistol on his hip. He smells of beer. I find I have learned, in a short time, to hate. Back into the house.
This is my second night in Tegucigalpa. I check that Cotton is peacefully sleeping and head to my room upstairs at the end of a long, poorly lit hall. I am exhausted by the enervating combination of tedium and fear. The bed is comfortable. I think for a moment about Patrice. I would like to tell her she’s wrong about my brother even though I don’t believe she is. Inside five minutes, it shames me to say, I am dead to the world.
It’s after midnight when Josefa apologetically shakes me awake. She manages to make me understand I’m wanted downstairs. It’s Cotton. He seems to be getting worse. His breathing labors, and in the artificial light his skin looks like wax. From somewhere else in the house I hear an Edith Piaf song. It makes me think of one of Digger’s soulful solos, and I wish I had known my father better than I did.
His eyelids flutter, then, “Help me up.”
I squelch the mother hen that wants to tell him to save his strength. He leans heavily on me, shuffling to an upholstered chair on whose back an antimacassar is stretched taut. Didn’t they go out a hundred and fifty years ago? Light from an equally anachronistic four-footed lamp reveals in his face the war going on between serenity and exultation. He gives me a smirk that tunnels back into the prehistory of our brotherhood.
“I’ve seen it.”
“The painting that Scatterfield wants.”
A complacent nod.
“Where doesn’t matter.”
He wants to tell me what he has seen, and I want to hear. I want it, I realize, quite badly. This feels like the moment toward which Aaron and I have been driving our whole disconnected lives.
“A field,” he says, closing his eyes to summon the canvas. “An impossibly fine webwork of intersecting plains. The technical mastery takes one’s breath away, but that’s the least of it.”
“It’s like… like Sosa has figured out how to convey the sense of invisible motion we carry about with us, thanks to quantum mechanics. Everything is still in this field of his, it’s absolutely quiescent, and at the same time nothing is still. Is this too metaphysical?”
“It’s not metaphysics, Peter. It’s paint applied to canvas with a brush, that’s the marvel. It’s in the color, too. That haunting feeling of stable instability. Light falls on the field and fucks it. Gloriously, with abandon. This is hard love, and it will never stop. He does something that marries the sunlight to the grass like nobody has ever done. I won’t make any comparisons. It’s not Hopper’s Truro light. It’s not Picasso’s willful bending. It’s… Sosa.”
“I want to see it.”
“Hah! If that ever happens, you will see two figures. They are recognizably male and female, or so you think. But really, contemplate the canvas for twenty minutes and all you know for certain is that two humans are about to make love in a field that is the planet. Nothing moves, everything moves. It’s primal creation, from a vantage point that is neither God’s nor ours, exactly.”
He opens his eyes, coughs, closes his eyes again. Talking about Satisfaction has drained him.
“I’ll tell Esme to call the doctor.”
Cotton shakes his head. I help him to the bed. Lying on his back again, he removes the ruby ring from his finger and slips it on mine. “While I’m still of sound mind.”
I accept the ring because that seems easier than fighting the gesture. Too little too late, that’s what Patrice will say when she learns what he has done. You see what I’m doing, don’t you, using my wife the way a ventriloquist uses a dummy to say things he would rather not say himself?
“You’re not going to die, Aaron.”
His smile is beatific. “Of course not.”
What amazes me, now that I see it happening in front of me, is my brother’s acceptance. Of everything. It’s not the same as fatalism. He has not given up. But he seems to harbor no hard feelings, not even toward Malcolm Scatterfield. He is the last thing from bitter, still playing the game he chose to play, for reasons that will always elude me. No surrender, and no regrets. This is new. This is entirely new, the admiration I feel for him. It unsettles me.
I pour water from a pitcher on the bedside table into a glass. He drinks gratefully and tells me, for the third time now, that he waited too long to go to the hospital. The delay allowed the fever to make inroads, and it will not relinquish the territory it has conquered. I tell him again that he is not going to die while mentally cursing Malcolm Scatterfield to Hell.
“How did Malcolm get involved?” I ask Cotton.
“What made him come to think that you had the painting?”
“I went to see Sosa’s widow. Somehow, he heard about the visit."
“You went to the wife of the painter.”
“Her name is Nely Campero. She lives in a village outside of the capital. A lovely place with stone streets and old houses and a church that will bring tears to the eyes of an unbeliever. Quaint does not begin to describe San Ebontius. Anyway it was not a happy marriage. They were estranged for years. One time, in a fit of rage, Nely burned some of Santiago’s canvases in an oil drum. The paintings weren’t selling, back then. There were no immediate financial consequences.”
“Does she have the Satisfaction canvas?”
A searching fraternal look. Some trust. All this is quite new. Or is it more manipulation by one of the best?
“Nely could make herself a wealthy woman, if she could get past her resentment and start peddling what she has.” He shakes his head. “Not going to happen, although she has a certain cunning. She keeps her stash secret, which only feeds the rumors.”
He goes back to sleep. I doze in the upholstered chair. At a certain point I sit up startled. The music Esme was listening to has stopped.
In the morning Josefa brings breakfast on a tray for Cotton and me, but he won’t touch his food. My neck is cramped from sleeping in a chair, and I’m feeling grumpy. When Esme comes into the room I insist that she call Dr. Cabrera. She agrees but is clearly distracted.
I learn why, later that morning, when Malcolm Scatterfield comes into Cotton’s room. I realize I’ve been expecting a monster, some sort of Goya grotesque, but Malcolm is a trim, natty man in his forties wearing a blue blazer, gray slacks, a pressed white shirt open at the collar. He has the type of face you see in advertisements for secure investments. Cotton is out of his head again, babbling.
A girl is diamond’s best friend, this much I know and hold these truths to be self-evident. A man’s a man for all that, she said he said down by the seashore. Hah! Humpty Dumpty couldn’t get it together, the dumb prick.
Malcolm studies him for a moment, evaluating. He decides my brother is not faking it, he does not recognize the man who is holding him prisoner. He addresses me instead.
“I won’t apologize for the inconvenience I’ve caused you. That would insult both of us. I will do you the courtesy of advising you that my patience has worn thin. Something must give.”
His English is native but not like anything I’ve ever heard. The British roots of the sound are there, but attenuated by time and distance.
“Kidnapping is a serious crime,” I say for the record.
He cocks his head, evaluating me the way he has just evaluated my brother. How could I pose a danger to him? He decides I do not.
“Aaron does not have the painting you’re after. I swear he doesn’t. Don’t you think I would give it up to save his life?”
“Come on down,” sings Aaron. “Come on down where the Southern cross the Dog.”
He has always loved the blues. Lyric snatches of classic tunes have always come from him; word bouquets tossed to an adoring crowd. When we were teenagers it bugged the shit out of me. It seemed like one more way he was showing off. Now his mind has tossed up a crossroads song about the intersection of two famous rail lines.
“I’ve known your brother for years,” Malcolm tells me. “We’ve done business together.”
“I know him well enough to recognize that he will not be broken by the threat of violence, and possibly not by violence itself. Anyway, that would be barbarous. The man is desperately ill.”
“Then let him go, and I will get him the care he needs. When he is better, you and he can come to terms.”
Another look of evaluation. I am aware of a fastidiousness in him that is at odds with his treatment of my brother.
“I flew to Madrid,” he informs me. “Last month. I wanted some quality time with the Sosas at the Thyssen. They bear any amount of scrutiny, you understand. I came away more convinced than ever that I must have Satisfacción.”
I feel stupid. A kind of passivity settles on me. I am way out of my depth. If I ever get my phone back, the texts from staff and teachers at the school will have stacked up like unpaid bills on a spindle. Patrice comes into my mind’s ear again. It’s time, Peter. Don’t be a wimp, make sure you get what is owed you.
“Here is my current thinking,” says Malcolm.
He lays out a plan to have one of his employees hurt me, not fatally but with vigor, in the belief that my distress will induce Cotton to tell him where he has stashed the Sosa painting, which he has no doubt Cotton is in possession of.
For a moment, hearing him out, I want to tell him to go fuck himself. But the fear of pain cows me, and I am stupid again. I try to put on a brave face.
“So when does the torture begin?”
Malcolm grimaces. “Torture is a harsh word. Persuasion is closer to what I’m thinking of. I don’t want your brother to wake and find you battered and bloody. Let’s wait until he is in his right mind, shall we? I’m sure he will tell me what I want to know when he sees you begin to suffer. But it has to wait until your brother is in a fit state to comprehend what is going on around him. In any event you will excuse me if I don’t stick around. I’m flying to Mexico City this afternoon. A handful of Picasso drawings have unexpectedly come onto the market. They are not much, on the merits. The value lies in their connection to the Blue Period. Thanks to the mystique, I can quickly turn them around for a profit.”
There are no words for the relief I feel when he walks out the door, even knowing what lies ahead for me when my brother comes to his senses. Dr. Cabrera returns. It doesn’t require Spanish to understand the sentence he pronounces. He gives Cotton another shot to relieve the pain, and the day passes into night.
After the narcotic effect of the injection wears off, Cotton wakes to rave. Most of what he babbles is nonsense. There are lyrics to a song I don’t know.
“Come on down,” he sings gaily, ghoulishly leering in his agony. “Down where desire meets the fear. Come on down where the sergeant meets the spear, little brother.”
Near midnight he returns to himself. He seems surprised to see me.
“I owe you, Peter. I owe you… a lot.”
He has never said anything remotely like this before. I should accept it for the acknowledgement it is, halfway to an apology. But I can’t bring myself to do the right thing.
“You had it all,” I tell him. “You always had it all. There was nothing left for me.”
“Is that my fault?”
“Yes. I’ve given it a lot of thought. I think it must be your fault.”
He takes that in. His eyes wander for a moment, then come back to my face.
“There’s one thing you have to believe. It’s important. Will you?”
“What is it?”
“I did not steal that painting.”
I tell him that I believe him although I don’t think I do. The solace it gives him is short-lived. He slips out of lucidity back into hallucination, and the self-absorption of pain.
You’re hurting me, you’re hurting me, I’m hurting you. That’s how it goes, dearly beloved, that’s very much how it goes. We are gathered here today to fuck one another up.
His self-absorption is a good thing. It protects him. There is an old-fashioned regulator clock on the wall, in a walnut case. He dies at 2:21.
I give myself a few minutes to mourn my brother privately, and try to let the bad shit go. Then I wake Josefa, whose grief is dramatic and genuine. She throws a towel over her head and moans. The noise wakes Esme, and two of the guards rush in. When Esme learns that Aaron Kavanaugh is dead, she breaks down and cries. Her face swells up, her eyes are terrible candles.
“You haven’t earned it,” I tell her, but she doesn’t care to understand.
They go up in a bunch to my brother’s room and stand there without speaking. It’s not death that chastens them, it’s the death of Cotton Kavanaugh. Josefa is inconsolable.
His death gives me an authority they don’t question, and I shoo them out. I sit there through the dark hours until dawn.
My brother’s fever.
Down where desire meets the fear, where the sergeant meets the spear. I can’t get the lines out of my head. I would like to believe he died lucid.
At first light Josefa brings me coffee and buttered toast. Her hands shake, setting down the tray. She refuses to look at the corpse. I am in no hurry. Anything that happens now, whatever it is that comes next, doesn’t matter.
I am wrong about that.
Half an hour later there is a respectful knock on the door. It’s Esme. She hands me my phone.
“Malcolm wishes me to convey his condolences. He was sincerely fond of your brother, despite their differences.”
I let that one go by, and she informs me that Malcolm Scatterfield is convinced I know nothing about the painting he so badly wants. I am free to go. I will not be persuaded to reveal information I don’t possess.
It’s good to have the phone. I ignore the forty texts that have accumulated from people at school. I take a deep slow breath and call my mother.
She hears the worst in that single word.
It’s a short conversation. She is uncannily calm. She has been expecting something like this forever and is at pains to tell me I am not to blame, I was always good to Aaron even when he didn’t particularly deserve it. This, too, is new. She surprises me by asking that his body be sent to South Carolina. There is a family plot at a cemetery in Greenwood, in the western part of the state. I never knew about it.
The overwhelming presence of Cotton’s rigid body makes me aware that I have to move quickly. I call the American embassy. At the consulate, they have procedures to handle the death of an American citizen. Over the phone, a consular officer tells me what I need to do. The sympathy in her voice is genuine. She has found the right career. She offers to send a Honduran who can steer me in the right direction and help with the logistics.
“Max is very good,” she promises me. “You will pay him, but he will not take advantage.”
It annoys the hell out of me, but I have to go find Esme to learn the address of the house in which my brother has died. When that’s done, and I’m waiting for Max, I call Patrice.
“I’m sorry, Peter. I didn’t love your brother, but I’m sorry.”
“Go ahead and ask what you want to ask.”
“Do you have the painting?”
“There is no painting. There was never going to be a painting.”
“I guess I don’t understand.”
Where the sergeant meets the spear.
For the life of me I can’t come up with a way to explain anything, least of all what I feel. I keep getting stuck at a man emerging from a bristling red pickup to spray a vulture with a semi-automatic rifle. We arrange to meet in South Carolina. She will coordinate our children’s travel to attend the burial of their uncle. She offers to call the school where I work and tell them they have to get along without me a while longer.
Maximiliano Melendez is fifty, with silvering hair and the poised alertness of a hunter. His empathy knows its proper bounds. I deliver myself into his hands, and soon a doctor appears to certify the death. A little later, two men in a hearse arrive. I can’t stop myself from watching them work. Digger’s ring, Cotton’s ring, burns on my finger.
Max has a car, a high-mileage VW sedan. He takes me to the consulate to sign forms while he makes arrangements with the airline to send my brother home. I refuse to say goodbye to Esme. But Josefa allows me to hug her. Her lumpy body snugs against mine in the camaraderie of loss.
The consul has a no-nonsense style, auburn hair, and glasses with round rims. She runs American citizens services. She makes the paperwork process as easy on me as she is able to. By the time I have signed all the forms she puts in front of me she has heard from Max that he has been lucky, he secured space for Cotton on a flight out of Toncontín this afternoon. He has made a reservation for me to go along on the same flight.
“I’m sorry for your loss,” the consul tells me, standing up and shaking my hand.
She means it. Grace where grace is not expected.
An image of Malcolm Scatterfield disconcerts me. The treachery brings home Cotton’s death, and as the consul escorts me to the door I fight an urge to heave.
Max is waiting on the street outside the consulate, on a side street, at the corner of the main drag. Names. The corner of This and That, where two important things come together. I have an idea. Part of my idea is this: Cotton died lucid.
Desire, fear. Soldier, spear.
Max is smoking a cigarette, which he throws into the gutter as I approach. He understands that I do not want to talk about Cotton and distracts me with a story about his favorite pastime, hunting doves in a place in the south called Choluteca. The name is powerfully suggestive. Here, now, in a name, is more of the world opening up before me. This is something my brother understood. There is always more opening up, and it’s always worth the trip.
“I have a friend at the airport,” Max tells me. “He will give us a pass so that you can wait in the VIP lounge. It’s quiet there, it’s not chaotic.”
“I have a question for you,” I tell him. “You’ll think it’s strange.”
“Dále,” said Max, which I take to mean I should go ahead and ask it.
“Are there any streets in the city named for a sergeant?”
His eyebrows go up, not expressing surprise at my odd question but taking it seriously.
“We have streets for generals, and streets for colonels, and perhaps one or two for sergeants. Why?”
“What is the Spanish word for ‘spear’?”
He has to think for a moment. “Lanza,” he decides. “That would be the correct word.”
“Are there are any streets named Lanza?”
Another pause. He glances at his phone to check the time.
“We should get going, señor Peter. It will take some time to check in at the airport. It is not the most efficient place in the world.”
“But is there a Lanza?”
“There is. In Comayaguela.”
“Where is that?”
“It’s part of Téguz, but it has its own municipality. The street I’m thinking of, it’s named after a man named Lanza. He was famous for something, I don’t remember what.”
“Is there a street named after a sergeant that intersects with Lanza Street?”
Max reminds me again that we do not want to be late. But there is something in me—I’m not sure what to call it—that makes him take me seriously, and thirty minutes later we are on Calle Lanza on the far edge of Comayaguela where the city begins to peter out into countryside that is green and brown and has a desolate look, as though it has been abandoned. We stop at the intersection of Lanza and Calle Sargento Roque Cabildo.
“Roque was a hero in our war with El Salvador.”
There are three houses at the intersection; the fourth corner is an empty field of scrub. They are modest houses in which working people live. Each has a single story of adobe’d brick, and a tile roof. Max parks. He switches off the engine. Once he realized I was serious about whatever it is that I am doing, he quit resisting. I will miss the flight with Cotton’s body.
“Would you go to those houses and see if anybody in one of them knows an American?”
“Yes, my brother.”
He finds her at the second house, which is painted blue and has a tidy yard in which a couple of white hens forage with genetic diligence. A rosebush climbs the front wall below a double window. She is young, maybe twenty-five. Good-looking, of course. In jeans and a T-shirt, her feet in flip-flops, her long hair piled on her head, standing in the doorway she has statuesque proportions that make a person think she is taller than she is.
“This is Julissa,” Max introduces me. “She is a friend of your brother’s.”
Julissa looks at me steadily, ready to like me, to accept me, because I am related to Aaron. She invites us in. We sit in her small living room on furniture from which she removes the protective covers, and she serves us orange soda in plastic glasses, along with a plate of sweet crackers. The glasses have Disney characters on them.
When the moment seems right I ask Julissa if Cotton left something with her. She does not hesitate. Because I am his brother, I am to be trusted.
Max listens respectfully. Then he tells me, “She says he left a cuadro here… a painting. It’s in a crate under the bed. It was a gift, your brother told her. A gift from a sad woman.”
“Tell her, please, that we have lost my brother.”
Max does as I ask him, and the news undoes Julissa. She stands, she cries out, she sits again. She hunches over and sobs, holding herself in her own arms.
I am sobbing, too. Cotton is dead. My brother. His breakbone fever. He waited too long to go to the hospital, and then Malcolm Scatterfield showed up. This is our wake.
The world is poorer now, without Aaron Kavanaugh, its face is gaunt. Julissa and I cannot stop crying.
Max is a temple of patience. There will come a moment when he pulls the crate out from under Julissa’s bed, and we open it and look at the painting that my brother made sure, in his complicated and playful and completely sane way, that I would have.
But I’m not ready. Not now, not yet. The instant the crate is opened and we see Satisfaction for the first time, I will have to start dealing with arrangements, with logistics. There will be problems, and hard decisions. There will be complications, and anxious moments. That’s okay. I can do all that. But not yet. Everything is perfect right now. There is no distance between wanting and having. Sosa’s grand generative sun warms all of us. The light outside is the light inside. I see. Yes. I see. Who do I tell I’m sorry?
Mark Jacobs has published more than 175 stories in magazines including The Atlantic, Playboy, The Baffler, The Hudson Review, The Southern Review, and The Kenyon Review. Stories of his have won the Iowa Review Prize, the Eyster Prize, and the Kafka Prize from the Dr. T. J. Eckleburg Review. His five books include A Handful of Kings, published by Simon and Shuster, and Stone Cowboy, by Soho Press. His website can be found at www.markjacobsauthor.com.
Juliette Losq (b. 1978, London) is an internationally exhibited, prizewinning artist. She studied at the University of the Arts London, the Royal Academy Schools, Newnham College (Cambridge), and the Courtauld Institute (London). Losq was elected to the Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours and the Guild of St George in 2020, and became a Royal West of England Academician in 2021. Losq’s work is included in the New Hall Women’s Art Collection, All Visual Arts, and the Saatchi Collection.