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Gerrit ordered for both of us. “Twee bollekes, asjeblief.”
The waiter walked away.
“En als ik iets anders wil?” I said.
“Drop the Flemish,” said Gerrit. “My English is fine.”
“We’re not kids anymore. I can make my own deci – ”
“You love De Koninck.”
I crossed my arms and glanced at the next table where a man was sipping from a glass chalice of burgundy Grimbergen beer with a red-marbled head.
I turned back to Gerrit. “When does she get here?”
“The bus comes on at quarter ’til,” he said.
“Eh?” said Gerrit.
“Comes on doesn’t make sense in English. Arrives is better.” I took out my pack of cigarettes and smacked the end into my palm.
“You can’t smoke.”
“I don’t need your health speech.”
“It’s a new Antwerp law. No more restaurant smoking.”
“You’ve got to be – ”
I rolled my eyes and slid the cigarettes back into my coat pocket. “This isn’t a real café anyway.” We were seated at the front window of the Hans Christian Andersen tavern on the cobblestoned Keyserlei, a couple hundred metres from Central Station. A breeze rippled the orange leaves of the linden trees. “You should have ordered us a couple of Carlsbergs.”
We both laughed.
The waiter returned with a tray and set down two foam-topped glasses of amber beer and a dish of nuts. Gerrit nodded, and the waiter turned away.
I raised my beer. “Schol.”
“Schol.” Gerrit held up his glass.
“To a good visit,” I said.
“Well,” said Gerrit, “we’re going to see about that.”
Our family was convening in Antwerp because of Gerrit’s daughter Clara, whose pregnancy and hastily planned wedding had cut short her studies at the university. I’d flown in from New York the day before, and now Gerrit and I were waiting for our mother to arrive on the shuttle bus from the Brussels airport. After Dad’s death ten years earlier, Mom had sold the house and hightailed it out of Flanders so quickly we all wondered how long she’d been planning her escape to Tuscany. In this moment, I was thankful that Gerrit’s wife Lillian had left him because Mom and I would be spending two weeks in his apartment on Spoorstraat, and we would need space.
Gerrit gulped his beer and wiped his lips. “When Mom steps from the bus, I thought we could take her luggage back to the apartment and then maybe go have some lunch.”
“No, she’ll want to go to the cemetery first thing.”
Gerrit stared into his beer and started flicking his thumb and fingernail.
“That’s usually what she wants to do,” I said. He only flicked like that when something was wrong. “That should be okay, right?”
“No,” said Gerrit.
“It’s a short drive.” The cemetery wasn’t far, just out on Driehoekstraat in Ekeren.
Gerrit’s jaw muscles clenched.
I set my glass on the table. “What’s going on?”
“It’s gone,” he said.
“What?” I laughed. “How can – ”
“I let it expire. I didn’t renew the lease, so they emptied it. Dad’s not in his grave anymore. They rented it to someone else.”
“They rented – . What do you mean they emptied it? Where’s Dad?”
“After ten years, probably there wasn’t much left of him.”
“But there had to be something. At least bones.”
“Yes, maybe,” said Gerrit.
“So where the hell are the remains?”
“I don’t know, perhaps somewhere in a bone yard.”
“You don’t know?”
“Does it matter? He’s gone. Who cares?”
“I can tell you who’s going to care.”
Gerrit leaned in. “And who cared when Dad was still alive?”
“Oh, hell.” I sat back and looked out the window down the street. Dry leaves rustled, paces quickened, coat collars turned up.
“Who took care of Dad for two years?” said Gerrit. “Not you, with your New York life and your acting career and your shiny new American citizenship.”
“I had commitments.”
“We all had commitments.”
I stared at him. “You think Dad even wanted me around?”
Gerrit drained his glass and signalled the waiter.
“Do you?” I said.
“It didn’t help when you left.”
“Why would I stay in Antwerp when no one wanted me here?” I said.
“Lillian wanted you to stay.”
I bit my lower lip. I looked up at the seated bronze statue of Hans Christian Andersen, his book in one hand and the palm of the other outstretched toward the ceiling. Lillian.
“And do you think it was all a bed of tulips around here?” Gerrit said. “Dad never forgave me for not taking over his cafés when he got sick.”
The waiter stood at our table.
“Nog twee bollekes,” said Gerrit.
“Stop ordering for me,” I said. I looked at the waiter. “Ver mij ne Grimbergen, zonder groseille.”
The waiter nodded and stepped away.
My chest ached when I thought of Lillian and our time in high school on the Brialmontlei and how she had cried when I’d told her I was leaving to study acting at New York University. Two years later, she and Gerrit were married.
“And if I had stayed in Antwerp, you think Lillian would still be with me?”
“She loved you,” said Gerrit.
“Would you have stolen her anyway?”
“Stolen? You were gone! You left all of us. Me, Dad, Mom. And what was Lillian supposed to do?”
“She should have come to the states with me.”
“For two years she was angry,” said Gerrit. “She couldn’t believe you expected her to drop everything to follow you.”
“She should have come. I was better for her.”
“You were better.” Gerrit snorted and then shook his head. “Well, she always thought so. And it doesn’t matter, because she left, too.”
“Maybe she’d have stayed if you hadn’t screwed around in Thailand.”
“You have no idea what was going on here,” said Gerrit. “No idea.”
“Then tell me.”
Gerrit’s shoulders slumped. He flicked his thumb and fingers again. He shook his head and groaned and then quietly mumbled, “How is that now possible.”
And while that colloquial phrase doesn’t quite translate into English, I had the good sense not to correct him. When he was fourteen, Gerrit had come up with the idea to become fluent in English and to speak it without an accent. I was twelve and had told him I would do that, too. He’d laughed and said, “Go ahead, we’ll see how far you get.” Four years later, he started his undergraduate study in Flemish at Leuven, and I headed to New York after high school. Even now as adults, he insisted we speak English together to “maintain our fluency.”
“She used to get mad at me for wiping Dad’s ass,” said Gerrit.
“Lillian said that was Mom’s job – wiping Dad’s ass when he couldn’t do it any longer.”
“Jesus. But eldercare assistance should have – ”
“Mom refused help. She said strangers should never do that. We had to take shifts and share the job. It was the only way.”
A group of teenagers walked into the Andersen, giggling and slapping each other and hunched over their smartphones. A waiter told them to put away their cigarettes and then seated them at the back of the café, thank God.
“How are you going to tell her about Dad’s grave?” I said.
“I’m not going to,” said Gerrit. “You are.”
“There is no way – ”
“You have to do something hard for once.”
“You didn’t renew the lease!”
“And you weren’t even here. I was with him every day, and I helped Mom afterwards, and then she left, too. Fucking Tuscany. Now it’s your turn to help. I can’t do it.”
I straightened my napkin. I stacked coasters on the table.
“She’s going to collapse in the street,” I said.
“God.” His thumb flicked and flicked.
There was laughter from the table of teenagers.
Gerrit stood up. “I’ll be in the WC.”
I checked my watch. 11:40 a.m. The airport express bus was due in five minutes. I gazed out the window at the Keyserlei. Cars crawled past. There was a waffle stand across the street under a web of scaffolding and construction machinery. Standaard Boekhandel had just opened a branch in the Century Centre. The street had been different thirty years ago, during my childhood. The Van Den Hende candy shop had long since disappeared. I snorted when I saw that McDonald’s was still going strong.
The waiter arrived and deposited our beers.
“Bedankt,” I said.
He nodded. “Nog iets?”
“Nie-eh, das al.”
Hordes of people streamed along the sidewalk under the bright orange leaves of the linden trees, whose autumn colours had been mesmerising me since childhood. I was lost. For me, this was Antwerp, not the cathedral or the Grand Market or the Rubens House, but this long row of sturdy lindens, shimmering in the cool snap of October.
Gerrit returned from the restroom and sat down. “They won’t be here much longer.”
“The trees.” He pointed a thumb sideways toward the street. “They’re cutting down all the trees next month, all ninety-six of them.”
“My God.” I looked at Gerrit. Then out the window. Then back at Gerrit. My mouth hung open.
“Apparently they’re in such poor health, the city’s going to remove them,” he said. “I guess it’s good that euthanasia is legal in Belgium, eh?” He laughed. Then he stopped when he saw my wide eyes. “Yes, well. Anyway, let’s not tell M – ”
“Hell no, we’re not telling her. Jesus.” I grabbed a handful of nuts from the glass dish and shoved them into my mouth. I drummed my fingers on the table while I crunched.
Gerrit picked up his glass and sucked in a long draw. Foam simmered on his upper lip. He sighed. “Lillian left me because of Dad.”
“What?” I said through a mouthful of nuts.
“It was Dad. Not because of Thailand.”
I stopped chewing.
“She got angry during those last two years. Clara was seven years old. Lillian said I was helping Dad too much.”
“But you told me it was Thailand.”
“No, no, I was protecting Lillian, trying to make it look like it was my fault,” said Gerrit. “She said she and Clara needed me more than Dad did, and if I didn’t stop helping him and Mom so much, she was going out the door.”
Gerrit stared down at the table. “I haven’t seen her since Clara turned eighteen and moved to Ghent.”
“Will she be at the wed – ”
I watched my brother flick his thumbs.
“I’m sorry.” Gerrit looked up at me. “But you were better off without her.”
“Don’t say that.”
“It’s true,” said Gerrit. “She left when things became difficult. What sort of wife does that?”
I pulled out my cigarettes, then tucked them back away.
“I thought she would change from her mind after Dad died, and then come back,” said Gerrit.
“It’s just ‘change her mind.’”
“Okay okay, change her mind.”
“Shit. I’m sorry.”
Gerrit smiled. “That’s alright.”
“No, I mean I’m sorry for leaving.”
Gerrit’s lips tightened. “It’s okay. New York is the place for acting – we all knew that. Mom knew it, too.” He wiped his eyes with a napkin and then peered sideways out the window. “There’s the bus.”
He dropped some cash onto the table.
“Here, let me help.” I pulled out a five-Euro note.
“No, I’ve got it,” he said.
We walked out the door and headed down the sidewalk.
“I’ll tell her,” said Gerrit.
“But I thought – ”
“No, no, I’ll do it. Mom doesn’t speak English, so it should be me anyway.”
I left that one alone.
He stopped walking. “I did it on purpose.”
“Cancelled the lease on Dad’s grave,” he said. “I was angry. At you. At all of you.”
I put my hand on his shoulder. His eyes were wet. He sniffled and then we walked.
Even from twenty meters away I could see the wrinkled hose on her thick ankle as one foot descended gently from the bottom step of the bus door to the cobblestones. She held the handrail and shuffled to the kerb. She stopped in the middle of the sidewalk, lifted her head, and gazed up at the leaves of the linden trees. Then she turned in our direction. As we approached, she glanced from Gerrit to me and back again, and when her squinting eyes landed on my arm around his shoulder, she smiled as if finally convinced all would be well.
About Robert Slentz-Kesler
Robert Slentz-Kesler grew up in Belgium, Turkey, the United States, and Germany. His fiction has appeared in The Blotter, STORGY Magazine, and the Rappahannock Review. He resides in Durham, North Carolina.
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