When Louise arrived first thing in the morning, James was still there, sitting in a hard-backed chair. They kept a vigil together all that week and watched John Mott die. The fact that he hadn’t said good-bye to his father was tearing at James. He wanted to get drunk, run away, jump in the Eel River, but he did none of these things. He only left the hospital to go out and feed Cody, then walk him through the woods beside the parking lot. That’s where he was when his father died. When he went back to the room, John Mott was already gone. His mother said, “He loved you best of all,” but that only made things worse. James did go out and get drunk that night, at the Jack Straw Bar and Grill. He had the sort of expression on his face that made people avoid him. His old girlfriend, Brooke Linden, was there with a crowd of her friends. She came up and told him she’d heard about his father and wanted to say how sorry she was. John Mott had busted her youngest brother when the boy was a teenager, slinking around town committing petty robberies, something James didn’t know.
“Where was I when that happened?” he asked.
“Too self-involved to notice,” Brooke replied. “My brother teaches middle school in Lenox now. He’ll be at the funeral. Your dad totally turned his life around.”
“Really? He was completely absent from mine.”
James seemed angry and dangerous, but he wasn’t. He was falling apart. He went home with Brooke, who was divorced and had a little boy who was off spending the night at her mother’s place. James cried in her bed and told her that he was a monster who should have died a long time ago. He said things he shouldn’t have and made a fool of himself.
In the morning, he woke in the dark and took off before Brooke awoke. He’d left Cody at his mother’s house, but the arthritic dog had managed to jump out the window, as he used to in the old days, and was waiting for James in Brooke’s yard. James bent to pet his dog’s head. He felt rescued by the collie, as he had been many times before. They walked home through the fields. It was the time of year when the apple trees were in bloom and bees were everywhere. Blackwell seemed the same as it always had, only emptier, as if someone had drilled a hole in the center of it and siphoned out its heart. James made all the arrangements for his father’s funeral. He bought a suit for the occasion. Brooke was among the mourners, along with her brother, Andy, who came to shake James’s hand and offer his condolences. John Mott was beloved in Blackwell, and nearly the whole town attended the service. Neighbors James barely remembered came up to him with tears in their eyes. More than three hundred people signed the guest book, too many to have at the house, so the funeral supper was held in the old town hall. When James went outside to get some air, Brooke was leaving.
“You could have said good-bye before you disappeared to New York,” she told him. She had her son with her. “This is Arthur.” She introduced him to James. “I named him after my grandfather.” Her son looked to be about four years old. James shook the little boy’s hand. Arthur had something to say, and James bent to hear him.
“People die,” Arthur said, sounding sure of himself. He was a quiet boy, prone to getting into trouble without looking for it. At present he had twelve stitches in his scalp from the week before when he’d climbed up a tall ladder set outside the AtoZ Market and fallen on his head.
“So it seems,” James responded sadly.
“Then where do they go?” Arthur wanted to know.
“You’re asking the wrong person,” James admitted.
JAMES SPENT THE summer in Blackwell, helping his mother clear out the cellar and the garage. He felt lost, as if he’d fallen through that hole he imagined in the center of town. Some mornings when he woke up he didn’t know what year it was. Some nights he got so drunk he couldn’t find his way home.
Brooke started coming over and he found himself looking forward to her visits, and also to Arthur’s. Then one day he saw Arthur on the floor, curled up next to old Cody, and he knew. He did the math and couldn’t believe he hadn’t figured it out before. He asked Brooke why she’d never contacted him. He thought he’d had a right to know that Arthur was his son, but Brooke shrugged. “You didn’t seem interested. You were done with me, so I didn’t tell you.”
CODY DIED NOT long after. He was so old by then that during his last week, James had to carry him outside in the mornings so he could pee. Then the collie stopped eating. James set up a box lined with blankets for his dog when he didn’t seem to want to do anything but sleep. He died there, next to James’s bed. It was still dark when James lifted the dog’s body out to take him into the garden. They had been together since James was ten, and he couldn’t remember how it felt to live his life without his dog. He kept thinking he saw the collie from the corner of his eye, even though he knew that was impossible. He thought about Arthur and the question he had asked about where people went and how small his voice had been.