All you have to do is spit into a plastic vial and put it in the mail and send it off somewhere, and then in a couple of weeks you’ll get the results, and these are going to tell you who you are.
Which is what Ashton Garoutte’s mother thought he wanted to know. Not the mother who birthed him, but the mom who adopted him when he was the newborn that was brought to her in a black station wagon in the middle of the night, with a tag tied to his carrier that read, “Baby Boy ___,” the name having been left out to protect the apparently disgraced family from unwelcome identification.
Ash never once asked this mom to find out what that name was. He never wondered, Who am I, really? and so it just wasn’t a question he ever thought to ask. Not because he didn’t want to know, or even because he already thought he knew, but because he thought he could never really know.
How can you know who you are? Because it keeps changing anyway, doesn’t it?
Ashton Garoutte is twenty years old, on the brink of his adulthood. “The best years of your life, son,” his dad likes to say, pouring another shot of whiskey and sliding it Ash’s way across the linoleum surface of the breakfast table in a kitchen that was built many years ago and never changed.
This is in the home where Ash grew up with his two loving parents, both of them much older than anybody else’s folks, both of them doting on their son his whole life, as if that might be who he is: nothing less than his parents’ purpose, their miracle, the child they adopted, the infant that came to them swaddled in a white flannel blanket, wailing, red-faced, abandoned by one woman to be taken into the deepest part of the heart of another.
Who is in ill health now, by the way, as is her husband too. She, losing her senses, filling the house with junk she can’t bear to part with, as if that’s what tells her who she is. He, drowning in alcohol and tethered to an oxygen tank. “Son,” she says, and then forgets and gives Ash a quizzical look, like she’s no more sure of who he is than he is himself.
And yet, now, here it is. The test results. In a box. On his bed.
He pushes the box aside. It means nothing to him, he thinks, and that looks like it will be the end of that, until an alert from the provider pops up on his phone.
“We have identified a person who may be your first or second cousin.”
From here, one thing leads to another and before he knows it, Ash has discovered the secret of who his real mother is. Gemma Altman Lee. A stranger whose name gongs in Ash’s head and shakes him to the core.
So, yes, of course he contacts her. Why not? He doesn’t tell his folks. It’s a whim, really, encouraged by his friends, challenged by his enemies. It looks like she was only sixteen years old when she had him. This fact blows his mind. What must she be like now? Sixteen years. Which means that now she’s really not that much older than he is himself. Thirty-six years to his twenty, that’s all. With a family, he sees, when he looks her up on Facebook. Children that she decided to keep around. And a husband too. And a career.
Ash has spent the evening watching television with his folks, and now, bolstered by beer, he gets on his phone and he sends Gemma Altman Lee a message, using an email address at the office where she works.
“Gemma.” He whispers her name in the dark. “Gemma. Mama.” He even goes so far as to toss up a prayer, that’s how drunk he is now. “Call me, Gemma. Mama. Call me, please. Tell me who I am.”
The silence hits him hard. No answer. Day after day, he checks and rechecks. But Gemma doesn’t respond.
Meanwhile, another relative has popped up on the DNA charts. This one is contacting Ashton Garoutte directly, requesting a connection, and Ash figures he’s got nothing to lose, so he says, “Sure, why not?” and there she is, a half-sister named Lolly Cooper. She’s a kid with a father who is a man named Jojo, who turns out to be Ash’s real blood-and-bones dad.
“Son,” he writes in an email. “All this time, I’ve wondered who you are.”
Jojo is eager to meet this young man who seems to be his boy. First he invites Ash to come and see him. Then he begs him.
“Son, please. I’m not well.” He offers up an address. “Any time,” he says. “We’re always here. I hope you’ll come.” A note from Lolly is included at the end: “Howdy, Ash. I can’t wait to meet you, bro.”
He has a car, and it’s not a long drive, so why not? He doesn’t tell his mom, who sits in her chair in front of the television, holding her doll.
“Sweet baby,” she says, smiling at Ash. Her eyes moist. Her face a crazed ceramic salad plate. “Hush now.”
He’s driven across the fields from there to here, a small brick house on a tree-lined street, with its neatly mowed lawn, smiling-face windows, and red door. “Welcome” on the mat. Gnomes in the garden. Roses rising up against an iron fence.
Mimi Cooper greets this young man who is her husband’s long-lost son with open arms. She guides him into the house. Behind her, Lolly gazes up at him from her wheelchair, tilts her head, and smiles, crooked. “Bro,” she exclaims, then snickers. “I guess you must be pro-life, considering.” She clutches the cross that dangles from a chain around her neck.
Next up is Ash’s father, Jojo Cooper himself. Spitting image, like looking into a mirror. Well, almost. What Ash is seeing is himself as a fat man approaching middle age, broken and sick, hacking into a handkerchief, grinning with stained teeth.
“Son,” he says. Tears well up. He falls against Ash’s slighter self and sighs. “My son. My long-lost baby boy.”
It becomes clear pretty quick what Ash’s new family wants from him, which is, simply, his presence in their lives. He doesn’t mind. He’s happy to oblige. In fact, he makes it his mission to be there for them.
“Yes,” he says. “It’s fine. I’ll do whatever I can.”
He lies in the bed they’ve given him, behind the closed door to his own room at the top of the stairs, and he thinks: I owe my life to him. Meaning Jojo. That bolsters his good faith some. Enough, anyway, to let him sleep and dream that he’s a boy again, at play in a stranger’s yard.
It’s not long, though, before his surety starts to crumble, shaken at first by Lolly, whose crooked smile can be endearing or grotesque, depending on the light. The wheeze and click of Jojo’s oxygen concentrator becomes a sort of music playing on a broken speaker behind a door, in another room, where Jojo himself sits crumpled in a recliner, an unlit cigarette in his hand like a death wish not quite fulfilled.
As for Mimi, she seems more like a sister or a friend than a stepmom. She hands Ash another beer, and they sit outside on the front porch with the flicker of fireflies, the hoot of an owl, and the huge trees swaying in the breeze. Out here Ash could come to believe he’s somehow found his way home. He asks about Lolly and the details float past, a story told and told again over the years.
There was a motorcycle and a blanket, Mimi explains. And Lolly, just a bitty toddler, snug on Jojo’s lap. Just two blocks away, and he wasn’t even very drunk. Lolly had been in the care of her grandma, Jojo’s mom, who loved her granddaughter to pieces, as she was often heard to say. Jojo picked Lolly up from her crib and started to carry her outside, but then he remembered the blanket she could not do without, and he went back for it, and she woke up, and he wrapped it around her, the way she liked. The toddler was light as a feather against his bulk, but somehow the blanket came loose and flew out to catch in the back wheel and bring the motorcycle, along with its two riders, down. Lolly, with the blanket wrapped around her neck and Jojo howling in the night as he worked to pull it free. Lolly limp on the pavement. Jojo saying, “No, no, no. Don’t be dead. Not dead. Not dead.”
Mimi’s cheeks glisten. She folds her hands as if in prayer. And so, yes. Not dead. But the child was without oxygen for who knows how long, and there was damage, and that is why.
Lolly’s smile is monstrous in its twist. “I’m so much better now. And Daddy loves me. And I love my daddy right back.” She remembers nothing, of course.
No one blames Jojo, Mimi says, unless he blames himself. Which surely he does. He insists sometimes that this is why he got sick. That he’s getting what’s due him now.
Lolly is squinting, leaning close, scrutinizing Ash. “You know,” she says, sitting back like she’s made up her mind, “you look exactly like him.”
Ash frowns and shakes his head, but she’s not going to let it go.
“Like how he used to look, that is. When he was your age.”
Mimi agrees. She brings out a photograph album to prove it to him.
Ash turns the pages carefully and sees nothing of himself in that cocky young stranger with a beer in one hand, the motorcycle behind him, the cigarette hanging from his lip.
“But your mother…” Mimi says.
“I’ve never seen her,” he replies.
Mimi shrugs. “Jojo never talks about her. I didn’t even know until now.”
She takes the album from him and cradles it in her arms as her eyes measure him, head to toe. She musses her hair with one hand and flashes her white teeth. And now it’s clear. When she looks at Ashton Garoutte, Mimi Cooper likes what she sees.
The death was not unexpected. Even Jojo himself knew it was coming. “That old Reaper,” he said, “he’s just around the corner, waiting on me.” And shrugged. And laughed. And coughed. And pointed at the rest of them too, even Lolly. “Yer gonna die! You and you and you!”
Like this was news. Like this was something they didn’t know. Or they did know but didn’t realize, not like he did. In the sense that it wasn’t real for them and somehow it was real for him because he was making it real. Simple as that. But he couldn’t say it straight: “I’m gonna die.” Because that was obvious.
Jojo was right, though. It wasn’t real to Ash. It just didn’t feel like it was true, not in any way at all, and so it got to be a sort of a joke for them. Lolly was the one who started it.
“Yer gonna die,” she said, pointing at the dog. And laughing in that crazy cackle that signaled her damage. And then, borrowing the line from something she’d seen on TV or somewhere, “But not today.” Which then became a chant: “YGD… BNT…YGD… BNT.” Which drove Mimi crazy, so she lashed out and swatted Lolly, the way you’d swat the head of a whining dog: “Stop that now! Just stop!”
Lolly at the table, fork in hand, rocking in her chair, whispering under her breath now: “YGD… BNT… YGD… BNT.”
Mimi turned up the volume on the TV, and Ash, trying to be helpful, started clearing the table and rinsing the dishes, so the kitchen was full of sound and light and even Lolly was laughing then, raising her voice in competition with all that other noise, the TV louder, Ash banging the pans in the sink, so no one heard the crash in the other room, and it wasn’t until Ash went out there to get Jojo’s dinner tray that he found his father on the floor. His face was purple and his mouth was full of meat.
Mimi, who was so strong, who cared for Lolly first, when she was a child, and then Jojo when he got sick not so very long after that, who had brought Ash into the family now as if he were her own blood too—Mimi has fallen apart. She sits at the kitchen table, head in her hands. She looks at Lolly and looks away, as if she can’t bear the sight of her. She lets Ash warm up a bowl of soup for her. She lets him make coffee. She lets him open a bottle of wine. She is empty, she says, with tears in her eyes and on her cheeks. And: “I can’t. It’s too much. I don’t know how.”
Because there’s a lot to do now. Funeral arrangements. The will. Bank accounts and life insurance. The mess he made of the carpet and the smells he left behind in every room of the house. All his clothes. All his meds. All his stuff.
Ash mans up and steps in and takes over. He makes the funeral arrangements and offers to stand beside Mimi at the gravesite, but she’ll have none of that.
“No,” she says, “please, no. I can’t talk to people. I don’t want to. Don’t make me.”
So there are no services for Jojo Cooper, and he ends up ashes in a simple pewter urn that gets put away on a shelf in the garage with his jars of nails and nuts and bolts and screws and the jumble of his old tools, which to tell the truth Ash eyes with a gleam because he knows they have value. When the time is right, he’ll suggest to Mimi that she can sell them and he’ll help her and it will be worth it, believe me.
Lolly clings to him. She wants to call him Dad, but he’s steadfast about that at least and says, “No, I’m not your dad. I’m your brother.”
She nods like she understands and smiles—slant, twinkle—and says, “Okay, Dad.”
Because what Lolly is already thinking is that now Jojo’s gone, she’s going to be the next to go. Because they are connected, aren’t they? She was in his lap on that motorcycle, and he was holding her close. Now she feels like she wants to be with him, wherever he is. She’s pretty sure she’d be happier there. And free. Whole again, at least.
Ash wants to set her straight, but Mimi just listens and nods, as if Lolly might be right. Thinking too, maybe, about herself and how now she’s been left with her damaged daughter who is fast, too fast, becoming a woman, when all of it was Jojo’s fault in the first place, and how is she going to be able to do what needs to be done around here without him?
Lolly is still smiling. “But you won’t be all by yourself, Mom. Because here’s our Ash, right here, and he’s Dad’s son and you can be with him and have a baby, and then that baby can be me, born again. Brand new and fixed.”
It was so simple. Lolly had it all worked out.
And sure enough, Ash does step into Jojo’s shoes without much problem. They fit him perfectly, in fact. He puts on his clothes too, while he’s at it.
“Okay, Dad,” Lolly says. And smiles. Claps her hands. “Ha, ha!”
“I’m not your dad.”
“Okay, Dad.” And again, “Ha, ha!”
Mimi reaches across the table and pinches her. Lolly looks at her arm like she’s never seen it before. She turns red, but she doesn’t cry out. She wouldn’t give Mimi the pleasure of that. Instead she clamps her mouth shut and makes a gesture with her fingers to zip her lips. And then she sits quietly, not a peep, as the bruise darkens her pale-white flesh like a storm cloud brooding on the horizon.
Later Mimi tries to apologize. And Lolly smiles and lets herself be held and comforted. Mother and daughter are both in tears. “My baby girl,” Mimi says, and Lolly purrs. While Ash stands at the sink, washing up the dinner dishes. Towel over his shoulder. Hands in warm suds.
Or he’s outside in the yard, burning the trash. Or he’s under the truck, changing the oil.
Lolly sits still and soft in her mother’s arms.
But from here on out, she will not say another word.
Who would have thought a man like Jojo Cooper would have a will? That he’d have gone to a lawyer and had it drawn up, formal and by the book, signed, sealed, and delivered. “To avoid intestacy,” the lawyer explained. “To keep it simple for you, Mimi.”
And it was simple. Everything went to her. The house, the possessions, the car, the savings, and the land, which consisted of forty acres along the river, fondly referred to as “The Swamp.” Worthless maybe, but it was land and now it was hers. Plus one thing more. An unexpected gift in the form of a secret bank account that’s come to light only now, all these years later.
Mimi shakes her head. “I never knew. He never said. I had no idea.” It sat there for years—twenty years to be exact—untouched.
So now the attorney, duly hired, is posed at his desk for one final bit of business, and here are Mimi and Ash and Lolly too, each uncomfortable in their own way. The office is cramped and nothing fancy, perched as it is above a cell phone store on the upper level of a strip mall, with a flight of stairs and no elevator, so Lolly had to be carried up here in Ash’s arms.
She snuggled into him in such an unseemly way that he was momentarily tempted to let her fall. At least he loosened his grip to give her a feel for the freefall that was going to be hers if she didn’t behave herself. Then he looked up to see Mimi’s thighs white and flashing at him from the balcony, like to blind him.
This is just routine, they’ve been thinking, until they come to the secret account and an accompanying letter from Jojo, explaining that Gemma Altman Lee’s father paid him ten thousand dollars to stay away from his pregnant daughter and, when the child was born, to give up all right to custody of said offspring. Jojo signed the papers and put the money away and would not touch it, forgot about it maybe, until Ash showed up just weeks ago. So now, according to the will, that money belongs to him.
Now Ashton Garoutte is a comfortable and confident young man who knows exactly who he is, which is Jojo Cooper’s only son. Who wants for nothing because he has everything he needs right here in this house with these two people who need him, his true family, and one of them is his blood.
Lolly lies in her bed. She’s not sleeping. She’s not dreaming. Outside her window, an autumn breeze is touching the tops of the trees that hover over the house, as if protecting it. Leaves have begun to turn and fall. Tomorrow Ash will be outside, mowing the lawn or hammering the loose boards of the porch or fixing the hinges on the front door or taking down the screens and putting up the storm windows. Cleaning the gutters. Painting the trim.
The house creaks, as if in gratitude. Lolly hears it move and sigh.
Footsteps in the hallway creep past her door and on beyond. A careful tapping, like a wish come true, ever so soft. A murmur from within. A latch opened, closed again. A lock turned. A whimper. A sigh.
Lolly closes her eyes. And smiles. Because she believes that soon now, very soon, she’s going to be reborn.
Susan Taylor Chehak is the author of several novels, including The Great Disappointment, Smithereens, The Story of Annie D., and Harmony. Her most recent publications include two collections of short stories, This Is That and It’s Not About the Dog, and a novel, The Minor Apocalypse of Meena Krejci. Her work has appeared in Five on the Fifth, Green Hills Literary Lantern, Hawaii Pacific Review, Ragazine, The Magnolia Review, The Minnesota Review, Moon City Review, Nelle, Ducts, Crack the Spine, Bryant Literary Review, Pennsylvania English, The Chariton Review, Jet Fuel Review, Sliver of Stone, Limestone, The Literary Nest, and The Coachella Review. Susan has taught fiction writing in the MFA program at Antioch University, the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program, the University of Southern California, and the Summer Writing Festival at the University of Iowa.