The Midwest |

Cousin Barnaby Is Dead

by Clifford Garstang


I’m in the middle of an argument with my mother—she thinks I should ask her friend’s daughter Denise Knickerbocker out on a date while I’m home for Spring break, and I think that’s the worst idea ever—when the phone rings. I want her to let the answering machine get it, or make Dad answer it, wherever he is, in their bedroom or the basement or sneaking a smoke on the back porch, because I want her to listen to me for a change. Instead, she glances at the caller ID and lifts the receiver.

After “Hello,” she’s silent, nods solemnly as if the caller can see her and will understand that she’s taking whatever it is seriously. Then it’s “Yes,” “Yes,” “I’m so sorry,” and she hangs up. She looks at me and there are tears in her eyes.

“Cousin Barnaby is dead.” She says this with resignation in her voice, as if the news is inevitable.

I don’t know what to say. It doesn’t seem possible. The guy’s my age, but he’s her first cousin, the son of her mother’s younger sister. The first time I met him was at a family reunion in Cleveland that I did not want to go to and neither did he. We were maybe twelve at the time. I was missing basketball camp back home in Indianapolis and Barn—he liked to be called Barn, but his parents insisted on the whole dumb name that made him sound like a circus clown—was into hanging out with his friends at the mall in Pittsburgh. So we were both there against our wills. Another time was here in Indy just a couple of years ago when Barn and his mother came to visit. I think she was getting a divorce or something and wanted to hide out for a while. I remember there was a big hubbub because Barn’s older brother Bailey didn’t come with them. He was supposed to be some hotshot college guy, which back then seemed like a big deal. It was cool that he didn’t come, though, because Barn brought some pot he stole from Bailey’s bedroom, and we smoked out in the woods behind our house. He talked about Hermann Hesse and alienation and duality and more shit that was way over my head. I thought he was cool.

Cousin Barnaby is dead. Shit.

“How?” I ask my mother.

She doesn’t answer.

Even though we didn’t see each other much, now that I’m thinking about him I feel pretty bad that he’s dead. I don’t know anyone my age who’s dead, except this kid in high school who had some horrible disease and scooted around the school in an electric wheelchair so no one would feel guilty about not wanting to talk to him. So I didn’t really know him. When he died, the school set up a scholarship in his name. I didn’t hear who got the scholarship—other kids in wheelchairs, maybe.

“Never mind, Robbie” my mother says, finally, like she’s been thinking all this time of what lie to tell me.

If she doesn’t want to talk about it, I’m guessing either Barn killed himself, which doesn’t seem possible, or maybe somebody killed him, and either way it sucks. It’s lame that she won’t tell me, but typical for her. My folks think I’m still a kid and can’t handle the truth.

I must have rolled my eyes then because she does an about-face, which is pretty unusual for her.

“If you must know, it was an accident. He was driving his little Korean car or Yugo or whatever and he crashed. Died instantly. Are you happy now?”

Of course I’m not happy. What a crazy thing to say! That would be creepy under any circumstances, although I am glad she decided to tell me, which says something about where we are in our relationship. Maybe it’s because I’m a college man now. We’re making progress.

Anyway, our argument is over now thanks to Barn. I can see she’s forgotten about Denise Knickerbocker, and instead she’s thinking about how awful her aunt must feel and what a relief it is that it happened to her pothead cousin and not her own son. She doesn’t notice that I’m holding on to the back of a chair so I don’t fall over. I can’t believe Barn is dead. I didn’t even know he had a car.

The real reason I don’t want to ask Denise out, by the way, and the reason we were arguing in the first place, is because of the nickname some guys used to call her behind her back: DeNeeds Biggerknockers. After I heard that once, I couldn’t even look at her, never mind go out on a date with her. Can you imagine trying to feel her up and having that name come to mind? I wouldn’t be able to keep a straight face.

But now, after Mom’s shocker, there is somebody I want to see. This girl named Corinne Ackerman had a huge crush on Barn, the kind where you write somebody love poems and send them emails and threaten to do terrible things to yourself if they don’t write back. She met him when he was here that one time and I think they might have made out when I wasn’t around. I’m pretty sure they stayed in touch after that, because once when I talked to Barn on the phone he mentioned he could have Corinne any time he wanted. He even talked about what he’d like to do with her. It was kind of crude, but funny. Anyway, I figure she’s home for Spring break just like I am, and this is news she’d want to have.

After dinner, my folks start talking about driving to Pittsburgh for Barn’s funeral, which seems like the worst thing imaginable. I mean, I really liked the guy, like I said, and it’s sad and everything that he got killed, but there’s no way I’m going to his funeral and looking into a coffin at his dead face. He was a good looking kid, you know, and when he said those things about having sex with Corinne any time he wanted, he wasn’t joking. And not just Corinne, but any girl he set his sights on. I don’t want to even think about going to the funeral.

So I tell my parents I’m meeting some buddies—we’re all home for Spring break and we’re going to hang out, I say, although the truth is a bunch of them went to Cabo or someplace and I’m stuck here in Indianapolis where there’s still snow on the ground. Besides I’m not really in the mood for hanging out with guys who didn’t know Barn. Instead, I head over to Corinne Ackerman’s.

Corinne’s mom is shocked to see me because it’s been a couple of years, but after a double-take she invites me in and says what a nice surprise and Corinne will be so happy. Then she calls down the hall. Speaking of surprises, I’m floored when Corinne comes out. I used to think Barn was making fun of her when he talked about doing it with her because she was kind of chubby when we were younger. Now she’s incredibly skinny. Like way too skinny.

We sit in the living room and Corinne’s mom serves us Coke and pretzels—although what I really want at this point is a beer—and says again what a nice surprise it is to see me.

“How’s Barnaby?” Corinne asks as soon as we’re alone, and I can tell she hasn’t gotten over the thing she had for him, and it might not be so easy to tell her what I’ve come to tell her.

“You home for break?” I ask, because that’s what my dad does. Whenever I ask a question he doesn’t want to answer, he just asks another question.

“No,” she says. “I mean, I’m on break, but I didn’t go away. I’m in school here.”

Corinne was near the top of our class, took all the advanced courses. I figured she’d have gone to Harvard or someplace. Notre Dame, at least.

“That’s convenient,” I say.

“So how’s Barnaby?” she asks again.

I sip the Coke, munch a couple of pretzels. I can hear the TV going in the living room where her mom is, some sitcom with a loud laugh track.

“That’s the thing, Cor,” I say, putting on this fake nickname-closeness I don’t really feel, “I’ve got some bad news about Barn.”

The color leaves her face, and I can see her shoulders stiffen, like she’s preparing to get slugged. I reach for another pretzel, but there’s no way I can stop now. So I just say it.

“Barnaby is dead.”

It starts slowly, so there’s time for her to put down her drink, but she begins to shake all over. First her head trembles, and then I see her long hair kind of dancing around on her shoulders because her whole body is quivering. Her hand flies to her mouth and she’s bending over like she’s going to vomit. She jumps off the couch and runs to the bathroom, and I can hear it, probably what little dinner she ate is coming back up. Of course she knows all about puking, I figure, so for her this is probably no big deal.

When I go to tell Mrs. Ackerman that Corinne’s sick, she’s already standing outside the bathroom looking tired, like she’s done this one too many times. I can hear Corinne inside sobbing and puking, so I tell her mom that I have to go, and I get out of there as fast as I can. Telling her was supposed to make me feel better, but instead I feel a hundred times worse.

I can’t go home, though. I told my folks I’m hanging out with buddies, and it’s too early for that to be over. And, besides, I don’t want to hear any more about the funeral or that Barn must have been doing drugs, or whatever. So I walk around the neighborhood for a while. It’s nothing special, nothing but single-story ranch houses, pretty much the same as when I was a kid. I get in the car and drive past our house once to check, and the lights are still on, so I go on down to the McDonald’s near the Interstate, which is just about the lamest thing I could possibly do, and I eat a hamburger I don’t even want, try not to think about Barn, and then drive around some more. When I make another pass by the house it’s dark, so I figure it’s safe to head in.

When I get to my room, I’m feeling pretty low. For one thing, seeing Corinne was weird. She’s obviously got some problems, but I didn’t think she’d take the news about Barn that hard. Or maybe I did, and that’s why I went over there. But the thing that bothers me is that it hit her way harder than it did me, and he’s my cousin for Christ’s sake. But, now that I think about it, the whole thing does really suck, and I wish Barn weren’t dead. I never got to tell him I thought he was cool and, you know, that I liked him. Not that he cared what his dorky cousin from Indiana thought, but still. And then, out of no place, I start to cry. Not like Corinne, who was completely out of control, but a few tears sneak out of the corners of my eyes and run down my cheeks.

After a while the tears stop, but I’m not sure they’re gone for good, like when you think you’ve put an end to a spell of hiccups, but back they come.

And then I think of this guy Roy I know at school. We were shooting the breeze one day in the dorm cafeteria and I found out he’s from Pittsburgh, so I asked him if he knew Barnaby Mackintosh. “Sure I know him,” he said. It turns out they went to the same high school. So, mostly because he knew Barn and even claimed to be friends with him, I started hanging out with Roy sometimes. He’s a pretty good guy—smart but not so smart he makes you feel bad about yourself, pretty interested in girls but not so successful that you feel like a loser around him. That’s Roy. I really want to talk to someone about Barn and how I feel about him. That’s the real reason I went over to see Corinne, I realize, but that hadn’t gone so well. If I could talk to Roy and we could both tell each other what a great guy Barn was, then we’ll make ourselves feel better and we’ll be honoring Barn in some way too, and that’ll be better than some lousy funeral any day.

The phone’s in the living room, so I go back out there. It takes awhile to get his folks’ number from directory assistance, but then I call. It’s late and I’m worried about that, but it’s not something that’s going to wait until tomorrow, not the way I’m feeling, so I let the phone ring and ring and finally somebody picks it up.

“Roy,” I say, because I recognize his voice. “It’s Robbie. How’re you doing?”

Great, he says, or something like that, but honestly I’m not listening. I’m figuring out what I’m going to say next, and I’m trying really hard not to cry.

“Look, Roy, the reason I’m calling is I just heard that my cousin Barnaby is dead.”

There’s silence on his end of the line and I figure the news is sinking in. I know it’s a tough thing to hear.

“No, he’s not,” says Roy. He’s in denial. Totally understandable. I’m about to lose it again myself.

“Yeah, he is,” I say. “Somebody called my mom. He had an accident or something. Barn’s dead.”

“I’m telling you he’s not. I just saw him at a party. He was getting seriously wasted because his brother got killed in a wreck. It’s Bailey that’s dead, man. Not Barn.”

Holy shit. Did my mom confuse the names? Did she mean Bailey, not Barnaby? Or did whoever called her get it wrong? Did I hear it wrong?

The first thing I think of is Corinne. I’ve never seen anyone so hung up on another person, and I guess she had problems of her own to deal with besides. People like that are on the edge, you know? But maybe it’s okay. When I left her house she was with her mom. She probably talks stuff over with her, not like me and my mom, and if the news of Barn’s death upset her that bad her mother would help her out.

Even so, I have to tell her about the mix-up. Only I don’t want my folks to hear the car starting up again, and since it’s just a couple of blocks away I head outside. It’s cold as hell, and I don’t have a jacket on, but I don’t want to take the time to go back inside and get one, so I just start jogging and figure I’ll warm up pretty quick.

And as I’m running, I feel myself start to smile, laugh even, because cousin Barnaby isn’t dead after all. It was just a crazy mix-up with my mom. I feel bad about Bailey, of course, but I hardly even knew him, and I’m thinking that tomorrow I’ll call Barn in Pittsburgh, and I guess I won’t tell him what happened but I’ll tell him how sorry I am about his brother and stuff, and it will be great to hear his voice. Maybe we can meet up this summer, spend some time together.

So I’m running down the street, I’m grinning and pretty happy about how things have turned out considering how shitty I felt a little while ago, and I’m watching the road because like I said it’s cold and there’s snow on the ground and black icy patches on the pavement that will send me flying if I hit one. And that’s why I don’t see the ambulance in front of Corinne’s house until I’m practically on top of it. It’s a wonder how I could have missed it, because the red light on top is spinning and flashing and spreading that eerie light all over the neighborhood.

I look up and I see Corinne’s mom standing in their doorway. She’s crying and her hand is covering her mouth, and there’s some man standing there with her like he’s asking questions. I know, as sure as I know anything, what happened.

And I also know that I am the last person Mrs. Ackerman wants to see right now. So I just keep on running, past the ambulance, past the house, through the cold dark neighborhood of my childhood, in the spooky glow of that flashing light.