Winner of the 2013 Women's Prize for Fiction—A darkly comic novel of twenty-first-century domestic life and the possibility of personal transformation
Harold Silver has spent a lifetime watching his younger brother, George, a taller, smarter, and more successful high-flying TV executive, acquire a covetable wife, two kids, and a beautiful home in the suburbs of New York City. But Harry, a historian and Nixon scholar, also knows George has a murderous temper, and when George loses control the result is an act of violence so shocking that both brothers are hurled into entirely new lives in which they both must seek absolution.
Harry finds himself suddenly playing parent to his brother’s two adolescent children, tumbling down the rabbit hole of Internet sex, dealing with aging parents who move through time like travelers on a fantastic voyage. As Harry builds a twenty-first-century family created by choice rather than biology, we become all the more aware of the ways in which our history, both personal and political, can become our destiny and either compel us to repeat our errors or be the catalyst for change.
May We Be Forgiven is an unnerving, funny tale of unexpected intimacies and of how one deeply fractured family might begin to put itself back together.
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A. M. Homes is the author of the memoir The Mistress’s Daughter and the novels This Book Will Save Your Life, Music for Torching, The End of Alice, In a Country of Mothers, and Jack, as well as the story collections The Safety of Objects and Things You Should Know. She lives in New York City.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
“May we be forgiven,” an incantation, a prayer, the hope that somehow I come out of this alive. Was there ever a time you thought—I am doing this on purpose, I am fucking up and I don’t know why.
Do you want my recipe for disaster?
The warning sign: last year, Thanksgiving at their house. Twenty or thirty people were at tables spreading from the dining room into the living room and stopping abruptly at the piano bench. He was at the head of the big table, picking turkey out of his teeth, talking about himself. I kept watching him as I went back and forth carrying plates into the kitchen—the edges of my fingers dipping into unnameable goo—cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes, a cold pearl onion, gristle. With every trip back and forth from the dining room to the kitchen, I hated him more. Every sin of our childhood, beginning with his birth, came back. He entered the world eleven months after me, sickly at first, not enough oxygen along the way, and was given far too much attention. And then, despite what I repeatedly tried to tell him about how horrible he was, he acted as though he believed he was a gift of the gods. They named him George. Geo, he liked to be called, like that was something cool, something scientific, mathematical, analytical. Geode, I called him—like a sedimentary rock. His preternatural confidence, his divinely arrogant head dappled with blond threads of hair lifted high drew the attention of others, gave the impression that he knew something. People solicited his opinions, his participation, while I never saw the charm. By the time we were ten and eleven, he was taller than me, broader, stronger. “You sure he’s not the butcher’s boy?” my father would ask jokingly. And no one laughed.
I was bringing in heavy plates and platters, casseroles caked with the debris of dinner, and no one noticed that help was needed—not George, not his two children, not his ridiculous friends, who were in fact in his employ, among them a weather girl and assorted spare anchormen and -women who sat stiff-backed and hair-sprayed like Ken and Barbie, not my Chinese-American wife, Claire, who hated turkey and never failed to remind us that her family used to celebrate with roast duck and sticky rice. George’s wife, Jane, had been at it all day, cooking and cleaning, serving, and now scraping bones and slop into a giant trash bin.
Jane scoured the plates, piling dirty dishes one atop another and dropping the slimy silver into a sink of steamy soapy water. Glancing at me, she brushed her hair away with the back of her hand and smiled. I went back for more.
I looked at their children and imagined them dressed as Pilgrims, in black buckle-shoes, doing Pilgrim children chores, carrying buckets of milk like human oxen. Nathaniel, twelve, and Ashley, eleven, sat like lumps at the table, hunched, or more like curled, as if poured into their chairs, truly spineless, eyes focused on their small screens, the only thing in motion their thumbs—one texting friends no one has ever seen and the other killing digitized terrorists. They were absent children, absent of personality, absent of presence, and, except for holidays, largely absent from the house. They had been sent away to boarding schools at an age others might have deemed too young but which Jane had once confessed was out of a certain kind of necessity—there were allusions to nonspecific learning issues, failure to bloom, and the subtle implication that the unpredictable shifts in George’s mood made living at home less than ideal.
In the background, two televisions loudly competed among themselves for no one’s attention—one featuring football and the other the film Mighty Joe Young.
“I’m a company man, heart and soul,” George says. “The network’s President of Entertainment. I am ever aware, 24/7.”
There is a television in every room; fact is, George can’t bear to be alone, not even in the bathroom.
He also apparently can’t bear to be without constant confirmation of his success. His dozen-plus Emmys have seeped out of his office and are now scattered around the house, along with various other awards and citations rendered in cut crystal, each one celebrating George’s ability to parse popular culture, to deliver us back to ourselves—ever so slightly mockingly, in the format best known as the half-hour sitcom or the news hour.
The turkey platter was in the center of the table. I reached over my wife’s shoulder and lifted—the tray was heavy and wobbled. I willed myself to stay strong and was able to carry out the mission while balancing a casserole of Brussels sprouts and bacon in the crook of my other arm.
The turkey, an “heirloom bird,” whatever that means, had been rubbed, relaxed, herbed into submission, into thinking it wasn’t so bad to be decapitated, to be stuffed up the ass with breadcrumbs and cranberries in some annual rite. The bird had been raised with a goal in mind, an actual date when his number would come up.
I stood in their kitchen picking at the carcass while Jane did the dishes, bright-blue gloves on, up to her elbows in suds. My fingers were deep in the bird, the hollow body still warm, the best bits of stuffing packed in. I dug with my fingers and brought stuffing to my lips. She looked at me—my mouth moist, greasy, my fingers curled into what would have been the turkey’s g-spot if they had such things—lifted her hands out of the water and came towards me, to plant one on me. Not friendly. The kiss was serious, wet, and full of desire. It was terrifying and unexpected. She did it, then snapped off her gloves and walked out of the room. I was holding the counter, gripping it with greasy fingers. Hard.
Dessert was served. Jane asked if anyone wanted coffee and went back into the kitchen. I followed her like a dog, wanting more.
She ignored me.
“Are you ignoring me?” I asked.
She said nothing and then handed me the coffee. “Could you let me have a little pleasure, a little something that’s just for myself?” She paused. “Cream and sugar?”
From Thanksgiving through Christmas and on into the new year, all I thought of was George fucking Jane. George on top of her, or, for a special occasion, George on the bottom, and once, fantastically, George having her from the back—his eyes fixed on the wall-mounted television—the ticker tape of news headlines trickling across the bottom of the screen. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I was convinced that, despite his charms, his excess of professional achievement, George wasn’t very good in bed and that all he knew about sex he learned from the pages of a magazine read furtively while shitting. I thought of my brother fucking his wife—constantly. Whenever I saw Jane I was hard. I wore baggy pleated pants and double pairs of jockey shorts to contain my treasonous enthusiasm. The effort created bulk and, I worried, gave me the appearance of having gained weight.
It is almost eight o’clock on an evening towards the end of February when Jane calls. Claire is still at the office; she is always at the office. Another man would think his wife was having an affair; I just think Claire is smart.
“I need your help,” Jane says.
“Don’t worry,” I say, before I even know what the worry is. I imagine her calling me from the kitchen phone, the long curly cord wrapping around her body.
“He’s at the police station.”
I glance at the New York skyline; our building is ugly, postwar white brick, dull, but we’re up high, the windows are broad, and there’s a small terrace where we used to sit and have our morning toast. “Did he do something wrong?”
“Apparently,” she says. “They want me to come get him. Can you? Can you pick your brother up?”
“Don’t worry,” I say, repeating myself.
Within minutes I’m en route from Manhattan to the Westchester hamlet George and Jane call home. I phone Claire from the car; her voice mail picks up. “There’s some kind of problem with George and I’ve got to pick him up and take him home to Jane. I had my dinner—I left some for you in the fridge. Call later.”
A fight. On the way to the police station, that’s what I’m thinking. George has it in him: a kind of atomic reactivity that stays under the surface until something triggers him and he erupts, throwing over a table, smashing his fist through a wall, or...More than once I’ve been the recipient of his frustrations, a baseball hurled at my back, striking me at kidney level and dropping me to my knees, a shove in my grandmother’s kitchen hurling me backwards, through a full-length pane of glass as George blocks me from getting the last of the brownies. I imagine that he went out for a drink after work and got on the wrong side of someone.
Thirty-three minutes later, I park outside the small suburban police station, a white cake box circa 1970. There’s a busty girlie calendar that probably shouldn’t be in a police station, a jar of hard candy, two metal desks that sound like a car crash if you accidentally kick them, which I do, tipping over an empty bottle of diet Dr. Pepper. “I’m the brother of the man you called his wife about,” I announce. “I’m here on behalf of George Silver.”
“You’re the brother?”
“We called his wife, she’s coming to get him.”
“She called me, I’m here to pick him up.”
“We wanted to take him to the hospital but he wouldn’t go; he kept repeating that he was a dangerous man and we should take him ‘downtown,’ lock him up, and be done with it. Personally, I think the man needs a doctor—you don’t walk away from something like that unscathed.”
“So he got into a fight?”
“Car accident, bad one. Doesn’t appear he was under the influence, passed a breath test and consented to urine, but really he should see a doctor.”
“Was it his fault?”
“He ran a red light, plowed into a minivan, husband was killed on impact, the wife was alive at the scene—in the back seat, next to the surviving boy. Rescue crew used the Jaws of Life to free the wife, upon release she expired.”
“Her legs fell out of the car,” someone calls out from a back office. “The boy is in fair condition. He’ll survive,” the younger cop says. “Your brother’s in the rear, I’ll get him.”
“Is my brother being charged with a crime?”
“Not at the moment. There’ll be a full investigation. Officers noted that he appeared disoriented at the scene. Take him home, get him a doctor and a lawyer—these things can get ugly.”
“He won’t come out,” the younger cop says.
“Tell him we don’t have room for him,” the older one says. “Tell him the real criminals are coming soon and if he doesn’t come out now they’ll plug him up the bung hole in the night.”
George comes out, disheveled. “Why are you here?” he asks me.
“Jane called, and besides, you had the car.”
“She could have taken a taxi.”
I lead George through the small parking lot and into the night, feeling compelled to take his arm, to guide him by his elbow—not sure if I’m preventing him from escaping or just steadying him. Either way, George doesn’t pull away, he lets himself be led.
“At the house.”
“Does she know?”
I shake my head no.
“It was awful. There was a light.”
“Did you see the light?”
“I think I may have seen it but it was like it didn’t make sense.”
“Like it didn’t apply to you?”
“Like I didn’t know.” He gets into the car. “Where’s Jane?” he asks again.
“At the house,” I repeat. “Buckle your belt.”
Pulling into the driveway, the headlights cut through the house and catch Jane in the kitchen, holding a pot of coffee.
“Are you all right?” she asks when we are inside.
“How could I be,” George says. He empties his pockets onto the kitchen counter. He takes off his shoes, socks, pants, boxers, jacket, shirt, undershirt, and stuffs all of it into the kitchen trash can.
“Would you like some coffee?” Jane asks.
Naked, George stands with his head tilted as if he’s hearing something.
“Coffee?” she asks again, gesturing with the pot.
He doesn’t answer. He walks from the kitchen through the dining room and into the living room, and sits in the dark—naked in a chair.
“Did he get into a fight?” Jane asks.
“Car accident. You’d better call your insurance company and your lawyer. Do you have a lawyer?”
“George, do we have a lawyer?”
“Do I need one?” he asks. “If I do, call Rutkowsky.”
“Something is wrong with him,” Jane says.
“He killed people.”
There is a pause.
She pours George a cup of coffee and brings it into the living room along with a dish towel that she drapes over his genitals like putting a napkin in his lap.
The phone rings.
“Don’t answer it,” George says.
“Hello,” she says.
“I’m sorry, he’s not home right now, may I take a message?” Jane listens. “Yes, I hear you, perfectly clear,” she says and then hangs up. “Do you want a drink?” she asks no one in particular, and then pours one for herself.
“Who was it?” I ask.
“Friend of the family,” she says, and clearly she means the family that was killed.
For a long time he sits in the chair, the dish towel shielding his privates, the cup of coffee daintily on his lap. Beneath him a puddle forms.
“George,” Jane implores when she hears what sounds like water dripping, “you’re having an accident.”
Tessie, the old dog, gets up from her bed, comes over, and sniffs it.
Jane hurries into the kitchen and comes back with a wad of paper towels. “It will eat the finish right off the floor,” she says.
Through it all George looks blank, like the empty husk left by a reptile who has shed his skin. Jane takes the coffee cup from George and hands it to me. She takes the wet kitchen towel from his lap, helps him to stand, and then wipes the back of his legs and his ass with paper towels. “Let me help you upstairs.”
I watch as they climb the steps. I see my brother’s body, slack, his stomach sagging slightly, the bones of his hips, his pelvis, his flat ass—all so white they appear to glow in the dark. As they climb I see below his ass and tucked between his legs his low, pinkish-purple nut sack swaying like an old lion.
I sit on their couch. Where is my wife? Isn’t Claire curious to know what happened? Doesn’t she wonder why I am not home?
The room smells like urine. The wet paper towels are on the floor. Jane doesn’t come back to clean up the pee. I do it and then sit back down on the sofa.
I am staring through the dark at an old wooden tribal mask made with hemp hair and a feather and laced with tribal beads. I’m staring at this unfamiliar face that Nate brought back from a school trip to South Africa, and the mask seems to be staring back as though inhabited, wanting to say something—taunting me with its silence.
I hate this living room. I hate this house. I want to go home.
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