The doorbell buzzed, and it wasn’t an especially long buzz or short buzz. It was just a regular buzz. There was nothing of the harbinger about it.
I figured it was a friend of one of the kids, or maybe Laura from next door looking for sugar or something. Thinking it but not thinking it in the way you have background thoughts when you’re doing something and get interrupted and your mind is still back on the thing you were doing.
What I was doing was making dinner. It was Hamburger Helper – pizza cheeseburger flavor – which is absolutely horrible stuff, but it’s Raymie’s birthday and that’s what he wanted. Kerry complained about it; she complains about most things these days because she’s a teenager and somewhere it’s written that fifteen years olds have to fulfill a quota of complaining.
But for once her dad didn’t give in to her and told her that if Raymie wanted some by-God Hamburger Helper for his birthday supper then we were gonna by-God eat some Hamburger Helper for Raymie’s birthday supper.
Well I for one would rather eat shit for supper than Hamburger Helper, not that they’re that different, Kerry sniffed.
I ignored the cursing – you have to pick your battles – but smiled inside a bit at the word “supper” and how if Kerry knew that people who lived on the coasts called it dinner and her use of the word supper marked her as a hick from the flyover states, she’d be mortified, and the word supper would no more pass her lips again than a spoonful of pizza cheeseburger flavored Hamburger Helper.
So I was thinking all of this while not thinking this while rushing to the front door with the hissing sound of hamburger frying in the background, and I could see through the screen that it wasn’t a friend of the kids, or Laura, but a man.
I know it sounds crazy but I sort of recognized him even in silhouette as he was there behind the screen. When I got right in front of the door I could see him and it was with this sense of deja vu that was almost like a dream.
“Oh my gosh!” I said. I couldn’t remember his name right off the bat, that is, his real name, so I covered by calling him by the name that everyone knows him by.
“Mike Brady!” I sort of said-asked.
He looked a little lost, frankly, but he smiled and said in that voice that I recognized right away.
“Hello!” Then his smile faded and he gave a little frown. “I seem to be lost.”
“Where are you going?” I asked him. I was feeling nonplussed. My mind was going a mile a minute. Isn’t he supposed to be dead, it kept whispering to me.
“Well, to be honest, I’m not sure,” he said, rubbing his hand over his hair in a way that was instantly familiar to me. I felt a wave of affectionate nostalgia. Mike Brady! I thought.
“Do you know where you are?” I asked him, meaning, did he know what town he was in.
“Is there any reason I shouldn’t?” he asked me, and his voice was so rueful and so familiar, it made me laugh.
“I don’t really know,” I told him. I wanted to tell him that I thought he’d died, but then thought that might be rude. But he seemed so lost, and I had to say something, so I just went ahead and said to him.
“I was really sorry to hear it when you passed away,” I told him.
“Why thank you,” he said, opening his eyes wide in sincerity. His eyes were very blue, I noticed. Bluer than Raymie’s eyes, which have a lot of gray in them. It’s always hard to know what gray-eyed people are thinking. I wondered if everyone on TV and in the movies had eyes that were bluer than normal.
“It must have been hard,” I said to him, which was sort of inane thing to say, because I was trying to mean too much, maybe – that it must have been hard to die of AIDS, that it must have been hard to have to hide that he’d been gay, that it must have been hard to be famous for playing a dad but not getting to be one, that it must have been hard when the show ended, and his whole show family disappeared from his life as quickly as they disappeared from my television when I flipped the channel.
I glanced back over my shoulder, sort of trying to hear if the Hamburger Helper was frying itself into a burned mess.
The man we’ll always think of as Mr. Brady said “Oh, I’m sorry, I’ve interrupted you making dinner.”
“No problem, “ I assured him. Then I added for no reason “It’s Hamburger Helper.” Nothing Alice would approve of, I almost said, then didn’t. Is she dead too, I wondered – and also almost said, then also didn’t.
“It smells delicious,” he told me with a twinkly smile, and even though I knew he was just being polite, I felt like he really meant it.
“Well, thank you,” I told him. “It’s beastly stuff but Raymie loves it.”
“I’ll bet he does,” said Mr. Brady with a warm smile and weird as it sounds, that was when I felt the first touch of real unease. He didn’t know Raymie – in fact didn’t even know Raymie existed, and now here he was acting all warm and avuncular about Raymie, like he somehow knew all about him just because he knew this one little thing, that he liked Hamburger Helper.
Besides he’s supposed to be dead, my mind whispered, only it was a sort of whisper-scream, that voice.
“I think you better go,” I told him, as polite as I could. I didn’t know at this point if he could be dangerous or not. The only thing I knew for certain was, he was dead – or undead – and I know from all the horror crap Kerry reads and watches that that was almost always dangerous. He might not be interested in brains, but pretending to be interested in Hamburger Helper was almost as unnerving.
“I understand,” he said, tilting his head in an understanding way. Then he stepped off the porch and walked down the walk, and I lost sight of him where the sidewalk bent into an L. I went to the living room window and watched him through the sheer curtains, not moving them so that in case he turned around he wouldn’t see me peeking at him.
But he just walked down the walk and then down the driveway and stood for a second looking up and down the street. I thought if he headed towards Laura’s I’d call her and tell her to lock her door, but he went the other way. I watched him as he walked up the street, until he walked out of sight. I thought about locking the screen door, but then I didn’t. I felt somehow how might know, and come back, and rattle the door handle, and then be offended I didn’t trust him. Or mad. Then what?
I didn’t tell the story that night as we ate the by-God Hamburger Helper. Raymie was in a great mood, singing and laughing, and I didn’t want to tell a story that would take the focus off of him on his birthday.
But he’s still out there. Mike Brady is still out there.