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The Defense

From: The Missouri Review
Volume 36, Number 1, 2013
pp. 54-76 | 10.1353/mis.2013.0013

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Turner had been thinking for the many months of his recovery about visiting Brian up in Jackson Hole when he was well enough to travel again, but then, just a day before he planned to go—he was actually mapping out his route in the too-large and too-empty house on Maxwell Avenue—he got a call from his little sister, Maggie, in Columbus. She had news. And a request.

Turner and Maggie talked by phone at least once a month, had somehow remained close through many years and much distance and, in the end, very different lives. And so it was a surprise to discover that she’d been keeping this from him.

While he’d been on his sabbatical, she said—he knew she couldn’t bring herself to say “dealing with your cancer” or “in treatment” or even just “sick”—she’d made a decision to finish her PhD. For fifteen years, her dissertation, on limb regeneration in starfish, the product of three and a half years’ hard work and countless trips to the Sea of Cortez, had sat on some hard drive, mostly complete, he guessed—possibly entirely complete; it had been a taboo topic after she’d gotten pregnant and quietly stopped work. He’d brought it up just once, and she had exploded, making clear that she wasn’t inviting his opinion about the next step in her life. She was twenty-four when that happened.

She was strong and stubborn, like their mother, who had raised the two of them and their little brother, Michael, almost entirely on her own after splitting with their father. It had been financial woes, Turner had figured, though their mother, stoic Midwesterner that she was, had never said, and Turner, the oldest, was only eight when it happened. Their father had literally disappeared from their lives one day—a thin cover story about the Alaska pipeline eventually emerged—and that was that. Whatever the truth was of that situation, she took it to her grave eighteen years later. Christ only knew what had become of the man who had given them their long torsos and hazel eyes. Turner, for his part, hadn’t given him too much thought over the years, having known him better than his younger siblings.

After Maggie’s kid was born—she named him Louis, after Louis Agassiz, though pronounced it as in English—she had gotten on with her life much as their mother had, though the circumstances were different. She’d taught courses at a community college and done scientific editing for some companies and journals. She’d stayed in Columbus so Louis could have a relationship with his father—even though she’d had to force the guy to submit to a DNA test in the first place, despite assurances of her monogamy.

He had been Maggie’s adviser—Charles Cinca. Though Turner had never met the man—and though Maggie never mentioned him—the name had not left Turner’s consciousness in all those years; it was like a minor aggravating injury, an ingrown toenail, a boil, an inflamed joint: always, somehow, there. It was Turner’s role—his right—as her older brother to harbor this resentment, to carry it around with him. And anyway, the frustrating part—the infuriating part, really—was that this business with Cinca was a tired story. Turner had been irate with Maggie for falling into such a clichéd trap when she’d finally admitted all of it to him, five months pregnant, finally no longer sick every day. He’d seen this happen—or something like it—more than once on his own trip through graduate school in southern California.

“I know,” she’d said at the exasperation in his voice. “I know. But, Turner, it’s spilled milk. I’m having a little boy.”

But now, on the phone from Columbus, she was telling him that she needed him. She had thought she was just going to do this, finish it, and then call him and tell him, but she saw now that the anxiety over it was mounting and she...

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