| Mike Phillips is sitting at his desk with his feet propped up against the radiator. He holds his cigarette between his thumb and index finger. His other hand is hidden in his pocket, cradling the leather case that used to hold his brother’s pocket knife.
Mike’s room is hot, though the windows are open and a small plastic fan whirls in a corner. It’s been a long day at the auto retail store where he works delivering parts to different shops in the area. Clients today were testier than usual, and traffic along 101 was backed up more than half an hour after an over eager young mom lost control of her Highlander trying to get her daughter to piano lessons on time. All Mike really wants is a beer, but he knows the six pack he put in the fridge twenty minutes ago hasn’t cooled yet. Instead he lights another cigarette and listens for the sound of tires turning into the driveway - a crunch of tire on gravel.
When Della arrives Mike gets up from the folding chair at his desk. He unfurls his legs - left, then right - from on top of the radiator and meets her in the kitchen where she has taken two beers from the fridge. From his back pocket, Mike procures a key chain bottle opener from Reno, Nevada. He can hear that the T.V. is still on in the living room.
“I should turn that off,” he tells her, and walks into the living room with the two bottles of semi-cold beer.
Della stays in the kitchen dishing out plates of Italian take out. She piles scoops of lasagna and soggy chicken parmesan onto paper plates. If Della knew how to cook she could make the lasagna that Mike loves so much. If she could cook, she would serve her lasagna steaming hot on real china plates with full place settings, red wine and candles. Instead, Della wears her khaki skirt, and a black top that Mike finds a bit masculine and very sexy.
In the living room, Mike clears off the coffee table. He shuffles old car magazines and bills into neat piles on the floor, and empties the plastic ashtray from Viejas Casino. When Della comes, he grabs the plates of takeout from her and sets them down on the cleared table. Before he can turn around she has her hands down his front jeans pockets, holding her close to him from behind. As she slides her hands slowly back out, she pulls from the depths of his left pocket the empty leather slip that one belonged to his brother. Under the 60 watt light of the ceiling fan, the brown leather looks more worn than ever. Still, Della has no difficulty making out the initials at the bottom of the case: J.P.
John Phillips was seventeen when he died, two years younger than Mike. He was hanging out with some of his buddies near the rope swing at the river. It was early May, but the current was still deceptively strong. John was the last of six to cross the river to the sand bar. He must have lost his footing, though no one really knows. His friends didn’t even notice he was missing until the reached the cars. The went back, but found no sign of him.
John’s best friend Alex called Mike that night after he got home, asking for John. No one had even called the police. Both parties thought John had gone home with the other car. Mike’s dad filed a missing persons report that morning. When the police went to investigate down by the river, they found no sign of him in the immediate area. Six miles downstream from the rope swing they found John’s pocket knife in a tangle spent fishing line and tackle. His body was finally found a week later, bloated and washed up on a small sandbar.
Della knows John had sandy blond hair, though she has never known him. She knows also, from the photos she has seen, that he had the same hazel eyes under the same long lashes as his older brother. Della wishes she could know Mike as John knew him, but that man is gone now.
Today, John is still seventeen, buried at old St. Rose with his pocket knife under his left hand. Today is also John’s twenty-first birthday, a celebration which entails all they can provide. Mike and Della sit at opposite ends of the coffee table, their takeout and beers before them. They honor him there, in the silent heat.