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Family and Other Accidents

A Novel

Family and Other Accidents by Shari Goldhagen
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Separated by a decade and 200 points on their SAT scores, Jack and Connor Reed have a life in the Cleveland suburbs held together by spit and Chinese takeout. With his self-absorbed, over-the-hill parents dead by his twenty-fifth birthday, Jack has abandoned his own plans and returned to his parents’ house where he works marathon hours at his late father’s law firm, beds young paralegals, and throws money and advice at his teenage brother. Connor meanwhile wants nothing more than to leave the Midwest, start a family early, and do everything the way his parents didn’t. But over the years, through the car crashes and bad breakups, the illnesses and illicit affairs, both realize that while circumstances are sometimes beyond control, there are always choices to be made.

Family and Other Accidents tells the story of these brothers from their viewpoints as well as from those of their girlfriends, wives, and children. It is a story of what it means to be a family, to love unconditionally in the face of confusion, anger, and regret. Shari Goldhagen’s debut is a finely nuanced, universally resonant portrait of the ties, however strange or awkward, that bind families together through the decades.


From the Trade Paperback edition.
Crown/Archetype; April 2006
288 pages; ISBN 9780385517683
Read online, or download in secure EPUB
Title: Family and Other Accidents
Author: Shari Goldhagen
 
Excerpt
One

stealing condoms from joe jr.'s room

One hundred and ninety-eight hours before Jenny Greenspan's birth control pills should kick in, Connor is in juvenile traffic court explaining how he followed a pickup truck through a yellow light and slammed into the side of a minivan.

"It was raining and hard to see." He tries to sound apologetic, the way his brother suggested on the ride over. Really he just wants court to be over so he can use the bathroom; he's had a weird stomachache since Jenny told him about the pill last night. "I assumed it was okay, because the truck ahead of me made it through. I was only following."

"Your Honor, the conditions were treacherous." Next to him Jack pipes in -self--assured and authoritative. "If you look at the accident report, the officer even made note of it."

Bored and gray-bearded, the judge looks at Jack and actually yawns, says Connor should be more careful next time and pay the seventy-five-dollar fine at the cashier's window. Connor thanks the judge because Jack thanks the judge. Hurried as always, Jack pulls on his beige trench coat and fishes his wallet out of his briefcase before they've even left the courtroom. He rips out a blank check, hands it to Connor, tells him to wait in line while he calls his office. By the time Jack comes back Connor is forging his brother's signature and finishing with the clerk.

"Fucking ridiculous we had to come all the way down here," Jack says. At twenty-seven, he's ten years older, a second-year associate in their father's law firm, Connor's legal guardian for five and a half more months. "We could have just mailed that."

"Yeah, it would have been easier." Connor agrees to be polite; he's just glad his driver's license wasn't revoked. He's got his eyes on the men's room down the hall. "Can I run to the bathroom--"

"Aww come on, Conn." Shaking his head, Jack flips up his wrist and looks at his watch. "I have to drop you home before I can go back to work."

Connor starts to say he didn't enjoy spending Friday afternoon in court either, but changes his mind. Last month, while waiting for Jack at the Bagley Road Repair shop after the accident, the unsalvageable remains of his car bleeding oil and green fluid on the garage floor, Connor had felt oppressively guilty and had developed a laundry list of things he would do to make Jack's life better: learn to cook so Jack wouldn't eat greasy takeout every night; pick up Jack's dry cleaning; apply to Case Western and Ohio State and not just schools out west. So far he has done none of those things-he hasn't even thanked Jack for paying his traffic fine. Maybe not using the bathroom is a place to start.

"I can wait until I get home," Connor says, though he's not entirely sure. "Thanks for coming with me. I know you're crazy busy."

"Go ahead," Jack growls, as if it's truly a great concession. With the back of his hand, he waves Connor to the men's room. "Just don't take forever, okay?"

On the toilet stall walls, graffiti claims Pearl Jam sucks, the East Side could kick the West Side's ass, and everyone should vote Clinton. Briefly Connor fantasizes these notes are from the mind of a serial murderer or a bank robber-infinitely more interesting than another juvenile traffic offender. But then he reads that Jill C. gives awesome head, and he's thinking about Jenny and the pill again. On the phone last night, she said they should have sex when it started working next weekend. "Sure," he'd said; he didn't think seventeen-year-old boys were allowed to turn down such offers. Even if the seventeen-year-old boy was almost certain he didn't love his girlfriend.

When Connor comes out of the men's room, Jack is down the hall by the water fountain, his hand on the shoulder of a girl. Connor can't see her well, but can tell she has great hair--long and red and curly. Her neck is tilted back, like she's laughing, like something Jack said is really fabulous--he probably didn't tell her there wasn't time to use the bathroom. Noticing Connor, Jack nods, leans in to say something to the girl, his fingers still on her arm. As they part, she turns to look at him again, but Jack doesn't look back.

"Who was that?" Connor asks.

"That was a reporter from the Plain Dealer." Jack's mood has turned 180. He smiles, shoulders loose, coat draped over his arm, suit jacket unbuttoned. "She ran into me at the drinking fountain, and her stuff went everywhere. We're going for coffee tonight. Cute, isn't she?"

"Yeah," Connor says flatly. A girl from Penn's Young Alumni chapter spent the night twice last week, and the temp who organized files in Jack's office still calls their house constantly.

"You know, we've got to get cracking on teaching you stick," Jack says. "I'm going to work all weekend, so I can just skip out this afternoon. Let's go home, change, and you can practice for a couple hours."

Connor nods. Jack had used the accident as an excuse to get the BMW, saying he'd give Connor the Nissan Sentra he'd driven all through law school. But the Sentra is a manual transmission, and for weeks Jack has been promising to teach Connor how to drive it. Now, with Jack greased and happy from the encounter with another girl he doesn't need, is as good a time as any.

But an hour later (one hundred and ninety-six hours before Jenny Greenspan's birth control takes effect), on an empty service road in the business district, Jack is wound and tense as Connor tries to put the Sentra in second gear.

"Shift, shift." Jack slams his foot on an imaginary clutch on the passenger side, squeezes the utility hook overhead. "Now!"

But even as Connor switches the weight in his feet from one pedal to the other, the car shudders and dies.

"You can't just sit in the middle of the road," Jack says, as if they're on the interstate instead of a deserted alley. "Are you going to start the fucking car?"

Indignation percolates in Connor's throat. He restarts the Sentra. Downshifts. Stops at the stop sign-the engine trembles, stays running. Jack shakes his head, rubs eyebrows with his thumb and forefinger. Connor makes the easy left from the one-way onto the main road.

"What are you doing!" Jack yells as a Ford Taurus, bright yellow and angry, hurtles toward them. "Wrong side! Wrong side!"

Jack reaches for the wheel just as Connor starts to turn it. Hand on top of hand, they jerk the car across the double yellow line. The long blast of a horn dopplering by them.

"Pull in there." Unnaturally red, Jack points to a low-rise industrial complex with a squat sign offering the name "Cleveland Communications." "How did you ever get your license in the first place?"

"I made a mistake, okay?" In the worn vinyl driver's seat, Connor stares straight ahead as Jack gets out of the passenger door and comes around to the driver's side. When Jack opens the door, cold air rushes in, stinging his bitten lips.

"Get out." Jack bends down so they're eye level. "You're done driving today."

"It wasn't my fault."

"You decided we were in England." Jack drums long fingers on the car frame. "How is that not your fault?"

"You were making me nervous."

"Yeah, well, it makes me nervous when you drive into other cars. You're going to give me a fucking coronary." Their father's heart hadn't outlasted his fifties. Instead of exercising or eating vegetables, Jack makes lots of slightly off comments about having heart attacks. "Come on. If I have to take you out of the car, we're both going to feel really stupid."

Connor doesn't move, and Jack reaches in and unhooks the seat belt. Putting one hand on Connor's shoulder, Jack slides the other under the bend in his brother's knees. Maybe half an inch taller, Jack outweighs Connor by twenty-five pounds, could probably pick him up without much effort.

"Fine, I'm moving." Connor smacks Jack's hands away, climbs over the console into the passenger side, feet tangling with the gear shift and the cup holder.

Jack sighs, gets in, starts driving.

Cleveland rolls past, brown and crunchy in early November. Springsteen's Born to Run album is in the cassette deck, so low it's barely audible. As "Thunder Road" starts its whiny harmonica intro, Connor fiddles with the volume knob. But it's hard to adjust it blindly and he doesn't want to chance looking at his brother. So he stares out the window, tapping his fingers on the cold, cold glass in time with the music.

"Are you mad at me?" Jack asks.

"No," Connor tells the window.

A two-mile silence.

"Look, I don't think we can do this without killing each other," Jack says, turning onto their -cul--de--sac. "Call the driving school you went to last year. Just give them a check."

It's the same kind of thing his parents did before they died--his father when Connor was ten; his mother of an aneurysm while showing a house in Shaker Heights two years ago. When Connor was born, his parents had been old enough to be his grandparents; there'd been lots of things they paid other people to do for their youngest son.

"I can't just go to the driving school," he says. "You're going to need to sign something."

"Have them fax me whatever I need to sign," Jack says. "Do you need a ride anywhere? I told the reporter I'd meet her at nine."

Waiting for the garage door to roll open, Connor can see into his bedroom window, where the shades are open, lights left on. Over his desk hangs the framed black-and-white poster of John Kennedy, hand under his chin, looking pensive and presidential.

"Jenny can pick me up," Connor says, out the door and in the house before Jack even puts the car in park.


One hundred and ninety-two hours before Jenny Greenspan's pills start working, Connor's head is between her thighs in a pile of dead leaves in Lakefront Park.

"Higher, higher." Jenny is on her back, jeans and panties bunched around hiking boots at her ankles.
"Right there."

He and Jenny have been going down on each other every weekend for the past four months, but he still has no idea what she's asking for, what he's supposed to be doing. His friends offered bad metaphorical advice-like your tongue is a fine-point pen; not like you're trying to wallpaper a house. None of them warned it would taste very, very bad or that her pubic hairs would get caught in his throat. Jenny's orgasm-a series of uninspired "oh Gods"-seems largely faked, far too similar to that scene in When Harry Met Sally.

"Your turn." She pulls up her pants and runs fingers through her long ponytail. "But I don't see why we have to do this here. Your brother never cares if we're in your room."

"It's a nice night." Connor flips onto his back and unzips his jeans. "And the woods are romantic."

When he thought of it earlier in the day, it had seemed romantic--sort of rustic, a mountain man kind of thing. But it's about thirty-five degrees, and they're both freezing, having fashioned a makeshift blanket from their ski jackets and scarves. The leaves and crisp grass itch his ass, and a stick practically poked his eye out while he was going down on Jenny. They're really in the park because Connor wanted to get away from Jack, and the Sentra, and the new girl with the red hair.

Jenny curls her fingers around his dick, and he trembles-more because her hands are cold than because of anything she's doing. Then her hot mouth on his cock, going up and down, up and down. He props himself on his elbows and reaches for her breasts, malleable and firm like balled socks. Her cheeks are red from the breeze off the lake and her tan has almost completely faded.

They met as lifeguards at Euclid Beach last summer, peeling sheets of dead skin off each other's leathery brown shoulders and making out under the pier during breaks. She lives a few suburbs away in Solon and wanted to keep dating when school started. He likes the oval muscles in her calves, the dimples deep in her checks, how she says "soda" instead of "pop," is pretty sure he doesn't love her and often finds he has nothing to say in response to things she talks about when she calls.

As he feels himself starting to give, he taps her shoulder.

"Jen," he moans, "you should move."

She bobs out of the way and white jizz arcs into the air, landing on the sleeve of his coat. He just stares at it until he remembers to kiss her forehead through her knit ski hat; she likes that. Clothes and coats back on, they make their way to the car, branches and dying autumn things cracking under their feet. She threads her arm round his waist-always touching him, as if that could fill the awkward spaces between them.

Hand resting on Jenny's on the armrest, he drives her mother's station wagon back to his house. A Simon and Garfunkel song comes on the radio, and they both sing, quietly at first.

"Kathy, I'm lost, I said, though I knew she was sleeping. I'm empty and aching and I don't know why."
Squeezing his hand, Jenny smiles, and they sing louder. Her voice is thin but pretty-one more thing to like. On the high notes, his tenor splinters. Jenny laughs, and Connor forgets that they have to have sex in one hundred and -ninety--one hours, that he can't drive stick, that Jack keeps pressuring him to apply to Case Western.

"Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike, they've all come to look for Amer-i-ca--"

He stops singing when he sees the strange car in his driveway, realizing it must belong to Jack's reporter.

"Don't forget to get condoms before next weekend," Jenny says, as if she were reminding him to call ahead and find out movie times. "It's good to have a backup method, just to be on the safe side."
Connor gives a nod punctuated by the birth-control-announcement stomachache.


From the Hardcover edition.
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Shari Goldhagen, Author, Family and Other Accidents - Gothamist
Wed, 12 Apr 2006 05:21:33 -0700
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Wed, 21 Jan 2015 20:30:59 -0800
RedEye ChicagoAuthor Shari Goldhagen explores the power of what ifsRedEye ChicagoBut for author Shari Goldhagen, things are ...
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0385517688
9780385515979
9780385517683