In Lauren Green’s “Russian Roulette,” our newest edition to our New Voices catalog, we meet a narrator on the periphery of sorrow. The first line tells us all we need to know: “The summer of ’93, I learned everything I know about grief from watching the way Barry Colker’s mother dressed herself for work each morning.” Green’s prose is gripping and sharp, as the narrator enables Barry’s destructive mourning. Read on.
“Sometimes I shut my eyes when I’m driving,” he said. “See how long I can go before I have to open them again.”
“Why?” she asked.
“I like games of chance.”
The summer of ’93, I learned everything I know about grief from watching the way Barry Colker’s mother dressed herself for work each morning. Mrs. C. worked only five days a week, but even on weekends she would come downstairs in her starched white nurse’s uniform, with the green cross over the breast pocket. When I asked Barry why she did this, he said that since his mother had lost track of time when his brother killed himself, several years before, dressing for work at least guaranteed that she’d be properly outfitted five days out of every seven. All things considered, he said, five out of seven weren’t bad odds.
Barry and I were always talking odds. We spent entire afternoons trying to calculate the probability of hitting a Wiffle over the Rosenberg’s fence. We watched the Russian roulette scene in The Deer Hunter so many times we could perform it. Barry once tried to convince me to steal his father’s hunting rifle and play a round with him. I asked if he’d snorted too many Smarties or something—playing Russian roulette with a rifle doesn’t work.
That summer, California was going through a dry spell, and my mother was in one of her phases—new boyfriend, don’t bother her unless it’s an emergency—so I spent most of my time at the Colker’s condo on the corner of Cedar and Avalon. The community pool perfumed the air there with smells of sunblock and chlorine. In the distance, the bone-colored peaks of the San Gabriel Mountains chipped away at the sky.
Mr. and Mrs. C. hardly spoke to each other, though they weren’t ever anything but kind to me. During dinner, Mrs. C. would sometimes look up, blinking and dazed, like she’d just stumbled out of a dark theater. Then she’d ask if I had called my mother to let her know I was staying the night.
Mr. C. had long, scraggly hair and a wide, flat nose. He moved stiffly, like a toy soldier. After Hank’s suicide, Mr. C. grew obsessed with taking things apart and putting them back together again, the way he’d been taught to do in the army. He would hole up in the garage with his junk car and a stopwatch, timing himself disassembling and reassembling, then disassembling again. He mumbled to himself as he went, mostly about bolts and gaskets.
Mr. and Mrs. C. never seemed to mind that I was always underfoot. I think they were simply glad to have two boys playing Slaps around the kitchen island, talking girls and drinking blue-raspberry slushies like nothing had happened. Barry said he thought his parents loved me more than they loved him, and I said love was the sort of thing that was easier to extend to people you didn’t know.