At first, my brother didn’t recognize my C/K. He stood arms akimbo and shoulders unevenly hunched on the paint-chipped blue porch. While he stood in the shade of the acacia planted by the porch finishing the cigarette an attendant had given him, I thought of how much I wished the blotches of shadow were patches of bruise.
Recovery always exhausts, and I suppose after three relapses the body simply responds with resignation. But I wanted him to have swollen lips, distended eyes, little commas of blood marking his cheeks. Most importantly, I wanted to be the one to give him the beating.
Tiley stretched his neck, and then moved his chin, trying to crack his neck. His movements were those of a half-tamed horse, rebelling against the bridle at his jaw. For eyes he had shards of agate set in sockets curtained with a peach-skinned exhaustion. You could see them from twenty yards away, hanging like ornaments full of an alluring yellow-burst. He squinted in the spade of sunlight he had stepped into, turned away from the scrubbed man in a sign of juvenile scorning.
I looked behind me, worried the afternoon sun was stirring Senza, but she slept curled, in the shade of a halved porch umbrella shoved against the cellophane windows. Besides a box of clothing for Senza, I had stacked my fungibles over the mud-smeared fabric, which stitched the air taut with their brackish residue; the speedometer's bar was little more than a fractured ulna giving approximate readings; the ashtray, a cragging mound of Winstons overflowing onto the floor, hid the small bronze ring Kindness had left behind months before, the one she set on top of her letter; behind the smell of tar crouched the dulling sweetness of formula tins, some stained brown with oil and others littered with crumpled, yellowing hamburger wrappers; the presence of these exhausted things yawned in a bitter incapacity for sleep.
Before I decided to drive away, I rolled down my window and waved. Sometimes I wish I had just left him there. But he jutted recognition. Finishing the cig with a single draw, he toed it on the stair, walking away with his hands pocketed, the attendant shuffling back inside, relieved.
That was when I hid the letter, the last Kindness ever wrote me, the one that promised me she would come back to me if I could let him go, in the glove compartment. My mother didn’t write letters, either to me or, so far as I knew, to Tiley, even during his weeks of recuperation. The imprimatur of a good-night kiss on my forehead was the sole seal of her affection I could recollect. Kindness’s was the first woman’s handwriting I could recall reading; it was disappointing in its slovenliness. The letters were like the pieces of clothing she left crumpled on the floor of her apartment. How I was to let him go she did not detail, only that she thought he must be harmed if I was to heal.
Stretching across the seats making as though I was unlocking his door. I can remember its gray cover like most men do their first uncovered stomach.
The door clunked, the grating reminiscent of Kindness’s waking stretches when her cupped hands pushed against my shoulders. She was my only alarm, one that could never be turned off, but put only on a perpetual snooze.
“Morning,” he said, his voice retaining the fragrant depth of ground turmeric.
I flashed my nervous smile: high and tight, the mounds of moles of secrets that had crawled and nested in me from our youth.
He jumped onto the seat, rustling the papers piled there. That was when he dropped the roadmap out the opened door—without my noticing, he thought—assuming its absence would force us to stop for another.
Forty minutes later, he said, ”Pull over this station. Gotta go. And you need a new map."
With a daughter abandoned to me, my conceding to him was better, and distanced me from the kicks he had over the years proven himself to give. There are bruises brothers give each other, small notches of masculinity they discover together that disappear over time, absorbed into the body; he had taught me a brother’s betrayal lands in the chest like the kick of a poorly shod hoof.
I had not thought the simple action of flipping a turn signal could cause such disappointment. It was the twang of shame only my brother could pluck. He could play those chords without practice, without intent, even; his very presence was a meandering child who, passing a long unused piano, unknowingly plays the first bars of a symphony on its keys.
In the empty lot a group of friends tossed a frisbee between the spaces. I, out of habit, chose the space farthest from the building to keep from their attention.
Even if he wasn't intending to use, Tiley knew I wouldn't go in with him, but he didn’t know the reason why. It wasn't because of the needle, or the way his limbs went loose like a discarded puppet, but because of the building’s walls: the narrow, plastered walls and slick, unwashed floors. That ammoniac stench sloshing with damp, mopish fibers that had streaked the floor with remnants of shit and dirt.
I leaned my arm out against the broiling door and closed my eyes while Tiley stormed to the Route 65 rest station concealing his wallet-sized heroin kit. Crawling down his arms and legs the black cockroaches of abscesses thrummed, and people lurched as though they had discovered him hiding in their kitchen. I had long stopped picturing his back—a rotten chunk of clapboard pried apart in the damp of spring; I had had enough of people staring at me: I didn't need the attention a grown man’s blithering attracts.
The seat's fabric scalded my shoulders. Leaning forward, my pattern-pressed skin rose back like soldiers filling the gaps of a skirmish, and I wished Tiley's memory could function with such precision and discipline.
"Hey, little girl. You okay? What's taking him so long?" I tickled her knee with a mulch-smudged finger. She drew her wrists to her face and whimpered. Pulling her from her crib, she collapsed against me. The touch was relieving. Her nestling was a steady prong pulling the baking lump from my kilning throat. She looked at me, reaching with her hand to play with the scruff on my chin.
I watched the entrance to the building, people awkwardly lumbering in and out of it with glares on their faces and prattling children skipping into the pathways of strangers. I waited, and turned the truck off, thinking of how much I wanted to fight him. The bas-relief of it was carved on the plinth of my memory.
I weighed the consequence of putting an end to our brotherhood. It was fragile anyway. The prospect of Kindness returning to me—to us—vaulted over me like a night sky of new stars. I since have often thought that’s what hope is: a wonder at the newness of dereliction.
In the mid-morning, my tattoos were shivering creeks filling with runoff. It's good to look at them and remember and horror at my own wanderings. To remember that grace is a thing carved into us, what though it fades over a life.
I clutched the prospect of Kindness’ s return in my hand again, rereading the words to assure myself of the sincerity of her promise. There was no need of translation because, though I could not understand why she wanted me to bring her a spoon—the spoon, teratoid and burnished—I knew where I would find it. I spent those moments Tiley was in the bathroom picturing its curl like a sapling’s leaf, and watched it bend and warp with my twisting.
When he didn’t come out after ten minutes, I started to worry. To keep from seeing him dead, I had to keep envisioning our grappling, the way we heaved into each other to break each other. I could plan the how of fighting him, but the when escaped me. All I wanted was three minutes alone in our old room. Enough time to rummage all the old hiding places for the relic.
And holding that letter I had time for a thing like prayer because he was in there a goddamn long time.
For years the worst part was our neighbor's words, a cheap and burning glue webbed in my ears, tickling me so I only pushed them in deeper. Playing underneath our new Speed Queen, I could see only their backs, both stretched with a nervousness, and he, a massive sweating chunk of ambergris, knelt at Tiley’s side with a hand on his shoulder.
“No, there's supposed to be blood. That’s how you know it's love.”
Twenty-three years later my mother called to say Mr. Colomb, our “old neighbor” had died. Found on his bed with a belt around his neck. I didn’t know what to say, or how to correct her. He had died four years earlier in the same embarrassing position. In this blundering act of mercy she unwittingly showed me the tangled spool of her memory, a knotted thing I had to learn to accept as history.
Still, there was a twinge of joy at her announcement. It was the one time I remembered feeling grateful for her dementia. Unexpectedly, the arthritic hands of her memory scribbled out another obituary, and I heard the liberation it re-proclaimed. Then, I found I had to breathe with shattered ribs: she had been crying.
“He was such a nice man. Helping move the Speed Queen when we couldn’t. Do you remember?”
Mother couldn’t remember the basement, perhaps had never known, and I couldn’t forget the chevron fatness of our neighbor, or the artificial compassion in his voice dampening the malignity that clacked there like mattock against bedrock.
Even as I saw them I knew my brother was holding back tears. Later, when he would wake from nightmares and refuse to call for Mom, he made the same noise—like an equine grumble caught in a winter flush. But in the basement, full of a confusion that frightened me, I crept backward, further underneath the washing machine Mr. Colomb had helped install the day before, and covered my eyes and ears with my brother’s frayed Stetson. The smell of those damp fibers: a rabbit’s straw bedding after an April downpour. I had to keep myself from sneezing when the dust tickled. A flood of locust filled my stomach then with their quaking hum, and I tried to not move my feet. They would have made such noise against the concrete.
Returning, Tiley opened the door, its movement shy and controlled, reminding me of how Kindness’s elbow opened when she woke me to make love. She was delicate, shy, then. Her coldness had not yet come.
The linteled smell of concrete and urine he wore as a vest.
I raised my eyebrows. “Good?”
“Better now,” Tiley said, pocketing the bundle. “Senza miss me?”
“The way you smell? Doubt it. Just break here for lunch?”
We took our seats at the one empty picnic table with the chipping paint, the wooden benches bowed. I sat Senza on my lap, the rivets burning my thighs. Around us, short magnolias squatted, their flame-tipped blossoms littering the mulched beds. Behind the building, massive pin oaks blistered with galls, the pegs of their dead branches trilling with energetic meadowlarks.
Between me and Tiley I placed a bag of near-stale potato chips and three pieces of pastrami.
I held the bag open to him.
Tiley, sitting with his arms pinched between his legs and squinting in the sunlight, shook his head.
For some time I ate, saying nothing. Senza smacked the warm and splintered tabletop, Tiley intent on her. Occasionally he reached his arms out to play for a moment with her, the crochet-notch of his mainlining looped in the crook of his elbow. I felt as though I could see the bone beneath his skin, the hardness of it a trout deep in a clear stream, and I thought I might be able to break his skin as easily as the water. He had kept this thinness throughout the years since high school, returning to some substance only occasionally when his months of disuse allowed him to gain weight.
“She tired? She keeps on squinting and yawning.”
I looked around at the emptying pavilions. Families were packing their travel coolers. Whining, teething Senza arched her back, complaining. I tightened my grip on her. She smirked at a game of peek-a-boo Tiley played silently with her, his face as expressive as I had come to expect of a junkie.
She, so much like her mother, bored quickly.
Driving, the air unfolded through our downed windows with sourdough thickness, and Tiley, lighting two cigarettes, passed me one and asked, “So what you been doin’ these last three years?”
The times between his sobriety and his plunge was what I cherished, when his mind had the capacity for a wandering curiosity, and I was reassured there still was in him some lodestone shard for direction to which even a jagged-needled compass could point.
“Well,” I said, setting a wrist on the top of the wheel. “Past few years I’ve done some of this, some of that. Five jobs in three years.”
“Off the books?”
“Of course. With my body, would I be hired for anything else?”
A long, pointed face with a jaw hanging open curiously. Something resembling a beard smudged on my cheeks, and a sweat-stained Bulls cap that looked as part of my body as my crooked nose.
“Only if I was applying too.”
“I’ve always enjoyed welding. It’s slow construction. No matter where I went, I always found some place that would let me weld. Work on this,” I said, tapping an homage on the dash.
There had been a small stint in Chequamegon National Forest that changed me, but the cold came too quickly, and I could not stay though it was a job I loved: working outside, without the discomfort of walls.
I had lost twenty-three pounds the summer before working in the Tennesseean humidity, eating packs of hot dog buns and drinking Cheerwine to save money, my thinness becoming deliberate and haphazard as if I trimmed the excess flesh off with brittle razors while shivering in an ice storm.
“You keep your switch on you? Like I showed you?”
“Always. Kept it up front where my apron hid it. Cut a small slit that the ties would cover so if some dumbshit came up, I could dry my hands natural and the switch’d be out before the apron soaked up the water. But I never had to use it.”
In her crib, Senza, with her mother’s loam-red hair and my egg-blue eyes, burbled. Though I loved her mother, she was little more than a peaceful interregnum between the tyrannies of youth and adulthood. She stewarded the pittance I was willing to give her, and demanded nothing more than my momentary trust.
I met Kindness one March afternoon outside Iron River near Michigan’s Chequamegon National Forest while applying for a laborer position maintaining trails. When I sat for the interview, I noticed two things: her desk’s lack of a nameplate; and, in her lamp’s jade light, the small bronze cross the size of a thumbnail tight around her neck. At the interview’s end, I asked her if she knew of a good church I could go to later that day. She had this subdued, incredulous laugh, with an ornery rhythm, piqued with embarrassment for me.
“You don’t go to church much, do you?” she said. Her laugh relaxed into an archly judgmental smile. “It’s Tuesday.”
I kept my feet from shuffling, and asked if I could instead buy her a meal when her shift ended.
From the way she lifted my papers and tapped them flush, I knew she was interested. “What if I say no?”
“Then I get up and drive away.”
"And if I say yes?”
“Then I get up and drive away,” I said, waiting until I saw the corners of her mouth twitch. “With you.”
For two months I didn’t even know she rented a one-room apartment: until she got pregnant she never slept there, but let her clothes form a rind of dew and sweat and smoke. My C/K was more open then. No crib or umbrella to crowd the back: just a firmer mattress and a TV-dinner tray on which we set small balsam candles to burn after quick but indulgent sex. We found at night runnels to wash when we weren’t staying in Iron River, using sandwich bags filled with pump-soap we had taken from libraries’ bathrooms for shampoo. We wrote on the parchment of a waxing moonlight stories of our childhoods as we massaged the suds out of the other’s hair because there are certain stories that can only be told while standing behind a person, in whispers for all their porcelain fragility. She told me what it feels like to have a hip broken by a husband’s thrown bookend, her hand guiding mine along the scar; she told me it was my wandering she was attracted to, her thumb coiled in her necklace. My unhindered state. You can be safe in leaving, she said. Whenever, wherever. It’s true freedom. I agreed in silence, pinching a coal-black curl of her coarse hair.
I told her how the intimacy of that thin, rancid mattress redeemed the one I had had as a child. I used to fall asleep fearing Tiley would pummel me in the night, or drag me outside and leave me under the stars to shiver to death. But he didn’t, and I would just lay there staring at the cattleman wallpaper arched in their breaking, waiting for sleep to strike like a rattlesnake. A restless fight formed in him, appearing speck by speck like a complicated constellation momentously viewed over years instead of the steady gaze of minutes.
But I could not tell her that overhearing a man in a basement had taught me what love required. And in like manner, she too kept something from me.
Even when in late September we moved into her apartment she never said her real name. She opened the fridge to replace the milk, and repeated her phrase: Call me Kindness. That ambiguity, that knowing falsity lent an occult sensation to our lovemaking. I repeated the name in whispers and pants and humidity, expecting her inner arcanum to be uttered in my ear like the gift it would be.
Sitting on a narrow couch with her legs tucked under her, she had said, We met when I was Kindness, you didn't know me as anyone else. It’s a better name than the one my mother gave me, anyway.
Now, I am grateful—most of the time—she kept her silence. She varied her reasons for her quiet, and all of them might have been true. She found pauses between words as though she were exploring their terrain for the first time, and discovered excuses etched into their sapless bark.
Throughout that year of budget cuts I knew of the arrangement she had with her landlord; it’s difficult to keep such things secret. Her posture said she didn’t want to talk about such things, and I let the cabinet doors be the recipients of a familiar anger. It was that sort of anger that cannot decide between loud or quietness, between the anger of a rattling slam or the shame of a gentle push.
Her eviction came with the growth of her belly, and I knew my own was not far behind. She was threatened with losing her apartment, and the prurient landlord only remained interested and forgiving until the warmness of her belly made him shiver as he put it “with the thought of a kid floating between my dick and your twat."
The day Kindness was kicked out I had found at a garage sale a tattered box held together with packing tape, the four legs of the crib sticking out. She managed to plane a flat smile along an expression I had come to know intimately: a wooden face of resignation; and she touched my shoulder with all the diligence of examining a wristwatch.
I don’t want you coming to find me when I leave you.
I couldn’t blame her. I had slowly and inadvertently taken everything from her, knowing no love but a siphon’s. But she didn't know it was because I couldn’t forget the basement.
That letter was in her even then, though neither of us knew it.
Instead of the cooling dew I had known from her, she worked out of the rock of her honesty drops of smelted bronze, and let them fall on my open palms.
Christ, you try, Enoch. But you don’t have comfort in you.
Though the crib might have been worth two dollars, I bought it for ten because I had contributed little else to the relationship, and so finally felt the pride of partnership when I assembled it, sawing off the legs for it to slide in the C/K’s back-bay. Its neutral plasticity continues to disappear with the stains of leaked diapers and milky vomit, and its netting darkens with an oily sheen that may yet teach Senza her colors.
A father can only do so much.
While packing for the day the morning after she told me she was pregnant, I washed the leftovers of my breakfast down the sink, and turned on the garbage disposal. It cranked and groaned. I pulled her small cross necklace out of it, mangled and white-chipped. She had tried to destroy her once-precious thing, and failed. Pocketing the tangled mess, I thought to throw it away in one of the forest’s bins to keep from retrieving it again, but my walking loosened the knot, and I looped my thumb through its strand, remembering Tiley’s old spoon I had long ago lost.
I turned to Tiley, unbuckled as always, flicking out the window with a cigarette the thoughts of Kindness. “How long were you there for?”
He pulled the visor down, and shielded what that did not cover with his hand. “Sixty days. Court-ordered. After a spat at a few clean houses, they make you stay longer."
“How long you staying with Mom?”
“Long as it takes. She needs me still.”
Maybe his practice with a needle allowed him to slide hate under the thinness of my skin. Maybe he meant nothing by it, but I felt his words push a vinegar through my veins.
“She? Needs you?”
Years of strain came back to me in a moment of anger. I did not want to go back to that place. I pictured her with the dark, wide curls of her evening hair sitting on the kitchen’s wicker chairs, whose every strand creaked with a boy’s whimper.
“She doesn’t need you. She needs to be in a home with people trained to take care of people like her.”
“You can’t say that when you ain’t been around. I’ve been with her the past five years, trying to get clean. She’s forgetful now. Couldn’t keep her head straight if it weren’t for me. I help her fill her pillbox. Wash her clothes and hang them to dry. Her fingers shake and she drops the pins and her shirts get all muddy.”
I did not consider how Kindness would know when the thing was done, or what litmus she held in which she could dip my word. If Senza had not been with me, I might have rammed the truck into a tree in the hope my seatbelt would hold. Without Kindness I would have let him hitchhike his way back to Herrick Park. Like a wreckage’s steering column, the fractured pipe of our brotherhood was lodged in my chest, and I could not remove it without damage. One of the devastations of what had happened to Tiley was that it changed me so that I could no longer believe him, but because of him I understood Kindness’s sustained lies. They weren’t deceptions but protections. Like her letter—a small eirenic act. And I knew that, in a way, they were necessary.
I wanted to be bitter, for one of our sakes, so I asked, ”You still gonna use?"
“No,” he said, curt and rehearsed.
Calmingly he tapped his finger on his leg, a morse NA credo perhaps. I recalled pictures that kept me angry, images of the old bedroom where our brotherhood frayed, like the lassoes bordering our wallpaper.
I had exhausted what we had to say to each other in a mere two hours.
And five more separated us and home.
As I drove I thought of how she wasn’t expecting me. She might not have even remembered Tiley had been gone for two months. She might have died a week before, coughing her last to a granulated Pernell Roberts’ narrow-eyed grin.
I wasn’t returning for her, but because of her. Because of a truth she told us long ago when she came in to stop our fights.
Then, months later, as we laid in bed, each of us in the same monkish silence waiting for the other to fall asleep, Tiley said, "Enoch, stand up."
I choked in my whisper.
"Stand up. We're going to fight.” He said this in a way only an elder brother can: with hate, authority, and that broken tenderness in foreseeing impending harm. But to me, it was new and nervous.
I folded my covers off me, wishing I could hide in its desert terrain. We sat facing each other on our beds, both glancing at the cowboy wallpaper, and then he jumped at me. He gripped my shoulders, his thumbs pushing down on my clavicles with enough force to break them, and my anger burst.
I brought my knee up between his legs and he dropped to the floor, oofing and thudding. Our sound drew mother to our room, but she could not pull us apart. I wanted to tear his throat, to see if he would use it to call for her while it slicked my hand, and ask him if so much blood meant there was no one who loved him more than me. But I could only grunt and catch my breath and force myself not to cry, because crying would only give him another reason to hurt me.
That was when she said it. Said it was from Scripture itself: Always, there’s fight in a brother.
And still, as I drove, I could not help but think of Kindness’s offer. There is fight in me as there was fight in him. I suppose he was always looking for different pains to distract him. The question of whether a pain could be so deep it required not aliment but more ache—of a different sort—pumped through his veins quicker than his blood. But he had already torn out his tongue, his way of telling.
He was my older brother; we shared our blood, our love; what could I have done but imitate him?
The disassembled and rusted El Camino LS6 crouched in the driveway on bricks pried up from the quondam vegetable garden with the same empty wheel wells that had been there thirteen years before. I used to hide in the backseat during August’s hot spells, waiting for my mother to come find me but praying she never would. I liked being surrounded by windows and watching the clouds pass by.
Senza slept on my shoulder, and I covered her eyes to keep the dusk from stirring her.
The neighbor’s brindled whippet barked behind her fence, an insincere and grumbling guf-guf. She must have long been unwashed: she was covered in the loamy shingles of oldness. The scent kicked my stomach.
Tiley, using the key taped to the bottom of the mailbox, opened the door.
“She can’t hear the bell no more,” he said, shouldering the door open.
He walked through, and my body clenched with the unaltered interior: the dining room table surrounded by the mended Danish cane chairs; two turquoise arm chairs with their wooden armrests blocking the way to the family room, facing a closed, white-paneled credenza that stuck far out from the wall, its antenna forked behind it; the kitchen's back windows still with the lime green floral curtains over them, and a marigold utility bar wheeled between the back door and faucet counter. These were the arenas where our mother’s exhaustion emerged like a bruise: slow, discolored, and misshapen. The places where the sharp rebuses of broken dishes scattered over the countertops were still marked for me, vivid as though I had just gathered them again in a dustbin. In her anger she determined our hate was a phase boys go through, that our affection would soon return with verve. Then came the unexpected: our mother's scorn, bewildered at how her boys could transition from affectionate youngsters to distant men, castrated with the scalpel of their own bitterness. Over time she broke three of the blue-flowered dishes and whipped kitchen towels through the air while dinner was being set in half-hearted hopes of hitting him to win their kitchen arguments over the missing paychecks, but really she was driving away the visions of things she did not understand or had not predicted for her sons. And in a failed way she was trying to protect me from turning the anger I felt for the pederast against Tiley.
But it did. Inevitably. They had been the china on which I placed my trust, and all the salvers available to me had shattered.
“Tiley? Is that you?”
My blood turned to air and left my veins. Her voice was elderly octaved and scratched with timid uncertainty. She descended the steps cautiously, almost distrusting the voice she heard was her son’s. Planting her dust-clumped sheepskin slippers on each stair before moving to the next, she stayed on the third from the top, clutching a bathrobe closed.
“There’s dinner in the fridge, Til. I didn’t know you were coming home today.”
I shrugged Senza. “I just brought him back, Ma.”
Her pause was sharp, but I couldn’t tell if its edge was from anger or disbelief.
Mother’s skin was a flat milk opal made to move. Veins mottled her body with their blue-green stucco, and with the bulbous distortion of her glasses I was reminded of how quickly a mother ages. Faster than sons or daughters. And without their joy.
She touched my cheek, frowning relief and happiness in a way only a mother can.
A choking delight polished her eyes to ludic crispness. She pulled me close, her nightgown’s familiar scent of overly sweet passionflower and a mentholated collar covered me with goosebumps. Her skin was disappointingly cold.
“My boy,” she said. She mouths the phrase again, putting her hands to her lips as though to keep the words close to her. She grasped Senza’s chubby calf. “Who is this?”
“This is your granddaughter,” I whispered. I could hear and feel her breathing on my neck. She reached her arms to take her, the accustomed maternal motion returning, momentarily, some of the years that had passed neglected.
“Her hair is so red. What is her name?”
“Senza,” I said.
“That’s not a name,” she said, cradling Senza as though to keep me from her.
“Yes, it is. It’s her name.”
“Did you leave her mother outside?” she asked, barging to the window. She pinched it back, staring at my empty C/K.
“Be careful with her.”
“I know how to hold a baby.” She let the curtain go. “Is there a mother?”
“And what happened?”
There came a day when Kindness left. She shouldered her duffel and told me to make sure Senza knew she loved her. I don’t blame her for leaving any more than I blame fire for conflagration, which brings with its wildness the magnetism of spectacle. Often, those who stare at me holding my daughter watch with prodding eyes. They search the vacancy between Senza and me, raking through the perceived ashes as though they might find some trinket to explain the mother’s absence. What others want to know most is the reality of hurt, a small locket, even, of confirmation that the very closeness of our living holds some precious memory that tethers us together because they find in another’s sorrow their own hope that they might one day mean as much and cause such grief to someone else. It is a broken tenderness, a wide and shallow ocean of gelid water we all test, and only some of us dare endure.
Gratefully, she let the fact die in her ears.
Blotted on the side table between them was a pile of envelopes and magazines. “Past Due” notices on many of the white envelopes. There are at least six of them, two with “Final Notice” stamped in red.
Before we sat to eat a supper of pan-fried bologna sandwiches, I closed the cracked-open door to the basement without looking down those barren stairs. Insisting we use something better than plastic plates, she shuffled to the buffet and set on the table three delicate plates. Mom and Tiley laughed more than I remembered they could. When we had finished, Tiley took the dishes to the sink. Mom, rocking Senza, moved with me to the old arm chairs, their padding nearly useless now. I could be there only because she was there, but I knew my endurance wouldn’t last.
“You know, I was talking to Mrs. Hammond yesterday, about how you treated Gary.”
Both my lungs turned to ivory. Gary had died before I was thirteen when he went to catch a pop-fly and tripped, cracking his temple on a lead pipe unearthed in the open field. Mrs. Hammond moved away that same autumn. So I leaned against the arm rest and crossed my legs, feigned my smile through her gentleness and correction. There was something so undecidedly lovely in her love, caught as it was in time like a cod in a trawl.
“You'll need to learn to share what you’re given you if you want to have friends in this world.”
Setting two fingers hard against my temple, I smiled. Tight and high. “I’ll try better next time, Mom.”
She nodded, ending things.
I asked, “Where’s Tiley?”
"Oh, he's in the little boys' room," she shrugged, staring at Senza. “You know him. How often he has to go.”
Out of habit that I unwillingly reclaimed, I listened for him rummaging in that drawer of ours. Surrounding Tiley’s framed high-school diploma were photographs lining the staircase, and I did not have to look at them to know my smile was tight and high in them, something unfinished, nor that Tiley’s clothes sagged, as though he had been wrapped in a parachute that refused to inflate with his plummet. I was hungry, but my tongue swelled more with the thought of sleeping beside Kindness again than with the buttery expectation of dinner.
Senza’s whimper echoed my own. Her plump cheeks mottled with mild sunburn. My mother smiled, touched her nose to Senza’s. “She’s a sweet thing. Where’s her mother?”
It was in the half-hour before dinner I decided in its favor, and it came upon me the way char does flesh. She hadn’t asked me for comfort nor demanded tranquility from me, knowing I could give neither. Like a crop her promise rested in my hand, ready for use against that back of his.
Unrolling a small blanket, I set my already sleeping Senza on it, and I was stirred by the thought of again watching her come into a room in Kindness’s arms.
Quietly, I took three plates from the cabinet and set them on their polyurethane placemats, the corners of which all touched. Placing the fork and knife together, I thought I could stab him in the thigh with my fork and push him over before he had the chance to stand. Our mother would try to stop us, but she never succeeded when we were small in severing us, and now that the bigness of our pasts was rooted through our limbs, she would not be able to pull up the tangle of our adversity.
In putting those few utensils on the table, I lost all my appetite, for I knew there was but one way to see Kindness again.
“Tiley,” my mother shouted. “Dinner’s ready.”
I glanced over the arm of the cane chair; Senza did not stir.
He came into the kitchen, rubbing his hands together as though he had not had a meal in a week. Excitement scarred his face and he peeled it off as he sat. The emptiness of my stomach echoed like a foghorn against sea-cost, and the flickering beam of the lighthouse brightened and darkened all I wanted. I wanted Kindness. I wanted Senza. I wanted Tiley. I wanted our childhood again, for all the intervening years to have been an audition to which we received no callbacks.
We said grace, short phrases memorized from childhood that I may one day teach to Senza. I haven’t decided yet; my words would seem to mean more if Kindness were the period.
“We thank thee, God,” my mother said, her hands a cold acrylic, “for giving us food to keep us from hunger, and family to make us strong.”
They took their seats and ate the same way I remembered, with the slurp of their chews curling in my ears like the ocean seeking exit from a seashell. The bologna was caramelized on one side, pink on the other, and it sweated on my plate.
Tiley pushed the tines of his fork through the bologna, and they clanged against the plate.
And what startled me most was that I wanted to spill his blood, to show him, glistening on that linoleum floor, a palmful of love.
We, I would say to him, we, my brother, had true words spoken to us, though we did not know it then. We were the bearers of truth’s two halves: you the ugly, and I the lonely. And now I shall take your loneliness, and if in your rage, you kill me, I do not care. Always, there’s fight in a brother.
He ate his bologna in two bites, cutting the steak in half and folding it to fit into his mouth. His cheek’s bulge was a target I could aim for, and as he choked on the pulp, I could toss him to the ground. If I could only bring myself to break him, she would return to me. The thought coursed through me with a chill, like a boat carved from an icicle floating on my blood, bumping against the current of veins. I could smell her listlessness again, the straps of her clothing like the taut hammock rope we napped in in a sunlight meandering with wind, and the river water we bathed in, trapped underneath her fingernails.
Perhaps I did not want her back so much as I wanted him to hurt again. Because I thought he was weak. Moved by things long since gone. I thought if I could let her go, I would be doing it for him. Like playing a trumpet for the deaf who could see only the strain of beauty, he would not hear my notes but see my contortions, see my love. It was there, as he finished his dinner, that I knew he would never hear my notes, that both he and Kindness were lost to me. But hymns and silence are the clefs of witnessing whose harmony goes ever undetected.
And that, I thought seeing the solitary headlight of my dilapidate C/K, is how I will save him.
After dinner, the bathroom’s pipes rattled with Tiley’s use, and the stairs creaked when I climbed them.
Coming to our old room’s door, the still-loose handle jiggling like ice in a summer glass, I thought of Mr. Colomb struggling to set the washing machine in place; of my mother flinging towels through the air because plates would alert the neighbors. I thought of the small space underneath the Speed Queen, how the Stetson’s rim tickled the lobes of my ears; of Tiley and his opioid-weak neck, staring at the wallpaper that should have been taken down years before he started shooting, but we just didn’t have the money.
Our old room was unchanged: the nightstand with a blue-shaded lamp touching both of the hardwood twin beds. The sheets still pink with sweat. The room chlorinated and charred. My own wide stance covered most of the distance between our old beds, that space that had once seemed too close for safety and too far for security. A forge in the vacancy between our beds.
I opened the drawer where I had once kept the twisted spoon to imitate the one Tiley kept hidden beneath his mattress, when I didn't know what he used it for. I could not swallow, seeing its scapular contortion beneath me. The bowl of it caught the hallway light in a dim aureole, like a dollop of iridescent syrup that chimed in its waves. Hiding it in my palm, the warm stickiness of the light pulped. I shut the drawer.
There were times before the basement when Tiley and I would shoot each other from the steeds of our own beds, clutching our chests with the imagined piercing arrows and gunshot wounds, our invisible blood staining the walls and soaking our mattresses. But we soon grew out of that, turning in different directions in a search for the source of our confusion, for the section cut from Tiley’s memory. We were trying to find north at the boreal pole, for the very source of my brother’s pain passed through him, giving him a magnetic line, and the comfort he turned to stripped him of both compass and recollection of the pain’s source.
The vaquero wallpaper still hung there, mostly colorless except for faint hues of once-red bandanas and green bolo ties. Fence posts turned a barn-rust red marked the arid landscape over which rode cowboys contorted by the strength of the horses underneath them. The stallions’ mottled beauty had disappeared, now only the shade of chewed wafer smeared on their hides. Those were the first skies I had slept under, and they were something Tiley and I had together.
When she tucked us in that night, she quoted what may have been the only part of the Bible she knew: that brothers were born for adversity. She sat on the edge of his bed, and I kept my covers close, tossing my eyes over at her position to determine if she was going to kiss me goodnight. She didn’t. Just turned off the light and closed our door.
I went downstairs to see my mother, unable to stay in that room any longer, and found her head tilted backward in the cane chair, asleep in her dappled nightgown; on the floor Senza still slept on a blanket. An awkward domesticity was there, and I felt restless at the closeness of those walls.
Having kissed my mother’s dry, cold forehead, I carried Senza outside and laid her in her crib. She could sleep through just about anything.
Tiley followed me. He seemed relaxed now that he was at a familiar place. I even thought I heard him whistle as he walked toward my truck. He guided the door closed as I got in.
I shivered and wrapped my arms. “She going downhill fast?”
The skin on his arms was ridged, an executioner’s rope. Keeping one hand on the door, he scratched his shoulder with the other, gently to keep from breaking his delicate abscesses.
“Maybe. Didn’t think much of it at first, but when the insurance cancellations kept coming in I knew something was wrong.”
“It’s good of you to stay with her.”
He shrugged. “Keeps me out of trouble, for what it’s worth.” He shifted, pocketing his hands. “Me and Mom? We have the same problems, now. As long as we can remember what the other doesn’t, we’ll be just fine.”
The engine hobbled to life, the gears grating with the battered shifting.
“When you gonna come back again?”
I should have given him the finality a brother deserves. But I couldn’t. That day continued to hound me with terror. Like a scribe I had learned to redact and change the wording of our promises to keep our small cherished tenets of forgiveness and mercy vibrant and healthy. Safe and free from blood. Not even Kindness had given me that.
“Give my love to her whenever she asks about me. Senza’s too.”
I recognized his smile. It ran in the family, and he stiffened his back the same way that had so scarred me. In many ways we were the same, returning to our own odd locations to fuel our own sloughing search for isolation. Cavemen carved out the meagerness of their own dwellings, smearing the paint of their own fears on walls lit by fire. I think, on occasion, we ventured into each other’s caves and tried to decipher the drawings glyphed there. Perhaps that was all the admiration of each other we needed.
He gave me a look then that said he knew something of what I was doing. We had fought each other long enough to recognize our stances, our advances and retreats. But did he know about Kindness?
The black locust’s white petals dueled against the moonlight and night-wind, rising with the stiffness of placards slung on a silent dissident standing on a street-corner. With the same mix of childish admiration that characterized my youth and paralyzed my compassion, I watched the hunched way my brother walked. Burdens, heavy and adverse, surcingled there.
Silent, the whippet stared at me, fixed and sentineling.
The leprous bodies of cigarettes toppled when I dropped Tiley’s spoon in the ashtray with Kindness’s necklace, spars of white freckling it from the disposal’s blades. I suppose we can’t discard our sorrows without having someone else take them up, and that is why I keep those things there, in such a dirty place, but where I reach out of habit for a moment of respite. Perhaps that’s what Mr. Colomb meant. But why should truth be on the tongue that touched my brother?
Tiley mounted the brick stairs with an off-tune whistle, hands in pocket. With a rusting clack, he closed the screen door, and the porch light came on.
Even then, I wanted to imitate him, to spring up those stairs and jump again from bed to bed that would groan with the weight of our laughter, but I could only bow my head against the curve of the steering wheel and think of the fractured moments Tiley and I have shared. The permanent grief of his body is his being covered in the scabrous saddles of an event he cannot recall, though he himself had tied them.
Yet his step fills me with dread and hope. That harsh and pitiable stride of a bronco’s bucking. Trying to throw even the sky off of his back.
about the author