What I do on Friday afternoons especially around the holidays is I take the bus out to the airport and have some drinks. I can sit at the bar with a Wild Turkey and pretend I’m flying to Fort Lauderdale for a weekend of nookie on a beach with a professional cheerleader named Traci. When people ask, that’s just what I tell them. Traci can do the splits, you know, and she can do them anywhere! Two or three drinks, and I’m on that beach, and Traci is reading Mademoiselle in the lounger next to me. We’re drinking rum out of coconuts and trying decide which is bluer, the sky or the water, and right then we have a good laugh because I just fondled her yum-yums and made that old fashioned horn noise.
That guy has the life, people think. Got this shit together, all right. Probably some kind of banker-politician. Traci is one lucky gal.
And that’s what I do. Always did have a good imagination.
But the other day is different. I’m sitting in a bar right near the security lines, and I’m pretty well into my routine. That’s when my brother Warren sits down at the other end of the bar. My real life brother! He’s wearing a suit jacket and carrying one of those little bags that’s made just for computers. It’s been ten years at least since we’ve talked, probably more than that. Who keeps track of these things?
Our eyes meet two or three times before he connects that it’s me, it’s his brother sitting at the other end. “Jesus, he says. “Johnny?” and I say, “Yep. It’s me, and it’s you, too.” He grabs his little computer purse and his drink and he moves next to me. He eyes me for a minute, like this is just too impossible. He takes a drink. Then he reaches his hand out, and I shake it.
“So what the hell anyway?”
“Business,” I say and twist my glass around, which breaks apart the cocktail napkin. “Slammed these days. Real busy.”
“That’s good, that’s good. Busy is good.”
“Cheers to that,” I say and we raise our glasses but only a couple inches. “Business for you, too?”
“No,” he says. “Not for once. Off to Aruba for the week.”
“Wow,” I say and then sit there trying to remember if Aruba is Mediterranean or Caribbean, and if Caribbean is the one by Italy or the one with Jamaica.
He waves down the bartender. “Put them both on mine,” he says. Then he turns back to me and says, “Yeah, so Aruba. Meeting a friend there. She went a couple days ago, but I couldn’t get away. Clients everywhere you look. You know how it gets.”
“Clients,” I say and shake my head the way people do. I’m suddenly aware of my fat, callused hands, all cracked open from working a tow-truck in winter. I’m not sure who she is. He either got married or divorced about 7 years ago, I heard that from someone. So it could be his old lady, or he could have himself a Traci.
Truth is, my brother and me, we always hated each other. To begin with, you need to know that Peter, our other brother, he died when we were still kids. Nobody ever really got over that. Peter and I shared a room, but since we didn’t have space in the apartment to stow his bed, and since mom and dad wouldn’t sell it to some idiot stranger, they left it in our bedroom, like the carcass of some big dumb animal. Then mom and dad got divorced, and I thought that would be the end of my dead brother’s bed, but dad took it to his new place down in Dorchester and made me sleep in it every other weekend. Warren got a brand new futon. “You deserve it,” Warren kept saying. “You killed Peter,” which is absolutely not what happened. It was a car accident.
I’m sitting there thinking about Peter and about his bed and Warren’s futon. I’m ignoring whatever Warren is saying about Aruba. “You killed Peter, you little shitbird” he told me. “You wanted your own room, so you killed him.” He kept saying that, years he said it. Hear that enough and you start to believe it. All the mean older brother stuff he did like handcuffing me to bike racks or taking a big wet dump in my church loafers, but saying that was the worst.
“So, are you living in the same place now?” he asks, meaning that basement craphole over in Eastie, the one that smelled so bad when it rained, like hydraulic cement and wet collie. He came over for a minute after mom or dad’s funeral, I don’t remember which.
I drink the rest of my drink and push it toward the edge. I figure if he’s buying. I tell him no, that I’m moving to Beacon Hill soon, thinking of buying a place there as soon as I can find one with 12 foot ceilings.
“Sounds like things are really coming together.” He shoots his cuffs then so that he can check his watch, and his cuff links are these old brass things, tarnished. It looks like something was painted on them, maybe a frosted cupcake or a hyena, but it’s worn off. If he wants to make a big show of things like that, shooting his cuffs like Whitey Bulger, he needs to spring for some new ones.
Warren’s cell phone rings, and I can tell he wants to answer, but it seems impolite, me being right there. “Go ahead,” I say, and he does. He walks over to the big windows overlooking the tarmac and covers his other ear. I watch him for a minute, and then I order us a couple of shots. “Crown Special Reserve,” I tell the bartender. “My brother’s favorite. Make them doubles.” She brings them, and I shoot mine right away, and I’m reaching for the other one when the bartender turns my way and sees me and gets this suspicious look on her face, like maybe I’m some sort of lying kidnapper with mean sex fetishes. She keeps looking over in my direction, won’t turn away, and then Warren comes back and says, “What’s this?” and I say, “She brought us a couple on the house.” I wink and make a moaning sort of sex face so he gets the idea.
Peter died at Christmas. I begged dad to get a real tree like they had in It’s a Wonderful Life. For once he listened to me. We took the station wagon to this place way down on the South Shore. We had to rent a saw for a dollar extra, which pissed mom off since we had one back at home. We stomped through these long lines of trees, playing hide-and-seek. Peter and me kept being the hiders, and for once we were winning. It was so dark and there were so many trees that you could hide and then circle back to a new spot. Warren got real mad about how hard we were to find, so every time he found one of us, he tackled us. Then Peter and me tackled him back one time, and Warren gut-punched me, and I cried, and dad yelled at us, and that was the end of hide-and-seek. That’s who Warren always was, the kind of brother who knew how to throw a punch but not how to take one. But man if I didn’t think about punching him back that whole ride home, catching him unawares while he sat next to me. Sometimes I still pretend we never tackled Warren that night, which means it would have taken us couple minutes longer at the Christmas tree place, and what happened next never actually happened at all.
On the way back home the tree shifted loose from the roof and fell into the other lane and another car swerved right into us, which killed Peter and nobody else. He got rushed to the hospital and they did surgery on him, but it didn’t work. Mom crumpled to the floor and bawled like somebody was torturing her until the nurse came out and walked her to a separate room. Dad just got real quiet and stared at the wall for an hour, even when the doctor came out and asked him to sign some forms that made Peter officially dead. It seemed like he didn’t even breathe or blink.
The tree got tossed on the side of the road, but the day after Peter’s funeral, dad went back to the site with our saw and carved it up into foot-long chunks. He made me go with him to help, but he wouldn’t say a word, wouldn’t even look at me. For the next couple years, he sat on his front porch and whittled those chunks down into nothing, just shavings that stuck to the soles of our shoes. We’d track them back home to mom’s, where she yelled at us for being such messy boys, but when we told her what the shavings were, she cried and said, “Your father.”
Warren and me drink in silence and watch people. There’s this family of five trying to go through security, but the kids are running around, playing space ninja or something, and saying Kapow! at each other, and the mom looks like she’s about ready to start throwing punches at whoever gets close enough. I’m feeling pretty drunk. It seems like everything is whirring around, people and sounds and even the smells from the coffee stand next to us, all of it blending together. I can feel everything all at once. After a while, Warren says, “It really has been too long. We shouldn’t be like that.”
I nod, but I don’t say anything else. I’m feeling numb and good. The light in the terminal is just right and it smells fresh. I start thinking about how I should really get back at Warren. Gut-punch him maybe. “Now we’re even, shitbird!” I’d say.
“I should probably brave security here pretty soon,” Warren says.
“Right,” I say. “Me too. I always put it off till the last minute.”
“We could brave it together.”
“Well,” I say. The bartender comes over. “One more?” I say, thinking that’ll help me get my courage up. Even now Warren’s my big brother.
We drink and avoid eye contact for a while. We’re strangers at a bar. It’s supposed to be easier to talk to strangers in a bar. There are these people all around us, this blurred commotion, and it makes me feel like we have this privacy, like we’re in a tent. Warren’s movements get slower. When he picks up his whiskey, the napkin sticks to the underside, but he doesn’t seem to notice. I get really mad at him for that. Just peel the fucking napkin off! I want to shout. Who wants to go to Aruba with a guy who acts like that? Then he starts talking in a low voice, not quite a whisper, but hushed, private. “I wish we did this more.”
“Me, too,” I say.
“Do you? You don’t hate me?”
“You’re my brother.”
“That’s right,” he says. “I am. That’s something, isn’t it?”
“That’s a lot.”
Warren is drunker than I am. His eyes get wide and sad, like a big dumb cow. As much I want to punch him then, there’s a right time and a wrong time to punch your older brother, I do know that. You can’t punch sad people, that’s a rule. He leans toward me more. “I always thought you hated me. You always loved Peter more.”
“Peter and I shared a room,” I say.
He swipes at the air between us. “Don’t be a shit. Why can’t you just admit it?”
“It always seemed like us against you,” I say “I don’t know why.”
“Peter would be fifty this year,” he says like he didn’t hear me, “Did you know that?”
I didn’t, but I lie, Yes, I did, of course I did. Peter and me were awfully close. “It’s been a long time.”
“Fifty fucking years old. Dead for forty-one.” He shakes his head and rattles the ice in his empty glass until the bartender looks over. For a minute I think he might cry. A thousand people around us, coming and going, living their lives next to each other but not really with each other, and my older brother who I always hated, he was right about that, drinking whiskey and crying. It’s sad, but my brother and me can only really talk about three or four different things, and one of them is our dead brother. It’s sad how I can’t punch him either, or maybe how I don’t really want to anymore. I guess I’ve always wanted to know someone else was still miserable about all of it, but now that it’s happening, it’s a nasty business. Big brothers aren’t supposed to cry, but little brothers aren’t supposed to be dead either, I guess.
Warren leans forward into his hands, and I can see the grease stains under his fingernails. I don’t even know what business he’s in now, but I do know what grease under the fingernails means. “Can I tell you a secret?” he says. “I wasn’t as sad at mom’s funeral or at dad’s as I was a Peter’s. Isn’t that awful?” He rubs his face the way you do when you need to shave or when you’re too drunk. His cuff links pop out again, and that’s when I recognize them. They were dad’s. Dad always wore them to church, which was the only time he ever had to dress up nice.
“No,” I tell him. “I don’t think it’s so bad. Peter was a real sweet kid.”
“Remember how you wouldn’t sleep anywhere else but Peter’s bed? How dad even took it to the new apartment when he moved out?”
“What do you mean?” I ask, but even as I’m saying it, I do remember. Dad kept the bed for me. There was another person in the room a lot of those nights, too, I remember that. I’m not saying I believe in ghosts or something dumb like that, but I wasn’t alone. I’d call out and look all over the place, but I’d never find him. I needed him to help me against Warren, but he was gone. I guess I gave up on him at some point, and I guess Warren wants me to feel guilty about that. Some people never do change. […]
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Brad Felver’s fiction has recently appeared in the Colorado Review, the Minnesota Review, and Beloit Fiction Journal among other journals. He teaches at Bowling Green State University.