You’re Looking at the Man

 

 

P A R T   O N E

A family dinner.

 

            My dad was a compulsive gambler, but I never minded because working two jobs to make ends meet as a junior in high school made me feel like a big shot. Like even though I wasn’t a father yet, I was the man of the family. When I tell my children about my dad’s gambling and my sixteen-year-old pride, they look at me with glazed, empty eyes of misunderstanding. I am barely their parent, anyway. One weekend a month when their mother tells me what and what not to say is not fatherhood. She feeds them cheap new age softness — filtering out the gangster movies and the artificial sugar that rots their teeth. She says it’s my fault for getting her pregnant. She says it’s my fault for never signing a marriage certificate.

            Isabel and Adam, names that she chose, don’t know anything about marriage certificates. To them, I think, I’m less of a father, in concept, and more of a second parent — the backup that Mama drops them with when she’s going on a girls’ weekend. They don’t understand love or sex or much less that the entire world was created because of those two entities and their repercussions. Isabel informed me once through her six-year-old front toothless maw that she’s pretty sure she fell from the sky. I didn’t correct her.

            “Daddy?” Isabel asks now, leaning up out of her secondhand booster seat to grab at my arm. “I’m hungry. We should stop.”

            Her mother says that she’s very advanced for her age — that she’s already doing multiplication tables and can recite all the counties of our state and is “a well-articulated child” according to her first-grade teacher. I don’t see it though — she’s just a damn kid. She wants to eat and sleep and own the entire world, like every other little girl.

            “We’re almost there, kid.” I look back at her trying to muster some show of sympathy. Her eyes are wide and brown and bright, just like her mother’s. “Plus, there aren’t many good places to stop on the back roads anyway — unless you want fried okra or something.”

            This was supposed to make her laugh, but her mother had apparently sewn her lips to prevent any smiling before passing her on to me. She gives me an unamused glance, leaning back in her seat. Her brother coughs and shifts his tiny form. I sometimes forget how small they are — how my brother was once minuscule too.

            I look out the window at the sea of cornfields that Adam and Isabel will never get lost in like Andrew and I did. I remember taking my little brother deep into those fields and getting him lost in the tall corn. He was too young to comprehend that if he only walked down one of the rows without straying to the right or left, he could escape the confines of the field. Instead, he clawed across the rows until his hands were bloodied, and for some reason my younger self found this hilarious. I think it was an act of defense — I couldn’t control my maddened father, so I controlled his offspring instead.

               “Will Aunt Louise be home when we get there?” Isabel raises her shrill voice yet again.

               “Little Lou? Yeah, I think so.”

               Isabel doesn’t call her Little like I do. She wasn’t alive when Andrew and I saw the original Louise, stillborn in our mother’s hands — when the hospital room smelled thick with blood and it was so very dark. Mama's silhouette was all that I could see through my tears in the dim light. It was all that I needed to see. Daddy said I had to say goodbye while he waited outside.

            Little Lou was the next attempt — born out of drunkenness and regret and my father showing up in our trailer-park house one night late. She was born early and weak — a shadow of the dead. Mama even named her Louise, though she’d always be Little Louise to us. Only half girl, the other half ghost of a girl she would not and will never be. A girl who never existed.

            Sure enough, as we pull into Mama’s dust-caked driveway I can see the ghost sitting in a faded rocking chair. Little, nearly thirty now, is dressed like an old movie star with her long violet dress and tight curls. Whenever you look at my sister, she always reminds you of someone — but never herself.

As I park my truck in the yard, I can already see her fingernails tapping furiously on the armrest of her wooden throne. Her fingers bear no wedding ring — fate, I guess. None of us kids have had much luck with love and marriage and such — well, except Andrew, but he’s not like us.

                “Took you long enough,” she calls out to us.

                “Hi Aunt Louise!” Isabel yells, waving desperately.

                Adam slides out of his seat and into the dewy and thick and uncut grass. I step out beside him, pulling their suitcases out of the bed of my truck.

                “Thanks,” he mutters, pulling his belongings from my hands.

                Mama and Little’s new house is nothing like the one we grew up in. It’s not new, really — it’s an old plantation home that Little bought for the two of them when her restaurant started turning out big profits. I guess it’s easy to make a good living when you’re the only fine dining in fifty miles, but I’d never say that to her face. The house is a beauty, though — white columns, with a proud porch and a roof that spans the horizon. I watch as Isabel and Adam race for the porch before following dreadfully behind. Little’s black kitten heels click on the steps — arms outstretched to catch the duo as they rush towards her.

                “If it ain’t my favorite niece and nephew.” She squeezes them tighter to give full expression to this sentiment, which would be much kinder if they weren’t her only niece and nephew.

                 “Hey Little.” I walk past them, clapping her on the back, “Andrew inside?”

                 “Sure is,” she giggles, painted red lips grinning to reveal pristine teeth.

                 The wide wooden door swings open to reveal the parlor. The interior screams of Little’s stylistic touch: shabby as hell. She thinks that mixing gaudy colors and Bible verse plaques and Victorian-era furniture will create some new form of fashion, I guess.

                 It’s killing Andrew, though. I can tell before I see his face from the way that his hands are wringing together behind his back. He used to catch hell in high school for his obsessiveness and his fragile manners and his soft voice. I didn’t stand up for him back then — believe it or not, I wasn’t as tough a kid as I tried to convince everyone that I was. When the cops found him one night after he was reported missing, stuffed in a locker in the boy’s locker room at school, I didn’t acknowledge that my football teammates, now mostly inmates of the state, were the guilty party. He seldom talks to me now for God-knows-why, but every once in a while, he’ll look at me with those baby blue eyes and I’ll see all the sins I’ve committed reflecting in his irises. On those occasions, I remember that he has every right to hate me.

                “Hey Andrew.” I tap his shoulder.

                “Oh.” He turns around and pushes his glasses higher on his thin nose. “Hello — I’m sorry I didn’t come out and greet you. I was just trying to straighten up the house a little before dinner, I mean, not that it looks bad or anything it’s just —”

                 “Your obsessive disorder.”

                  Andrew always tenses when I mention it. He reaches out with his left hand to twist the golden band on his right ring finger — wound so tight I’m surprised the finger doesn’t burst at his knuckle and just bleed all of his nervousness dry.

                 “I told you already that I got medicine prescribed the last time I went to the doctor and it’s been a lot better since then — but it’s just so awful to be back south and back here and back seeing Mama doing so poorly.”

                 “You seen her yet, Andrew?”

                 He glares at me, blue eyes full of soul and saltwater tears. “She’s going to die — dear God she’s going to die in this house with all of us here and she’ll haunt us all forever.”

                 A thousand miles away from this house Andrew has made a good life for himself. He’s a college professor — anthropology, I think, whatever that is. He makes a salary that I’d slice off my left hand for. But no sociology degree can explain the band that he twists into his skin every time anyone speaks to him. Little once took a trip up to see him — said he wasn’t married or anything, said it must be a promise ring. There’s a pretty girl professor, she thinks, who teaches that sociology mess too, but Andrew doesn’t seem to run in her circle. Or, she says, he could’ve just bought it for himself. But I don’t believe that nonsense for a second. I could never ask him because we’re only brothers, not friends, but when you look at him for a long time you get this feeling that his heart is occupied somewhere else, by someone else. Someone else far away owns him, even while he’s crying over his mama. But he’d never tell me — he separates his family life and his real life like fields of different crops.

                Maybe I’m just exceptionally tall and broad, but he sure looks small to me. Almost as small as my kids, whose shoes pound bravely on the front porch outside with the beautiful ignorance that they are here to say goodbye to their waning grandmother. Andrew’s thin shoulders sway like the corn I used to torture him with — height stunted like a stalk during a drought. Sometimes I wonder if we even have the same father. But I know one thing for certain — we have the same Mama. And she is nearly dead.

                “Everything’s going to be alright,” I say, trying to remember the comforting lines you’re supposed to say at times like these. “Little’s going to make us all dinner, I bet. Isabel and Adam can just go up and say their goodbyes — or, whatever they’re going to say. And you and I — well, we’ve got each other.”

                 He nods stiffly, and the polarization of his real life and the life that he lives during family reunion dinners is more obvious than ever — sharpening into focus like a camera lens.

                 The aroma from Little’s kitchen fills my nostrils when I sigh. She’s cooking with thick herbed butter and garlic, leaving the air fragrant with decadence. Sure enough, she momentarily bursts through the door, holding my children’s hands in hers. “I smell a finished meal. Who’s ready to eat?”

                 “Shouldn’t we let the children see their grandmother before we eat since she’s not particularly, well, doing well?” Andrew steps out from behind me, straightening his tie — yet another one of his thousand formalities.

                  Little’s eyebrows meticulously painted a darker hue, lower in anxiousness before quickly returning to their normal state. “Absolutely not. Mama’s a tough one — I reckon she can make it through dinner. Anyhow, the kiddos need to eat. Isabel says y’all didn’t stop once on the drive for a snack.”

                  “There ain’t a good place to stop at.” I throw up my hands in defense. “And I just figured you’d prepare a damn feast for us all anyway.”

                  “Well, I did.” Her violet dress billows like a storm cloud as she ventures back into the land of sharp aromas. “Now if you’d be so kind as to all sit down, I can feed the lot of you.”

                  By force of tradition, I pray mechanically over the meal — raising my shoulders up so that they face God and extending my hands to my brother and sister. When I pray hopeless words for Mama, I feel the cold fingers of Andrew’s left hand shift from grasping and instinctively touch my ring finger — as though he might find a band and imagine it to be his. But I’m not lucky like that. Instead, he resorts to the skin, clutching and twisting just below my knuckle until I wonder of he is going to break my finger.

                 “Amen,” I say finally as I pull my hands back, hard. Andrew looks down — he knows. Little knows, too. The air reeks of death, stronger than any home-cooked meal can neutralize.

                 “So,” Andrew deadpans, “how have you all been lately? I mean, other than Mama’s condition, I know it’s challenging, but what about just in everyday life?”

                 “The restaurant is doing real good,” Little replies between bites. “How ‘bout you?”

                 “Oh, I’m quite alright.” He stares blankly at his pork chop. “I recently received a salary increase from my department chair because he says I’m doing well and they’re apparently raising tuition next year to cover promotions, but I just don’t know if that’s true because no one else has gotten a pay raise yet.”

                 “Well ain’t nobody interested in old fashioned classes like math or English anymore,” Little interjects. “They’re all into the new age philosophy stuff. And they’re paying you more ‘cause you teach it, right?”

                 Andrew runs a hand of nervous fingers through his immaculately styled brown hair and doesn’t reply. Instead, he looks at me with wide and pleading eyes to reply to his question.

                 “I’m fine,” I mumble through my mouthful of food. “Work is good, I guess. Always happy to get the kids.”

                 There is a prolonged silence before Andrew softly replies. “That’s nice. How about you two — Adam? Isabel?”

                 “School is kinda fun.” Isabel shrugs. “I like the playground best.”

                 “Me too,” Little nods in agreement. 

                 The table is plunged deep into quiet — save for the tapping of silverware on old china plates. Little’s eyes are full of worry and tension. The scorch of her attentive gaze runs between Andrew and me until it is broken by the sound of a fragile scream.

                 “Damn it.” Little’s ghostly eyes burn like fire as she jumps to her feet. “C’mon kids, it’s time to go see Grandma Ellen.”

                Andrew follows suit, his fork dropping from his nervous fingers and falling to the floor as he stands. Isabel’s eyes betray a sort of unknowing as she follows — and somehow, I know that it will be many years before she fully comprehends that she witnessed a death when she was six years old.

                When I was younger, I sat with my father and Andrew in the waiting room of the hospital — wondering what Louise (what Daddy called the new baby) looked like as she was pushed out of my mother’s womb.

                “Why can’t we go in their Daddy?” Andrew pleaded. “I want to see my baby sister before anyone else so that when she sees me, she’ll know that I’m her big brother and that I’ll always take care of her —”

                My father looked at him with glazed, alcoholic eyes. “Calm down kid. You wouldn’t even be the first to see her if you were in there, the doctor would be. I’m doing you a favor, anyhow. Just take my advice — stay outta’ hospital rooms. Nothing good happens in ‘em.”

                 Andrew didn’t comprehend this, but I did. For one moment, I held my bloodied sister in the hospital room before her lifeless form was disposed of. I decided that I didn’t care — and that I would not watch anyone die or see anyone dead ever again. For this reason, I stay at the head of the table and gnaw the meat that Little placed before us to the bone. With Andrew and Little gone, I can pick up the food with my hands and eat without pretense.

                  Still silent, Adam stays at the table with me. His hands are folded and his eyes fixed upwards as though he is looking into heaven through the white ceiling — underdeveloped shoulders heavy but held high with some strange sense of childish duty.

                 “You should go say goodbye to your grandmother,” I say to him.

                 “You’re not,” he replies in a stoic manner, “so I’m not going to either.”

                 I pause. “You shouldn’t be like me.”

                 “Should I be like Andrew, then?” Though only a few years superior to Isabel, his challenge makes him seem much older. He’s a little kid, but he’s already trying to be the man.

                 “No.” I crack my knuckles to bring him back to boyhood. “Just be yourself, okay? And go say goodbye to your grandmother.”

                 He doesn’t reply, but instead slips out of his chair — tennis shoes squeaking on the floor. When he shuffles out of the room and up the stairs, I find myself alone.

                 Adam is nine years old, and when you are nine years old there is still hope for you. I’m pushing forty, and I feel it. You reach this certain age and suddenly you feel less like a denizen of the world and more a confused observer. Some people surmount this perspective, I guess, others fall prey to it. They realize that they are products of their childhood and that they can never overcome those who raised them up in the world.

 

Translation: There isn’t much hope left for me.

 

 

 

P A R T   T W O

A family doomsday.

 

 

                My mother was a peculiar woman — morbid and self-absorbed but beautiful enough for most to overlook it. She told us all, on multiple occasions, that her last wish was to be viewed in an open casket. Since I never went upstairs to say my goodbyes to her dead body, I instead found myself bidding farewell to her discolored face, cheaply preserved with makeup, in the front of the church that she once loved. I hadn’t seen a corpse since Louise.

                Now, Andrew reminds me of her lifeless body, particularly in the mouth. He chews his lips dead white as we walk, a ribbon of black winding towards the grave site, the casket lid now sealed forever. The rain pounds the wood, and I cannot help but wonder if her body is already decomposing in its permanent prison. She’s rotting in there — I become more decided with every raindrop.

                “Did she look alright?” Andrew asks me frankly. “I was going to look myself but then I saw the flowers around her casket and the people crying and I knew that if I stepped up to look at her, I would just fall apart.”

                “She looked fine.” I fold my hands in front of me. The world around me blurs, and I can only see the dark hole that we’re going to lower her into.

                 As we come to a halt, the preacher, wearing his proud black vestments, motions for us to pray. When I close my eyes, an image of my father is burned onto the inside of my eyelids. Every time I pray, I see his face — bulbous brown eyes and scarred cheeks and thin lips smirking and jawline thicker than all-American beef forever branded into my brain. He’s a thousand feet tall — the one who couldn’t keep a job, so we lived off of food stamps. The failed magician with only one reliable trick: his disappearing act.

                “Lord,” Little mutters when the prayer is over, turning to us and strangely fanning herself with her waterlogged Bible. “I think this is the hottest summer we’ve had in ages.”

                This is an overstatement, but I don’t correct her. I also don’t correct her when we go to lunch at her glittery dinner on Main street and she tells all  her friends that Mama always knew she was better than Daddy, that God just had a plan to keep them together for us kids to be born. No, my mother had awful taste in men. She thought that Daddy was her soulmate — she thought that she could fix him. Now she is nothing but a spirit, and he is nothing but gone.

                 Little, the holiest virgin of the deep South, ironically talks a lot about ‘us kids’ and ‘the kids’ and ‘kids’ though she doesn’t have any herself. She talks a lot about my kids too, though they are barely mine. No, they’re back with their mom now, where they belong.

                 “So how much more time do you have off?” Little asks Andrew as we drive home from the funeral. She drives my truck slow — her red lipstick covering her teeth and her high heels tapping on the floorboard languidly.

                  “I don’t know exactly.” From the passenger seat where I’m slouching, I cannot see him. But I can imagine Andrew’s nervous eyes and the endless twisting of his beloved ring deeper still into his finger. “I suppose that I need to go ahead and phone work to see how much more time off I have.”

               Sometimes, I think that I’m responsible for the mess that my family is. Maybe if I hadn’t worked so hard when I was sixteen to pay off my father’s tab at the bar, my mother would’ve seen how hopeless he truly was. Maybe if I hadn’t been the worst big brother when we were young, my little brother would tell me his address, his friends, his feelings, his religion, his sexuality, his political views, his secrets.

Instead he is silent, and all that I can hear is Little’s breathy sighs and the rain peppering the roof and windows of my truck.

                Things get louder when we’re home — or, kind of home. Little’s house, though until merely a few days ago Mama’s house too, is furnished in such a terribly gaudy way that I hate living in it — even as a sojourner. I don’t sleep in the bedroom she offered me because I don’t want to deal with her damned throw pillows and tiny twin bed and embroidered curtains. The living-room couch where I have found refuge, in contrast, is cold and leather and will swallow me up if I grow too comfortable, but it’s almost soothing on these deep summer nights.

                Tonight, I lay on her couch and stare up at the ceiling like Adam had done. Little twirls around the room in a blush-pink nightgown, hopelessly outdated, humming to herself and tidying objects that do not need to be tidied. Andrew sits on the hearth of the long-dormant fireplace, his phone screen gleaming white on his baby face. Compared to Little, the southern belle waltzing by herself around the room, and me, the broad-shouldered man sweating in thick flannel like a sinner in church, Andrew is an enigma. He looks like a time traveler — with his hands clutching his phone, the only piece of technology in a room that exudes long ago.

                “I’m thinking of selling this place,” Little says suddenly. “It’s real big — you know? Too big for just me. Plus, I think I’d like to be closer to town, main street, the restaurant.”

                “You think you could sell it for a good price?” I shift to meet her eyes.

                “Of course.” She lowers her eyebrows knowingly. “People love old plantations, especially when they’re in decent shape. I guarantee you that some retiring yankees would pay double what I did for this place.”

                 “It’d probably be good to downsize,” I nod. “I guess this place also holds a lotta’ memories of Mama.”

                  “Mmm, yeah.” Little rakes her fingers through her curls. “Do you miss her yet?”

                  The answer seems obvious, but the curiosity in her voice says differently. “Of course I do. You?”

                  “I hope this don’t sound godless to say, but not as much as I thought I would.” Little lowers her head as if ashamed of her own words. “I mean, I loved her when she was alive, but now that she’s gone, everything still seems normal.”

                  “It’s a psychological idiosyncrasy regarding death,” Andrew speaks up suddenly. “Believe it or not, you’re experiencing cavalier attitudes toward the death of someone you once held in high esteem and adoration to deny the reality that they ever died, but instead considering them to be simply missing so that you can continue to function decently without them.”

                   Little blinks uncomfortably. “Well, I guess there’s my cue to go to bed and think long and hard about that. If either of you two want anything, there’s whiskey and wine in the cupboard.”

                   With that, she floats out of the room easy as she came. Andrew calls after her shyly, “I didn’t mean to over-analyze your feelings, really. I’m sorry —”

                   But she is gone and so is the temporary trinity that we had here.

                When we were kids, Little was hell. I once overheard Mama asking Dad if it was bad luck for a child to be named after a miscarried baby. That maybe there was some voodoo she’d never heard of that was making Little be possessed by the Devil. She fought everything that our mother wanted — whether it was homework or chores or playing nicely with other children or wearing dresses for Sunday church. She changed.

                I haven’t much since I was that age — I’m still keeping my head down and working hard for a paycheck that I don’t know how to spend. My teachers thought that I was just a damned workhorse — the infantry. Andrew was a star, though. During one of the short interims when Dad was at the house and everything was peaceful, he made Andrew a shelf with hooks coming off of it to keep all of his trophies and medals on. Sure, my brother came home with black eyes and dirt stains on the clothes that he tried so hard to keep clean, but when he won gold at the state science fair and gold at the regional spelling bee and gold at being adored by all of his teachers, we all knew that he would go places we’d never go. He was awfully eloquent as a kid, but it ended up screwing him over eventually.

                When Dad went off the deep end, I was a junior working two jobs and my brother was an overachieving thirteen-year-old trying to compensate for the utter worthlessness of his family. I didn’t dare try to reason with Dad about his addiction or his miserable work ethic, but Andrew did. He reasoned his way into my father’s fist breaking his jaw. Dad tried to be proud of him when he was younger, but the older Andrew grew the more I think Dad got bitter. The broken jaw wasn’t the last incident, but Andrew never let on or even told Mama. Instead, he rambled. Sometimes I almost think that his endless strings of nervous words are the byproduct of never telling people the simple statement that could’ve perhaps helped him recover — I was abused.

               “Don’t worry about Little.” I stand up, stretch, and walk over to where he sits. When I join him on the hearth, he looks at me with a placid stare that betrays his discomfort. “She’ll be fine.”

                “I don’t worry.” He pulls his knees up so that his chest rests on them, curling his arms and lowering his head around his own form — vulnerable, just like at thirteen. “I don’t worry about you or Little very often because you two seem happy enough, and worrying doesn’t really do anything, anyhow.”

                “Then what’s wrong?” I plead.

                “Does something look wrong?”

                “I always feel like something looks wrong with you, is that bad?”

                He smiles. “You don’t need to deal with my problems — they’re mine, and I will bear them.”

                “That’s not true.” I reach out to touch his shoulder, but he shrinks away from me. “We’re still a family, Andrew. Families bear each other’s burdens — that’s why we have ‘em. I know we ain’t a functional family, but you aren’t going at life alone. I promise.”

                Andrew sighs. “I know. I’ve carried plenty of family trouble around with me for a very long time — so long that you’d think I would feel like I belong here, but I just don’t. Every time I come home — every single time I come back to this place I always feel like I’m an outsider. It feels like Dad here, too.” He pauses, and I swear that he’s shaking. “Like sometimes I’ll be driving in town and I’ll stop at a red light and glance at the person in the car beside me and he’ll look just like Dad, and I’ll nearly throw up.”

                “I feel him sometimes, too,” I say, because I do, but it feels cheap. Dad favored me because I was plain like him and big enough to bully the smaller ones like him. I will never know what it is like to truly fear my father.

                “But at least you belong here.” Andrew rests his chin on his knees. “You’re so southern and tall that no one would dare question you. You can make a nice life for yourself and be at least somewhat happy, but I just can’t — I never feel alright when I’m home.”

                 I close my eyes.

                “That was Mama’s last hope for you, you know,” he whispers, and I feel suffocated. “God, I still remember it so perfectly — Adam and Izzy were staring in horror at her shriveled form and Little was fluffing her pillows and I was just sitting there on the edge of her bed holding her hand because that was all she wanted me to do. She told me that she knew Little would be successful because she already was a big name in all the small towns and because she was the gutsiest woman this side of the Mississippi River. Then she said that I’d be alright too, she told me that she prayed every single day for me to be safe up North and to do well at work and to find a good, godly wife — which I guess is quite a sweet sentiment. But you — oh, she was so concerned about you. She kept clutching my wrist and asking me over and over again — Is Luke happy? Is Luke happy? She didn’t ask about your love life or your job or your kids, she just asked if you were happy over and over again. And I didn’t know what to tell her because I didn’t know if you were happy. So I told her yes, of course — because, I mean, she was dying. But it was a lie — I didn’t know, and I don’t know. I lied to our dying Mama, Luke, can you believe that?”

               I smile at him. My name sounds so foreign when he says it. “Don’t worry — I’m sure Mama won’t hold it against you.”

               “Are you, though? I mean, are you happy? Did I lie to Mama?”

               The question cuts me, but I keep my head raised. “Well I barely get to see my kids and work is a hassle and my ex won’t call me back and my Mom just died. But I’m happy enough, I guess. I’ve got it better than a lot of other people, so I’d hate to complain.”

                Andrew stares at me with fascination. “You’re a liar — you’re trying to make me feel better, now we’re both liars. Without being completely barbaric and sadistic and awful, there’s no way you could ever be happy when your Mom just died, and your kids barely consider you a parent and their mother hates you more than anything else. You may not exactly be ruined, but you’re not happy. Happiness doesn’t happen when you’re falling apart — even Mama knew that when she asked me about you because she wanted you to make a life for yourself. I think she just wanted for all of her children to grow up to be much better than she was, you know?”

                 Now, I mimic Andrew’s movements — curling my body over my pulled-in knees.

                 “Damn it,” he whispers in a voice almost too soft to swear. “I didn’t mean to over-analyze you, it’s just—”

                 He pauses mid-sentence to wrinkle his nose and clean his glasses with the fabric of his shirt.

                 “Just what?” I try to hurry him, starving for his explanation.

                 “Well,” he huffs. “It’s just that you really suck at being vulnerable. We’re brothers, Luke, we were raised together, and I used to tell you everything because I trusted you more than anyone else. I’d still tell you anything, but you just skate by with these vague answers and leave me feeling like a terrible person for telling you what makes me afraid.”

                  “Tell me everything? You haven’t told me anything about your life in years,” I retort furiously. “Maybe it would all be different if you hadn’t chosen to move away and completely isolate yourself from all of us.”

                Andrew doesn’t appear angry, but I know him well enough to see that he’s getting tense. Suddenly it hits me like it used to hit Andrew, I remind him of Dad. Because I look just like Dad and I work a dead-end job just like Dad and I sometimes get angry at him for simply being himself just like Dad. That’s why he’s bracing himself as though I’m about to get impatient and hit him, hard.

                “I’m sorry,” I say into the silence. “I’m sorry for everything. I guess I just miss the way it was when we were kids — I mean, not what happened to you. Just the time you and I spent together.”

                 He wipes his eyes. “I’m sure this is a horrible thing to say, but I barely remember being a kid. Maybe that’s just what happens when someone you know hurts you? Like every beating caused some sort of mystical collateral damage that knocked a handful of childhood memories out of my head. I wish I could remember being a kid sometimes, but mostly not because I just know that all of the memories would somehow find their way back to Dad.”

                  “I’m sorry.” I say it again, and again and again because it’s all that I can say and even still it is so useless. Because even though I grew up and fed myself lies that I was the man of the family and I was keeping everything under control, I was so damn gutless. I couldn’t save my brother, my sister, my mother, my father. I couldn’t even save myself — still can’t.

                “You don’t have to be sorry.” Andrew shifts his eyes towards something far away on the horizon that I can’t see. “I think it’s good for me to be around you, Luke. You look just like him, if you didn’t already realize that. You have his name, and his eyes and his teeth and his hands — is that a weird thing to say? And you’re so like him in mannerism, except softer — less brutal. Like, I know you don’t get to see your kids much, but you’re a good father. I knew so when you made Adam come up to say goodbye.”

                “You’d be a good father, too,” I say matter-of-factly. “Do you think you’ll ever — you know? Be a dad?”

                “I like to think so.” His face shines, even without the light from his phone screen. “I know you haven’t gotten to experience it quite as much as you’d hoped, but parenthood seems so fascinating. Plus, not to further offend the dead, but I think that I could probably do a better job than those who preceded us.”

                 Andrew pauses for a moment, before continuing. “Anyhow, you should come up to visit sometime. It’s silly that you’ve never been up to see my place even though I’ve been living there for years. I mean, I know your job is busy, but a couple of days couldn’t hurt, could it? You could meet all my friends — they’re going to think you’re such a redneck, it would be absolutely hilarious.”

                 At this, we both burst into laughter. Guilty and tormented and heartbroken and abused laughter that rises up into the rafters and through the floorboards into heaven itself. The sort of genuinely simple laughter that most never experience after childhood. All at once, we’re thirteen and sixteen — his jaw has never been broken and I’m studying for my biology test tomorrow instead of working night shifts because Mama got a restraining order, so Dad’s gone forever. We’re sitting here on the fireplace in the old plantation home because Mama came into some money and the trailer park no longer exists. Little’s helping Mama in the kitchen instead of fighting her tooth and nail over every decision she makes.

                But this is temporary, because when I blink Andrew is still thirty-something with faint scars on his face that you can only see when you’re really close to him. The scars stretch when he throws his head back, laughing until tears stream down his cheeks.

                “The scars don’t hurt, do they?” I wipe the confused tears from my tired eyes.

                “Oh?” He reaches up to run his fingers over his jawline — his beloved ring twinkling and shining gold in the warm light. “No, not really I suppose. I don’t think about them much, but when I do, I try not to think of them as just scars that hurt. I’d rather see them as motivation — like, I’ve come so far and made it so long and survived so much and here I am — what can I do for someone else?”

                When I look at my brother, I see so much. I see rhetorical questions and childhood memories waiting to be rediscovered. I see the boy who I never stood up for but the boy I would’ve killed for. I see a boy who I know nearly nothing about, but I know that I adore him beyond all scope of reason because he is my blood and blood is all that we have. But most of all, I see a man — the only man. The only man I’ve ever known who took hit after hit yet championed over everyone and everything that told him that he was going to fail. And for the first time since sixteen, I know that I am not the man.

 I am looking at the man.

 

 

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