It was the year you turned fourteen and we found out Molly was allergic to olives. The year the snowmobile slid down the bank on its own accord, gliding across the frozen lake and falling through thin ice; the Polaris, the red one that Uncle Nick bought for you.
During that summer, two of the Finnegan kids beat you up. You cried but then made us laugh when you were grateful it hadn’t been all the Finnegan kids, the seven of them lining up like a wedding reception striking you one at a time. The daughter, their eighth child, she wouldn’t have beat you up. She and Molly used to play with dolls at the house and what was her name–Katrina–used to look at you like you were a rock star. You said so many mean things to her but she kept doting on you, joking that the two of you would be married.
It was the year the dog literally did eat your homework; the year Mom broke her wrist. I still remember Dad and Molly helping her into the car, that old station wagon, and rushing her to the hospital while I waited at home to let you know what happened. Do you remember what you said when I told you? “Is she going to live?” Fourteen years old and you were asking a silly question like that.
But you knew, didn’t you?
I can’t count the times your words have haunted me over the years. When I look at the clippings, when I remember the officer’s somber faces, especially the pretty Hispanic cop who put her hand on our shoulders. As I think about the way you only stared blankly, as if you knew ahead of time the answer to your own question.
Then they took us to Grandpa’s place and he and Grandma helped us finish school. When I brought up the crash with them, they always said things like “Oh, now, that’s not pleasant to think about. Oughta be thinking about school or football.” Smiling as they said it, as though they didn’t acknowledge things.
They made us share a room. I remember it made you and me angry at first because they had two extra rooms crowded with their junk, but then we were glad to be together because the two of them were so distant from us, even when we were painfully close to them. And listening to Grandpa playing cards with those other guys, do you recall? Their voices traveling through the vents, giving each man a baritone quality whether or not he had one in reality. Grandma used to make us stay in our room because it was Grandpa’s ‘grown up’ time, saying that even after we’d been in high school for a while.
But hearing their dirty jokes through the vents, and the coarse and profane terms, used to confuse us. You said once, I’m sure you remember, “Grandpa seems like such a sweet old man until his buddies show up.” Even at that age, seventy or eighty, he was still trying to impress his friends. This bewildered and depressed us. We thought the need to impress others would never separate from us, but rather, follow us like a shadow
on a long, sunny day.
You and I grew close at Grandma and Grandpa’s and I even lived there an extra year while you finished high school. I did that so we could go to college together, something I’ve never told you, but I sense you always knew.
It wasn’t because I liked working at the Dairy Bar. Most nineteen year olds were in college or working at the mall, but here I was working at the Dairy Bar with a bunch of underage girls, who giggled about stupid things and talked too quickly to the customers. In retrospect, I suppose I could be arrested for it, but I remember one night after work, going out to this one girl Carrie’s car and smoking a cigarette with her. She thought I was this cool, rebel, uneducated older guy because I was pretty slick back then and working for that old pervert at the Dairy Bar. Pretty soon, we were in the back seat of her Plymouth having a wingding of a time. It wasn’t my first time; that was Kendra West, who told me you were her first, after. It kind of annoyed me that you’d beaten me to the punch and not mentioned it, but then I realized that it was just one more thing we shared.
When we went downstate to college, everything changed, didn’t it? We drifted some and you wanted to stop talking about Mom, Dad and Molly. If I brought up the crash, you’d get a look of impatience in your eye. One time you looked like you wanted to throw a fist at my nose. I thought maybe it was your way of dealing with it, some kind of delayed denial thing. I was the tough leader during high school and you were trying to be the tough guy in college, that’s how I interpreted it. I told myself that you’d open up if given the opportunity.
You and I shared a class in our sophomore year. One of the things we discussed was death and dying. The professor, the woman that wore those pleated skirts and had a permanent frown, asked if anyone had ever known someone close to them that had died. Do you remember?
I was painfully shy in large groups so I wasn’t going to speak up but it surprised me that you didn’t. She looked you in the eye because she knew. “Nathaniel,” she said. “What about you? Anyone close to you ever die?” You looked like you were thinking about it and shook your head.
I almost died when you did that. It reminded me of Grandpa and Grandma and their ‘now nows’. Wordsworth, that was the professor’s name, the one with the pleated skirts.
We graduated from college during that awful spring when it snowed in late June. You had a degree in Communications and promptly took an assistant manager position at Luke Embry’s Big and Tall Shop, a move that never made sense to me, especially with your voice. You thought I was crazy to head to the university upstate and get my M.A. in History. Looking back, I suppose you’re right; the degree, just a piece of paper on the wall within the apartment of a bored mail carrier.
You married Kelly. Even though you and I had drifted quite a bit by that time, you asked me to be your best man. I was happy to do that. It was the first time I’d seen you really smiling, that afternoon that she gave her life to you. You looked like a rich man wearing that tuxedo, standing on the red velvet carpet waiting for her. And Kelly. God, was she beautiful. How a morose guy like you, who mumbled ‘damn it all to hell’ when his shoe became untied, won a girl like her, is beyond me. It makes no sense to bring this up now, but her cousin, the maid of honor that I was paired with, got pretty drunk with me later. We ended up in bed and dated for four months. You may have known that because she probably told Kelly.
Why did you hit her, Nathaniel? A kindergarten teacher with brilliant green eyes and perfect teeth, like she could do a toothpaste ad and they wouldn’t need to retouch the photos. They said you hit her once and caught her before she fell, only to hit her again as you held her. What was wrong with you? Who taught you that?
It filled me with rage when I pondered it and I decided you were an animal. I made a decision to pay a visit and talk some sense into you. I even filled my car up with gas to make the trip. But you know how I get about driving long distances, even four hours seems long sometimes. I fall asleep. I can’t do that.
I thought about calling you and telling you off, but when I went to dial the phone I saw the bottles of Jim Beam lined up on my kitchen counter and my copy of Barely Legal under the phone directory and I decided that maybe it’d be hypocritical.
Kelly healed nicely but you never knew it because she left you right after that. She had been two months pregnant when you hit her and it had upset her so much, she tearfully aborted it, which distanced her from her father, the Presbyterian minister.
You were especially dark for the year or two after she left. I was so mad at you for hitting her, even after the time had passed, that when I married Bianca I didn’t ask you to be my best man. I didn’t even invite you, but you showed up, anyway. You forgave me, I forgave you and we got drunk. Really drunk.
So drunk that my new wife thought I was an idiot. There we were, you and I, smelling like we slept in a beer barrel, laughing like schoolgirls and laying on the floor of the reception hall. Bianca came in, telling me we needed to go because the flight was leaving at ten that night. She was right, but you told her to go without me because we were having plenty of fun without her. I was too drunk to care.
Thankfully, she forgave me under the condition that I never see you again.
Which I didn’t until now.
Your place was a mess, a garden of magazines and old newspapers. Pizza boxes were strewn across tables, ants and roaches outnumbered the dust bunnies. The place smelled like a cross between steamed rice, mustard and sweat.
I didn’t want to stay long but the lawyer, your lawyer he said, wanted me to check to see if there was anything I wanted. Bianca waited in the car while I looked; she’d driven because I fall asleep during long drives–you know that.
I found nothing I needed or wanted in your apartment. You had a closetful of big and tall clothes despite your being a slight and wiry man. Your pillowcase looked like it hadn’t seen the inside of a washing machine for a decade and when I went to open your refrigerator, the handle came off.
The last thing I did before I left your apartment was to walk into the living room where you had laid. There was a faint imprint of your body, the sweat I guess, on the carpeting. They said you’d taken seven of those pills, what were they? They told me four would kill a man so you must have been damn sure you were more than a man. At first, I thought that’s an awful thing to say to the man’s brother; but then I remembered how we weren’t getting along, anyway, and I laughed.
I came to your place with nothing and I left with nothing. When I got back into the car, Bianca said you were nothing. I said nothing.
As we headed out of town and began the long trek home, I thought of something you’d said to me when we were at Grandpa’s, sitting by the vent. You said, “How does someone get that bad?” I told you I didn’t know. You said, “If I ever get that bad, I hope I don’t have grandkids around to know about it.”
Mission accomplished, Nathaniel. Good-night.
Image: “happy / hungry” by Craig Cloutier, licensed under CC 2.0.