I bought a bus ticket so I could leave Shelly the car and woke to an overcast morning and boarded the Greyhound. I got off hours later, finding a lone taxi sitting outside the depot. I told the cabbie where I wanted to go and he drove me the few miles, taking me down a quiet road that eventually turned from pavement to dirt.
He stopped at a two-story A-frame with a short porch on the front, a few cardboard boxes in mid-collapse just next to the door. Gray cedar siding, black shingles covering the roof’s long slopes. I stared at it. This was the address Perry had given me and ma after he’d moved, but there was no car in the drive. I got out, went up the walk and climbed the few steps to the door and thumped it. No answer. I knocked again.
The cabbie honked his horn, and I thought hard about what to do. It had been four years since I’d seen my brother. I waved the cab away, and he drove off in the direction he’d come. I put my back against the building and slowly slid down until I sat on the warped boards of the porch. In the trees around the house I heard a few winter birds, but mostly the woods were silent.
As the minutes passed, I had the sinking feeling that Perry had moved and not told us. I put my hands into my coat pockets and watched the road. If whoever showed up here was not my brother, I’d ask if they knew him. If they didn’t, I’d see if they’d give me a ride back to the bus station, then I’d go home and think about some other way.
An hour later a Chevy crunched over the snow in the drive. I stood on creaking legs, a chill all through me, looking down at the car as the engine stopped. Perry got out from behind the wheel, a little heavier but mostly the same.
“Who’s that?” he said, squinting up at the porch.
“It’s me,” I said. “I come to visit.”
“Who?” he said.
“Fennis,” I said. “Your brother.”
“Oh,” he said. “Oh, Fennis.” He reached back into the vehicle and pulled out a paper bag and a 12-pack. “What’re you doing here?” He came up the steps, putting the 12-pack under his arm so we could have a brisk handshake. “Something wrong with ma?”
“No, she’s fine,” I said.
“Shelly all right?”
“Yes,” I said. “Nothing wrong there.”
He pushed his door open and I followed him into his place. He had drapes half-closed over those big windows, and it was gloomy inside. He put his goods on a cluttered counter. In the sink a stack of dirty dishes, some half filled with water. He turned to face me. “If everything’s fine, then what did you come for?” he asked.
“I told you. Wanted to visit.”
“Just like that?”
“I thought maybe it was time,” I said.
He leaned his back against the counter and folded his arms across his chest. “Time for what?”
I put my hands up, like I was refusing a challenge. “I just wanted to see how you’re doing,” I said. “See if you’re all right.”
“Someone say I’m not?”
“No,” I said.
He said nothing for a bit, then let out a grunt and turned to his sack. He pulled out the few things in it – a bag of chips, a box of elbow macaroni, a loaf of white bread, a jar of peanut butter and two cans of soup.
“You wanna show me the place?” I said.
He made a waving motion with one hand. “Go ahead and look around, I don’t care,” he said. He reached to put the soup in a cabinet.
I wandered away. Cigarette butts in a coffee can, a full glass of juice next to the TV, clothes in a pile alongside the sagging sofa, shirts thrown across a chair.
“Bedroom upstairs?” I said over my shoulder, listening to the clunk of the beer going into the fridge.
“The upstairs is the bedroom,” he said, crossing the room. “It’s an A-frame, you see that.”
I nodded, and we stood there, some great distance opening up between us, longer than the four years. “You staying the night?” he asked.
“I’d hoped to,” I said, furrowing my brow. “My ticket home is for tomorrow.”
He nodded at that. “Might as well sit down, then,” he said, and moved to push some clothes to the floor. I sat. He stood next to the couch. I thought it might take some time for us to thaw, but I had not imagined he’d treat me this way.
“Perry, it’s me,” I said, leaning forward a little and looking at him.
“I know who you are,” he said. “I just don’t know why you’re here.”
That’s how the night started.
We sat there until he offered me a beer and we started drinking. I was hungry soon enough, and he wanted pizza, and though I wanted to pay and offered to ride along to pick one up, he seemed eager to go off by himself.
In his absence I investigated the place. Leaning in a corner was a Browning X-Bolt that smelled like he’d fired it recently. In the kitchen I found a jar of pasta sauce in the fridge, and a container of cream cheese with a thin layer of green mold across the top. Four boxes of cereal in the cupboard. I stuck my head up the steep stairwell and saw his unmade bed, a box spring and mattress on the floor, and a dresser with drawers half open, clothes hanging out. There was nothing adorning the walls, no personal touches, no warmth of any kind. It looked as if he didn’t care about anything under that roof, and that made me think he felt no one cared about him. And that made me think about us growing up.
My dad worked at the bowling pin factory when he and my ma were together, right up until I was born. He disappeared soon after that. They were never married and I didn’t know him, though she told me his name was Benny Jameson and that he was aimless but kind, and that she did not hate him for leaving. I don’t know, being fatherless was just part of my life, and I made peace with it. Maybe there is a natural part of me, a gene, that made me feel OK about it, and maybe I got it from him, because people always tell me I’m easygoing, and he sounds like he was, too.
Perry’s dad wasn’t around either. Ma dated him only seven months. I was 11 then, and so I remember Arnie. He was older than her by a few years, with a pale face and blond hair sliding away from his temples, watery blue eyes. Mostly he scared me. He had mean, shouting fights with ma. For a while it seemed like she wanted more of his time, and then, near the end, she wanted less. Both of those things made him angry. Something bad must have happened in there someplace, because suddenly he stopped coming by altogether and ma changed the locks. I know she never went looking for him, and that really says something, because we could have used the help, and because she must have known she was pregnant by then.
Perry and I were close growing up, I thought. Course I was much older, so I was out of the house a lot. I probably should have done more with him. I can see that now. I could have been the one to teach him how to drive – ma had to put him in one of those driving classes. I never took him hunting. That would have been easy to do, just pick him up and take him with me. I went with my friends instead, I guess because I was so much older, like I said, but I do feel bad about that now.
When school finished up he left town immediately. That surprised both me and ma. Certainly he needed his own place, but we couldn’t understand why it had to be hours away. I kind of thought he might get lonely and move back. He’d talk to ma when she called, and answer my phone calls too, but I began to hate the conversations. There was nothing real in them, and I could hear how much he itched to hang up. So I stopped calling and the years went by, until finally a kind of melancholy came over me anytime I thought of him and Shelly agreed I should try and see him. So I did, because it felt like four years would become a dozen just like that, and what would you even say to someone you had not seen in that long?
Perry’s pizza run stretched out until I wondered if he’d left for the night. When he did show, the pie was cold, the cheese hardened and the grease thick across the top. I still ate four pieces – half because I was hungry and half because the silence between us didn’t seem so bad when we were chewing. When we were done, he lit a cigarette and we went back to the beer and the quiet grew.
I started talking about the weather, ma just a little bit and finally got him speaking. He started in on his neighbor – seemed the man had wrecked his motorcycle. Perry called him an idiot for it, blamed the wreck on poor riding skills.
I broke in. “But you’re happy enough here?”
“It’s fine,” he said.
“I always wondered why you moved here.”
He snorted. “Why would I have stuck around home?”
“Ma’s there,” I said. “I’m there. Maybe we could have been neighbors.”
He shook his head. “I hated living there,” he said.
That surprised me and I fell quiet. I took the last swallow of my beer. I knew that was the end of the 12-pack. I put my can on the scarred top of his coffee table, and the sound it made seemed too loud, and hung there.
We said nothing. I shifted my weight. Perry leaned back against the recliner’s taped-up cushions. I heard a distant engine out there in the night, a car powering its way down some unseen road.
“I’ve got booze,” Perry said, and he got up. I didn’t need any more, but without the bottle on the table, there was nothing to keep the night going and I suppose I wasn’t done trying. He put a half-bottle of whiskey and a couple of glasses in front of me and I poured us something to sip at. He sat back in the recliner.
“Don’t you ever wonder why we both don’t got fathers?” he said.
“We got fathers.”
“Isn’t it funny how there’s two dads missin’ here? You don’t ever think about that?”
“No,” I said. “We got ma.”
“She ran them off, I always thought,” he said.
“She didn’t,” I said. “Mine just left, and yours did, too.”
He went silent and sipped at his whiskey. I picked up my glass.
“Bus ride back won’t be much fun hung over,” I said, putting the rim on my teeth. “I’d stay another day but I have to work Monday.”
“Not me,” he said.
“You got the day off or something?”
He slugged some back and then sat rubbing the bridge of his nose, his elbows on his knees. “There’s no job, Fennis,” he said. “Is that what you wanna hear?”
“No, that’s not what I want to hear,” I said. “How’re you getting by?”
“It ain’t been long. I just lost it, few days ago.”
I nodded. “Laid off?” I asked.
“Nope,” he said, sounding tired of questions and awful tired of me. I said nothing, tried not to look at anything in particular. An oily silence slid in between us. Perry sat trying to read it.
“Fuck Fennis, what?” he said, finally. “What? You wanna say something?”
“No,” I said.
“I didn’t ask you to come here,” he said.
“No,” I said. “I guess I was tired of waiting on an invite.”
He sighed. A long, tired sound. “What do you want from me?” he said.
“Nothing,” I said, softly, leaning back. “I just haven’t seen you in a long time.”
He pushed back into his chair, too. The seconds ticked away.
“They fired me,” he said finally. “I moved in behind the cutting machine so I could flip a scrap piece of metal off the table. I came right back out. No big deal.”
“What did they fire you for? For stopping production?”
“I didn’t stop production,” he said, and things were getting clearer to me. I’d been a machinist, years ago, and I knew he was telling me he’d slipped behind the safety wall on the cutting table without shutting it off. He’d been back where the robotics blasted lasers into metal, where the slab is swung around left and right at speeds that would kill a man, if it hit him right. No wonder they fired him.
“Did you get the piece?” I asked weakly.
“Yeah, I got it,” he said.
An hour later the bottle was almost gone.
“The government takes half your fucking money,” Perry was saying, standing now. “Those pricks take you for every penny and what do we ever get for it?”
I sat, nodding. But then it was his neighbor again, who never should have bought that fucking bike, and probably deserved to wreck it. Then it was the guy at the store who’d cut in front of him. Then the last girl he’d gone out with, more than a year ago, who had not done as he’d said, or had let him down, or had been disloyal – I could not follow his ranting. It was pouring out of him like water from a roof gutter. He was coiled rage, aimed at everything and nothing. It was with a measure of sadness that I realized he would focus on me sooner or later.
But he started in on ma again. All the wrongs she’d done to him, to me, to everyone. She’d been stupid, a bad mother, careless. A half-wit who let men knock her up. She couldn’t hold a man and was a sloppy housekeeper. Ridiculous things. I listened for as long as I could.
“Come on,” I said gently. “She tried. You can’t see that?”
Then he turned on me like I’d stuck him with a hot pin, like he’d been waiting.
“I knew you’d take her side,” he hissed. “You’re no better than she is. Both of you let me rot in that house. So fuck you, too.”
I came off the couch. He’d had more to drink than me so I was quicker. And I was older, my trunk and arms filled out the way a man does when he reaches his 30s. I had him up against the wall before he’d gotten his balance.
We froze there like that, me thinking about what I had just opened. Our faces within inches, my forearm against his throat, me aware of where his hands were, knowing one was creeping away from his side, probably looking for something to hit me with.
“That’ll do,” I said. I was surprised by how even it sounded, how in control.
“Or what?” Perry sneered.
I had no answer and no good way out. Backing down wasn’t what I wanted and neither was hitting him. So I stared at his face, wondering if that free hand of his had latched onto anything. I put a little more pressure onto his throat. “Don’t,” I said. “Let’s leave it off for the night.”
“OK, Fennis,” he said, then choked out a laugh against my arm. “OK.”
I took a slow step back. I put a good six feet between us and we stood there, my hands shaking a little, him breathing quick. I sat back down. Perry lingered around the coffee table, watching me, and then he sat down, too. I placed my trembling right hand, then my left, on their partnered knees.
Perry reached for his glass. “I just don’t get it,” he said, in a way that meant he wanted me to respond. I shot him a look, but said nothing.
“No, I don’t get it,” he repeated, downing his drink and putting the glass on the table.
“OK,” I said, and I felt my stomach tightening. “I know you want me to ask. What is it you don’t get?”
“Why you defend her,” he said. “When you know as much as I do that she’s a whore. You saw it twice. Once for you being made, and once for me.”
I flexed everything I had, trying to control myself. Curled my toes, clamped my teeth against each other, dug my fingers into my legs, squeezed my guts. I looked at him, an angry smile across his lips.
“She always loved you,” I said. “Me, too.”
He said nothing for a bit, then, “I never went looking for my dad, Fennis. Did you?”
“No,” I said.
“You know where I think my dad is?”
“You don’t need him,” I said.
“I betcha he fell in. I betcha he’s right up her cunt. Trapped.”
I went for him again. It was what he wanted and I gave it to him. I was halfway across the table, both hands out to grab him, when he picked up his glass and slung it at me. It grazed my left temple, and though it cut me there, I barely felt it. I shrugged it away and got my hands on him.
We wrestled down to the ground, where I found him wiry and full of rage. But I had the pounds and I finally got him where I wanted – pinned down with me on top. I put one quick punch to his temple, a stunner, and for a second he slowed, but then he was wriggling again and straining and working his legs and I needed both hands to hold on. Had I been able to free up that fist again, I’m pretty sure I would have put some teeth down his throat, as much as it shames me to say that.
But that cut on my head was bleeding out, and while we fought there on his dirty rug, me groaning and trying to stay on top, him bucking and writhing, two drops of blood ran down my face and dripped off my chin. They landed just below his right eye. One, two. Splat, splat. The sight of my red blood on his pale winter face just took it all out of me. I wanted nothing more than to never have boarded that bus. To not have gone there.
“Stop, Perry,” I said, but he wasn’t stopping. I tried again, and he fought me. “I’m sorry,” I said, because suddenly I felt the guilt all over me.
He realized I wasn’t trying to hit him anymore, though still he fought. Another drop of blood fell to his skin and it was more than I could take. I released him and tried to stand, but Perry had not seen what I’d seen, the way my blood looked on his face, and he kept swinging as we got to our feet. I caught one with my arm, a second one glancing off my shoulder and the top of my head. I backed away and covered up. I caught another, but one got through and thumped my skull.
I gave him a shove and he went backward. I made for the door, got it open before he came at me again and swung it shut as he leaped. Outside I found the night full on. A bitter wind hit me in the face and shot through my thin shirt. I went down his steps, and the door opened behind me.
“You come back here and I’ll kill you,” he shouted.
“I ain’t coming back,” I said. But it was a lie, because once I’d disappeared down the road, and I felt sure he’d gone inside, I doubled back and paced the stretch of gravel outside his place for an hour, trembling in the cold, my arms crossed over my chest.
I saw him stride back and forth on the bottom floor, his lips moving. I saw him sit in the recliner with his head hanging. Then the lights went off downstairs, and one flared to life on the second level, where I couldn’t see him very well. Maybe 10 minutes after that, he passed in front of the window up there and I saw he had his shirt off. Then the light died again and I stood in front of his black house in the cold, not wanting to leave because it would feel like the end, but then I finally turned and walked toward town.
It was half an hour before a car blinded me in its headlights and slowed down. I told the driver I’d left my jacket in a buddy’s car a day ago, and that I’d caught my head on a tree branch taking a shortcut through the woods. He was nice enough to drop me off at the bus station. I borrowed a packing blanket from the man behind the counter and slept, wrapped up, on a bench. When I woke in the morning, my eyes were puffy and my head ached something terrible.
On the bus, I dozed. When I awoke I sat staring at the passing scenery. Thinking about the things I’ve done in my life. I remember one winter when I was 19, I’d gone out alone, walking across the field and into the woods behind our house. It was my first year after school ended, Perry must have been around 8 and I was still living at home. I was settling into an adult’s working life, I was years from meeting Shelly, and I was scared about what the future held for me.
I’d walked for a mile or two when I came upon a yearling deer. I saw it first from a distance, but it didn’t run and when I got close enough I could see it was caught, one foreleg jammed down among a few sapling trunks, blood all over the snow. The hoof was in so deep I couldn’t see it, and he had been struggling to jerk it free for some time. Eyes wild, nostrils flaring at the smell of me. It wanted to bolt, but those saplings held the leg tight as a trap.
I spoke quiet, kept my movements slow. I put my hand on his heaving flank. I stayed like that for a while, talking low, my breath a plume in front of me, twin jets of steam billowing out the deer’s nose in a frightened, steady rhythm. The animal was exhausted enough to accept my presence. He let me get my hand down in the wedge. The bone was broken, the skin and muscle barely holding the hoof on. I wrenched and pulled, put my weight on the slender trunks, and after about 10 minutes – that deer panting next to me the whole time – the leg came out with the hoof dangling. He turned and staggered on three legs into the gathering dusk. I knew the wound would not heal, and any deer that cannot run will not see the spring.
I sat thinking about that until the gentle humming of the bus engine put me back asleep.