“I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot soles.” – Walt Whitman
I had just finished rolling a cigarette on the dash, when my brother called to tell me that he’d be out of the airport lobby shortly. I acknowledged him and hung up. I lit the cigarette. Ever since dad died, Chris has been in Arizona renting a house near the desert. We hadn’t talked much, but he had sent me a letter accompanied with his first book, Wheatgrass and a Tumbleweed. In the letter, he said that I was the sole inspiration for a character, as was Pop. I wrote back, simply: ‘Don’t write about me.’ A year later, I find myself here at the airport.
The passenger door opens and I jump at the sound of a close car horn. Chris doesn’t have a suitcase, just a duffel thrown between his legs in the passenger seat. There’s a beat-up, yellowing copy of a Dennis Lehane novel stuffed into the side pocket. “You’re smoking again?”
“Yes,” I say, exhaling. I had started again the hour after he’d called and said he was coming, two weeks ago. I lie to him, “Laura’s been on my back a lot lately.”
I turn the key; the radio tuned to an acoustic station begins mid-song. Chris asks, “About what?”
There’s a long pause. His question both shatters my claim and paints an immense tension in his own mind. I appreciate, and furthermore thank, his writer’s mind in wait of my escape from explanation to come from his mouth, “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t ask things like that.”
He produces a pack of cigarettes from his coat, snivels from the winter weather, and then grabs his Zippo. I laugh, awkwardly breaking the tension. “You’re smoking again?”
He turns, smiles, “I never stopped.”
We take pleasure in filling the Jeep’s ashtray on the way home.
[ “…I watch her as I wait for my train. She strains to read a novel on a rusting bench at the local station. I sit across from her, opposing her experience with mine. At one page, she tightens, enthralled in the text, leaping into its every word, sending its literary flow outward towards me and other commuters. Yet, at the next page, she relaxes, laughs at an exercise of the author’s wit, a textual jab at reality, simplistic but everlasting. I want to keep watching her, the orange locks of her hair fluttering onto the pages, her black fingernail polish turning with the pages, the slow glide of her wrist.
A man sits down next to her; and, at this, I tense. She glances, peripheral. The man sets down a suitcase, then a green duffel, possibly from war-times; it’s weathered and the strap is losing its threading. The woman waits a moment until the man is settled to resume her reading; her thought process, broken, no longer enthralled. She begins again, a lowering of the brow, too tense to regain her escape. The man begins to cough through deeply yellowed teeth. He produces a hankie to dispose of what he coughed up.
The woman stops reading; can no longer continue. She produces headphones. My train has arrived…” ]
Laura left dinner on the table: undercooked spaghetti with canned meatballs.
“Is she working now?” Chris asks.
I smirk. Laura wouldn’t work a day in her life; just doesn’t take orders well, as simple as that. “No,” I reply. “She’s taking night courses at Jackson Community.”
“Something with animal psychology. I don’t know. Whatever passes her time and keeps her interested,” I say. The truth was that I was damn surprised she hadn’t flunked out yet. She studies with cocktails, reads her assignments with a joint in her lips, and listens to her lecture recordings while simultaneously experimenting with the keyboards her parents bought her last year. I love it, so I lie, “She’s doing well.”
Chris sets his duffel next to the couch awkwardly. “Is this where you want me?”
“I was thinking the loft guest bedroom, but that will do,” I crack.
Chris sits down and takes off his coat. “Can I smoke in here?”
I stare at him for a moment. His face has gone solemn, dark, bewildered from something. Was it something I said? “Ya. Is there something wrong?”
Chris pauses before he lights the cigarette, sighs, “You ever just think that you’ve wasted your life? What am I saying? Of course you haven’t. You’re an architect, and you’ve got Laura… I just… I don’t know.”
I hesitate to mention his novel, because I haven’t read it, but I do, “You’ve already published a novel, Chris. What more do you want?”
I sit down next to him, thinking I should smoke but declining; my mouth is too dry. My brother starts to tell me about why he left here so long ago but stops, proclaiming that I won’t understand. He moves, “You hungry at all? I’ll take a crack at that spaghetti. I’m famished. The flight only had the options of microwaved fish or pretzels.”
I didn’t laugh, but frowned at a tear that formed in the corner of his eye. He caught it before he thought I saw it. I reply, “You don’t have to eat that. There’s some Chinese in the fridge you can have. I wouldn’t force Laura’s cooking on anyone.”
Chris laughs, and his eyes make that watery transition from sadness to complete happiness. I smile and make him a plate.
[ “…My father never really understood my writing, my love. He was an architect, an alcoholic, a token drifter in the minds of his friends. Tuesdays were bar days, every other day of the week was, too, but he didn’t call them such; they were merely days of the week. I remember when my mother was in the hospital, her spine had been sending random pangs through her entire body and headaches kept her awake at night. We were supposed to bring her dinner. We didn’t. Instead, my father saw Harry Miller walk into the Maverick Tavern. The drafts rolled, money changed hands for raffle tickets, the game was on.
Peanut shells were scattered across the bar and floor, discarded, left alone to gather in the corner at the end of the shift. Thrown in the trash with the empty vile of my mother’s medicine. She never said anything to him, watching him web his thread of red-faced lies. She took her hospital food with dignity, spooning day-old mashed potatoes through the pain and the whispers from the nurses. I knew I’d leave then. I knew I’d leave when I was old enough…” ]
After Chris and I drank a few on the veranda, we stepped through the sliding glass doors to feel the cold stillness of an empty room. Laura must’ve gone to bed, angered at my drinking. Sometimes she’s just like me, effortless, and other times she makes herself annoyed of me because she believes couples have to fight about something to keep the marriage healthy. Some psychology teacher at her high school filled her head with steps and strategies that apparently didn’t work for his own marriages because she mentioned he was divorced three times. When I asked why she took his theories so seriously and hurled most of what she learned in high school to the wayside, she locked up, wouldn’t talk for the rest of the night. I never felt like bringing it up before, even though she mentions him at least once a week.
“Dr. Bennet says… But Dr. Bennet thinks… I remember Dr. Bennet talking about that…” She would say. I’d never hated someone that I’d never met more. It was just one of those things she held in her mind, like I remembered the perfect ass of my high school biology teacher. You wouldn’t catch me spouting her evolutionary theories to people, but I remember the wide smile on Derek Hess’ face when I purposefully dropped my homework on the floor for her to pick up.
Chris starting doing his impression of Uncle Gordon as I crashed to the couch, laughing.
“There’s a pork chop in every beer. I’ve already had six pork chops today,” Chris said in the cigarette-beaten voice of our uncle.
I finished the last bottle of two six packs and remembered Uncle Gordon falling down the stairs of the front porch. He just about killed our dog after tripping over him. Then, I remembered Hughie, our beagle, actually dead three weeks later. He’d eaten something with some sort of toxin in it and laid under the porch for almost two hours trying to howl it out of himself. I was at summer camp that summer.
I stopped laughing, coughed and stood up.
“Beer run?” Chris asked.
“I better not,” I replied, and walked toward the bathroom. “Laura’s already going to be putting a pillow over my head while I’m sleeping.”
“Alright. Do you want me to cook breakfast in the morning?” He asked from the living room.
“Sure,” I said, watching a spider inch itself down from the ceiling on a string of webbing too thin for the human eye to pick up. I stood there for a moment, the beer making me sway a little. Where was its web?
I turned off the light.
[ “…I took my first date to The Garden Wall, a local venue that she suggested. We were shoulder to shoulder to see a band I’d never heard of. She asked me if I remembered them from high school. I said no. She asked if I wanted a beer, had to repeat herself over the crowd. Sure, I said. While she was gone, I watched the lead singer scream with his eyes closed, dancing with the microphone stand, silhouetted by the stage lights; together, they warmed the crowd. When she didn’t come back, I walked to the bar.
“Have you seen a girl about 5’9” with red hair in a white skirt?” I asked.
“This is an Irish band, dude. I’ve seen about thirty girls with the same description you just gave me.”
I didn’t know what to say, but then, I saw her toward the back, talking to what looked like a bouncer. I pointed her out to the bartender, but he just nodded and moved on to somebody else.
“Hey, you were gone awhile,” I said. “I was getting worried.”
“Hey! This is Eric. He knows the band.”
I put my hand out but he didn’t shake it. I lowered it awkwardly as Sarah just danced next to the two of us, not making conversation, occasionally singing along. “This is a great song,” she said.
Eric was about 6’7” with short red hair and biceps that could be mistaken for hips. He didn’t dance but just rocked his head, slowly and with an awkward amount of anger in his eyes. Sarah smelled like vodka. He must’ve bought her a shot at the bar. By the way she danced; I wondered if it was a double.
“Do you want to back toward the front?!” I asked over the band.
“Sure,” she said, and followed me back to our earlier spot.
When there was a break between songs, I saw that Eric had moved closer to us. I asked Sarah if she knew him.
“No, but he bought me a drink.”
“Don’t worry about it,” she said. A new song started.
She puked in the alley across the street when the show was over. I held her hair back and blocked her from the people walking out. She was crying.
“I’m sorry,” she said, face turning flush.
“Don’t worry about it. It’s fine.”
She was nearly sleeping when we reached the car. I opened the passenger door, and slipped her inside. I walked around the car to be hit in the jaw and knocked to the ground. I saw Eric standing above me, and I brought my hand up to my jaw. He kicked me in the ribs and the pain flooded my torso, raced to my head, and I leapt to my feet. Eric swung again, I ducked, his fist crashed into the back window of my car. Sarah got out, starting to scream hysterically. I rushed to the passenger side, making sure I was between her and Eric the whole time.
“What’s your problem?” I asked, and quickly reached under the passenger seat for my crowbar. Before I could prepare for a good swing, he grabbed my arm and twisted, sending the crossbar into the parking lot. Another punch to the jaw and I was on the ground again. Everything was getting hazy. A guy ran over, attempted to tackle Eric to the ground, but just leaned him up against my car. I reached the crowbar, stood up, and started swinging. The first hit landed on Eric’s shoulder, the second to the top of my car, and the third to the left side of his knee. He went down on one knee. I swung again, striking the left side of his face. Blood flew onto the passenger window. Sarah kept on screaming and I kept swinging the crowbar. I flattened his nose, broke his jaw, knocked him out, and spilled the most blood I had ever seen before. An officer pulled me off of him. Sarah’s crying turned to a whimper, her mascara running, sitting on the back of the patrol car.
What a first date…” ]
Chris didn’t make breakfast in the morning. He was still surrounded by covers on the couch, snoring, drooling. Laura got up with me though, made over-easy eggs and toast. My eyes were glued to a sketch I was making for a hotel plan. Laura sipped at a cup of tea. There wasn’t a word spoken until I reached my last bite of toast. Chris had walked into the kitchen and back out toward us with a cup of coffee in his hand.
“This coffee’s shit, Jack,” he said.
“I didn’t make it; Laura did.”
Chris stalled, “Did I say shit? Excuse me, I must’ve meant delicious.”
“Mhm,” Laura nodded, another sip of tea. “I’ve better get going to class.”
She kissed me on the forehead as I added to the sketch. “Have a good day, babe.”
Chris brought out two pieces of notebook paper from the pocket of his flannel pajama pants, stole a pen from the middle of the table.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“Part of my next book.”
“What’s it about?” I forced the last drink of coffee down.
Chris looked up. “Mom.”
[ “…I remembered that we couldn’t afford much that summer, even walked to school a few times. My dad woke up next to her one morning, wondering why he didn’t smell coffee.
He slid his jeans on, “Are you getting up, Audrey?”
She didn’t answer, and he realized she wasn’t breathing, cold to his touch. He fell back down to the bed, began to cry, his head in his hands. My brother and I walked in, “Where’s mom? Hughie found a dead robin.”
Both Miller’s and Polermo’s cemeteries wanted over a thousand for a grave plot. We’d just bought school clothes. McLane’s wanted almost two thousand for their cheapest casket. The health and car insurance just went out that morning. Harper said he could do a gravestone, but it wouldn’t be a cheap matter of business. He and Uncle Gordon just paid for chicken meal to help with fertilization. Dad didn’t get much sleep in those few weeks after mom died.
When it came time for dad to make a decision, we came home to find him digging a hole in the loose soil of our backyard. He cried the whole time, and Hughie licked at the worms in the soil. He had mom wrapped in her mother’s tablecloth, which we never used. My brother and I didn’t know what to think, but we changed into old clothes. I remember crying with my dad, but my brother was stoic, helped lower mom in and everything. None of us said much to each other. Hughie howled as we shoveled dirt on her. Dad stopped occasionally, prayed and wiped his forehead. When I stopped shoveling, my father never told me to keep going. He didn’t want to do this either, but it had to be done. We couldn’t afford anything else.
The soil of her grave hadn’t even dried fully before Hughie died. Dad started drinking a lot more. We got jobs to get out of the house, but we always had to come back at the end of the day. I always put flowers on her grave, picked from the neighbor’s garden. I tried to replant them but they wouldn’t catch. My brother had some money saved up by his thirteenth birthday. When we said we wanted to take a bus to Aunt Haley’s place, he gave us another ten dollars.
On the bus ride, my brother snuck shots from my father’s flask and I thought of that night we buried my mother. We couldn’t drag my father away from her side.
He slept there. In the cold. In the dirt. Under your boot soles… ]