Take It Like A Man

 

My older brother Mike was the first one of our gang to dare jump off the rock face that overhung the old quarry pond behind our housing development. He pretended he wasn't nervous beforehand, but I noticed he ducked behind a bush to take a leak before tiptoeing to the edge of the cliff.

The cold, clear water waited for him twenty feet below, about the roof height of the two-story suburban house we'd moved into a month before. Our companions were as new to us as the house. Mike was still pressing to earn their respect. Since the move, I clung to his side even more than I had in the old neighborhood.

Before he jumped, Mike turned to me and winked. He'd never winked at me before, and I didn't know what to make of it.

He took three deep breaths, gripped his nose between his thumb and forefinger, and launched a standing broad jump into the air. His legs bicycled all the way down, as though he were trying to find his footing on an icy sidewalk.

We raced to the edge in time to see him strike the water. He made a clean entry, a column of water neatly marking the point. We could follow his body a few feet into the clear quarry water, until he disappeared in a mud bloom that grew like the mushroom cloud.

We waited for my brother to surface, prepared to whoop for him. He didn't.

Although I was only eight, it only took me a few seconds to realize something was wrong. The older boys grabbed a couple of the sticks laying nearby that we used for our Robin Hood staff fights, and raced for the round-about path that led through a split in the rock to the water's edge. I followed, dodging from grassy spot to clear rock to avoid the gravel that hurt my bare feet. Even with my brother trapped underwater, I couldn't handle gravel.

An hour later, the firemen finally pulled Mike out of the quicksand-like muck in which he'd impaled himself. The thick black mud still clung to his legs and trunk even after he was trawled to shore, so heavily clumped he appeared to no longer have any toes.

The other boys had nothing to say, other than to blame the new kids, meaning my brother and me, for coercing them into mischief. Their parents were more than happy to embrace the idea. There was an aura around our house anyway, that shouted 'here be factory people, coal miners, dirty-fingernail types foisting themselves on their betters'.

"You're going to college," my mother announced on the way to the funeral home. She held her Kool to the vent window so that the smoke wouldn't infuse the wool collar of her suit jacket.

My father kept his eyes on the road, his Camel notched in the corner of his mouth. Every time he made his habitual small chewing motion with his lips, ashes fell onto the lap of his dark brown suit.

"What's college?" I asked, pressing the top of my head against the back of the car seat, flattening the dimples on the top of my snappy little fedora.

"Where smart people go to school," they replied.

I froze. My mother had spoken, but I'd heard two voices, speaking in unison. The second voice was Mike's, repeating what Mom said but half a beat behind, as close as an echo in a small room.

"What?" I said, leaning back against the plastic-covered seat.

"Smart people go to college," the two of them said, "so they can get good jobs and make a lot of money." Although Mom and Mike said the same words, his sounded bitter.

"Money is good," my father and brother said together. I stared at my mother to see how she would react to Mike's voice, but she didn't seem to hear it. "Your brother had what it takes to get rich."

I was used to the implication of contempt in his words. "Do we have a lot of money?" I said. Not that I understood about money, but I wanted to hear more of the voice, to gauge just how nuts I was.

"For about an hour every payday. Until your mother gets her hands on it."

Mom stared out the window.

The funeral director, in a pin-striped, double-breasted suit and starched white shirt, greeted us in the parking lot of the funeral home. He pointed our Galaxy 500 to the other end of the curved drive, next to the hearse.

Before the man opened the front door for my mother, my father turned to me and said, "You behave yourself, or else. You understand?"

I nodded, putting aside any thought of asking him or Mom about Mike's voice. I knew what else. I was even more afraid of his belt that of Mike's ghost, a timidity that drove him crazy.

The director muttered condolences to my parents. Mike kept quiet as the man escorted us inside to the reception room. My first impression was Mike must have been delighted to spend a night in such a mansion. He had always envied others their possessions. Many of our nicest toys were ones he'd stolen from other kid's backyards.

The Director waited an extra ten minutes for stragglers before starting the service, while we cooled our heels in the fancy reception room with too little furniture.

Finally, the Director came to escort us to our seats in the chapel. Before we entered, my mother adjusted her hat and veil so I could no longer see her eyes. Mom held Dad's arm and Dad led me by the hand. I had to drop behind him to fit up the aisle. When we entered the room and saw row after row of filled chairs, my mother whispered, "Who are all these people?"

"Union brothers," Dad said.

I wasn't surprised. I'd seen how other men gathered to him, drawn, Mike once explained to me, like a pride to the alpha lion. Dad had been shop steward since the first month he walked into the factory, and hadn't bought a beer for himself for years.

When we reached the front, I could see the casket for the first time. Mike was my first dead body and my first funeral. I couldn't see him -- I was too short and close. I believed, however, I could still smell the swamp gas that accompanied him when they pulled him out of the pond. I felt sick to my stomach.

Our pastor appeared through a side door, wearing a black suit with a white vestment. I was terrified that Mike's voice would accompany the Pastor's, but my brother remained silent through his brief service.

Afterwards, Mom retired to the restroom to freshen up. I begged to accompany her. On the way, she and Mike asked, "How's my Timmy? Is this too tragic for you?"

I closed my eyes, comforted to feel only the gentle grasp of my mother's hand, not one of Mike titty-twister pinches. Although I missed my brother, I wouldn't miss his occasional brotherly torments.

She mistook my lack of response, stopped, knelt and placed her hands on my upper arms. "This isn't fair to you, I know. But it will all be over soon. We'll be back home before you know it. OK, champ?" The compassion in her voice was undercut by Mike's brooding tone.

At the graveyard, my father and Mike told me to wait in the hearse while the pallbearers carried the body to the grave. The pastor spoke a few words as Mike was lowered into the ground.

I tried to hide in my room the rest of the day, far from Mike's voice. I made the mistake of locking the door. When my father tried to enter to order me to the dinner table and found he couldn't, he pounded on the wood so hard I thought his fist might come right through the wood. Only the circumstances of the day kept me from getting a licking.

Both he and my mother seemed doggedly determined to hold me to the schedule long dictated by his work — dinner at 5:30 p.m., news at 6 p.m., in bed by 9 p.m.

I could barely choke down a bite at dinner. Mike spoke with every comment during our dinner, the usual Thursday night fare of Swedish steak, mashed potatoes, green beans, Parker House rolls. I took the smallest portions I thought I could get away with, and mostly just pushed them around the plate.

"I'm going to work tomorrow," my dad and Mike said between bites. He always ate with his fork held upside down and his knife clasped in his right hand like a weapon. Mike had picked up that mannerism too.

"Don't they give you three days for the death of a family member?" The words sounded caring in my Mother's voice, but Mike's voice insinuated a callousness that turned the beans to lead plugs in my mouth.

"Yeah, three days for them to teach some jig how to do my job," he replied. "I'm telling you, they're just waiting for the chance to get rid of us all."

I knew by 'us,' he meant all us white, second-generation Hunkies and Polacks.

"I wish you wouldn't talk like that around…," Mom and Mike said, and bobbed her head toward me.

"You let me worry about what to say around my son. You see how the world screws you if you let your guard down -- right?" He pointed the upside-down fork at me. "Mike found out how much the world cares." His words were bitter, but Mike's even more so.

After dinner, I immediately returned to our room, now my room, shut the door, and picked up a copy of "Boy's Life" that Mike kept on his nightstand. I sat on his bed, next to the Lone Ranger lamp with the plastic shade that revolved to animate the figures, and tried to read the lead story-- "Firejumpers of the Rockies."

That evening, I ached for my television, the Thursday night lineup, but I couldn't bring myself to go downstairs and share the living room with Mike. I crept down the first few stairs to the landing around the corner from the living room, where I could hear the broadcast. I sat there on the cool wood floor through "I Love Lucy," "December Bride," and "The Real McCoys." From time to time, one of my parents and Mike would make a comment about the show.

At 9 p.m., I heard my Mother start upstairs to make sure I was ready for bed. I dodged into the bathroom and began drawing a bath in our high-sided, freestanding tub. Impulsively, I pulled my bottle of Roy Roger's Bubble Bath, a gift from our grandmother, from the medicine chest and poured a quarter of the bottle into the water.

"Good Lord," Mom and Mike said when she walked it to get clean sheets and a pillowcase from the linen drawer, "don't let the suds overflow. I just cleaned the floor."

She went to my room to change the sheets and I lowered myself into the tub until only my eyes and nose protruded from the suds. The water filled my ears and I could hear nothing but water sounds.

Consequently, I didn't hear my mother return to the bathroom until she touched the top of my head. I sat up abruptly, sloshing some water over the back of the tub.

"I told you to be careful," they said, peeved. "Sit up straight; I want wash your hair. I think you have some dandruff."

I leaned back, letting my head loll on the back rim of the tub, furtively waving bubbles over my midriff to conceal my privates.

She uncapped a bottle of vile-smelling coal-oil shampoo that my father used for his dandruff, poured some in her hand, and slapped it on my head. She grabbed a couple of handfuls of water, and began to knead my scalp with her fingernails.

"Your father and I expect you to be on your best behavior now," she and Mike said. "You're all we have. You'll miss your brother, won't you?"

I nodded but said nothing. Having Mike's voice behind me, where I couldn't see, spooked me. I concentrated on holding in the pee that had announced itself as soon as I heard the voice again.

"And be extra nice to your father," she said. "He misses Mike so much." Her hands bore down even harder, until I said, "Ouch!"

"Don't be such a baby," she said, moving to the side of my head. Her fingers dug into my skin until I thought I could hear them scraping skull. "Be nice to your father."

The last sentence was in Mike's voice only, and filled with sarcasm. At the same time I heard it, her index fingernail broke through the skin behind my ear. I jerked my head away and, to my shame, peed in the tub under the bubbles.

When I moved, Mom wiped the blood from her hand and said, "Oh, my. How did that happen? I'm so sorry." She took my bath towel from the rack and wrapped it around my head, staunching the bleeding.

She helped me to my feet and dried me with her towel. The bubble bath masked the urine smell, to my relief.

As Mom tucked me in bed later, she leaned over, kissed my forehead, and she and Mike said, "Sleep tight. Don't worry, everything will be OK. Don't believe it, Squirt."

I waited until I heard her downstairs in the kitchen before I allowed myself to cry.

#

Thunk. Bounce. Slap. Thunk. Bounce. Slap.

The sound of a tennis ball bouncing against the wall above Mike's study desk woke me in the middle of the night. I remained perfectly still, lying on my side facing away from Mike's bed. I waited for my father to come charging in, belt in hand, the usual price for waking him on those nights when he wasn't beered into unconsciousness.

The ball continued its cycle, though. I finally screwed up my courage and rolled over, as slowly as Sputnik crossing the night sky.

The springs on my bed squeaked like a nest of chicks, and my heart fluttered every time it made a sound. The ball sounds continued unabated, though.

When I had turned, I pulled the covers from my face enough to see Mike's bed.

There, his arm illuminated by moonlight as it threw and caught the rebound, lay my dad. He wore his pajamas, no socks or slippers.

He must have seen my covers move. "Hey, Squirt," he said, in Mike's voice, no trace of my Dad's. "Where's my glove?"

He threw the ball again. Asked me about the glove again. Over and over, as though it were a mantra, not a real question.

Finally, he shut up. With his off hand, he reached in his pocket, fished out a smoke, and placed it between his lips. "Shit," he said, in his own voice, no hint of Mike's, when his lighter refused to spark.

I shifted position to see better. My bedsprings squawked. My father glanced my way, then caught the rebound, turned and whipped the ball at me as hard as he could. I didn't even have time to blink before it hit me in the left eye.

Pain popped in my head like a firecracker. I threw one hand over my eye, and bit on my other wrist to keep from screaming. The last time I'd screamed in the night, from a night fright, he'd beaten me black and blue.

I was vaguely aware, through the haze of my pain, of him leaning over me. "You just stood there and watched him die?" he said, picked up the ball, put it in his pocket, and shuffled off toward his bedroom.

The dawn came slowly, and I waited through each moment as though it were a lifetime. Gradually, the forms in my room took shape; our dressers, mirror, matching desks and chairs, Mike's Cleveland Indian's poster, Mike's baseball bats and glove, Mike's basketball, Mike's Hot Wheels collection, the Superman drapes mom had made for him when he was my age. Everything was out of focus; I saw a second, ghost image through my injured eye.

When I got up to pee, I checked my face in the mirror. The white of my left eye was uniformly blood red, and the skin around the socket was beginning to blacken.

I stayed in bed until my mother yelled for the third time, announcing breakfast. Even in summer, we weren't allowed to sleep too late -- she didn't consider it was healthy.

 I kept my damaged eye turned away from her and held it closed as I entered the kitchen.

"Why don't you wear those nice red shorts your grandmother made for you?" she said when she saw me. She stood at the stove, frying eggs and sausage. Mike still spoke with her.

"They fit funny," I said, taking my place at the kitchen table. My father's breakfast dishes were still on the table, complete with the dredge marks of his toast through the yolk, and his empty coffee cup.

She scooped the eggs and sausage onto a plate as the toast popped up, buttered the toast and brought the plate to the table. Only then did she see my eye.

"What did you do to yourself?" she said, concerned. Mike's voice echoed her concern. Grabbing my chin, she pulled my face to her and pried my eye wide with her thumb and forefinger. "Does it hurt?"

"No, ma'm." Dad always promised he would double the pain if I complained.

As she stared into my injured eye, I saw two hands, two wall clocks behind her, two kitchen windows, two of the silver maples in the lawn outside. But only one mother; her echo image was the face of my brother, so faint I could see every detail of the kitchen behind him as crisply as if he were not even there.

I jerked back, threw my hand back over my injured eye and said "I'm OK. Please don't."

She stepped back, took off her apron, pulled a cigarette out of her dress pocket and lit it, then rubbed the lighter between her fingers for a couple of moments before saying, "I have to go to work today. You think you'll be OK by yourself?"

I nodded vigorously. The plan that summer had been for Mike to watch me while Mom went to work. I was surprised and delighted that they would leave me on my own. "I'll be fine. Really."

"Clara next door will fix you some lunch. You go to her if you need anything. Stay in the house and play quietly. I'll be home around 4 p.m. We'll figure out something better, but not today. Damn it, Mike," she said under her breath.

I watched her walk down the sidewalk, lunchbox in her hand. The double of her image as she left was her own; Mike did not leave with her.

As soon as Mom was gone, I grabbed one of dad's bandanas from his dresser drawer, rolled it and looped it over my head so that my bad eye was covered. The double vision disappeared.

This done, I went into the dining room, closed the wooden door to the kitchen and the double sliding, glass-paneled doors leading to the living room, and isolated myself in the only room that Mike had not bothered to mark as his own. The only time he ever came into this room, while I was alive, was to torment me as I practiced my piano.

I began to practice my scales. Gradually, the sound of the notes, the smell of line-dried linen in the sideboard and the sun through the white sheers washing the dark oak flooring crowded my terror to the side; not gone, but no longer overwhelming.

In its place came a flood of conflicting memories of my brother. Christmas mornings contrasted with flinch fights. Sharing our excitement on the way to summer camp. Being pinned under him as he knuckled my head. Watching him toss my trunks over the fence as I stood in the city pool in front of all the kids I went to school with. Him leaning precipitously far into the storm sewer to retrieve my toy Corvette. The open-hand slaps as Dad tried to teach him to box, disgust in his voice every time Mike sniffled. "Come on, pussy -- be a man. Goddamn it."

I played until my fingers ached and the piano stool had pressed a groove into my thighs. As soon as I stopped, I became aware of house sounds I rarely paid attention to. Air whispered through the pipes of the converted coal furnace. Shingles popped as the roof heated in the late morning sun. I could hear bars of steel dropped into their racks at the steel mill a few blocks away.

I went next door for lunch early, and watched a couple of soap operas with our neighbor Clara, an old widow with a thick Polish accent. She never talked much, one reason I like her. After lunch, I helped her trim her walk and hill potatoes, clinging close to her apron strings through the afternoon. I kept my back to our house after I spotted Mike in one of the upstairs windows waving at me.

Dad arrived home at 3:00 p.m., as usual. He yelled at me as he walked up the drive, "Get your ass over here." He didn't acknowledge Clara.

"Get me a beer and the paper," he said when I walked in, and headed directly to his recliner in the living room. I brought him a cold Black Label and the Times-Journal, but he was already asleep, a Camel burning in the ashtray stand at his side.

Later that evening I was playing gas station in my room when Mom popped in, her arms full of sheets and bedspread.

She began to change my bed, putting on the G.I. Joe sheets that had been Mike's favorite.

"Those are Mike's," I said, scootching back against the wall.

Mom bit her lip. "Then maybe they'll help you dream about him. You don't want to forget your brother. Besides, these are the sheets your father bought him, special, as a reward, so you show some appreciation." Without a bandana, I could both hear and see Mike, the edge of his image now further removed from hers, as though two soap bubbles destined to separate.

I drove my Tonka cement mixer under the bed and followed it.

Mom must have accidentally tripped the door lock when she left, because half an hour later, when my Dad tried to come in, it was locked again. I scrambled to unlock it, but in his drunken state I wasn't fast enough. I opened the door and he immediately shoved me back. I sprawled across the bed and hit my wrist on the bedpost.

"You figure with your brother dead you can lock the door on me, you little shit?" he said softly, turned, and went down the stairs.

He returned in a couple of minutes with a screwdriver and hammer. He didn't look at me as he hammered out the hinge pins on the door. When the last one popped out, he grabbed the door and half-carried, half-dragged it toward the attic.

"Nobody locks his fucking door on me," he said as he left. "You little pussy." A moment later, I heard the clinking of bottles in the fridge downstairs.

I stayed upstairs the rest of the evening, too frightened to venture into the drinking zone. Most often, when Dad got this way, Mom matched him drink for drink. Mike once told me it was in self-defense, but I didn't understand what he meant.

She looked in on me after I got into bed. She didn't seem to notice the lack of a door. "You OK by yourself today?" she and Mike asked.

I nodded.

"You should miss your brother more," she said, taking a seat on the foot of my bed. "It wasn't easy for him, being the oldest son, not in this family." She and Mike stared at his empty bed. "Nobody's life is a bed of roses, Timmy. Don't expect too much. I think that was your brother's problem." She leaned over to kiss my forehead good night, I could smell the gin.

I laid awake a long time, unnerved by the lack of a door to muffle the sound and dim the light. Like clockwork, I could hear Dad walk to the fridge, then the bathroom, then back to his recliner. I distinctly heard two sets of feet each time.

I woke to a hand over my mouth. I thrashed, reaching for the bedpost to pull myself away, until a fist came through the shaft of moonlight and struck me in the side of the head.

I had no idea how much time had passed when I finally came to. Through a fog, I began to piece together the cold wetness of the ground I lay upon, the moist late-night summer air, crickets and the smell of soil. For a moment I was blind; then, when I made out the Big Dipper in my good eye, I realized I was outside in moonless night.

My father and Mike shook my shoulder again. I turned my head to see his chin, his hand, a beer bottle. He squatted at my side, his other hand tight on my shoulder.

"You awake?" he and Mike said. Mike sounded different. My first thought was scared, but I realized that was me; I was terrified, unable to move of my own volition.

Dad stood up, tossed the empty aside, reached down and lifted me to my feet as easily as I lifted one of my G.I. Joes. "You little Mama's boy," he said, "you and your fucking piano lessons. What did you do to my son?" He slapped me hard across the jaw, grabbing my pajamas with his other hand to keep me from falling. When my head spun around, I recognized where we were. On the rock overhang where Mike had died.

He slapped me again. "What did you do to your brother? He was tough. He was going to be a man. And what am I left with? Some little pansy. I bet that bitch of mine was banging some queer on the side." Dad was barely coherent, and the voice was his alone. My eyes had adjusted for the light, and I could faintly see Mike's ghost, now only attached to my father by the faintest thread. His mouth appeared to be trying to shape different words.

Dad pushed me in the chest until my back rested against the fender of our Chevy. "Pull down you pants!" he whispered.

I stood motionless.

"I said, pull down your pants!" He unbuckled his belt, pulled it free and doubled it.

I took down my pants, turned and leaned onto fender to receive the whipping, already crying uncontrollably.

I knew things were different when I saw the belt out of the corner of my eye as it reached the peak of its arc, as high as my father could reach, then heard a snap as he began its downward swing. When the leather hit my ass, it felt like chunks of burning coal searing into my flesh. The force of the blow knocking me onto the fender. I screamed, aware even as I did so that I was buying more punishment.

He grabbed a fistful of my hair and pulled my head back as my feet slid to the ground. I was on fire, his knee in the small of my back holding me upright against the Chevy. I felt as though I had been split open, like the gut of the hog I had once seen my uncle butcher. "You keep your mouth shut," he said, his voice thick with drunken derision. "Take it like a man."

"You keep your own mouth shut," another voice replied. Another voice from the same mouth. The press of his body moved away and I slid to the ground.

Terrified, I peered under my arm. Through my tears, I could see Dad and Mike's ghost now face to face on the rock, no longer attached. Dad was wavering, leaned back as Mike stood on tiptoes to bring his face nose to nose with our father.

"You want him to act like a man?" I heard Mike say. "You think you know what a man is?"

Dad took a step forward and threw a punch at Mike. It passed through him as though he were campfire smoke. Mike took a step forward. "A man isn't afraid to love his children. You want to know something about your special boy?" He pushed Dad in the chest, and Dad stepped back a step.

Mike half-smiled, half-sneered. "Your special boy? You want to know something about your special boy?" His voice was so loud it gave me hope someone might hear it and call the cops.

Mike pushed Dad again. "When I was down there in the mud. My last thought was how glad I was that I'd never again do anything to make you proud."

Dad's arms dropped to his side as he tried to swallow Mike's words. They stood toe to toe for a moment.

Suddenly, Mike lunged forward and wrapped his arms tightly around Dad. The hug must have thrown Dad off balance, because he staggered another step back. They lurched back, then forward, like two drunks at a barn dance, neither able to gain advantage, until they stood on the edge of the cliff. Although terrified, I couldn't stop myself from following. Then a stone broke free under my Dad's foot, and both of them began to lean toward the water. Mike looked at me, and I heard him say, as if from far away, "Help." He held out his hand toward me.

Shaking so hard I could hardly see, I picked up one of our play staffs that lay at my feet, braced one end in my stomach, and extended the other toward him.

He smiled and winked at me. Then he placed his palm against the end of the staff. But he didn't pull. He shoved.

My father struggled to find his footing, but his shoe slipped on the belt lying on the ground. His arms waving impotently in the air, he and Mike tumbled over the edge and out of sight.

I ran to the edge, ignoring the pain of the rocks on my feet, just in time to see them enter the water. The splash they made was surprisingly small. Then, nothing.

I sat there and watched the surface of the pond for an hour, my whole body limp with release. The water remained as smooth as a baby's belly.

I never told anyone the details about that night. They wrote it off as a suicide.

 

I never heard my brother's voice again.

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