My Brother, Leaving
Alan Rossi


Robert and a friend of his are down from Raleigh and Robert’s throwing the Frisbee in my backyard, a fenced-in yard with looming trees, and his friend, Barry, is gone, I don’t know where. On the patio table sits a tinfoil package, opened, of greenish-gold grainy hashish he’s brought, while on the ground lies a glass bong on a towel, near where Gena’s lounging and watching us. She’s got thickish dark hair, a cowgirl slink going on, jeans and boots and plaid shirt tight across her chest and while I’m all hands for her at this point she’s already created some future for us I can’t see, which near scares all sex out of me. Robert’s here slinging forehands at me because it’s been too long, because we’re going to visit Carol (our mother) in the hospital and because there’s been some meanness from Gena’s ex-boyfriend, who goes by Thad. Thaddeus for long. Robert got himself righteous and brotherly when he heard about Thad. Don’t do a thing, he told me. I’ll handle it.

I’m doing my thumb-catch-and-throw back at Robert, and it feels good, light and easy, a toss and flick. I’d been feeling weighted, a little extra hate and fear, things getting too big too fast with Gena and too slow and stupid at the bank we’re both tellers at and a little fearful with Carol’s heart needing repair. So I’m happy Robert’s here even if he disgusts me some. He’s got a thick head of hair and a jesus-beard and has grown overweight, heavy in shoulders and gut.

We’re throwing and he tells me last week he brought a homeless man to the hospital, this homeless guy with a scar stitched and stapled down his sternum like a zipper on flesh, that he found this homeless man near the cart return of an IGA, sleeping, passed out really, near death, with a zippered-up chest, and I don’t know what to say and probably because of this Gena says, Last week we found Paul’s right-front tire slashed.

I’m Paul.

That was her ex-boyfriend, I say.

The guy’s unstable, Gena says. We don’t know what to do.

I know what to do, Robert says. You have to confront him, but peacefully. No violence.

That’s a very changed position, I say.

I’m not like I was, Robert says. No one deserves to be hurt.

Yeah, but he’s a cockmonger, Gena says. I feel bad for you. You have no idea how much of a cockmonger he is.

Robert’s the kind of person who has been in jail several times, sold a fair amount of mild hallucinogens, beaten up people, lived out west, broken his leg, broken someone else’s leg, hiked mountains, rafted rivers, ran away from our home when we were kids nearly a dozen times, made it to Tennessee from Ohio once, and has now calmed down with a gypsy-girl ten years younger than him, and also, now, somehow, is getting his law degree. I have a scar on my right shoulder blade from where he stuck me with a rusty fork when we were kids. Carol brought me to the hospital to get a tetanus shot.

Robert tosses the Frisbee back at me, jogging up from the back of the yard. He pats his belly. Visiting hours are over soon, he says. Let’s go. Where’s Barry?

I’d forgotten about Barry and shake my head.

We’re packing up the bong and the hash and Gena’s getting her hair into a ponytail and asking me if she should wear her glasses. I don’t want to go see your mother and appear stoned, she says.

You’re fine, I say. I’m annoyed or violently sad or simply crazed that I even have someone who needs such reassurance.

Just tell me if I look high or not, she says. Do the glasses cover it up?

They cover it up, if that’s what you want, I say. We’re too old to look that way.

Thanks, she says.

Robert gives me a look, not disapproving, but nothing I can comprehend. At the back of the fence, Barry comes through the gated door.

Hey, he calls, running up. You got to get out front.

Barry has a shaved head and wears jeans and boots and a chain-wallet and shirt that reads, I’m Broken. I’m afraid of him.

Some asshole’s out there fucking up your car, Barry says.

We all run to the side fence to see a man in khaki shorts and no shirt and an army buzzcut going at my Taurus with a baseball bat and a bucket of balls. This is Thad, Thaddeus. He’s tossing a baseball up in the air, then smacking it at the side of my Taurus. The gate latch is caught.

That’s not necessary Thad, I call, finagling the gate. I’m trying to sound to Robert, like I’ve got myself in control.

Thad doesn’t say anything, just tosses another ball up and smacks it into the back of the Taurus. The ball makes a horrid whump against the paneling of my car. Thad grabs another ball and shatters a window, the glass tinkling on the pavement.

Not the glass, I yell. Behind me Robert is serenely watching. It makes me a little sick that the first day he visits he so clearly gets to see into my life.

Thad, Gena yells. She turns back to Robert. You see?

Gena, it’s okay, I say. I got this.

Oh, it looks like you do, she says.

I didn’t mean to hit the window, Thad yells, dropping the bat. The window was an accident. I’m not dropping the bat because of you though, Gena. Just so you know. It’s because of the glass.

We break through the gate. When Thad sees this he runs to his car, hops in, and is gone. We chase up the street and I feel myself grinning because there has to have been some precedence in a television show. When I turn back, Robert is smoking a cigarette by my car. He’s inspecting the pocked side-panels, the fist-sized dents, sticking a thumb in one and pushing on the metal.

Doing batting practice on the thing, Robert says.

And not bunting, Barry says.

We all sort of stand back from the car, judging it. Robert’s chewing some grass which he spits it out, which is kind of strange since he’s also smoking.

I’m so sorry, Gena says, grabbing Robert’s arm to her. You must think your brother has a crazy girl, right?

I’m wishing she wouldn’t talk right now, I’m wishing I could make her sleep by touching her shoulder.

It’s okay, Robert says. Not very creative revenge. How old are we here? I thought I was an adult. Are we adults here?

Not me, I say.

Definitely not you, Gena says, smiling, a joke, but still.

I’ve always thought of myself as a man who has adopted the seriousness of a child at play, Barry says. That’s Nietzsche.

Exactly, Robert says. We’ll have to go talk to this child and explain this isn’t what adults do.

That doesn’t make sense, I say. And you’re not doing any talking for me.

Then what the fuck am I here for? Robert says. You’re kidding, right?

He is, Gena says. Definitely kidding.

*
We get into my dented-Taurus, Barry sitting in the back with me, his I’m Broken t-shirt and hardness and shaved head under a seatbelt now, restrained. We head toward visiting hours.

So you’re Robert’s brother? Barry says from the backseat. He’s got this enormous mole on his shaved bald head, right above his left ear. He claps both of Robert’s shoulders while Robert’s driving then kind of pulls him to the seat, pushing hard on both his shoulders, and I want to tell him to stop, but I know he won’t. I never would’ve guessed that shit, he says.

I’m driving here, Robert says.

Robert once rigged my bike so that the brakes didn’t work, I say. And when I couldn’t stop I hit a curb and flipped the handlebars and broke both my arms. That was the summer you called me robot-faggot. Because of the casts. Then he disappeared for a week and a half and Carol and I had to drive everywhere in hill country to find him because he left a kind of sick, smudged map.

That is true, Robert says. I don’t even remember what I was getting back at you for.

You did that? Barry says. I once pissed in a car. My dad’s.

I can assure you it was not something worth two broken arms and the name robot-faggot.

Carol made me pay for it, Robert says.

Carol liked to tell me that because I was younger and smaller and always would be, I had to be smarter in spirit and older in soul than my brother, I had to beat him to things, be quicker, always, because I wasn’t mean enough and life was mean so I had to train myself.

Gena asks what Carol did to Robert for breaking my arms and calling me robot-faggot and making us look for him in the hill country. She keeps asking until Robert says: She made me fuck a herd of goats, okay. It’s a painful memory.

He tried to go to California after that, I say. What I don’t say is that each time he left he let me in on the leaving; he let me know he was going and I can’t remember how often he made me miss him.

We’re passing through the industrial side of town, all these empty warehouses and gas plants, columns of sunlight lain upon the broken buildings making them seem a little glorious.

On the highway, the screaming through the broken window beautifully drowns out everyone’s voice and I can look out the window without care or concern while Robert’s driving, rolling in his lap a handmade cigarette, which he does with two fingers, pointer and thumb. Then he seals off the ends and gives the cigarette a lick and when he lights it, it smells like summer in the car, the fresh tobacco almost sweet. Robert made me do almost all my firsts, cigarette’s being one.

Hey, Gena says. Hey. Look.

She points out the window: there are magnolia trees lined in a row and beyond the city buildings. An evening summer fog of sky hangs above the buildings and treeline wavering. I don’t know what it is she sees.

*

The hospital takes all of us out of ourselves, which is what hospitals are for. Inside, my mother’s white and dark room is cool and arid; out the window, the sky is dark and the city blinks on the horizon, and there are no trees, only paved parking lot and curving highway. A plane ticks by in the sky, a red wink. The other bed in her room is empty, waiting.

Carol’s asleep so we just sit a few minutes. She had surgery today, is what the nurses say, and they show Robert and I the bandage below her left clavicle. The nurse pulls her gown up again over her shoulder. Her shoulder seems bony, thin. Her face is pulled tight in the frown of sleep, her near-lipless mouth taut and stern. They put wires in her heart, they fixed a hole. When she wakes, I don’t know what to do with myself.

Hello boys, she says. And who’re your friends and what’re they doing in my room at this hour?

This is Gena, I say.

If you and your new girlfriend came more often you’d know that I’m sleeping by now.

I live fifteen hours from here, Robert says.

I’m talking to Paul, she says.

The machine that keeps Carol’s heart working, that keeps the muscle beating blood through her, it sends electrical shocks to make sure the muscle remembers to do its beat and I wonder what it’d feel like to get one of those shocks myself, to have to need a machine to remind me to do something as natural as breathing.

Gena, Carol says. You look very nice. Robert you look overweight. Paul your apparent health makes it seem like your masking some frailties. And this other person in the back, you seem to be genuine.

This is her way of joking.

I try to ma’am, Barry says.

Ma’am will do fine, Carol says. Do you kids have any money?
This is our family joke.

*

Robert and Barry stay in town another couple nights, Robert sleeping on my sofa and Barry sleeping on the floor with a pile of blankets. Gena comes over one night. We make love quietly, as though I’m in Carol’s house, as though we’re sixteen again. Her face when I’m above her is one of pained love, maybe even confusion. Her face is tan and soft and I wonder when it is she’ll begin to age, when wrinkles will begin to map her face, and whether she’ll be still a cowgirl then. Afterward, she sleeps fast, holding my arm. I stay up listening to the bugs hiss and sing out the window. I go to the kitchen and pour a glass of water from the Brita, that cold-clean taste of refrigerated water. I step over Barry without waking him. Robert sleeps like a vampire on the sofa, on his back, arms across his chest. I watch them thinking about being in Carol’s house when I was a kid, Robert sneaking into my room to pull me out to one of his parties or a strip club or to steal bowling balls or to walk the streets all night like two bums, we would use a coffee cup, each of us, and see who could get the most from begging, he would make me and I hated it then, hated him. He used to tell me he aspired to be homeless and poor and I hated him, but I really didn’t, I don’t think. Robert is the first son from the first marriage and I am the second from the second, five years younger. When he moved out west part of Carol moved with him. She said this: Part of me’s gone now, you know that, right? She became shorter with me, distant, reserved. When he went to jail, she said, Your poor brother. I wonder if he’ll ever get his shit together. He’s too smart not to. There’s something about him sleeping in my house, not going anywhere, that makes me get up in the night to watch it.

*

The next morning Robert tells Gena and Barry to leave. He says take the car and leave. He says, I need to talk to my brother alone. Come back when you’ve had breakfast.

He gets coffee ready in a French press, sets it between us on the kitchen table. A light rain spits in the backyard. The glass patio table is a puddle and birds swoop and splash in it, splaying their wings. It’s still raining, but through the rain the sun breaks and spills a column of light upon the kitchen table. Robert sits shirtless at the table, pulling his beard down and drinking his coffee and looking out onto the backyard.

Birds carry disease, he says.

We need to talk about our mother, he says.

I think you should move to a different city, he says. Far, far away from her. Just go.

You have to learn how to leave, he says.

Don’t listen to me, he says. Please, shit, don’t listen to a word I fucking say.

How long have you known this Gena, again? he says.

*

The next night, after seeing our mother, Gena’s in my bed, Robert and Barry are asleep, and I’m up watching them all. I get a drink and set my glass in the sink then hear a tapping. I cock my head, making sure I’ve heard this tapping, and there it is again, more urgent seeming and I follow it. At the sliding glass back door, tapping, there’s Thad, looking in at me. He’s got one hand cupped to the door and is looking in at me in the kitchen. Standing there with my brother sleeping in the family room, his friend Barry on the floor gone, Gena asleep in my bed, and her old lover at my backdoor, I feel a pleasant sadness, like I’ll never be around such people again, never be in such a world again. I miss it terribly.

I go to the door and slid it open. What is it, Thad? I say. His face is bloody, a cut above his left eye, and that eye’s pretty well swollen-up. His jaw’s taken a knock, too. There’s blood in his buzzcut.

Around front, he says. He makes his hands into a prayer at his chest, then points and moves from the door, and prays again to let me know something.

So I go through the quiet house to the front door and slip out, pulling the door behind me so that only the tiniest of clicks sounds. For a moment I think to go back inside to wake Robert, not to get help, but just to say goodbye. Outside, the sweet smell of evergreen permeates the swampy air.

Hop in, Thad says, sitting in his truck. I climb into the cab and we take off. There are cigarette burns on the upholstery, fingertip sized-holes hard and cracking. Bottles of what I at first take for beer, but later see are cream soda roll and clink on the floor. Thaddeus jams the gear shift from second to third and the truck jerks us onward.

Look, Thad says. I’m a little drunk right now, but I want to eat some breakfast.

He grabs my shoulder and rubs. It’s awkward, because it’s a truck, and there’s no room for his arm to loop around, so he’s kind of straight-arming it, rubbing my shoulder like we’re pals. The blood on his face seems like paint drying and peeling.

Where to? I say.

I’m an angry person, he says. It took me a long time to be able to say that.

You’re not so bad, I say.

Ha, he says. You have no fucking idea. He’s going at my shoulder again, then lets me go. I used to think bad things about women. I used to think, you know, they bitch, they deserve what’s coming. You know what I’m saying?

Sure, I say. You gotta let the bitches know who’s boss.

I know you’re making fun of me, he says. Fine. I deserve that shit. I mean, that’s just how I used to think, you see. I’m not thinking like that anymore. I’m just telling you how I used to think.

That’s good, I say. That’s a start.

Yep, he says. I’m getting myself changed.

This sounds familiar, I say. You should talk to my brother.

Did Gena ever tell you I hit her?

No, I say. His jaw’s a bit puffy and his lip’s bleeding, along with the cut above the eye, which is also suddenly bleeding again. He dabs at his face with a tissue from his pocket. He keeps taking his hands off the steering wheel, gesturing, and then righting the truck to center, dabbing his face and lip.

I didn’t really hit her, he says. I mean, we were arguing and I went to push her, or kind of shove her, you know, and I hit her square in the lip. Square on the mouth. I didn’t mean to. It was just a thing that happened. I felt bad about it. Terrible. She didn’t give me another chance after that. That’s understandable. I get it. That’s what I see now that I didn’t see when I was doing your car with the baseball bat.

Should be helpful in the future, I say.

I’m ignoring the sarcasm, he says. Because I deserve it. Gena’s been in some bad spots, is what I’m saying here. I just want the best for her.

We’re near the Oaklawn Mall. The night is humid and dim, a slathering rain spraying from every direction. Carol’s hospital is right over the freeway, I can see a light on in an upper room. We hit the Denny’s and sit in the parking lot for a few minutes before going in. The place is busy. A line of bikers in leather and bandanas are waiting for a late night table. Robert once had an Indian motorcycle that he pushed as hard and fast as it could go; he loved when I screamed.

I ask Thaddeus if he’s really hungry.

I was going to kidnap her, he says. Not kidnap, kidnap, but just take her. I saw her car over at your house. I’ve seen it there a few times. Then I thought, that’s so fucking cliché, so I thought I’d kidnap you. Like twist the whole crazy boyfriend thing around.

He laughs a sick little laugh and then spits out the window what can only be blood. The blood around his left eye is flowing harder. He keeps dabbing the blood-soaked tissue at it, but that seems to be making it worse. Do you think we should go to the ER? I say.

What for? he says. You need to change your attitude, you know that. No, I’ve seen lots worse than this. Let me tell you. This right fucking here is nothing at all. At fucking all. He grabs my arm, hard now, and pushes his face close to mine. Suddenly he has me pinned against the passenger side door and his eyes are like an animal’s, dull and wild. Not a thing, he says. In his other hand he’s gripping one of the cream soda bottles from the floor. I can show you worse than this, he says. You have no idea.

*

We left our home one night when Carol was sleeping. Robert had both our bags packed. We hiked along the road, Robert walking ahead. The trees seemed to canopy and keep us. I was going because I was going to convince Robert to come home – he must have been twelve years old. He told me he’d never see Carol again, he hoped she had an aneurysm or died of being a liar. I think this was around the time she told us that we were step-brothers, but I can’t be certain. That night, we got in a fight and Robert split my nose open. I tried my best not to cry and he tried his best to say he was sorry. We slept in a tent in what felt like an opening, a field in a forest. When I woke, the tent was set up off in the deep rough of a hole on a golf course, near a green. Robert and his pack were gone, my nose was swollen and bloody. It was one of the first times he left. I was shirtless and afraid on the thirteenth hole, men in collared shirts and creased pants hitting on into the green and pretending like I wasn’t there at all.


Alan Rossi’s stories have appeared or will appear in Ninth Letter, The Florida Review, Juked, Dogzplot, Hobart, The Journal, and other places. He has a Ph.D. from the Center for Writers and currently teaches at USC-Upstate in the lonely south.